All posts by Shane Wilson

CAPSULE: THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE ASYLUM OF CHARENTON UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE (1967)

Recommended

AKA Marat/Sade

DIRECTED BY: Peter Brook

FEATURING: , , Glenda Jackson, Michael Williams

PLOT: The director of the Charenton asylum permits the prisoners to put on a play about the murder of one of the architects of the French Revolution; the machinations of the play’s notorious author, combined with the unique insanities of the cast, consistently threaten to derail the production.

Still from Marat/Sade (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marat/Sade is easy to admire but difficult to love, purposely distancing itself from its audience with a presentational style, a remote historical setting, and characters who are all but impossible to empathize with. By putting the great debates over the efficacy and morality of revolutionary fervor into the mouths of the sick and deranged, the movie declares its allegiance to a stranger flag. But while it is confrontational and occasionally repellent, Marat/Sade is still a thoughtful, methodical, and ultimately a sober work.

COMMENTS: Every once in a while, a play shows up on Broadway that is so alive with the enthusiasm and commitment of its cast, so daring in its subject matter, so determined to break away from the complacency and redundancy of its contemporaries, that it becomes a smash on the scale of the more attention-getting musicals. Recent years have seen plays such as “Angels in America,” “August: Osage County,” and “Take Me Out” demand the spotlight; in 1966, it was “Marat/Sade” that was all the buzz in the theater world. After the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Peter Weiss’ original German-language play essentially launched the British fringe, it traveled across the Atlantic to dazzle America, becoming not only a hit but also shorthand for subversive, challenging theater.

So a movie version has a lot to live up to, and it’s a tribute to director Peter Brook’s vision that he manages to find the cinematic elements in the staging of a play. For Marat/Sade is working at multiple levels: a film of a play screening before an audience in which a play is being performed for an audience. It’s easy to lose track of which one you should be following. Consider the choices de Sade makes in casting his production. His Marat is portrayed by a paranoiac, Corday is a narcoleptic, Duperret a sex criminal. How much importance we should ascribe to these choices? Is this de Sade jesting with the historical figures? Is it Weiss assigning another layer of meaning to characters already laden with subtext? Is the whole thing a joke, designed to set up situations like Corday’s frequent mid-play naps? If theater is an author’s medium and film is a director’s medium, but one of the protagonists is a writer and director of the very work we’re watching, just who the hell is responsible?

Brook takes great pains to remind us that we are watching a play. The character of the Herald is constantly there to remind the actors of their lines. A chorus frequently chimes in with musical numbers that sound like lesser Newley/Bricusse tunes. And we get shots of the audience watching from the other side of the prison bars. But we get just as many hints that this is an impossible play. The script seems all too prepared to address the objections of the asylum director in dialogue. Our Marat seems not an actor at all, but the very man back from the dead, and de Sade engages him in debate as if he were the genuine article. And how the heck did this collection of crazies learn all these elaborate speeches, anyway? Whenever you think you’ve got your footing, Marat/Sade is there to give you a good shove.

Possibly the finest compliment you can give Marat/Sade is that you finish it thrilled and exhausted, but also unsure if you understood any of it. In trying to figure it out, I find it helpful to go back to that monstrously long (possibly even Guinness record-worthy) title, which is usually trimmed down to highlight the ostensible antagonists of the piece. In doing so, possibly the most important word to understanding the work as a whole is lost: “asylum.” In assessing the French Revolution, a particularly bloody uprising that overthrew a monarchy and then blundered through violence until another dictator arrived to grab control, it seems as though no one involved had the wisdom or foresight to anticipate the bloodshed that would result. By putting the subject in the hands of the insane, it specifically labels the enlightened masters of the uprising as insane themselves, and by placing the play under the auspices of a politician who represents the new dictatorship, it goes for broke and says everyone is crazy. Revolution is bloody, violent, destructive. To think otherwise, or to think that it won’t reach you, is dangerous folly, and Marat/Sade wants you to know that even if—especially if—you think you’re in control, then you’re next.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The typical dish or cable viewer, then, might utter ‘What the hell is this?’ and gaze upon the weirdness only momentarily, without even having put down the remote… Strange scenes can be felt but not always understood, and perhaps its impossible to do so.” – Brian Koller, Films Graded (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who called it “pretty strange, to say the least.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: MOON CHILD (1989)

El Niño de la Luna

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Enrique Saldaña, Maribel Martin, Lisa Gerrard,

PLOT: A young orphan is brought to a special institute where the proprietors are attempting to create the conditions for the birth of a spawn of the dark underworld.

Still from Moon Child (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Inspired by a novel by legendary occultist , Moon Child excels at mood, finding an intriguingly off-kilter vibe and riding it from beginning to end. But while the film offers situations and set pieces that may raise an eyebrow, the fantastical premises are addressed in a logical, rational fashion that keeps things too reasonable to be among the truly weird.

COMMENTS: A friend of mine once picked up a side job writing T-shirt slogans. At the height of the world’s obsession with Harry Potter, he made a tidy sum with the pithy observation, “Not all orphans are wizards.” Moon Child suggests an intriguing alternative: some orphans are the supernatural impetus for the birth of a world-destroying offspring of Satan.

This isn’t left up to interpretation. Young David (Saldaña) has been having strange and powerful dreams when a mysterious woman comes to test him. She represents an occult institution trying to engineer the perfect conditions and genetic bloodlines to trigger the birth of the spawn of the lord of the underworld. That goal dovetails nicely with the aims of the orphaned David, who has been trying to understand his place in the world. Perhaps the birth of a Moon Child is a win-win.

There’s an oddness and even a little humor in the cult’s methodical efforts to summon the devil. While supernatural powers are abundant at the resort-like outpost, the search for the right genetic donors is far less promising. The simple Georgina and the vision-challenged Edgar are finally selected. This culminates in the film’s unquestionable centerpiece, in which the couple consummates their expected Moon Child parentage on an altar beneath the bright rays of the moon. It’s part of Moon Child’s awkward charm that David is witness to this whole inappropriate display, but is interested exclusively in the implications for his own situation, oblivious to the very adult activities transpiring.

Much of the film hinges on the performance of two novice actors, who acquit themselves decently. Child actor Saldaña approaches everything with a wide-eyed, slack-jawed gape, but fortunately for him, the proceedings are sufficiently shocking to justify his one emotional register. For her part, Gerrard (half of the dream-pop duo Dead Can Dance, who also provide the atmospheric score) holds her own in a part that demands much of a first-time performer, including vomiting, a sandstorm, some slapstick during a lecture, and a very exposed sex scene. They do fine, and but are also aided by the film itself, with maintains an intriguing yet unsettling air that serves them well.

In fact, most of what Moon Child is, in the end, is atmosphere. As the setting moves to more exotic locales and as David gains more understanding and encounters new obstacles, the unifying force for the film remains a general feeling of unease. That pays off in a finale that is at once unexpected while fitting perfectly with the overall sense of dread. Not all orphans are wizards, it’s true. Some of them are so much more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Moon Child is about as strange as it probably sounds but it’s very well-made… The story, as odd as it may be, actually turns out to be reasonably straightforward, though the visuals dabble with surrealism at times, resulting in a wholly unique picture that at times feels like a less confrontational Jodorowsky film.” — Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (DVD)

CAPSULE: LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008)

Must See

Låt den rätte komma in

DIRECTED BY: Tomas Alfredson

FEATURING: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar

PLOT: A lonely, isolated boy finds a kindred spirit in a new neighbor, who turns out to be a vampire responsible for a series of strange deaths in the small suburban community.

Still from Let the Right One In (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Let the Right One In is a savvy addition to the vampire canon, placing much that is familiar in a bracingly new context. Unexpected as it may be, this reinvention isn’t so much weird as it is refreshing.

COMMENTS: When we celebrate the centennial of Nosferatu in a few years, it will be a great opportunity to reflect on how the vampire film has become a genre unto itself. In the course of its century, we have seen a multitude of variations on just what a vampire can be: sparkling teen crush, hoodlum slacker, inappropriately tan, habla hispana, African prince, space vixen, thin white duke, legitimately crazy, or even the star of the century-old classic Nosferatu itself, to name but a few. The enemies of vampires have similarly become diverse and varied: everything from cheerleaders to great emancipators to lords and saviors. The fact that I’ve left out so many in this extremely short listing indicates how pervasive the vampire has become and how vast the possibilities are for exploring its legend, and explains why filmmakers as idiosyncratic as Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, and Guy Maddin have filtered the vampire through their own distinctive worldviews. The vampire is more than a mere monster. It is a full-fledged entity unto itself, through which we can refract our understanding of society and history.

When that vampire retrospective does come around, there should be a sizeable chunk of time devoted to Let the Right One In, a thrilling synthesis of the familiar tropes of the vampire mythos into something wholly new and surprising. Everything you expect from a vampire movie is here, but delivered in a deceptively measured tone that gives new shadings to familiar clichés, while also lulling the audience into a quiet reverie that gives the film’s inevitable shocks even greater punch.

Screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapting his own novel) smartly centers the story on Oskar, the lonely boy who comes to fixate on the strange girl who has moved into his neighborhood. (I’ll be using female pronouns for Eli in acknowledgement of the talented young actress in the role, although the film suggests Eli’s gender should be very much in doubt.) Oskar has so many unfulfilled needs: an attentive family, an engaged educator, a protector from schoolyard abuse. But he is not cowed in the face of these obstacles. When threatened, he stiffens his spine and waits for the moment to pass. So when he meets Eli, confident enough to march around in the snow in short sleeves but unfamiliar with a Rubik’s Cube, it is hardly surprising that he bets his entire soul on her.

Oskar’s sweetness is essential, because Eli is essentially an amoral creature, a fact he seems to recognize but is grateful to overlook. Although she gives off a childlike innocence in Oskar’s presence, she is both a feral animal, as seen in her vicious and intense attacks on random townspeople, and a wily schemer, as demonstrated by her manipulation of Håkan, the simple man who appears to be her caretaker. We know something is up when we see the elaborate-yet-ramshackle method in which he kills and drains victims in order to feed his charge, and when we see his meekness in the face of conflict and the abuse she heaps upon him when he fails, we learn much about her true nature.

Given both its locale and its tone, it’s tempting to view Let the Right One In as the vampire movie Ingmar Bergman never made. But when Alfredson is ready to pour on the horror, he does so with gusto, invigorating the most common elements of vampire tales with new power. Vampires must be invited into a home? We see the disturbing consequences when they aren’t. You’ve heard that sunlight is bad for vampires? You may not be prepared for the suddenness and violence of the sun’s wrath. And the film’s final set piece at a swimming pool is a justifiable favorite, a masterful demonstration of the value of showing just enough action to let the mind fill in the rest.

Let the Right One In boasts one of the most disturbing happy endings you’re likely to come across. Oskar and Eli escape, and the affection he feels for her is evident even with her in hiding. They will look after each other, you can be sure. But then you recall who else took care of Eli, and what that relationship became. It’s fair to wonder how many years will pass before he, too, will be packing up his kit to go rustle up food for the sweet child who befriended him so long ago.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Some movies, while never quite attaining masterpiece status, nonetheless have a monumental WTF-factor. This is one such… thoroughly macabre, maintaining a downbeat, realist lugubrious air, like a cop procedural…very satisfyingly bizarre scenes.” Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: HARD CANDY (2005)

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DIRECTED BY: David Slade

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A teenage girl turns the tables on a sexual predator, subjecting him to torture in retribution for his misdeeds.

Still from Hard Candy (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: For regular consumers of torture-based horror, the turnabout of predator and prey in Hard Candy is an interesting surprise. But twist aside, what’s notable about the movie isn’t how strange it is, but how it uses the genre to address heavy questions about guilt, justice, and gender roles.

COMMENTS: In January of this year, confessed serial child molester Larry Nassar was forced to sit quietly while 156 women confronted him about his crimes and the pain they have endured ever since. And Larry Nassar did not like it. This man, whose systematic abuse was aided by America’s top gymnastics coaches, abetted by the country’s gymnastics federation, and protected by Michigan State University, submitted a letter to the judge protesting that having to endure the testimony of his many targets was detrimental to his mental health and asserting that he was a good person who was being unfairly victimized by hateful, hateful women. Suffice it to say, the letter was poorly received.

The reason I bring this up—aside from maybe wanting to add just one more link on Google that reminds the world that Larry Nassar is heinous slimeball—is because Hard Candy does a fantastic job of getting inside the deluded mind of the privileged sex criminal: rejecting the existence of a crime, then mitigating its seriousness, and finally claiming victimhood for himself. The film’s subject, photographer Jeff, uses all these techniques to deceive us into sympathizing with him, even as we watch him go through all the steps of sexual predation: grooming, leading passively, shifting guilt back onto his targets. And he’s good at it, so when the 14-year old girl he’s been expecting to seduce drugs him, ties him up, and proceeds to insult and threaten him, there’s still this lingering sense that he’s a decent guy who has just gotten himself into a real pickle.

The plot evokes memories of Audition, which is appropriate, as Brian Nelson’s screenplay was evidently inspired by news reports of gangs of girls in Japan who lured businessmen into traps online. But where the earlier film hides its intentions behind the tropes of romantic comedy, Hard Candy quickly adopts the conventions of horror, including bondage and body mutilation. The film’s innovation is to flip the script and turn the diminutive (Page is a full foot shorter than her co-star), incautious heroine into the diabolical, unstoppable engine of terror. The result is that she can be read as a violent lunatic, when it is vital to remember that the man she is tormenting is a very bad person.

Movies can be victims of changing times. In 2005, many reviewers called Page’s Hayley a psychopath and lamented the film’s second-half descent into cat-and-mouse thriller. But today, she comes across more as an avenging angel come to force the guilty to acknowledge their sins. It’s noteworthy that the scene that falls the flattest—Page has to sidestep Sandra Oh’s inquisitive neighbor—is the one that tries the hardest to impose the conventions of a thriller onto a battle over the nature of evil. Hard Candy turns out to have been ahead of its time.

Page is truly magnificent, by the way; this was her breakthrough performance, and she has never since had a role that equals it in power. But it’s worth noting that she has a good partner in Wilson, who hits all the right beats for a character who is innately gifted at evading, deflecting, and denying responsibility for his actions. His bland dismissals and patronizing defenses are essential in pushing her forward, validating her anger and justifying her ultimate plan.

The final woman to stand up to Larry Nassar in court was the woman whose testimony triggered his downfall. Rachael Denhollander— whose name also deserves to be remembered—demonstrated unbelievable magnanimity by promising to pray for Nassar, that he find true repentance and forgiveness. And that is probably the most moral and decent response that anyone could hope for under the circumstances. Hard Candy suggests an alternate response, and while it plays more toward wish fulfillment and is by no means appropriate in a civil society, in the face of an evil that is often unspeakable, the movie shows why it still has appeal.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Hard Candy is one sick movie. Sick and horrifying. Sick and mesmerizing. Sick and well-scripted, well-acted, well-directed and well-shot. Sick and comical; sick and suspenseful; sick and surprising; sick and sickening. Maybe if I take another shower, I’ll feel less scummy for enjoying it so much.” – Amy Biancolli, Houston Chronicle (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (1987)

DIRECTED BY: Joe Dante, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, John Landis, Robert K. Weiss

FEATURING: “Lots of Actors”, including Arsenio Hall, , , Steve Forrest, David Alan Grier, B. B. King, , Steve Guttenberg, , , , , Andrew Dice Clay,

PLOT: A collection of sketches parodying late-night TV content, anchored by a specific parody of goofy 1950s space operas.

Still from Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The sketch film has always been rare enough to merit a double take when one appears in cinemas, but this particular example of the form isn’t especially unusual, with nothing particularly outlandish or shocking, and the majority of sketches being of the one-joke variety.

COMMENTS: Although anthologies have been a recurring genre since early cinema, the heyday of the “sketch film” variant was the early 1970s: The Groove Tube, TunnelVision, and king-of-the-form Kentucky Fried Movie all parodied television’s challenge to attention spans. The form was also fairly economical, providing quick work to underemployed actors and aspiring comedy writers alike. None of these were box office bonanzas, though, so when Amazon Women on the Moon came along more than a decade later, it was fair to ask if it was a bold attempt to refresh the formula, or a last gasp for a format that had never truly lived.

Let’s go with B. First and foremost, Amazon Women is a comedy, but while it has quite a few solid jokes, it reveals time and again that it doesn’t have much else. Let’s consider one of the film’s best sequences, a vivid re-creation of 1930-era Universal horror movies starring Ed Begley, Jr. as the son of ’ Invisible Man. The black-and-white atmosphere is rich, and Begley even gets to repeat the famous bandage-removal scene. The catch: he’s not invisible at all. It’s a funny joke, as he obliviously cavorts about the room in the nude. The problem is, the sketch has another two minutes to go, and so we get more variations on the same joke, searching for an end.

This happens a lot. Scenes have a funny premise at their core, but then they have to keep going to justify their presence in a Hollywood motion picture: David Alan Grier sings in a super-white way—then he does it some more. A funeral turns into a Catskills roast—and we get the whole roast. Other sketches are shorter, but their jokes are smaller, too, and the scenes still feel stretched and padded. Amazon Women on the Moon has a tight five minutes; it gets an hour-and-a-half.

The film is not without its charms. The parodies have a clever eye for their sources, such as a 30s-era scare propaganda film that subtly re-dresses the same set over and over. Several performances capture the desired anarchic spirit, such as Griffin Dunne’s incompetent doctor and Carrie Fisher’s gullible ingénue. And every now and then, the film manages to tap into something sublimely silly; my personal favorite is an In Search Of/Unsolved Mysteries amalgam that manages to mashup the sordid deeds of Jack the Ripper with a more supernatural tale. But Moon’s a film that earns smiles more than laughs.

Ultimately, Amazon Women on the Moon is “Saturday Night Live” with slightly better production values: the jokes are hit and miss, and there’s a lot of work to get to the end of each sketch. It’s not the worst of its kind (that would be the execrable Movie 43), but it’s far from the finest. That honor probably belongs to Kentucky Fried Movie, and the filmmakers know it; references to fictional producer Samuel L. Bronkowitz mark Moon as Movie‘s spiritual sequel. But bad news, Sam: Amazon Women on the Moon is no Fistful of Yen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Amazon Women on the Moon is everything that Movie 43 wished it could have been, trenchant, hilarious, weird, and just plain fun.” — Sean Patrick, Geeks

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