All posts by Pete Trbovich

CAPSULE: LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)

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DIRECTED BY: John D. Hancock

FEATURING: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Mariclare Costello

PLOT: Jessica is fresh out of the psych ward after a mental illness when her husband moves her out to the New England countryside, but the house they have purchased and the surrounding town have a Dark Secret™️.

Still from Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

COMMENTS: Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971) is the directorial debut of John Hancock; nothing in his career would resemble anything like this movie ever again. Reportedly the script was originally written as a satire of horror movies, but Hancock wanted it reworked as a serious horror movie inspired by psychological thrillers like The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House. Horror veterans may groan at this point, because movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) taught us that converting a horror satire into straight horror is a precarious proposition. Amazingly, this movie outshines these modest expectations as well as its low budget—though not by much. It’s a dubious mix of giallo and Gothic set in a Connecticut location just south of Lovecraft country. True to Hancock’s aim, the tone does land somewhere between Shirley Jackson and Howie P. Right from the opening monologue, we have the title character adrift in a rowboat raving madly to herself while Atlantic seagulls fuss off-screen, followed by our opening theme in somber piano notes. You’ll be double-checking to see if Aaron Spelling produced this for TV.

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) is a bubbly gal recently released from the mental hospital, whose hobby is riding around in the back of a hearse touring cemeteries so she can do charcoal rubbings of headstones—but don’t worry, she’s going to be right as rain! Her concerned husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) has bought a home out in the country for her, based on the old “fresh air and simple living” cure for the mentally twitchy. Duncan’s buddy Woody (Kevin O’Connor), along to help them move in, ends up staying on. Despite the fact that Jessica hears voices in her head every two seconds and sees phantoms that disappear in the space of a jump cut, she’s optimistic for her recovery. The strawberry blonde vagrant they discover squatting at this home when they move in (you better believe she’s revealed with a jump scare) isn’t helping matters any. Emily (Mariclare Costello) offers to pack her things and hit the road, but Jessica begs her to stay for dinner, then indefinitely. No sooner does Emily play her guitar over after-dinner wine (Duncan is a retired Philaharmonic orchestra player, so he brings out his double-bass for accompaniment) than Woody puts the moves on her. You see, this clan is set up to be hippies, or at least part of the counterculture, although the usual Hollywood portrayal of Flower Children is muted Continue reading CAPSULE: LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SHE (1984)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Avi Nesher

FEATURING: Sandahl Bergman, David Goss, Harrison Muller

PLOT: Two brothers in a post-apocalyptic wasteland go off on a quest to rescue their kidnapped sister, meeting a menagerie of mid-grade antagonists along the way as a million flavors of all hell breaks loose.

Still from She (1984)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: What a tragedy that She (1984) is so obscure, its title so Google-unfriendly, and its competing versions so better-known. If not for these handicaps it might have squeezed onto the List. It is a gonzo anything-goes claptrap of nonstop action with costumes, sets, and indeed whole scenes made out of whatever the filmmakers had lying around. If weird movies are a flea market, She rolls in Crazy Glue and runs through the bazaar, buying whatever sticks.

COMMENTS: The first rule of She (1984) is that it sets out to break every rule of filmmaking, and the second rule of She is that it circles back to break the first rule again. The goal of all this seems to be to make film reviewers look like fools; so allow me to draw the roadmap for the twists and turns ahead. She starts out bluffing with a trite and cliched approach, then steadily gets friskier along its run-time, until by the end it has become a completely different movie. It’s like the whole crew grew up over the course of shooting, or else they just improvised and got lucky. It starts out as a tired post-apocalyptic action clunker in the same vein as Mad Max and Tank Girl, only way less interesting than either of those. Somewhere between shooting the beginning and the end, the crew must have discovered—I’m guessing—Monty Python, Mel Brooks, something in that vein. It’s like they tried to make a serious Road Warrior-ripoff, but gave up after twenty minutes and decided their budget was better suited to making a campy satire; but, rather than withering away the fun, as you’d expect, they discovered they happened to be really good at comedy. Whatever happened, they sure as hell chucked the source material. This is allegedly an adaptation of “She: A History of Adventure,” but if you’re expecting anything to do with H. Rider Haggard‘s typical Victorian adventure universe of Allan Quatermain and King Solomon, you’re queuing in the wrong line.

After elaborate animated credits which also have nothing to do with the movie, we’re plopped “year 23 after the Cancellation.” Siblings Tom, Dick, and the sister Hari pilot a barge to a post-apocalyptic flea market selling cereal and chess sets, when a warrior tribe of “Norks” (composed of Clockwork Orange droogs, bikers, quarterbacks, Roman centurions, and Nazis) raid the market and haul Hari away screaming. The brothers now have a convenient plot: they have to go rescue Hari! If you liked that fight scene, you’ll look forward to the rest of the movie, which has one noisy brawl after another. The defining characteristics of post-apocalyptic people here are that they’re all Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SHE (1984)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)

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“I love George Roy Hill and Universal Pictures, who made a flawless translation of my novel Slaughterhouse-Five to the silver screen … I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”– Kurt Vonnegut, in the preface to Between Time and Timbuktu

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: George Roy Hill

FEATURING: Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Eugene Roche, Valerie Perrine

PLOT: Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the thick of WWII,  comes unstuck in time and yet endures, partly through the philosophical guidance of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.

Still from Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: While this movie is no weirder than it has to be, it is the most faithful movie adaptation of as novel from one of the strangest geniuses in American literature, so it has that going for it. Standalone, it punches the same weight as the war movies we honor here, while taking a novel that was seemingly impossible to film and making it look so natural you wonder that it wasn’t written as a script in the first place.

COMMENTS: At last, our quest for the ideal Kurt Vonnegut adaptation brings us to Slaughterhouse-Five (1972). This is the Papa Kurt movie that comes most highly recommended, with a promising directorial credit. George Roy Hill also directed the film adaptation of The World According to Garp (1982), another difficult book-to-film challenge with another author of sophisticated black comedy, which he pulled off with somersaults. Hill’s resume is bursting with offbeat cleverness like Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), the weirdest musical about a roaring-20s flapper busting a human trafficking ring. Charged with putting Kurt Vonnegut’s most acclaimed novel to film , Hill made an effort which the author himself would go on to praise, miracles never cease! Now let us pause to quaff a shot of something that will make our breath smell of mustard gas and roses, and prepare to be thrilled. I will try to explain what it means to be unstuck in time: take a normal life as a deck of cards, then shuffle it. That’s all; there’s no time-traveling DeLorean here.

We open with Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) in an unexpectedly graceful setup: he’s typing a letter explaining how he is unstuck in time, jumping back and forth in his life, with no control over where or when… Then we segue into the war. Billy served as a chaplain’s assistant in the U.S. Army during WWII; he revisits this part of his life at random. He also shifts to the planet Tralfamadore, where he is held by aliens as an intergalactic exhibit with a mate, Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine), who was chosen for him by his alien hosts—who are quite pushy about having them breed. She’s sweetly Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAPSTICK OF ANOTHER KIND (1982)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Steven Paul

FEATURING: Jerry Lewis, Madeline Kahn, , Pat Morita, Jim Backus, voice of

PLOT: A pair of rich, American, and (allegedly) beautiful parents give birth to hideously ugly and mentally-challenged twins, who turn out to be super-intelligent aliens implanted by a galactic civilization to fight back against the Chinese.

Still from Slapstick of Another Kind (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Slapstick tries hard to reach comedy by piling on the surrealism, and ends up just being surreal. This is a time-honored path to mediocrity taken by many a crashed comedy, but adding in the ham-handed Hollywood fumbling of Papa Kurt’s source material is the icing on this insanity.

COMMENTS: We’re coming up on a review of Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) so I opted to review Slapstick of Another Kind (1982) first, as an aperitif. I choose it for this honor solely because I consider Slapstick to be the weirdest Kurt Vonnegut adaptation I have seen so far. But don’t mistake this for praise: this movie is mostly unfunny and a chore to sit through. Reading the book first helps, but only a little.

As bad as Slapstick is, it has several million more miles of hell to plunge through before it lands at the same level of awful as Breakfast of Champions (1999). Slapstick has a coherent and logical structure and attempts to make good use of Vonnegut’s novel. Somebody gave at least a fraction of a rat’s ass about it. Most admirably, it feebly attempts to capture the spirit and letter of Vonnegut’s ethereal humor, sometimes catching a whiff, but often losing the scent. When it fails, it settles for sight gags, prop comedy, and actual pratfalls. It’s a mix with a rough texture to choke down.

Caleb and Letitia Swain (Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn) are well-to-do glamorous celebrities who give birth to hideous fraternal twins, boy and girl. Meanwhile, China has announced that it’s severing all ties with the rest of the human race because the Chinese are just too advanced to talk to the rest of us anymore. Among their other achievements, they’ve mastered miniaturization, shrinking themselves to inches in height. This news is delivered in an interview between a newscaster (Merv Griffin) and the Chinese ambassador (Pat Morita), who travels about in a fortune-cookie-sized flying saucer. Cut to 15 years later. The twins, Wilbur and Eliza (also played by Lewis and Kahn), mature in isolation, tended to by Dr. Frankenstein (John Abbott) and butler Sylvester (Marty Feldman). The adult twins are truly disturbing to behold and act insane, but this is actually a put-on because they feel people want them to be dumb. The Chinese ambassador, observing through planted spies, pays a call to the parents to inform them that their twins are actually secretly clever and advanced aliens. Since the parents haven’t bothered to check on their offspring in fifteen years, this comes as news Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAPSTICK OF ANOTHER KIND (1982)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEETLEJUICE (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: , Alec Baldwin, , , ,

PLOT: A milquetoast suburban couple find themselves dead and haunting their own house; when new tenants they can’t stand redecorate the place and prove themselves immune to haunting, they hire a “bio-exorcist.”

Still from Beetlejuice (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The premise, following a couple of ghosts protagonists along their misadventures in the afterlife, is a good enough foundation, but could have been a ho-hum fantasy in different hands. It took this all-star crew to come up with a desert world populated by sand snakes, a brothel in model train scale, a dinner party becoming a Harry Belafonte singalong, and a million and one creepy/hilarious dead folk to round it up to an eye-popping experience. It’s the happiest movie about death ever made!

COMMENTS: Tim Burton has certainly provoked his share of discussion on our site. Had 366 Weird Movies been around when he started his career, he doubtless would have been keen to make our list. Don’t let him kid for you a minute: Tim Burton knows exactly what weird is. He has Danny Elfman around, he knows about Forbidden Zone. There’s no excuse. He also knows what money is, and the siren song of the almighty buck has proven a stronger lure than prestige as a true artiste and auteur of midnight movies. Hence has he ever aimed his output straight for the suburban outlet mall, right between Hallmark and Hot Topic, making sure he can be equally merchandised in both. It’s clear that his artistic muse struggles to insert weirdness into everything he does, but if the weirdness factor cuts into the box office factor, he’s not about to take a chance on leaving a single empty seat in that theater on opening weekend. He still sobs himself to sleep at night over the lost Happy Meal deal. His saving grace is that he got off a few riskier shots in his wild years before Hollywood tamed him.

Beetlejuice is definitely Tim Burton at his wildest. If you remove his name and the all-star crew from consideration and view Beetlejuice objectively as its own thing, it’s pretty jaw-dropping that it ever got made. It is the blackest of black comedy subjects, getting a laugh out of scenes like suicide cases showing off their slashed wrists. And how would you like to hang yourself, only to find out that in the afterlife you’re condemned to keep dangling from the same noose, which is running around on a track amid office cubicles, so you can deliver memos? And the daughter protagonist—who can see ghosts through her sheer magical goth pixie powers alone—writes her suicide note but ghosts talk her out of it because, basically, death sucks too, kid. And how about Juno, the social worker for our hapless couple, who chainsmokes and exhales through the slash in her throat, and yet the effect is so underplayed that you could blink and miss it?

I once griped about the Imagination Ceiling: writers who bring up supernatural characters with allegedly near-boundless powers, but then the writer can’t think of anything awesome enough for them to do to make it worth the while. Beetlejuice does the Imagination Ceiling right. It’s jam-packed with supernatural characters who warp reality with a thought, pulling off one crazy stunt after another. Beetlejuice, tasked with getting rid of an intruding couple, does so by turning himself into a carnival strong man mallet game topped by a malevolent merry-go-round, for no other reason than that’s the first idea that popped into his head. In the manic hour-and-a-half running time, we never get very much explained, but the fever-dream logic is internally consistent enough that it makes perfect sense for a guy to get munched by a sudden sandworm attack. Right after he got rammed in the foot by a toy car driven by an outraged hobbyist shrunken down and left for stranded in his own model town, of course.

The mortal characters would be hard pressed to match the supernatural ones, but they do a bang-up job regardless. From the impossibly prissy interior decorator turned medium to the hysterically neurotic sculptress who will eventually be held prisoner by one of her own creations, they match the dead half of the cast bonker for bonker. Nobody with more than two lines in this film is forgettable. Only now we can start talking about the cast and crew, a unique blend of quirky careers and offbeat talents. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis stand out by the magnitude of their vanilla Brad and Janet routine, lost in a different kind of Gothic funhouse. Winona Ryder plays the most Winona Rydery role of her career. Danny Elfman’s music is a haunted circus. And all I want is for Glenn Shadix to follow me around all day narrating every mundane thing I do in his dramatic purple ham voice, is that too much to ask?

Beetlejuice is Tim Burton’s weirdest movie, because it ranks four out of five bowls of sugary cereal on the Saturday Morning Cartoon scale of unfettered childhood imagination.

Warner Brothers re-released Beetlejuice in a collectible Blu-ray steelbook package in 2019, giving us the excuse we needed to finally review it. It has the original trailer and the three episodes of the “Beetlejuice” cartoon series that were included on the “20th Anniversary” Blu-ray, but doesn’t come with the isolated score or soundtrack CD bonus disc from that release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Right off the bat, the whole premise is fucking weird, and it just gets weirder with each subsequent single scene. People pull their faces off, heads are shrunk, sculptures come to life, eyeballs become fingers, massive worms eat people—it really is a nonstop barrage of ‘what the hell?’ How someone sat down and gave Tim Burton millions of dollars to make this is almost incomprehensible.”–Germaine Lussier, Gizmodo

QUESTIONS ARE BEAUTIFUL

Poring over past musings here, I ran across this comment under our List entry for Cube (1997): “Incidentally, I feel like the whole topic of the ontological mystery is something this site could devote an article to…” You’re right, Simon Hyslop, so this Bud’s for you!

But there’s an aven bigger rock to pick out of the trench than just the “ontological mystery.” Perhaps we should illuminate why we like weird movies, or at least get as close to solving that conundrum as we can here. It’s just gift-wrapped in the ontological mystery genre because it makes for such a dandy distillation of the concept of weirdness itself.

Mirriam-Webster defines “weird” as “of strange or extraordinary character : odd, fantastic.” This suggests that in order for something to be weird, it must be puzzling, mysterious, and perhaps even ultimately unsolvable. So many movies honored on 366 Weird Movies can be described exactly that way. The top movies on this site, by reputation and backed by reader polls, as often as not have ambiguous meaning and a baffling ending that leaves us with more questions than we started with.

Where the hell is Eraserhead set? What is really going on at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? What genre does Donnie Darko even fit into? How exactly has the family in Dogtooth survived in the world this long? Why is there a secret door in an office building that leads to the inside of Being John Malkovich‘s head? No reason.

All those movies are honored, timeless classics debated by film scholars year in and year out, but the questions are still open: just as with the mysteries of Cube, and stories in the existentialist tradition going all the way back to Sartre and . Come to think of it, most movies enrolled in the List can be stretched to fit the definition of “ontological mysteries,” or at least mysteries of some kind or another. It’s the unanswered questions in these stories that captivate us.

Sure it does. But why? Why aren’t we happy with “boy meets girl and tEraserhead's ontological crisishey live happily ever after?” A lot of other people seem to be content with that. In real life, we seek answers and are never satisfied until we get them. That’s what the continuing pursuit of science is all about.

But right away you notice that real life never has a tidy ending with everything explained. There’s no real beginning or endings anywhere; every story stretches along an infinite thread in either direction.

The nature of the universe exposes us human beings as having one encumbering flaw. The fact that we defend it does not negate the fact that it is a flaw. The flaw is that humans need to understand Continue reading QUESTIONS ARE BEAUTIFUL

CAPSULE: LET MY PUPPETS COME (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Gerard Damiano

FEATURING:  Al Goldstein, , Viju Krem, Gerard Damiano

PLOT: A board room full of executives get into deep debt to a mobster named “Mr. Big,” so they decide to create a porno to earn the dough.

Still from Let My Puppets Come (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: After the shock of “puppet porn,” this movie runs out of steam really, really fast. It leaps off the platform of its premise and tumbles down the pit of mediocrity before it ever reaches for the trapeze swing to True Weirdness.

COMMENTS: A puppet porno, all mine to review? I cackled and sharpened my barbs. I prepared all my smart-ass observations: “When a puppet gets pregnant, why doesn’t the fetus fall out?” and “Technically, doesn’t all puppet sex count as a hand job?” and “How do you stay lubricated when you’re covered in felt?” Then I never got to use them, because this movie was just tragically unlucky. I don’t want to mock it, I want to treat it to an ice cream cone and pat it on the head and tell it “There there, it just wasn’t your time.” I rank “Making Puppets Edgy” right up there with “Perpetual Motion” and “Squaring The Circle” in the category of “Things That Never Work But People Never Stop Trying.” Between Meet the Feebles and The Happytime Murders, the puppetry tag on this site alone goes on for three pages, which is two and a half pages longer than anybody needed. So of course you expect Let My Puppets Come to be a Feebles rip-off, until you find out that Puppets was, hot damn, the very first adult puppet movie! No really, wiki and weep. It even predated The Muppet Show, which debuted in September of that year. When you consider all this and view the movie in the context of 1976—Patty Hearst was on trial, Apple Computer was just founded, was still alive—Let My Puppets Come gets 100x bigger balls. Neutered ones, sadly.

The plot is a loose framework wherein three (puppet) business executives doing business things receive a telegram delivering bad business news: they owe a half million bucks to a mobster, “Mr. Big,” with no way to scare up the funds. The telegram delivery boy has a swell idea: make a groovy porn flick! The group speculates on what kinds of stories they want to do, with swirly transitions to fantasies. That’s the first thing to know about this movie: it’s a loosely connected series of sketches, even down to parodies of popular TV commercials of the time (a bit like Kentucky Fried Movie, released the very next year). The structure makes it sleepy, despite the very first sex scene being between a puppet woman and her puppet dog, who seals the deal by reassuring her “I have all my shots.” (Hey, you bought a ticket to a puppet porn, it’s a little late to pretend you have standards now.) We swim along through more sketches, like a massage parlor and the canonical nurse-on-patient fantasy, all the porn standards. The gents frolic off to make their movie, recruiting from an adult toy shop clerk just so we can gawk at all the kinky novelties. There’s a Diana Ross stand-in, a Pinocchio stand-in, and a rip-off of the puppet character Madame.

All these scenes amount to exactly one lame joke each. A couple of them are funny, more of them are a groan, and the rest just die before they hit the floor. There’s random songs tossed in and multiple parodies of contemporary pop culture. The puppet sex is mostly puppet blowjobs, which take the form of clumsy duels between inflexible clam-shell lips and wobbly foam willies. I lost count after the third time the “William Tell Overture” was played over a sex scene to make it “funny.” There’s also original songs, all pleasant enough, but none of them show-stoppers. You get so used to looking at foam actors that when a real live go-go stripper shimmies onto the screen, it takes you a while to work out what’s wrong with her before it dawns on you that she’s made out of meat. In making a movie about characters making a porn movie, director Gerard Damiano gets in some good therapeutic role-playing to recover from the scandals around his infamous Deep Throat (1972). This extends right to the puppet directors being thrown into puppet jail for obscenity charges.  Damiano tastefully cuts his pillow-sobbing short to allow the movie an ending, which brings out Luis de Jesus as “Mr. Big,” and then wastes him.

Let My Puppets Come is not without its tacky, corny charm, but it’s a shaggy dog story that goes on too long. I am a proud supporter of pansexual freedom, and a dirty old pervert too, so I wanted to like this movie more. The puppetry is on-point, at least. Good puppetry takes time to film, which makes it all the sadder to see it go to waste. This movie is left without an audience. It’s too silly for Vanillas to consider sexy, and doesn’t get nearly freaky enough to arouse the kinky, despite the puppet-on-human spanking scene. It isn’t funny enough to work as a comedy, doesn’t have enough songs to qualify as a musical, and isn’t even campy enough to get a cult following when the opportunity is practically handed to it. The poor thing is so ambitious that it sabotages its own mission. Had Let My Puppets Come just relaxed and been happy with what it is, it could have been a cult classic.

For the record: There’s various cuts of the film with time-spans ranging from 40-75 minutes. The full, uncut version is now available on a Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray, which means you’ll no longer have to resort to the low-res pirated version on PornHub (which is how I originally saw it). I love my career.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s nothing that can prepare you for [Damiano’s] 1976 feature film Let My Puppets Come, an XXX film where the main characters are puppets…. truly one of XXX cinema’s most unique films.”–Cliff Wood, 10K Bullets (Blu-ray)