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: WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (1995)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Heather Matarazzo, , Matthew Faber

PLOT: The trials and tribulations of Dawn Wiener, the least popular girl in her middle school (and in her own family).

COMMENTS: With it’s unflinching depiction of junior high social dynamics—including a bully who angrily promises to “rape” his twelve-year-old schoolmate, treating it as the male-female equivalent of an afterschool fight—Welcome to the Dollhouse was a shocker in 1995. Most previous Hollywood coming-of-age movies were nostalgic comedies where the even nerdiest outcasts had their moments to shine (a la The Breakfast Club). Classics like Zéro de conduite (1933) and If…. (1968) focused on the dark side of schoolboy fascism, but operated more as surreal political allegories than slice-of-life character studies. Although one probably exists, I can’t think of a pre-Dollhouse movie that focused so masochistically on its protagonist’s fatal unpopularity. The 400 Blows comes close, but it still features a charismatic antihero who triumphs through rebellion. Solondz allows Dawn Wiener no triumphs, symbolic or otherwise.

The courage to take on such on a then-unusual subject as teenage bullying and abuse made Dollhouse seem like a work of startling realism to many. Many of the episodes seem taken from real life: the outcast kid’s anxiety over finding a place to sit in the lunchroom, for example, or a group of cheerleaders asking the nerdy kid if she’s a lesbian and not taking no for an answer. But most of the story is only emotionally true. Do you remember when you were a kid and your parents took some home videos and you did something mildly embarrassing like stumbling in the pool, and when they played it back you were sure everyone was pointing and laughing at you? In Welcome to the Dollhouse, the whole family is actually pointing and laughing at you when they play it back, calling you out by name, actively enjoying your humiliation. And can we actually believe that Dawn could run away from her middle-class home—in the midst of a separate family tragedy—and her disappearance go virtually unnoticed? We see these events through Dawn Weiner’s paranoid preteen eyes, and while she’s perfect at conveying her own feelings of alienation, she’s an unreliable narrator as to external events.

This ironic tone—the light-hearted world of childhood, with its secret clubs and garage bands and first kisses that we expect from these kinds of coming-of-age movies, coupled with the far more realistic scenes of kids being mean to each other and being psychologically and neglected abused by their elders—may strike some as “weird.” To be honest, I find that while Dollhouse was a revelation in its day, its not the landmark many feel it to be. It isn’t nearly the gut-punch that much darker and more bizarre followup, Happiness, was. And, though far be it for me to recommend realist movies, I found Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018), a straightforward drama hopskotching across approximately the same pavement, to be a better and more moving treatment of similar subject matter. This material calls for unflinching truthfulness, it needs no varnishing. Middle school is awkward and horrible for everyone, and for kids at the status-poor end of the social spectrum, it’s truly hellish. Though frequently called a “black comedy,” there’s precious little to actually raise a smile in Welcome to the Dollhouse, and its mixture of painful realism and morbid exaggeration doesn’t feel revolutionary anymore. The sadness of Dawn’s plight still comes through as jaggedly as ever, however. Thank goodness middle school only last three years (and that Dollhouse only lasts 90 minutes).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Solondz] shows the kind of unrelenting attention to detail that is the key to satire… If you can see this movie without making a mental hit list of the kids who made your 11th year a torment, then you are kinder, or luckier, than me.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Frank, who called it “Uncomfortable to watch at times, but watched it several times since it came out in the mid-90s.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: DAWN BREAKS BEHIND THE EYES (2021)

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Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Kevin Kopacka

FEATURING: Anna Platen, Jeff Wilbusch, Luisa Taraz, Frederik von Lüttichau

PLOT: A couple visit an old gothic castle the wife has inherited; it’s haunted, and simmering resentments from their past erupt into anger—but then there’s a twist.

Still from Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes (2021)

COMMENTS: Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is a difficult movie to talk about, plotwise, because it contains a major twist coming at the end of the first act. It’s much easier to discuss in terms of its stylistic inspirations: it’s a shameless tribute to minimalist Gothic Eurohorror of the late 60s and early 70s, as exemplified by , , and (especially) . Set in a “castle” (I’d call it more of a manor), you can expect to see lots of lingering scenes of women wandering the darkened corridors bearing candelabras or walking through the grounds at night in a trance clad in white nightgowns, that sort of thing. The music—jazzy prog rock à la Goblin, alongside a variety of other rock-pop styles and more traditional orchestra-and-synth scare cues—is excellent, if ladled on a bit thick at times. Period details are perfect, even down to the pale pink, drop-shadowed opening title font, festooned with curlicues.

Again, there is not much that can be said about the plot without spoiling things. We’ll mention this nugget: while wandering around in the dusty wine cellar, Dieter (whose face and bearing perfectly express a Germanic arrogance that begs for a bloody comeuppance) finds a chest. Inside are a pair of glasses, an old newspaper article describing a tragedy, and a whip. All three items are clues, of an obscure sort. True to its inspirations, Dawn Breaks is more concerned with eerie ambiance than with narrative momentum, and the first thirty minutes are slow going. Things pick up, however, in the second act, eventually landing in a massive psychedelic-fueled orgy that shades into a finale that’s even weirder and more abstract than what came before.

Fans of vintage arty European horror movies are likely to be sucked in, although it is not the simple homage it appears to be at first. If the viewer can make it through the slow-paced introductory act, the movie starts to open up, introducing more levels that provide a psychological depth to the characters, casting them as archetypes of man and woman engaged in an eternal battle of the sexes. You are invited to infer your own backstory for the major characters based on hints dropped in casual conversation. The movie does well overcoming its budgetary limitations, utilizing every dusty, paint-stripped corner of its setting and relying on nifty editing and basic camera tricks (blurring, pink gel filters, superimposition) when it strides into lysergic territory. Multilayered and elegantly decadent, Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes remains mysterious to the end, a fact which will frustrate many horror fans hoping for a clear denouement, but which shouldn’t be a barrier for most of our readers.

Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes debuts on video-on-demand starting June 24; we’ll update this post with the link when the time arrives.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“About once a year, I see a movie that is so weird it takes me about 48 hours to figure out if I like it… Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is that movie this year.”–Sharai Bohannon, Dread Central (festival screening)

CAPSULE: WYRM (2019)

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Wyrm is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Winterbauer

FEATURING: Theo Taplitz, Azure Brandi, Tommy Dewey, Lulu Wilson

PLOT: A geeky young boy must kiss a girl to pass his required Sexuality 101 course and “pop his collar.”

Still from Wyrm (2019)

COMMENTS: The basic scenario is like a tween version of The Lobster. The themes and characters resemble a much lighter Welcome to the Dollhouse or a much darker Napoleon Dynamite, with more than a  dash of thrown into the stew. Wyrm doesn’t shy away from such comparisons; its IMDB synopsis describes it as “equal parts Yorgos Lanthimos and (but gentler).” Yet, despite wearing its influences on its sleeve, and despite covering the well-trod awkward-teen-coming-to-grips-with-his/her-place-in-society terrain, Wyrm never feels derivative; it confidently inhabits its own world.

The first-kiss collar is obviously the strangest element to this world, but the movie’s first half is filled with off-kilter comedy sketches: a pair of girls practice kissing by pecking at each other mechanically on a bus stop bench, Uncle Chet cooks the family nachos for dinner every night and serves them with tongs, and Wyrm’s twin sister warns him not to watch her practice her dance routine because “it’s provocative.” For obscure reasons, the story is also set at the dawn of the Internet, and reverent references to the Web weave throughout the narrative (“it’s like… everything,” whispers the school guidance counselor, his eyes glued to his screen.) The film’s second half is a maturity arc, as Wyrm stops focusing solely on his own troubles and instead explores and appreciates the feelings and struggles of those around him: his acerbic twin sister whose nasty demeanor hides the fact that she’s dealing with her own insecurities; Uncle Chet, who appears goofy but is ultimately a stand-up guy; Chet’s paramour Flor, a sexy senorita whose lack of English skills doesn’t mean she doesn’t see what’s going on in the family; his distant parents, a perpetually-constipated father and a mother who fled the homestead for an epic months-long trek; and a sarcastic wheelchair-bound older girl whose subdued hostility to Wyrm comes from a painful place. They are an economically-sketched society of characters who work on multiple levels, both comic foils and participants in an emotional journey.

Part absurdist farce and part earnest bildungsroman, the movie’s two agendas seem like they should work at cross purposes—but while you can sometimes see the seams, it all comes together as a charming addition to the quirky teen outcast genre. As it nears the finish line, the eccentricity and comedy start to fall away, replaced by an honest reckoning of the emotionally real effects of the film’s central tragedy. The two halves might feel like completely different movies—an offbeat teen comedy welded onto a sincere teen drama—but the transition isn’t jarring. It feels like a natural journey. The imaginary coping mechanisms of childhood drop away like Wyrm’s discarded dinosaur shirts, or a popped collar.

You can see the original 20-minute short film on Christopher Winterbauer’s Vimeo channel. Many scenes were recreated almost verbatim.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is consistently funny, drawing a fine line between a classic coming-of-age comedy and a bonkers absurdist farce, but it shines in the amount of tenderness it brings to the screen. Balancing such strange humor with genuinely heartfelt moments is a tricky thing, and Winterbauer navigates these waters with relative ease.”–Adam Patterson, Film Pulse (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (2022)

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Crimes of the Future is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING: , , , Kristen Stewart, Don McKellar, Welket Bungué

PLOT: Sometime in the future, for unknown reasons, human evolution has accelerated; one man makes performance art out of growing new organs and surgically removing them before a live audience, while other groups attempt to put their own stamp on humanity’s future.

Still from Crimes of the Future (2022)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Recycling a title from the very beginning of his career, this grisly summation of Cronenberg’s unique brand of carnal depravity feels like it’s closing a circle.

COMMENTS: The crime that opens David Cronenberg’s latest feature is a rough and bizarre reverse-Oedipal affair. It seems that the crimes of the future will have to be extreme, considering what passes for entertainment: the arts are dominated by grotesque displays of self-surgery. For unknown reasons, evolution has gone askew. The ability to feel pain has diminished in the general populace, while certain people—among them our performance artist protagonist, Saul Tesher—spontaneously grow new organs, of uncertain function. A pair of government functionaries run a novel “organ registry” out of a dusty office, but act more like obsessed fans than bureaucrats. A special police “vice” unit defends the integrity of the human body, but when “surgery is the new sex,” what rises to the level of crime?

Sickly Saul Tenser (Mortensen) wanders eerily deserted streets, wrapped from head to toe like a Bedouin prowling the Interzone. The world is almost depopulated; the only crowds are found at surgical theaters. One lonely conversation plays out in front of a beached yacht, a symbol of a world wrenched from its purposes. A surprisingly high number of expository scenes drag the pace down, but they are punctuated by moments of squirmy perfection: a man festooned with growths who sews up his eyes and mouth before performing a dance, Saul and his assistant Caprice (Seydoux) embracing in the nude while being punctured by remote-control scalpels.

Crimes calmly and coldly considers the aging Cronenberg’s obsession with carnality. Shadowy cabals, which hint at the promise of some rational purpose behind the apparent randomness of bodily decay, yield only more mysteries upon investigation. He adds a new measure self-reflexivity—how can showing people being sliced up be considered art?—along with a satire of our contemporary passion for body modification, a sad attempt to assert symbolic control over the vessels that will eventually rebel against us. But his main theme remains the fragility of the human body, its arbitrariness and lack of integrity, its susceptibility to maiming and tumors. It’s a graphic and honest vision of mortality; the strangeness of the presentation masks the inevitability of the decrepitude he prophesies. Although the story lacks the narrative drive of Cronenberg’s earlier features—rather than climaxing in the uncovering of a grand conspiracy, the ending here fades out—the atmosphere of evil, corruption, mutation and decay is as strong as ever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the story is difficult to digest. It is more an amalgamation of all things David Cronenberg than something genuinely compelling with something new to say… Even if it doesn’t amount to much, it’s still weird and worthwhile and unmistakably David Cronenberg.”–Robert Kojder, Flickering Myth (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: NEPTUNE FROST (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Anisia Uzeyman, Saul Williams

FEATURING: Cheryl Isheja, Bertrand Ninteretse (AKA Kaya Free), Elvis Ngabo

PLOT: In an alternate-reality African nation, an escaped coltan miner teams up with an intersexed refugee to hack global information systems through their dreams.

Still from Neptune Frost (2021)COMMENTS: Neptune Frost‘s scenario involves an authoritarian crackdown in an imaginary African country; a resistance movement composed of university students, refugees, and escaped coltan miners; and global hacking accomplished in dreams. With a first act that indiscriminately flips back and forth between two different on-the-run protagonists, one of whom is played by two actors, and dialogue spoken and sung in five different languages, Neptune Frost loses viewers in its thickets early on. And that’s before the first big musical number—in which a dream spirit transports the dreamer into a black-lit, monitor-lined room festooned with spinning rainbow bicycle wheels and advises him (later her) to “hack” into abstract systems like land rights, labor, and greed—even occurs. The film is aware of its own difficulty: a third of the way through, a character addresses the viewer directly: “Maybe you’re asking yourself WTF is this? A poet’s idea of a dream?”

Persevere through the confusion, or at least get yourself into a headspace where you’re not invested in everything adding up in a rational way, and you’ll find much to appreciate in Neptune Frost. Foremost is the music, which ranges from work songs (which carry over into protest songs) to dreamy electronica-based trance chants, and eventually full-bore hip-hop bashes. The African setting—landscapes, dress, flora and fauna—fosters a unique language of images. The costuming tends to the bizarre: background characters have keyboard parts and diodes glued to their clothes and faces, a spirit has a head enclosed in a semicircular wicker cage, the state’s brutal police favor pink uniforms, and Neptune herself sometimes has a bird’s nest on her shoulder. As it progresses, the movie throws datastreams of glitchy cybernetic psychedelia at the screen to represent its mystical hack of the global order. The narrative remains hard-to-follow all the way to the end, but themes of technology, gender, colonialism, and DIY revolutionary politics (local, global, and imaginary) float in and out of the mix. The film’s aesthetic may be Afrofuturist, but its style is Afrosurrealist.

Truthfully, there is almost too much to process in Neptune Frost: both the characters and the events can be a chore to sort out. The film’s concepts are half-hidden in a haze of impressionistic poetry and song (with phrases such as “binary crime,” “martyr loser king,” and “unanimous goldmine” carrying obscure significance); although at other times, messages are delivered bluntly (one song bears the refrain, “fuck Mr. Google”). It’s no surprise to learn that writer Saul Williams is a poet and musician. If Neptune Frost sometimes feels like a concept album brought to life, that may be because there is one: Williams’ 2016 left-field rap album Martyrloserking (and two sequels), plus a graphic novel. This world is much wider than the slice we see in the film, and further exploration may yield more answers than are given here. Neptune Frost comes achingly close to a general “” rating, and also to a “” rating. But ultimately, while impressive, I think the project’s appeal is decidedly niche: fans of Afrofuturism, proponents pf progressive (verging on radical) politics, and advocates of African film in general (of which we have far too few examples). If you’re not in one of those groups, but have adventurous tastes in cinema and are up for a challenge, then Neptune Frost is also a worthwhile visit: there is truly nothing quite like it out there.

Neptune Frost opens June 3 in New York City and Dallas, expanding to additional art-house theaters through June. We’ll let you know when streaming options get sorted out.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bold, bizarre, and unflinchingly confident debut that prompts its audience to interrogate the very real human costs of the information age through the speculative lens of a future both vastly different and uncannily similar to our own.”–Toussaint Egan, Polygon (festival screening)

CAPSULE: MEN (2022)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu

PLOT: Harper rents a remote English manor house to recover after what could euphemistically be called a “bad breakup”; she finds herself haunted by a strange nude stalker, and condescended to by the odd and unsympathetic men of the nearby village.

COMMENTS: Alex Garland does his latest movie no favors by giving it the in-your-face,  on-the-nose title Men, provoking accusations of “wokeness” and scolding responses of “not all men…” From the other side of the aisle, it’s simultaneously eliciting complaints that Garland is Men-splaining toxic masculinity. The title frames the film in a way that undoes a great deal of its subtlety and ambiguity; there would surely be less controversy had Garland named it A Question of Guilt or The Haunted Village or The Randy Vicar or somesuch.

Broad message aside, there’s a lot to enjoy about Men, considered strictly from a psychological horror perspective. The acting is top-notch; Buckley ably and sympathetically carries the film, with quiet moments fearfully wandering the woods as well as a few big outbursts of terror and anger. Rory Kinnear is even better in multiple roles, some subtly uncanny (his friendly but increasingly snoopy landlord) and some less subtly so (an uncommonly mannish schoolboy). The cinematography and sound design are superlative, particularly shining in a scene set in a long lonely tunnel with an unnatural echo that allows Harper to perform an unaccompanied a capella symphony—before she’s interrupted by the sight of a stiff silhouette lurking at the tunnel’s far entrance.

That’s all part of the eerie atmosphere Men sets up before Garland launches into bonkers territory for the third act, basically a long home invasion where characters blink in and out of existence and morph into one another, ending in a climax that one-ups Takashi Miike‘s Gozu. The madness rolls on for so long that, by the end, Harper’s attitude switches from terrified to resigned. But even before that resolution arrives, Garland deploys eccentric and fascinating touches. The local chapel with pagan faces carved on its altar. A shot of a dead deer, its eye perfectly hollowed out by maggots. Dandelion seeds hang in the air, and get swallowed. A horny vicar spouts classical allusions. A naked stalker turns into the Green Man, then into a hermaphrodite. All of the imagery and references don’t quite add up at first glance, but they make Men more interesting than the simplistic “gee-don’t-men-behave-badly?” reading suggests.

The evil of Men is supernatural, but, although symbolic and psychological sources are clear, events are never explicitly justified or explained from inside the narrative. It seems Harper suffers from a curse, one that’s enacted as pure metaphor. Men is more interesting as a psychological horror study unfolding from a specific scenario than as a manifesto on gender relations. Those wider implications should have been left to hang in the subtextual background. Alex Garland has said that he may give up directing to focus on writing. I say, stick with both writing and directing—but let other people come up with your titles.

Men is currently in theaters; we’ll let you know when it arrives on streaming and home video.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Near the end, Garland ramps up the surreal elements and the special effects, gliding towards an over-the-top ending… It’s easy to admire his audacity, even if it is too much even by surreal standards.”–Caryn James, BBC (contemporaneous)