Tag Archives: Flop

LIST CANDIDATE: WHAT? [CHE?] (1972)

NOTE: In our December 2010 poll, readers decided we too hasty to dismiss What?, and voted to make it a candidate for the List.

AKA Diary of Forbidden Dreams

DIRECTED BY: Roman Polanski

FEATURING: Sydne Rome, ,

PLOT: An American hitchhiker in Italy loses her clothes and finds a Mediterranean villa full of oddball characters.

Still from What? (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: What? is an absurdist sex comedy that’s highly absurd, mildly sexy, and not one bit comic.  It’s weird, all right, but also slapdash and frequently insufferable; in short, not good enough to make a List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.

COMMENTS:  Some films are ahead of their times, misunderstood on release, and are ripe for reappraisal years later.  And sometimes, the critics get it right the first time, as when they ran screaming from early showings of What?.  Sandwiched in between Roman Polanski’s intricately constructed classics Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), What? seems like the improvised work of an overconfident director who believes he can do no wrong.  Polanski may be a genius, but light tone and full-out surrealism are a poor match to his talent for creating tension through subtly weird atmospheres.  The overarching concept is great, the assembled talent is impeccable, the Mediterranean setting is sublimely elegant, Sydne Rome is a perfect specimen of femininity… yet the script sucks all the life and fun out of the movie, delivering one scene after another that lands with a dull thud.  Heroine Rome, a hippie-esque ingenue, escapes a gang rape and flees to a villa inhabited by a cadre of eccentrics.  Foremost among them is Marcello Mastroianni, uncomfortably playing a dirty old man and ex-pimp.  Despite rumors of homosexuality and venereal diseases, Rome inexplicably falls for the lecher, and their trysts involve Mastroianni dressing in a tiger skin while she beats him or dressing like Napoleon while he beats her.  It’s a novelty to see an actor of Mastroianni’s status willingly degrade himself this way, but it’s neither as fun or as funny as it sounds.  Other poorly-sketched weirdos populating the mansion include a scuba diver (portrayed by Polanski) nicknamed Mosquito, a piano playing doctor, a dying patriarch who also turns out to be a dirty old man, a priest, and a naked woman wandering about the grounds.  Absurd gags fall flat: in one of the earliest, a housemaid sprays shaving cream in the air in an attempt to kill a fly.  Later, a workman will paint the back of Sydne’s appealing thigh blue, a rather uninteresting incident that the script insists on reminding us of over and over.  The biggest running gag is that someone keeps stealing Sydne’s clothes, although the thief doesn’t pilfer quite enough of them; there are long stretches of the movie where Rome runs around clothed. Not coincidentally, the movie then starts to drag.  A few clever ideas emerge, such as when certain scenes start to repeat themselves with slight variations, but in general the movie misses several golden opportunities to ratchet the absurdity up to truly entertaining levels.  Particularly disappointing is the dialogue; the potential for clever nonsense interplay between the innocent American and the depraved Europeans devolves into crude, uninteresting jokes.  A classical music score, references to Heraclitus, and paintings by Francis Bacon and Théodore Géricault in the background are deployed in an attempt to dress up the sleazy material in the clothes of high art.  What? isn’t recommended, but it can be viewed, and even enjoyed, as a novelty.  It’s unhinged, unpredictable, and full of that slightly naive and innocent late 1960s/early 1970s experimentalism that can be refreshing in this cynical age.  But it’s clearly a product of its time, not a work that transcends it.

The film that What? most resembles is the star-studded (Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Ringo Starr) 1968 erotic misfire Candy, a doomed attempt to translate Terry Southern’s satirical porn novel to the screen.  The concept of an erotic version of “Alice in Wonderland,” with a wide-eyed innocent encountering a cast of sexual deviants, has great promise, but has never been executed properly on screen.   Alex de Renzy’s XXX feature Pretty Peaches (1978) is probably the movie that runs the farthest with that particular ball.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Polanski seems to be enjoying a weird, borderline-nonsensical joke at our expense, one without a punchline or a setup… a self-indulgent mess masquerading as a trippy free-for-all.”–Nathan Rabin, The Onion A.V. Club (DVD)

46. THE DARK BACKWARD (1991)

“The script was original, it had this carny/circus thing which I’ve always associated with Hollywood.  Let’s face it, it’s a freakshow out here, it’s a circus, we’re all on the merry-go-round.  And this cartoonish, kind of weird sensibility this film had, it was almost like a weird childhood memory of these local television shows I remember watching as a kid…”–Bill Paxton on why he was attracted to the script of The Dark Backward

DIRECTED BY: Adam Rifkin

FEATURING: Judd Nelson, , Wayne Newton, ,

PLOT: Marty Malt is a garbageman and aspiring stand-up comic with no talent and no confidence.  One day, a third arm begins to spontaneously grow out of his back.  Although his act hasn’t improved, the gimmick is enough so that greasy agent Jackie Chrome takes interest in him and his accordion-playing, garbage-eating buddy Gus.

Still from The Dark Backward (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Dark Backward was the first script written by Adam Rifkin, who was only 19 years old at the time.  He would direct the film six years later at age 25.
  • The title was selected by opening the complete works of Shakespeare to a random page (the quote comes from “The Tempest,” Act I, Scene II: “How is it/That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else/In the dark backward and abysm of time?”
  • James Caan reportedly agreed to appear in the film only after an insistent Rifkin called him at the Playboy Mansion.
  • Judd Nelson auditioned for the role by performing Marty Malt’s comedy routines, in disguise, at open-mike nights in Los Angeles.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Probably, one of the many images of Marty’s third arm, whether he displays it to the audience by mechanically spinning around after delivering another lame joke, or as doctor James Caan examines the embryonic fingers sprouting from the his back.  Individual viewers’ mileage may vary, however; you may be indelibly grossed out by the orgy with three morbidly obese women, or by Gus’ nauseating midnight snack of rotting chicken.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The premise alone—the world’s worst stand-up comic becomes a success after he sprouts a third arm from his back—immediately qualifies as weird.  For better and worse, director Rifkin doesn’t shy away from going whole hog into grotesquerie, churning out a first feature that looks like a technically polished version of an early John Waters film.

Clip from The Dark Backward

COMMENTS: If a therapist laid The Dark Backward down on a couch and psychoanalyzed Continue reading 46. THE DARK BACKWARD (1991)

28. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

“You’ve seen all kinds of movies, but you’ve never seen anything like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is wonderfully weird. It’s fabulously freaky… The story is strange… the scenery is smashing… the cast is completely crazy!”–ad copy from the extended 3 minute trailer

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, ,

PLOT: In this musical, Brad and Janet, a very square, newly engaged couple, get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere in a rainstorm and seek shelter in a nearby castle. Inside, they find the building populated by a strange assortment of characters dominated by Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a “sweet transvestite from Transylvania.” Frank-N-Furter has created a blond bodybuilder named “Rocky Horror” for his own erotic enjoyment, and when the cast starts bedding each other jealousy rules the day—until a rival scientist in a wheelchair complicates matters even further when he arrives looking for his murdered son.

Still from Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was an adaptation of writer/actor Richard O’Brien’s hit stage show that began in London in 1973. The show also played Los Angeles with Tim Curry starring with a mostly American cast, including singer Meat Loaf as Eddie. The play opened on Broadway shortly before the film version debuted and was a flop, closing after a mere forty-five performances.
  • Fox Studios wanted to cast popular musicians of the day in the main roles (including Mick Jagger as Frank-N-Furter), but the producers accepted a lower budget in order to keep the cast from the stage production mostly intact. Meat Loaf had recorded a top 100 single years before, but would not become a major rock star until 1977 with the release of “A Bat Out of Hell”.
  • The film bombed on release, but gradually found cult audience through midnight screenings. As early as 1976 audiences had begun shouting their own dialogue back at the screen. This gradually developed into the unprecedented Rocky Horror audience participation ritual, where the audience is not only an active part of the movie experience, but the main attraction. Fans come to screenings dressed as their favorite characters, speak their own scripted counterpoint dialogue to the screen (being particularly rude to Barry Bostwick’s Brad) and bring along props (e.g., water pistols to simulate the rainstorm). In the more elaborate productions, amateur actors appear on a stage in front of the screen, dancing and pantomiming the lines during the musical numbers.
  • Rocky Horror has shown continuously in theaters since 1975, making it the longest running theatrical release of all time. The film has taken in almost $140 million in receipts, making it the 215th highest grossing film of all time (unadjusted for inflation).
  • MTV Networks has announced plans to remake the movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: No question; Tim Curry in full femme makeup and black leather and satin drag, dressed to make glam-era David Bowie look as macho as an NFL defensive lineman by comparison. The image will never leave your mind; for some, it will haunt your nightmares.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s a rock n’ roll musical inspired by old sci-fi and horror B-movies about an alien transvestite. From the moment Richard O’Brien conceived the idea, there was no doubt that it would be weird; the only question was whether he could mold it into something that was even mildly watchable.

Original trailer for The Rocky Horror Picture Show

COMMENTS:  Because we’re interested in weird movies here, not in weird sociological Continue reading 28. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

17. TIDELAND (2005)

“[Producer] Jeremy [Thomas] knew [raising money to make Tideland] would be difficult, particularly because the film is very, very weird.”–Terry Gilliam

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: Jodelle Ferland, Brendan Fletcher,

PLOT: Jeliza-Rose is a nine year old girl with an active imagination who is being raised by a pair of junkies. When her father spirits her away to a lonely, dilapidated farmhouse, then takes an extended “vacation” on heroin, Jeliza-Rose is left to her own devices. She retreats into an intricate fantasy world where her four doll’s heads are her closest companions, but reality is scarcely less bizarre than her imagination: her neighbors are a witch-like one-eyed woman with an unhealthy interest in taxidermy and a childlike mentally retarded man who also lives in his own fantasy world.

tideland


BACKGROUND:

  • Tideland was adapted from a critically praised novel by Mitch Cullin; ironically, this faithful movie adaptation was critically panned.
  • Gilliam made Tideland while on a six month hiatus from directing the big-budget commercial fantasy, The Brothers Grimm (2005).
  • Tideland was a commercial disaster, earning less than $100,000 in its initial domestic run.
  • According to Gilliam, the French distributor did not want to screen this film at Cannes because there is a scene involving farting, which the French find objectionable.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Many will remember Jeliza-Rose’s doll’s heads, who make memorably fantastic appearances in an underwater house and flying about inside a man’s ribcage.  But the more indelible image, because it’s repeated so many times, is the view of the broken down farmhouse in front of amber waves of grain.  The look was inspired by the Andrew Wyeth paining “Christina’s World,” and, though unacknowleged, also from the 1990 film The Reflecting Skin (which had an almost identical look as well as an eerily similarly child protagonist). Gilliam often emphasizes the tall gold grass towering over tiny Jeliza-Rose’s head, as if it were surf and she was living in an undersea world.  This ubiquitous aquatic imagery helps to explain the title “Tideland“.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Gilliam has described the movie as a cross between “Alice in Wonderland” and Psycho, which sounds weird enough on its own terms. He pushes the envelope of weirdness even further with his trademark visual flair for phantasmagorical set pieces, for example, with a gloriously imaginative sequences of Jeliza-Rose falling down a rabbit hole full of tumbling syringes. But even if the audience wasn’t planted firmly inside the skull of the 9-year-old heroine, peering out onto this grotesque world through her child’s eyes, the scenario would have been weird, as the world of Tideland is peopled by grossly exaggerated lowlifes who live out their lives on the lonely fringes of plausibility.


Original trailer for Tideland

COMMENTS: Tideland is a misunderstood film, which is not automatically the same thing Continue reading 17. TIDELAND (2005)