Tag Archives: Hollywood

CAPSULE: SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937)

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DIRECTED BY: William C. McGann

FEATURING: , Allen Jenkins, Marcia Ralston, John Eldredge, Elspeth Dudgeon

PLOT: Two policemen, an artist, a femme fatale, a pair of captains, a socialite, and a housekeeper are all trapped in a lighthouse with the Octopus, a criminal overlord, and an octopus, a mollusk, menacing them as they investigate a mysterious murder.

Still from sh! the octopus (1937)

COMMENTS: Sh! The Octopus has something for everybody. Its inspired mash-up of screwball comedy, mystery, horror, science fiction, and melodrama defies categorization, and isn’t for those who tend toward dismissiveness. When a feature film clocks in at under an hour, can be found streaming for free on YouTube, and has been buried in a sea of Reader Suggested titles, all the warning signs are there. I ignored these signs and committed myself to fifty-four minutes of wild gyrations between tiresome comedy and middling comedy, ultimately witnessing a witch-y performance and a narrative punchline that made a certain technicolor 1939 classic feel derivative.

But first, the story. Irish-American cops Kelly and Dempsey are cruising around off duty when they are informed via dispatch that Kelly (Hugh Herbert), who spends his time in the patrol car popping pills of unknown provenance, is about to become a father. Meanwhile, “marine artist” Paul Morgan has purchased an abandoned lighthouse from the federal government to focus on his paintings—a lighthouse with the aptly named “Captain Hook” as its caretaker. Meanwhile, Clancy, another Irish-American, has been appointed as the police commissioner tasked with bringing down a gang-lord known as “the Octopus”. Meanwhile, at the lighthouse, more and more people assemble as the plot spirals outward wildly, revealing that the FBI, the “Society for Peace”, the proto-CIA, and the proto-INTERPOL are all interested in the plans for a Radium Ray—a weapon so powerful that, as the inventor’s daughter informs us, “whoever controls it would control the world!”

That’s a lot of “meanwhiles,” and a lot of Irish-Americans. And that’s the kind of movie this is: your basic “haunted house” framework with every conceivable plot-graft bolted on to it (probably by some Irish-American workers). I’m a fan of screwball comedy, and so had more patience for what was going on than most would, but I still was wondering what all these gyrations could possibly be in aid of. However, there was a twist at the end that left me chuckling for a good fifteen minutes after the lighthouse exploded. (Whoops; spoiler alert.) Sh! The Octopus is a barely passable movie, to be sure, but it does have that twist. And it’s a concise bit of nonsense for the more stereotypically minded on St. Patrick’s Day.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Probably the weirdest little film made by a studio during the Golden Age of Hollywood.”–Phil Hall, Film Threat

 

CAPSULE: GRETEL & HANSEL (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Osgood Perkins

FEATURING: Sophia Lillis, , Samuel Leakey

PLOT: Cast out by their poor mother, Gretel takes her brother Hansel into the woods, where they come upon a house inhabited by a witch.

Still from Gretel & Hansel (2020)

COMMENTS:There’s no gingerbread house in Gretel & Hansel, but there is an unnatural abundance of food that appears on the old woman’s table day after day, despite the absence of livestock or a garden. Near starvation, Gretel and her younger brother Hansel aren’t picky about where this abundance is coming from—at first.

Oz Perkins’ spin on the ancient fairy tale focuses on the relationship between Gretel and the witch, who is both an antagonist and a perverse sort of mentor for a girl without a female role model. To expand the slim folklore to feature length, the screenplay provides a rich backstory for the witch.  Wickedly played by a creaky Alice Krieg, she’s not just a boogey-woman, but a full-fledged herbalist and pagan practitioner. After a prologue describing her origins—a fairy tale inside the fairy tale—the story begins in earnest with Gretel discovering her prospects are limited in a famine-plagued village. With mom providing no help, she takes Hansel as a ward and sets off in search of a better life. An out-of-place episode involving what appears to be a mutant zombie, and a bout with hallucinogenic toadstools, provide a couple of bumps in the road before the pair arrive at the mysterious cottage. Once there, the eldritch atmosphere takes over as Gretel settles into a routine: days sparring with the witch, nights filled with nightmares. All the while, Hansel is getting fatter, and sees no reason to flee a good thing…

This gently spooky middle part of the film is the strongest. Gretel ends on a too-short climax that, while true to both the folklore and to the narrative the script builds, disappoints a bit in its obviousness. There’s not much budget for elaborate effects, but the dark cinematography is dreamy and intoxicating. Shots are filled with occult symbolism: not just the pentagram Hansel finds scratched on the tree, Gretel’s eye caught in a triangle like an Eye of Providence, and the pointy roof of the witch’s house framed alongside an eternally crescent moon.

Thematically, Gretel is a bit muddled. It’s a coming-of-age story, sure. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to menstruation. Gretel herself changes during the course of the story, growing from an unsure virginal girl to a confident virginal young woman; Sophia Lillis captures the transformation capably. More interesting, though, is the focus on fairy tales as warnings, and particularly a bit of play on the ideas of poison and gifts. The witch explains to Gretel that, although poison tastes bitter, imbibing a bit is salutary because it builds immunity. By contrast, the pastries on the witch’s table taste sweet, but hide bitter realities.

Gretel & Hansel is relatively slow paced, with art house aspirations that will please critics more than its PG-horror audience. It’s no wonder that it was dumped in theaters in February with little promotion; the bigger mystery is how this mid-budget horror got a relatively large scale release. Even though the movie’s not quite as filling as it might have been, we should be grateful for its relative abundance in a time of cinematic famine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s got ‘cult movie’ written all over it in strawberry jam, which probably isn’t actually strawberry jam, and audiences who tune into its unusual wavelength will no doubt be grateful for such a beautiful, frightening, intelligent new venture into an age-old nightmare.”–William Bibbiani, The Wrap (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Sebastian Murrilo, who thought it was “Panos Comsatos-esque” and was “shocked to see this in a multiplex theater.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SPEED RACER (2008)

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DIRECTED BY: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers)

FEATURING: Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci, Roger Allam

PLOT: He’s Speed Racer, and he drives real fast; the corporate goons at Royalton Enterprises fail to hire him, and so try to sabotage his family and career.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Made up of equal parts technical prowess, tremendous passion, and mind-boggling stupidity, the Wachowski siblings poured all their knowledge, soul, and their massive bag of Matrix-era goodwill into this videogame-cum-technicolor-comedy-melodrama that, while obviously the movie they had in mind, raises the question of whether or not it actually should have been assembled at all.

COMMENTS: Our weekly to-do list of new and re-released opportunities was sparse, so I instead pondered the Venn diagram of “reader suggested movies” and “movies I have access to.” Three titles presented themselves, and it was Speed Racer that managed to zip to the top of that last. (This may have been, in part, because its alphabetical position meant it was the closest to my Blu-ray player.) I hadn’t seen this movie since before I began working with 366, and it was just a hazy memory of bright colors, flying sparks, and a strange pathos provided by John Goodman and Susan Sarandon. My memory did not disappoint me.

As a facsimile of a racing computer game, Speed Racer has just enough plot to justify the on-screen zip-bang-light-up race shots. Speed Racer (née “Speed Racer”, played by Emile Hirsch at his charmingly blandest) lives up to his name and follows in the Racer Family tradition of racing race-cars. (His older brother, Rex Racer, disgraced the family and died in a horrible explosion during a sketchy rally race.) Purple-clad corporate bad guy E.P. Arnold Royalton, Esq. (played with effete glee by Roger Allam) tries to woo Speed to work for Royalton, Inc.—but Speed has none of it. Not used to being snubbed, Royalton uses his considerable resources to destroy the Racer family, not knowing that in the end, “the truth will out.”

I’m admittedly a sucker for a well-told story, no matter how stupid the underlying material. This movie brings stupid into overdrive with countless “just because” elements. There are Cockney gangsters who act as fixers and enforcers; there is, among other themed teams, a Viking racing crew obsessed with animal fur; and then there’s the thread that boldly attempts to hold this movie together, the “Inspector Detector” character investigating corruption in the racing leagues. (The less said about the recurring deus-ex-Spritle/Chimp-machina, the better.) The Wachowskis then painted all this with halogen colors that would have sent more cynical members of our staff into a tailspin of bitter, whiskey-fueled reproaches.

I am not that sort. I can appreciate the fact this extravaganza had an estimated $120,000,000 poured into it. I can also believe that it did not recoup the outlay. But that’s why it falls so firmly into our orbit. To see two of the best technical film-makers of their day so wholeheartedly stake their years-built reputation with something as confounding as Speed Racer gives me, at least, hope. (What gem might, say, Michael Bay concoct if told he could really do anything?) The Wachowskis did the world a disservice with the whole Matrix nonsense. They made up for it with Speed Racer: a movie that had me rooting for the good guy even as my eyes melted and my brain tried to shout down the cacophony of electro-Singh-visuals, “Lifetime Channel” monologues, and top-tier talent somehow grounding this eye-candy-fluorescence. The stars are likely to never be so aligned again.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This toxic admixture of computer-generated frenzy and live-action torpor succeeds in being, almost simultaneously, genuinely painful — the esthetic equivalent of needles in eyeballs — and weirdly benumbing, like eye candy laced with lidocaine.”–Joe Morgenstren, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)

5*. UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (2018)

“Well, was that weird enough for you?”–-Matt Surridge, author and festival reviewer, at Under the Silver Lake screening

“I usually like weird, but not THIS weird.”–Amazon product review for Under the Silver Lake

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Robert Mitchell

FEATURING: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Patrick Fischler, David Yow, Jeremy Bobb

PLOT: Sam has two deadlines: first, figure out what to do about his “criminally” overdue rent before his eviction in five days; second, investigate the mysterious disappearance of the young woman he recently met in his apartment complex. Over the ensuing week, he explores East L.A.’s hidden messages in a quest of discovery, stumbling from conspiracy to conspiracy. Spoiler Alert: he does not solve his rent problem.

BACKGROUND:

  • The critical and financial success of David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 horror film It Follows gave the writer/director the clout he needed to get Under the Silver Lake, his passion project, made.
  • The film debuted at Cannes in 2018 to a cool reception. Distributor A24 had originally planned for a summer 2018 release, but pushed it back to December 2018, then again to 2019. Rumors circulated that the film would be recut in the interim to make it shorter and less confusing; thankfully, that did not happen.
  • The film was a financial flop, making back only about 2 million of its 8 million budget in its theatrical release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Spending so much time looking quietly bamboozled, any shot of Sam in “investigation mode” is memorable for its combination of mystery and listlessness. The long montage of him pursuing three young women driving a white VW Rabbit convertible nicely mirrors the audience’s journey as we follow him into a dreamland of ever-so-subtly sinister machinations.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: The Homeless King; cereal clues guide you to the tomb

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: What it may lack in specifics, Under the Silver Lake makes up for in volume. At a sprawling 2-and-1/3 hours, the narrative starts at “odd” and stacks on odder and odder. The background events (a serial dog-killer, the disappearance and death of a flamboyant billionaire) are themselves strange, but merely provide the unlikely framework on which Mitchell plasters the following: animated cult ‘zine sequences, another serial killer, a spooky old mansion hiding an existentially depressing secret, and a conspiracy wrap-up beyond our time and place.

Original trailer for Under the Silver Lake

COMMENTS: Divisiveness is a sure sign of a film’s promise. Continue reading 5*. UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (2018)

CAPSULE: SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)

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DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, , Christopher Walken

PLOT: Constable Ichabod Crane is sent from New York City to investigate a string of murders in Sleepy Hollow only to find that there are grisly supernatural machinations afoot.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If Tim Burton maintained the off-kilter, whimsical bloodiness of the film’s first half throughout, it might have stood a chance. Unfortunately, the tone and narrative collapse together as the movie progresses.

COMMENTS: We’ve spilled a fair amount of ink writing about our mounting disappointment in Tim Burton—a director who had such promise starting out, with a string of odd-to-weird hits including Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Apocrypha Candidate Beetlejuice. The end of the last millennium also heralded the end of Burton’s dalliance with weirdness, and Sleepy Hollow acts, appropriately, as the gravestone to his career in weird cinema.

After its haunting introduction, the story proper begins down by the docks, in a young New York City, as Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp, in perhaps his last role before the living ghost of took full possession of him) pulls a bloated corpse from the waters. Irked by his cleverness, but bowing to his investigative acumen, the authorities send him packing to the gloomy town of Sleepy Hollow, as a string of murders there has left a terrified populace along with a growing stack of headless victims. He immediately is smitten by the fey Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the daughter of the town’s chief farmer, magistrate, and all around patriarch Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon). Crane soon begins his twitchy investigation, uncovering a conspiracy involving some very dark arts.

With Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton reaches the peak of his storybook, Expressionistic powers. Smoke and clouds are used to the most sinister of effects. Dark dreams filled with white magic and black torture batter the hero’s consciousness. The movie’s wicked ambience—gloomy landscapes, stunted buildings, and colorful townsfolk—seems impossible to maintain. And so it turns out to be. The strangeness of seeing Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, and Michael Gough as the gaggle of terrified and powerful officials is undercut, unfortunately, by two serious casting errors. I am a big fan both of Christina Ricci and Miranda Richardson, but in Sleepy Hollow the former is too childlike, and the latter too modern.

Obviously, Christopher Walken helps—he always does. His dialogue-free performance as “the Hessian” would have been a major selling point had the marketers not (commendably) opted to keep his presence hush-hush. But as I said, the whole venture starts crumbling as we learn more about the conspiracy (all these machinations for what is, effectively, a mere cash grab) and as Ichabod Crane develops his increasing fancy for Katrina (who is simultaneously fascinating and charmless). While it’s not a high water mark for Burton, Sleepy Hollow is his last good movie. (This position is perhaps affected by my own nostalgia, having seen it in theaters in my younger days.) Had he gone full tilt, it could have been a great movie.

Speaking of tilting, there is that fiery showdown at a windmill, an apt metaphor for the film. Tim loses his nerve, and crashes and burns.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Heads roll, bodies pile up, and the horseman — played in flashback by a mega-weird Christopher Walken — rises from the dead. Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven, turns Irving’s Sleepy Hollow into one fucked-up farm town, filled with adultery, theft, murder and witchcraft. It’s a Burton kind of place.” -Peter Travers, Rolling Stone (contemporaneous)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: JOKER (2019)

Todd Phillips’ The Joker (2019) is a tedious, derivative manifesto for the “woe is me” white American male.  “I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire f—ing life,” says Arthur Fleck () and that sentiment is all too contagious while sitting through this self-pitying exercise of hackneyed seventh grade psychology. There’s more fun to be had here twirling one’s straw while waiting for the paint-by-number soundtrack accompaniment. Do a countdown while checking off “Send in the Clowns,”  “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” “That’s Life,” and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part 2” (its inclusion is a blatant, adolescent attempt to be provocative, given Giltter’s history). At least you’ll stay awake, if your straw is strong enough to endure all that twirling.

Still from Joker (2019)Another way to enhance what little entertainment that can be squeezed out of this lesson in masochism is to locate the the slivers of other films embedded in it: King of Comedy, Taxi Driver (cue the Robert De Niro cameo) ‘s Modern Times, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, The French Connection, and ‘s Batman, to name a random few (throw in at least one reference to ‘s “Dark Knight” comics as well).

For all its derivativeness, The Joker is yet another comic book based movie that’s embarrassed of its comic book origins. Angst-ridden fanboys, who haven’t seen a movie that’s not comic book-based in a decade or more, will hardly care. They’ll heap a ton of praise (and money) on it, proclaiming it profound, with an Oscar worthy performance from Phoenix, which will validate their own basement profundity.

It seems to be set in the 1980s (i.e. the Mark of Zorro marquee has been changed to Zorro, the Gay Blade) and it is essentially plotless. Fleck works for a clown agency, understandably gets fired for not being funny, rages against swamp-entitled self-righteous public figure Thomas Wayne (hint, hint), has mommy issues, sees conspiracies afoot (mostly involving Wayne) and descends into … whatever. End of story. It takes 90 muddled minutes (!) for Fleck to get into the makeup—but the makeup is rather a pronounced point of the Joker, a bit like the suit is a pronounced point of the superhero.

Phoenix’s may be the worst  portrayal of the character to date. Cesar Romero, (who’s looking better with each new portrayal), and each brought a sense of glee to the role, albeit a  maniacal one. Not so with Phoenix. He’s a tiresome gray, and when he does finally go black, he does not enjoy a moment of it.

The Joker is certainly bound to have a huge opening, but is it worthy of the controversy its generating? It deserves neither. Nor does it deserve to be remembered, celebrated, or mistaken for art, or cinema, for that matter. The Joker is merely a tasteless nothingburger.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEETLEJUICE (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: , Alec Baldwin, , , ,

PLOT: A milquetoast suburban couple find themselves dead and haunting their own house; when new tenants they can’t stand redecorate the place and prove themselves immune to haunting, they hire a “bio-exorcist.”

Still from Beetlejuice (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The premise, following a couple of ghosts protagonists along their misadventures in the afterlife, is a good enough foundation, but could have been a ho-hum fantasy in different hands. It took this all-star crew to come up with a desert world populated by sand snakes, a brothel in model train scale, a dinner party becoming a Harry Belafonte singalong, and a million and one creepy/hilarious dead folk to round it up to an eye-popping experience. It’s the happiest movie about death ever made!

COMMENTS: Tim Burton has certainly provoked his share of discussion on our site. Had 366 Weird Movies been around when he started his career, he doubtless would have been keen to make our list. Don’t let him kid for you a minute: Tim Burton knows exactly what weird is. He has Danny Elfman around, he knows about Forbidden Zone. There’s no excuse. He also knows what money is, and the siren song of the almighty buck has proven a stronger lure than prestige as a true artiste and auteur of midnight movies. Hence has he ever aimed his output straight for the suburban outlet mall, right between Hallmark and Hot Topic, making sure he can be equally merchandised in both. It’s clear that his artistic muse struggles to insert weirdness into everything he does, but if the weirdness factor cuts into the box office factor, he’s not about to take a chance on leaving a single empty seat in that theater on opening weekend. He still sobs himself to sleep at night over the lost Happy Meal deal. His saving grace is that he got off a few riskier shots in his wild years before Hollywood tamed him.

Beetlejuice is definitely Tim Burton at his wildest. If you remove his name and the all-star crew from consideration and view Beetlejuice objectively as its own thing, it’s pretty jaw-dropping that it ever got made. It is the blackest of black comedy subjects, getting a laugh out of scenes like suicide cases showing off their slashed wrists. And how would you like to hang yourself, only to find out that in the afterlife you’re condemned to keep dangling from the same noose, which is running around on a track amid office cubicles, so you can deliver memos? And the daughter protagonist—who can see ghosts through her sheer magical goth pixie powers alone—writes her suicide note but ghosts talk her out of it because, basically, death sucks too, kid. And how about Juno, the social worker for our hapless couple, who chainsmokes and exhales through the slash in her throat, and yet the effect is so underplayed that you could blink and miss it?

I once griped about the Imagination Ceiling: writers who bring up supernatural characters with allegedly near-boundless powers, but then the writer can’t think of anything awesome enough for them to do to make it worth the while. Beetlejuice does the Imagination Ceiling right. It’s jam-packed with supernatural characters who warp reality with a thought, pulling off one crazy stunt after another. Beetlejuice, tasked with getting rid of an intruding couple, does so by turning himself into a carnival strong man mallet game topped by a malevolent merry-go-round, for no other reason than that’s the first idea that popped into his head. In the manic hour-and-a-half running time, we never get very much explained, but the fever-dream logic is internally consistent enough that it makes perfect sense for a guy to get munched by a sudden sandworm attack. Right after he got rammed in the foot by a toy car driven by an outraged hobbyist shrunken down and left for stranded in his own model town, of course.

The mortal characters would be hard pressed to match the supernatural ones, but they do a bang-up job regardless. From the impossibly prissy interior decorator turned medium to the hysterically neurotic sculptress who will eventually be held prisoner by one of her own creations, they match the dead half of the cast bonker for bonker. Nobody with more than two lines in this film is forgettable. Only now we can start talking about the cast and crew, a unique blend of quirky careers and offbeat talents. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis stand out by the magnitude of their vanilla Brad and Janet routine, lost in a different kind of Gothic funhouse. Winona Ryder plays the most Winona Rydery role of her career. Danny Elfman’s music is a haunted circus. And all I want is for Glenn Shadix to follow me around all day narrating every mundane thing I do in his dramatic purple ham voice, is that too much to ask?

Beetlejuice is Tim Burton’s weirdest movie, because it ranks four out of five bowls of sugary cereal on the Saturday Morning Cartoon scale of unfettered childhood imagination.

Warner Brothers re-released Beetlejuice in a collectible Blu-ray steelbook package in 2019, giving us the excuse we needed to finally review it. It has the original trailer and the three episodes of the “Beetlejuice” cartoon series that were included on the “20th Anniversary” Blu-ray, but doesn’t come with the isolated score or soundtrack CD bonus disc from that release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Right off the bat, the whole premise is fucking weird, and it just gets weirder with each subsequent single scene. People pull their faces off, heads are shrunk, sculptures come to life, eyeballs become fingers, massive worms eat people—it really is a nonstop barrage of ‘what the hell?’ How someone sat down and gave Tim Burton millions of dollars to make this is almost incomprehensible.”–Germaine Lussier, Gizmodo