EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT TO BE DIFFERENT: STEPHEN SONDHEIM (1930-2021)

The film was a very British Guignol called Hangover Square, the story of a composer with a tendency to commit murder when stressed. The climax of the film is a performance of the composer’s concerto (actually the work of the legendary Bernard Herrmann), which culminates in his death in a cataclysmic inferno, still banging away at the piano. It’s not subtle.

Stephen SondheimFor the adolescent watching this tale unfold, it was a formative experience. He was so captivated by the dark story and Herrmann’s score that he rushed back to the moviehouse to watch the whole thing again in hopes of memorizing the sheet music to the villain’s composition. He wrote Herrmann a fan letter, which the recipient acknowledged was an unusual treat for a film composer. And years later, that young man had the opportunity to pay homage to his inspiration by using a familiar Herrmann chord throughout the score of a musical he had written, which just so happened to be about a murderous barber whose victims become the main ingredient in meat pies.

Stephen Sondheim was a noted cinephile, so it makes sense that movies would have a prominent role in his career. He was, of course, primarily a figure of the stage; long before his passing at the age of 91, he had cemented his reputation as perhaps the most significant creator in the history of American-style musical theater. But he got to indulge his love of film directly more than once; he won an Oscar for the song he contributed to the mélange of color and makeup that was Dick Tracy, he co-wrote the all-star puzzle box The Last of Sheila, and six of his shows made the jump to the silver screen, albeit none entirely successfully. He also made an impression on other filmmakers; audiences were treated to surprise appearances recently in films as diverse as Lady Bird, Knives Out, and Marriage Story. So although not a creature of film, he certainly made his mark.

But what am I doing here, talking about a Broadway composer on a weird movie website? Well, I think Stephen Sondheim has something to teach us about the role that personal vision and committed interest play in making a thing weird. Because while his reputation as the giant of American musical theater may rest on a foundation of rich, adventurous melodies and breathtakingly gymnastic and insightful lyrics, the thing that always kept him apart from the establishment – that marked him as an iconoclast of the highest order and denied him a true blockbuster – was his taste in material. No light comedies or mindless spectacles for him. His most dance-heavy show features tragic murders to end both acts. In search of pure comedy, he adapts plays that are 2,000 years old. Ask him to bring a movie to the stage and he’ll turn to an Italian film about a soldier is ensnared by the obsessive love of an ugly, sickly woman. Welcome to Broadway!

Even by Sondheim standards, my first experience with one of his shows was a doozy: a college production of Merrily We Roll Along, a story of lost idealism and the cost of one’s soul that has the temerity to unspool its tale in reverse chronological order. This stylistic Continue reading EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT TO BE DIFFERENT: STEPHEN SONDHEIM (1930-2021)

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 12/3/2021

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Our weekly look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs and Blu-rays (and hot off the server VODs), and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available at the official site links.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

The Sleeping Negro (2021): A black man (named Man) in corporate America is asked to betray his principles to get ahead. The project gives off a pretty strong Sorry to Bother You vibe. The Sleeping Negro official site.

NEW ON HOME VIDEO:

Blood for Dracula [AKA Andy Warhol’s Dracula] (1974): Read Alfred Eaker’s mini-review. Dracula can only drink the blood of virgins in ‘s campy-yet-transgressive take on the horror classic. A long-awaited deluxe release from Severin consisting of a 4K UHD disc, a Blu-ray, and a soundtrack CD, plus a flood of interviews and supplements. Buy Blood for Dracula.

Shatter Dead (1994): Read Pamela de Graff’s review. Vinegar Syndrome puts the low-budget “zombie” movie featuring a plague of the unliving sparked by the Angel of Death’s impregnating a mortal on Blu-ray for the first time. Buy Shatter Dead.

CANONICALLY WEIRD (AND OTHER) REPERTORY SCREENINGS:

This section will no longer be updated regularly. Instead, we direct you to our new “Repertory Cinemas Near You” page. We will continue to mention exceptional events in this space from time to time, however.

FREE ONLINE WEIRD MOVIES ON TUBI.TV:

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002): Read the Canonically Weird entry. Elvis teams up with black JFK to fight a mummy in his nursing home, but not for long, if Tubi’s “leaving soon” designation is accurate. Watch Bubba Ho-Tep free on Tubi.

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE:

Please note that our Weird Watch Party originally planned for December 4 (this Saturday) has been rescheduled for December 11. You can still RSVP and make suggestions for a movie to screen here.

In reviews next week, Giles Edwards goes into the reader-suggested queue for a look at ‘s absurdly sexy marital movie I Married a Strange Person!; “Penguin” Pete Trbovich drops a new video review (with a vocal assist from the busy Giles) for 1968’s offbeat Tennessee Williams adaptation Boom!; and reports on ‘s typically befuddling latest, Memoria, currently on theatrical tour (and “Joe” is suggesting it will stay that way, with no plans for home video release). There may also be a surprise essay thrown into a busy week. Onward and weirdward!

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that we have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE SHOW (2020)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Mitch Jenkins

FEATURING: Tom Burke, Siobhan Hewlett, Ellie Bamber, Christopher Fairbank, Alan Moore

PLOT: Fletcher Dennis is a hitman an “exit technician” posing as a private detective posing as an antiques dealer in search of a stolen Rosicrucian necklace.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Sometimes “weird” leaves you overthinking; in this case, I suffered the reverse. While watching The Show, it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t weird, because it’s exactly the kind of movie Alan Moore would make. Having pondered a few minutes following the spectacle’s completion, it became apparent that this was indeed something weird. Jenkins’ and Moore’s movie blends reality and dreams, and life and death, in a manner that would make 366’s poster-boy Dave Lynch smirk in satisfaction.

COMMENTS: Please forgive this reviewer’s gushing, but in the hopes of getting it out of my system let me begin with, “This… this is the Alan Moore film I’ve been waiting for!” Mr. Moore, as some of you may know, has had a long history of disappointment with studio executives when it comes to his innumerable works and their adaptations. Some of this is warranted (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), some of it not (Watchmen). Regardless, The Show pulls off a very-Moore experience—more so than any other adaptation of his oeuvre.

Because it immediately pulls the viewer into a cryptic facsimile of Northampton UK, it’s helpful that the film pulls its protagonists from the “straight man” bucket. Steven Lipman (later, and earlier, Fletcher Dennis, ever-clad in black and red striped shirt, presumably with sling-shot) has been hired by Patsy Bleaker to retrieve a family heirloom that went missing after his daughter (not quite) was murdered (definitely). Faith Harrington, a briefly comatose journalist, arrives at the local hospital the same night the murderer is carted in following a tragic accident involving a pineapple and a nightclub stairwell. Faith begins suffering from carnivalesque nightmares featuring Matchbright & Metterton, a comedy duo who perished in a 1970s fire. While the plot thickens reality-side (Bleaker’s daughter was not his daughter), it positively coagulates in the subconscious world, as both Dennis and Harrington confront an agenda hatched within dreams and beyond the grave.

Those familiar with Alan Moore’s world(s) know that no detail is to be ignored, whether from the perspective of plot or to appreciate an erudite slight-of-hand. When subcontracting his search to the “Michelson & Morley Detective Agency”, Dennis finds himself in front of a backyard clubhouse whose entrance opens up into an improbably large office, where he converses with two Tims around the age of ten. (“We don’t handle messy divorces, and we have to be in bed at 9:30.”) They speak in a ’40s film noir narration style, and take payment in either cash or energy drinks.

The paragraphs I could burn with such regalement could take up an entire movie, surprise surprise, so consider that just a taste of the fun-time genre stroking herein. Stylistically, it is apparent that The Show was created by a comics man. Every shot and sequence will be familiar to readers of that medium, and it stands as a stark reminder that for whatever reason, virtually no filmmaker seems to fully embrace the aesthetic: an aesthetic you’d think would make the cinematographer’s job that much simpler. Just. Follow. The. Storyboards.

But I’m in fan-boy mode again; I didn’t think I’d be able to shake it. This acts as a companion piece to Under the Silver Lake, another film that got me gushing. Alan Moore’s hometown of Northampton is deeply unreal and fully realized; his characters are unreasonably eccentric individuals who interlock seamlessly with their peers and milieu; and his film has enough smoke and mirrors for a late night cocaine and dance party at the Black Lodge.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Jenkins’ surreal city symphony transforms Little England into an overlooked site of invention, resistance and revenge, while the erudite poetic wit of Moore’s script is a dizzying blend of high and low, the profane and the occult, funny-haha and funny-weird.”–Anton Bitel, VODzilla (VOD)

CAPSULE: THE SNAKE GIRL AND THE SILVER-HAIRED WITCH (1968)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: Yachie Matsui, Yûko Hamada, Sachiko Meguro

PLOTAn impressionable young girl is sent home from the orphanage to live with her parents, where she has to deal with a dazed mother, a hateful maid, a secret mutant sister, and a silver-haired witch intent on killing her.

COMMENTS: How would you feel if you were a child who had grown up an orphan, living a happy life in an idyllic children’s home, only to suddenly leave everything you’ve ever known to live with two strangers who happen to be your real parents? It would probably be difficult, right? Now imagine that on your first night home, your biologist father goes off to Africa, leaving you home alone with your disturbed mother, a stern housekeeper and… a secret older sister with a disfigured face who lives in the attic and happens to be half snake?

Yeah, most children would probably wish they had stayed at the orphanage. But wide-eyed young Sayuri (Yachie Matsui) is too innocent to leave her new parents, despite the countless horrors that she suffers at the hands of her older sister, Tamami (Mayumi Takahashi). First, it’s just a snake in the bed, but the madness soon escalates with a horrific dream where Sayuri’s beloved doll turns into a miniature human and is mauled by Tamami, who transforms into a grotesque reptilian creature when she attacks her prey. 

Even after Sayuri has a toad torn in half and thrown in her face, wakes up to a swarm of spiders in her bed, and is threatened with a flesh-dissolving acid bath, she still remains resolute in her decision to stay with her oblivious mother, who overlooks all of these offenses as unavoidable concessions that must be made to the pitiable Tamami.

But wait… We haven’t even touched on the second part of the title yet! Sayuri is willing to put up with her snaky sister’s shenanigans, but she draws the line at the silver-haired witch who emerges from the shadows of her attic bedroom. She barely escapes the house with her life and returns to the orphanage to seek help, but her sister and the witch aren’t about to let her get away that easily.

Part of a recent slew of obscure Japanese horror films released on the Arrow label, The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is a hidden gem that offers more in the way of garish shocks and traditional horror imagery than more renowned art-house horror classics such as Kwaidan and Onibaba (long available from the Criterion Collection). Directed by Noriaki Yuasa, otherwise known primarily for the Gamera series of sub-Godzilla monster movies, there is nothing dull or formulaic about Snake Girl. It packs a lot of bizarre moments and unexpected plot developments into its brief 82 minute running time, while creating an original mythology of its own, which never relies on the usual horror tropes.

Another secret to this film’s success is the use of a child’s perspective. Horror films seen through the eyes of children are almost always more successful than those where adults are the main characters, although the latter variety is more common. And even though the special effects here are thoroughly low-budget and ridiculous (the titular “snake girl” is represented in dream sequences by a slit-mouthed puppet straight out of Sesame Street), the fact that everything is seen through the eyes of the unsuspecting Sayuri makes it forgivable.

Despite the apparent lack of budget, Yuasa creates a creepy mood that will be irresistible to any horror movie fan. When a film begins with slurping sounds, theremin, and a snake strangulation which is swiftly diagnosed as a “heart attack,” you know you’re in for some good schlock. The visuals are full of swirls and scaly imagery that drives home the idea that Sayuri is living in a house of snakes. There’s always something weird happening to sustain the mood, with none of the romantic side plots or dramatic filler often present in horror films of the era. It might not be high art, but if you’re looking for some classic Japanese horror that delivers the goods without taking itself too seriously, Snake Girl will give you all you’re looking for, and then some.

The Arrow Video release features a stunning new HD restoration that is worth the money. The Blu-ray also features a commentary by film historian David Kalat and an interview which gives some background info on the film and the work of Kazuo Umezu, who wrote the manga on which the film was based (and also has a brief cameo as a taxi driver in the film). Arrow is certainly doing the good work in rescuing these Japanese classics from obscurity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With a host of surreal imagery including dream sequences full of creepy, hypnotic spirals, and moments of shocking violence such as a large frog being suddenly ripped in half right in front of Sayuri’s eyes the film certainly doesn’t stint on blood, horror and general freakiness… A children’s film that no one in their right mind would actually show to a child…” – Hayley Scanlon, Windows on Worlds

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 11/26/2021

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Our weekly look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs and Blu-rays (and hot off the server VODs), and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available at the official site links.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

Ayar (2021): Read our festival capsule. Although this experimental Covid-set drama about an immigrant single mom is an interesting offering, we’re a bit surprised to see it hit 100% on Rotten Tomatoes on seven reviews. There’s no predicting what will grab the normies’ interest and attention. Ayar at Apple TV.

NEW ON HOME VIDEO:

Climate of the Hunter (2019): Read Giles Edwards’ review. ‘s ambiguously vampiric romantic melodrama pops onto home video just ahead of Agnes‘ theatrical release. Also available free on Amazon Prime and ad-supported on Tubi.tv. Or, you can buy Climate of the Hunter.

Immoral Tales (1974): An anthology of four erotic (and mildly surreal) tales from ; this is the daring movie that changed the perception of the director from artist to pornographer. Arrow’s new release attempts to recreate Borowczyk’s original intent by splicing the bestiality scenes from The Beast [La Bête] (1975) into the film as a fifth episode. Buy Immoral Tales.

The Show (2021): Searching for an unnamed artifact, a man visits a surreal town peopled by vampires, voodoo gangsters, and 40s detectives. The first feature film scripted by Alan “Watchmen” Moore is a weird one indeed. It shows up on DVD and Blu-ray after a long wait (we first mentioned it three years ago). Buy The Show.

CANONICALLY WEIRD (AND OTHER) REPERTORY SCREENINGS:

This section will no longer be updated regularly. Instead, we direct you to our new “Repertory Cinemas Near You” page. We will continue to mention exceptional events in this space from time to time, however.

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE:

We’re still looking for RSVPs and suggestions for our next Weird Watch Party, tentatively scheduled for the evening of Dec. 4. Join the conversation here.

In next week’s reviews, digs up a hidden gem in the 1968 Japanese horror-fantasy The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch. Then, Giles Edwards goes to the reader-suggested review queue for ‘s surreal and sorta-sexy feature animation I Married a Strange Person (1997). , meanwhile, will probably spend his time putting the finishing touches on the scaled-back 2021 edition of the 366 Weird Movies Yearbook, but he may throw in a bonus review if time permits. Onward and weirdward!

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that we have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!