All posts by Shane Wilson

CHANNEL 366: “RUSSIAN DOLL” (2019)

There was a time when we could dance until a quarter to ten
We never thought it would end then
We never thought it would end

–Harry Nilsson

DIRECTED BY: Leslye Headland, Jamie Babbit, Natasha Lyonne

FEATURING: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley

PLOT: After dying in a car accident the night of her 36th birthday, video game programmer Nadia finds herself alive once more, back at her party; a series of sudden and violent deaths demonstrate that she is trapped in a time loop, and increasing complications make it more challenging and essential that she understand why this is occurring and how she can emerge with her life and soul intact.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: “Russian Doll” is technically a TV series rather than a proper movie, and only slightly weird. It’s worth discussing, however, because it takes a shopworn premise and injects it with a combination of energy, quirk and unabashed heart that makes it feel fresh and worthy of the urge to jump into the next chapter.

COMMENTS: To even hear the plot to “Russian Doll” is to directly confront the woodchuck-shaped elephant in the room. Yes, it’s the recurring time loop, matched up with the repeated attempt to “get things right”. There may be hundreds of examples of the device across every medium, including some that ought to be listed somewhere. But one looms monolithically above the rest, the highest order of high-concept storytelling. The trope is even named after it. So if you’re gonna come at Groundhog Day, you best not miss.

It’s a measure of what a delightful experience “Russian Doll” is that not only does it not miss, it transcends this starting point to become very much its own clever, compelling creation. It does this through a combination of techniques and tricks, but the fulcrum of the whole enterprise is the impossibly-good Natasha Lyonne. With her Muppet-pelt hair, aggressively over-the-top Noo Yawk accent, and the attitude of a barely functional alcoholic with a permanent middle finger extended to the world, Nadia should not be tolerable even in eight compact episodes of television. But Lyonne has natural charm that quickly makes it apparent why her put-upon friends and rejected paramours remain drawn to her. She’s very funny (at a bar, her simple demand of the bartender is “More drunk, please”) and fiercely loyal, so much so that she frequently hurts others to spare them the greater pain she knows she tends to inflict. So once she realizes the nature of her predicament, we’re invested in her because we like her, not just because we’re eager to solve the puzzle. It helps that her redemption arc doesn’t shave off her sharp edges. (In addition to creating the show, Lyonne scripts and directs the final episode, putting her firmly in charge of her own story.) Nadia is still Nadia—sarcastic, impulsive, damaged at her very core—but she’s finding out how to be a better version of herself.

With the series’ focal point in strong hands, the show can invest in its other strengths, like a deep bench of interesting characters, a rich and absorbing lower Manhattan milieu to occupy, and a series of twists that compound the time-loop and lift the show out of the shadow of that Punxsutawney rodent.

The full shape of the streaming revolution is not yet clear, as shows have to hit a narrow sweet spot of buzzy and gimmicky just to hold on to the public’s attention. In some cases, this has resulted in series that rely on familiar brands, adapt controversial source material, or drop famous names into offkilter plots. (To say nothing of wild entries from across the sea.) What is has certainly done is inject a whole lot of why-the-hell-not bravery into a TV landscape dominated by procedurals, game shows, and rich people being awful. Streaming TV is making the tube safe for the weird, or at least the different, and while “Russian Doll” may not be the strangest thing you can find on Netflix, it goes a long way toward mainstreaming the fund of offbeat choices and audience challenges that have traditionally lived only on the fringes.

The series was co-created by Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler. A second season has been promised, which will be quite a trick. Season 1 is a shining little jewel box of a show. Having seen what I’ve seen, I’m confident in Lyonne’s abilities. But the risk is out there that the delicate balance of weird and palatable will be upended. But if they screw it up… well, I guess they can always start over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s funny, warm, and strange, growing deeper and more resonant across its eight episodes.”–Ned Lannaman, The Stranger (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ALPHAVILLE (1965)

DIRECTED BY: Jean-Luc Godard

FEATURING: Eddie Constantine, , Akim Tamiroff,

PLOT: Detective Lemmy Caution sneaks into a soulless, computer-controlled metropolis in search of a fellow agent, and eventually sets about destroying the entire enterprise.

Still from Alphaville (1965)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Alphaville is Godard’s angry screed against the inhumanity of the modern world. Appropriately, he adopts a low-tech approach to depict a future world governed by mathematics and free of human passion, and lets the awkward collision of noir and science fiction create a naturally unsettling, thought-provoking landscape.

COMMENTS: There’s a story of how Alphaville came to be that is not strictly necessary to understanding the film, but which does offer an intriguing insight into the mind of its fiercely independent director. FBI agent Lemmy Caution was the creation of a British novelist, and was portrayed in seven French-language films by expatriate actor Eddie Constantine. Audiences came to know Caution as an archetype of the grizzled tough guy who is as apt to use his fists as his wits to solve problems. Godard evidently decided that this character would be the perfect antidote to a universe where a computer has extinguished human emotion, so he created a plot that brought the detective into the future. But knowing the havoc his plan would wreak, Godard enlisted his assistant director to draft a false treatment based on one of the original books, which was presented to the moneymen who eventually bankrolled the picture. Cash in hand, Godard set about making a movie of his own design with the cheeky subtitle une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution), essentially obliterating the character and derailing Constantine’s career.

It’s a clever bit of legerdemain as well as a fascinating example of cultural appropriation. But I tell this story because it offers a useful insight into some of Godard’s  unusual choices in Alphaville. Soulless, dystopian futures were hardly without precedent, but as far as Godard is concerned, Paris in 1965 already is just such a dystopia. He carefully avoids the most familiar sights of the City of Lights, using newer buildings and designs to reflect the changing soul of the city. But even without futuristic flourishes or scenic adornment, Alphaville the city is unmistakably Paris, with modern architecture and new devices—Caution’s Instamatic camera and Ford Galaxie were startling new innovations for the time—standing in for the future-as-now. For this reason, Godard isn’t just stealing Lemmy Caution to be his bad boy. He needs the constant of Lemmy Caution to hold on to, because he’s out to show that the modern world has become completely detached from humanity; the detective is essential as a familiar icon of a blood-and-guts world to stand up to the soul-sucking new. And even if you aren’t familiar with the character specifically, Constantine’s recognizable hard-as-nails portrayal marks him as the thing that doesn’t belong in Alphaville. Like Mike Hammer showing up in Brave New World, Lemmy Caution is here to stand out, representing humanity in all its passion and even ugliness. He is discordant just by being.

Part of what makes everything so uncomfortable is how normal it all looks, with just one thing put off-kilter to turn the prism. Caution checks into a nice hotel room and is escorted by a helpful but disengaged employee who immediately takes off her dress in anticipation of being used for sex. Every room has a helpful dictionary, which is regularly replaced with a new volume to reflect the words that have been stricken from the vocabulary at the computer’s direction. Familiar cities still exist in the outside, but their names are slightly off. Leading citizens watch passively as rebels—in full-throated protest against the computerized dictatorship—are executed in a swimming pool, after which bathing beauties haul away the bodies. Perhaps the most distressing disconnect is heroine Natasha, a dark-eyed beauty whose status as the daughter of Alphaville’s creator is curiously irrelevant. When she makes a bold proclamation at the film’s conclusion—“Je t’aime”—it signals a connection with her humanity, but the words are chillingly unpracticed, as she tries them on like a pair of shoes that have yet to be broken in.

The most science fictional element is α60, the computer that runs Alphaville and saps the population of its humanity. Godard could never have envisioned the computer as the placid and murderous HAL 9000 or the charmingly imperious Ultron. Instead, α60 is malevolent, a mob boss with a voice that mangles speech as easily as its master plan mangles souls. The computer speaks bluntly of mankind’s doom, and only Caution seems capable of (or interested in) saying no.

Godard isn’t subtle. The scientist who runs the central computer is named von Braun, a blatant call-out to the German scientist who masterminded America’s moon rocket program. As if that weren’t sufficiently on-the-nose, we learn that von Braun previously went by the name Nosferatu. And when Caution destroys α60 with a few carefully chosen words from Jorge Luis Borges, the effect is so catastrophic that human beings are suddenly unable to walk. Faced with going big or going home, he lays it all on the table.

Because Godard has no time for subtlety. He sees the cataclysm happening in real time. He is demanding that the world rise up against those who would place formulas above poems. Humanity is dying, he says, and Alphaville is his howl at the dying of the light.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It begins as a fast-moving prank that combines the amusing agitations of a character on the order of James Bond and the highly pictorial fascinations of a slick science-fiction mystery, and it makes for some brisk satiric mischief when it is zipping along in this vein. Then, half way through, it swings abruptly into a solemn allegorical account of this suddenly sobered fellow with a weird computer-controlled society, and the whole thing becomes a tedious tussle with intellectual banalities.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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

366 UNDERGROUND: SHE FOUND NOW (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Zachary O. Burch

FEATURING: Francesca Caterina Ghi, Nidalas Madden, Peyton Rowe, Tyair Blackman

PLOT: With a storm approaching, a group of housemates try to resolve their personal relationships, while a mysterious entity lurks in the shadows.

Still from "She Found Now" (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: She Found Now is a curious little film, featuring interesting screen images and loaded with portentous symbolism and mannered acting. But the dream state dramatized is not new enough to be surprising, and the weirder elements feel less motivated by the plot than positioned to obscure it.

COMMENTS: The pretty girl looks up from her pasta, searches for the right moment, and then makes her play to break the ice with her paramour: “So, I heard around that there’s supposed to be a hurricane coming by. Would you feel comfortable at my place?” Such is the nature of things in the universe of She Found Now—disaster lurks around the corner, but people show only the most casual awareness of it.

This scene, which kicks things off, is not like any other in the film, and yet it’s strangely representative of the movie as a whole. Most of the action, such as it is, takes place within a single apartment, but the characters are mentally elsewhere most of the time, either in a dream locale (like the restaurant, rendered in amusingly obvious green screen), a landscape of their own fears, or in the mind of someone outside. Our characters are trapped, but longing for an elsewhere they can only imagine.

The filmmakers clearly appreciate surreal humor. A scene in front of a static-filled television almost has a vibe to it, as more people keep arriving to gape at the screen. Similarly amusing is a game of Trivial Pursuit where the trivia is people’s lives: “How do you feel?” “Are you satisfied with yourself?” Director Burch and co-screenwriter K. L. Scott also have a knack for striking imagery: a monochromatic encounter with a mystery doppelganger is effectively creepy, while a shadow puppet that lingers and transforms is genuinely unsettling.

Given their limitations, the makers of She Found Now do a lot with a little. They clearly learned the trick of leaning into their challenges. For example, one can easily surmise that actors were not available to re-record dialogue. Instead, they cast new voices that are blatantly out-of-step with the visuals. It adds another layer of dissonance to a storyline that is built on mystery.

My biggest problem, though, concerns that mystery. All the surrealism, all the deliberate oddness and opaqueness… it doesn’t add up to very much. In the final act of the film, when all of our main characters are being stalked by a malevolent force, the antagonist is rendered as a guy with bear paws whose face is blocked out by a big dot. Should we know who this is? Is the absence of a face a metaphorical comment on our fears? Or is it just a lo-fi solution to an inability to properly represent the horror being invoked?

I was plagued by questions like this throughout She Found Now. Even the title flummoxed me. Is that a comment on the lead’s predicament, or her conclusion? Which now is “Now”? And should I draw any inference from the fact that the title is not only drawn from a song by cult shoegazer band My Bloody Valentine, but that the album in question marked that band’s emergence from a 14-year hiatus? She Found Now feels like a word problem that is impossible to solve because there just aren’t enough clues to piece the answer together, and yet the film is nothing without its mysteries.

There’s the hint of something powerful in She Found Now. I suspect the filmmakers were hoping to invoke something ian, a visual metaphor for potent psychological roadblocks. But the reference point I kept coming back to was “No Exit,” the legendary play by Jean-Paul Sartre in which three people trapped in a room for an eternity come to learn that “hell is other people.” These flatmates do not hate each other, but they are trapped in each others’ self-destructive orbits. But so much is invested in deliberately obscuring those real emotions in surreal decoration that the movie never gets to be what it really is.

CAPSULE: THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK-YAK (1984)

aka Gwendoline

DIRECTED BY: Just Jaeckin

FEATURING: Tawny Kitaen, Brent Huff, Zabou, Bernadette Lafont

PLOT: The precocious and beautiful daughter of a lost explorer follows his footsteps into the wilds of darkest Asia, stumbling upon a distaff cult that has harnessed the power of a volcano for their own nefarious ends.

Still from THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF YIK YAK (1984)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Gwendoline is going for a Barbarella-meets-Indiana Jones vibe, which means a lot of silliness and comic book-style strangeness. Ultimately, it’s all empty calories, neither compelling enough as a story nor strange enough as a concept to earn a spot here. Softcore eroticism is all it has to offer.

COMMENTS: This is undoubtedly a politically incorrect thing to say in this day and age, but for a teenage boy in the mid- to late-80s, premium cable was an absolute godsend. Before the internet gave us way too much access with more excitement and variety than the average copy of Playboy could offer, softcore cinema on TV was a treasure to any puberty-stricken manchild who had no concept of how to relate to the opposite sex but still longed with piquant desperation to see a bare breast. So many spring breaks and fraternity vacations and sorority car washes captured on celluloid seemingly for the exclusive enjoyment of these sad bubbling cauldrons of undirected testosterone… and if the movie had a nerdy theme or a B- to C- list star, so much the better.

The Perils of Gwendoline is an almost perfect exemplar of the form: a goofy adventure with shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark, starring the only real reason for its existence—a frequently naked Tawny Kitaen. Before her hood-sliding appearance in Whitesnake videos (and well before her unfortunate turn as domestic abuser and troubled soul), Kitaen was probably best known as Tom Hanks’ smokeshow bride in Bachelor Party. With fiery red hair and a girl-next-door smile, she had all the makings of a star. Gwendoline is one of her few starring roles, and watching it… well, it quickly becomes clear why her career didn’t exactly take off. Kitaen is beautiful, but pouty and whiny. Yes, we expect our heroine to be shallow at first, as she wanders innocently into the wild world in pursuit of the rare butterfly that became her father’s obsession. But Gwendoline goes well past naïve and arrives at annoying, so much so that you wonder why her faithful maid Beth doesn’t ditch her at the first opportunity.

Gwendoline meets her match in the mercenary Willard, played with equal parts stupidity and obnoxiousness by Brent Huff. This relationship is clearly meant to sparkle with witty repartee, and perhaps the dubbed version of this French film achieves that goal. Alas, in English, not so much. Together, it’s a contest between Kitaen and Huff to see who can be the more irritating. But since we’re treated to several not-remotely-subtle excuses for Gwendoline and Beth to strip or writhe in ecstasy, it’s a burden we just have to bear.

Fortunately, once our adventurers escape from a tribe of cannibals of dubious racial sensitivity, we get to where the movie really wants to go: the hidden city of Pikaho (no, seriously), populated exclusively by women who fight and race chariots in leather shoulder pads and thong bikinis. This ups the weird quotient significantly, with complex explanations for how this society prospers, strange medieval-futuristic design mashups, and the all-important minimum justification for women to take off their clothes. It’s as though the filmmakers took their jungle adventure-pastiche as far as they could go, and then just started indulging every other fetish they had.

A movie like this can be enjoyably dumb, even beyond its usefulness as fantasy fodder. But Gwendoline is more often just dumb. For exotic locales and copious nudity (both specialties of director Jaeckin, as seen in his magnum opus, Emmanuelle), the movie delivers in spades. But for coherent story and decent acting, you should not have come here in the first place. It mainly serves as a relic of a far off time, back when one could turn to HBO after midnight for a glimpse of the forbidden.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The Perils of Gwendoline is a movie I saw way back when I was probably too young to appreciate it, and time has only made it more wacky. Half a low-rent Indiana Jones rip-off, half a French tittie flick, The Perils of Gwendoline is bad to be sure, but it’s so bizarrely and charmingly bad that you simply have to see it to believe it really exists. Fans of bad acting, sets literally made of cardboard, and action sequences bordering on the surreally amateurish will have a ball with this one.” – Scott Weinberg, eFilmCritic

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

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CRASH (1996)

DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING: James Spader, Holly Hunter, , ,

PLOT: The survivor of a violent car crash immerses himself in a hidden world of auto accident fetishists and the dangerous and masochistic lengths they go to in search of sexual gratification.

Still from Crash (1996)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With three other entries, you can’t feel too bad about depriving David Cronenberg of another spot on our very full list. But Crash undeniably focuses on a very unusual kink, and treats its obsessive pursuers with respect and understanding.

COMMENTS: When Crash came out, the conversation inevitably focused on its central fetish. Given his filmography—a  CV. deeply fascinated with the horrors of the body—a tale of sexual adventurers who find carnal thrills in confronting the specter of mechanized death must have seemed like a natural match for David Cronenberg. But the literalization of the characters’ passions—both sexual and automotive—was almost destined to shock and offend, regardless of who was behind the camera. Talk of such an outré fetish sucked all the air out of the room, reducing Crash to a one-line précis: “that movie where people get off on car crashes.” (Eventually to be replaced by: “No, the earlier one; not the one that solved racism.”)

For anyone who went to the multiplex anticipating the sex-fueled romp that the controversy portended, it must have been a rude awakening indeed. Has there ever been a sadder movie about sex?  Crash‘s interests are not prurient, strictly speaking. The characters are deeply unsatisfied, sexually and in all other ways. It’s almost cliché by now to build a film around characters who “just want to feel something,” but Cronenberg earns it by investing in the emotional hollows of people who feel isolated and yearn for an experience that feels authentic and meaningful, no matter how transgressive or self-destructive.

Consider the vacant stares of the beautiful people that populate Crash, led by loveable freak-a-deek James Spader. His James Ballard (who, significantly, shares a name with the original novel’s author) has a gorgeous wife, a powerful job in the film industry, a modern-to-with-an-inch-of-its-life condo… and he is dead to the world. He and his wife trade tales of their infidelities in hope of getting a charge from the jealousy. It takes a fatal car wreck that leaves him seriously injured to jump-start his moribund psyche. He pursues it by hooking up with a fellow survivor of his crash, but finds even deeper connections through an obsessive photographer who masterminds a secret underground club of fellow auto-smashup aficionados who re-enact car crashes of the rich and famous. None of these other people seem any happier, desperate as they are to recapture a high that can only be achieved by risking life itself.

Even if you’re enough of a go-with-the-flow kind of person to buy into the whole symphorophilic angle, Cronenberg manages to find a way to heighten the stakes for you, most notably through one of Vaughan’s acolytes, a crash victim in braces (Arquette) with a large scar on her leg that goes from being a visual simile of a vagina to a literal substitute for one. Of course, if you’ve watched James Woods turn his chest cavity into a gun holster, this may not seem that shocking to you. But where other Cronenberg films explore the human body through the lens of hallucination or horror-fantasy, Crash sets those filters aside. Yep, they’re really going to do it like that. Yep, they’re really going to revel in it.

And that’s probably what turned off so many people about Crash. There’s no shield, no veneer of artificiality to protect you from these people and things they will do to make a connection. They’re too weird to be normal, but not weird enough to easily dismiss, and certainly not the kind of “weirdness” the mainstream can usually handle, like being into super sexytime. As Cronenberg himself says, “I love to disappoint people.” Judging from the agony Spader and Unger radiate as their ultimate act of intercourse falls a mite short of true satisfaction, Cronenberg is a very happy man.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the result is so far from being involving or compelling, so intentionally disconnected from any kind of recognizable emotion, that by comparison David Lynch’s removed ‘Lost Highway’ plays like ‘Lassie Come Home.'” – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times [contemporaneous)

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

“IDIOT CONTROL NOW”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 – THE GAUNTLET

Following a triumphant return in 2017, MST3K is back for another go-round on streaming service Netflix, and this time, they’ve bowed to the expectations of an audience that is keen to binge-watch. Season 12 is a tight six episodes, and the show’s already thin plot has been tweaked to explain that Jonah, Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot––and you—are going to be subjected to this latest series of world-shattering bad movie experiments in a row, force-fed in one continuous orgy of cinematic incompetence.

Still from "Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet" (2018)

This doesn’t technically matter as concerns the real heart of the series: bad movies being riffed. But it is significant because the format has encouraged the producers to select movies that will speak to the greatest number of subscribers: they’re newer, they’re genre, and—unfortunately for us here in the land of weird movies—they’re pretty easy to digest. In the campaign to make the show a success, it feels like some of the inherent weirdness has been bleached out.

Mind you, they haven’t skimped on the awfulness. Our season kicks off with one of the most notorious bad movies of recent vintage: the blatant E.T. ripoff/unsubtle McDonald’s promotional cash-grab Mac and Me (1988). Unlike a lot of copycats, you can really feel the stress of trying to hit all of the original’s story beats while trying to heighten them for maximum payoff. Lonely fatherless child? Let’s put him in a wheelchair. Everyone loved E.T. dressed as a ghost? Wait till they see MAC in a bear costume leading a full-on dance number. Oh, and that other film moved truckloads of Reese’s Pieces? Think how much Coke we’re gonna sell. What makes Mac and Me weirdest are the gallons of flopsweat being generated by filmmakers who are desperate to surprise you into forgetting about the vastly superior predecessor. It’s a feature-length version of Daffy Duck’s ultimate trick.

If there is a more mercenary approach to filmmaking than the one exhibited by Mac and Me, it lives and thrives at The Asylum, and their ticket to the party is MST3K’s newest subject ever, Atlantic Rim (2013). A half-hearted riff on Pacific Rim with roughly a thousandth of that film’s special effects budget, the movie isn’t so much strange as it is sad. Like most Asylum mockbusters, it’s a con job designed to fool people who can’t quite remember all two words of the title of the movie they want to see, and as such isn’t really worthy of this show’s attention. The film goes through the motions while trying to show as little action as possible. Most of the fun to be had comes in the form of a gleefully cast-against-type Graham Greene, chewing scenery in a way he knows he’s unlikely to come by again.

Lords of the Deep (1989) is another movie hoping to piggyback on another film’s ambition (in this case, The Abyss), but hampered by what it can’t afford to show. There’s some entertaining sniping amongst the crew of an overworked underwater base, and star Priscilla Barnes’ interaction with strange ocean-dwelling creatures takes the form of trippy drug-like scenes that come as a surprise. Throw in a comically obvious villain, a body count that rises and falls, and a stilted distaff version of HAL 9000 and you get a movie that’s pleasantly odd, but not especially high on the WTF meter.

If Season 12 comes anywhere close to weirdness, it’s thanks to The Continue reading “IDIOT CONTROL NOW”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 – THE GAUNTLET

CAPSULE: YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1951)

DIRECTED BY: Lou Breslow

FEATURING: , Joyce Holden, Peggy Dow, Charles Drake

PLOT: A dog is murdered for his vast fortune, then reincarnated as a human in order to solve the crime and protect his former caretaker.

Still from You Never Can Tell (1951)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Proving that high concept is not a recent phenomenon, You Never Can Tell is amiable and lighthearted, barely dipping its toe into the stranger implications of its premise. It’s perfectly pleasant.

COMMENTS: Deciding whether a movie is weird is complicated by the inescapable truth that weirdness is in the eye of the beholder. After you’ve watched enough movies with really strange storytelling and quizzical imagery, it can be easy to forget the simple charms of the unanticipated left turn. It occurred to me while watching You Never Can Tell that, while I was hardened to the oddball premise of a dog in human form, contemporary audiences must have been rendered speechless by the introduction of an animal purgatory lorded over by a lion and populated by a veritable peaceable kingdom. For most readers here, this is a minor obstacle to overcome, but even today, there are certainly audiences for whom it is a bridge too far.

The story of King the German shepherd cum Rex Shepard, Private Detective is built on a quirky idea, but once you get past the supernatural premise, you’re left with a pretty square whodunit. In fact, the villain is identified for us early on, putting a lot of pressure on our interest in King’s voyages through the human world to carry the film. That means you have to really have to be committed to the quest of Dick Powell to bring his own killer to justice, and between his laid-back performance and the script’s cavalier attitude toward its own plotting, he really doesn’t pull it off. In fact, You Never Can Tell is an interesting blip in Powell’s remarkably diverse filmography, running the gamut from the song-and-dance man of 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 to a hard-bitten private eye in Murder, My Sweet and Cornered. (To say nothing of his eventual gig directing the notorious cancer vector The Conqueror). Powell’s turn as private eye pup plays his tougher image for laughs, but other than a propensity for growling and a fondness for kibble, there’s not much to the performance. It’s light, wisely underplayed, but pretty straight and narrow.

If Powell doesn’t make the most of his role, co-star Joyce Holden absolutely does and then some. As Golden Harvest, a racehorse accompanying King as the detective’s confidential secretary, she gets to have all the fun he can’t. With her on-the-nose attire, inch-thick Kentucky accent, and propensity for horse metaphor and picking winners at the track, she is exactly the freewheeling comic relief the movie wants her to be. In fact, her antics hint at a completely different movie than the one that is developing as Rex tracks down his murderer. In that storyline, his pining for his old four-legged life (at one point, he literally steps over his own grave) is matched by the bittersweet longings of his former caretaker, Ellen. The mix of wacky hijinks and earnest grief is at least as weird as any of the rules of the animal kingdom’s afterlife.

Much of the stranger aspects of the premise are left unexplored, or even deliberately sidestepped, such as the deus ex animalis that justifies the climactic romantic pairing. Is it interspecies love if they’re the same species now? But what if the romantic interest started before that? Is this the story of the love of a beast for its keeper? How many of the humans we encounter on the street are merely animals returned to Earth in an inferior form? What are the implications of procreation in this universe, what is human anyway, and what will the sex be like? You Never Can Tell definitely has more potential for weirdness than it exploits, and possibly more than it knows.

You Never Can Tell is the kind of movie you could easily see being remade every dozen years or so, just to give new comedic talents a chance to unleash their inner hounds. It’s incredibly easy to picture this as a vehicle in the late 1990s. (Likely 2019 casting: Kevin Hart as Rex, Kate McKinnon as Goldie.) So it’s notable that the only (unacknowledged) remake of the film thus far, Oh, Heavenly Dog, flipped the script by reincarnating a human (Chevy Chase) as a dog (Benji). Maybe you need an actual animal to get more into character.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This weird premise makes for a funny, inventive comedy. The dog and horse may be human in form, but they’re still animals. Some hilarious scenes play off this, and I won’t give any away. It’s a one-joke movie, sure, but it’s a funny joke, and one that can last the full running time without wearing thin.” – Samuel Stoddard, At-A-Glance Film Reviews

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