Tag Archives: Black Comedy

CAPSULE: THE SIGNAL (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry

FEATURING: Anessa Ramsey, Justin Welborn, A.J. Bowen, Scott Poythress

PLOT: A mysterious signal broadcast through television distorts people’s thinking and turns an entire city into a horde of homicidal maniacs.

Still from The Signal (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Signal is a tough call, because does get increasingly weird (especially at the end). On the whole, however, its experimentation puts it more on the outer edges of the apocalyptic horror genre than firmly inside the weird movie genre.

COMMENTS: You might say that a movie looks like it was directed by three different directors to criticize its lack of continuity or coherence. In The Signal‘s case, however, it’s actually, literally true, and it’s an asset rather than a liability. Working from a script they co-wrote together, David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, and Dan Bush each direct one of the movie’s three acts sequentially, with each section taking the perspective of a different character affected by the homicidal signal. Although the Atlanta-based trio has continued to work in the horror scene, none of them have achieved this level of success in their solo work.

Bruckner’s opening segment covers the advent of the mysteriously broadcast signal, which manifests itself as psychedelic fractals on TV that speak telepathically to viewers and prey on their weaknesses. It introduces protagonists Mya and Ben, who are having an adulterous affair but seem like basically good kids. When Mya returns home to the apartment she shares with her husband Lewis, she observes that everyone in the city is acting oddly. Their behavior gradually changes from eccentric to outright psychotic, as hubby Lewis flies into a fit of violent jealousy, while another neighbor is in the hallway outside killing people with gardening shears. It’s the most straightforward and conventional bit of filmmaking, which is the necessary approach to establish the premise. Gentry’s second act takes the movie into grisly black comedy territory, shot from the POV of people suffering from signal-induced delusions and hallucinations at the most awkward New Year’s Eve party/massacre ever. Although it contains some of the most gruesome horror moments, including dastardly uses for pesticide sprays, this segment is the best and most memorable. It features a couple of sly comic relief victims: a kitschy party hostess who doesn’t realize she’s killed her husband, and a horny male guest whose single-minded dedication to getting laid blinds him to the carnage around him. It’s fortuitous that this only a third of the film—there wouldn’t have been enough jokes for feature length, but a half hour of palette-cleansing comedy is about perfect. Bush wraps things up with a denouement that’s perhaps a bit weaker than the other three, focusing on Ben’s attempts to fight the signal off by sheer willpower. This section contains a lot of “is this really happening or is it just a hallucination?” montages and dream sequences.

Though generally innovative, The Signal settles for some horror movie clichés and credibility stretches. People take what should be fatal amounts of physical abuse and come back later brawling like Ali vs. Foreman. And I’m pretty sure you can’t kill someone by shoving a plastic balloon pump into their jugular. These lapses are partly covered up by the hallucinatory nature of the proceedings, but at times they feel like a typical horror cop-out. Nonetheless, The Signal is a successful experiment, one that leaves its message about media oversaturation implicit rather than hammering it into your poor skull.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An outright horror film that nonetheless veers on occasion into surreal black comedy, The Signal (a favorite at last year’s Sundance and SXSW Film festivals) takes Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement ‘the medium is the message’ to extremes not explored since David Cronenberg’s seminal, frighteningly prescient Videodrome in 1983.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “bannanar,” who said ” that one blows my mind… good good stuff.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BUFFET FROID (1979)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Blier

FEATURING: , Bernard Blier, Jean Carmet, ,

PLOT: A man in the Metro confesses his fantasies about killing strangers to a stranger; a surreal series of casual murders follows, most occurring over the course of a single long night.

Still from Buffet Froid (1979)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This dreamlike and absurd black comedy about murder may be the most Buñuelian movie never made.1)The comparison is hardly diminished by the presence of actresses Geneviève Page (Belle de Jour) and Carole Bouquet (just off That Obscure Object of Desire).

COMMENTS: “Don’t you ever get odd ideas?”, young and unemployed Alphonse (Depardieu) asks a stranger in the Paris Metro. Director Bertrand Blier has plenty of odd ideas, most of them revolving around murder and his characters’ blasé reactions to the ultimate crime. It turns out Alphonse may, or may not, have killed the accountant he met in the subway—but no one seems to care. His wife merely throws his bloody switchblade in the dishwasher.  He goes to his new neighbor, who just happens to be a police inspector, to report the death, but the man is off duty and can’t be bothered. Another murderer shows up at his doorway and Alphonse invites him in for dinner and a glass of wine. Then, through a series of dreamlike coincidences, the inspector and the killer join Alphonse on a murder spree—if such a laid-back, stumbling affair can be called a “spree,” and if some of the mysterious killings qualify as “murder.”

For the most part, the film’s events occur over one long, endless night—with perhaps a nap or two—before a sunlit epilogue in the French countryside. Characters never show up unless they are needed as killers, victims, or witnesses—there are no extras waiting for trains in the Metro, the Paris streets are deserted, and even the skyscraper that houses Alphonse’s apartment is totally uninhabited except for him, his wife, and the newly-arrived Inspector. Alphonse, and the other characters, also complain about the cold—they never seem to be able to get warm. Perhaps they are feeling the chill of the grave?

Alphonse is the dreamer who has an inkling that he might be dreaming—he is the only one who (occasionally) wonders what’s going on, who finds it odd that no one seems to care that he might be a murderer. Everyone else accepts the ever-shifting social dynamics with the calm acceptance of someone living in a dream. The acting is utterly deadpan and droll. A man is tortured by being exposed to a string quintet. Alphonse mentions that he has nightmares that last all night where he is wanted for murder and chased by the police. Perversely, in the nightmare script that plays out, the police don’t hunt him, but abet his ambiguous crimes. Some of it is a black satire on modern alienation, but the surrealism of the scenario speaks to deeper fears—death is the only sure constant in this movie where caprice otherwise rules the night.

Buffet Froid flopped (commercially) on its release, wasn’t screened in the U.S. for seven years, and is barely distributed today. It is reportedly a cult film in France, but that doesn’t do much for the rest of us. I was able to find it on the free-streaming service Kanopy (which requires membership at a a participating public or university library—and the catalog my differ depending on your supplier).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A blackly surreal procession of amoral and/or illegal acts…  producing a cherishably Buñuelian depiction of the far-from-discreet crimes of the bourgeoisie.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by “Dwarf Oscar,” who called it an “an absurd and deadpan comedy that gained a cult status here in France.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

References   [ + ]

1. The comparison is hardly diminished by the presence of actresses Geneviève Page (Belle de Jour) and Carole Bouquet (just off That Obscure Object of Desire).

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EATING RAOUL (1982)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Bartel, Robert Beltran

PLOT: An urban middle-class couple notices they live in a world where they’re surrounded by expendable idiots—so they take to robbing and killing them in order to finance their modest dreams.

Still from Eating Raoul (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Every weirdophile has seen this movie and remembers it as a satirical cannibal-comedy, quirky but not on the memorably weird end. It isn’t until you re-watch it fresh and recall all the throw-away details—the ketchup on the milkshake, the wine bottle plushie doll in Paul’s bed, the Doggie King dog food commercial—that you appreciate the weirdness bursting from the seams in this unique oddball masterpiece.

COMMENTS: Eating Raoul was too ahead of its time. You can hardly find a weird movie fan who doesn’t love this movie, and yet it still gets listed near the bottom of great black comedies. Now, we’re enthusiastic about and Matt Stone, the , and even the alumni getting recognized as the heralds of modern black comedy. But this movie opens with Paul Bartel getting bitched out by his liquor store boss for not selling the right wines. He is interrupted by an armed robber, shoots said robber dead (deadpan: “Mr. Cray, you killed him!”) and then goes right back to chewing out Paul Bartel’s ass. Next scene: Mary Woronov is a nurse who goads a horndog patient into finishing his pureed slop hospital food with the promise of hot nursey time, only to switch off with a burly male sidekick for an enema party. None of us filthy sinners love this golden apple enough, and that is why we are not worthy of it.

Our star couple is Paul and Mary Bland, two Hollywood middle-classers who are exasperated, stuck in the me-generation late-1970s swingers era while wanting nothing to do with them. They hate the disco party freaks almost as much as they hate being too broke to pay their bills and open the restaurant of their dreams. When one of these swingers ends up accidentally dead at their hands, a connection between the two issues takes shape, and the Blands decide to turn tricks, seducing swingers to their apartment. Said swingers are expecting a filthy payoff, only to meet the business end of a frying pan to the head. Tutored by “Doris the Dominatrix,” who shares her tricks of the trade in between spoon-feeding her baby, the Blands place an ad in the local kink mag, and the suckers bite right away. Might as well take the bread in their wallet, then. Just toss the bodies down the furnace chute, who’s going to miss them? It’s not like any of these tongue-waggling perverts had parents or anything.

But they do eventually meet one other individual with a clue, Raoul, who runs a suspiciously cheap locksmith service and moonlights as a Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EATING RAOUL (1982)

CAPSULE: BLISS (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Ray Lawrence

FEATURING: Barry Otto, Lynette Curran, Helen Jones, Miles Buchanan, Gia Carides

PLOT: Harry Joy, an ad-executive and raconteur, has a near-death experience after a heart attack, and afterwards starts to see himself as living in Hell. He attempts to reform, but comes into conflict with his family. He finds a kindred spirit in Honey Barbara, a hippie girl in the City to sell marijuana to support her commune, but can Harry overcome the pull of his old life and find love?

Still from Bliss (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although there are touches, mainly in the imagery, it’s not full-on weird in concept or themes.

COMMENTS: Bliss is a story about stories: how stories affect one’s environment and how stories can save one’s life. Both Peter Carey (author of the original novel) and Ray Lawrence worked in advertising—storytelling used to sell something. Bliss is an expiation and penance for that life. At its core, it’s a story of a man’s mid-life crisis: he has a heart attack, dies, is revived and takes stock of his life, seeing himself as living in Hell, and works to atone.

At the time of its release, some compared it to Terry Gilliam‘s work, specifically Brazil. Some of the absurdist touches to illustrate the hellishness of Harry’s life (roaches skittering out of his chest incision, his wife’s infidelity symbolized by fish dropping from her crotch onto the floor) make that comparison sort of understandable, solely due to the use of imagery.

But with some 30 years of perspective, it’s a very superficial—and somewhat wrong—comparison. Now we see that Bliss anticipated “Mad Men,” and can be seen as a more focused and compact distillation of the thematic concerns of the show, only without the period setting and detail. Also, Bliss‘ Harry Joy is a far more sympathetic character we identify with, and his journey does come to a conclusion, rather than ending in ironic ambiguity.

HOME VIDEO INFO: Bliss was available on VHS from New World Video in the mid 1980’s, and to date is the only home video release in North America. In 2010, an all-region DVD was released with both the theatrical version and Director’s Cut, as well as a commentary with Lawrence and producer Anthony Buckley, but it appears to be out-of-print at this date.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Director Ray Lawrence milks the absurdity of the surreal situations for laughs and pathos in a take-no-prisoners style that challenges audiences’ tolerance for eccentricity.”–Michael Betzold, AllMovie

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Bliss Rewatched – a Guardian article about the film

Original trailer for Bliss