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: JUMBO (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Zoé Wittock

FEATURING: Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Bastien Bouillon,

PLOT: A young woman falls in love with the newest attraction at the amusement park.

Still from Jumbo (2020)

COMMENTS: Do you believe “inanimate objects have a soul, which sticks to our soul”? Probably not; or of you do, you mean it in a way that’s not nearly so literal as Jeanne. Even Jeanne can’t express her romantic feelings about objects properly: “Have you ever felt something for an object? When you touch them, you might feel something. Understand some things.” Unspecific things, that are impossible to communicate to others.

The thing that Jeanne has feelings for is the Move-It, one of those amusement park whirlygigs, the latest model, with lots of swinging arms and flashing multicolored neon lights. The Move-It (or Jumbo, the pet name Jeanne gives it) apparently becomes aroused as Jeanne gently wipes its buttons with a cloth. Later, it will communicate with her; and after some thrilling conversations, they appear to be getting along, so they move to the next logical phase of their relationship. That is to say, Jeanne strips to her panties in a white void as Jumbo spatters her with, and then submerges her in, his greasy oil, in a sequence that calls to mind a sex-positive version of Under the Skin‘s black goo.

The choice is up to you as to whether you view this as magical realism—Jumbo really has a soul, and a libido—or the hallucinations of an unreliable narrator. The movie has relatively little to offer other than its novel premise and its money shot psychedelic sex scenes. The narrative is essentially a gussied-up coming out tale, with Jeanne slowly revealing her heart to her on-the-make boss, promiscuous mother, and mom’s new drifter boyfriend, most of whom meet her revelations with a mixture of concern and disgust and develop strategies to “fix” her. Machine sex aside, the story goes exactly where you expect it to.

Fortunately, Noémie Merlant is excellent. Through most of the film she is believably awkward around animates; half of the time, she’s verging on a panic attack. Her love scenes are, believe it or not, genuinely erotic. She’s so good that she sells you on her orgasmic abandonment within Jumbo’s metallic embrace, and make a lovers’ spat with a multi-ton hunk of creaking machinery come off as tragic rather than comic. Without Merlant’s performance, Zoé Wittock could not have pulled off this wild ride.

Objectophilia (people who are sexually attracted to inanimate objects) is a real thing; Jumbo was inspired by the story of a woman who “married” the Eiffel Tower. It’s so rare on the spectrum of human sexual behavior, however, that it might as well be Wittock’s invention. Jumbo is not a deep study of the psychological roots of objectophilia, nor is it intended to be. You won’t learn about the cause of the condition, which may result from neurological mis-wiring (it’s correlated with both autism and synesthesia). But understanding isn’t the point. At heart, Jumbo is a prosaic (if important) parable about tolerance and acceptance of those who deviate from the norm—harmless weirdos. That’s a message we can all get behind. The naked girl dripping with oil is just a bonus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s no sidestepping Jumbo‘s recognizable weirdness… Jumbo is a fireworks display of cinematic sensationalism that explodes with feeling, expression, and uniqueness that questions why anyone in their right mind would strive to be ‘normal’ by conventional standards.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (festival review)

CAPSULE: ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (2019)

Om det oändliga

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Serner, Bengt Bergius

PLOT: Wan, deadpan vignettes, including stories of a priest who has lost his faith and a couple who are inexplicably flying over a burnt-out city.

Still from About Endlessness (2019)

COMMENTS: If you’ve seen a Roy Andersson film before, you know exactly what to expect from About Endlessness. If you haven’t seen one before, it’s as easy to describe the style as it is difficult to capture the poetic impact. Andersson movies are a series of short vignettes (some under a minute), mostly grim and bleak in tone, staged on immaculately detailed sets composed of earth tones and enacted by pale actors with mostly deadpan deliveries. Endlessness is not the work I would advise Andersson neophytes to start with (begin at Songs from the Second Floor and work your way forward). This project feels less like a climax to the now-78-year-old Andersson’s brilliant career, and more like an unexpected encore, a gift to hardcore fans who are not quite ready to go home just yet.

Taken together, the patchy events of an Andersson movie suggest a tapestry of human life. Here, most of the segments are introduced by a detached female voice, whose descriptions set the stage for each bit: “I saw a young man who had not yet found love,” “I saw a couple, two lovers, floating over a city,” “I saw a woman who loved champagne.” Endlessness differs from previous entries in Andersson’s canon in that there is less obvious surrealism and absurdity, and also less obvious humor. On the other hand, while he remains a Swede who makes look jovial by comparison, there is more hope here than in the past. A scene at the railway station does not end in the disaster we predict; a fight seems to be resolved, if not happily, at least with closure; and a moment where three young women break into spontaneous dancing is the most life-affirming moment the aueteur has ever chronicled. Even so, the ratio of joy to quiet despair here is unfavorable to humanity; but at least, on occasion, he admits rays of sunlight to break from the overcast skies.

The miniatures are spare, cut to the bone, with no extraneous detail to detract from each parable. Dialogue is rare, action rarer, so we have plenty of opportunity to indulge ourselves with Andersson’s specialty—set design. While the director staged a few outdoor scenes in Endlessness, it’s next to impossible to distinguish those shot in the wild from ones filmed entirely inside his warehouse using trompe l’oeil backdrops. Often the only way to know is by checking whether the clouds move, or whether birds in the sky recede or stay nailed in place.

Recurrent check-ins with a depressed priest who has lost his faith best—and possibly too obviously—express the major theme that runs through Andersson’s work: the disappearance of God from Western culture, and the persistent longing for Him. Meanwhile, the title comes from another vignette, where a young physics student attempts to wring  a spiritual lesson out of the Laws of Thermodynamics, only to be undercut when his girlfriend fails to appreciate the metaphor. At any rate, About Endlessness is an ironic title for a film that runs a brief 75 minutes, and is haunted by premonitions of death. The ending, which will likely serve as the final shot of Andersson’s cinematic career, is a whimper. It suggests that he has run out of gas. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. I mean that his final statement seems to be that his movie ends as everything will end: broken-down and alone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘About Endlessness’ is one of the least fanciful of Roy Andersson’s films. There’s less of the deadpan surrealism that tinged his prior, singular movies… The ‘endlessness’ of the film encompasses a lot of absurdity and disappointment, but its notes of grace sound the loudest.”–Glen Kenny, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: RAW (2016)

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DIRECTED BY: Julia Ducournau

FEATURING: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

PLOT: A vegetarian girl develops an insatiable craving for meat after she eats a rabbit kidney as part of a veterinary school hazing ritual.

Still from Raw (2016)

COMMENTS: As Justine, a veterinary whiz-kid, Garance Marillier seems to grow up before our eyes. She begins the film as a timid girl looking younger than her eighteen years, submissive to her parent’s cult-like adherence to a stern vegetarian creed (Mom raises holy hell when she finds a cafeteria worker has accidentally ladled a chunk of sausage into her daughters’ mashed potatoes). Later in the movie, after Justine has tasted organ meat and experienced college life, we see her gyrating drunkenly in front of a mirror in too much lipstick and a slutty dress, listening to a distaff rap about a gal who likes to “bang the dead.” A lot of people indulge in pleasures of the flesh when they go away to college, but Raw gets ridiculous.

Raw is rich with coming-of-age subtexts—sibling conflicts, youthful irresponsibility, conformity, social and intellectual insecurity, bullying, bodily changes, bulimia—all of them given an unnerving horror spin. Naturally, sex is the dominant subtext. Under peer pressure, Justine betrays her abstinence and, now conflicted, finds herself drawn towards her new carnal/carnivore nature, and the appetites and danger that comes with it.

The veterinary school setting allows Ducournau to include a lot of animalistic symbolism, which verges from the poetically frightening (a horse chained to a treadmill) to the disgusting (a cow rectum cleaned by hand). Raw‘s focus is on bodily functions—eating, puking, excreting, arousal—all of it serving to remind Justine that she, too, is an animal. There are even hints of bestiality, and at one point Justine roleplays as a dog.

Raw‘s story is told with more abstraction than is strictly necessary, making it into a somewhat dreamlike impression of the anxieties of experiencing adult freedom for the first time. The hazing rituals at veterinary college are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree: masked upperclassmen burst into freshman dorms like the secret police rounding up dissidents. The inductees are compliant, and a ritual that seems like victims being led to the gas chamber segues seamlessly into a kegger. The faculty allows students to attend class while soaked with blood. People react to severed fingers with less consternation that one might expect. A Lynchian old man playing with his dentures in the emergency room waiting area seems to be the only one in the movie who understand that something odd is going on. But you will notice. Raw is a thoroughly disturbing parable about discovering your own true nature.

After originally being released on a bare-bones DVD only, Shout! Factory gave Raw the deluxe Blu-ray treatment in 2021, complete with a director’s commentary track, interviews and Q&As, deleted scenes, and more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’ll spare you the graphic details, which is more than this fearlessly bizarre film does, but ‘Raw’ takes on the politically incorrect subject of devouring females, and lends new meaning to giving someone the finger.”–Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: IN THE EARTH (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, ,

PLOT: During a pandemic, a park ranger guides a young scientist to join up with a lone biologist conducting an experiment deep in the forest, but an ancient spirit may be stirring.

Still from In the Earth (2021)COMMENTS: It seems that a forest has grown over that old Field in England through the centuries, but ancient necromantic and alchemical evils still have their roots deeply embedded there. Locals talk of the legend of the pagan demigod “Parnang Fegg,” who may haunt the woods into which Martin and Alma venture in search of the reclusive Dr. Wendle. As they penetrate deeper into the forest, the scary-enough realities of their pandemic-ridden civilization are overrun by cthonic horrors. Is the evil caused by the vengeful forest deity; by a misunderstood alien biology, as Dr. Wendle suggests; or is it merely a group madness stemming from the local fungi that jet their spores into the atmosphere?

“I wouldn’t try to make any logical sense of it,” cautions Dr. Wendle. Indeed, In the Earth isn’t built around logical explanations, or even around its characters. Instead, everything exists for the sake of three intense and immersive psychedelic montages—all flash and bang, sound and light—evoking horrors both ancient and current. Protagonist Martin grounds the film in bodily insecurity; he’s out-of-shape due to lack of exercise during quarantine, and  suffering from a nasty recurrent case of ringworm, too. As the film goes on, characters will suffer gruesome injuries, dwelt on in sickening closeups—anyone with a foot trauma phobia may want to avoid this one. But when the spore mist fills the air, the horrors migrate from the body to the mind.

Despite the minimalist four-characters-in-a-forest setup, In the Earth will play best in theaters; you need that big screen and surround sound for the complete experience. It all starts with the sound design, embedded in the rustling forest and anchored by another superb Clint Mansell score, all highlighted by a disturbing electronic cacophony played from the speakers hooked up to the trees. (The soundtrack can get startlingly abrasive, but it always puts you right in the middle of the film’s nightmares: it can be hard to distinguish the diegetic effects from sonic hallucinations added in post-production.) Then the visuals come on: fast cuts of experimental effects, mushrooms and dandelions bent by fish-eye lenses, red dyes spreading through oil, shots that look like you’re staring right through the floaters in your retina and the veins in your eyelids as bright light penetrates your eyeballs. Shadowy figures flash for milliseconds in the strobe lights. They aren’t being overcautious with that epilepsy warning, folks. I’d predict this one will end up as a minor drug culture favorite.

Wheatley conceived and wrote In the Earth soon after the pandemic hit, and shot it even faster (a fifteen day shooting schedule was all that was required). Still, it doesn’t feel rushed so much as in-the-moment. There is a certain refreshing humility to In the Earth—this is not a lavish, elaborately-planned-out multi-million dollar spectacle, but something the director has made out of necessity, adapting to circumstance. He made it because he has to make movies with whatever resources are available; if Covid-19 has temporarily shut down the studios, he’ll take his camera and a skeleton crew out to the woods. Good for him.

My only reservation is that In the Earth feels a little too much like an update of A Field in England, with flashier color trips and an overlay of pandemic anxiety, but minus the eccentric feel and esoteric setting. In the Earth isn’t entirely new ground for Ben Wheatley, but it taps into the zeitgeist and delivers its hefty payload of cosmic/folk/body/WTF horror with spiffy efficiency. If you’re a reader of this site, there’s an excellent chance that it’s right in your wheelhouse. After all, check out a small but representative sample of negative IMDB reviews: “Beyond weird and horrible”; “i have no idea what it was about”; “makes me feel like I should’ve taken acid before going to the film so I could understand what was going on.” If those quotes don’t get you excited to check this one out, I don’t know what will.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Wheatley’s always been most effective prowling around in the murky depths of the subconscious, and ‘In the Earth’ — which is raw and weird and deeply unsettling, like a fungus found growing in some long-ignored abscess — well, this piece of work has his fingerprints all over it.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)

13*. PROMETHEUS’ GARDEN (1988)

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“I guess danger and weirdness have always been the main features in most of my stories.”–Bruce Bickford

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Bruce Bickford

FEATURING: Bruce Bickford’s handmade clay models

PLOT: A man discovers a garden and figures oozing out of a hole, who he fashions into miniature people who then begin multiplying on their own. The man is then sucked into a planet which he has created, and chased first by vikings, then centurions. There is no coherent start-to-end plot, but some segments of the film enact mini-stories.

Still from Prometheus' Garden (1988) 

BACKGROUND:

  • Animator Brice Bickford gained modest underground fame when his animations graced ‘s concert film Baby Snakes (1979) and The Dub Room Special (1982). Prometheus’ Garden is the only film Bickford made over which he had complete control, however.
  • Prometheus’ Garden was completed in 1988, but rarely seen until a 2008 DVD release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll go with the gang of newly-minted werewolves enjoying slices of pizza; an octopus lies on the pie along with the other toppings. Don’t like that pick? Skip to any random point in the movie and you’ll see something just as weird.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Werewolf paint; monster pizza

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Human heads grow in a field. Imps and demons spontaneously generate from the soil. Clay figures disembowel each other. Nude Viking women slather themselves with Vaseline in the sauna. Every element of the movie is in constant motion for thirty minutes. Weird hardly even begins to cover it.


Original trailer for Prometheus’ Garden

COMMENTS: Flesh-colored flowers grow out of a green field, turning into big-headed monsters as cotton ball smoke wafts across the Continue reading 13*. PROMETHEUS’ GARDEN (1988)

CAPSULE: HONEYDEW (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Devereux Milburn

FEATURING: Sawyer Spielberg, Malin Barr, Barbara Kingsley, Jamie Bardley

PLOT: A lost couple spend the night at a peculiar old woman’s farmhouse.

Still from Honeydew (2020)

COMMENTS: Honeydew is a roller coaster of horror—but I don’t mean that in an altogether complimentary sense. Rather, the problem is that the film is as uneven (and, sometimes, as twisted) as the Cyclone’s track. When Honeydew is on, it’s creepy as hell. But when it’s off, it’s a case of “yeah, I totally saw that coming.”

The pre-credits sequence is strong, beginning with a young girl’s faltering voice reciting some religious dogma, leading to an intercut sequence of a black-veiled widow at a funeral and a hunter investigating what appears to be an abandoned barn. This montage also highlights what will turn out to be Honeydew‘s only consistently great feature: the sound design and score. The creepy voiceover is accented by eerie hums, rural insect choirs, fluttering percussion, and musical notes that sound like bonesaws being scraped over piano wire.

This promising start yields to a setup of two city slickers traveling to the country to encounter all the familiar backwoods horror cliches: silently-staring yokels, a spooky old man advising them to move along, lack of cellphone service. You may forgive this connective section as a necessary step on the way to the real plot, and your assumption would be correct. Once the couple finds their way to batty old Barbara Kingsley farmhouse, things pick up considerably. We lose track of time entirely; the couple arrives in what must be the middle of the night, but their host insists on cooking them a huge dinner, and after they finish they always seem to be preparing for bed without ever actually getting to sleep. The night is endless, and scored to endless bumps; transitions between scenes can be disorientingly abrupt, and sometimes it seems like the film might be jumping back and forth in time. Significant creepiness is supplied by Kingsley’s son, with his bandaged head, a barely-responsive demeanor, and a penchant for public domain Popeye cartoons (which, in another bit of bravura sound design, becomes the nightmare soundtrack to an epileptic fit).

That section of the film is near-excellent. Unfortunately, once it becomes time to wrap things up, and the dreams fade away and the mystery dries up. What had seemed to have a supernatural, psychological edge resolves into, basically, a torture porn finale that goes exactly where you feared it would. A gross ending sequence goes on a bit too long, lessening its impact. I do think that a certain breed of horror fan will enjoy the transgressive grotesqueness of the third act, but it’s not really of a piece with the film’s dreamlike middle section; if you’re going into Honeydew hoping for something wall-to-wall weird, you’ll be disappointed.

To recap: a strong pre-credits sequence is followed by a pedestrian setup leading to a superbly creepy second act petering out in a disappointing finale. Debuting director Milburn does great when focused on building atmosphere, but bogs down when it’s time to advance the plot. Give him a script that’s more free-flowing and isn’t so insistent on ticking all the standard Texas Chainsaw boxes, and he could deliver a real feast.

Honeydew is currently in limited release and virtual theaters, coming to VOD on August 13.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Reviving the spirit of ‘70s North American rural horror while very much still feeling like a film tapped into out contemporary moment, Honeydew is one of the wildest, weirdest horror films of the year.”–Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Alliance of Women Film Journalists (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COME TRUE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Anthony Scott Burns

FEATURING: Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron

PLOT: A teenage girl enters an experimental sleep study, then finds her life turned into a waking nightmare.

Come True (2020)

COMMENTS: 18-year old Sarah is sleeping around. No, she’s not promiscuous, although she will have a sex scene—a problematic one—later in the film. She’s sleeping around rather more literally: crashing on her friend Zoe’s bed when she can, pitching her sleeping bag on the playground slide when she can’t. In the mornings, she waits for her mother to leave for work and sneaks into the house for a shower, fresh clothes, and a cup of coffee. With this arrangement, it’s no wonder she eagerly volunteers for a sleep study at the local college: it means eight hours per night in a bed, even if she has to be strapped into a bodysuit left over from Tron and wear a goofy foam-rubber helmet with wires leading from it. And she gets paid! If she’s going to leave a deal this sweet behind, you know the nightmares will have to get bad. It’s no spoiler to say that they do, or that getting away from them will require more than just walking out on the study.

The film is anchored by a fine performance by waiflike Julia Sarah Stone, who perfectly embodies the resourceful girl struggling to make it in the big bad world. Though not a great film (see below), Come True is a great calling card for Stone. Direction is stylistically solid; the odd lighting schemes (why would scientists illuminate the room they use to monitor sleeping patients in purple neon?) can be forgiven as part of a scheme to create a dreamlike atmosphere. The clinical look and some of the odd faces and wardrobe choices (i.e. Dr. Meyer in his enormous glasses), slow pace, and synthy score all put me in mind of Beyond the Black Rainbow.  And, while the nightmare scenes themselves (which tend to be tracking shots down shadowy corridors, ending with visions of silhouetted figures) are a little low-key, Come True is legitimately visionary at times: Sarah wakes in an unfamiliar place with an eyepatch and a freakishly dilated pupil, finds another person hooked up to a dream monitor, and watches some low-res hypnagogic hallucinations (including a brief shot of herself with fangs) while a spookily comforting ian ballad plays in the background.

With all that going for it, it’s sad to say that Come True totally drops the ball with a truly disappointing, left-field twist ending. While, in retrospect, you can put two and two together, there aren’t any meaningful hints about this last-second revelation dropped throughout the body of the picture. The reveal turns 90% of the movie into a red herring—so that, to the extent that you get involved in the putative plot, your time has been wasted. It’s rare that a movie’s final shot can undo all the good it’s done up until that point, but Come True manages that trick, turning a film that was headed for a mild recommendation into a recommended pass.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Burns’ script is just as concerned with the weirdness of Sarah’s waking life as it is the literal monsters that populate her dreams, and the filmmaker’s ability to balance and juxtapose those two portions of the film only strengthen each section.”–Kate Erbland, Indiewire (contemporaneous)