The 2009 Academy Awards nominations are out, and they are every bit as tepid and conventional as we would have predicted. The small sliver of hope is that, by expanding the field to 10 nominations, one mildly weird film did manage to worm it’s way into Best Picture contention: the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, which also garnered a well-deserved “Best Original Screenplay” nomination. The beautiful looking Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassusalso got mentions for “Best Art Direction” and “Best Costumes.”
A few non-weird titles we covered in the past year got noticed by the Academy. Coraline received a nomination for “Best Animated Film”: an honor, but a win isn’t in the cards considering the competition it’s Up against. Stanley Tucci was mentioned for his chilling performance as a child murderer in the otherwise unremarkable The Lovely Bones. And, to our shock, the musical snoozer Nine gathered a stunning four nominations: a Best Supporting Actress for the lovely and talented (but for this performance, undeserving) Penélope Cruz; one for art direction; one for costume design (corset and fishnet stocking fetishes are obviously common among members of the Academy); and one for the original song “Take it All” (now, which one was that, again?)
With all due respect to the Academy, we’d like to offer this alternative, weirder slate of nominees:
BEST WEIRD PICTURE OF 2009:
Antichrist: torture-porn in the style of Tarkovsky
The Box: a confusing sci-fi fable about moral dilemmas
Cold Souls: Paul Giamatti misplaces his soul and it winds up on the black market in Russia
Dark Country: Noir/horror hybrid about a couple that hit a man on a lonely desert road on the way back from their honeymoon
FEATURING: Jeffrey Combs, Jason Barry, Elsa Pataky, Simón Andreu
PLOT: A brilliant young med school graduate gets himself assigned to the institution where Dr. Herbert West is imprisoned so that he can enlist the good doctor’s assistance in continuing his forbidden experiments in reanimating the dead.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Beyond is a welcome third installment in the Re-Animator saga that continues the series’ tradition of going way over-the-top, but though it’s deranged, nonsensical fun, it’s not even the weirdest entry in its own franchise.
COMMENTS: Fans of the taste-challenged Re-Animator series should be pleased with this charmingly grotesque third sequel, which zips along briskly with a delightful disrespect for logic to a phantasmagorically bloody zombie prison riot finale. Jeffery Combs, now middle-aged but still looking like a eternally perturbed boy genius, returns as Dr. Herbert West to inject his deadpan wit into the proceedings while the world goes mad around him. A large part of Dr. West’s mad charisma comes from the fact that he’s constantly sowing seeds of chaos by pushing forward into realms where man was not meant to meddle, then staring at the carnage with a slightly befuddled frown as yet another reanimated corpse unexpectedly turns homicidal. Obsessed and opportunistic, he’s a nerdy Dr. Frankenstein with an unabashedly amoral streak, who always emerges from his own foul ups unscathed while his unlucky companions end up in the charnel house. West’s experiments on rats in prison have led him to believe that he can use electricity to restore the souls of re-animated corpses and keep them from killing off the nubile women who always happen to be standing around whenever a new zombie pops up. This time around, it’s a Doogie Hauser-esque young prison MD who risks everything to help West better the lot of mankind by mixing up a new vat of glowing green reanimation juice, but through a long string of unfortunate occurrences ends up getting kickboxed about the head by a hot zombie dominatrix for his troubles. Even though this entry aims more for comedy than horror, the atmosphere is eerie: what’s spookier than a half-abandoned post-riot prison, with sounds of massacres echoing in the background while burning toilet paper rolls cast the shadows of iron bars on gray stone walls? The crazed climax gives us about as many zombie-hyphenates as any reanimated corpse fan could hope for: zombie-rats, zombie-girlfriends, a half-zombie, zombie-vision, zombie-fellatio. There’s also a pill-popping prisoner who gets hooked on reanimation fluid, leading to the flick’s most bizarre and surreal gag, and a “cockfight” that must be seen to be believed. All in all, Beyond Re-Animator should leave your lower jaw hanging reasonably close to the ground, which is all we ask for in any movie with “Re-Animator” in the title.
Technically inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, though not at all uncanny, Beyond Re-Animator is set in mythical Arkham, Massachucets. To get that New England ambiance down perfectly, Yuzna hired a team of regional filmmakers—guys like screenwriter José Manuel Gómez and executive producer Carlos Fernández—guys with mucho dinero, who understand that an authentic Massachusetts prison looks exactly like something you’d find on the outskirts of Barcelona.
PLOT: A survivor of the apocalypse is conflicted about his mother, who is addicted to a
black fluid that keeps her eternally young but causes disorientation and scarring.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Scars of Youth is a beautifully lensed film, filled with dreamlike images and montages. Although not impenetrable, the tale comes across mysterious and weird, thanks to the oblique, overwhelmingly visual storytelling. Unfortunately, all this beauty pads a thin and unengaging storyline.
COMMENTS: Scars of Youth is easy to critique. It’s visually and sonically entrancing, on its own terms and even more so when you consider the low budget and lack of any special effects. On the other hand, the story is slow, yet hard to follow, and what we do discern of the tale doesn’t add up to very much. The audio in some of the necessary background exposition is deliberately distorted in an attempt to create atmosphere that creates frustration instead. The performances are substandard throughout; the amateur actors can’t convey complex emotions, and the third main character—a sort of adventurer who smuggles immortality fluid past the checkpoints of an unseen civilization to our hero—sports an unnatural laugh that is particularly off-putting. Almost every scene is drawn out for far too long, with actors staring off into space with melancholy expressions or wandering around state parks, disconsolately staring at wire fences. These elements of pure mood can’t take the place of dialogue or action. There is full-frontal nudity to liven things up, but the mother-son incest subtext, intended to provoke, is laid on far too thickly, with sexual symbolism slathered on with so little subtlety that it becomes embarrassing. On the plus side, the eerie ambient music is a highlight, and the photography is especially beautiful and far more professional than the narrative aspects of the film. There are beautiful shots of rippling ponds, closeups of bustling ant colonies, sun-dappled forests, and a consistent, painterly eye for color and composition. Blue filters are used on the interiors in the protagonist’s lonely room, which turn what would otherwise look like a garage with white sheets hung about for walls into something reasonably mystical. The black and white dream and flashback scenes are crisp and lovely; one brilliantly conceived sequence is grainy and filled with afterimages, as well as some of the film’s loveliest symbolism. These short, impressionistic moments are where Scars shines; they could fit comfortably as mood pieces inside a major production with more of a story to tell. They just can’t carry an entire film.
Hand’s earlier film, Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare, was a collage-like creation inspired by the visual styles of cheap and crazy 1970s drive-in horror movies. The look, sound and pace of Scars of Youth is, instead, a tribute to Tarkovsky‘s Stalker. Hand captures the general feel of the Russian minimalist master, but whereas the murky grindhouse visuals of Nightmare made the lack of locations, story and acting talent almost appropriate, the ultra-clean, professionally shot look of Scars of Youth highlights these deficiencies. Both films contain a few gorgeous images which, if they could be judged in isolation, would earn five star ratings; but, in both films we also get the feeling that we’re watching the work of a brilliant cinematographer and sensualist who has yet to find a meaningful story to tell. If Hand’s storytelling abilities ever catch up to the level of his technical skills, he’ll become the Stanley Kubrick of homemade videos.
“The script was original, it had this carny/circus thing which I’ve always associated with Hollywood. Let’s face it, it’s a freakshow out here, it’s a circus, we’re all on the merry-go-round. And this cartoonish, kind of weird sensibility this film had, it was almost like a weird childhood memory of these local television shows I remember watching as a kid…”–Bill Paxton on why he was attracted to the script of The Dark Backward
PLOT: Marty Malt is a garbageman and aspiring stand-up comic with no talent and no confidence. One day, a third arm begins to spontaneously grow out of his back. Although his act hasn’t improved, the gimmick is enough so that greasy agent Jackie Chrome takes interest in him and his accordion-playing, garbage-eating buddy Gus.
The Dark Backward was the first script written by Adam Rifkin, who was only 19 years old at the time. He would direct the film six years later at age 25.
The title was selected by opening the complete works of Shakespeare to a random page (the quote comes from “The Tempest,” Act I, Scene II: “How is it/That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else/In the dark backward and abysm of time?”
James Caan reportedly agreed to appear in the film only after an insistent Rifkin called him at the Playboy Mansion.
Judd Nelson auditioned for the role by performing Marty Malt’s comedy routines, in disguise, at open-mike nights in Los Angeles.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Probably, one of the many images of Marty’s third arm, whether he displays it to the audience by mechanically spinning around after delivering another lame joke, or as doctor James Caan examines the embryonic fingers sprouting from the his back. Individual viewers’ mileage may vary, however; you may be indelibly grossed out by the orgy with three morbidly obese women, or by Gus’ nauseating midnight snack of rotting chicken.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The premise alone—the world’s worst stand-up comic becomes a success after he sprouts a third arm from his back—immediately qualifies as weird. For better and worse, director Rifkin doesn’t shy away from going whole hog into grotesquerie, churning out a first feature that looks like a technically polished version of an early John Waters film.
Apologies first: last week, I said the Dark Backward review would appear, but real life intervened and we couldn’t get it out. Expect to see it appear early next week. Other reviews that are planned, but may or may not appear next week: our long-anticipated Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind treatment, John Hand’s low-budget sci-fi followup to Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare, Scars of Youth (2008), and, just for giggles, Beyond Re-Animator.
For our weirdest search term used to locate the site last week, we’ll go with someone’s attempt to track down info on a very obscure film sub-genre: “ElectroMagnetic Field comedy movies.”
The reader-suggested review queue looks like this: Survive Style 5+ (looking for a copy); The Dark Backward (next week–this time, I swear!); The Short Films of David Lynch; Santa Sangre; Dead Man; Inland Empire; Monday (assuming I can find an English language version); The Abominable Dr. Phibes; Barton Fink; What? (Diary of Forbidden Dreams); Meatball Machine; Xtro; Basket Case; Suicide Club; O Lucky Man!; Trash Humpers (when/if released); Gozu; Tales of Ordinary Madness; The Wayward Cloud; Kwaidan; Six-String Samurai; Andy Warhol’s Trash; Altered States; Memento; Nightmare Before Christmas/Vincent/Frankenweenie; The Science of Sleep; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (possibly jumping in line to come out next week); Gothic; The Attic Expeditions; After Last Season; Getting Any?; Performance; Being John Malkovich; The Apple; Southland Tales; Arizona Dream; Spider (2002); Songs From The Second Floor; Singapore Sling; Alice [Neco z Alenky]; Necromania (1971, Ed Wood); Hour of the Wolf; MirrorMask; Possession; Suspiria; Mary and Max; Wild Zero; 4; Nothing (2003); The Peanut Butter Solution; Ninja Scroll; Perfume: The Story of a Murderer; Danger: Diabolik; Faust; Sublime; Battle Royale; Pink Floyd: The Wall;Escanaba In Da Moonlight; Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter; Zardoz; The Films of Suzan Pitt; and Toto the Hero [Toto le Héros]. Wow!
David Firth, creator of our first Saturday Short “Crooked Rot”, receives his second appearance on our site with the eighth episode of his bizarre comedy series, Salad Fingers. (If you haven’t seen the previous seven, don’t worry. There’s no background information you’ll need in order to understand this one.) Whether you laugh so hard you puke, or curl up in the fetal position during this clip, one thing is certain, David is a master of weird.
A look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…
Trailers of new release movies are generally available on the official site links.
IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):
Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated (2009): An intriguing, though badly underpromoted, idea. Shades of Waking Life, a team of animators animated scenes from the public domain classic Night of the Living Dead in varying styles encompassing “everything from puppet theater to CGI, hand drawn animation to flash, and oil paintings to tattoos.” It will surely come out on DVD someday, but for now it seems to be popping up in sporadic screenings (though the only one I’ve heard of was in Alaska). Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated official site. [UPDATE: per project organizer Mike Schneider (see comment), readers are encouraged to contact their “local independent theater or favorite tv/ web horror host to contact firstname.lastname@example.org” to arrange a screening of the movie. This is a not-for-profit project, which helps explain why they are trying to promote it solely through word of mouth.]
Saint John of Las Vegas: This quirky road trip story about a retired blackjack player turned insurance fraud investigator returning to Las Vegas has some surreal interludes, but even the presence of Steve Buscemi and Sarah Silverman hasn’t stopped critics from savagely beating it and leaving the remains for dead in the desert (a stunningly bad 5% on Rotten Tomatoes tomatometer). Saint John of Las Vegas official site.
Sundance (Park City, Utah, Jan 21-31): Sundance snuck up on us this year! No wonder: the indie fest is not really a friend to innovation and experimentalism so much as it is to environmentalism, leftist politics in general, and insomnia-curing documentaries. Nonetheless, there are some weird and potentially weird films screening this year:
Armless – comedy about a married suburban man he finally gathers the courage to live out his lifelong dream: having his arms amputated
Cane Toads: The Conquest – a sequel to Mark Lewis’ 1998 cult documentary about the “invasion” of cane toads in Australia—this go-round, in 3-D!
Enter the Void – fresh from an unsuccessful run at Cannes and primed for an unsuccessful run at Sundance, this story of an immigrant Tokyo drug dealer/addict who survives a hail of gunfire as a hallucinating ghost is described by director Gaspar (Irréversible) Noé as a “psychedelic melodrama.”
Memories of Overdevelopment [Memorias del desarrollo] – Collage-style story of a Cuban exile in the United States. The overwritten press release claims it is, among other things, “a surreal foray into memory and the unconscious.”
ODDSAC – A 53-minute “visual album” matching experimental visuals to the equally experimental music of Animal Collective. Visuals and audio are both definitely trippy.
Pepperminta – Swiss story of a literally colorful young woman who throws swaths of psychedelic dye and groovy fantasy over the mundane world outside her door. Sundance includes a multimedia installation revealingly titled Lobe of Lung: The Saliva Ooze Away to the Underground that allows the viewer to “lounge inside the film”.
The Temptation of St. Tony [Püha Tõnu kiusamine] – Black and white, surrealist Estonian film about a mid-level manager who begins to question the value of virtue; the scenario seems to be inspired equally by the story of St. Anthony and Dante’s “Inferno.” For our purposes, the most promising entry at Sundance, and the film we’ll be keeping an eye on.
Vegetarian – Korean film about a young woman who has dreams that cause her to become disgusted by meat. Hard to get a fix on what it’s going to be like.
The Violent Kind – a movie about drug-dealing outlaw bikers and their encounter with the supernatural and weird colors in the sky. Self-described “gleeful, insane exploitation”; Twitch called it “the pinnacle of the WTF?! genre.” Another one to watch for.
NEW ON DVD:
Goodbye Gemini (1970): A very obscure British psychothriller about a pair of fraternal twins (with the usual eerie bond) who are introduced into the swinging subculture of mod 1960’s London. Buy Goodbye Gemini.
Paris, Texas (1984): Not necessarily weird, but Wim Wender’s starkly beautiful movie about a man found wandering in the desert who starts to reconnect with the life he left behind has an odd and dreamlike tone that becomes hypnotic at times. Highly recommended; a great add by the Criterion Collection. Buy Paris, Texas (Criterion Collection).
Troma’s War (Tromasterpiece Edition) (1988): Several Tromaville citizens crash land on a Caribbean island and are soon caught up in a third world war. If you’ve seen one Troma movie, you’ve pretty much seen them all. No idea how this “Tromasterpiece” edition differs from the previous release. Buy Troma’s War (Tromasterpiece Edition).