Tag Archives: Asylum

355. LUNACY (2005)

Sílení 

“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”–Edgar Allen Poe, 1848 letter to George W. Eveleth

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Pavel Liska, Jan Tríska, Anna Geislerová

PLOT: A young man suffers recurring nightmares about white-coated men coming to seize him in the night. When he awakens the guests at a roadside inn as he thrashes about during one of these attacks, one man, a modern-day Marquis, takes an interest in him and invites him back to his manor. There, the Marquis troubles the traveler with macabre games that may be real or may be staged, then suggests he voluntarily commit himself to an experimental mental asylum for “purgative therapy” to cure his nightmares.

Still from Lunacy [Sileni] (2005)

BACKGROUND:

  • The script is loosely based on two stories: “The Premature Burial” and “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” The character of the Marquis is obviously based on the .
  • Svankmajer wrote an initial version of the script that became Lunacy in the 1970s, but the Communist authorities refused to approve the film.
  • This was the last film Svankmajer would work on with his longtime collaborator, costume designer, and wife, Eva Svankmajerová; she died a few months after the film’s completion. Among her other duties, she painted the deck of cards featuring Sadean tortures.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be one of Svankmajer’s meaty animations. We picked the scene of brownish cow tongues slithering out of a classical bust—including a pair escaping from the marble nipples—but we wouldn’t blame you for going with the sirloin marionettes instead.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Meat bumpers; shirt unlocking door; human chickens

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s got the Marquis de Sade, an asylum run by chicken-farming lunatics, and animated steaks dancing in between scenes. Despite that lineup, it may be Jan Svankmajer’s most conventional movie. The director calls it an “infantile tribute to Edgar Allen Poe” in his introduction—and is interrupted by a tongue inching its way across the floor.


Introduction to Lunacy (2005)

COMMENTS: The trailer explains that ” + the Marquis de Sade + Jan Svankmajer = Lunacy.” It’s self-evident that combining these three uniquely perverse talents would produce something singularly strange; the fun in watching the movie is in seeing Continue reading 355. LUNACY (2005)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES (2005)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: César Sarachu, , Amira Casar, Assumpta Serna

PLOT: A doctor brings a piano tuner to his remote asylum to prepare automata for an opera he is staging for the benefit of a beautiful, nearly comatose patient who was once a singer.

Still from Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The general consensus is that The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is one of the weakest of the Quay Brothers‘ cinematic efforts; on the other hand, there is no question that this fairy-tale of dreams, madness and opera is one of their very weirdest.

COMMENTS: “After a while, you get used to the confusion,” the housekeeper tells the piano tuner, as she explains that they call the silent men who are always scurrying around in the background of Dr. Droz’s estate “gardeners,” although they are really patients. Of course, the declaration is actually meant as a reassurance for the audience—but by the time the housekeeper drops that line, thirty minutes in, confusion-averse viewers will have already fled in terror. Dr. Droz has either killed and resurrected, or simply abducted, an opera diva, and is keeping her on his private island, where Alpine architeture mixes with tropical flora. The doctor needs a legendary piano tuner, who also happens to be  dead ringer for the singer’s lost love, to fix his seven automata, and to take part in an elaborate opera he is staging. The piano tuner flirts with the seductive housekeeper until the beautiful mute patient catches his eye. Each night, he has a dream, which is the Quay brothers’ excuse to indulge in the types of bizarre fantasy sequences that they made famous in their short films (although here with only minimal stop-motion animation). We see grotesque singing teeth, boats piloted by disembodied hands, and scenes where everyone moves backwards. We soon strike a rhythm of dreams interrupted by dialogues between the tuner and the housekeeper or doctor, which explain very little of what is ultimately going on on the island. Instead, the doctor likes to tell little stories about fungi that infect the brains of ants and eventually form spikes which bursts through the insects’ heads to release spores.

Piano Tuner is a stylistically overstuffed film. That is both a strength and a weakness. It’s one of those movies that looks like the filmmakers suspected they were never going to get another chance to work with a budget like this again, and felt pressed to get all their grandiose ideas up on screen while they had the opportunity. Individual frames of the film look like they come from paintings or drawings, but from a very eclectic museum: some scenes exhibit the swarthy classicism of a Carvaggio, others look like they come out of a medieval woodcutting, while still others like storybook illustrations from a Grimm fairy tale. There are luminous grottoes, ghostly animations, and distorting lenses. Much of the film features people and objects half hidden in shadows, making them as difficult to make out as the story is. The overall intent is to force us to give up on trying to process the narrative and imagery in the conventional sense, and simply submit to its beauty.

The Quay Brothers explained that, as a condition of funding, Film 4 demanded that they make a more “accessible” movie than their previous effort, Institute Benjamenta. Other than shooting the film in color, it’s hard to see how Piano Tuner could ever meet that standard. Terry Gilliam came in as executive producer to save the project; his name and reputation allowed the Quays to raise the remainder of the money they needed to film their outrageously odd visions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the most strangely and subtly variegated march-past of Love’s delirious mechanisms ever committed to film… Absolutely entrancing!”–Guy Maddin, Film Comment (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kat, who described it as containing “beautiful dreamlike imagery and some all too short sequences of the Quay’s miniature automata.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

Recommended

Sanatorium Pod Klepsydra; AKA The Hour-glass Sanitorium; The Sandglass

DIRECTOR:

FEATURING: Jan Nowicki, Jozef Kondrat, Irena Orska, Halina Kowalska, Gustaw Holoubek, Ludwik Benoit, Mieczyslaw Voit

Still from The Hourglass Sanitorium (1973)

PLOT: Adapted from several stories by Bruno Schulz, the movie follows Joseph (Nowicki) as he travels by train to a sanitarium to see his dead father. At this particular institution, time is altered, so his father can still be alive within, while in the outside world his death has already occurred; and while waiting for his father’s death to catch up, Joseph appears to go through incidents in his own past, as time curls in on itself.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Surreal and dream-like, this is probably one of the most artistically successful films of its type—a picturesque journey into death.

COMMENTS: Wojciech Jerzy Has’ two best known films are also the only ones readily available to Western audiences, that other film being The Saragossa Manuscript (1965). Both are challenging adaptations of literary works thought to be unfilmable. These two movies alone would make impressive bookends in any filmmaker’s career, yet these were made almost a decade apart, and Has’ other films reportedly retain a similar level of quality.

Sanitorium is visually sumptuous, due to the cinematography of Witold Sobocinski and the production design by Andrzej Plocki and Jerzy Skarzynski. Viewers who are attracted to the visual artistry of  will find much to like and admire here, though the similarity ends there—while Gilliam is no stranger to dark themes in his works, even in the darkest times, he leaves a small light on. Sanitorium doesn’t allow even that minor level of comfort.

The opening image of the film—a silhouette of a bird in mid-air flight, yet seemingly suspended in place–is probably the most potent metaphor for the journey that Joseph takes. Essentially it’s a metaphoric traverse through life to its inevitable end—death—and also an observation of the same journey of an entire culture, in this case the Jews in Europe prior to the start of World War II. While there is no explicit or obvious symbolism present, no swastikas or any mention of the rise of Nazism, the film supports that reading. As Josef goes through various incidents in his childhood, we see the rich life of the community in prosperous times, and as time and decay progresses, so does that community. The last glimpse we see is Joseph witnessing  an exodus of people from town—from what is never specified, although one can surmise, if one knows history.

Sanitorium doesn’t spell itself out for the audience, and that may be the biggest hurdle for viewers, who will either overcome it or throw up their hands in frustration. We go along for the mad journey with Joseph, and the movie makes no concession to the viewer whatsoever. It is the kind of film that yields rewards with multiple viewings, and it probably helps to know Bruno Schulz and something about his work.

Unlike The Saragossa Manuscript, Sanitorium never got an official Region 1 DVD release. The UK DVD company  Mr. Bongo has issued a restored version—“restored” in this context meaning a digital remastering under the supervision of cinematographer Sobocinski. The disc is a Region 0 PAL release, so it should be playable on most computers and some (hacked) DVD/Blu-ray players—check your specs.

Journey to the Underworld – an essay by Steve Mobia with an interpretation of the film, and mention of Has’ other films.

www.schulzian.net – site featuring translations of Schulz’s stories and links.

Wikipedia entry

IMDb entry

109. EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL [AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN] (1970)

To put it mildly, Even Dwarfs Started Small is a bit bizarre… Because Herzog’s film makes little direct reference to social-historical conditions outside of the sealed-of institution in which it takes place, questions remain as to what the film ‘means.’ It seems as though something is being allegorized, but little in the film helps decode it… [Dwarfs is] indeed allegorical in the way that Kafka’s works are allegorical: it reflects the world back to us not as it actually is, but in a distorted form, as though seen through a glass darkly. The intention may be to force us to recognize our world by re-presenting it to us in this strange and alienating incarnation.”–Brad Pager in The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Helmut Döring, Paul Glauer,

PLOT: As the film begins we infer that a group of people in some sort of institution, possibly a mental asylum, have revolted, and an “instructor” has barricaded himself in a manor house while holding one of them prisoner. As the instructor tries to reason with the rebels and waits for the arrival of the police, the insurgents vandalize the property in increasingly bizarre ways: lighting flower pots on fire, fixing a stolen car so that it circles endlessly around a track and throwing crockery at it, and crucifying a monkey. All parts are played by dwarfs, although the buildings and props are scaled normally.

Still from Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Herzog financed Even Dwarfs Started Small, his second feature, with funds he received when he won the German National Film Award for his first feature film, Signs of Life. Dwarfs was then banned by the German censors on its release.
  • The film was shot on Lanzarote, a volcanic island in the Canary Islands.
  • Herzog partially attributes the dark influences of the film to the fact that before making it he had been imprisoned in a third world prison while shooting footage for another movie in Cameroon in the paranoid weeks after a coup attempt. While incarcerated he contracted a blood parasite and ran a high fever.
  • The production was plagued with problems: one of the dwarfs was struck by the driverless car (he was unscathed), then the same actor caught on fire (he had minor injuries). With the morale among the non-professional troupe low, Herzog promised the actors that if they completed the film, he would jump into a cactus patch and allow them to film it. The actors stuck with it and Herzog fulfilled his end of the bargain.
  • A scene of piglets nursing at what appears to be the corpse of their mother is disturbing and proved highly controversial. The sow’s eyes are shut and it lies almost perfectly still, but its legs clearly jerk during the feeding—though perhaps this is just a post-mortem reflex.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hombre, the tiniest dwarf with the most demonic laugh, nearly chuckling himself to death as he watches a camel struggling to rise to its feet. Watch the scene and share an inexplicable nightmare with millions of other human beings.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even the title of Even Dwarfs Started Small starts weird. Wha tfollows is a grotesque parade of cannibalistic chickens, insects dressed as a bride and groom, a crucified monkey, a defecating camel, and dwarfs running amok destroying everything in sight. Presented in bleak black and white in a heartlessly cold documentary style, it’s the gloomiest depiction of the triumph of the irrational ever filmed.


Re-release trailer for Even Dwarfs Started Small

COMMENTS: A provocateur knows he is doing something right when he gets criticized from Continue reading 109. EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL [AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN] (1970)

CAPSULE: SESSION 9 (2001)

DIRECTED BY:  Brad Anderson

FEATURING: Peter Mullan, David Caruso, , Stephen Gevedon, Brendan Sexton III

PLOT: A hazmat crew removing asbestos from an abandoned asylum uncover secrets about the long-dead but deeply disturbed residents—and, arguably, more chilling secrets about each other.

Still from Session 9 (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  The weirdometer registers only trace amounts of bizarrity in this eerie, complex psychological horror.  It’s worth a viewing for fright fans, but not thanks to its strangeness.

COMMENTS: Before Session 9, director Brad Anderson was best known (if he was known at all) for his romantic comedies.  Anderson co-fashioned Session 9‘s complicated, haunted script to take advantage of the availability of an abandoned mental institution, a dream location to shoot a horror movie, and wound up finding a more successful niche as a specialist in psychological suspense.  Disdaining shock violence and other teen horror tropes, Session 9 hoes a tougher row by creating its suspense through characterization, hidden secrets, and (for the most part) by encouraging the audience to imagine unspeakable carnage rather than to get off on seeing it laid out in splattery crimson glory.  The idea here is to throw five average Joes into a pressure cooker situation (finishing a three-week asbestos removal job in one week) inside a suggestively creepy locale, and let the tension build organically as they begin to crack under the stress.  Gordon is the most preoccupied of the bunch: he may lose his struggling business if he doesn’t complete this contract on time, and he’s got a newborn baby back home to feed.  Phil, his right hand man, has his own tense dynamic with the obnoxious Hank: they share an uncomfortable history with a common woman.  Mullet-headed young Jeff is the neophyte kid who gets picked on by the others, and Mike is the thoughtful guy who’s too good for this job (for unknown reasons, he’s dropped out of law school to schlep around in a hazmat suit).  The characterizations aren’t deep, but they’re efficient; we know these guys, we get their conflicting agendas.  Mike’s discovery of old tape recordings of hypnotherapy with a schizophrenic woman—reels labeled sessions 1 to 9—provides a parallel dramatic line, as we periodically hear a tranquil doctor probe the mind of a psychopathic woman with buried issues that may continue to haunt the hosptal’s halls to this day.  Like the Overlook Hotel in Session 9‘s closest ancestor, The Shining, the empty spaces of the asylum are virtually a separate character (there are plenty of tracking shots down abandoned corridors to remind us of ‘s horror).  The grounds are full of memories of the departed: Satanist graffiti scrawled on the walls by the teens who broke in to party there on weekends, old mementos and clippings pasted onto the walls of the patients rooms, and broken bric-a-brac left there by the long-gone staff and by homeless squatters.  Everything is linked by dark, dank underground tunnels connecting the various buildings.  It would be almost impossible to shoot a film in this setting that didn’t raise at least a couple of hairs on the back of your neck, and Anderson’s restrained direction and the ensembles’ paranoiac acting ably amplify the institution’s inherent creepiness.  The ending is too obvious to qualify as a twist, and I wish Anderson had shown Kubrick’s courage to go shamelessly over-the-top every now and then, but Session 9 satisfies as a mature, eerie, and mostly quiet horror—a type of film that’s all too rare nowadays.  What could be scarier than an isolated, crumbling building that may be full of ghosts?  The answer: an isolated, crumbling building that may be full of schizophrenic ghosts.

The asylum in the movie, Danvers State Hospital, was a real abandoned mental institution in Massachusetts. It holds the dubious honor of being known as the birthplace of the prefrontal lobotomy (a fact referenced in the movie), and later became infamous for overcrowding and inhumane treatment of its inmates.  Most of the buildings on the sprawling campus were torn down in 2006 to construct an apartment complex.  The units burned down in 2007 in a mysterious fire, though they were soon rebuilt.  A 12-minute featurette on the DVD documents the cruel history of the institution.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Save for the disappointing finale, Session 9 proves to be a remarkably spare journey into the confines of the mind and a unique evocation of just how terrifying it is to loose one’s mind.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant (contemporaneous)

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

LIST CANDIDATE: LUNACY [SILENI] (2005)

Lunacy has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies. Comments are closed. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Pavel Liska, Jan Tríska, Anna Geislerová

PLOT: A mentally unbalanced man meets a modern day Marquis de Sade, who convinces him to check himself into a bizarre asylum where the patients roam free.

Still from Lunacy [Sileni] (2005)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Readers may think I’m a lunatic myself for not inducting this tale involving the Marquis de Sade, an asylum run by chicken-farming lunatics, and animated steaks onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies on the first ballot.  To tell the truth, Lunacy comes about as close as a movie can to being a first-ballot inductee without making it.  In defense of my decision to leave it off the List for the time being, I point out that Lunacy may actually be Jan Svankajer’s most conventional movie.  If you mentally remove the startling but inessential stop-animation transitions between scenes, then squint hard, it looks like just a regular horror movie; the director insists as much in his prologue to the film.  Given that this is Svankmajer’s most “normal” and accessible movie, if Lunacy makes the List, then all the Czech director’s work should automatically make it.

COMMENTS:  The trailer explains that ” + the Marquis de Sade + Jan Svankmajer = Lunacy.”  It’s self-evident that combining these three uniquely perverse talents should produce something singularly strange; the fun in watching the movie is in seeing how they actually mix.  Poe adds the least to the recipe, providing mere plot.  Adaptations of two different stories by the doom-laden 19th century Romantic make appearances here; one is a digression from the main plotline that’s fun but unnecessary, while the other supplies the basic conceit for the entire second half of the movie.  Because the first half of the film is devoted to a long introduction to the characters, with that excursion into an interesting but unrelated Poe tale, Lunacy‘s story doesn’t flow as well as it might; the plot doesn’t really get started in earnest until the movie hits the halfway mark on its run time.  Other than basic story ideas, there is not much of a “Poe” feel to the rest of the film, except whatever lingering flavor comes from the passive, psychologically tormented protagonist Jean (stringy-haired, Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: LUNACY [SILENI] (2005)

80. SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963)

“My title became Shock Corridor. It had the subtlety of a sledgehammer. I was dealing with insanity, racism, patriotism, nuclear warfare, and sexual perversion. How could I have been light with those topics? I purposefully wanted to provoke the audience. The situations I’d portray were shocking and scary. This was going to be a crazy film, ranging from the absurd to the unbearable and tragic.”–Sam Fuller, “A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Samuel Fuller

FEATURING: Peter Breck, Constance Towers, Hari Rhodes, Larry Tucker

PLOT: Johnny Barrett is a journalist obsessed with reaching the pinnacle of his profession—winning a Pulitzer Prize—and convinced that an unsolved murder at a mental institution will provide him the investigative opportunity his career needs.  Barrett arranges to have himself committed so he can interview the three patients who witnessed the crime, over the objections of his stripper girlfriend, who fears that he will lose his mind if he enters the asylum.  Once inside, Barrett tries to pry the information he needs out of the three witnesses during their rare lucid moments, but his constant intercourse with madmen, electric shock treatments, and a traumatic incident in the nympho ward take a toll on his own sanity.

Still from Shock Corridor (1963)

BACKGROUND:

  • Samuel Fuller, who had made successful and stylish B-pictures like I Shot Jesse James (1949), The Steel Helmet (1951) and Pickup on South Street (1953) for Twentieth Century Fox, began producing his films independently in 1956 to escape studio control.
  • Fuller’s script was inspired by journalist Nellie Bly, who deliberately had herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum in 1887 in order to write a piece exposing conditions there.
  • Fuller’s first career was as a journalist; he was a crime beat reporter for the New York Evening Graphic at the age of 17.
  • Shock Corridor was made back-to-back with The Naked Kiss (1964), also starring Constance Towers and also dealing with potentially exploitative, shocking subject matter (in Kiss, prostitution and pedophilia).  The two films are usually considered to be spiritual siblings and are often screened together.
  • The corridor set (the “street”) ended in a painted backdrop meant to give the illusion of stretching off to infinity.  Dwarfs were hired as extras to mill about at the end of the hallway to create a false perspective.
  • Cinematographer Stanley Cortez had previously shot The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and The Night of the Hunter (1955), but ended his career lensing schlock like Madmen of Mandoras, Ghost in the Invisible Bikini and Navy vs. the Night Monsters.
  • The film was shot in about ten days; Fuller friend John Ford dropped by to visit the set and asked, “Sammy, why are you shooting on this two-bit set?” to which Fuller replied, “No major would touch my yarn, Jack.  It’s warped.”
  • The color scenes are composed of unused Japanese location-scouting footage from Fuller’s House of Bamboo, from an unreleased documentary on the Karaja tribe of Brazil, and home movies from a vacation.
  • Fuller claimed that producer Samuel Firks never gave him his promised share of the profits, but was nonetheless happy with the arrangement because the producer allowed the director complete creative control.
  • When Shock Corridor was awarded a special Humanitarian Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival, Fuller reportedly declined with the words “this isn’t a goddamn humanitarian film, it’s a hard-hitting, action-packed melodrama. Give your award to Ingmar Bergman.”
  • Shock Corridor was selected for the National Film Registry in 1996 (the prestigious list of films preserved because of their cultural significance stands at only 550 titles as of 2010).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though it’s hard to beat the thunderstorm in the corridor, it’s the scenes of Constance Towers as a naughty angel doing her hoochie-coochie dance in a feather boa on Peter Breck’s shoulder while he tries to grab some shuteye that make the biggest impression.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Though it features its fair share of stormy strum und drang hallucinations, Shock Corridor would be a weird movie even without the schizoid interludes. Fuller’s film imprisons us inside a mental hospital full of  patients who act nothing like normal people—but the uncanny thing is that they don’t act anything like lunatics, either. They act like symbols. Drenching the film with melodramatic performances, expressionist visuals, outlandish dialogue, and blatant sensationalism, Fuller (consciously or unconsciously) constructs a uniquely nightmarish vision of Cold War America as a hyperreal asylum.


Trailers from Hell on Shock Corridor

COMMENTS:After nearly 50 years, Shock Corridor has lost much of its power to shock  Continue reading 80. SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963)