Tag Archives: Body horror

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DEATH POWDER (1986)

Desu Pawuka

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Shigeru Izumiya

FEATURING: Takichi Inukai, Rikako Murakami, Shigeru Izumiya, Mari Natsuki, Kiyoshirô Imawano

PLOT: In a robot’s dying moments, it spews out a mysterious dust that bounty hunter Kiyoshi inhales, causing his body to undergo drastic physical changes and sending him on a terrifying mental journey.

Still from Death Powder (1986)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Death Powder manages to stretch out a visual bouillabaisse to an hour, cramming into a short block of time all of the trippy imagery and body horror that anyone could want. It may be considered a forebear to the “New Flesh” genre, but it easily stands on its own merits as a twisted piece of cinema.

COMMENTS: There are a lot of things a movie can do to catch our attention here, but one surefire way to get us to consider a film for the List is to dispense with the niceties of filmmaking—e.g. discernible plot, delineated characters, visual clarity—but pay them just enough lip service to let the viewer know that they’re going out the window. The first 20 minutes of Death Powder deftly accomplish this, teasing out a proto-neo-Tokyo in which leather-clad, fedora-wearing private contractors chase down robots in a city drenched in neon and rain, like a stepping stone between Blade Runner and Akira. Until Kiyoshi’s hand falls off, that is, at which point Death Powder becomes something very different indeed.

Once he is infected with the titular substance, Kiyoshi can see all, including the impending arrival of the strangely defaced mafia called the Scar People that employs him. He also flashes back to a sort of origin story, a jarring and hilarious jump to what is essentially a rock-star/scientist’s product launch. There’s an immediate change in tone as the robot’s inventor comes leaping in wailing on an electric guitar while the robot—bearing the ominous name “Guernica”—smiles and delivers her personal stats. Kiyoshi also undergoes physical changes, like a grotesquely misshapen face, as well as the sudden ability to punch a man in the face so hard that his head explodes.

Death Powder brings to mind the Greg Bear story Blood Music, in which a man injects himself with self-aware nanoprobes and unwittingly instigates a global biological singularity, as much as it does 1980s Japanese cyberpunk. Guernica speaks to Kiyoshi in his head, making it clear that she intends to propagate herself, and that this is just the beginning. Sure enough, when a group of hitmen arrive, artsy images of maggoty innards and liquid-drenched monster masks convey their demise. It’s not hard to imagine that all of Tokyo will soon join them in an enormous writhing blob.

The copy of Death Powder that I watched (twice, in an effort to make sense of the thing) was dark and muddy, but having seen other clips and stills from the production, I think that’s how it’s meant to be. The film looks like it’s been shot equally on film and video; the good Dr. Loo’s infomercial features classic video toaster effects, and a fight scene includes a character kicking an inset box. But the lo-fi elements only end up adding to the film’s charm. There’s something tight and compact about Izuyima’s vision, how readily he conveys a physiological disaster brought about by technological hubris. This is a movie with the wisdom to get in, confuse and horrify, and get out in a tight hour, with a jaunty saloon singalong to send you on your freaked-out way.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bizarre and barely comprehensible one-hour short… surreal to the point of madness… ” – James Belmont, AnOther Magazine

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

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EXTE: HAIR EXTENSIONS (2007)

エクステ

AKA Ekusute; AKA Exte; AKA Hair Extensions

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DIRECTED BY: Sion Sono

FEATURING: , Miku Satô, , Ken Mitsuishi

PLOT: A woman’s corpse found in a human-hair-filled shipping container spews forth beautiful black hair, inflicting grisly fates upon those who use it as hair extensions.

Still from Exte: Hair Extensions (2007)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA:  Paranormal hair attacks alternate with domestic drama, making a strange weave of narrative that slides the viewer ever more tightly between its strands as it braids into a frightening, heartwarming climax.

COMMENTS: You may note that the word “hair” appears three times in the plot description. This is not enough times. The hair in Exte is ubiquitous, vexing its victims in increasingly strange ways. An extension harvested from an organ-harvest victim poises itself ominously at the ear canal of its wearer; a stylist is bombarded with harrowing recollections of illegal surgery. The hair tips jab into her brain, and she jabs her scissors into the side of her customer’s head. Later, the victim’s daughter views a violent, bloody thrashing through a hair-cut gash in door of the cupboard where she hides. An apartment window smashes outward as copious human hair bursts through the living space. And those are just small snips of the sinister proceedings.

Simultaneously, we hear the story of Mizushima Yoku, an up-and-coming young stylist who cheerily bombards an unseen audience with exposition—a habit that she and a co-worker picked up from a crummy television show. At work, Yoku cheerfully goes about her styling under the firm, but kind, tutelage of the master stylist. She has a jerk-bag sister, Kiyomi, who abandons her submissive daughter at Yoku’s house for a few days while Kiyomi goes out to party with her scum boyfriend. This mix of filial tension and sober depiction of child abuse exists as its own story universe while, on the other side of the narrative, a creepy coroner with a hair fetish steals the body of a mystically charged woman who grows hair at a furious pace in response to the wrongs she endured. When paths cross, as they must do, things get… hairy.

Exte juggles its tones so deftly that it’s only upon reflection that it dawns that Sion Sono is up to something very strange. To be sure, the hair-murder set pieces made me want to cheer Exte on. But the fusion of that strand with small gauge melo-tragedy is simultaneously incongruent and perfectly blended—like a cunning weave of ever so slightly off-colored hair done at the hands of a master stylist. And this tangle of a reaction has barely even mentioned Ren Ôsugi as the manic-pixie-psycho-coroner, all creepiness, whimsy, and song in his seaside shack-cum-shrine to beautiful human hair.

Sono proves once again a master stylist, lovingly curling this absurd story together from its disparate strands (in case this all was coming across as too simple, there’s also “police procedural” thrown into the mix, as detectives investigate the increasing body count). The perfect pacing, balance of soft and terror lighting, and the finessed performances calibrated to a scissor-edge between high drama and silly splatter are a sheer delight.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Even by the standards of Japanese horror movies, Exte is a very weird film. This is a movie all about hair, not just tangentially but intrinsically. Hair isn’t the McGuffin, it’s not the setting, it’s everything.” — M.J. Simpson, MJ Simpson Films (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Chris Thurlow, who describes it as “a possibly weird film about a man obsessed with hair who, while working in a police morgue, discovers a woman’s body that continues to grow copious amounts of hair despite the fact that she is dead.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: HARPYA (1979) / APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BOBBY YEAH (2011)

Weirdest!(both films)

“You can do anything in animation” is a truism, a promise of unlimited potential that is frequently untapped beyond a surface-level dive into the unusual. Enough people stumble at “the animals can talk?” issue to make it unfair to expect more. However, it is also true that those filmmakers who are willing to go deeper into the realm of the possible do so with gusto. And so we arrive at a pair of short films that readily embrace the horror that ensues from making the wrong choice.

Raoul Servais’ legend in animation circles is due in large part to 1979’s Harpya. (The film won the Palme d’Or for short films at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.) The tale of a man who saves the life of a horrible-beautiful creature, only for it to methodically destroy his life, is a very simple demonstration of cause and effect.

When he intervenes to stop what looks like a cold-blooded murder, the action seems noble and moral. His decency continues when comes home with the near-victim, a giant, feathered, bare-breasted creature, but his good intentions immediately backfire. The house guest eats everything, denying the man even a morsel, and when he attempts to leave, the monster eats his legs for good measure. Even when he manages to distract the beast and escape the house, she pursues him and takes his food once more, leading him to attempt to murder her himself. It’s like a horror version of One Froggy Evening.

Servais’ technique is what lifts the movie into the rare air of our consideration. Using a method of his own invention, he shot live-action footage and projected animated settings onto the film using clear sheets. The result is something like a daguerreotype given life.

There’s a troubling undercurrent of misogyny in the film, however. In fairness to Servais, this is not explicit, but inherent in the mythological character he is invoking. (For his own part, Servais has described Harpya as a parody of a vampire tale.) If anything, it presents the danger of reading too deeply into a story; the harpy functions quite sufficiently as a movie monster, but it’s all too easy to infer a manifesto. In my research, I found at least one review that unironically celebrated the film as an attack on the shrewishness of women, which is pretty awful but speaks to the power of the piece.

Robert Morgan’s Bobby Yeah is less likely to garner sociological blowback, but only because it’s so much more obviously grotesque. Where Servais’ harpy was a lone example of a disgusting supernatural, everything in Bobby Yeah is bloody or slimy or both. That includes our ostensible protagonist, a bunny-eared, troll-faced creature who makes trouble for himself by literally pushing other people’s buttons.

The little rabbit guy is a classic protagonist who keeps stumbling from one terrible situation into another. Of course, he’s hideous, but he earns a tiny amount of sympathy by being the least hideous thing in the film. At every turn, he confronts a new bruised and twisted creature, often displaying unmistakably phallic characteristics and ready to attack the bunny guy for his most recent misdeed. (The film is replete with symbolism, particularly sexual, but it has significant impact even before you start to delve.) It’s an unrelentingly anxious 23 minutes, replete with violence, body horror, and building dread.

The eyes are often the giveaway in CGI animation, the evidence of unreality that disrupts the sense of reality. In Morgan’s production, the eyes have the opposite effect: disturbingly realistic eyes that peer out of misshapen doll faces, wall ornaments that resemble pizzas, and koosh-ball-headed serpents that stare out with unnerving authenticity. While the production design may seem to earn the title of “grossest film of all time,” it should be noted that the physical revulsion is easily matched by the psychic discomfort that lingers. Bobby Yeah isn’t just gross; it’s gross in very powerful ways.

As noted, you can do anything in animation, but what’s interesting is when a filmmaker really wants to do anything. Servais and Morgan both tap into primal fears that by turns intrigue and appall. Harpya packs a lot of horror and surrealism into its eight minutes, but it’s ultimately too slight to earn a place in the Apocrypha. Bobby Yeah, however, has the advantages of being longer and more viscerally unsettling. It’s a genuinely transcendent and transgressive work, and it’s worthy of future consideration as a candidate. Both movies, though, have a lengthy half-life in the brain, showing how a burst of animation can easily take up residence in your scared, scarred soul.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘…a fantastic surreal film…” – Dr. Grob’s Animation Review on “Harpya”

“…the stuff of surreal nightmares. It just goes to show that there are fertile imaginations out there creating weird and wonderful worlds for us to explore.” – Jude Felton, The Lair of Filth on “Bobby Yeah”

(“Harpya” was nominated for review by Absanktie and “Bobby Yeah” was nominated by Russ. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

29*. TITANE (2021)

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WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

Recommended

“I wanted to create a new world that was the equivalent of the birth of the Titans after Uranus and Gaia mated. The sky and the Earth. That’s where it comes from. The idea was to create a new humanity that is strong because it’s monstrous — and not the other way around. Monstrosity, for me, is always positive.”–Julia Ducournau

DIRECTED BY: Julia Ducournau

FEATURING: Agathe Rouselle, Vincent Lindon

PLOT: After having a metal plate inserted into her skull following a car accident, young Alexia develops an empathic relationship with cars. She grows up to inhabit two careers—modeling at car shows and murder—and ends up impregnated after a one-night stand with a muscle car, and on the run from authorities who suspect her in a series of killings. Alexia assumes the identity of Adrien, the long-missing son of fire chief Vincent, and forms a relationship with him.

Still from titane (2021)

BACKGROUND:

  • In winning the Palme d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, Ducournau became only the second female director to claim the festival’s top prize, and the first to win the award outright (Jane Campion won for the Piano in 1993, but shared the award with Chen Kaige/Farewell My Concubine.)
  • Titane received four Cesar nominations, including for Ducournau as director and Rouselle as Most Promising Actress. Ducournau also earned a Best Director nomination at the BAFTA Awards. (Rouselle also won “Best Actress in a Weird Movie” in the 2021 Weirdcademy Awards, where readers also selected Titane Weirdest Movie.)
  • The title is French for titanium, the material of which the plate in Alexia’s skull is composed and which seems to be part of the body of her newborn. The epigram above, from an interview with Ducournau about the goals of her film, hints at another meaning.
  • Three of Titane’s characters share names with the leads in Ducournau’s previous film, Raw.
  • The fiery vehicle with which Alexia has carnal relations is a 1984 Cadillac Coupe DeVille.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pregnancy can wreak havoc on a woman’s body, but the changes Alexia undergoes are especially acute. The rips in her skin revealing a metallic womb are quite unnerving, but nothing quite exemplifies Titane’s particular brand of maternal body horror as when she finds herself expressing motor oil through her breasts. Writhing in pain and oozing engine lubricant, her transformation is both disturbing and completely logical.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Seduced by a Cadillac, bluegrass twerking

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For its first half-hour, Titane is a perfectly unsettling account of a serial killer who has sex with cars. This would be game-set-match for many films hoping to earn a spot on our List, but the movie soon transforms into a meditation on gender identity, faith, and the ineffable pull of family. The sheer intensity of the characters’ pain and emotional burden is overwhelming, and Ducournau’s choice to filter these themes through outrageous story beats lends the film an operatic quality that heightens the entire tale.


Official English Language trailer for Titane

COMMENTS: For Vincent, the mere idea of a DNA test is absurd. Continue reading 29*. TITANE (2021)

CAPSULE: HATCHING (2022)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Hanna Bergholm

FEATURING: Siiri Solalinna, Sophia Heikkilä

PLOT: Tinja’s focus on her upcoming gymnastic competition is compromised after a giant egg she has been hiding from her family cracks open to reveal a monstrous bird.

COMMENTS: Tinja is on the cusp of a nervous breakdown, her brother is an under-diagnosed brat of a boy, the father is the embodiment of self-destructive acquiescence, and mother has a blog about their “lovely everyday life.” Forget the giant egg for a moment and contemplate that the real horror going on in Hatching is the diminution of mental stability behind the scenes of a stereotypically “happy” Finnish family. Gauzy cinematography draws the viewer into a a fragile picture of perfection that, within the opening minutes, is shattered by the visit of an errant crow—literally, as it crashes into the precarious Living Room objets, and metaphorically, when the matriarch, determined to let nothing compromise her vision of domestic perfection, coldly snaps its neck.

With a metaphor this obvious, it’s a good thing that Hatching delivers on all the peripherals. Siiri Solalinna’s performance is right on the mark as twelve-year-old Tinja, a girl reckoning with burgeoning womanhood, a domineering mother, a speedily growing egg, and then a strange and horrific creature she adopts as her own child. This massive and grossly misproportioned bird beast has an appearance, as they say, that only a mother could love. Tinja looks past its skeletal form, its unsavory goo, irregularly-sized arms, and giant-eyed, scraggle-toothed face and sees something to love, providing it with an affection that her own mother is all too sparing with.

As with any horror film, things go from bad to worse, with Tinja powering through her trials at school, her suffocation at home, and the discovery of her mother’s infidelity with Tero, a classically handsome, manly counterpoint to her own “soft” father. In this oppressive world, it is these two father figures (Tero and actual father) who provide the only scintillas of genuine support and approval that Tinja seeks. Her mother’s burning impulse for control and projected flawlessness dominates. By the film’s third act, when Tinja is clearly on the brink of mental collapse, the most comfort her mother can muster is the reassurance, “You know the best way to get rid of stress? Winning the competition.” Tinja’s internalization of her own growing diffidence, distress, and depression manifests itself in her own “daughter,” the creature she hatched, which, despite its appearance and behavior, is the only other character who elicits sympathy. It is a primal, reactive beast: when a neighbor’s dog keeps Tinja up at night? It has a solution, proffering the headless canine to Tinja the next morning as a gift.

As her mother’s life collapses, the pressure on Tinja ratchets up further, and Tinja’s own “daughter” grows more and more into the girl’s image. The blood and goo are front and center, with these instances adroitly acting only as occasional punctuation to the mundane, spirit-crushing happenings of daily life. The film feels like an ancient dark fairy tale upon which director Hanna Bergholm shines a glaring modern spotlight, rendering it all the more unnerving.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…think of it as the weird lovechild of ‘American Beauty’ and a grotesque version of ‘E.T.,’ with the uncanny touch of Yorgos Lanthimos.”–Tomris Laffly, Variety (contemporaneous)