Firstly, I’d like to thank Ayla (of Twisted Celluloid) for the idea of this week’s short, “Betty Boop in Snow-White”. The change over the past seventy-five years has been a big one, and it is very evident in this cartoon. In this short you will find some very out of the ordinary dancing and singing (featuring Cab Calloway), a brief mention of alcohol, and no morals to end on. Enjoy!
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.
Sadly, there’s nothing of even marginal weird interest debuting in American theaters this week.
NEW ON DVD:
TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Horror—House of Wax (1953) / The Haunting (1963) / Freaks (1932) / Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941): All good movies, but it’s Freaks, Tod Browning’s one-of-a-kind disquieting exploitation fable, that catches our attention here. Weird freaks might also get a kick out of seeing Ingrid Bergman’s head used as a champagne cork in Dr. Jekyll. This two double-sided disc set is an interesting way to start a high-end horror DVD collection if you’re not interested in the extras you would get from buying each individual film (all of these films are out on single disc DVDs in more lavish editions). Buy from Amazon.
TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Science Fiction—2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)/ Soylent Green (1973)/ Forbidden Planet (1956)/ The Time Machine (1960): All good films, but the obvious weird draw here is 2001, Kubrick’s trippy and ambiguous sci-fi parable about… well, there are lots of theories as to what it’s about. Apply the same caveats about this set as about the Horror collection above—no extras here, in case you want a definitive edition of a particular movie, but a good way to start a collection of smart science fiction films. Buy from Amazon.
Not weird, but potentially of interest to some, is TCM’s collection of classic murder mystery/film noir movies including the beloved The Maltese Falcon (1941) along with The Big Sleep (1946), Dial M for Murder (1954), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Buy from Amazon.
NEW ON BLU-RAY:
Fire and Ice (1983): Seldom seen animated sword-and-sorcery fantasy by weirdish Rotoscope auteur Ralph Bashki (Coonskin). Animation fans may want to check out the Rotoscoping, which is said to be much better than the story. Poster/book cover artist and chainmail-bikini fetishist Frank Frazetta was involved in some capacity. Buy from Amazon.
NEW FREE (LEGITIMATE RELEASE) ON YOUTUBE:
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953): A boy dreams that his piano teacher is enslaving children on surrealistic sets in this classic weird children’s musical movie with nonsense lyrics by Dr. Seuss. Show your kids at a young age to ensure they grow up weird. Too good to watch on YouTube, but if you can’t resist… Watch The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T free on YouTube.
Freakmaker [AKA The Mutations] (1974): A scientist experiments with mixing human and plant DNA in this bizarre grindhouse wonder that’s almost a remake of Tod Browning’s Freaks. Watch Freakmaker free on YouTube.
The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (1968): The most exploitative biopic ever made, mixing Jayne’s most salacious footage with the slanderous sexcapades of a “lookalike,” ending with totally tasteless footage of Jayne’s fatal car crash and grieving family. Incoherent and unbelievable; will leave you feeling fascinated but very dirty. Watch The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield free on YouTube.
What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.
The “Reader Recommendation” category includes films nominated by our readers as deserving of consideration for the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time.
by Trevor Moses, film archivist at the National Film, Video and Sound Archives (South Africa)
DIRECTED BY: Jans Rautenbach
FEATURING: Cobus Rossouw, Jill Kirkland, Hermien Dommisse, Phillip Swanepoel, Katinka Heyns, Don Leonard, Lourens Schultz, Patrick Mynhardt, Betty Botha, Sandra Kotze, George Pearce, Jacques Loots.
PLOT: A catatonic mathematics professor with an Oedipus complex (as if the poor man didn’t have enough hassles already) is committed to an asylum which is a microcosm of South African society, circa 1970. The inmates band together to attempt to restore him to life once more and when one of their number commits suicide because of him, they then attempt something more on his behalf: murder.
WHY IT DESERVES TO MAKE THE LIST: Jannie Totsiens is rather like Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, only far, far more weird, disturbing and funny than that Oscar winning film. Jans Rautenbach’s film is a microcosmic view of South Africa circa 1970 and an indictment of the blinkered Afrikaner Nationalist enforced attitudes and very dubious morals of the time.
COMMENTS: Allegedly autobiographical in tone, this was South Africa’s first film in the avant-garde genre, one of its very few horror films, and also its first black comedy. It is now known to be an allegory about the South African situation in 1970 – showing said situation and the country’s inhabitants in the milieu of a home for the insane whose inmates’ lives are flipped by the arrival of a catatonic, mute mathematics professor, the “angel of discord”, as he is referred to by one of the loonies. Among this merry little band, we find a jilted bride (Hermien Dommisse) whose wedding portrait depicts her holding the hand of a faceless man who locked her up in this house until she went insane, a knife wielding nymphomaniac with Bible thumping parents (Katinka Heyns), an ex Ossewabrandwag soldier with an uncanny resemblance to John Vorster (Don Leonard), a judge (Jacques Loots) who went mad (and consequently hangs up the plants in the asylum’s hothouse in a makeshift gallows) after his daughter’s killer was let off scot free, and a psychotic, lovesick woman (Jill Kirkland) who continuously writes unsent letters to her dead daughter. Other characters include the sane, disabled artist Frans (Phillip Swanepoel) whose parents locked him up in the asylum because they were ashamed of him, and the Director of the asylum (Lourens Schultz), a weak-willed, gambling, drinking good-for-nothing, almost as mad as those he cares for, whose only purpose in life is to give injections and make his inmates swallow pills. The seemingly mad and mother-fixated Jannie Pienaar was supposedly based both on director Jans Rautenbach’s treatment by the critics and some of the more sensitive sections of the South African community, and Rautenbach’s experiences as a clinical psychologist. He finds himself restored to life because of two major factors: a love triangle which involves him and two of the inmates and the horrific finale when, on the suicide of one of those inmates, Jannie is condemned to death by hanging. For real. Not by his neck, but by his feet.
One would have to go very far back or far forward into the future of the South African film industry’s history to find a film as horrific, comic (yes, it is very funny in parts) and perfect as this, with brooding photography (courtesy David Dunn Yarker and Koos Roets, ACS ), an eerie credits puppet show in which the spectre of death intrudes and is frightened away, haunting music by Sam Sklair and oppressive, claustrophobic set and art design. To unsuspecting first time viewers, this film’s impact is still felt months and years later. Judging by its’ initial reception in 1970, it is clear that the movie going public in South Africa did not know that they were actually looking into a mirror with themselves as the subjects, notwithstanding the fact that each viewer of this film feels like they have just been dinged on the head with a very large, heavy board when the film ends.
Bruce Lee says in Enter The Dragon, “Boards….. don’t hit back.” This one does.
This film is available solely in the Afrikaans language and can be purchased from kalahari.net.
The winner of the review writing contest, and the A Clockwork Orange Blu-ray, is Pamela De Graff for her review of Happy Here and Now (2002). Ms. De Graff’s review will be published on these pages on Sunday, September 6.
Thanks to all who contributed! We will also be publishing the other entries we received under the category “Reader Recommendations.” Look for a new reader review contest in the future.
This is Part Four in a four part series exploring Budd Boetticher’s 1950s Westerns starring Randolph Scott (known as the “Ranown cycle”). The films previously discussed in the series were Seven Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), and Ride Lonesome (1959).
If The Tall T is bleakest, and Ride Lonesome a fan favorite, then Comanche Station (1960) is the most poetic and artistically accomplished of Boetticher’s Ranown cycle of westerns.
This was the valedictory film for Ranown and was intended to be actor Randolph Scott’s as well (two years later he was talked out of retirement to make the sublime, yet slightly overrated Ride the High Country with director Sam Peckinpah and co-star Joel McCrea).
Scott emerges from a cubist landscape, first as a majestic silhouette, then as a haunted, chiseled ghost, continuing his vain, decade-long search for his (most likely dead) wife, abducted by Indians.
The native Americans here are portrayed as little more than savages, and Nancy Gates, the heroine he winds up rescuing, is a delicate object of prized beauty, rather than fully human. These quibbles aside, once again Boetticher’s stark, stripped down sense of composition is replete with complex characters and ambiguous mores.
Randolph Scott embodies a beautiful purity here, more so even than in the other entries. His endless years of wandering through the vast, arid western desert, searching for his lost wife, echoes Orpheus searching for Eurydice in hell, or in a seemingly pointless purgatory.
Comanche Station is a brooding post-modernist work which stems from allegories found in the most potent, forceful biblical tales and mythology. Claude Akins is the primary, King Saul-like villain; he has committed mass murder, intends to kill both Scott and Gates, does not hesitate killing his own man, and yet admires Scott and even saves him from a terrible fate.
Skip Homeier and Richard Rust are Akins’ latently homosexual henchmen (in a poignant scene, Akins complains to Scott of Homeier’s “softness”). The scene in which Homeier carefully lifts Rust’s dead, arrow-ridden body from the creek permeates a tender fragrance like that found in the story of David and Jonathan from the biblical Book of Kings. Homeier is touchingly simplistic, not truly wanting a life of crime, but clueless as to any other way of life.
Scott’s hero looks like a figure culled from a Cezanne canvas. He is at first misjudged by Gates, but will eventually be her savior, reuniting her with her family, the stains and scars of her past laid to rest. There is no such redemption for Scott. Station ends where it begins, and the tree from the finale of Ride Lonesome reappears here, symbolically haunting, in the middle of a river.
Pessimistic repetition is the Kafkaesque curse of Scott’s ghost, who will never find his wife, nor even a destination. The final scene in Comanche Station, like the Ranown cycle itself, sears itself into memory. These westerns are hopelessly undervalued by the bulk of mainstream audiences and critics, but for the initiated—as blasphemous as this may sound—this brief collaboration by a group of artists, lead by obsessive, inimitable auteur Budd Boetticher, rivals the best in American cinema (and, yes, that includes the films of John Ford).
AKA The Vidiot from UHF
DIRECTED BY: Jay Levey
FEATURING: “Weird Al” Yankovic, Michael Richards
PLOT: Walter Mitty-style daydreamer George becomes manager of an independent television station, and his bizarre programming becomes a surprise hit.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I wouldn’t begrudge Al his weirdness, but he means something more juvenile by “weird” than we do. UHF has an irreverent and independent spirit and takes a few turns into the decidedly offbeat, but it’s basically Al’s mildly skewed idea of mainstream comedy.
COMMENTS: UHF saw pop-parodist “Weird Al” shift his gentle satirical sights from hit singles to movies and TV. The framing plot is stock: likable ne’er-do-well comes to have responsibility for a failing enterprise and unexpectedly makes it a success, drawing the ire of soulless corporate powers who seek to crush him. While you won’t be surprised to find out the Weird Al wins the day and gets the girl back, the plot is just a frame on which to hang a series of skits and parodies. Al tackles movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, the facetious Gandhi sequel Gandhi 2, and Rambo. Like his music videos, the satire is not exactly incisive (Conan the Barbarian becomes Conan the Librarian, for example), but that’s OK: Weird Al is in the business of making puns, not enemies. Film nuts will enjoy the subtler nods to This Island Earth, Network, and a real groaner based on Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The parodies of Eighties movies should have gone stale by now, but they haven’t, largely because Hollywood keeps recycling the same cliches twenty years later. You don’t need to have seen the original Rambo to recognize what’s being lampooned when the musclebrained hero’s automatic weapon’s causes bamboo huts to randomly explode. The TV skits, which for the most part stand on their own without requiring knowledge of long forgotten shows, are funnier and more inventive than the straight parodies; they allow Al to show off a more unique and absurd sense of humor. “Wheel of Fish” is a memorably ludicrous game show, and “Raul’s Wild Kingdom” (hosted from his apartment, where he investigates his ant farm and teaches poodles to fly) is another highlight. Squeaky Emo Phillips, improbably cast as a shop teacher (!), gets off the film’s darkest and most hilarious line after an accident with a table saw. But the best of all is Michael Richards as a slow, mop-loving janitor whose children’s show (where the kid who finds a marble in a vat of oatmeal is rewarded by getting to “drink from the firehose”) becomes the station’s flagship hit. Richards steals most of his scenes and demonstrates some of the herky-jerky physical comedy that would make him beloved as Seinfeld’s “Kramer” in a few years. All in all, UHF is a meandering, light-hearted series of gags in an Airplane! vein that makes for a pleasant enough afternoon matinee. The PG-13 rating is for some silly cartoon violence. Other than that, it’s sweet, sex and swear-word fee, and appropriate for older kids, who will eat up the booger humor.
“Weird Al” sold millions of parody records in the 1980s (redoing Michael Jackson’s #1 hit “Beat It” as “Eat It” and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” as “Like a Surgeon.”) Hoping to cash in on Al’s already fading popularity,UHF was intended as a summer blockbuster by Orion studios, but the movie critically savaged and tanked at the box office. Orion went bankrupt soon after. The film later became a huge hit on VHS and DVD. It’s not nearly as bad as the cold-hearted critics initially claimed (Roger Ebert called it “the dreariest comedy in many a month”), or as hilarious as the Weird Al cultists who made it one of the best-selling videos of all time would have it. Instead, it’s diverting spoofery for the ten-year-old inside all of us that should keep you amused for 90 minutes.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Vooshvazool.” Suggest a weird movie off your own here.)]
DIRECTED BY: Hayao Miyazaki
FEATURING (AMERICAN DUBBED VERSION): Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Betty White
PLOT: In this Japanese variation on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a goldfish with a human face escapes from the undersea lair built by her wizard father and decides she wants to become human when she washes ashore and is adopted as a pet by a little boy.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ponyo is an imaginative and beautifully drawn fairy tale for children that frequently sacrifices mature logic for emotional effect or visual spectacle, but it’s a bit too safe and cutesy, and more fantastic and childlike than bizarre. Because it is told from a child’s-eye view and not simplified for adults, some grown-ups may find it weird.
COMMENTS: Ponyo begins with a descent into an ocean teeming with fish, squid and crustaceans; the picture’s frame becomes an impossibly dense and multi-layered aquarium of submarine life. When the headstrong goldfish Ponyo wanders away from this underwater Eden, her journey on the back of a jellyfish runs aground when she encounters an equally thick stratum of human detritus and garbage, stirred into a whirlpool by the propellers of passing ships, and ends up washed ashore lodged in a bottle for 5 year-old Sōsuke to find.
There’s a not so subtle ecological message at play here, but Miyazaki never gets preachy. The main focus of the film is in drawing wondrous moving images that delight a child’s imagination (and look pretty good to adults, too, even if they can’t resonate in quite the same way). The most mesmerizing of these is newly half-human Ponyo’s gallop atop tsunami waves which turn into fish and melt back into surf as she chases after Sōsuke. Visions of a luminescent sea goddess and a city of ships drawn to the horizon by an encroaching moon also ensnare the fancy. The animation is deliberately primitive, almost childlike, in style, appropriately looking like a children’s book come to life. Unfortunately, the story and tone are childlike as well, resulting in a film that entrances kids but lacks a crossover magic for adults. Grown-ups in the film accept the magic matter-of-factly, as if they were just big kids with driver’s licenses, showing no amazement when a pet turns into a little girl, or when they discover two pre-schoolers piloting their own boat unattended after a flood. Precociously cute, infatuated with her discovery of the human world, and squealing “I love ham!,” the one-note goldfish herself is a character only a mother or fellow toddler could love. With Ponyo, Miyazaki has crafted a film that will hypnotize girls aged four to seven. There’s not much of a story to engage their parents, but they can amuse themselves watching the parade of pretty pastel-colored pictures for ninety minutes, and in trying to recall what it was like when the line between reality and make-believe was as thin as the skin of a bubble.
I confess that I haven’t seen any Miyazaki films previously (everyone has some gaps in their film education). The revered animator’s most celebrated works like Spirited Away (2001) are supposed to be so fantastic as to be virtually surreal. With the visual imagination evident in Ponyo, it’s easy to see how, working with material oriented less towards the kindergarten set, another work of his might merit a spot on the list of the 366 best weird movies ever made.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The story sounds weird, and it is weird: Like many of Miyazaki’s previous films, Ponyo is written from a child’s perspective and with a child’s sense of logic… pure fairy-tale surrealism.”–Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald (contemporaneous)