Tag Archives: Asylum

SHORT: SOME FOLKS CALL IT A SLING BLADE (1994)

DIRECTED BY:  George Hickenlooper

FEATURING Billy Bob Thornton, J.T. Walsh, Molly Ringwald, Jefferson Mays, Suzanne Cryer

PLOT: A peek inside an asylum for the criminally insane as a mentally retarded double

murderer chats with a diabolical fellow inmate before being interviewed by a newspaper reporter on the day of his release.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade is a short film with unusual subject matter.  The viewer is treated to a vignette portrait of a murderer in an insane asylum.  There is a glimpse of his twisted companion, and a look at the sorts of confused, eccentric bureaucrats who run the place.  All of this is presented against the backdrop of the controversy of social attitudes about the patients.  The piece is strangely cemented together with the premise of a newspaper reporter trying to get an interview with the murderer on the day his sentence expires.  Odd as the setting and premise are, Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade is really just a demo-clip.  The idea was to get the concept of Billy Bob Thornton’s ability to portray Karl Childers out into the greater film community in order to locate backers and pitch a full-length movie.  It worked, and the mainstream picture Sling Blade was the result.  Most of  Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade is filler, the premise with the reporter being used to make the film longer than a screen test.  As such, the film lacks the substance and quality to be a truly weird movie.

COMMENTS:  In this short film predecessor to Sling Blade we observe a day in the life of a criminal mental patient who is on the verge of social repatriation.  Karl Childers (Thornton) chats with a fellow inmate in an institutional day-room.  Meanwhile, reporter Teresa Tatum (Ringwold) is waiting to interview Childers.

Tatum, who is working on a feature exploring the controversies of releasing criminal patients back into society, pontificates frivolously at long length with a companion (Cryer), then spars with a hesitant and quirky chief hospital administrator (Mays).  Eventually, we are allowed to see Thornton’s skillful performance as Childers when he explains to the reporter the circumstances of his crime.  The interim would be dreadfully uninteresting time filler were it not interspersed with several astounding segments in which J.T. Walsh plays the part of a funny, congenial, but very scary psychotic killer.

The annoying Molly Ringwold, an actress of very modest proportions, puts us to sleep with a Continue reading SHORT: SOME FOLKS CALL IT A SLING BLADE (1994)

CAPSULE: SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Martin Scorsese

FEATURING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams

PLOT: A U.S. Marshall with a tragic past investigates a mysterious disappearance at an asylum for the criminally insane on a craggy, isolated Massachusetts island in the 1950s.

Still from Shutter Island (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Scorsese sprinkles a few flakes of weirdness into his mainstream thriller for flavor, but it’s carefully tailored for the mild tastes of the masses.

COMMENTS:  Atmosphere and suspense rule as Scorsese leaves film’s mainland to investigate the genre islands.  With a horror movie aesthetic, a film noir hero and a brainteaser mystery plot, Shutter Island is a mini-history of popular movie mechanics, with some psychology and dark drama thrown in to provide a sense of gravitas.  It’s no masterpiece, but it does effectively draw you into its mysterious labyrinth for two hours.  Overwrought in the best way, this is the type of movie where portentous strings keep coming at the viewer like driving sheets of rain in a hurricane, key scenes take place in darkened cells filled with the criminally insane or in ruined cemeteries, and Nazis, lobotomizing surgeons, and drug-induced hallucinations all play a part in the paranoid plot.  DiCaprio puts in a fine performance as Teddy Daniels, a tough guy whose callous exterior may just be scar tissue from the wounds he’s suffered in a tough life.  A war veteran who was present at the liberation of the Dachau death camps, Daniels may have committed acts that still haunt him; returning home, he turns to booze and then quickly suffers further tragedy when he loses his young wife to a violent tragedy.  Guilt, regret and lust for revenge haunt our hero, and impede his investigation of the murderess who’s disappeared from her locked cell as surely as does administrator Ben Kingsley’s odd reluctance to hand over patient medical files to the two federal marshals.  Scorsese plumbs DiCaprio’s psyche for spooky dream sequences, such as one where he embraces his dead wife while ash falls around them like snow; as the scene progresses her back turn into a burning cinder, while a cascade of blood simultaneously soaks the front of her dress.  As the flick progresses, reality becomes plastic and the seeming illogic of the plot increases; DiCaprio’s flashbacks and dreams take up a larger portion of the action and sometimes bleed into the real world.  Despite a mounting sense of weirdness, though, all is resolved rationally at the end.

You may guess the final twist, or you may not.  The true test of a mystery/thriller is not whether the twist ending surprises you—it’s a bonus if it does and will make the movie a classic, but there are only so many unthought-of tricks that a director can deploy without cheating.  Our capacity to be surprised depends more on cinematic inexperience than anything else.  The true virtue of a thriller is not to fool us but to put us inside the endangered shoes of the protagonist, and fill us with doubts as to our safety, understanding, even sanity.  When this movie’s clicking, the suspense is high and the Gothic atmosphere is thick and beautiful, making it well worth the short ferry ride out to Shutter Island.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…like a Hardy Boys mystery directed by David Lynch.”–Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com (contemporaneous)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: JANNIE TOTSIENS [JOHNNY FAREWELL] (1970)

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.

Still from Jannie Totsiens (1970)

WHY IT DESERVES TO MAKE THE LISTJannie 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.