Zeus, a rising gangster, immortalizes his image by bathing in melted gold. Music by Gesaffelstein.
Content Warning: This short contains some language, mild violence, and sexuality.
“…a ghost sonata in which dream and waking life are seamlessly blended to isolate and expose universal feelings.”–description from the Keyhole press kit
DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin
PLOT: A group of gangsters rendezvous at a large old house filled with ghosts, bringing a kidnapped man tied to a chair with them. They meet with their leader, Ulysses Pick, who arrives carrying an unconscious woman on his back. As the mobsters wait in the parlor, Ulysses travels through the house with the woman and the kidnapped man, trying to reach the upstairs chamber where his wife awaits him with her father and her lover.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Unfortunately, the image you will not be able to get out of your mind is Louis Negin’s wrinkly nudity. Negin plays Calypso, the aged father of Ulysses’ wife Hyacinth, who is chained to his daughter’s bed—naked. His chain is long enough that he is able to walk around the house where, in invisible spirit form, he sometimes whips the assembled gangsters, including one memorable moment when he flogs a mugging mobster played by “Kids in the Hall” alum Kevin McDonald as the gunman is fornicating with the ghost of a maid while she scrubs the floor.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: All of Guy Maddin’s movies are dreams, but Keyhole isn’t just a dream, it’s a dream of a ghost. An amnesiac ghost, with deep psychological issues, who finds that extracting strands of his wife’s hair from a keyhole unlocks buried memories of family tragedies. Hazy double images, avant garde editing, and unexpected color intrusions supply the visual weirdness Maddinites have come to expect and treasure, and the bizarre collision of gangsters and ghosts does the rest.
COMMENTS: Memory is sacred to Guy Maddin; his movies are always about remembering. Sometimes the connection to memory is explicit. Continue reading 147. KEYHOLE (2011)
Keyhole has been upgraded to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. This initial review is kept here for archival purposes. Please leave comments on Keyhole‘s official Certified Weird entry page.
DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin
PLOT: Gangster Ulysses journeys through his immense mansion searching for his wife who is
hiding on the top floor; along the way he uncovers tragic family memories.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s got Loius Negin as a naked grandpa ghost tied to his daughter’s bed by a long chain who likes to run around his haunted house whipping mortal intruders, for one thing. There’s more than enough soft-focus weirdness here to justify a position on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made. The only problem is, icons like Guy Maddin make things difficult on themselves by raising their own bar so high. Keyhole would stun us if it were the work of a first or second time director, but we’ve watched Maddin creep about similarly maddening psychoscapes before—and seen him do it better.
COMMENTS: I think there are four possible reactions to Keyhole. The average moviegoer who has never seen a Guy Maddin movie before will despise it as incomprehensible trash. A tiny minority of newcomers will be astounded and think it’s the most visionary movie they’ve ever laid eyes upon. If you’re already initiated into Maddin’s esoteric world, there are two further possible responses: either an enthusiastic “Guy’s done it again!” or the more muted “Guy’s done this before.” I’m afraid I’m leaning towards the last camp. For this outing, Maddin sets his genre renovation sights on 1930s gangster movies, but we don’t stay in mob mode for long—the film quickly morphs into a unique, psychological haunted house piece. Crime boss Ulysses Pick has assembled his gang at his Gothic manor while he attends to a personal matter. The thugs wait on the first floor while Ulysses takes a blind girl and a kidnap victim through the house, peering through various keyholes and re-enacting a ritual with his (dead?) wife (they exchange a verbal formula, then he extracts a bit of hair from the keyhole and remembers an incident involving one of his four children, all of whom came to tragic ends). Meanwhile, various ghosts roam the home annoying the gangsters, and Udo Kier shows up as a doctor to pronounce some of the characters dead. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)
“It is the gassiest, grooviest, swingingest, trippiest movie you’ve ever seen… Anybody that don’t like that, daddy, don’t like chicken on Sunday.”–Sammy Davis, Jr. recommending Skidoo to the younger generation in the film’s trailer
DIRECTED BY: Otto Preminger
FEATURING: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Groucho Marx, Alexandra Hay, John Phillip Law, Austin Pendleton, Frankie Avalon, Arnold Stang, Frank Gorshin, , Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Peter Lawford, George Raft, , Harry Nilsson
PLOT: Tony is a retired mobster living in the suburbs with wife Flo and daughter Darlene, who has an unwelcome (to Tony) interest in dating hippies. A crime kingpin known as “God” pressures the ex-hit man into doing one last job—going undercover in Alcatraz to assassinate a stool pigeon. When Tony accidentally ingests LSD in the pen, his entire worldview is flipped and he decides to ditch the hit and break out of the clink; meanwhile, Flo and Darlene have taken it upon themselves to track down God with the help of a band of flower children.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Jackie Gleason’s acid trip is one for the ages, particularly when he sees Groucho Marx’s cigar-puffing head affixed atop a rotating wood screw. His response to the apparition, naturally, is to say “Oh no, I’m not playing your game… go ahead, drop,” at which point the screwball vision slips down the prison sink drain.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like an onion soaked in high-grade acid, Skidoo contains layers upon layers of weirdness. In 1968 it was not that far out for a movie to take us on a swirly psychedelic journey to check out that purple haze all in our brains. What was freaky was for establishment icons Otto Preminger, Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing and Groucho Marx to serve as our tour guides. Add to that the fact that the film is a notorious flop full of painfully strained attempts at comedy, jaw-dropping left-field musical numbers, scattershot satire, and Harry Nilsson singing the closing credits, and you have a singular pro-drug oddity that mines rare camp.
COMMENTS: Watching Otto Preminger’s Skidoo is like listening to a cover version of the Doors’ Continue reading 101. SKIDOO (1968)
DIRECTED BY: Roberta Torre
FEATURING: Ciccio Guarino, Mimma De Rosalia
PLOT: The movie tells the story of the life and death of Palermo mafioso Tano Guarrasi—and
of the newfound freedom of his four ugly sisters who stayed spinsters because no man was brave enough to marry them—in song and dance.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s weird, but given its status as an almost completely unknown movie, it’s not quite outrageously outlandish enough to earn a spot on the List on the first ballot. A musical production telling the life story of a contemptible macho bully in styles ranging from disco to “gangsta” rap would be strange enough, but director Roberta Torre adds in bizarre dream sequences involving dancing chickens and every 1970s LSD drug trip camera effect she can afford, and films the entire mess as if she’s the long-lost love child of Maya Deren and George Kuchar. It’s rambunctious and the energy gets to you, but it’s held back by its extreme amateurism (bad singing and choreography can gets wearisome over an hour’s time), and also by the fact that no compelling story or characters ever emerge from the sketch-upon-sketch structure. Still, it’s one of those movies you may want to track down just so you’ll have something to make your co-workers’ eyes bug out on Monday morning when you talk around the water cooler about what you watched over the weekend. Recommended for those hunting the obscurest oddities, and anyone who reads this site regularly is likely to find it at least amusing.
COMMENTS: There’s something gratifying about seeing Sicily’s murderous thugs depicted as a crew of mincing ninnies. The fact that this gangster spoof is enacted by residents of the city that suffered during the mob’s gangland wars only adds to the elation; their open mockery of their criminal overlords feels brave and subversive, and transmutes the silliness into a strange sort of grandeur. Though shot in 1997, Tano almost looks like a 1970s production, from the washed out color to the grotesque-looking amateur actors, cheap props and camera tricks, and general “pop avant-garde” feel of an Andy Warhol or John Waters production. The story (based on real-life events) jumps about in time, usually for little obvious reason, and there are numerous digressions for flashbacks and the absurd musical numbers that are the film’s raison d’être. The translator earns extra credit for rendering all the songs in rhyme, especially since that practice often results in odd-sounding couplets like “I’ll beat up guys Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: TO DIE FOR TANO [TANO DA MORIRE] (1997)
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PHERBER: What do you think Turner feels like?
CHAS: I don’t know. He’s weird, and you’re weird. You’re kinky.
PHERBER: He’s a man, a male and female man!
–dialogue from Performance
FEATURING: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michèle Breton
PLOT: Chas, a sadistic associate gangster who terrorizes local businesses for London crime kingpin Harry Flowers, is forced to go into hiding when he kills one of his boss’ allies. He rents a basement from Turner, a former rock icon caught in creative doldrums, now living as a hermit in a luxurious town house with two beautiful live-in girlfriends and a never-ending supply of dope. Turner initially wants to get rid of Chas but gradually grows fascinated by him, sensing that the thug’s energy might help him break out of his artistic slump, and he begins to make over Chas in his own image.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Turner is dancing around with a large fluorescent tube before a stoned Chas when he suddenly howl and thrusts the glowing cylinder at the mobster’s ear; a tracking shot through his auditory canal reveals Chas’ mob boss imprinted on the tympanic membrane. The camera plunges past this barrier and suddenly Jagger replaces the crimelord in the scene; he launches into a taunting song aimed at Chas and assembled gang lieutenants.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even before Anita Pallenberg feeds James Fox hallucinogenic amanita mushrooms on the sly near the climax, the crazed editing of the first half, which cuts back and forth across time and space without warning while setting up the tale of Chas’ fall from gangster grace, is so trippy that it’s almost completely disoriented us. Performance is almost exactly what you would expect to see if you matched a couple of smart, artsy, experimental directors to an eccentric half-amateur cast of drug addicts in 1968 and the set’s caterers fed the crew a diet of nothing but hash brownies and magic mushrooms for the entire shoot.
COMMENTS: When you notice a bullet shattering a portrait of Jorge Luis Borges on the way Continue reading 70. PERFORMANCE (1970)
DIRECTED BY: Malcolm Venville
PLOT: Four men (presumably gangsters, though it’s never made explicit) kidnap the lover of a cuckolded mate’s wife and try to goad the bereaved man into killing him for revenge.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird, although it is an example of how an isolated weird scene can creep into a mainstream drama.
COMMENTS: 44 Inch Chest sets up an intriguing conflict that captures our interest, but it fails to capitalize on the inherent drama and its force gradually dissipates into a wisp. When sexy Liz (Whalley) announces she’s leaving Colin (Winstone), he first pleads with her not to go, then winds up beating the name of her lover out of her. Afterward, Colin is so emotionally spent he can’t even get up off the floor or stop listening to Harry Nilsson wail “I can’t live, if living is without you” over and over. His four friends, shady characters at best, kidnap the adulterer and deliver him to their comatose mate so he can extract his vengeance. There’s no evidence that Colin ever asks for their assistance or that his buddies kidnap the loverboy as a favor to him. They are prodding him to do his duty; they take it upon themselves to set up the ritual revenge, and as they egg him on, it becomes clear that if the cuckold fails to conform to the code of gangster honor and kill the man who disrespected him, their value system will be undermined. The problem is that Colin is a clinically depressed, blubbering, lovesick mess who’s barely capable of lighting his own cigarette, much less pulling a trigger and taking another man’s life. The conflict isn’t between between Colin and his wife’s helpless lover (who spends the movie stuffed into a wardrobe or tied to a chair), but between Colin and the bad angels standing two on each shoulder, each using a different tactic to convince him to uphold his “honor.” An actor’s movie, 44 Inch Chest unspools like an overextended one-act play, with each of the major characters getting a monologue and a turn in the spotlight. Winstone’s performance is nuanced, burly and scary, but even more pathetic. As a suave homosexual, Ian McShane dominates whenever he’s onscreen; despite his sophistication and questionable sexuality he’s one of the gang, as crudely masculine as any of them at bottom (in fact, his “love ’em and leave ’em” sexual philosophy is, if anything, the most authentically guy-ish). John Hurt is also excellent as the bitter and shriveled “Old Man Peanut,” who’s as dried up a bundle of bigotry and spite as you’d ever have the misfortune of encountering outside of a Mafia nursing home. Tom Wilkinson does well as Archie, the regular guy of the group and frequently the mediator among clashing egos, and Stephen Dillane is fine, if underused, as the youngest member of the group. As Liz, Whalley is sexy, elegant and distant; the unknowable (to these guys, at least) feminine. The F-word and C-word laden dialogue strives for profane poetry and strikes a reasonably nasty rhythm, though it never sails to the heights of a David Mamet. The problem is the plot, which peters out long before the end and winds up in a philosophically sound but dramatically unsatisfying anticlimax.
A couple of fantasy sequences explain why this vulgar gangster drama is being covered on a weird movie site. When Colin is left alone in a room with his bloodied-up romantic rival, he begins to hallucinate. The visions elucidate his psychology and provide somewhere for the movie to go when the droogs seems to have run out of misogynist arguments. Even when you’ve been warned they’re coming they may catch you by surprise, as its not always completely obvious where the objective world ends and Colin’s internal fantasies begin. Nonetheless, they’re a diversion and don’t really substitute for a more thoughtful plot resolution. Watch 44 Inch Chest for the performances by a superlative collection of British actors, and for the brief glimpse a John Hurt in a black cocktail dress; don’t watch it for the story, or for weirdness.
Louis Mellis and David Scinto, co-writers of the 2000 hit Sexy Beast, wrote the screenplay for Chest. The movie also stars Beast‘s Winstone.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The actors go at the material with obvious relish… On the debit side, and it’s a doozy, the picture’s narrative trajectory fails to deliver a third act that takes the story anywhere of note except into a silly realm of cut-rate surrealism. Final reel ends not with the expected bang but with an almost inaudible whimper.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (contemporaneous)