WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 8/14/09

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 (WIDE RELEASE):

District 9 (2009):  South African science fiction story about refugee aliens on Earth that appears on the surface to be an  allegory of  apartheid.  “Presented” by formerly weird director Peter (Heavenly Creatures) Jackson, who’s seal of approval actually implies quality at this point in his career.  Word on the street is it’s original, but that’s unlikely to translate into weirdDistrict 9 official site.

Ponyo (2008):  Hayao (Spirited Away) Miyazaki’s Hans Christan Andersen inspired fairy tale about a goldfish trying to become human was a hit in Japan; now, Disney is releasing it on these shores, dubbed by big name Hollywood talent (Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon and others).  With Disney’s name on it, it ain’t gonna be weird, but Miyazaki has his fans and the visuals have been described as “trippy.”   Ponyo official site (Disney).

The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009):  Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams star in this romantic sci-fi/fantasy about a man born with a gene which causes him to become unstuck in time at random intervals.  Scripted by Bruce Joel Rubin of Jacob’s Ladder fame from a bestselling novel by Audrey Niffenegger.  Few critics think it’s too good, but at least one (Brandon Judell) thinks it’s “too weird,” which may come as an endorsement to readers looking for a date night movie that won’t bore them.   The Time Traveler’s Wife official site.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

Grace (2009): This indie horror about a mother whose baby is born undead escaped from the festival circuit to a limited theatrical engagement. First time feature director Paul Solet expanded Grace to a full length movie from an award-winning short that Fangoria called “superbly bizarre.”  Love the poster with the infant’s bottle half full of blood! Grace official site.

Taxidermia (2006):  Three interwoven stories about three generations of Hungarian men: a WWII veteran grandfather, a would-be athlete father, and a taxidermist son—surrealy woven together by certified weird director György (Hukkle) Pálfi.  Clearly, the theatrical weird pick of the week, which is why it is only playing two theaters in the United States.  Rather than taking a road trip to L.A. or NYC, we’ll be waiting for a proper Region 1 DVD release (it’s already available to Europeans and others with machines that can play PAL DVDs), but we advise those who can to catch it on the big screen and report back to us. Taxidermia official site (US).

IN THEATERS (SPECIAL EVENTS): THURSDAY, AUGUST 20:

Rifftrax Live: Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959): One night only!  Three stars from the cult TV hit  Mystery Science Theater will make snarky comments about the movie that is widely (and incorrectly) believed to be the worst ever made! Though we have our doubts about the project—what’s the added value of “riffing live?”  Why pick a movie that doesn’t need any commentary to be a laff riot? And why cater to the masses by screening the colorized print?—it’s an intriguing idea.  You can find a list of participating theaters here.

NEW ON DVD:

Alien Trespass (2008):  This 1950s-style, colorized alien invasion movie realizes that the ridiculousness inherent in the genre needs no exaggeration and spoofs its subject matter with a straight face, which makes it an enjoyably affectionate rather than a smug parody.  Not terribly weird, but an offbeat and worthwhile pickup, especially for fans of The Blob and other nostalgic nonsense.  Buy from Amazon.

Gigantic (2008): Self-described “surreal love story” (we’re skeptical, but maybe the trailer strategically de-emphasized the “surreal” elements) hits the DVD ranks after a minuscule theatrical run (despite the presence of Zooey Deschanel and John Goodman). Buy from Amazon.

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

Alien Trespass (2008):  See description in the DVD section above.  Buy from Amazon.

Ichi the Killer (2001): This perverted and extreme sadomasochistic classic from weird director Takajshi Miike gets the Blu-ray treatment.  No longer will viewers have to suffer the agonies of low-definition arterial spray!  Buy form Amazon

The Ninth Gate (1999):  Roman Polanski returns to the supernatural genre in this overlooked 1999 film about a rare book collector (Johnny Depp) stumbling onto a diabolical tome which leads his soul into peril.  Buy from Amazon.

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.

REFLECTIONS ON THE 48 HOUR FILM FESTIVAL & THE “9” DIARY.

“Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema” is a column published on Thursdays covering truly independent cinema: the stuff that’s so far under the public radar it may as well be underground.   The folks making these films may be starving artists today, but they may be recognized as geniuses tomorrow.  We hope to look like geniuses ourselves by being the first to cover them.

48_hour_film_festival_4July 31st -Aug 2nd, the 48 hr Film Festival came to Indianapolis, sponsored by the Big Car Art Gallery.  Jim Walker of Big Car curated the event.  30 Indiana film making teams signed up to participate, including the Liberty or Death Team of James Mannan and Robin Panet.

Jim and Robin approached me about six weeks ago, inviting me to participate in this year’s 48 Hour Film Festival.  Since I assisted in last year’s event with them to do Hallow’s Dance, I was a tad reluctant to do all this again.  However, they shrewdly threw out a couple of temptations when they told me they wanted to do something surreal, which is my forte, along with inviting me to write and direct with Robin.  Jim would be producing.  If I recall correctly, my response was something akin to “Oh, alright, goddammit.”

For those who don’t know the set up of the festival, it goes like this: the teams go in on Friday night at 7:30 pm and draw a genre out of the hat.  Jim drew Horror, which was apt as this is Jim and Robin’s forte. Then, everyone is given the same character name, his profession, a line of dialogue, and a prop.

The character name was Professor Sherman Kane, the prop was a ball and the line of dialogue was “I’m not talking to you”.  Now the teams leave, write their script, shoot it, edit and turn it in by 7:30 pm on Sunday night.  Showing of films: Wednesday and Thursday evening at the IMA.

48_hour_film_festival_1I would imagine the whole idea for said festival came from Roger Corman.  The story is well known among film aficionados.  Corman had finished The Raven 48 hours ahead of schedule, with the actors, including Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson, still on contract for the remainder of the shooting schedule.  That night Corman went home, wrote a script called The Terror, came back the next day and shot it within the 48 period.  The problem with this story is that The Terror is indeed a terror to Continue reading REFLECTIONS ON THE 48 HOUR FILM FESTIVAL & THE “9” DIARY.

33. EVIL DEAD II (1987)

AKA Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn “What distinguishes Evil Dead II is that it isn’t a horror film with comic moments or a comedy with frightening moments. It is instead a true horror-comedy that taps into the fact that both comedy and horror rely on weirdness, incongruity, and shock.”–Victoria Large, Brattle Theater Film Notes

Must See

DIRECTED BYSam Raimi

FEATURING: Bruce Campbell

PLOT:  Young Ash takes his girlfriend to a deserted cabin in the woods for a weekend of romance; unfortunately, the hideout was the former abode of a deceased archaeologist who had discovered a “Book of the Dead” the ancients believed could call forth an evil spirit and allow it to possess the bodies of the living and the dead.  Ash plays an old tape by the professor in which he reads the magical words of summoning, and the spirit does indeed come and possess Ash’s girlfriend (whom he is forced to dispatch gruesomely).  That’s only the beginning of Ash’s troubles, however, as, trapped in the cabin, now must fight off a horde of demonic presences, at first all alone and later with the help of the professor’s daughter and her companions.

Still from Evil Dead II (1987)

BACKGROUND:

  • Evil Dead II is much more a remake of, rather than a sequel to, Raimi’s low-budget drive-in hit The Evil Dead (1981) (although that point is technically debated among fans). Where The Evil Dead was a straightforward horror movie, Evil Dead II is a comedy in a horror setting.  Actor Bruce Campbell reprises his role as Ash from the first film; it was this performance that made him into a cult actor.
  • This was Raimi’s third feature film, after The Evil Dead and the weird, Coen brothers scripted comedy Crimewave! (1985).  He would go on to mainstream success when he was tapped to direct the Spider-Man series.
  • Powerful horror novelist Stephen King, a fan of the first Evil Dead, introduced Raimi to Dino de Laurentiis and convinced the producer to fund Evil Dead II after Raimi declined an offer to adapt King’s story Thinner.
  • Followed by a sequel, Army of Darkness (1992).  Rumors of a fourth film in the series have circulated since the mid nineties; currently, an Evil Dead IV is listed as “in development” on the Internet Movie Database, although this is far from an assurance that a fourth film will be made.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Ash fighting his own disembodied hand: a scene that starts out creepy, but becomes a slapstick routine, ending up in a groan-inducing pun.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Oddly, Evil Dead II‘s credentials as a weird film are called into


Original trailer for Evil Dead II

question by its almost unqualified embrace by critics and gorehounds alike: can anything that is so widely beloved, anything that fails to alienate either the high or the lowbrow, really be authentically weird?  In fact, Evil Dead II is only slightly weird, but the events of the cabin feverish middle portion of the film—where the battered Ash seems to be hallucinating the horrific events—are just bizarre enough to make Evil Dead II eligible for inclusion on list of the weirdest films of all time.  Add to those scenes the over-the-top gore, slapstick and constant surprises of the film’s last half, and you get a lovable mish-mash of a movie with a one-of-a-kind comic tone that is too exhilarating to be left off a list of the weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS:  The quality and sheer fun of Evil Dead II don’t need a defense.  It’s hard to Continue reading 33. EVIL DEAD II (1987)

WEIRD SPECIES I: THE UNCANNY

“What is weird?” is a question I’m sometimes asked. I don’t like to answer the question, because I think we’re all familiar with that “weird” feeling, and I’m more interested in seeing what other people think is weird than in defining it myself. In some ways, the problem we have identifying a weird movie is like the problem Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart had identifying obscenity: “it’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.” The weird is what makes you feel… well, weird.

Still, we can see trends of movies that tend to be recurrently weird. Of these, the one species that comes to mind is the horror film.  Of all the popular film genres, horror films are the ones that most consistently give us that “weird” feeling.  If we’re looking for a word to describe the subclass of the weird that horror films exploit, I suggest the term “uncanny.”

The Wikipedia dictionary defines uncanny as “strange, and mysteriously unsettling (as if supernatural); weird,” which perfectly describes the feeling that the best horror movies seek to evoke.  I believe “uncanny” has more of a strict supernatural connotation than “weird,” which is often used simply to describe anything that deviates from the norm. You might speak of a boy as being a “weird kid” if he insisted on wearing a tie to school and was obsessed with Bigfoot, but you probably wouldn’t call him an “uncanny kid” unless his eyes glowed like one of the tykes from Village of the Damned (1960).

For a long time, “weird” and “supernatural horror” were almost synonyms.  The pulp magazine “Weird Tales” was founded in 1923, focusing mostly on horror but also including fantasy fiction (such as Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories).  In 1938 H.P. Lovecraft wrote Supernatural Horror in Literature and used “weird” essentially as a synonym for “supernatural horror,” devoting chapters to “The Weird Tradition in America” and “The Weird Tradition in the British Isles.”  In his Introduction, Lovecraft wrote, “[t]he one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of Continue reading WEIRD SPECIES I: THE UNCANNY

32. PHANTASM (1979)

AKA The Never Dead (Australia)

“…when you’re dealing with a movie with this many oddball ideas, and a director who’s not afraid to ‘go weird’ just because he wants to, your best bet is probably just to keep quiet, enjoy the ride, and then see how you feel once the whole crazy experience is over with.”–Scott Weinberg, Fearnet

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Angus Scrimm, , Bill Thornbury,

PLOT:  While secretly observing services for a deceased family friend, recently orphaned 13 year-old Mike witnesses an impossible feat performed by the funeral director known only as The Tall Man.  Later, while following the older brother he adores to a tryst in a cemetery, he spoils the romantic ambiance when he tries to warn his brother of a dwarf-like creature he sees scurrying in the shadows.  The Tall Man begins appearing in Mike’s nightmares, and he journeys alone to the isolated funeral home to gather evidence to support his belief that the mortician is responsible for the strange happenings in his New England town.

Still from Phantasm (1979)

BACKGROUND:

  • The kernel of the idea for Phantasm came from a dream writer/director Coscarelli had in his late teens where he was “being pursued through a corridor by some kind of flying steel ball.”
  • Coscarelli, only 23 years old when Phantasm began production, not only wrote and directed the film but also served as cinematographer and editor.
  • The film originally received an “X” rating in the United States (a kiss of death at that time for anyone seeking wide theatrical distribution) due to the blood and violence in the silver sphere scene (and the shot of urine seeping out of the dead man’s pants leg).  The scene is frightening and effective, but relatively tame by twenty-first century standards.  According to a widely repeated anecdote, Los Angeles Times movie critic Charles Champlin, who liked the film, intervened with the MPAA to secure an “R” rating for Phantasm. Per co-producer Paul Pepperman, however, it was someone from the distribution company who convinced the ratings board to change their verdict.  Champlin’s role was actually to recommend Universal pick the picture up for distribution.
  • A scene where the Tall Man appears in Mike’s dream was selected as the 25th entry in Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments.”
  • The film cost between $300,000 and $400,000 to make, and eventually earned over $15 million.
  • Phantasm spawned four sequels, all directed by Coscarelli. None were as well received or fondly remembered as the original.  Coscarelli would eventually score an underground hit again with the bizarre horror/comedy Bubba Ho-Tep (2002).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Without a doubt, the unexplained appearance of the flying sphere zooming through the sublimely creepy marble halls of the mausoleum.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDPhantasm appears to be a standard horror film at first blush, but as it heedlessly races along from one fright to another, it becomes increasingly obvious that the plot is not resolving, or at least not resolving in any sensible way.  It is also obvious that this scattershot plotting, which elevates atmosphere and psychological subtext  by frustrating the literal sense, is a deliberate choice to “go weird” and not a result of incompetence.


Original trailer for Phantasm

COMMENTS: Mike wakes up to discover the Tall Man looming over the head of his bed like Continue reading 32. PHANTASM (1979)

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 8/7/2009

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):

Cold Souls: Described as “a surreal comedy in which souls can be extracted and traded as commodities,” starring indie icon Paul Giamatti. Well-reviewed film from first time director Sophie Barthes. Cold Souls official site.

SCREENINGS (LOS ANGELES): JOE DANTE’S “DANTE’S INFERNO”:

Director Joe Dante (Gremlins) won’t return my calls, and probably wouldn’t even if he had my number; to prove I’m not bitter, I’m going to plug a couple of weird titles from his adventurous “Dante’s Inferno” series now screening at the New Beverly Cinema in Hollywood (check here for the complete schedule).

The Movie Orgy (1968/2009): This is a pastiche of clips from a variety of pre-1968 movies, serials, newsreels, and TV shows, prominently featuring many B-movies such as Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, arranged into what Dante characterizes as “a crazy 16mm cinematic farrago.”  Originally over four hours in length, Dante has added footage to carry the film over the 5 hour mark.  This film is rarely screened, for obvious reasons.  Showing August 8 only, admission is free (!)

The President’s Analyst (1967):  A crazy, underseen paranoid satire—one that could only have come out of the 1960s—about the titular character, who finds himself at the center of a dastardly plot masterminded by an unlikely enemy.  On a double bill with the 1971 tobacco company satire Cold Turkey.  August 11 & 12 only.

ON DEMAND FREE MOVIES (SOME U.S. CABLE SYSTEMS):

Army of Darkness (1992):  The third movie in the Evil Dead trilogy.  In this campy horror/comedy entry, Ash (Bruce Campbell), chainsaw in hand,  finds that the vortex he was sucked into at the end of Evil Dead II leads to a medieval land teeming with yet more evil dead.  Available on Fearnet until August 31.

Dracula (1992): Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the Dracula legend was ruined for many by the terrible decision to cast Keanu Reeves and Wynona Ryder as Jonathan and Mina Harker, but there’s no doubt that it contains some great, hallucinatory visual sequences that make it worth catching.  Available on Fearnet until Spetember 2.

Evil Dead II (1987):  With money and experience under his belt, director Sam Raimi remade his own low-budget hit The Evil Dead (1981) as one of the greatest horror-comedies of all time, full of over-the-top weird touches.  Available on Fearnet until August 31.

Oldboy (2003): The middle entry in Chan-wook Park‘s Vengeance Trilogy, about a man who hunts a unknown enemy after he is imprisoned without explanation for years and just as mysteriously freed.  It’s Park’s most popular film, and probably his best, despite (or because of) it’s violent and stylistic excesses.  Available on the Sundance Channel until September 1st.

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

Big Trouble in Little China (1986): John Carpenter’s Americanized version of a zany Hong Kong action-kung fu-fantasy-comedy doesn’t seem quite as weird and wacky as it did when it flopped in theaters in the 1980s. Word of mouth turned it into a video hit.  Carpenter was ahead of the curve; Westerners would discover the delirious delights of Tsui Hark, Jackie Chan and John Woo on their own within a few years. Buy from Amazon.

AMAZON ARTHOUSE AND INTERNATIONAL SALE:

Through the month of August, Amazon is discounting titles in its international, indie and arthouse catagories, with DVD deals as low as $5.99.  Browse the sale items here: we noticed the 2-disc Criterion collection version of Fellini’s 8 1/2 for $16.49, more than half off list price, among other deals.

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.

CAPSULE: LITTLE ASHES (2008)

DIRECTED BY:  Paul Morrison

FEATURING:  Javier Beltrán,

PLOT:  In Madrid in the 1920s, with Dadaism in full flourish and Surrealism in its infancy,

Still from Little Ashes (2008)

soon-to-be-famous poet Federico García Lorca flirts with soon-to-be-famous painter Salvador Dalí while soon-to-be-famous director Luis Buñuel hangs around.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s subject is Surrealism, but its style is conventional historical romance.

COMMENTS:  A supposed collegiate love affair, supposedly unconsummated, between stuffy poet Lorca and flamboyant painter Dalí is the subject of this pleasantly lensed and generally competent costume affair.  Spanish society in the 1920s is socially repressive (although the three idealists have no clue how much worse it will get in a few years with Franco’s arrival), and the budding geniuses yearn to upset the established order.  Beltrán imbues Lorca with a sense of dignity, although his thick accent is frequently a practical impediment for the viewer.  Pattison makes for a distractingly pretty Dalí; his failure to capture the spirit of the eccentric painter is probably more the failing of the simplistic script.  Buñuel is an underdeveloped third wheel and utility player: a homophobe when the story calls for a homophobe, a foil when it needs a foil, a mediator when it requires a mediator.  We hear bits of Lorca’s poetry, get glimpses of Dalí’s canvases, and see the shocking bits from Un Chien Andalou (1929), but we get no real sense of what motivates these men as artists.  Though Beltrán shows suitable young romantic torment when he’s rejected, it’s hard to credit the suggestion that this awkward fling would have made enough of a impact on either man to influence their future art, much less be a driving force.  Dalí postures and lectures about the need to “go further” and “go beyond” in art; not only do we not see concrete examples of what he means, but there’s irony in the fact that the filmmakers don’t heed his advice.  Other than one mental montage where Lorca mixes up impressions of a bullfight he’s watching with jealous fantasies of Salvador and Luis living it up in Paris, and an odd pseudo-ménage à trois that may make some giggle, the film is extremely conventional and predictable in its approach.  These are fascinating men in a fascinating time, so the decision to put the overwhelming focus of the film on a bit of gossip about who did or didn’t sleep with whom, while humble, is a let down.

I can’t help but be amused by the thought of the few tween Twilight fans, showing up to see vampire heartthrob Pattison in action, getting slapped in the face by the eyeball slitting scene from Un Chien Andalou.   It still makes me squirm, and it must seem incredibly weird, random and shocking—particularly in this context—to anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is an open-hearted tribute to three great iconoclasts, whose response to its piety and sincerity would, most likely, have been ruthless and obscene mockery.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times

Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!