Tag Archives: 1994

CAPSULE: DAMSELVIS, DAUGHTER OF HELVIS (1994)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: John Michael McCarthy

FEATURING: Sherry Lynn Garris, Adimu Ajanaku

PLOT: Country girl Ilsa discovers she is actually the daughter of the dead god Helvis, and travels to the pyramid in Memphis to resurrect him, while Black Jesus races to stop her.

Still from Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis (1994)

COMMENTS: In the first few minutes, standing in a muddy Mississippi field, Black Jesus shoots one of his followers in the head and immediately resurrects him. And so begins Damselvis: a schizophrenic mix of Southern Gothic, grindhouse shocks, and rockabilly culture shot through a distinctively kitsch-surreal lens. It also begins the wild extended universe of John Michael McCarthy (or JMM, as he sometimes styles himself).

Damselvis is a simple hero’s journey (complete with a closing epigram from “Joseph Cambelvis”). Young Ilsa discovers her divine heritage as Damselvis and goes on a quest to fulfill her destiny. There is an unexpectedly serious theme about paganesque iconography (represented by Elvis, the chief deity of the pop culture pantheon) replacing the role of Christianity in American culture (a trend McCarthy celebrates); in other words, how rock n’ roll became bigger than Jesus. But it’s all done in a wacky, surreally comic sexploitation style: the journey is far more important than the destination. You keep watching for the abundant nudity (including a lesbian encounter in the woods), the campy biker violence, and the goofy supernaturalism, which climaxes with resurrected giant-eyeball Helvis emerging from his guitarcophagus to battle Black Jesus, who has transformed into a Rastafarian werewolf. You’re guaranteed never to have seen anything quite like this before (unless you’ve seen another JMM movie).

As a first outing, Damselvis‘ two-thousand dollar budget is painfully obvious. The camcorder photography gives it a Polaroid quality look. (Some cheap, lurid-yet-muted lighting and filters appear during the film’s more psychedelic moments to liven things up, but it still looks cheesy as hell.) The sound goes in and out (closed captions are recommended, though sometimes even they read “inaudible”). Locations are remote fields, back roads, junkyards, attics, cheap diners, and abandoned houses in Mississippi and/or Tennessee (there’s also one surreptitious shoot at a cool waterfall, and a brief stint inside the Egyptology display at the University of Memphis). Makeup is ridiculous. The actors are clearly amateurs winging it. The soundtrack is raucous lo-fi psychobilly from local Memphis bands (including JMM’s own Rockroaches). The highest production value goes into Damselvis’ costume: all angel-white, consisting of a vest with long fringes (reminiscence of a Vegas-era Elvis jumpsuit), thigh-high lace-up boots, and hot pants. This aesthetic is charming to some, and certainly fits the film’s redneck surrealist atmosphere, but I would argue JMM’s future shot-on-film efforts benefit enormously from the infusion of a few extra thousand bucks.

Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis was a surprise Blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome (via shot-on-video specialist partner-label Saturn’s Core). Given its shot-on-video provenance, the movie’s audiovisual quality is awful, including occasional VHS tracking errors. That’s as it should be; it’s key to the movie’s DIY authenticity. Since it’s under the Vinegar imprint, the disc includes a ton of special features, including a commentary from and interview with the director, a reel of behind-the-scenes footage that’s almost twice as long as the movie itself, JMM reading from his own “adult” comix (including the original “Damselvis”), footage of a Helvis-themed punk concert in Memphis, and trailers for other sleazily weird Saturn’s Core releases. JMM recently self-released his third film, The Sore Losers (1997), on Blu-ray, but we’re praying to Helvis to see his second, the long-unavailable Teenage Tupelo (1996), resurrected soon.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an utterly bizarre but completely enjoyable sixty-three minutes of rock n roll craziness… an odd mix of parody, black comedy, exploitation and overall cult movie strangeness.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: LA TETA Y LA LUNA (1994)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Teté and the Moon, The Tit and the Moon

DIRECTED BY: Bigas Luna

FEATURING: Mathilda May, Biel Durán, Gérard Darmon, Miguel Poveda

PLOT: Frustrated at losing access to his mother’s chest following the birth of his baby brother, young Teté becomes enraptured with Estrellita, a dancer who comes to town as part of a traveling show; he competes for her attentions with her husband as well as a lovestruck young man.

Still from Teta y La Launa (1994)

COMMENTS: Part of the charm – and also the frustration – of the coming-of-age film is that it relies on the point of view of someone too young to fully understand the world around them. An innocent, unburdened by years of maturity and perspective. We watch them with a combination of longing for their ignorance and sympathy for their embarrassment.

La Teta y La Luna doubles down on this by handing over the narration to its central character, Teté. Not a grown-up Teté looking back at his youthful folly with rueful hindsight, mind you, but the boy himself, speaking in the past tense but still deep in the thrall of his adolescent, unearned bravado. When he confidently tells us that he “devastated” a foe’s motorcycle, we can see for ourselves that he’s lamely kicking it to no effect. So he would seem to be an extremely unreliable narrator indeed. Except when it’s surely our eyes that deceive us. For when Teté informs us that every woman in a bodega is offering her breasts to him, what we see is exactly that. How could this possibly be? Surely this is wishful thinking to the greatest extreme.

For you see – to paraphrase Loudon Wainwright III –  Teté is a “tit man.” Ever since his newborn brother arrived, the pleasure of suckling at his mother’s teat has been denied to him, and he has been in search of a replacement. (The title pulls off a neat double meaning, referencing both the main character and his overriding obsession.) So the one thing we can trust absolutely is that he immediately settles upon Estrellita, the beautiful dancer who has just come to Teté’s small oceanfront village.

He’s hardly alone in being drawn to the comely ballerina, which complicates our understanding of the film’s point of view. Teté’s teenage rival, Miguel, is nearly sick with longing from the moment he encounters Estrellita and begins to sing to her with a voice that should earn him a gig fronting the Gipsy Kings. There’s nothing ironic or misleading about his pain. Meanwhile, Estrellita’s husband Maurice is given all the hallmarks of parody: despite looking like a grizzled and silver-maned biker, Maurice’s talent is as a modern-day successor to Le Petomane, and Estrellita makes love to him on their trailer waterbed and collects his tears in a jar while he makes her eat a baguette which he wields in place of his manhood. He’s ridiculous even as he cuts a dashing figure, but again we don’t doubt what we see. If we can take Miguel and Maurice at face value, who’s to say that Teté isn’t exactly what he presents to us?

So let us now turn to the object of all their affections. Mathilda May has already distinguished herself in these hallowed halls as a beautiful actress who is willing to put her full and uncovered beauty on display, and that reputation is certainly burnished here. If we are to believe Teté, she is ready and willing to provide him with access to a veritable firehose of milk from her bared breast. Luna’s camera is as in love with Estrellita’s chest as most of the male characters. But this objectification becomes extremely awkward in the face of Estrellita’s increasing discomfort. She dotes on her husband, and he responds with jealousy and resentment. She shows her unease with Miguel’s repeated declarations of love, but loses agency in the face of his increasing threats of self-harm. And we never even get to see what would logically be her concerns with Teté’s blunt and inappropriate requests. (For Teté, none of this appears to be sexual, but it surely is for her.) For the princess at the heart of this fairy tale, there’s a worrisome ignorance of her needs and fears. La Teta y La Luna is obsessed with Estrellita’s chest, but not much with the heart that beats underneath.

The film wraps up with a happy ending for everyone, most significantly for Teté, who gets to feed from both Estrellita and his own mother, a conclusion that bears no resemblance to anything approaching reality. The tone throughout is bright and charming, but it’s a strange and selfish lesson this tale delivers: “Persist and you’ll get what you want, fellas.” It’s a tale as old as time, but maybe it’s time for a rethink.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Completely perverted, totally surreal, but irresistibly charming.”– Henrik Sylow, DVD Beaver (DVD)\

(This movie was nominated for review by Wormhead, who called it “a surrealistic spanish/french film by Bigas Luna.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SHRUNKEN HEADS (1994)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING:  Aeryk Egan, Bo Sharon, Darris Love, Meg Foster, Julius Harris, Rebecca Herbst, A.J. Damato

PLOT:  In New York, three boys are murdered by gangsters and then resurrected as shrunken heads by a local Haitian voodoo practitioner.

COMMENTS:  In most suburbs during the 90’s, the video rental store was positioned precisely between a doughnut shop (laden with youths with hair parted down the middle playing “Area 51”) and a pizza place that sold greasy bags of bread sticks for $2.50.  Florescent lit and staffed by geeks who knew more about Windows 95 short cuts than personal hygiene, this type of independent video shop had a chemical smell from the profusion of plastics, but was air-conditioned and filled with R-rated flicks.  Hoping to poach a glimpse of babes in thongs on movie posters or barely-covered breasts on the covers of VHS tapes, the neighborhood boys, sweaty and short on quarters thanks to Tekken 2, stumbled upon tapes like Shrunken Heads.

Appealing to the preteen amygdala, Shrunken Heads initially frisks about like a typical teen drama, with young gents in stripes and khakis battling bullies, but it’s suddenly recast into a skittish horror film with hokey voodoo components. Watching it is like compulsive carbohydrate bingeing; one stops asking questions and simply indulges. It was most likely intended for the 10-12 year olds, Netscape hackers, AOL chatters and comic book store patrons of its time, but in 2021 it holds appeal to VHS collectors and horror enthusiasts alike.

The plot is uninteresting and filled with daffy material.  Meg Foster plays androgynous gangster Big Moe with a cigar, hat and trench coat. Sporting an exaggerated NYC accent, she hangs with crimped groupies and a warehouse full of cigarette smoking goons who play pool, and ends up crossing paths with some humdrum kids. One has asthma, one’s got red hair, and one is soft for neighborhood Sally (Rebecca Herbst, the only girl not in spandex), who looks great and truly holds it down, even though the script gives her no reason to. The boys slip up and get capped by big Moe’s thugs over a petty gripe, but luckily Mr. Sumatra (a Haitian voodoo priest played by Julius Harris) summons them from the dead in the form of shrunken heads so they can exact their revenge.

shrunken heads (1995) rebecca herbst
Pictured: Rebecca Herbst demonstrating proper use of denim over stripes.

The volatile story is made more chaotic by the tacky musical score which sounds more appropriate to 90’s cable television programming or afternoon soaps like “All My Children” than a horror film. The vivacious opening theme by Danny Elfman might be the film’s sensory highlight, but the remedying sounds of Casio tones that follow provide a soundtrack that’s exquisitely outré, a pariah to pair with the outlandish gag culture. These treasures don’t come free; there’s ample boredom to be endured, script-wise.

Even though half-baked bits of dialogue like “Bear witness as my life was so cruelly torn from me in the prime of my youth” remain forgettable, the movie’s cast retains its charm. Harris provides focus to glide through some of the preposterous scenes, such as when he drops a dead cat into a melting pot and the boys’ gasping heads are floating in glop. Beaming with demoniac glee, he looks to be relishing his own performance. Meg Foster is spunky as a lesbian gangster, especially when she pinches the face of a male henchmen or waves a lit cigar around. Rebecca Herbst seems to be the most grounded, hardly freaking out over dead friends coming back to life.

Benefiting from its kooky cast, Shrunken Heads grows even odder with aleatory makeup and dexterous effects. The kinetic scenes where the heads fly around New York City help enrich the boring script, and there’s also some mangy voodoo sets with dead goats and chickens. Further perked by snappy vocal effects from the re-animated heads, everything leads to a suitable climax featuring a punctual highway pursuit and frosty lightning effects. These ingredients make Shrunken Heads a passable success—although the experience can get knotted by juvenile regressions such as flatulent zombies, which makes other Full Moon releases like Arcade and Meridian look earnest in comparison. Heads still holds up, perhaps even coming in low-budget specialist Full Moon’s top ten.

Quality voodoo-themed films are scarce lately (excepting Bertrand Bonello’s outstanding Zombi Child), but in the realm of VHS tapes, every Weekend at Bernie’s 2 begets a charming dud like Shrunken Heads. The voodoo genre is adept at both intriguing viewers and snagging them in its foibles. Shrunken Heads is unique and a somewhat weird experience; there probably won’t be anything like it produced again. With its balmy voodoo plot, it flaunts a rare sense of laxity absent in the present day obsession with algorithmic, safe media. To thoroughly imbibe its fluky complexion, see it on grainy VHS while under the influence of a mild sedative.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strange god awful movie, but one that affords itself some nostalgic value so while it is a waste of talent and resources, it’s not totally a waste of time.”–Felix J. Vasquez, Cinema Crazed

CAPSULE: TAMMY AND THE T-REX (1994)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Walker, Theo Forsett, Terry Kiser, Ellen Dubin

PLOT: Mad scientists transfer Tammy’s boyfriend’s brain into a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Still from Tammy and the T-rex (1994)

COMMENTS: What can you say about a movie called Tammy and the T-Rex that the title doesn’t already tell you? The movie indeed gives us both Tammy (debuting 90s bombshell Denise Richards, whose earnestness as a dino’s gf helps sell this absurdity) and a T-rex (a 13-foot animatronic model capable of rolling its eyes, lowering its eyelids, curling its lip, and clamping its jaws—and not much else).

Obviously, the latter of those two is the star and the film’s raison d’être. Literally so: the movie’s producer funded the film specifically because he had access to the animatronic model for two weeks, and asked writer/director Stewart Raffill to create a screenplay to showcase the prop. All credit goes to Raffill for taking the lemon he was handed here and making reasonably palatable lemonade. Tammy and the T-rex garnered no awards—it didn’t even get a theatrical release—but the energy never flags, and it’s a reasonable way to burn 90 minutes.

Raffill’s checkered resume included the Star Wars spoof The Ice Pirates, the execrable E.T. ripoff/McDonald’s commercial Mac & Me,  and a forgotten sequel to Mannequin; so to say that Tammy and the T-rex is his greatest contribution to film may seem like moderate praise, at best. But the movie fills its “dumb fun” niche admirably. It’s helped by some lucky casting: Richards is joined by fellow then-unknown Paul Walker, making for an attractive couple of young leads. These two play their ridiculous situation relatively straight, while the comic mugging is left to the villainous mad scientists and the gay black sidekick (a stereotype, sure, but a pioneering character in 1994). Terry Kiser (Weekend at Bernies) shows what he can do in a non-corpse role, which is speak in a funny German accent, pose as a chain-smoking surgeon, and deliver lines like “We must remember that he’s going to a far, far better place… Helga, take him to the morgue.” That said, none of his antics are quite as funny as the scene where Tammy plays charades with the T-rex, or when the dinosaur checks a pay phone for quarters. The film is aware of its own cheesiness, but unpretentiously so; it hits the difficult mark of self-mockery that isn’t self-congratulatory, something that more recent spoofs like Sharknado miss badly.

The broad comic tone is like a film without the misanthropy and shock value. It feels like one of the campy, late night B-movies that used to run on cable’s “USA Up All Night” in the 1990s, movies edited for content to produce PG-13 versions of goofy-but-exploitative drive-in features. Which leads directly to the next point: although Tammy plays mostly like a PG-13 creature feature/teen rom-com, it does feature incongruous moments of R-rated gore—heads getting ripped off torsos by tyrannosaurus jaws, that kind of thing. The original film was released in most countries in a “clean” version, while the alternate cut with gore and more swearing played in Europe. The U.S. VHS tape, where most people originally saw the movie, featured the sanitized version. The “gore cut” was thought to be lost until Vinegar Syndrome found and restored an Italian 35mm print. I’m not sure the extra blood and guts adds too much (does making your actors clutch pig intestines to their abdomens ever add too much?), but it is a novelty, and it did provide an excuse to re-release Tammy to film festivals and in a deluxe Blu-ray set. Look for it to run as a second-tier midnight movie when repertory theaters reopen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…ludicrously, brilliantly weird; a ‘bad’ movie that, by embracing its campy tone and demonstrating a slight-but-significant self-awareness, is really anything but.”–Shaun Munro, Flickering Myth (festival “gore cut” screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Kristie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: A PURE FORMALITY (1994)

Una pura formalità

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Giuseppe Tornatore

FEATURING: Gérard Depardieu, Roman Polanski

PLOT: Apprehended during a downpour in the middle of the countryside, a famous writer is challenged to explain his whereabouts that evening by the station’s resident inspector, a great fan of the author’s work.

COMMENTS: “When I tell this story, no one will believe me. How can a place this absurd exist?”

Though technically an Italian movie—an Italian wrote and directed it, the ancillary actors are all Italian, as is the entire film crew—there are few movies I’ve seen that feel more “French” than Tornatore’s A Pure Formality. Of course, having Gérard Depardieu, a Frenchman’s Frenchman, as the lead does quite a lot to lend it Gallic bonafides. But beyond that primary anchor are the secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary anchors, all of them latching the film squarely in the great ocean of French cinema. Had you told me that this was Jean Cocteau‘s final film (though he would have been 104 at the time), I might well have believed you.

The story concerns a disillusioned, alcoholic, end-of-his-tether novelist—the second French anchor—named Onoff (Gérard Depardieu), who is found in a frazzled (and drenched) state by the local gendarmes in the French (naturally) countryside. Hostile and unable to produce identity papers, he is taken back to the water-logged police station to await “the Inspector” (a genteel, but commanding, Roman Polanski). Upon the Inspector’s arrival, a strange dialogue ensues, replete with literary quotations and oblique philosophizing—anchor the third. As the late night turns into early morning, their conversation continues, teetering between truth and lies, and becoming increasingly existential in tone as the station gets wetter and wetter.

As this is a psychological thriller, there is a monumental twist near the end; this being a French crime thriller, that twist has monumentally philosophical overtones (the fourth anchor). But throughout the often fraught interrogation occur absurd comedic moments. The police station seems to inhabit some timeless liminal space existing indefinably in an era pieced together from the 1950s through the present. During their talks—which are a real pleasure to witness, as Dépardieu is at the top of his game, and Polanski shows that he should really act more often—the ceiling’s leaks grow in number and intensity. Around the midway point, all the officers, helped by Onoff, literally bail out the station and vainly try to mop up the floodwaters with towels. Meanwhile, a metaphor skitters around the floor in the form of a white mouse, whose fate is alluded to by the baited trap found in a cabinet whose door keeps opening mysteriously.

Whether or not all this artful playfulness works for you hinges on the ending, about which I can say no more. But presuming you appreciate a bit of theatricality (this is, effectively, a two-man stage show) accompanied by an Ennio Morricone score, then A Pure Formality is one of the tastiest slices of crimembert cheese you could hope for[efn_note]If that pun isn’t to your taste, then hard cheese.[/efn_note].

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the end of the film, amid reminders of Kafka and Beckett, we learn the answer to the strange night’s interrogation. Some members of the audience will have guessed it. Others will have feared it. Few will find it worth the wait.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)