Tag Archives: Conspiracy theory

CAPSULE: APOCALYPSIS (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Eric Leiser

FEATURING: Maria Bruun, Chris O’Leary

PLOT: In a dystopian future/present/alternate history, a saintly albino woman has visions while reading the book of Revelation, and tries to convert an atheistic conspiracy theorist/hacktivist who’s being hunted by agents of the New World Order.

Still from Apocalypsis (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This straight-faced CGI-Revelation cum New World Order paranoia piece, steeped in psychedelic visuals, is a curiosity piece; a worthwhile trip if you want to follow the author’s off-center obsessions for 90 minutes, but it’s not essential weirdness.

COMMENTS: Taken at face value, Apocalypsis is an ecumenical outreach from the end times crowd to the chemtrails crowd, with bad acting and cheap but surprisingly effective acid trip visuals sprinkled throughout. I think that writer/director Eric Leiser is correct in assuming that people who will swallow a main character trying to use organite to shut down “the Grid” are also likely to find the Book of Revelation as credible a source of solid factual information as Infowars.

You have to grant that Apocalypsis avoids the pitfalls of boring, preachy “faith-based” films in favor of something more challenging. It replaces those pitfalls with conspiracy theory rabbit holes, but I’d much rather fall into those. Your spinster great aunt who goes to Bible study five nights a week is probably not going to dig Apocalypsis. It’s informed by experimental movie aesthetics, with about twice as many trippy montages as plot points. (Maybe Leiser’s recruiting the acidhead crowd, too?) The movie starts off by peering into some sort of cosmic whirlpool and never looks back, giving us double images, time lapse photography, fisheye lenses, negative images, and so on throughout the film to give it an on-the-cheap “mystical” aura. Most notable are the heroine’s Revelation visions, where you will see, among the CGI fractals, crudely animated scenes of what look like child’s dolls playing out Bible verses involving prophets, skeletal angels, seven-eyed lambs, and other briefly seen figures, accompanied by a “whooshing” sound. It’s surprisingly effective; going for too much realism would have been a huge mistake. It somehow seems right that the Archangel Michael and a seven-headed dragon are sculpted out of plasticine, and their choppy stop-motion battle is almost as unnaturally memorable as one of Ken Russell‘s bizarro green screen compositions in Altered States.

The main character, Evelyn Rose, is impossibly good, impossibly white, and persecuted by agents of the NWO for feeding the homeless. Leiser likes to shoot his albino subject in overexposure, to create glowing white-on-white compositions. Subplot visions send her to Japan to help with a nuclear disaster, but mostly she spends her time trying to convert her atheist friend Michael, who does an underground radio show where he warns listeners about the NSA trying to wipe out dissidents by nanobots, or radiation, or something. Michael has the squeakiest voice of any leading man in a 2018 feature, which is probably why his radio show’s ratings are so low. After Evelyn takes him to Church, he squeals, “That was so awesome!,” but he still professes “self-divinity” for a while. Black helicopters and such follow them both around a lot, and there are also guardian angels wandering around in the script. Much of it seems to have been shot in Central Park. According to the director-supplied IMDB synopsis, the whole film takes place in “a parallel universe entering a black hole,” although the screenplay doesn’t reference anything of the sort. It is, at bottom, a weird movie, for reasons both intended and unintended.

Apocalyspsis is actually the third part of a trilogy, although neither of the leads appear in the previous installments. Maybe the other two films explain more about that black hole, though. If anything, Apocalypsis feels like the opening movie in a trilogy; instead of resolving anything, it leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. Like, what just happened? Did we just get raptured through a black hole or something?

Apocalpysis is available solely on VOD at the present time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s as though David Lynch and Ridley Scott fell asleep in a candy store and collaborated on the same psychedelic dream.”–Porfle, HK and Cult Film News (DVD)

CAPSULE: DON PEYOTE (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Dan Fogler, Michael Canzoniero

FEATURING: Dan Fogler, Kelly Hutchinson, Yang Miller

PLOT: An unemployed pot-smoking graphic novelist takes psychedelic drugs, becomes involved with conspiracy theorists, has a psychotic breakdown, ends up in a mental hospital, and eventually becomes a homeless prophet.

Still from Don Peyote (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST
: Don Peyote is an unapologetic, full-out drug trip movie—and while it’s hard to make a drug trip movie that’s totally boring, it’s even harder to make one that can sustain interest for a full 90 minutes. Psychonauts may be pleased that someone’s finally telling a story from their perspective, but Don Peyote is too chaotic and not entertaining enough to crossover from that demographic.

COMMENTS: A comedy solidly aimed at those who know their ayahuasca from a hole in the ground, Don Peyote is the rare film (nowadays, at least) that’s unabashedly psychedelic; a movie full of characters for whom chugging down a few buttons of hallucinogenic cactus and touring the universe from the comfort of their own skull constitutes a typical boring Friday night at home. If it’s sheer trippiness you’re after, Peyote delivers, with visions of aquatic goddesses, spontaneous folk-rock dance numbers, and guys in demonic bunny suits waiting around every bend. If it’s structured trippiness and insight into life’s great questions you seek, however, go somewhere else, because the all-over-the-cosmos plot has the attention span of an adult-onset ADD patient who has noshed on too many shrooms. If you don’t like what’s happening in Don Peyote, just wait five minutes and soon it will be doing something completely unrelated: hero Warren goes from planning a wedding to conspiracy theorizing to embarking on a vision quest, all while tripping on various esoteric drugs and suffering from spontaneous hallucinations that just might result from underlying schizophrenia. Although almost a decade has supposedly passed by the end of the story, I think the theory that the whole movie is just Warren’s hallucination from smoking a joint laced with wolfsbane he’s handed in the film’s first ten minutes is still in play when the closing credits roll.

Lack of focus is one of the film’s main issues; the other its wishy-washy infatuation with its unappealing central character. Warren is, frankly, what most people would consider a loser, a burnout, but the script doesn’t see him as an object of ridicule. A satire about an aging druggie struggling with the demands of adulthood could have supplied some great laughs, but we are asked to look at this character instead as an everyman (his last name is even “Allman”) in a world gone mad. But how are we supposed to buy, for example, that this perpetually-high career loafer has an attractive, financially-secure fiancée who’s anxious to start a family with him? I mean, I understand that there are some desperate women in Manhattan, but this is a chubby, unemployed grungoid in his 30s who sponges off her, constantly smokes pot out of an apple, and breaks into a rant about the shadow government during pre-marital counseling. Yet we are encouraged to root for Warren, not laugh at him. In the original “Don Quixote,” Cervantes made merciless cruel fun of his deluded title character, but this story treats its main character too gently, more like the Man of la Munchies.

The running subplot about Warren making a documentary about the Mayan 2012 apocalypse draws a link between psychedelic drugs and conspiracy theorism as alternate (if complementary) methods of avoiding reality. The connection between drug-taking and far-out mind-control weirdness also featured in the recent indie thriller The Banshee Chapter, so the conspiracy/psychedelic alliance may be something that’s brewing in the fringe zeitgeist at the moment.

In a nod to the great psychedelic ensemble movies of the late 1960s, like Casino Royale or The Magic Christian (where a Christopher Lee or a Raquel Welch might pop up in a tiny cameo), Don Peyote features a modest parade of hip bit-players: Jay Baruchel as a pot dealer, Topher Grace in an amusing meta-movie role as headliner Fogler’s two-faced agent, Wallace “My Dinner with Andre” Shawn as a cookie-eating psychiatrist, Bad Lieutenant director Abel Ferrara driving a cab, cult philosopher delivering a gonzo monologue, and, in the biggest coup, Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway as an I.R.S. agent with full Illuminati intelligence clearance.

Stoners who are already salivating over the trippy trailer will likely find Don Peyote hits the psychedelic sweet spot, especially when employing their favorite substance as a booster. The sober-minded are not as likely to be amused by the light-on-laughs, high-on-goofiness script, but may find some curiosity value in the casting and general rambunctiousness.

Don Peyote debuts May 9 on video-on-demand and starts a limited theatrical run the following week.

 WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…feels like a scholarly acid trip mixed with every paranoid druggie’s worst nightmare, but plays like a story your local weed dealer stumbles through helplessly while you try and force him out of your house.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE BANSHEE CHAPTER (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Blair Erickson

FEATURING: Katia Winter, Ted Levine, Michael McMillian

PLOT: An investigative journalist searches for a friend who disappeared after taking an experimental hallucinogenic drug.

Still from The Banshee Chapter (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It has the a solid collection of paranoid/paranormal/psychedelic elements, but it doesn’t push them far enough, ending up as little more than Jacob’s Ladder lite.

COMMENTS: With a plot hinging on the CIA’s MKUltra mind control experiments and bits of fringe lore about the endogenous hallucinogen DMT, “numbers stations,” and references thrown in for seasoning, The Banshee Chapter might have been scripted by paranoid paranormal AM radio host Art Bell. The movie’s style is as all-over-the-place as the conspiratorial plot; journalist Anne Roland (Winter) begins narrating the story as a documentary, and the movie incorporates (sometimes out-of-context) actual newsreels together with scripted “found footage” scenes of James Hirsch (McMilian) experimenting with the rare drug at the center of the story. As the tale progresses the documentary conceit is ditched in favor of a typical third-person omniscient view of proceedings (although the shaky handheld camera continues to remind us of the movie’s supposed vérité origins). This lack of consistency isn’t a huge issue; if you like the movie, you might think that it contributes to its ragtag, homemade charm. The bigger problem is that, despite having so much going on, Banshee Chapter frequently lapses in talkiness and confusion. Without much of a budget for effects or locations, plot points are often given through speculative dialogue. And even when things happen, it’s not always made clear why Anne is following up certain clues: I couldn’t figure out exactly what led her to follow up on the shortwave radio broadcasts, for example, or what her plan was once she finally tracked down a source of the drug. Further, the horror of the story comes more from sudden screams and pale faces popping into frame than creeping dread and paranoia: the main effect of the experimental drug seems to be to induce jump scares, and the movie’s climax is a sprint through a spookhouse. The one really good idea that the screenplay implements is the inclusion of -inspired novelist Thomas Blackburn (Levine) as a key character. Levine plays Thompson/Blackburn with laid-back, boozy seediness, as opposed to the amped-up comic caricatures and adopted in portraying the cult novelist. It’s a lot of fun to see this character out of his comfort zone, tromping through the dark desert in an “X-Files” scenario. If you have a passion either for paranormal culture or for anything Thompson-related, Banshee Chapter may be worthwhile; for those without a particular interest in these subject, however, it’s not a wild enough ride to justify buying a ticket.

Banshee Chapter is the first feature from director/co-writer Blair Erickson. Alt-Spock Zachary Quinto counts among the film’s numerous producers. After a small but critically successful festival run, the film was released on VOD in December of 2013, and will see a limited theatrical release in January 2014.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It certainly works as a gonzo exposé of some of the twentieth century’s madder moments – but perhaps more importantly, this psychotropic remapping of history never forgets to be proper jump-out-of-your-seat scary.”–Anton Bitel, Grolsch Film Works

CAPSULE: ROOM 237 (2012)

AKA Room 237: Being an Inquiry Into ‘The Shining’ in 9 Parts

DIRECTED BY: Rodney Ascher

FEATURING: Offscreen interviewees and archival footage of The Shining stars

PLOT: Five obsessed fans explain their intricate theories about the horror classic The Shining.

Still from Room 237 (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: ‘s The Shining is a strange movie, but not half as weird as Room 237‘s obsessed fans believe it to be. This documentary is an off-the-wall must-see for dedicated fans of Kubrick’s lone horror effort, but it’s not that weird in itself; it just has some nerdy weirdo cinephiles as its subject.

COMMENTS: You shouldn’t interpret a Stanley Kubrick film the same way you would read an esoteric Alejandro Jodorowsky effort, but try telling that to Room 237‘s amateur film critics. Five obsessed fans explain their intricate gnostic theories about the horror classic, from the nearly plausible (it’s an allegory for the Holocaust) to the totally batty (it’s Kubrick’s guilt-ridden confession that he helped fake the moon landing). These commentators aren’t stupid—one of them has spent hours meticulously mapping out the impossible topography of the Overlook Hotel—but they are eager to attach abnormal importance to the movie’s most random moments. One thinks the appearance of a can of “Calumet” brand baking powder indicates that the movie is about the slaughter of American Indians; the guy who contends the movie is about the Holocaust counts 42 cars in the Overlook parking lot (Hitler began his “final solution” in 1942). The fact that little Danny once wears an Apollo 11 t-shirt at one point is damning evidence to the lunar landing conspiracy theorist.

These people have pored over the movie frame by frame, and they are able to point out plenty of little details and continuity that the casual viewer would have missed (the way the geometric pattern on the carpet reverses itself just before Danny sees the vision of the murdered twins had to be done on purpose, to subliminally disconcert us). They are also capable of seeing things that aren’t really there: one sees a minotaur in a background poster of a man skiing, another sees Kubrick’s face airbrushed into the clouds. Sometimes they provide legitimate insights: the lone female fan uncovers legitimate labyrinth imagery suggesting connections to the story of Theseus, another ruminates about how the film evokes the eternal recurrence of evil. But they underplay these valid points in favor of the more outlandish interpretations they find more interesting.

The most intelligent of the commentators, who seems to be some sort of historian, at least recognizes that his interpretation isn’t the only possible one, and admits it may not have been what Kubrick intended. In postmodern style, he argues that the artwork speaks for itself and its “meaning” is constructed in a dialogue between the artist and audience. This is true enough, but watching this sort of mangled thinking is disturbing, even when it’s directed at something as meaningless as the “meaning” of a horror movie. After all, there is nothing stopping a man who is capable of spinning out an elaborate genocidal theory based on the image on a can of baking powder in the background of a horror movie from serving on a jury where he may hold a man’s fate in his hands. Room 237′s official site includes the following strange disclaimer: “THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN THIS DOCUMENTARY FILM ARE SOLELY THOSE OF THE COMMENTATORS IN IT AND DO NOT REFLECT THE VIEWS OF STANLEY KUBRICK OR THE SHINING FILMMAKERS.” Tell me about it.

Obviously, only those familiar with The Shining will want to tune in to Room 237. Visually, Ascher’s documentary is composed almost entirely of footage from The Shining, which is rewound, drawn upon, and altered (at one point Wendy watches herself watching herself on television in an infinite regression). Clips of other movies also illustrate the fans’ batty hypotheses, from just about every Kubrick movie to a peek at the minotaur from Satyricon. One of the most interesting bits is a replay of a few choice moments of synchronicity from an experimental showing of The Shining where the movie was projected backwards and forwards at the same time, superimposed on the same screen. Watching a calm Jack Nicholson interviewing for the caretaker’s job while a crazed version of his future self is hobbling through a hedge maze with an axe is an amazingly creepy sight. A British DVD release is scheduled for February 2013; no American release date has been set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[It has] a feel as strange as it’s subject matter.”–The Sun (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ZENITH (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Vladan Nikolic

FEATURING: Peter Scanavino, Jason Robards III, Ana Asensio, David Thornton

PLOT:  In the year 2044 people have been genetically engineered to feel perpetually happy, so

Still from Zenith (2010)

they perversely seek out illegal drugs that bring intense pain; in this society, a dealer in pharmaceutical misery stumbles upon what may be a generations old conspiracy that goes by the code name “Zenith.”

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  More confusing than weird, Zenith is at the same time a laudable and thought-provoking, but forced and undramatic, attempt to create a cult-y reality-bender along the lines of more organic puzzle movies like Primer.

COMMENTSZenith is one bewildering conspiracy movie.  It creates frustration and paranoia by chopping up its narrative with lots of fast-forwards, rewinds, out-of-sequence scenes, and even episodes of déjà vu.  Elisions, false clues and dead end leads increase the confusion quotient.  Although the sloppiness of the story is an intentional strategy meant to put us inside the paranoid heads of the protagonists, the procedure still occasionally comes off as the director jerking the viewer around—especially when it comes to the rug-pulling conclusion, which tempts alienating the movie’s core audience.  Writer/director Vladan Nikolic crafts an intricate scenario here that may please fans of “difficult” stories, but it’s more rewarding, above and beyond the plot level, to think of the movie as an examination of the conspiracy fan’s psychology.  “Dumb” Jack, the pain-pill pusher (a grungy and intense Peter Scanavino), begins the story thinking of his defrocked priest father, Ed, who’s obsessed with trivia about the Illuminati and the Bilderbreg group, as a crazy old coot.  But the more he watches old VHS tapes of dad’s decades-old investigations of the “Zenith” conspiracy, the more he comes to be just like him, until at the end the two men have become virtual doppelgängers.  The movie suggests that it may be able to easier to get sucked into irrational conspiratorial beliefs than it seems, especially seeing as how it asks the viewer to take pleasure in following the clues and tagging along as they track down that mysterious man who, if only he can only be located and Continue reading CAPSULE: ZENITH (2010)

CAPSULE: BUG (2006)

DIRECTED BY: William Friedkin

FEATURING: Ashley Judd, , Harry Connick Jr.

PLOT: A lonely and none-too-bright waitress with a tragic past and an abusive ex-con ex-husband takes up with a mysterious man who is convinced that their ramshackle motel room is infested by bugs.

Still from Bug (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Bug is a well-acted, claustrophobic and dramatic exploration of paranoia that’s worth catching, but the mildly insane third act isn’t quite mad enough to get the movie involuntarily committed as one of the weirdest of all time.

COMMENTS: If you’re into paranoid delusion as entertainment, Bug is a must-see; if you’re not, it’s still worth a watch for its oft-clever script, excellent performances (especially Ashley Judd’s tragic white-trash turn), and uneven but whacked-out finale. Bug‘s origins as a stage play are always apparent—it plays out almost completely inside a dingy weekly-rate motel room that represents the protagonists sealed-off psyches—so don’t expect to get much fresh air or wide-open vistas. It’s slow-building, but always intense and claustrophobic, and the unrelieved tension may weary you after a while.

One things for sure: it’s an actor’s movie. Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon get the lion’s share of the lines, while the supporting characters—led by a buff, slick and abusive Harry Connick, Jr. as an abusive ex—present a layer of seediness in the external world that suggest fantastical escapism, however skewed, might be preferable to harsh reality. Shannon, who enters the scene as a mysterious stranger, conveys the fact that something is “off” about his character from the get-go merely through his disconcerting calmness and odd cadences (which lead to increasingly odd monologues). Shannon’s Peter is too alien for us to identify with, though, so all our empathy naturally flows to Judd’s Agnes, who may not be the brightest bulb in the marquee but who surely doesn’t deserve the misfortunes that fate has visited on her. Judd does a bang-up job, redeeming herself after a number of forgettable performances; she succeeds by projecting a hollow loneliness that sells her character’s improbable descent into madness as the only sane option open to her. Her line “I’d rather talk to you about bugs than nobody about nothin'” tells you all you most of what you need to know about her character; her often repeated “I don’t understand” tells you the rest.

Judd and Shannon begin an unlikely and desperate romance that’s hampered by an apparent infestation of tiny bugs in their mattress.  Bug strips and microscopes start to multiply in the tiny hovel as Peter’s obsession grows, but things don’t get truly weird until the odd couple line the walls with tinfoil to garble the CIA’s incoming (or outgoing) radio transmissions. By the time an unnaturally smug psychiatrist suddenly arrives looking for Peter, pausing in his attempt to convince Agnes to turn over the escapee to take a bong hit, we’re can no longer be certain whether we’re seeing events through a camera’s objective lens, or whether we’re watching Agnes’ version of reality, which as is distorted as the light cast by the blue-bug zappers bouncing off the foil-crinkled walls of the motel room. The finale is intense, verging on overwrought, and inevitably a downer. Tonally out-of-place blood and scenes of gruesome home dentistry seem inserted to fulfill a contractual gore quota set by distributor Lionsgate so they could market Bug as a horror film. It’s not, unless you’re horrified by the mind’s ability to skew reality to salvage some kind of emotional sense out of an impossibly cruel world.

Tracy Letts adapted the screenplay from his own off-Broadway play. Shannon originated the role of Peter onstage.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The shift in tone — reflected in the ever more panicky language, the anti-insect redecoration of the room and the gruesomeness of the violence — takes us from what begins as a grim, familiar drama into something much weirder. By the end, you wonder if you’re not hallucinating too… the creepiness of it gets under your skin. But ‘Bug’s’ relentless unpleasantness, which Friedkin bogs us down in instead of crystallizing it into what might have been a stylish head trip, can get to be a chore.”–Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)