All posts by Gregory J. Smalley (366weirdmovies)

Originally an anonymous encyclopediast who closely guarded his secret identity to prevent his occult enemies from exposing him, a 2010 Freedom of Information Act request revealed that "366weirdmovies" is actually Greg Smalley, a freelance writer and licensed attorney from Louisville, KY. His orientation is listed as "hetero" and his relationship status as "single," but Mr. Smalley's "turn-ons" and "favorite Michael Bay movie" were redacted from the FOIA report. Mr. Smalley is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

CAPSULE: VAMPIRE BURT’S SERENADE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Ken Roht

FEATURING: Kevin Richardson, Brandon Heitkamp, Sharon Ferguson, Dylan Kenin, Diva Zappa

PLOT: Burlesque stars and drag queens team up to defeat a vampire, singing forgettable songs along the way.

Still from Vampire Burt's Serenade (2020)

COMMENTS: A horror-comedy-musical seems like an easy bet for a moviemaking team on a low budget; the only problem is, great musicals require great music. That isn’t easy to come by. If it lost the lame tunes and focused more on its own craziness, Vampire Burt’s Serenade might have been a better film, although it would distinguish itself less from the crowded camp-horror field.

Who would have guessed that someday Kevin Richardson would be working with even weaker material than he did when he was in the Backstreet Boys? True, he sings well, but given the generic pop-rock beats and uninspired lyrics he has to work with, it’s for naught. Most if the rest of the cast doesn’t even have Richardson’s chops going for them: Diva Zappa singing “Sex Toy” is actually painful to listen to. The lip-syncing is clumsy, too; it’s obvious when the soundtrack switches from live to studio recording, making it difficult to suspend disbelief that the characters are actually spontaneously singing about their desire to stake a vampire through the heart. Only a couple of numbers are memorable: one where a group of drugged ballerinas stagger around singing a nursery-rhyme track (the ladies all affect little girl voices so singing ability isn’t an issue), and a “sultry” number sung by two lovers rendezvousing in a toilet stall (“Here in this scuzzy little toilet/Having such a nice time in this wicked little john… in this crazy insanity/with its lack of any sanity…”) that sticks out because of its obscene absurdity and nonsensical lyrics.

The worldbuilding, too, is half-assed. The action centers around a burlesque cabaret where vampire Burt is well-known to everyone, for reasons never explained; without any real motivation, he bites three main characters in one night, setting his own undoing in motion. In a movie populated entirely by vampires, victims, zombies, strippers, and a drug-dealing snuff performance artist, all of whom sing and dance, it seems odd to complain about a lack of believably. But this universe just doesn’t feel like a place you could live in, and nor does it feel like a delirious dream; instead, it’s just a collection of movie cliches and vampire tropes thrown together as needed to advance the script.

This Rocky Horror wannabe earned a few mildly positive recommendations from the “good try, old chap” school of pat-on-the-back film criticism. If you’re looking for pluses, Richardson is believably douchey, having a ball pwning the haters as the titular coke-snorting bloodsucker; the comedy is sometimes effective (e.g. a running joke about bisexual vampires that’s well-executed, if  obvious); the idea of a vampire who later becomes a zombie is cute; and the finale, with the entire cast coming together in a battle to the death, is bloody and chaotic. I didn’t like Vampire Burt’s Serenade, but I can see someone else liking it as a fast-paced time-waster. Still, it’s nothing to sing about.

It turns out that Vampire Burt’s Serenade is actually a slightly re-edited version of a 2014 movie called Bloody Indulgent. Indulgent runs two minutes longer than Serenade and can still be found on the Amazon channel “Fear Factory,” though the DVDs have been removed from circulation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an unconventional and enjoyable little title.”–Bobby LePire, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

8*. BIG MAN JAPAN (2007)

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Dai-Nihonjin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hitoshi Matsumoto, Tomoji Hasegawa, Taichi Yazaki

PLOT: An offscreen interviewer asks questions of middle-aged Masaru Daisatô, who grows into the giant “Big Man Japan” to fight various monsters who plague the country, as part of a documentary on the superhero’s fading popularity. Far from being honored for protecting the nation from kaiju attacks, Masaru is suffering from low ratings in his late-night time slot, is going through a divorce, and his house is covered in graffiti and vandalized whenever he causes collateral damage. When he flees from one particularly tough monster, his reputation is further damaged, and his retired grandfather (a previous Big Man Japan) leaves the nursing home to take on the kaiju himself.

Still from Big Man Japan (2007)

BACKGROUND:

  • Previously known in Japan as a comedian, Big Man Japan was Hitoshi Matsumoto’s first feature film.
  • The film spent five years in development and took a year to shoot.
  • Big Man Japan has frequently been suggested/recommended by readers over the years. Most recently, it was runner-up in our 2020 Apocrypha tournament.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The endlessly inventive giant monsters—with creepy human faces pasted on them via the black magic of CGI—are Big Man Japan‘s key visual motif. The Stink Monster, who looks like a cross between a squid and a fleshy flower petal, doesn’t seem like the weirdest kaiju in the stable, until a second Stink Monster shows up to do a wild mating dance that makes him look like a spastic ballerina on speed trying to get lucky at the disco on Saturday night.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Combover kaiju; Stink Monster mating dance

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It plays like a genetically modified experiment in corssbreeding Spinal Tap with a late-era Godzilla monster mash, which is strange enough; Big Man Japan is not satisfied with it’s own oddness yet, however, so it takes another unanticipated turn into lunacy in the final act.


U.S. release trailer for Big Man Japan

COMMENTS: Thoroughly committed to its absurd premise, with Continue reading 8*. BIG MAN JAPAN (2007)

CAPSULE: “BOOGIEPOP AND OTHERS” (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Yōsuke Hatta, Park Myung Hwan, Norikazu Ishigōoka, Mami Kawano, Hiromichi Matano, Masato Nakazono, Shingo Natsume, Kazuo Nogami, Keiichirō Saitō, Katsuya Shigehara

FEATURING: , Saori Oonishi (original Japanese); Michelle Roja, Morgan Garret (English dub)

PLOT: The spirit known as Boogiepop fights a succession of “enemies of this world.”

Still from Boogiepop and Others (2019)

COMMENTS: If you enjoyed the enigmas of “Boogiepop Phantom” and want to dip deeper into the lore, “Boogiepop and Others” will scratch that itch. You’ll learn more about the Towa Organization, the Manticore, Nagi Kirima, and Boogiepop herself. If you’re looking for an introduction to Boogiepop, however, I’d recommend starting with “Phantom”; the darker and more mysterious presentation in the 2000 series plunges deeper into the franchise’s dark psyche.

Compared to “Phantom,” “Others” is more conventionally structured, although it still hops about in time in a way calculated to disorient newcomers. This eighteen-episode series is split into four separate arcs, with Boogiepop facing off against the Manticore, the Imaginator, rogue psychiatrist Dr. Kisugi, and the King of Distortion.  (Not to mention sub-boss “Spooky E,” who at least has his DJ name already picked out for when he retires from his job manipulating mankind’s evolution for the Towa Organization). This structure gives the series a kind of “villain of the week” quality. The stories mostly center around one particular antagonist’s effects on regular high school students; we also get a sort-of origin story for the series’ namesake in the “Boogiepop at Dawn” arc. “Others” spends time explicitly spelling out mysteries that were left to the viewer to decipher in “Phantom.” Boogiepop is depicted more as a superhero than an enigmatic interloper from some netherworld. There’s a deus ex machina feel to each arc’s resolution, with Boogie hanging in the background, swooping in at the climax to banish another “enemy of this world.” In at least one episode, our shinigami could be accused of kill stealing.

The simplified narrative is, perhaps, an understandable concession, but more disappointing is the fact that the visual look here is completely ordinary. Gone are “Phantom”‘s dark, muted palettes, replaced by sunny skies and colorful toons with big eyes. Boogiepop, once a brooding presence, now has a bright, almost Hanna-Barbera quality to go with her increased verbosity.  (On the plus side, “The King of Distortion” episodes do feature a patchwork kaiju birthed from a kid’s dream, which is a delight.) The immersively strange sound design of “Phantom” is also nowhere to be found.

While it’s difficult to describe a television show as complicated as “Boogiepop” as “dumbed-down,” there can be no doubt that Madhouse’s followup series is less ambitious and artistically inferior to their first take on the character, aimed at an audience more interested in the series’ plot mechanics than its otherworldly mood. Nevertheless, fans of “Phantom” may want to investigate this alternate take for the way it expands your understanding of the universe and the overall plot. There’s still plenty of strangeness to chew on.

Funimation released the entire “Others” series to Blu-ray in 2020. Currently, the entire run of “Boogiepop and Others” is available for online viewing for free at crunchyroll.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Enigmatic, confusing and weird.”–Marianne R., Manga Tokyo (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “BOOGIEPOP PHANTOM” (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Takashi Watanabe

FEATURING: Voices of Yuu Asakawa, , Rakuto Tochihara (original); Rachael Lillis, Debora Rabbai,  Jessica Calvello (English dub)

PLOT: A Japanese high school is the epicenter of odd events involving a pillar of light, a series of serial killings, and whispers of sightings of the mysterious spirit known as Boogiepop.

Still from "Boogiepop Phantom" (2000)

COMMENTS: Certain features of “Boogiepop Phantom” remind me of “: the limited setting (this time, a Japanese school rather than an insular Northwestern U.S. town); the dark, sometimes soapy melodramatic subplots from a large cast of interconnected characters; possession by supernatural entities that are actually allegorical renderings of psychological traumas. The world of “Boogiepop” is more logical and tightly connected to its fantastical central conceits, however; it lacks the free-floating surrealism and quirky humor of its American cousin. There’s still plenty of weirdness to soak in, though, and enough confusion to keep your mind whirling for a while, trying to sort it all out.

Plotwise, “Boogiepop Phantom” deals with a plague of strange “evolutions” or mutations in Japanese teenagers, including a boy who sees bugs in people’s hearts (and eats them), and another who dresses like a kiddie Pied Piper and causes vulnerable people to disappear by convincing them to revert to childhood. Is “Boogiepop,” an apparition who appears in a  dark billowing cape, tall Cossack hat, and a bizarre starched collar fastened with a yin-yang pin, responsible? Each episode focuses on a different character who plays a part in the saga; each installment jumps about in time, sometimes within the same episode.  The same event may appear in different character’s storylines, and the second occurrence may shed light on the first.

Visually, “Boogiepop”‘s palette is muted, deliberately drab, although frequently filled with bright glowing objects like cellphone screens or magical butterflies. The action is also enclosed in a circular iris that dims into darkness around the edges. This effect makes each episode feel like a faltering memory. Even more notable than the visuals is the sound design: distorted background static and electronic glitches, mysterious chimes, Gregorian chant, with the main theme from “Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” Boogiepop’s signature tune, floating through the entire series. At the end of each episode, a cacophony of overlapping dialogue from the next installment whets your appetite (and furthers your bewilderment).

One time through the series may not be enough to understand what’s going on. I watched the entire thing without ever grasping who “Boogiepop Phantom” was (the name kept appearing in the closing credits as a separate character from Boogiepop herself). It’s particularly challenging to keep track of the large cast of characters, and to figure out how each fits into the whole. If you’re also confused, you may want to supplement your viewing with a quick peek at Wikipedia or other online guides. Or, you could just watch the series a second time, taking notes. This kind of elaborate worldbuilding tends to create a devoted fanbase of decoders, and such is the case with the “Boogiepop” franchise. With its theme of alienated teenagers neglected and betrayed by their parents’ generation, “Boogiepop Phantom” is aimed at bright juveniles, but the artistry of the presentation will draw in adventurous older viewers, as well.

“Boogiepop Phantom” was adapted from a series of light novels by  Kouhei Kadono (the series has fourteen entries; “Phantom” is an original story, but relies om established characters and events from the novels). It was written by Sadayuki Murai (who also wrote the screenplay for Perfect Blue) and produced by Madhouse, who animated all four of ‘s movies, along with many other classic anime series and films.

The Nozomi English-language Blu-ray release features the series’ entire 12-episode run. It includes numerous small extras, like the “clean” openings and closings beloved of anime fans, and, more substantially, an English-language commentary track from a couple of Americans who worked on the dubbed version. (Recommendation: as always, turn off the English dub and listen to the Japanese with subtitles. The English voice acting is uneven.)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I am not going to lie, Boogiepop Phantom is a weird experience… the anime might be dark, atmospheric, strange, and confusing but when you reach the final episode, you end up understanding everything and feel some kind of achievement…”–Marianne R., Manga Tokyo (DVD)

CAPSULE: ASSASSIN 33 A.D. (2020)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Jim Carroll

FEATURING: Morgan Roberts, Ilsa Levine, Geraldo Davila, Donny Boaz, Lamar Usher, Jason Castro

PLOT: Muslim extremists use a time machine to go back to 33 A.D. to try to assassinate Jesus; with the encouragement of his Christian girlfriend, an agnostic genius tries to fix the time stream.

Still from Assassin 33 A.D. (2020)

COMMENTS: I wouldn’t say its impossible to make a good Christian time travel movie; would have nailed it. But I am pretty sure it is impossible to make a good Christian time travel movie that involves terrorist strike teams with assault weapons going back to 1st century Judea to assassinate Jesus. Assassin 33 AD is Donnie Darko meets The Passion of the Christ done on the kind of budget usually reserved for an episode of “The 700 Club.”

Assassin33ad.com boasts that the script has “won more International Screenplay Awards than any know [sic] script in history.” Starting straight off with the line “I’m just struggling. I went from saving an embassy and killing terrorists to being head of security at a research lab,” delivered casually by a rugged man to his wife on a Sunday drive, you can see why. That’s the kind of expository introductory dialogue slick Hollywood movies are too afraid to put in for fear it might sound “clumsy.”

The wife who needs filling in on what her husband has been doing with his life is Heidi Montag, a former Playboy model and current aspiring Christian pop singer who, like much of the cast and crew, was drawn from a cable TV show called “Marriage Boot Camp Reality Stars.” In another fine bit of screenwriting, Montag’s husband chuckles fondly, “That British accent!” This is necessary foreshadowing, because the accent will turn up as an important plot point late on, and without that bit of dialogue we’d have no way of knowing  that she spoke with a British accent. Assassin33ad.com reveals that a producer warned the director when he was planning to cast Montag that “Reality stars can’t act.”

Maybe all the praise for the screenplay comes from its nimble handling of the multiple timelines that infest the second half of the movie. I can’t opine on that, because I quickly lost track of how many time-clones there were running around, and which one were alive and which ones were dead, after the second or third time the hero (Ram Goldstein!) and/or villains leapt  backwards or forwards in time like chronological yo-yos. Personally, it seemed to me that they made up the rules of time travel on the fly:  somehow, even though he just invented time travel accidentally twenty four hours ago, Ram knows that there’s a lag between changing the past and overwriting the present that could take “minutes, possibly hours, maybe longer,” Continue reading CAPSULE: ASSASSIN 33 A.D. (2020)

CAPSULE: MURDER DEATH KOREATOWN (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: None listed

FEATURING: None listed

PLOT: An unemployed man becomes obsessed with a murder that happened in a nearby apartment complex, but his investigation turns paranoid as he imagines a wide-ranging conspiracy.

Still from Murder Death Koreatown (2020)

COMMENTS: Though taking its starting cue from a real-life murder, Murder Death Koreatown is, it’s safe to say, fictional, as you will doubtlessly decide for yourself by the time its deranged protagonist starts spouting theories about the Pastors, ghosts, and voices speaking to from the sewers. It’s like a re-edited version of one of those paranoid YouTube videos that leave you wondering whether the uploader is genuinely crazy or is just stringing you along for the lulz, or like Under the Silver Lake remade on a $100 budget in the style of The Blair Witch Project.

Our unemployed, over-stressed narrator begins by following (real-looking) blood splatters on his sidewalk, and then discovering that one of his neighbors murdered her husband in a neighboring apartment complex in L.A.’s Koreatown. He discovers some minor inconsistencies, and interviews some (real-looking) locals to see if they noticed anything unusual. As his investigation continues, he starts uncovering connections which aren’t really connections—and which sometimes don’t even rise to the level of coincidences—but which are completely obvious and convincing to the protagonist. We ought to be suspicious when we focuses the camera on the blinds in his apartment and marvels, “look at this weird light…” (we have no idea what he’s talking about, but it’s a hint that he takes significance from stuff we wouldn’t even notice). Also, unless you’re Dale Cooper, it’s never a good idea to admit evidence from your dreams into a murder investigation. It’s not really a spoiler to suggest that the movie is a believable study of one man’s descent into delusional paranoia.

Your enjoyment of Murder Death Koreatown will be linked to your tolerance for watching feature-length shot-on-cellphone vlogs. The movie is, by necessity, talky—there are no significant effects or action sequences. Unfortunately, the narrator’s voice isn’t compelling: he delivers most of his lines in a drab “woe is me” tone, and at one point his bleats of terror make him sound like a Muppet startled by a spider. On the plus side, the actor they found to play the shifty-eyed homeless vet in the alley is so convincing that you might believe he’s a real hobo, and that the plot was actually built around his schizophrenic ramblings. The effective horror soundtrack is another element that supersedes the budget; in fact, it’s so well-made that it at times undermines the film’s found footage credibility. Ironically, it’s too professional a touch for a movie that’s trying to make its amateurism into a selling point.

If you’re willing to overlook the budgetary issues, however, Murder Death Koreatown is a solid watch—and if you plot it on a dollars spent to entertainment value curve, it’s off the chart. It holds our interest for just over 70 minutes and does an exceptional job of viral marketing, which is a solid double for a microbudget feature. You can read some of the movie’s promotional gimmickry at the link embedded below.

For more along these lines, Graham Jones’ Fudge 44 (2006) has a similar low-budget, mock-vérité appeal.

K Anon / Murder Death Koreatown

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in mystifying its own ending, Murder Death Koreatown leaves us, like the investigator, grasping for a transcendent truth that the film itself cannot sustain.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)

 

INTERVIEW: “SHE’S ALLERGIC TO CATS” – THE RETURN OF MICHAEL REICH & MIKE PINKNEY

In 2016 I interviewed and about their debut film, the dog-grooming video art fantasia She’s Allergic to Cats, which has since been released on video-on-demand and named an Apocryphally Weird selection. Four years later, we follow up to see how an alphabetization controversy impeded the film’s distribution prospects, Reich’s pooch Martin’s new career as a video star, and whether a gory marionette anti-marijuana film will be the duo’s next project.