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: THE FATHER (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Florian Zeller

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Anthony, an old man with dementia, has difficulty recognizing the people around him, or remembering where he is.

Still from The Father (2020)

COMMENTS: The Father delivers exactly what its synopsis and trailer promise it will: a movie with the shape of a psychological thriller and the emotional punch of a heartrending drama. And, of course, a performance for the ages (and the aged) by Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Directing from his own play, first time filmmaker Florian Zeller delivers a tight screenplay that disorients viewers, purposefully. We follow (loosely speaking) the story of Anthony and his daughter Anne, as the old man tries to retain first his independence, and then his simple dignity, as his mind slips away into dotage. There are temporal incongruities; Anthony thinks things that actually happened a decade ago occurred just yesterday, and script’s timeline mimics this dislocation by jumping forward and back (and in one memorable scene, forming a perfect circle). Anthony’s daughter and son-in-law are sometimes played by different actors—not to mention the numerous aides he cycles through—we can never be sure if they’re new hires, or old ones Anthony simply doesn’t recognize. Locations also change, and mysteries emerge: why doesn’t Anthony’s other daughter visit him? Is Anne moving to Paris, or not? The few scenes without Hopkins in them seem to reflect a canonical reality, but even then we can’t be 100% sure; one scene in particular seems to reflect Anne’s dark fantasy.

Ironically, although we come to identify with him, we do not learn a lot about Anthony as a person. Anne drops hints as to his previous career—which was not a tap dancer—and we know he loves opera. But much of his personality is disappearing into the murk of Alzheimers; Anthony is headed towards a generic senility, in the process of becoming less and less of a individual. This, of course, is the tragedy that Hopkins is capturing as his weathered face registers irritation, confusion, and dawning fear. The loss of individual memories suggests the loss of everything that makes us unique. The big final emotional breakdown scene may be the tiniest bit overdone, but Hopkins sells it—and at any rate, the movie has banked enough empathy by this point that it could get away with almost anything.

Olivia Colman’s supporting work as the stressed-out daughter is great, but this is understandably Hopkins’ showcase. Although he’s not slowing down, it’s almost a shame for the octogenarian to act again; he could not hope for a better role than this to end his career.

Although eligible for the 2020 Oscars, The Father did not show up in theaters until 2021; had it debuted earlier, it would have crashed my top 10 mainstream films list for the past year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… very little is what it seems in this meticulously constructed jewel box of a film… Not since ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ has a filmmaker so thoroughly put the audience inside the experience of a protagonist, to such shattering emotional effect.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: THE CURIOUS DR. HUMPP (1969)

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DIRECTED BY: Emilio Vieyra

FEATURING: Ricardo Bauleo, Aldo Barbero, Gloria Prat, Susana Beltrán

PLOT: A mad scientist uses his monster army to drug and kidnap horny hippies, whom he arouses so he can drain a fluid from them.

Still from The Curious Dr. Humpp (1969)

COMMENTS: At bottom, The Curious Dr. Humpp is a formulaic 1950s-style mad scientist flick enlivened by a couple of bizarre touches. Most obviously, there is a lot of simulated sex. The threadbare plot involves Humpp sending his masked “monsters” to kidnap libidinous youngsters and feed them aphrodisiacs so that he can extract a mystery substance from them when they are sexually aroused, which he uses in the typical mad scientist quest for immortality, or something. This scenario leads to perverse permutations of the typically shoddy mad scientist dialogue (“I must position this positive electrode against the nerves of the libido. If this experiment succeeds, I’ll not only be able to restrain lust, but also turn humans into veritable screwing machines!”) These elements mix together to create a movie that you might call “curious.”

The original Argentinian cut of the film (La venganza del sexo) ran only about 70 minutes, so the American producers added an additional 15 minutes of softcore writhing (along with the extra “p” in Dr. Humpp’s name) before releasing this monstrosity to grindhouses. Some of the transitions between new and old footage are abrupt, with the soundtrack not following the visuals. Scenes of a perpetually masturbating blonde, for example, are clearly spliced in with re-used reaction shots of Dr. Humpp and his buxom nurse assistant to create new scenes. The new prisoners’ cells in Humpp’s manor look exactly the same as the rooms from which they were initially abducted.

Despite its South American origins, the enterprise has an early Eurosleaze vibe. The cinematography is far superior to the script; the camerawork is crisp, utilizing interesting angles. One sex scene, for example, is shot with a bubbling beaker in the foreground tastefully blocking colliding genitals from view. The discordant sci-fi soundtrack, with its theremins, jazzy vibraphone interludes, and the sounds of bubbling laboratory liquids used as a percussive element, is also above the otherwise low baseline the film sets. And there are a few minor bits of weird genius, like the monster serenade pictured above, and the under-explained talking brain in the jar (which may have inspired the similar character in Blood Diner).

I’m pretty sure that, if I’d first seen this in my twenties, I would have thought it one of the strangest curiosities in existence; so, if you’re a dedicated fan (or Humpper, as dedicated fans of this movie have never been called), I can understand. But I’ve been spoiled by decades of watching movies, and at this point Humpp no longer appears so singular. But the movie does lie squarely within the weird zone, and, if you have a high tolerance for long stretches of simulated black-and-white humpping, it’s unique enough to recommend to the curious.

2021’s Something Weird/AGFA Blu-ray reissue includes the original La venganza del sexo cut for the first time (you can even watch it with subtitles!) There’s also a commentary track from genre maven , trailers, and the campy sleaze short “Tomb It May Concern” (Something Weird’s Humpp DVD featured three bonus shorts—“Rasputin and the Princess,” “The Girl and the Skeleton,” and “My Teenage Fallout Queen”—so this is actually a rare Blu-ray downgrade).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Chock full of bumping and grinding in both lesbian and straight sex varieties, The Curious Dr. Humpp might not make a whole lot of sense but it doesn’t matter, it’s seriously weird enough to work.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: VERSUS (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Ryûhei Kitamura

FEATURING: , Hideo Sakaki, Chieko Misaka

PLOT: Two escaped convicts make their way to the location where gangsters are supposed to pick them up; double-crosses follow, complicated by the fact that the rendezvous spot is a mystical forest where the dead quickly return to life.

Still from Versus (2000)

COMMENTS: Although there’s a token plot involving a gate to Hell and reincarnation, Versus is basically nonstop dopey comic book violence, choreographed by filmmakers who don’t care as much about logic as they do about making sure the actors look cool while shooting zombies. From about the ten-minute mark until the credits roll after two hours, the movie  is one long melee, with a few pauses to catch its breath.

Because the dead pop right back up as zombies here in the “resurrection forest,” there’s seldom a lack of victims; if the script temporarily runs short of bodies, it just brings in another platoon of yakuza or cops from off-screen and the killing starts again. The cast is so large that you lose track of who’s killed who, and how many times. Sometimes it only takes one bullet to take down a zombie; sometimes twenty are needed. For variety’s sake there’s ample kickboxing, knife fights, some kind of combination machine gun/bazooka, and samurai swords pulled out for the final showdown. The violence is often played for grossout laughs—Evil Dead II is a big influence here—with heart-eating, a bad guy who can punch straight through heads, and eyeballs stuck on the ends of fingers. More conventional comic relief comes in a cowardly yakuza, and there’s also a tiresome running gag where the hero keeps knocking the heroine unconscious. The mythology motivating the massacre is serviceable, the leads look good, and the action is sold in bulk. And that’s about it.

In hindsight, Versus is not an incredibly weird film, although the mix of samurai, yakuza, zombies, and nonstop gore was novel at the time. The movie was significant as a proto- film, however. Not only did it launch the career of cult action star and subgenre icon Tak Sakaguchi, but it’s also the first screenwriting credit for , who would go on to mix the absurd violence found here with -style body horror in Meatball Machine (2005) to launch the line of bioweapondry-obsessed B-movies that grew increasingly ridiculous throughout the early 21 century.

Arrow Video’s 2021 “Limited Edition” Blu-ray is another Criterion-quality set from the specialty releaser, with numerous extras and a second disc housing the “Ultimate Edition” of Versus. This 131-minute cut provides an additional 11 minutes of fighting footage that was newly shot in 2003. If you’re surprised that they went back to the forest to film even more fight scenes, rather than some extra exposition or character development, then you’re probably not in the target audience for Ultimate Versus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Kitamura’s gonzo flick is overstuffed to the point of nausea, its barrage of gory outrageousness becoming wearisome after the first fifty fatal mutilations…”–Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Martin,” who described it as a “Japanese gangster, zombie, martial arts, apocalypse movie. Mind blowing.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: KEEP AN EYE OUT [AU POSTE!] (2018)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Grégoire Ludig, , Marc Fraize

PLOT: A detective interviews a man who has discovered a corpse under not-very-suspicious circumstances.

Still from Keep an Eye Out (Au Poste) (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Quentin Dupieux’s effervescently surreal policier parody recalls vintage 70s cinema. And it’s actually pretty weird.

COMMENTS: The thing that strikes me about Keep an Eye Out is that it feels dashed off—effortlessly. It clocks in at just over an hour, it’s mostly dialogue-based, and it only features two major performers and only a handful of different sets. There are no special effects to speak of, and the most expensive and complicated scene is the opening, where a man is arrested for conducting a symphony orchestra in a field. The script is filled with digressions, but still feels tight. Ludig and Poelvoorde deliver absurd lines matter-of-factly, commenting on the hole in a detective’s torso or a man eating a whole oyster (shell and all) with nothing stronger than mild curiosity. They remain completely inside this world, never suggesting that they’re in on the joke. Everything seems to come easy to this movie.

This ease and emphasis on dialogue and subtly dreamlike situations puts me (and others) in mind of late (minus the social satire). There is a pleasing flow in the way the situation starts out offbeat, and keeps growing weirder and weirder. The interrogation of poor regular guy Fugain (Ludig, who only discovered the body and is obviously innocent of any crime) begins in medias res, with detective Buron (Poelvoorde) taking a break to schedule a social engagement over the phone while the hungry witness patiently waits to conclude the business so he can get dinner. Although the interrogation is odd, with Buron fixated on insignificant details and slowly typing up Fugain’s responses up in real time, things take a turn when the inspector asks his associate, a one-eyed policeman, to take over while he goes on (another) break. This leads to a  strange accident, which I won’t spoil except to say that it (potentially, at least) ups the movie’s stakes. Buron returns and the interrogation resumes, but we now see Fugain describing events in flashbacks—flashbacks which contain time paradoxes, because characters who could not have been on the scene show up and start interacting with his memories. Buron continues to be obstinately suspicious, while missing evidence of an actual crime that’s hiding in plain sight. But despite some suspense trappings, the script’s actually quite light and witty, and only loosely tethered to its police procedural structure.

Whereas Dupieux’s subsequent film, Deerskin (2019), is an examination of masculinity and an artistic self-reflection, Keep an Eye Out suggests no deeper themes beyond the desire to make you laugh. Rather than a symphony, the movie plays like a jazz solo, with Dupieux simply riffing on whatever crazy idea comes into his mind. The only off note comes at the very end, a reality shift that—once again—recalls Buñuel, but also suggests a writer admitting he has no way to end his story. Still, as a standalone bit, this “big reveal” actually works just fine. String together enough gags like that, and you could make a pretty entertaining movie out of it, actually.

Au Poste! was completed before Deerskin, but is being released in the U.S. a year later. Suddenly prolific director Dupieux already has two more in the pipeline: Mandibles (2020), a comedy about a giant fly, and the currently-in-production Incredible but True [Incroyable mais vrai].

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Many of these poker-faced absurdities are quite funny, and a few are so inspired that Dupieux might have done better to run with one of them, rather than serving up a smorgasbord of disconnected weirdness… This filmmaker’s madness could use just a little more method.”–Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

BOOK REVIEW: “THE WEIRD AND THE EERIE”

Since this piece is technically categorized as a review, let’s get this out of the way first: Mark Fisher’s short critical essay “The Weird and the Eerie” is insightful, unique, and well worth your time. Fisher is (almost) the only writer to attempt a critical analysis of the literary concept of the “weird” (which he considers a “mode” rather than a genre). That alone makes this slim volume (which could be finished in an evening) a worthwhile addition to your library.

With the praise out of the way, the remainder of this essay will be devoted to explaining why Fisher’s definition of the weird doesn’t quite harmonize with way we use the term on this site. Basically, Fisher’s usage is too restrictive for our purposes. Defining the weird, paradoxically, makes it into a rational category, whereas the essence of the weird is its irrationality. Like love or porn, the weird has an “I-know-it-when-I-feel-it” quality; it’s better intuited than analyzed. This observation, I must stress again, is not meant to take anything away from Fisher’s achievement. It’s just that rigid critical analysis, while a fun supplement to your journey into the weird, cannot substitute for that know-it-when-you-feel-it chill in your spine that you get when confronted with an oatmeal-cheeked girl stomping on spermatozoa inside a radiator theater.

Early in this site’s existence, I wrote a series of two articles on various “species” of the weird: the “uncanny” and the “surreal.” (A third planned article, on the “absurd,” remains uncompleted to this day.) So I’m not above bringing analytics into the weird game. But generally, we at 366 Weird Movies prefer the intuitive approach. To this day, the definition of the weird I rely on most is the “grandmother test”: I imagine my conservative grandmother watching a movie, and if she turns to me and mutters, “well, that was weird,” I know I’m onto something.

Still, I admire Fisher for attempting to nail down what, in essence, amounts to nothing more than a vague feeling. I think his test, as we will see, inevitably creates both false positives and false negatives. But the impulse is a noble one.

So how does Fisher define the weird? He gets it out of the way quickly in the introductory chapter, concluding that “the weird is that which does not belong” [emphasis in original]. To elaborate:

The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the “homely”1 (even as its negation). The form that is perhaps most appropriate to the weird is montage—the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together.

Of course, merely conjoining things that don’t belong together isn’t enough to make something weird. Centaurs, for example, combine men and horses in an impossible, wrong way, but whatever weirdness these beings may have once possessed has faded away through the centuries, as the concept of such fantastic beings has become familiar. The weird requires, in addition to mere incompatibility, a mysterious element, which Fisher describes as “a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and Continue reading BOOK REVIEW: “THE WEIRD AND THE EERIE”

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAN UNDER TABLE (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Noel David Taylor

FEATURING: Noel David Taylor, John Edmund Parcher, Ben Babbitt, Katy Fullan

PLOT: A nameless screenwriter tries to write a movie (the movie we’re watching), while his peers’ careers seem to be taking off faster than his.

Still from Man Under Table (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This microbudget meta-movie about a nameless screenwriter unabashedly gazes at its navel until that navel becomes a self-contained universe teeming with surrealism and satire.

COMMENTS: Ever since 8 1/2, directors have been making movies about the trials and tribulations of being themselves making a movie. It’s an ambitious undertaking, fraught with pretension, but the subgenre is not tapped out yet. Man Under Table relocates the conceit to a new milieu: the fringes of the indie movie scene, a world which itself exists on the fringes of Hollywood. It’s a purgatory for creatives. Everybody urgently wants rush out a movie about “identity politics” or “fracking” or, preferably, the intersection of the two—but they actually spend most of their time in bars, at parties, or in men’s rooms, talking about their hopefully soon-in-development projects. The film doesn’t really have much of an idea how to end itself, and it plays around with some intriguing possible plot angles (such as the suggestion that another character is the real author of the screenplay) only to abandon them. But that abandonment itself is both a meta-joke and an honest reflection of the script: the movie consistently, from being to end, does not know what it is, and it is all about its own lack of insight.

Such a premise would be insufferable if played straight; it can only work as a comedy. And Man Under Table has a nasty comic bite, with the movie itself, and its screenwriter, as much the target of the satire as the phonies who hang out in this plague-ridden alternate Los Angeles. Our nameless (itself a plot point) antihero is writing a movie, but he spends most of his free time bragging to all his acquaintances about how he’s writing a movie. He’s arrogant, short-tempered, neurotic, presumptuous, whiny, and obviously angry at himself but taking it out on everyone around him. His targets include screenwriting rival Ben (who looks a lot like David Foster Wallace stripped of his bandana), up-and-coming director Jill Custard, a vapid but omnipresent YouTuber, and a pair of buzzword-devouring—producers? Agents? He’s also taking advantage of Gerald, an older man with money who has an idea for a movie but needs help with the “technical part” (i.e., writing it), and who insists that there shouldn’t be any of that “modern movie gay stuff.”  You personally don’t know any characters like this, and characters like this could in fact never exist, yet you believe they are caricatures of real people—or at least, that they’re caricatures of real caricatures.

Man Under Table plays out on minimal sets—a bathroom, a barroom, an apartment, a warehouse, a blank void—and moves from scene to scene with little flow or causality. The order of incidents could be shuffled about without making much difference; it’s set in a netherworld of eternal project development. “This isn’t a movie, it’s just random scenes about some guy,” our screenwriter complains midway through. At one point, he finds himself unwittingly cast in—and cut from—someone else’s project, which breaks out around him as he’s trying to order a beer. The movie also draws attention to its own movieness by introducing deliberate continuity errors (a disappearing drink becomes a running gag).

Where Man Under Table shines, and sometimes becomes laugh-out-loud funny, is in writer/director Taylor’s charmingly obnoxious performance as his own alter-ego, and especially in his ear for cutting dialogue that exposes the shallow ambitions of his characters. His generic pitches to the movie-producing couple are brilliant (he throws the word “content” in at random and their eyes get huge). A parody of a competitor’s production shows a knack for capturing ridiculously poetic indie dialogue (“I always imagined that leaving prison was like being ripped from the womb all over again—you emerge screaming, wet, and pale.”) Other great lines include “I didn’t really want to talk about it either, I was just asking you questions I wanted you to ask me” and “I’d like to be suicidal again, but I can’t even get there with all the garbage you’re saying.” Some of the dialogue even achieves poignancy: “Sometimes I get excited about all the possibilities there are, until I realize none of them are available to me.”

As boorish and self-absorbed as our hero is, you gradually begin to feel for him. He is trapped in an absurd, dystopian world peopled entirely by poseurs, a universe that seemingly exists only to crush his dreams. Oh yeah, and then there’s all the weird stuff that happens to his character in the movie, too.

Man Under Table is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This film is definitely weird.”–Lorry Kitka, Film Threat

CAPSULE: INSIDIOUS (2010)

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DIRECTED BY: James Wan

FEATURING: , Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye

PLOT: A young boy falls ill when he moves into a new house; mom is convinced the home is haunted, but when they relocate again, the kid doesn’t get better, and the apparitions get worse.

Still from InsIidious (2010)

COMMENTS:  Having launched the smash hit Saw franchise in 2004, director James Wan was still a somewhat hot name in horror in 2010, despite the fact that his intervening work had not been particularly successful. Producing independently, he once again teamed with scriptwriting partner Leigh Whannell for the haunted house flick Insidious, whose surprising box office receipts were hefty enough to launch a new four-film franchise1 and reignite his career.

Watching the film for the first time a decade after release, it’s difficult to see what the appeal was. It’s not that there’s anything really wrong with Insidious; it’s just not clear why it should succeed where so many interchangeable horrors lie forgotten. The premise is not particularly unique, there’s no breakout villain like Saw‘s Jigsaw, no special effects to speak of, no psychological subtext, nothing to tap into 2010’s zeitgeist, no killer nightmare scene that sticks in the memory. It is, in every aspect, an absolutely middle-of-the-road Hollywood-style spook show.

To its credit, Insidious leaves Saw’s torture and gore formula behind in favor of actual horror. Doors open on their own, there’s mysterious murmuring on the baby monitor, the burglar alarm goes off with no one around, and the frazzled mom sees shadow people lurking outside the window. But each decent directorial decision (a haunting use of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”) is counterbalanced by a poor one (no explanation for how the family affords a four-bedroom country estate and round-the-clock medical care on a high school teacher’s salary). The lighting drapes the spooky figures in just the right amount of obscuring shadow, and the other technical elements are professional. But the casting is ho-hum: Patrick Wilson is blah; Rose Byrne is fine, but doesn’t look much like a mom of three; is indisputably in the movie; Lin Shaye makes for an OK psychic exorcist, but her character inevitably invites unfavorable comparisons to Poltergeist‘s Zelda Rubinstein (an obvious inspiration.) On the other hand, her two nerdy, squabbling comic-relief assistants worked well (and could have supported their own spin-off comedy film).

As far as weirdness goes, the case for Insidious is slim at best. It’s no stranger than any other ghost movie you’ve seen, and comes complete with the usual deflating supernatural explanations for everything that happens. The trip through the looking glass into the spirit realm (here called “the Further”) is well done and eerie, with damned souls endlessly re-enacting ancient tragedies, deaf and blind to the living walking among them. The big bad boss demon (also the film’s Tiny Tim fan) could have been majorly scary, if not for the fact that his design reminded everyone who saw him of a certain character from The Phantom Menace (thankfully, not Jar-Jar, although that would have been a bold choice). Insidious ends with a twist that surprised absolutely no one (and may have ruined the film for some people who were willing to give it a pass up to that point). None of this, good or bad, rises to the level of weird, in our judgement. It’s ultimately a film to take or leave, to enjoy well enough and forget about as soon as it’s over. At least it’s not torture porn.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the time the absurdly deflating finale rolls around, Wan has managed to not only botch his own film, but sully the one cool element of Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace as well.”–Nick Schaeger, Lessons of Darkness (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Rick Yeoman, who asked, “Is Insidious included? Should be. At first the movie’s great, but when it reached the climax, I found it weird. I hate the twists. Not scary anymore. Ended up funny.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)