Category Archives: List Candidates

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021: STRAWBERRY MANSION (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: , Albert Birney

FEATURING: Kentucker Audley, Penny Fuller, Grace Glowicki, Reed Birney, Linas Phillips

PLOT: In the future, dreams are taxed, and when a dream auditor goes to check in on an elderly woman who’s off the grid, he finds himself drawn to dreams that are more free than his own.

Still from Strawberry Mansion (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: With themes reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a handmade aesthetic straight from The Science of Sleep, Strawberry Mansion is the 2020s American indie version of a turn-of-the-millennium Michel Gondry movie. It may be a tribute, but it’s a worthy trip of its own.

COMMENTS: Dream movies are tricky, and making a dream movie on a low budget is even trickier. Strawberry Mansion addresses these limitations up front. The introductory dream is minimalist: an everyday kitchen, but painted entirely pink, into which comes a friendly visitor bearing a bucket of fried chicken. Throughout the movie, dreams will be conveyed using these types of simple props and sets thrown together in incongruous ways: actors dressed as Halloween-costume frogs (playing saxophones) or mice (in sailor suits); walking shrubs; demons with turquoise light-bulb eyes. Add in the occasional stop-motion animated skeleton or caterpillar to go along with some simple green screen, and you’ve proven that you can convey an otherwordly feel without millions of dollars of CGI.

The second scene addresses the non-budgetary conundrum dream movies face: the cliché of slippage between the waking world and the dream world, and the idea that the audience must be on guard to discriminate between the two. Our hero (a bureaucrat with the Brazil-ish name “Preble”) awakes to find himself craving chicken, and goes to Cap’n Kelly’s drive-thru, where the A.I. clerk tries to sell him a brand new “Chicken Shake.” Chowing down in the parking lot, he has a brief flash-forward hallucination—and that’s it, as far as the old “blurring the lines between dream and reality” bit goes. There is no “real’ world in Strawberry Mansion to confuse with the dream world. The premise of this near-future vision isn’t dystopian science fiction, but light absurdist satire. The very idea of taxes on dreams—dream of a buffalo, and you’re assessed a twenty-five cent bill; dandelions are three cents apiece—is something that would only occur to you in a dream. There’s no narrative confusion about whether we’re in the characters’ dreams or the movie’s reality, and there’s also never any sense that we’re meant to take this cinematic world as more than a dream itself. This dream-inside-a-dream structure frees us up to experience the movie on its own terms, instead of falling into the psychological thriller trap of trying to distinguish what is a dream from what is “really happening.”

As Preble, Audley is rather bland as a slouchy, glum bureaucrat, but that’s by design; his character contrasts with the grandiose poetry of dreams, which go beyond workaday realities. Penny Fuller‘s eccentric Arabella—when he asks her what she does during the intake interview, she describes herself as an “atmosphere creator,” so he jots down “artist” on his form’s “occupation” line—is the sweet but slightly ridiculous woman who will seduce him into a more fulfilling mode of being human. Strawberry Mansion is a manifesto for resisting the numbing effects of modern technology—represented explicitly by advertising—in favor of the playful freedom of imagination. This message is wrapped in a sugary confection about a man and a woman who have a deep but chaste romance based on shared dreams rather than the passions of the physical world. It’s funny, gentle, and filled with funny, gentle dreams to tickle your imagination. It may be the best dream you’ll have this year, and it’s well worth the bill.

Kentucker Audley is best known as an actor in indie circles, but he also founded the website NoBudge, which curates low-budget (and often weird) short films from up-and-coming directors. Audley and co-writer/co-director Albert Birney previously collaborated on the absurdist comedy Silvio (2017), about a gorilla news anchor going through an existential crisis. Strawberry Mansion is inexplicably named after a Philadelphia neighborhood. It debuted at Sundance and already has a distributor (Music Box), so expect to see it available to the general public later this year, by early 2022 by the very latest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Many will surely find the metaphysical derring-do and aggressive weirdness of Strawberry Mansion too much of an ask, but for those prepared to dive down its nutso rabbit-hole, it offers a divertingly free-wheeling vision.”–Shaun Munro, Flickering Myth (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander

PLOT: King Arthur’s nephew Gawain accepts a challenge from the mysterious Green Knight to deliver a blow that will be returned to him in exactly one year.

Still from The Green Knight

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Green Knight reconnects us with the deep weirdness of ancient legends, where even Arthur’s shiny new Christian order cannot banish the strange chthonic magics growing from the world below.

COMMENTS: We find him hungover in a brothel on Christmas morning. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, is dissolute, only seated at the Round Table thanks to nepotism. He tells his uncle that he has no stories to tell, but when the half-tree, half-man Green Knight strides into Camelot (summoned, it seems, by witchcraft), he himself will become the tale. Since none of Arthur’s other knights will accept the oaken interloper’s proposed “game” to trade blows—delivered a year apart—with his axe, Gawain, suddenly ambitious to make a name for himself, steps forward and unwisely cleaves the Knight’s head from his trunk. This fails to deter the tree-man, who merely picks up the severed appendage and reminds Gawain of his date one year hence.

Thus begins Gawain’s quest to become a man. The knight’s code of honor Gawain aspires to demands that he keep his word and, although his resolve trembles a bit, he never seriously doubts that he will face his fate. Lowery fills out the sketchy 14th-century poem with some new incidents (which feel authentically Arthurian, like a version of the story of St. Winifred), but his main twist on the ancient legend is to make Gawain human, relatable, a man with feet of clay who nonetheless perseveres in his duty—or one who is pulled forward inexorably by his fate. As with most of The Green Knight, it’s unclear whether Gawain’s willingness to sacrifice himself is noble, or merely predestined. Contradictions abound: the pagan and the Christian exist side by side, an ancient story is told through a modern lens, and green, as Alicia Vikander reminds us in a long poetic speech, is simultaneously the color of life and of death.

There are strange things in the world which defy all logic, and Gawain experiences many of them on his journey. Heads persist separately from their bodies, women pass out magical totems and sashes, corpses hang at crossroads, giants plod along in an inexplicable parade, and a fox joins his quest (and dispenses advice). In every hut and castle along the way, Gawain encounters strange residents who may actually be ghosts, fairies, or magicians. Dreaminess overtakes our hero as he advances towards the Green Chapel, but in the end, only the clear inevitability of the axe-blow awaits. The formalist minimalism of Lowery’s A Ghost Story yields to a fiery maximalism of fantasy, but the dire existential edge remains.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A mystical and enthralling medieval coming-of-age story in which King Arthur’s overeager adult nephew learns that the world is weirder and more complicated than he ever thought possible, ‘The Green Knight’ is an intimate epic told with the self-conviction that its hero struggles to find at every turn. Stoned out of its mind and shot with a genre-tweaking mastery that should make John Boorman proud, it’s also the rare movie that knows exactly what it is, which is an even rarer movie that’s perfectly comfortable not knowing exactly what it is.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ROAR (1981)

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“The most dangerous film ever made.”–Roar promotional materials

“Never work with children or animals.”–

DIRECTED BY: Noel Marshall

FEATURING: Noel Marshall, , , Kyalo Mativo

PLOT: A family runs a wildlife conservation habitat for lions, tigers, leopards, and various exotic wildlife, struggling to coexist peacefully with the animals while maintaining a funding grant.

Still from Roar (1981)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Roar is a movie that breaks all the rules, including our standards here. The movie itself, on paper, isn’t weird at all. What’s bizarre is the extraordinary circumstances of its making. With a cast of dozens of untrained and barely-half-tamed big cats, unscripted scenes with actors actually getting attacked and bleeding real blood, and the shocking commitment of the crew beyond all limits of sanity, Roar earns its place next to vérité oddities like Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Nobody will be crazy enough to make another movie like this again, so there will always be exactly one Roar.

COMMENTS: Roar is the story of a wildlife refuge for exotic animals, particularly those from the African plains, tended by a family with a heavy “live in harmony with nature” message. If that was all we told you, you might expect this to be a specimen from the mid-1970s slew of mediocre G-rated theater spam of the same ilk, family pictures like The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams or The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (from Sunn Classic Pictures and Pacific International Enterprises, respectively). And that is probably the original intent behind Roar (1981), but then things went… wrong.

As the opening titles proudly remind us, no animals were harmed in the making of this movie. But seventy members of the cast and crew were. This only counts the injuries requiring hospital treatment; Hedren later admitted in interviews that the injury total was closer to a hundred or more. Highlights include cinematographer Jan de Bont (lion attack, 220 stitches to the scalp), Tippi Hedren (elephant attack, fractured leg and head injuries), Noel Marshall ( multiple feline attacks, numerous injuries, hospitalized with blood poisoning and gangrene), and John Marshall (lion attack, 56 stitches). Injuries or not, most of the takes with an attack in them ended up in the final film cut. Understandably, staff turnover was brisk, including one incident where twenty members of the production crew walked off the set all at once. Melanie Griffith also left at one point, telling her mother Hedren “I don’t want to come out of this with half a face.” She had a change of heart and returned to complete her role, whereupon she promptly almost lost half her face (lion attack, 100+ stitches and facial reconstructive surgery).

On paper, the story is a big yawn. Patriarch Hank (Noel Marshall) Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ROAR (1981)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PARANOIA AGENT (2004)

Môsô dairinin 

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mamiko Noto, Shouzou Iizuka, Toshihiko Seki, Haruko Momoi (Japanese); Michelle Ruff, Michael McConnohie, Liam O’ Brien, Carrie Savage (English dub)

PLOT: Toy designer Tsukiko Sagi, under tremendous pressure after creating an enormously successful character “Maromi,” is attacked by a bat-wielding boy on skates—dubbed “Li’l Slugger” (or “Shonen Bat”)—or so she claims. The two detectives assigned to the case have their doubts, but more attacks occur, and the victims appear to be connected, and all under some type of mental distress.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: “Paranoia Agent” balances horror and humor adroitly, especially when seen from a perspective 20 years later. Aside from some minor points, the series doesn’t feel dated; it could have been generated within the past seven years. The credit sequence establishes the tone, with the main characters laughing hysterically despite their incongruous settings (underwater, in traffic, and before an atomic explosion, to name a few), while the upbeat theme song just adds to the unsettling nature.

“Paranoia has a stronger image than fantasy. Yes. Delusional, maybe. Right. The word gives an impression that a person is, in a sense… actively making himself delusional. That kind of strength is inherent in the word. Well, in order to go through life… everyone needs to have something apart from reality… such as fantasy, dream, or maybe paranoia. Otherwise, life can be surprisingly hard. Yes. The world as a person perceives… it is a world filtered through his fantasy or paranoia, I think. In that sense, I don’t think that fantasy and paranoia are necessarily unhealthy.”–Satoshi Kon

COMMENTS: For admirers of Satoshi Kon’s work, “Paranoia Agent” can be viewed as a grab bag or sampler of sorts. There are echoes from Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003), and you can see hints of Paprika (2006). “Paranoia Agent” grew out of concepts that did not develop into larger projects, and a proving ground for things that did show up later.

At the time of its creation and release, this miniseries could be read as social commentary on aspects of Japanese society in the early 2000s. Cellphones, the Internet and the beginnings of social media are present, providing plenty of distractions for people. The show is an effective commentary on fantasy vs. reality; as Modern Life becomes more unbearable, more and more people seek escape via fantasy. But “Paranoia Agent” underlines the necessity to live in reality, as escapist coping mechanisms are shown to be ultimately destructive. Some cultural aspects the show touches on, such as Denpa-kei Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PARANOIA AGENT (2004)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: WINTERBEAST (1992)

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DIRECTED BY: Christopher Thies

FEATURING: Tim R. Morgan, Mike Magri, Bob Harlow, Charles Majka

PLOT: On top of a mountain near the remote Wild Goose Lodge, ancient Indian stop-motion demons are stirring.

Still from Winterbeast (1991)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: There are numerous bizarre touches scattered throughout Winterbeast, but there is one scene that earns this scrappy little amateur film an outside shot at our list: an unexpectedly ian masquerade at about the two-thirds mark of the movie, scored to a scratchy phonograph recording of the children’s song “What Can the Matter Be?”

COMMENTS: Begun in 1986 and released (to VHS) in 1992, Winterbeast is a few minutes of fairly competent stop-motion animation padded with about 75 minutes of totally incompetent live-action story. The action features mostly cardboard characters, with the exception of a hard-drinking, girlie-magazine loving NYC reprobate park ranger, and a plaid-jacketed businessman who sounds like Larry “Bud” Melman and does for New England wilderness lodges what Jaws‘ mayor did for public beaches. It’s nowhere near a good movie, but it has a small cult following for a reason: it’s peppered with weirdness.

Some of the weird bits are just the sloppy mistakes you usually find in bare budget films. There is, for example, a moment when a man breaks out a glass pane in a door window, presumably so he can reach inside and undo the lock. But when he strikes it, the door immediately swings open, because it wasn’t locked at all. So why didn’t he just use the door handle in the first place? (Maybe because the door in question doesn’t even have a handle.) With segments filmed over a period of years, there are constant editing boo-boos: shots from the same scene are often poorly matched, using different film stock and sound equipment (and sometimes costuming). Lead Tim R. Morgan’s mustache appears to change length and even color randomly throughout the movie.

These mistakes are likely the result of little care being put into anything except the monster sequences. But other flakes of weirdness are almost inexplicable: when Charlie opens his case of Indian artifacts, there’s one item that’s very out of place (I won’t spoil the surprise, you’ll know it when you see it). There are just plain goofy moments, such as when a character unconsciously copies a pose of a cigar-store Indian statue. (It’s worth shoehorning in here that Winterbeast‘s understanding of Native American ethnography appears to be based on research done at 1980s off-reservation souvenir shops.) And then there’s the previously-referenced musical number, complete with a plastic Halloween pumpkin prop, which is a genuine mini-masterpiece of microbudget surrealism.

Oh, and did we mention the rampaging stop-motion monsters? There’s a tentacled dream demon, an animated tree, a bug-eyed Bigfoot, a dinosaur, a giant chicken, and more. For the most part, they look pretty good—except when the giant models are shown picking up their quickly-made hunk-of-clay human victims, and either decapitating them or—in the case of one hapless, topless victim—smashing them against the side of a building. The creatures are only seen briefly, but the filmmakers obviously believed they could carry the picture, and they just needed to build enough movie around them to showcase these effects.

Remember how much fun 1970s homemade Harryhausen tribute Equinox was? Now imagine if it was done by a crew with half the talent at animation, and a tenth of the talent at every other aspect of filmmaking. Still fun, but in a different way. Realizing that he had created the perfect film, Christopher Thies never wrote or directed another movie after this.

Winterbeast is available as part of Vinegar Syndrome’s “Home Grown Horrors” box set (for the time being, exclusively available here), where it joins fellow apocrypha candidate Beyond Dream’s Door (1989) and the slasher Fatal Exam (1988) in a triple-feature of some of the best cheapo horror movies of the video store boom. It’s loaded with every possible extra feature you could imagine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie may be uneven in terms of the quality of its cinematography but it is so consistently bizarre and filled with enough seriously WTF moments that you can’t help but love it.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (“Homegrown Horrors” box set)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR (1989)

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DIRECTED BY: Jay Woelfel

FEATURING: Nick Baldasare, Rick Kesler, Susan Pinsky

PLOT: A young man finds himself trapped in a nightmare, and when he describes it to others, they are dragged into the dream, too.

Still from Beyond Dream's Door (1989)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It’s a long shot, but if you catch this modestly-budgeted but ambitiously-scripted little surreal collegiate horror in the right mood—in a darkened room around midnight, with a joint burning absent-mindedly in the ashtray, maybe even playing on an old VCR with minor tracking issues—you might just find that it gets enough of its hooks in you to drag you into its dream world.

COMMENTS: Why does Julie dream about a red balloon? What is the relationship between the armless janitor, the serial killer, and the red rubber monster? And why trap unassuming student Ben Dobbs in a never-ending nightmare in the first place? Those are just a small sample of the questions Beyond Dream’s Door won’t be answering.

It begins with an obvious dream sequence: laughing voices on a telephone, a topless girl, blue zombie hands waving in the air like the crowd at Coachella had been dosed with Thorazine. And here comes a spoiler, that isn’t really that much of a spoiler—when Ben seems to wake up from that dream, having apparently dozed off while studying calculus, it turns out that he’s actually inside another dream. The reason that this isn’t much of a spoiler is that this turns out to be the structure of the entire movie: it’s basically one long montage of dream sequences, with perhaps a quarter of the action occurring in the waking world.

Made in the late 80s by recent graduates of the now-defunct Ohio State University film department, Beyond Death’s Door is an authentic student film. A lot of the crew worked for class credit instead of cash money. That fact is reflected in the uninspiring acting—much of it from theater majors rather than seasoned film actors—and the sometimes woeful props. Dream’s Door overcomes those deficiencies with well-paced action that efficiently carries the viewer from one inventive dream to another. The slight plot has Ben, and the professor and teaching assistants who are dragged into his nightmare after unwisely agreeing to read his dream transcripts, trying to defeat a monstrous force, whose ultimate identity and motivation is left up to the audience’s imagination. Experimental film techniques—slo-mo shots of bursting light bulbs with sizzling filaments, faces in funhouse mirrors twisted into Lovecraftian monsters—effectively deliver bizarre shocks while coming in under budget. Recurring dream characters include Ben’s non-existent brother and a topless temptress (added at the distributor’s insistence to inject some cheesecake), along with the monster and the various alter-egos of whatever entity is orchestrating this nightmare. Even some cheesy faux-Poe doggerel, read solemnly over a dream montage, only adds to the odd flavor. While psychological horror fans won’t mistake Beyond Dream’s Door for a masterpiece, it’s a charming underdog of a chiller that well rewards viewers willing to risk becoming trapped inside its 1980s VHS reality.

Beyond Dream’s Door is available as part of Vinegar Syndrome’s “Home Grown Horrors” box set (available here), where it joins the stop-motion monster flick Winterbeast (1992) and the slasher Fatal Exam (1988) in a triple-feature of some of the better cheapo horror movies of the video store boom. The special edition DVD was loaded with extras (including two commentary tracks and the original short film from which Dream’s Door was adapted); Vinegar Syndrome ports all of those over, adding several more featurettes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Wolefel’s] fascinating first feature film, Beyond Dream’s Door, avoids clichés and formulas to bring the stunningly surreal world of nightmares into painful perspective. As a result, instead of the same old craven crap, we are privileged to see one of the late ’80s best independent fright films.”–Bill Gibron, DVD Talk (2006 DVD)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: COUNTRY OF HOTELS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Julio Maria Martino

FEATURING: Adam Leese, Siobhan Hewlett, Matthew Leitch, Michael Lawrence, Charles Pike, Ben Shafik, Sabrina Faroldi, Mia Soteriou

PLOT: Strange fates await the tenants of room 508 of an unnamed hotel in Palatine, Illinois.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: This film’s unsettling aura lingers in the mind like stale cigarette smoke in a shabby hotel room. Three vignettes are showcased in the fifth-floor room of one of those Lynchian establishments found on the outskirts of Somewhere, USA. The staff are friendly enough, but beware the ever-morphing wall art.

COMMENTS: Duplicity, madness, and haziness linger beyond the portal in Country of Hotels. From within, above, and through its peephole, room 508 allows a glance into some very private, and pleasantly disconcerting, vignettes. The hotel’s staff provide not only room cleaning and story-framing services, they punctuate each morality tale with what I can best describe as fairy tale justice.

Each scenario shows the surface of what’s going on, but never what’s really going on. In the first, it’s obvious that Roger and Brenda shouldn’t be screwing each other: Roger’s married, and Brenda is his wife’s best friend. But who’s messing with the room electronics? How did Roger’s blabbermouth coworker also end up in this nowhere hotel that same day? And why can Roger watch himself making love? Subsequently, we see why Pauly’s on the verge of collapse: he’s always sent on stupid assignments because he’s smart, and he burns through calories at a medically alarming rate. But for what audience is he recording his addled videos? What voice is tormenting him nightly via the air-conditioning duct? And why is he so itchy? And finally, Derek is drunk as hell after a rock show, awaiting Brenda; Vic the photographer, replete with bolo tie and comb-over, and greased in lies and grievance, comes asking after her. But how long has Derek been here? What’s Vic’s actual relationship with Brenda? And how did that stuffed animal panda travel from the hotel room into the TV broadcast?

Of the many questions that pop up, the most mysterious—and most satisfying—is, what is up with that painting? It hangs on the wall, innocuous. Another “warehouse print,” as Pauly bitches to his laptop camera. It changes subtly after each visitor’s departure, moving the gravedigging figure that looks remarkably similar to Sammy, the hotel handyman. He’s an immigrant with an unspecified accent, and is perhaps related to the unflappable hostess who commands the lobby; the Stetson-topped patriarch who never rises from his wheelchair; and the flinchingly obsequious chamber maid. Their relationship with room 508 is one of understanding if not comprehension; they have a notion of its doings, but appear to be little more than passive facilitators of its nebulous whims.

Country of Hotels nails the look as well as the stories, a look ripped from over half a century ago—further back, if you include the room’s pastoral artwork. Disorienting geometry glazes 508’s walls with headache-inducing tessellation. When the bulbs aren’t flickering, the lights are always too bright. And the muted palette pairs nicely with the languidly loping score, transmuting a potentially sing-song tedium into an icky sub-natural space like you might find in a latter-day Hotel Earle. This is an uncomfortable movie peopled by sorry examples of humanity and supported by a stolid band of genial foreigners. The staff provide the film’s comic relief, pathos, and its most important moral: we are all just guests here, and it would do us well to bear that in mind.

Country of Hotels is currently on the festival circuit and will be showing up next at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival (May 7-15, exact date of screening not known at time of publication). We’ll keep you advised of future availability. Also see our interview with director Julio Maria Martino and writer David Hauptschein.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anyone who associates low-budget horror purely with cheap slasher films will be profoundly surprised by how ambitious and weird Country of Hotels is. It’s the work of people who are using their below-the-radar status to take serious chances. It also punches above its weight technically, thanks to Slocovich’s slick, moody cinematography and a fabulous score by Christos Fanaras, which ably carries the movie through its slower patches.”–Graham Williamson, Horrified (festival review)