POD 366, EP. 76: R.I.P. SHELLEY DUVALL; PREVIEWING FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2024 EDITION

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Quick links/Discussed in this episode:

The Blue Rose (2024): Discussion begins. A “surrealist noir” about two rookie detectives trying to solve a homicide over a single night. Releasing simultaneously to (select) theaters and on VOD. The Blue Rose official site.

Boy and the Heron (2023): Discussion begins. Read Gregory J. Smalley’s Apocrypha Candidate review. Shout! Factory, in conjunction with GKids, releases ‘s latest fantasy, in your choice of a conventionally packaged Blu-ray + DVD or a 4K UHD + Blu-ray Steelbook. Buy The Boy and the Heron.

Fata Morgana [AKA Left-Handed Fate] (1966): Discussion begins. A model stays behind in a Barcelona that’s nearly deserted after the populace flees a serial killer. An extremely obscure find by Mondo Macabro, this appears to be a Swinging Sixties, pop-art take on a surreal, science-fictiony psychological thriller/giallo. Buy Fata Morgana.

“My Last Movie” (202?): Discussion begins. 69-year old has taken to Kickstarter to raise funds for what he describes as his “last movie.” It will be an adaptation of Nicolai Gogol’s satire “Dead Souls” set in the Old West. The modest funding goal of $75,000 was met quickly, and the project is now into its stretch goals, the second of which, at $125,000, is to shoot a scene or two at El Condor. As I write this, the effort has a little more than two weeks to go. “My Last Movie” Kickstarter.

“Fantasia Festival 2024”: Discussion begins. Long-time readers know how we revere this particular festival (we’re in our ninth year of coverage). As its name suggests, Fant-Asia began by specializing fantasy films from Asia, but has since expanded to cover all types of genre filmmaking from around the world, including the more accessible experimental and would-be-cult films. Here are just a few of the top features roving correspondent Giles Edwards will be looking into at this year’s Fantasia, which begins on July 18 in beautiful Montreal:

  • The A-Frame – A woman resorts to black market quantum physics in an attempt to cure her cancer in ‘s sci-fi satire.
  • Animalia Paradoxica – An experimental post-apocalyptic collage from Chile.
  • Cuckoo (Luz) returns with a bigger-budgeted feature about a teenage woman undergoing strange experiences as a hotel desk clerk.
  • Infinite Summer returns with the story of a sinister mindfulness app.
  • Kryptic – A woman loses her identity while searching for a cryptid and a missing cyptozoologist.
  • The Tenants – In a near-future dystopian Seoul, a young man sublets part of his apartment to an eccentric couple whose behavior increasingly disturbs.

Fantasia International Film Festival home page.

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE:

Next week, Giles Edwards will begin delivering reports from the Fantasia Festival, which starts on Thursday, July 18. We’ll try to check in with him on the pod over the next three weeks, but Pete Trbovich will handle primary co-host duties. In written reviews, Shane Wilson tackles another that Came from the Reader-Suggested Queue with the 2013 YouTube feature freebie Nick: The Feature Film, while Gregory J. Smalley braves the self-proclaimed “woke trash” kung fu/drag queen mashup Enter the Drag Dragon. Onward and weirdward!

366 UNDERGROUND: THE ABSENCE OF MILK IN THE MOUTHS OF THE LOST (2023)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Case Esparros

FEATURING: , Gary Wilson

PLOT: A mysterious milkman helps a grieving mother deal with the loss of her child.

Still from absence of milk in the mouths of the lost (2023)

COMMENTS: I could give The Absence of Mil k in the Mouths of the Lost a “” tag, because the average viewer will immediately want to flee during the opening scene of a cow giving birth in real time. But, if you are reading this, chances are you are not the average viewer. Instead, I’ll just remind you that when you brave Milk, you are venturing into the strange and treacherous world of microbudget DIY surrealism—so calibrate your expectations accordingly.

A milkman (when exactly is this supposed to be set?) delivers glass bottles to a house where a young woman bathes in filthy black liquid with a blank expression; she doesn’t answer the bell when he rings. The milkman lives in a dingy basement decorated with pictures of missing children cut out from milk cartons—and a breast hanging on his wall that drips white liquid into a bowl. Meanwhile, in an alternate plane of reality, mute, cigar-smoking, boxer-wearing devils covered head-to-toe in white greasepaint plot mischief against a trio of masked children. The milkman has buzzy schizophrenic hallucinations where he sees a masked woman knitting and delivering electronically altered monologues while walled in by -style “paint-on-the-film” moving canvases. A few dramatic sequences, and much moping about the dilapidated house, advance the woman’s story, until she and the milkman finally meet for an exposition dump to tie (some of) the plot strands together. The children find it almost shockingly easy to best the middle-aged demons that beset them.

Milk clearly suffers from its low budget. The visuals often display thrift-store ingenuity, but the sound can be a serious issue: many sections were filmed without any, and there are several moments when what might be meaningful dialogue is muffled. At other times, the dialogue is both nearly inaudible and digitally altered. It’s needlessly frustrating. It’s also a pity that so much of the middle of the film has such poor sound quality, when in the opening and closing, where Esparos’ musician friends contribute songs (including a deranged cover of the gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away”), the sound mix is crucial and well-executed.

There’s a difference between having a lot of creativity on display and everything clicking. If you can focus on the former, Milk has a lot to offer. Some of the imagery is arresting: the cigar-smoking demons are as brilliantly conceived as they are easily achieved, and sequences like the woman who pierces her milk-bag bra (!) with a knife are hard to forget. And although some of the imagery is shocking, its always purposeful and empathetic. The movie has a good heart. It helps to love cows.

CAPSULE: THE POCKET FILM OF SUPERSTITIONS (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: Tom Lee Rutter

FEATURING: Voice of The Shend

PLOT: A narrator elucidates various superstitions whilst they are presented on-screen, with both live actors and animation.

COMMENTS: Crank the understated cheek to eleven and put your brain pan in the oven set to “Regulo Brittania,” because here’s a documentary that’s so quirkily English it could pass as a scone-geared Big Ben clock crowning Queen Victoria. Squeezing Häxan through a blue filter and making heavy use of its “toffee” toned narrator, Tom Lee Rutter assembles a light-minded diversion covering all manner of mankind’s nonsenseries. Why does a bride want “something blue” on her wedding day? Where is the best place to look for faeries? And just what is “Devil’s Nutting Day”? All these questions, and more, are answered here.

You can come and go from this film, as it is broken into easy, bite-sized bits of trivia (and I mean that in the classical sense of the term), and it’s so compact it fits in your pocket for quick and easy consultation. This Pocket Film, by and large, is a documentary, or perhaps more accurately, a primer; but since its subject matter is nonsensical pre- and post-cautions for irrational dangers, it may best be viewed as an anthropological study. A silly anthropological study. The narrator guides the viewer throughout, offering both advice to the viewer and observations of the actions on-screen, these performed in grand early-cinema style by a large cast (including cameos from horror legends and .)

Having a fairly thorough personal knowledge superstitious troubles and solutions, the cinematic interludes—and the sage counsel from Shend, narrator-extraordinaire—all ring true. Most pertain to the Death and the Devil, and their various agents. Saint Agnes was new to me—along with her ritual of the “dumb cake” (Shend is silenced by an on-screen lady as he is about to explain; and for good reason: it is a dumb ritual, after all); and while I always know to cover my mouth when I yawn, I know now that it’s to block off my “soul hole,” thus preventing the Devil from sneaking inside of me. Around a third of the way in we meet a new font of information, the “Hand Maiden,” who gives a five-minute refresher on various hand gestures and their purpose (“Whenever in doubt, you can always use Jazz Hands!”)

With old and new “information,” The Pocket Film of Superstitions never bores, often tickles, and is always very, very British. It closes on the declaration, “we leave you to ponder the great weirdness of man,” having provided a good many explanations, of sorts, pertaining to some couple dozen irrational behaviors, reactions, and practices. Not a terribly long film—running for a sensible hour and a half—its breeziness wafts gently, and winkingly, over the viewer. And while it occasionally risks sailing into twee territory, Rutter holds the rudder just firmly enough to prevent Pocket Film from inducing true groans of regret.

The Pocket Film of Superstitions is currently on the festival circuit, and is expected to debut on streaming (and physical media?) by the end of the year or in early 2025. It next screens at the BUT (B-movie, Underground and Trash) Festival in Breda, the Netherlands, on August 29, followed by a date at the Amazing Fantasy Fest in Buffalo, New York in September. You can keep up with the schedule at The Pocket Film of Superstitions‘s official Facebook page.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It won’t be for everyone, but if you have an interest in superstition and folklore as well as a taste for English humour, The Pocket Film of Superstitions will be right up your alley. And for those who keep saying the genre needs something different, this is the kind of different it needs.” — Jim Morazzini, Voices from the Balcony (contemporaneous)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THE TWONKY (1953)

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DIRECTED BY: Arch Oboler

FEATURING: , Billy Lynn, Gloria Blondell, Janet Warren

PLOT: A mild-mannered professor has his world turned upside-down when a new television set purchased by his wife turns out to have remarkable abilities, and uses them to take control of his life.

Still from The Twonky (1953)

COMMENTS: Arch Oboler is a curious figure in the outer reaches of cinema history. His last-people-on-earth drama Five has been credited as the first movie set in a post-atomic-apocalypse world. His inexplicable zombie-village tale The Bubble was one of the more noteworthy installments in the most recent season of “.” His best-known credit is perhaps Bwana Devil, the very first color 3D feature in English to earn a commercial release. (The premiere was the occasion for this legendary photograph.) And all these tiny bits of notoriety are tinged with the harsh truth that film was not his outstanding medium. Oboler came to prominence in radio, drawing acclaim both for pre-World War II productions warning of the rise of fascism, as well as the shocking-for-its-time horror series “Lights Out.”

This preface is necessary to set up the essential contradiction of The Twonky: it is an undisguised attack on an entirely new entertainment medium, television, perpetrated in a competing medium by a man who came of age in yet another medium. Labeling television as a brain-warping incubus is a pastime that has never gone out of style, but when you know that the 1942 C. L. Moore-Henry Kuttner story upon which The Twonky is based portrays the title character as a radio, it’s fair to say that Oboler is not an entirely disinterested party. As far as he’s concerned, TV is evil. And he may be right, but identifying exactly what kind of evil is where The Twonky gets strange.

This ersatz TV set never actually plays a show, which you might think would be the malign influence we should fear. Instead, it initially seems to be a helpmate, lighting Conried’s cigarettes and producing counterfeit money to pay off a creditor. Soon enough, though, it begins to move into mental conditioning, limiting his diet and forcing him to listen to deafening military marches. Despite its appearance as a goofy marionette (the spindly legs and barely concealed puppet movements make it look like an ancestor to this), its actions soon become malevolent, dumbing down Conried’s college professor so that he can no longer speak confidently in his own area of expertise, and reducing any potential threat to a vacant shell who can only mutter “I have no complaints.”

I have complaints. Part of what makes it hard to feel the danger of the Twonky is that the minds it influences are already pretty loopy. Blondell’s bill collector is so committed to her job that she essentially moves into Conried’s house, deliberately taking over his bathtub to heighten his discomfort. (The film pulls back from the very real threat that the Twonky could kill her, substituting a silly offscreen comeuppance in which she is zapped out of her clothes and sent running down the street.) Lynn is portrayed as both an enlightened interpreter of the Twonky’s mission (he’s the one who helpfully defines a twonky as “a thing that you don’t know what it is”) and a dim bulb who can’t see danger directly in front of him, sending his football team and cheer captain into harm’s way. And then there’s Conried, who should be a contented intellectual whose world is upended by the idiot box, but instead is a nervous ditherer from the start. Curiously, he is both a big bundle of nerves and not nearly jumpy enough. Conried is renowned for his over-the-top vocal performances, including Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan and Snidely Whiplash in Jay Ward’s “Dudley Do-Right” cartoons, but here in his first on-camera leading role, he’s a nudnik, unable to either play it straight or unleash the hounds. The character never develops at all, thereby diluting the power of his nemesis.

With its technological target, The Twonky ought to play like an episode of “Black Mirror” produced on the set of “The Twilight Zone.” It’s too restrained for that, though; it takes on the demon beast television, but in such an abstract way that you’re never really sure of the nature of the objection. There are glimpses of the real danger of the Twonky’s infantilizing servitude, suggesting a possible remake in which the villain takes the form of an AI chatbot. What we get, however, is the lightest of screwball comedies, complete with a doting wife, a raucous encounter with a blinkered dowager, and an astoundingly terrible and overbearing score by Jack Meakin that suggests the incidental music from “Leave It to Beaver” (but less weighty.) It’s enough to make you think that Oboler started out with a blistering attack on the new form of entertainment he feared and loathed, but the Twonky got hold of him and turned his product into pablum. The Twonky won’t put you off television. But it’s not doing much for movies, either.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the oddest science fiction films of the 1950s, but still not very good… If it were scripted and directed by different people, you’d guess this was written as a more nightmarish, frightening picture but reconceived on set as a goofy comedy – it could have played like such unforgettable ‘living object’ Twilight Zones as ‘The Fever’ (the slot machine) or ‘Living Doll’, but actually comes off like Rod Serling’s occasional, horribly leaden attempts at light-hearted sit-com fantasy.” – Kim Newman, The Kim Newman Web Site

ADDITIONAL LINK OF INTEREST: Back in 2009, Don Coscarelli wrote of his affection for The Twonky at Ain’t It Cool News, which somehow survives (with its ancient web design) to this day.

(This movie was nominated for review by Alikhat. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.) 

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