Category Archives: Capsules

366 UNDERGROUND: 5000 SPACE ALIENS (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Scott Bateman

FEATURING: 5,000 individuals, new and old

PLOT: None.

COMMENTS: Before diving into a brief review, let me say that this is one of the coolest things I’ve seen this year.

Wow.

Now, removing my fanboy hat, let me don my critical reviewer cap. Expanding on his 600 Space Aliens short from 2016, Scott Batemen enters “feature length” territory with this barrage of rotoscoped, scrapbooked, distorted, pigmented, animated images of 5,000 individuals1. According to the brief introduction, all entities on display have been determined to be “space aliens” according to the “Space Alien Commission” (which receives a special thank-you in the closing credits). Bateman advises us to “[w]atch carefully. Memorize all 5000 space aliens. After viewing, please dispose of this film by eating it.”

The introduction’s playful tone is maintained throughout the eighty-three-and-a-half minute run-time. (For our “physical and mental safety, each alien is shown for only one second.”) Each clip is altered in one way or another, sometimes simply (blurry black-and-white), sometimes elaborately (intricate underlays behind a stylized rotoscoping of the “alien” in the foreground). Random textual blurbs are scattered throughout in the form of three-to-six word phrases cropping up somewhere on the screen (a couple of my favorites being, “give thanks to our fetishes” and “science brain parts”).  A pulsing, power-pop synth score composed by the filmmaker drives the whole shebang, making 5000 Space Aliens an absolute must for your post-COVID art-dance house party.

Of the dozens (hundreds?) of word blasts, the most pertinent may be “text book on embalming.” I feel it distills the nature of this smilingly cryptic project. The torrent of humanity and movement Bateman captured is hypnotic; it isn’t often that I happily sit through over an hour of random images. The effect was pleasantly disorienting, so much so that when an un-doctored image of a young woman appeared, I was seriously thrown for a loop. (Mind you, the solid blocks of vermilion red streaming up from her coffee mug were probably added in post-production).

And on the topic of post-production, I shudder to think how long that took Scott (mind if I call you “Scott”?) to compile this. Every single second is bursting with life from his augmentations, be it kinetic line-o-grams or the overtly -esque animations utilizing black-and-white photographs of older “space aliens.” The second thank-you in the credits went to his cowdfunding backers, and with my brain joyfully glazed over by his efforts, I wish I could have helped him out myself. When you next have five-thousand seconds to kill, I advise you take up the challenge of observing and memorizing this barrage of human space-alien cinematographical wonderment.

OFFICIAL SITE:

5,000 Space Aliens – Official website providing plenty of  information (screening times, contact links, “About the Filmmakers”, etc.) as well as a sample from the soundtrack

CAPSULE: HONEYDEW (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Devereux Milburn

FEATURING: Sawyer Spielberg, Malin Barr, Barbara Kingsley, Jamie Bardley

PLOT: A lost couple spend the night at a peculiar old woman’s farmhouse.

Still from Honeydew (2020)

COMMENTS: Honeydew is a roller coaster of horror—but I don’t mean that in an altogether complimentary sense. Rather, the problem is that the film is as uneven (and, sometimes, as twisted) as the Cyclone’s track. When Honeydew is on, it’s creepy as hell. But when it’s off, it’s a case of “yeah, I totally saw that coming.”

The pre-credits sequence is strong, beginning with a young girl’s faltering voice reciting some religious dogma, leading to an intercut sequence of a black-veiled widow at a funeral and a hunter investigating what appears to be an abandoned barn. This montage also highlights what will turn out to be Honeydew‘s only consistently great feature: the sound design and score. The creepy voiceover is accented by eerie hums, rural insect choirs, fluttering percussion, and musical notes that sound like bonesaws being scraped over piano wire.

This promising start yields to a setup of two city slickers traveling to the country to encounter all the familiar backwoods horror cliches: silently-staring yokels, a spooky old man advising them to move along, lack of cellphone service. You may forgive this connective section as a necessary step on the way to the real plot, and your assumption would be correct. Once the couple finds their way to batty old Barbara Kingsley farmhouse, things pick up considerably. We lose track of time entirely; the couple arrives in what must be the middle of the night, but their host insists on cooking them a huge dinner, and after they finish they always seem to be preparing for bed without ever actually getting to sleep. The night is endless, and scored to endless bumps; transitions between scenes can be disorientingly abrupt, and sometimes it seems like the film might be jumping back and forth in time. Significant creepiness is supplied by Kingsley’s son, with his bandaged head, a barely-responsive demeanor, and a penchant for public domain Popeye cartoons (which, in another bit of bravura sound design, becomes the nightmare soundtrack to an epileptic fit).

That section of the film is near-excellent. Unfortunately, once it becomes time to wrap things up, and the dreams fade away and the mystery dries up. What had seemed to have a supernatural, psychological edge resolves into, basically, a torture porn finale that goes exactly where you feared it would. A gross ending sequence goes on a bit too long, lessening its impact. I do think that a certain breed of horror fan will enjoy the transgressive grotesqueness of the third act, but it’s not really of a piece with the film’s dreamlike middle section; if you’re going into Honeydew hoping for something wall-to-wall weird, you’ll be disappointed.

To recap: a strong pre-credits sequence is followed by a pedestrian setup leading to a superbly creepy second act petering out in a disappointing finale. Debuting director Milburn does great when focused on building atmosphere, but bogs down when it’s time to advance the plot. Give him a script that’s more free-flowing and isn’t so insistent on ticking all the standard Texas Chainsaw boxes, and he could deliver a real feast.

Honeydew is currently in limited release and virtual theaters, coming to VOD on August 13.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Reviving the spirit of ‘70s North American rural horror while very much still feeling like a film tapped into out contemporary moment, Honeydew is one of the wildest, weirdest horror films of the year.”–Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Alliance of Women Film Journalists (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CASTLE OF THE CREEPING FLESH (1968)

Im Schloß der Blutigen Begierde, AKA In the Castle of Bloody Desires

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DIRECTED BY: Adrian Hoven

FEATURING: , , Janine Reynaud, Elvira Berndorff

PLOT: The Earl of Saxxon presides in his castle brooding over his deceased daughter; fortunately, he’s a doctor, and a bunch of drunk aristocrats are about to stumble into his clutches.

Still from Castle of the Creeping Flesh (1968)

COMMENTS: While contemplating the genre of German horror films, it occurred to me that I don’t often have the opportunity to see a German horror film. I checked and it seems others out there have noticed this too. German horror is a rare bird, says the author of the linked listicle, because Germany lived through so many real-life horrors in the 20th century that they lost their taste for theatrical scares. Wikipedia concurs, noting that German film ratings board clamps down on horror and drives it underground. I can support these claims.

But what does exist of mid-20th-century German horror—from what I’ve seen so far—seems to be tamer than the contemporaneous international horror standards. Film scholars will beat me over the head with their cassettes of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, berating me for my blindness to German culture’s tremendous contributions to horror. That’s not what I mean. I mean “tamer” as in “less scary.” There seems to be no German kaiju, xenomorphs, or hockey-masked slashers. You know that bit where Freddy Krueger rips into somebody’s guts and jumps rope with their intestines? You can’t find that in German horror.

The promotional posters  for Castle of the Creeping Flesh promise to break the mold of German horror restraint, looking as intense as any other Eurotrash gore-fest. Indeed, Jess Franco (peace be upon the name of the prophet) appears in the writing credits, while actors from his staple troupe appear in the cast.

It’s hard to reconcile this promising setup with the resulting movie, to put it gently. Castle opens with a jazzy mondo theme over a swanky party that evokes a wingding at a EuroPlayboy mansion, without a scare in sight. The carefree ladies doffing their duds in the powder room provide the flesh already, even if it isn’t creeping yet. At least this movie readily adopts the sleazy side of European exploitation cinema: gore taboo, boobies fine. As the upper class folk break up the party, only to travel via horseback to reconvene at another nearby mansion, the partying keeps up. The host, Baron Black (Michel Lemoine) regales the crowd with tales of the Earl of Saxxon, keeper of a nearby castle with an ISO-standard Gothic history. As one guest, Eleanor (Elvira Berndorff), impulsively rides off to go see for herself, and the rest of the party is obliged to search for her, we Continue reading CAPSULE: CASTLE OF THE CREEPING FLESH (1968)

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 4/2/2021

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Our weekly look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs and Blu-rays (and hot off the server VODs), and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available at the official site links.

FILM FESTIVALS –South Texas Underground Film Festival (STUFF) (Corpus Christi, Apr. 8-11):

We haven’t spotlighted this small underground festival previously, but it is noteworthy in 2021 for being one of the first film festivals to shun the online world and brave a completely in-person format. Here’s a few items for Corpus Christites (sp?) or those nearby to check out:

  • 5000 Space Aliens – As its title suggests, this art project features 5,000 space aliens (in 85 minutes). April 9, with shorts, including one about Richard Nixon confessing to driving the getaway car for JFK’s assassin while tripping on LSD.
  • Sister TempestRead our review. April 10, again with bonus shorts.

STUFF official site.

NEW ON HOME VIDEO:

The Day of the Beast (1995): A Catholic priest must become a top-notch sinner to foil the Antichrist, so he teams up with a black metal fan and an occultist to learn the ropes. ‘s black (metal) comedy may be his most popular work, but it has been unavailable in the U.S. until this recent restoration. Now it’s on Blu-ray (exclusively) from Severin Films, with all the expected extra features (well, no commentary track, but it does boast a feature-length “making of” doc and a rare de la Iglesia short). Buy The Day of the Beast.

Perdita Durango [AKA Dance with the Devil] (1997): A psychotic criminal couple kidnap teenagers, intending to sacrifice them to their dark god. Severin’s treasure trove continues with this deranged fantasia (which is actually a prequel to Wild at Heart), with ten minutes of perverted material restored for the first time in North America. On Blu-ray with multiple extra features, or much cheaper on a bare bones DVD. Buy Perdita Durango.

Persona (1966): Read the Canonically Weird entry! The Criterion Collection re-releases ‘s influential existential masterwork on Blu-ray only, allowing you to save a few bucks off the out-of-print DVD/Blu-ray combo set (or the big Bergman box). Buy Persona.

CANONICALLY WEIRD (AND OTHER) REPERTORY SCREENINGS:

Weird screenings remain sparse in this pandemic landscape, but this week a handful of Alamo Drafthouses and a drive-in hold down the fort. More venues will be reopening in April as things continue to improve.

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE: April 10th’s Weird Netflix Watch Party poll ended in a tie, and your host broke it in favor of… Five Elements Ninja (1982). You’ve got eight days notice, so no reason not to join us next Saturday! As always, the link to join will appear here, on Facebook, or on Twitter around 10 PM ET.

And voting continues in the 12th Annual Weirdcademy Awards. Since polls are open until the 25th, it’s too early to declare favorites, although a couple of clear leaders have emerged. You can vote once per day: for shorts here, and for features here.

In reviews, next week Pete Trbovich endures Castle of the Sleeping Creeping Flesh (1968), Gregory J Smalley takes on the new-release horror Honeydew, and Giles Edwards revisits Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (longtime readers will probably guess why we’re doubling up on that one). Onward and weirdward!

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that we have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

CAPSULE: TEACH A MAN TO FISH (1980)

DIRECTED BY: Felix Laurson

FEATURING: Felix Laurson, the music of Klaus Nomi, and a number of people documented as having been paid for contributing to the production

PLOT: Difficult to say; see below.

Teach a Man to Fish April 1 2021

COMMENTS: The movie industry is replete with legendary lost films, pictures–pulped to make space in warehouses or damaged beyond recovery by time–that aficionados agree, based on contemporaneous reviews and publicity stills, might today be regarded as classics. A very long list of such possible classics might include the little-known Teach a Man to Fish, a film that possibly no one other than its director (Felix Laurson, who also wrote the screenplay and did the editing) has actually seen.

What few details we have about the film come from three sources. The bulk of it comes from interviews Laurson gave to press outlets over the years, including a 1986 interview for Der Schaden from his residence in the Kugelmugel (a self-declared independent republic located in Prater Park, Vienna – see image); a 1993 interview with Texte zur Kunst while living in a villa in Gjirokaster; and a March 2014 interview he gave from his residence in Crimea for a German film podcast. Financial and legal documents also give us tantalizing hints of other details of the film’s contents. But we’ve never had the film itself; all ten copies of it were reportedly destroyed in a Berlin warehouse fire the night before they were distributed to theaters. Laurson did his best to embrace the tragedy, encouraging moviegoers to treat the entire film and its loss as performance art, asking his prospective audience and film reviewers to take part in the performance by imagining what the film must have been like, sharing how they reacted to it, and thereby contributing to the creative process.

What we know about the film suggests it was very likely weird. Laurson spent much of the late 70s as an avant-garde performance artist in the seedier end of Berlin’s countercultural scene, developing an ever-more grandiose scope for his absurd and anarchic view of the world, a scope that he eventually felt could only be expressed in the form of an art film. Teach a Man to Fish was an expansion of a performance he put on at several venues during 1978: he would goad the audience to demand he swallow live tropical fish as an expression of the cruelty to which everyday people can be driven by the lure of fame and eye of the public. In the interviews, he described a host of amateur actors hired from the Berlin art and punk scene, costumes involving brightly-colored electrical tape and Q-tips taped on actor’s faces in vortex patterns, and a warehouse festooned with fish skeletons as essential elements of his vision. He also mentioned his fascination with Klaus Nomi’s haunting rendition of “The Cold Song” as an inspiration.

Which is where the evidence from the legal documents comes in. Nomi recorded a soundtrack, expecting to be paid from the proceeds of the film and the right to all proceeds of the subsequent album. But with the film reduced to ashes before tickets were sold Continue reading CAPSULE: TEACH A MAN TO FISH (1980)

CAPSULE: COME TRUE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Anthony Scott Burns

FEATURING: Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron

PLOT: A teenage girl enters an experimental sleep study, then finds her life turned into a waking nightmare.

Come True (2020)

COMMENTS: 18-year old Sarah is sleeping around. No, she’s not promiscuous, although she will have a sex scene—a problematic one—later in the film. She’s sleeping around rather more literally: crashing on her friend Zoe’s bed when she can, pitching her sleeping bag on the playground slide when she can’t. In the mornings, she waits for her mother to leave for work and sneaks into the house for a shower, fresh clothes, and a cup of coffee. With this arrangement, it’s no wonder she eagerly volunteers for a sleep study at the local college: it means eight hours per night in a bed, even if she has to be strapped into a bodysuit left over from Tron and wear a goofy foam-rubber helmet with wires leading from it. And she gets paid! If she’s going to leave a deal this sweet behind, you know the nightmares will have to get bad. It’s no spoiler to say that they do, or that getting away from them will require more than just walking out on the study.

The film is anchored by a fine performance by waiflike Julia Sarah Stone, who perfectly embodies the resourceful girl struggling to make it in the big bad world. Though not a great film (see below), Come True is a great calling card for Stone. Direction is stylistically solid; the odd lighting schemes (why would scientists illuminate the room they use to monitor sleeping patients in purple neon?) can be forgiven as part of a scheme to create a dreamlike atmosphere. The clinical look and some of the odd faces and wardrobe choices (i.e. Dr. Meyer in his enormous glasses), slow pace, and synthy score all put me in mind of Beyond the Black Rainbow.  And, while the nightmare scenes themselves (which tend to be tracking shots down shadowy corridors, ending with visions of silhouetted figures) are a little low-key, Come True is legitimately visionary at times: Sarah wakes in an unfamiliar place with an eyepatch and a freakishly dilated pupil, finds another person hooked up to a dream monitor, and watches some low-res hypnagogic hallucinations (including a brief shot of herself with fangs) while a spookily comforting ian ballad plays in the background.

With all that going for it, it’s sad to say that Come True totally drops the ball with a truly disappointing, left-field twist ending. While, in retrospect, you can put two and two together, there aren’t any meaningful hints about this last-second revelation dropped throughout the body of the picture. The reveal turns 90% of the movie into a red herring—so that, to the extent that you get involved in the putative plot, your time has been wasted. It’s rare that a movie’s final shot can undo all the good it’s done up until that point, but Come True manages that trick, turning a film that was headed for a mild recommendation into a recommended pass.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Burns’ script is just as concerned with the weirdness of Sarah’s waking life as it is the literal monsters that populate her dreams, and the filmmaker’s ability to balance and juxtapose those two portions of the film only strengthen each section.”–Kate Erbland, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HAM ON RYE (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tyler Taormina

FEATURING: Haley Bodell, Cole Devine

PLOT: A large group of teenagers gather together at a restaurant for an assembly to determine their future.

Still from Ham on Rye (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Ham on Rye is essentially a “coming of age” drama, but the fact that it never reveals what exactly is going on makes this uncomfortable viewing for many, and deliciously odd for those who have a stomach for ambiguity.

COMMENTS: Tyler Taormina kicks off Ham on Rye with a simple visual hook: a cigarette lighter refusing to ignite. For minutes. Until it does, and the tension is released as it lights up a firework. Throughout, there are shots of birthday party attendees waiting for the release. The sun shines brightly, the gifts are stacked high, and we wait, and wait, and wait. While we do get the satisfying resolve of the party pyrotechnics, in the narrative itself there is no resolution to speak of; at least, not for most of the characters—and certainly not for us.

Ham on Rye‘s first half shows us a little bit about everyone as they head to “Monty’s,” a diner which we are informed “recently painted the hand on their sign green.” As the teenagers, all dressed to the nines (in a sartorially inept high school kind of way), enter the restaurant, they each in turn press their hand against the painted hand on the window, and brace themselves for their fate. After a meal, they awkwardly dance along to songs playing on the jukebox. Then, when “Tonight I’m Gonna Fall in Love Again” cues up, they immediately snap to attention and a bizarre ritual begins. Some are lucky, partner up, and then disappear from the film; the rest are left to an ambiguous doom.

Taormina plays the premise straight, and only reveals modest details through snatches of conversations. Something important is going to happen to these young adults: after the tension-lighter introduction there follows an extensive montage of the youths getting dressed and ready, followed by dropped hints about impending risk and efforts by each group to pump themselves up. When a father sees off his boy in a carpool heading to Monty’s, he begins all gratitude and reminiscence, but as the car pulls away, he incongruously shouts after it, “DON’T MESS IT UP! DON’T MESS IT UP!” until he’s out of earshot. What shouldn’t be “messed up”? It is is never made entirely clear.

Ham on Rye‘s second half follows the leftovers from the ritual. Night has fallen on the city, and aimless depression has sunken in. One kid, who works at Monty’s, is reassured, as it were, by a friend, “Look, man, it sucks, right? And you can let it suck… or not let it suck. Or something.” We see the world they’re in no differently. Humdrum suburban life. Backyard barbecues. Drinking. Games of Uno. But the lucky ones have disappeared. So are they living a fate worse than death? Taormina refuses to tell us. He discourages us from even trying to understand. At a post-Monty’s party, one of the lads who didn’t get lucky remarks (about something, also left unspecificied), “You can’t see it. But if you get a really good microscope and look really hard… You still can’t see it.” This movie will confound anyone seeking narrative clarity, but its absence is exactly what makes Ham on Rye such an appetizing enigma.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At first glance, Tyler Taormina’s ‘Ham on Rye’ plays like ‘Dazed and Confused’ with more poetry and less connective tissue, or ‘Eighth Grade’ with benevolence in place of cruelty. Then things get weird…  a work of gentle, genuine American surrealism…”–Ty Burr, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Russ Joyner, who called it “an utterly unique film — come for the American Graffiti-through-a-Lynchian-lens aesthetic, stay for the surrealistic soul-crushing aftermath of snuffed out dreams — but with the faintest whiff of optimism.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)