Tag Archives: Freak

TOD BROWNING’S FREAKS (1932)

There used to be a theory in art college that many of the professors blandly bandied about like religious dogma. It was the theory of “aesthetics only.” This theory maintained that it did not matter whether a painting was of a landscape, a penis, or non-representational. A work of art could only be judged by aesthetic criteria.

The biggest problem with that theory is that it rarely holds true. A good example of this would be in comparing the work of Diego Riveria to the work of his wife, Frida Kahlo. Riveria was clearly a better painter, aesthetically. He had a far better sense of composition, and a keener sense of color than Kahlo. However, Riveria lacked Kahlo’s obsessive vision, and it is her vision that remains far more memorably etched in our conscience.

Another example which blows the “aesthetics only” theory out of the water would be in comparing D.W. Griffith to his one-time assistant Tod Browning. There is no doubt that, aesthetically, Griffith was a far more innovative and fluid director. However, Griffith lacked two important qualities which Browning had in spades: obsessive vision and pronounced human empathy. It is the latter of these two vivid Browning qualities that renders Griffith a grossly inferior artist when compared to the inimitable Tod Browning.
Poster for Freaks (1932)Browning was consistently drawn to and connected with the social outcast, while Griffith espoused his racial superiority and reprehensibly tidied that up in his protruding “aesthetics” chest. That Griffith was (and still is) celebrated, smacks of American and Hollywood hypocrisy and superficiality at its most blatant.

Of course, this is nothing new, nor is it confined to the film community. Conductor Rafael Kubelik was mercilessly attacked and driven out of Chicago Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S FREAKS (1932)

CAPSULE: BASKET CASE (1982)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Frank Henenlotter

FEATURING: Kevin van Hentenryck, Terri Susan Smith, Beverly Bonner

PLOT: Duane checks into a derelict Times Square hotel carrying a wicker basket under his arm; inside is something about 1/4 the size of a person, that eats about 4 times the hamburgers a person would.

Still from Basket Case (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Most people will go through their entire lives and never see anything as weird as the micro-budgeted cult shocker Basket Case.  A fine little offbeat exploitation shocker, the flick makes a late-in-the-game play for true weirdness with a strange dream sequence that sees Duane running naked through the streets of New York as a prelude to the film’s most shocking development.  To us, however, Basket Case shakes out as nothing more (or less) than a fine example of a unique, campy monster flick with only marginally weird elements.  That’s just how selective we are with our weirdness.

COMMENTS:  One of the secrets to Basket Case‘s success is that it positively oozes indecency and vice, but isn’t mean-spirited or sadistic.  Director Frank Henenlotter nails the aesthetic of sleaze, and for the most part keeps on the right side of the fine line between trash and crass, only crossing over briefly once or twice so that we know where the border is.  You emerge from a screening titillated and pleasantly shocked, but not feeling like you have to take a bath or go to confession.  The setting—the 42nd street red light district as it existed in Times Square in the early 1980s—creates an immediate atmosphere of moral and social decay.  Since renovated and Disneyfied, back then the neon-lit 42nd street was an avenue where you could walk past peep shows and marquees advertising “3 Kung Fu hits!” while being propositioned for weed, heroin and/or whores by strangers.  The scenes Henenlotter shot Continue reading CAPSULE: BASKET CASE (1982)

52. SANTA SANGRE (1989)

AKA Holy Blood (literal translation)

“My mother is dead.  I had a terrible relationship with her.  She had many problems with my father, and she never caressed me.  So I didn’t have a mother who touched me.”–Alejandro Jodorowsky in La Constellation Jodorowsky

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Jodorowsky

FEATURING: Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, , Sabrina Dennison, Guy Stockwell

PLOT:  Fenix, a young carnival boy is understandably traumatized when he sees his knife-thrower father cut off his mother’s arms in a domestic melee.  Years later, he lives an animalistic existence in a mental asylum, until one day he escapes when his armless mother calls to him from outside his cell window.  The two perform a stage act where the son serves as the arms of his mother; she dominates his every move offstage, makes him serve as her arms, and orders him to kill, repeatedly.

Still from Santa Sangre (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • After completing The Holy Mountain in 1973, Jodorowsky planned to make an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel “Dune,” which fell through.  He did not direct again until 1980’s poorly regarded Tusk, a film over which he had little creative control and which he has since disowned.
  • Santa Sangre is supposedly inspired by the story of a real life Mexican serial killer (whose name is variously given as Gregorio Cárdenas or Gojo Cardinas).
  • Young Fenix and adult Fenix are played by Adan and Axel, Jodorowsky’s sons.
  • The MPAA originally rated Santa Sangre R for “bizarre, graphic violence;” when the NC-17 designation began in 1990, the film was reclassified to the more restictive rating for “extremely explicit violence.”
  • Empire Magazine’s combined readers/critics poll voted Santa Sangre the 476th best movie of all time.
  • Before making this film Jodorowsky had founded an unofficial school of psychotherapy called “psycho-magic”; one of the basic tenets of the theory is a belief in a “family unconscious.”
  • The mother’s given name—“Concha”—is slang for “vagina” in many Latin American countries, including Jodorowsky’s native Chile.
  • The movie is an Italian/Mexican co-production, and was co-written and co-produced by Claudio (brother of horror maestro Dario) Argento.
  • OBSCURE CONNECTION: Producer Rene Cardona, Jr., himself a prolific B-movie director, was the son of the Rene Cardona who directed El Santo movies and appeared in Brainiac.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The most representative images are any of the moments where Fenix stands behind his mother and acts as her hands, especially when he is wearing his long red plastic nails.  The most affecting sight, however, may be a dying elephant with blood trickling out of his trunk.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  You could argue that Santa Sangre isn’t that weird, but that


Original trailer for Santa Sangre (German)

would only be in comparison to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s previous films.  Although he does deliver Felliniesque carnivals, an elephant funeral, a cult that worships an armless girl, a hermaphrodite wrestler, and graveside hallucinations featuring zombie brides, the obscure auteur actually scales back his mystical obtuseness a tad in this psychedelic slasher movie.  The result is his most popular and accessible film—if anything by Jodorowsky can be considered accessible.

COMMENTS: In a way, Santa Sangre is Jodorowsky lite.  Compared to his hippie-era Continue reading 52. SANTA SANGRE (1989)

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)