Category Archives: Essays

WHY AREN’T HOLLYWOOD FILMS STRANGE ANYMORE?

At the Fantasia Film Festival in 2016, before a screening of the punk video art black comedy She’s Allergic to Cats, I recall programmer Mitch Davis declaring that “weird is hot” in the then-current climate. Having run 366 Weird Movies for 8 years at the time, I was skeptical. Sure, scrappy filmmakers managed to squeeze out a handful of weird movies every year, but I consistently had trouble identifying ten truly weird ones for our year-end lists. Were things about to change for the strange?

Later that night, I asked underground director for his opinion on whether weird movies were “hot.” He said that when he described his work, most people happily responded “‘I’m OK with weird movies,’ but then you show them the weird movie and they’re like ‘ahhh… I didn’t get anything,’ and they’re completely confused and they hate the thing, and I’m like, ‘Ah, I knew it.’”

Still from She's Allergic to Cats (2016)
She’s Allergic to Cats (2016)

The next day I asked Allergic to Cats auteurs and if they thought weird movies were “hot.” They said the concepts they pitched for music videos for local L.A. bands were always rejected for being “too weird.” Reich said things started to change around the time Tim and Eric became popular, but they still had issues. Pitching a webseries, potential producers told them to make it more mainstream; then, they complained it wasn’t weird enough. “We were so outraged, we’d never been accused of not being weird before,” Pinkney laughed.

The point being, I—and the people working on the ground producing weird videos—are always skeptical when outsiders and marketers proclaim that out-of-the-ordinary is currently in demand. Have things changed in the movie industry in the six years since I last asked these questions in 2016? Variety‘s chief film critic Peter Debruge thinks the answer is “yes,” and he wrote a column titled “Why Are Indie Films So Strange Now?” to that effect. But, while Debruge’s observations are optimistic, I think his conclusions don’t match specialists’ expectations for what a true revival of the weird would look like.

To give credit where credit is due, Debruge applauds this “trend,” praising “unapologetically odd and original creations, led by a gifted group of rebel auteurs who don’t kowtow to popular expectations” and suggesting that there is a viewing “appetite [that] in turn supports an indie-film environment where directors are motivated to be more original, more surprising and all around more creative.” So far, so good. But is this really much different than the situation in previous decades? We here at 366 are not noticing a greater concentration of strange films than in prior years. Our own survey of Canonically Weird films by year found that weird movie production peaked between about 1968-1971. 2006, which was just outside the decade-long  weird movie renaissance Debruge postulates, was also a good year for strange films, and there were some notable Continue reading WHY AREN’T HOLLYWOOD FILMS STRANGE ANYMORE?

EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT TO BE DIFFERENT: STEPHEN SONDHEIM (1930-2021)

The film was a very British Guignol called Hangover Square, the story of a composer with a tendency to commit murder when stressed. The climax of the film is a performance of the composer’s concerto (actually the work of the legendary Bernard Herrmann), which culminates in his death in a cataclysmic inferno, still banging away at the piano. It’s not subtle.

Stephen SondheimFor the adolescent watching this tale unfold, it was a formative experience. He was so captivated by the dark story and Herrmann’s score that he rushed back to the moviehouse to watch the whole thing again in hopes of memorizing the sheet music to the villain’s composition. He wrote Herrmann a fan letter, which the recipient acknowledged was an unusual treat for a film composer. And years later, that young man had the opportunity to pay homage to his inspiration by using a familiar Herrmann chord throughout the score of a musical he had written, which just so happened to be about a murderous barber whose victims become the main ingredient in meat pies.

Stephen Sondheim was a noted cinephile, so it makes sense that movies would have a prominent role in his career. He was, of course, primarily a figure of the stage; long before his passing at the age of 91, he had cemented his reputation as perhaps the most significant creator in the history of American-style musical theater. But he got to indulge his love of film directly more than once; he won an Oscar for the song he contributed to the mélange of color and makeup that was Dick Tracy, he co-wrote the all-star puzzle box The Last of Sheila, and six of his shows made the jump to the silver screen, albeit none entirely successfully. He also made an impression on other filmmakers; audiences were treated to surprise appearances recently in films as diverse as Lady Bird, Knives Out, and Marriage Story. So although not a creature of film, he certainly made his mark.

But what am I doing here, talking about a Broadway composer on a weird movie website? Well, I think Stephen Sondheim has something to teach us about the role that personal vision and committed interest play in making a thing weird. Because while his reputation as the giant of American musical theater may rest on a foundation of rich, adventurous melodies and breathtakingly gymnastic and insightful lyrics, the thing that always kept him apart from the establishment – that marked him as an iconoclast of the highest order and denied him a true blockbuster – was his taste in material. No light comedies or mindless spectacles for him. His most dance-heavy show features tragic murders to end both acts. In search of pure comedy, he adapts plays that are 2,000 years old. Ask him to bring a movie to the stage and he’ll turn to an Italian film about a soldier is ensnared by the obsessive love of an ugly, sickly woman. Welcome to Broadway!

Even by Sondheim standards, my first experience with one of his shows was a doozy: a college production of Merrily We Roll Along, a story of lost idealism and the cost of one’s soul that has the temerity to unspool its tale in reverse chronological order. This stylistic Continue reading EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT TO BE DIFFERENT: STEPHEN SONDHEIM (1930-2021)

“POSSIBLY IN MICHIGAN” AND THE MEME MARKET FOR WEIRDNESS

As a great many companies have realized by now, the marketing potential of internet memes is tremendous. Incorporate your brand or product into a successful meme, and internet users will happily spread it across the world of their own volition, every one of them organically developing a positive association with it.

And as video artist recently discovered, the effectiveness of marketing through memes is hardly limited to mainstream brands.

Still from Possibly in Michigan
Possibly in Michigan

You’ve likely come across Condit’s 1983 short film “Possibly in Michigan” (possibly on this site). The abstract narrative follows a pair of young women as they are pursued by a masked cannibal; the anarchic editing; Casio-backed musical numbers; and the strange, lilting tone with which the actresses deliver their lines give it a distinctively surreal tone. It feels like a  bizarre combination of a B-movie, an acid trip, a lighthearted musical, and a feminist statement on the nature of toxic relationships all mixed together.

It’s a wonderfully witty and dreamlike piece of work, but it could hardly be called widely accessible; and it is, moreover, infused with a heavily 80s tone and aesthetic. In brief, it’s hardly the sort of thing that one would expect to resonate with the internet generation. So needless to say, it surprised a great many people when songs from the short began showing up on videos posted to the social media website TikTok.

“Possibly in Michigan” had received some internet attention in the past, beginning in mid-2015, when a clip of the film was posted to the popular subreddit /r/creepy, subsequently appearing on the front page of Reddit. But it was through its use in TikTok videos that it attained what could be called widespread notice. A sixteen-year-old TikTok user named Vris Dillard started the trend by posting a video of herself lip-synching a portion of the film’s melodic dialogue. The absurd nature of the source material clearly resonated with the app’s young users, many of whom started making their own videos using “Possibly’s audio. The result was a burst of mainstream interest in Condit’s work that, given its abstract nature, would be unusual at any point in time. In the weeks following the TikTok trend, Condit’s official YouTube channel received around 4,000 new subscribers, and her weekly view count temporarily shot up more than tenfold.

TikTok, a social media app primarily featuring videos of users lip-synching to popular songs, has a user base consisting primarily of teenagers and twenty-somethings. For better or for worse, it’s a brand with inextricable ties to Generation Z . To see a piece of weird cinema crafted in the early 80s—especially one so deeply steeped in then-contemporary aesthetics and social concerns— gain popularity on such a platform makes it clear that cinematic weirdness, done properly, has an inter-generational appeal that we’ve yet to properly tap into.

“Possibly in Michigan” is hardly the only example of this phenomenon. Weirdness and absurdism are recurring features in meme culture and viral phenomena, and surrealism is probably one of the most prominent features of internet-based humor (right behind self-awareness and self-deprecation). As a result, many millennials and Gen Z’ers raised on the internet have come across some of the 20th century’s finest examples of weird cinema in piecemeal form: stills and clips that caught other users’ fancy.

My personal first encounter with Begotten was in the late 2000s, through a still frame of the opening scene. It had been posted, without context (along with a litany of other, far more underwhelming “scary” images), to a webpage of “creepypasta”, the digital age’s own iteration of horror literature.

At around the same time, a video appeared on YouTube, claiming to be an authentic version of “The Grifter”, an urban legend begun on 4chan about a supposedly “cursed” video that could drive viewers insane. In actuality, the video consisted mostly of heavily edited clips from Jan Svankmajer’s Little Otik.

Virality has proved a boon for weird movie trailers, as well—many of which, in the past, would likely have only been seen at specialized screenings and art film festivals. Such was the case with the infamous After Last Season. Prior to the internet, it’s unlikely that this painfully amateur-looking trailer would have been screened anywhere. When enthusiasts uploaded to freely accessible video sites like Apple’s trailer page, however, it quickly found its audience: morbidly fascinated internet users befuddled by the surreal ineptitude of what they were seeing. It was pretty much everything that internet users of the time adored: completely absurd, and laughably amateurish (“cringey,” in the argot). The result, of course, was a surge of interest in a disastrous film that could never have come from any community of “serious” cinephiles. Reviled though the movie was, and still is, After Last Season would likely never have found an audience of any kind were it not for internet culture’s fascination with bile.

The implications are clear: if weird cinema is to survive in our tumultuous modern age, it might do best to market itself through memes, viral phenomena, and other mediums that catch the attention of the internet’s youngsters. They may not be familiar with names like or , but they share an appreciation for the absurd and the irreverent that, properly tapped in to, could help raise a whole new generation of weird-cinema auteurs.

THE WEIRD WORLD OF CHILDREN’S GRINDHOUSE

His name may not exactly be celebrated among cinephiles, but ‘s impact on the mid-20th century movie scene is undeniable. Growing up in an environment of circus performers and vaudevillians, Murray made a fortune in the 1950s and 1960s by importing low-budget family films (among other genres) from Mexico and Europe, dubbing them in English, and re-releasing them on the US market, showing them at cheap weekend screenings. Providing affordable afternoon film screenings aimed specifically at children (and at pre-digital age parents looking for a way to keep the kids occupied for a few hours) earned Murray the title “King of the Kiddie Matinee.”

Poster for K. Gordon Murray's Little Red Riding Hood and the MonstersBut besides revolutionizing the concept of the children’s matinee, Murray also inadvertently assisted in the creation of a certain subgenre of film that flourished in and around the 1960s —one which, though rarely discussed, is the source of some of cinema’s finest examples of unintentional weirdness.

This particular subgenre has never been given an official name, but the term “grindhouse children’s films”, coined by internet critic Brad “Cinema Snob” Jones, encompasses its nature quite well. With their grainy visuals and audio, hokey acting, and flimsy sets, these movies do indeed call to mind the grindhouse cinema aesthetic. The films’ content, meanwhile, are clearly crafted for a kid audience. This dissonance results in distinct examples of mid-century cinematic weirdness, some of which have made it into 366’s Canon.

While a many entries in this genre were the work of Murray himself, many more were made in his wake, churned out at minimal cost to take advantage of the easy profits of the matinees Murray had helped invent. Perhaps one of the most bizarre (and egregious) was 1965’s Fun In Balloon Land. Produced by Giant Balloon Parades Inc., and the sole directorial credit of Joseph M. Sonneborn Jr., this little absurdity pushes itself to 52 minutes by poorly slapping together two unrelated segments. One consists of a young boy wandering around a cavernous warehouse filled with assorted parade balloons (which, with their vast sizes, bulbous shapes, and poorly-painted features, are frankly the stuff of children’s nightmares) and holding awkward conversations with them; the other is a recording of a Thanksgiving-themed balloon parade with a narrator gushing over the (equally ugly) floats Continue reading THE WEIRD WORLD OF CHILDREN’S GRINDHOUSE

QUESTIONS ARE BEAUTIFUL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

99 YEARS OF WEIRDNESS, IN NUMBERS

This article was submitted by Aki Vainio.

Introduction, Methodology, and Breakdown by Year

A warning: all the data used here comes from the IMDb, so it’s user-submitted, and not always that well thought-out. I mean, according to the IMDb, 212 of these movies are dramas. If you call everything drama, does that designation even have any meaning anymore? There’s also some problems with country or origin, because they always list all the countries that have participated in any way. Anyhow, that’s what I have easily and automatically available, so that’s what I’m using. All the data is from January 16th of 2019. Obviously, much of it will change over time.

Note on the methods used: I did the research by using a list of the movies I’ve maintained over on IMDb. IMDb gives you a CSV export of that data, which is good start, but did not contain everything I wanted. For the rest of the data, I used the API provided by the good folks at OMDb, which enabled me to get the countries and languages. On top of that, I used a little bit of coding and some Excel action.

The earliest movie on the list is from 1920 (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and the newest movie is from 2018 (Sorry to Bother You ), which covers 99 years. However, 20 of those years failed to provide the List with any movies at all.

Perhaps 1921 has the excuse of not knowing any better, but come on 1930s, your latter half (1935-1939) has a grand total of zero (0) movies. Or maybe the writers on this site have a prejudice against the 1930s.

Weird movies by year

The last year not to have a single movie on the list was 1956. After that there have been some poor years (like 1978, with only one), but the combination of moviemaking becoming cheaper and distributors finding new sources of income has made making movies for niche audiences possible.

The biggest years were 1968 and 1971, each of which produced 13 Canonized movies. 2006 wasn’t far behind with 12, while 1973 made it all the way to 11, and both 2004 and 2009 were in there with 10.

Personally, I’ve always believed that creativity is in no way dead, despite the influx of recent franchising attempts with sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, and so forth. The list seems to support this belief. There’s still plenty of weird things going on, even if the drug-fueled highs of late 60s and early 70s might be behind us.

Who Comes Up with this Stuff?

Apparently, and , with a total of eight movies each. It’s also worth noting that they both share credits with others. comes up a bit short with seven, although with a total of ten features under his belt, 70% rate is not bad. and each have six, although Gilliam only directed one segment of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Still within this higher echelon of directors, we have and Continue reading 99 YEARS OF WEIRDNESS, IN NUMBERS

WHAT MAKES A WEIRD MOVIE WEIRD?

Here at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, our staff is repeatedly faced with a perplexing question: How do you quantify a movie as “weird”? It’s like the old Supreme Court ruling on how to define pornography: “I know it when I see it.” OK, but our mission is to sort out the 366 Weirdest movies, on top of that. Now we’re forced to quantify movies, because some will be on the list and some will not. Given any two movies that appear equally weird, how do you rank them?

It’s an unanswerable question, ultimately. But here, submitted for the consideration of anybody who cares, is the closest thing to an objective system the present author can think of when ranking a movie’s weirdness. It’s the system I partially use when throwing in my vote for yay or nay on whether a movie belongs on the list. Since we even have reader polls once in awhile to vote movies onto the list, perhaps it will do some good to share it. It’s not an iron-clad rule, merely a guide.

What a silly exercise! No doubt Robin Williams from Dead Poets’ Society will charge in here after we’re done and tell us all to rip this page out of the textbook. Have at it, Robin, you’re probably right.

The Weird Movie Ranking System

You can rank a movie’s weirdness in four areas. These axes of ranking are:

  • Premise – A wild or original idea. The substance.
  • Presentation – The method, attitude, or approach of storytelling. The style.
  • Detail – The stuff you see in the “indelible image” and “three weird things” section of list entries.
  • Passion – The commitment to an individual and original vision imbued by the movie’s creator(s).

The higher we can rank a movie on each of these axes, the weirder it is. This isn’t anything silly like a one-to-ten scale, just a general mark of “high” or “low.” Most movies can’t make it onto the list with a high ranking in only one aspect. But the more boxes we tick on the list, the higher its chances. Now to examine each axis in more depth:

Premise

Premise appears to be the least important metric in measuring a movie’s weirdness. Premise is closely related to plot, but not identical. Some entries, such as Un Chien Andalou, have no plot to speak of. “A girl falls asleep and dreams about a magical fantasy land” can describe both The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. The premise doesn’t make the movie weird by itself.

Detail from Being John Malkovich posterBut it sure helps. Being John Malkovich is a great example: An office building staff discovers a portal into an actor’s head, and tries to exploit it for profit. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is about a bed that eats people. Elevator Movie is Continue reading WHAT MAKES A WEIRD MOVIE WEIRD?