All posts by Alice Stoehr

LIST CANDIDATE: HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)

Hellzapoppin’ has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies! Please visit the official Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY: H.C. Potter

FEATURING: Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye,

PLOT: Although Ole and Chic work tirelessly to undermine any consistent plot, the film is ostensibly about their attempts to sort out a love triangle between their high society friends in time for a big musical revue.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Made at the height of Hollywood classicism, Hellzapoppin’ breaks every rule of conventional filmmaking, then makes up a few more so it can break them, too. A nonstop barrage of postmodern comedy infused with explosive surrealism, it only has a few spare that moments that aren’t weird in one way or another.

COMMENTS: Adapted from comedy duo Olsen and Johnson’s long-running Broadway musical of the same name, Hellzapoppin’ is an unruly, unstoppable hodgepodge of absurd running gags, mind-boggling non sequiturs, and endless meta-humor, all of which are used to disrupt its self-consciously hackneyed romantic storyline. This is take-no-prisoners, joke-a-minute filmmaking, with no regard for cause-and-effect, segues, or good taste; in fact, with their fondness for violent physical humor mixed with disorienting editing tricks, Olsen and Johnson could be the hallucinogen-puffing cousins of the Three Stooges.

It’s fitting, then, that Hellzapoppin’ should be introduced by Stooge Shemp Howard, who plays Louie, the film’s grumbling projectionist. He rolls the opening credits, and a line chorus girls—with a very literal “BANG!”—is transformed into a gaggle of garishly costumed demons, all of whom promptly fall into the bowels of hell. This is definitely strange, as is the infernal musical number that follows, but it’s nothing compared to the incipient arrival of hell’s “prize guests” (naturally, Chic and Ole). The second they burst out of their cab, which is inexplicably driven by an irate jockey, the two of them begin shooting off wordplay and self-referential jokes like machine gun fire. Each zany incident tops the one before it: one of Satan’s minions is drafted into the U.S. military; a woman and her adult son fall through the floor and into an untapped oil reserve; and Chic accidentally blows up the cab with his breath.

That last point leads into a rather revealing scene where Chic and Ole, curious to find out how the explosion occurred, demand that Louie rewind the movie. “What’s the matter with you guys?” cries Louie. “Don’t you know you can’t talk to me and the audience?” Undaunted, Ole Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)

68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)

AKA The Witches; Witchcraft Through the Ages

Must See

“Such were the Middle Ages, when witchcraft and the Devil’s work were sought everywhere. And that is why unusual things were believed to be true.”–Title card in Häxan

DIRECTED BY: Benjamin Christensen

FEATURING: Benjamin Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther, Maren Pedersen

PLOT: The film’s narrative segments involve the betrayals and accusations of witchcraft that destroy a small town in medieval Europe, and the monks who instigate them. Most of the film, however, consists of Christensen’s free-form discourse about the history of witchcraft and demonology.
Still from Häxan (1922)

BACKGROUND:

  • Christensen was an actor-turned-director with two feature films (The Mysterious X and Blind Justice) under his belt when he made Häxan.  He later moved to Hollywood, but he never recaptured Häxan‘s magic, and most of his subsequent films have been lost.
  • The film spent two years in pre-production as Christensen researched scholarly sources on medieval witchcraft, including the Malleus Maleficarum, a German text originally intended for use by Inquisitors.  Many of these are cited in the finished film, and a complete bibliography was handed out at the film’s premiere.
  • In the 1920s and afterward Häxan was frequently banned due to nudity, torture, and in some countries for its unflattering view of the Catholic Church.
  • Some of the footage from this film may have been reused for the delirium sequences in 1934′s Maniac (along with images from the partially lost silent Maciste in Hell).
  • In 1968, a truncated 76-minute version of Häxan was re-released for the midnight movie circuit under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages by film distributor Anthony Balch, with narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz score.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The scenes set at the Witches’ Sabbaths are overflowing with bizarre imagery.  The most unforgettable example is probably when the witches queue up and, one after another, kiss Satan’s buttocks in a show of deference.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In making Häxan, Christensen dismissed the then-nascent rules of classical filmmaking and turned it into a sprawling, tangent-filled lecture based on real historical texts.  This already makes the film unique, but the use of ahead-of-its-time costuming and special effects in order to film a demonic panorama right out of Bosch or Bruegel, and Christensen’s irreverent sense of humor as he does it, is what makes it truly weird.

Scene from Häxan (1922)

COMMENTS: In 1922, even before the documentary had been firmly established as a Continue reading 68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADDICTION (1995)

DIRECTED BY: Abel Ferrara

FEATURING: Lili Taylor, Christopher Walken, Annabella Sciorra, Edie Falco

PLOT: An NYU grad student is bitten on the neck one night, leading her down a rabbit hole of moral and physical degradation.

Still from The Addiction (1995)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Addiction strips away the clichés from the vampire formula, replacing bats and theatrics with a personal disintegration reminiscent of Repulsion.  What it lacks in weird imagery is more than made up for by its melding of Sartre, heroin addiction, and the supernatural, as well as the eerie atmosphere established by its chiaroscuro photography.

COMMENTS:  Throughout his career, Abel Ferrara has made New York-centric films with a grindhouse flavor and an aspiration to artistry.  In Ms. 45 (1981), he took on the rape-revenge film; with Bad Lieutenant (1992), he made a Scorsese-esque crime drama.  Similarly, The Addiction is a one-of-a-kind vampire movie, marrying urban realism, graphic horror, and several films’ worth of existentialist banter.  Although the latter attribute occasionally renders the film inaccessible, it also grants the characters’ neck-biting intrigues an unexpected gravity while making Ferrara’s serious cinematic intentions very clear.  This is The Hunger for the smart set.

I Shot Andy Warhol star Lili Taylor plays Kathy, who’s en route to getting her Ph.D. in philosophy when a late-night run-in with a mysterious seductress (Sciorra) leaves a bloody gash on her neck and spurs a metamorphosis from mousy student to loud-mouthed blood junkie. In a series of violent encounters, Kathy’s newfound aggression (coupled with severe photosensitivity) spreads like a virus to her friends, professors, and even the strangers who harass her on the street. Late in the film, she meets an elder vampire named Peina (Walken) who teaches her to control her addiction while quoting William S. Burroughs and Charles Baudelaire; the ending that follows is puzzling but weirdly suggestive, as orgiastic indulgence and Catholic guilt come into play.

The Addiction is shot in high-contrast black and white, bringing expressionistic shadows in conflict with a tendency toward naturalism, especially as Ferrara’s camera prowls the classrooms and hallways of NYU. Taylor gives a stand-out performance as a woman rotting from the inside out, matched by her poetically hard-boiled voiceover. When she enters a university library, for example, she growls, “The smell here’s worse than a charnel house.” These lurid monologues color our perceptions of Ferrara’s New York like the saxophones in Bernard Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver, drawing us deep into Kathy’s dissipation. And Walken, as usual, is the voice of demented authority, cavorting around Kathy’s exhausted body with his slicked-back hair and daffy energy. He’s only in one scene, but he casts a long shadow across the preceding film.

At times, The Addiction teeters dangerously close to being unforgivably pretentious; it’s packed wall-to-wall with philosophical jargon, grandiose statements about hell and morality, and vampiric metaphors for sex, drugs, and genocide. But the film’s saved by its (and Taylor’s) sheer conviction that something intelligent and well thought-out is being said. Even when the film’s open-ended chronology and its abstract conception of vampirism threaten to make the plot totally incomprehensible, you can hold onto Ferrara’s sincere interest in spiritual redemption and moral culpability. In the end, this thematic integrity, when brought out through Taylor’s uncompromising performance, blasts away any doubts: this is a totally different species of vampire movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this is one wild, weird, wired movie, the kind that really shouldn’t be seen before midnight… Scary, funny, magnificently risible, this could be the most pretentious B-movie ever – and I mean that as a compliment.”–Time Out London

CAPSULE: DEATH RACE 2000 (1975)

DIRECTED BY: Paul Bartel

FEATURING: , Simone Griffeth, Sylvester Stallone,

PLOT: In the year 2000, five racers competing in the annual Transcontinental Road Race must reckon with terrorists, government cover-ups, and each other in their rush to New Los Angeles.

Still from Death Race 2000 (1975)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has some moments of intense weirdness, they’re too few and far between; most of the film is just clever futuristic sci-fi whose bizarreness is restrained by its light sense of humor.

COMMENTS: Although, on the surface, Death Race 2000 may look like another dumb ’70s B-movie, trust me: it’s not.  It is pretty schlocky, and occasionally raunchy, but it’s also imbued with the satirical humor and the eye for low-budget artistry that has been a hallmark of Roger Corman productions since the days of The Little Shop of Horror.  Director Paul Bartel (he of the cult classic Eating Raoul) foregrounds the film’s funny streak, so that it plays more like a series of double entendres and anti-authoritarian jokes set against a futuristic backdrop than any kind of straightforward action movie.

The film’s pleasantly dark sense of humor is clear from its absurd central conflict: a band of anti-Death Race terrorists called the Army of the Resistance is sabotaging the racers, but the propaganda-spewing media-industrial complex blames it on the French.  Amidst coverage of the ongoing race (where hitting pedestrians scores points), the film occasionally cuts to the overzealous newscaster Junior Bruce, who’s basically a mouthpiece for Mr. President’s totalitarian government, and to Grace Pander, a proto-Oprah talk show host who describes every racer as “a dear friend of mine.”  Every twist and turn of the race is mythologized by these TV personalities, especially when it regards the film’s hero, Frankenstein (David Carradine).

In Death Race‘s vision of America, Frankenstein is the object of unending hero worship; he’s literally “bigger than Jesus.”  This is the source of extensive satire, as when Junior Bruce enthuses about Frankenstein’s “half a face and half a chest and all the guts in the world,” but it also leads to a surprisingly poignant scene when a girl named Laurie, a member of the St. Louis Frankenstein fan club, sacrifices her life to give him some extra points.  Tucked inside this cheap little dystopian sci-fi-comedy, we’ve got an eerily dead-on allegory about the nature of fandom and celebrity.  Similar treats await the patient viewer, especially in the film’s ideologically over-the-top finale.

Death Race 2000 is what happens when very smart, talented people set out to make a ridiculous movie.  It’s got a hammy Sylvester Stallone as Frankenstein’s arch-nemesis, Machine Gun Joe, but it also has expansive vistas shot by Badlands cinematographer Tak Fujimoto.  It has plenty of bad puns and topless women, but it also comments on the role of violence American society.  Complete with hand-illustrated backdrops and opening credits, this is 1970s cult cinema at its trashy, funny best.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The action setpieces work well, the blood smears look great in high definition, and most of the jokes land. It’s not like the news suddenly stopped caring about sexy, sexy violence in the 35 years since this first hit theaters. What really makes Race such a classic, though, is that Bartel manages to mix ruthless satire, absurdism, and sincerity without ever softening or compromising any of them.”–Zack Handlen, The A.V. Club

This is a condensed version of a longer review entitled “Satire, Americana and the Death Race.” The complete text can be found at Pussy Goes Grrr.

CAPSULE: DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli,

PLOT: A master thief and his girlfriend carry off a series of audacious heists while evading the police and a rival criminal.

Still from Danger: Diabolik (1968)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite some perplexing plot developments and slightly surreal moments, Danger: Diabolik never really journeys beyond its cops-and-robbers framework.  Ultimately, it’s more a product of its era’s weirder impulses than anything truly out-there.

COMMENTS: Full of kitschy décor and colorful costuming, Danger: Diabolik is a time capsule of the late 1960s.  The high-tech hijinks of its masked title character (Law) are redolent of Batman and James Bond, but with his frivolous capers and improbable escapes, Diabolik tops even those series’ campy excesses.  The entire film is just a string of cat-and-mouse encounters, as the Javert-like Inspector Ginko (Piccoli) lays a trap—be it priceless emeralds or a 20 ton ingot of gold—only for Diabolik to abscond with the loot, and his sexy accomplice Eva (Mell).

It may be perplexing at first to see a glamorous ball of fluff like Diabolik being directed by Bava, a man who’s best-known for stylized horror films like Black Sunday.  But Bava seizes on Diabolik’s ridiculous premise as a perfect opportunity to pour on the eye candy, unhindered by considerations of logic or self-restraint.   So instead of just getting one more of the routine super-spy pastiches that were clogging the theaters in 1968, we get some delirious sequences influenced by psychedelia and pop art.  The most effective such moment transpires when a prostitute tries to describe Eva’s appearance, leading into a bizarre animated cavalcade of mutating female faces.

The rest of Diabolik, however, is less audacious.  The cast seems to exist outside of these creative outbursts, and their performances drone on, whether they’re madly overacting—like Thunderball‘s Adolfo Celi as an angry gangster, or Terry-Thomas as a tooth-gnashing government official—or else, like John Phillip Law, underacting to the point of barely giving a performance.  Law is so deadpan that it’s easy to forget he’s there, and that’s not exactly a desirable trait in a brazen anti-hero.  But who needs a believable performance when you’ve got sex amidst piles of cash?  Or a giant mirror as a method for deterring the police?  Or a grand finale that features an explosive vat of molten, “radioactivated” gold?

Diabolik’s triumph is that it dispenses with plausibility from the very first gush of multicolored fog, and doesn’t look back, prioritizing scenes of wacky spectacle over minor details like dialogue and characterization.  So it’s certainly not a good movie, per se—in fact, a truncated version was mocked in the last-ever episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”—but it does carry its worn premise to enthrallingly absurd heights.  For a viewer who wants some unrestrained campy nonsense, that should be as much of a lure as freshly cremated ashes chock-full of emeralds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Utilizing wide-angle lenses, day-glo colors, psychedelic sets, and outrageous costumes, Bava creates dynamic compositions which could have come straight from a comic-strip panel, along with some indelible images, none more so than Diabolik covered in gold at the end, or the shots of he and Eva making love on a spinning bed while covered by a pile of money.”–TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Jules.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: SOUTHLAND TALES (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Kelly

FEATURING: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake, Wallace Shawn, Miranda Richardson

PLOT: In an alternate-universe America controlled by a surveillance-happy government, the lives of several Los Angeles residents—including a disabled veteran, a police officer, an amnesiac movie star, and a cell of political revolutionaries—intersect on the eve of the apocalypse.

still from Southland Tales (2006)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Although its many subplots pile weird images and ideas on top of each other, many of them remain totally superfluous, and the film as a whole is a disappointing nexus of influences and half-baked premises rather than a cohesive work of art.  However, it does contain some moments of mesmerizing weirdness, and could have a chance of being certified weird in the future.

COMMENTS:  To follow up his impressive debut feature, Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly clearly wanted to challenge himself.  With Southland Tales, however, he bit off more than he could chew. All of Donnie Darko’s best and worst tendencies are on display (with an emphasis on the latter), but this time the showcase is twice as long, with enough intricate storylines and bizarre sci-fi subtexts to fill a dozen less ambitious movies.  With his second film’s epic size, Kelly lost the gently emotional touch that made Donnie’s coming-of-age so poignant; his fiery creative passion is still very perceptible here, but it’s obscured behind layers of apocalyptic razzle-dazzle, broad satire, and sophomoric humor.

In Southland Tales’ alternate timeline, Texas was struck by terrorist nukes in 2005, triggering World War III; this back story is filled in via a YouTube-style montage of video clips and hyperlinks.  It’s a genuinely original method of exposition, but alas, it’s a rare example of Kelly’s innovative spirit overcoming his love of non sequitur jokes and stunt casting.  While Donnie Darko just had Patrick Swayze’s unnervingly effective performance as a demagogic motivational speaker, Southland Tales crams in a disorienting array of surprise cameos and Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: SOUTHLAND TALES (2006)

CAPSULE: SPLICE (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Vincenzo Natali

FEATURING: Adrien Brody, , Delphine Chanéac

PLOT: When two geneticists (Brody and Polley) mix some human DNA into a cloning

Still from Splice (2010)

experiment, they end up with a rapidly aging chimera child whom neither of them can control.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite some bizarre mutation imagery, most of the film remains solidly within the realm of the horror-infused family melodrama, and tends to be more icky than weird.

COMMENTS: Canadian writer-director Natali, best known for his low-budget thriller Cube, has created a love letter to mad scientist stories, from Frankenstein to Cronenberg’s The Fly.  All the expected clichés are present and accounted for, from the sterile, blue-tinted milieu of industrial science right down to the Jurassic Park-worthy mantra of “What’s the worst that could happen?”  In Splice, however, these trappings are refashioned to create a demented parable about the dangers of bad parenting, and much of the film’s commentary in this vein is delightfully on-target.  The scientific method gets entangled with the geneticists’ emotional hang-ups as they try to raise the part-human Dren (Chanéac).  This results in hilarious exchanges like one where Brody cries, “Specimens need to be contained!” and Polley responds, “Don’t call her that!”

However, as the story moves from the laboratory to a rural farmhouse, the film realizes its unpleasantly taboo-violating trajectory.  From there on in, the film trades its humorous insights in for gross-outs and gore, with a climax so unnecessarily vile it makes you want to take a shower while bemoaning its reductive view of gender. Still, Splice has a lot to offer the weird movie fan, as certain images, such as a press conference that becomes a bloodbath or Dren’s development into a bald, feral adolescent, won’t soon be forgotten.  Like his characters, Natali is a kind of mad scientist, deftly integrating the pains of child rearing into an age-old sci-fi premise; maybe next time, there’ll be a little more method to his madness.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s fascinating, sweet and especially grotesque – a distorted aspect of an overall analysis of post-millennial parental fears – all at the same time, and makes for some utterly bizarre imagery. In fact, I think I can say, without a shred of hyperbole, that this movie has some of the strangest moments you’ll see on film this year. If not in the next several years. Or maybe you’ve already seen a man dancing the waltz with a beautiful woman who is reverse jointed, has a mirror effect face, a monkey’s tail and a scorpion’s stinger?”–Nick DaCosta, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)