Tag Archives: Horror

CAPSULE: HONEYDEW (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Devereux Milburn

FEATURING: Sawyer Spielberg, Malin Barr, Barbara Kingsley, Jamie Bardley

PLOT: A lost couple spend the night at a peculiar old woman’s farmhouse.

Still from Honeydew (2020)

COMMENTS: Honeydew is a roller coaster of horror—but I don’t mean that in an altogether complimentary sense. Rather, the problem is that the film is as uneven (and, sometimes, as twisted) as the Cyclone’s track. When Honeydew is on, it’s creepy as hell. But when it’s off, it’s a case of “yeah, I totally saw that coming.”

The pre-credits sequence is strong, beginning with a young girl’s faltering voice reciting some religious dogma, leading to an intercut sequence of a black-veiled widow at a funeral and a hunter investigating what appears to be an abandoned barn. This montage also highlights what will turn out to be Honeydew‘s only consistently great feature: the sound design and score. The creepy voiceover is accented by eerie hums, rural insect choirs, fluttering percussion, and musical notes that sound like bonesaws being scraped over piano wire.

This promising start yields to a setup of two city slickers traveling to the country to encounter all the familiar backwoods horror cliches: silently-staring yokels, a spooky old man advising them to move along, lack of cellphone service. You may forgive this connective section as a necessary step on the way to the real plot, and your assumption would be correct. Once the couple finds their way to batty old Barbara Kingsley farmhouse, things pick up considerably. We lose track of time entirely; the couple arrives in what must be the middle of the night, but their host insists on cooking them a huge dinner, and after they finish they always seem to be preparing for bed without ever actually getting to sleep. The night is endless, and scored to endless bumps; transitions between scenes can be disorientingly abrupt, and sometimes it seems like the film might be jumping back and forth in time. Significant creepiness is supplied by Kingsley’s son, with his bandaged head, a barely-responsive demeanor, and a penchant for public domain Popeye cartoons (which, in another bit of bravura sound design, becomes the nightmare soundtrack to an epileptic fit).

That section of the film is near-excellent. Unfortunately, once it becomes time to wrap things up, and the dreams fade away and the mystery dries up. What had seemed to have a supernatural, psychological edge resolves into, basically, a torture porn finale that goes exactly where you feared it would. A gross ending sequence goes on a bit too long, lessening its impact. I do think that a certain breed of horror fan will enjoy the transgressive grotesqueness of the third act, but it’s not really of a piece with the film’s dreamlike middle section; if you’re going into Honeydew hoping for something wall-to-wall weird, you’ll be disappointed.

To recap: a strong pre-credits sequence is followed by a pedestrian setup leading to a superbly creepy second act petering out in a disappointing finale. Debuting director Milburn does great when focused on building atmosphere, but bogs down when it’s time to advance the plot. Give him a script that’s more free-flowing and isn’t so insistent on ticking all the standard Texas Chainsaw boxes, and he could deliver a real feast.

Honeydew is currently in limited release and virtual theaters, coming to VOD on August 13.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Reviving the spirit of ‘70s North American rural horror while very much still feeling like a film tapped into out contemporary moment, Honeydew is one of the wildest, weirdest horror films of the year.”–Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Alliance of Women Film Journalists (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CASTLE OF THE CREEPING FLESH (1968)

Im Schloß der Blutigen Begierde, AKA In the Castle of Bloody Desires

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DIRECTED BY: Adrian Hoven

FEATURING: , , Janine Reynaud, Elvira Berndorff

PLOT: The Earl of Saxxon presides in his castle brooding over his deceased daughter; fortunately, he’s a doctor, and a bunch of drunk aristocrats are about to stumble into his clutches.

Still from Castle of the Creeping Flesh (1968)

COMMENTS: While contemplating the genre of German horror films, it occurred to me that I don’t often have the opportunity to see a German horror film. I checked and it seems others out there have noticed this too. German horror is a rare bird, says the author of the linked listicle, because Germany lived through so many real-life horrors in the 20th century that they lost their taste for theatrical scares. Wikipedia concurs, noting that German film ratings board clamps down on horror and drives it underground. I can support these claims.

But what does exist of mid-20th-century German horror—from what I’ve seen so far—seems to be tamer than the contemporaneous international horror standards. Film scholars will beat me over the head with their cassettes of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, berating me for my blindness to German culture’s tremendous contributions to horror. That’s not what I mean. I mean “tamer” as in “less scary.” There seems to be no German kaiju, xenomorphs, or hockey-masked slashers. You know that bit where Freddy Krueger rips into somebody’s guts and jumps rope with their intestines? You can’t find that in German horror.

The promotional posters  for Castle of the Creeping Flesh promise to break the mold of German horror restraint, looking as intense as any other Eurotrash gore-fest. Indeed, Jess Franco (peace be upon the name of the prophet) appears in the writing credits, while actors from his staple troupe appear in the cast.

It’s hard to reconcile this promising setup with the resulting movie, to put it gently. Castle opens with a jazzy mondo theme over a swanky party that evokes a wingding at a EuroPlayboy mansion, without a scare in sight. The carefree ladies doffing their duds in the powder room provide the flesh already, even if it isn’t creeping yet. At least this movie readily adopts the sleazy side of European exploitation cinema: gore taboo, boobies fine. As the upper class folk break up the party, only to travel via horseback to reconvene at another nearby mansion, the partying keeps up. The host, Baron Black (Michel Lemoine) regales the crowd with tales of the Earl of Saxxon, keeper of a nearby castle with an ISO-standard Gothic history. As one guest, Eleanor (Elvira Berndorff), impulsively rides off to go see for herself, and the rest of the party is obliged to search for her, we Continue reading CAPSULE: CASTLE OF THE CREEPING FLESH (1968)

CAPSULE: COME TRUE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Anthony Scott Burns

FEATURING: Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron

PLOT: A teenage girl enters an experimental sleep study, then finds her life turned into a waking nightmare.

Come True (2020)

COMMENTS: 18-year old Sarah is sleeping around. No, she’s not promiscuous, although she will have a sex scene—a problematic one—later in the film. She’s sleeping around rather more literally: crashing on her friend Zoe’s bed when she can, pitching her sleeping bag on the playground slide when she can’t. In the mornings, she waits for her mother to leave for work and sneaks into the house for a shower, fresh clothes, and a cup of coffee. With this arrangement, it’s no wonder she eagerly volunteers for a sleep study at the local college: it means eight hours per night in a bed, even if she has to be strapped into a bodysuit left over from Tron and wear a goofy foam-rubber helmet with wires leading from it. And she gets paid! If she’s going to leave a deal this sweet behind, you know the nightmares will have to get bad. It’s no spoiler to say that they do, or that getting away from them will require more than just walking out on the study.

The film is anchored by a fine performance by waiflike Julia Sarah Stone, who perfectly embodies the resourceful girl struggling to make it in the big bad world. Though not a great film (see below), Come True is a great calling card for Stone. Direction is stylistically solid; the odd lighting schemes (why would scientists illuminate the room they use to monitor sleeping patients in purple neon?) can be forgiven as part of a scheme to create a dreamlike atmosphere. The clinical look and some of the odd faces and wardrobe choices (i.e. Dr. Meyer in his enormous glasses), slow pace, and synthy score all put me in mind of Beyond the Black Rainbow.  And, while the nightmare scenes themselves (which tend to be tracking shots down shadowy corridors, ending with visions of silhouetted figures) are a little low-key, Come True is legitimately visionary at times: Sarah wakes in an unfamiliar place with an eyepatch and a freakishly dilated pupil, finds another person hooked up to a dream monitor, and watches some low-res hypnagogic hallucinations (including a brief shot of herself with fangs) while a spookily comforting ian ballad plays in the background.

With all that going for it, it’s sad to say that Come True totally drops the ball with a truly disappointing, left-field twist ending. While, in retrospect, you can put two and two together, there aren’t any meaningful hints about this last-second revelation dropped throughout the body of the picture. The reveal turns 90% of the movie into a red herring—so that, to the extent that you get involved in the putative plot, your time has been wasted. It’s rare that a movie’s final shot can undo all the good it’s done up until that point, but Come True manages that trick, turning a film that was headed for a mild recommendation into a recommended pass.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Burns’ script is just as concerned with the weirdness of Sarah’s waking life as it is the literal monsters that populate her dreams, and the filmmaker’s ability to balance and juxtapose those two portions of the film only strengthen each section.”–Kate Erbland, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE CURIOUS DR. HUMPP (1969)

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DIRECTED BY: Emilio Vieyra

FEATURING: Ricardo Bauleo, Aldo Barbero, Gloria Prat, Susana Beltrán

PLOT: A mad scientist uses his monster army to drug and kidnap horny hippies, whom he arouses so he can drain a fluid from them.

Still from The Curious Dr. Humpp (1969)

COMMENTS: At bottom, The Curious Dr. Humpp is a formulaic 1950s-style mad scientist flick enlivened by a couple of bizarre touches. Most obviously, there is a lot of simulated sex. The threadbare plot involves Humpp sending his masked “monsters” to kidnap libidinous youngsters and feed them aphrodisiacs so that he can extract a mystery substance from them when they are sexually aroused, which he uses in the typical mad scientist quest for immortality, or something. This scenario leads to perverse permutations of the typically shoddy mad scientist dialogue (“I must position this positive electrode against the nerves of the libido. If this experiment succeeds, I’ll not only be able to restrain lust, but also turn humans into veritable screwing machines!”) These elements mix together to create a movie that you might call “curious.”

The original Argentinian cut of the film (La venganza del sexo) ran only about 70 minutes, so the American producers added an additional 15 minutes of softcore writhing (along with the extra “p” in Dr. Humpp’s name) before releasing this monstrosity to grindhouses. Some of the transitions between new and old footage are abrupt, with the soundtrack not following the visuals. Scenes of a perpetually masturbating blonde, for example, are clearly spliced in with re-used reaction shots of Dr. Humpp and his buxom nurse assistant to create new scenes. The new prisoners’ cells in Humpp’s manor look exactly the same as the rooms from which they were initially abducted.

Despite its South American origins, the enterprise has an early Eurosleaze vibe. The cinematography is far superior to the script; the camerawork is crisp, utilizing interesting angles. One sex scene, for example, is shot with a bubbling beaker in the foreground tastefully blocking colliding genitals from view. The discordant sci-fi soundtrack, with its theremins, jazzy vibraphone interludes, and the sounds of bubbling laboratory liquids used as a percussive element, is also above the otherwise low baseline the film sets. And there are a few minor bits of weird genius, like the monster serenade pictured above, and the under-explained talking brain in the jar (which may have inspired the similar character in Blood Diner).

I’m pretty sure that, if I’d first seen this in my twenties, I would have thought it one of the strangest curiosities in existence; so, if you’re a dedicated fan (or Humpper, as dedicated fans of this movie have never been called), I can understand. But I’ve been spoiled by decades of watching movies, and at this point Humpp no longer appears so singular. But the movie does lie squarely within the weird zone, and, if you have a high tolerance for long stretches of simulated black-and-white humpping, it’s unique enough to recommend to the curious.

2021’s Something Weird/AGFA Blu-ray reissue includes the original La venganza del sexo cut for the first time (you can even watch it with subtitles!) There’s also a commentary track from genre maven , trailers, and the campy sleaze short “Tomb It May Concern” (Something Weird’s Humpp DVD featured three bonus shorts—“Rasputin and the Princess,” “The Girl and the Skeleton,” and “My Teenage Fallout Queen”—so this is actually a rare Blu-ray downgrade).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Chock full of bumping and grinding in both lesbian and straight sex varieties, The Curious Dr. Humpp might not make a whole lot of sense but it doesn’t matter, it’s seriously weird enough to work.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)

LIST CANDIDATE: EMPIRE OF THE DARK (1990)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Barkett

FEATURING: Steve Barkett, Christopher Barkett, Tera Hendrickson, John Henry Richardson,

PLOT: A bounty hunter haunted by the memory of an old flame who was killed by a Satanic cult swings into action twenty years later to bring them to justice and solve the remaining puzzles.

Still from Empire of the Dark (1990)

COMMENTS: The first thing you will notice about Empire of the Dark is that it’s a passion project by writer/director/star Steve Barkett, he of only two directing and three production credits. But give it a chance. Barkett is at the opposite end of the shoestring auteur spectrum from the likes of Neil Breen. Barkett is self-aware, has a sense of humor, and places the audience first. He has every opportunity to turn his story into an ego fulfillment fantasy, but cheerfully writes his script with a female character turning down his advances just to deconstruct that trope. Every decision he makes is based on producing the most entertaining movie possible, given his limited means. Even though Empire of the Dark is a low-budget production with plenty of rough edges, it is by far the best budget vanity project your humble reviewer has ever watched. You can even riff on the silly parts. Recall my rule about distinguishing brainless movies from stupid movies. This is one of the brainless, fun ones.

We open on a Satanic cult hiding out in a cave which is accessed by a portal in the wall of a house. Blades aloft, cultists are about to sacrifice both a woman, Angela (Tera Hendrickson), and her baby on the same altar. Enter our hero Richard Flynn (Barkett), who fights his way through the fanatics, making it to the altar with one bullet left. Two cultists are bringing their knives down on two victims, so he has to choose. Angela screams at him to save her baby; Richard obliges by shooting one executioner and rescuing the kid, running away with him in his arms even as Angela meets her fate. 20 years later, that baby grows up to be Terry Nash, returned to town with a mysterious photo of the cult leader and some news that the Satanists are behind a present-day string of murders deemed the “demon slasher” case. Meanwhile, Angela appears to Flynn in dream sequences, to get good use out of that fog machine.

What follows is a swashbuckling yarn as Flynn, an unlikely action beefcake who knows exactly how out of shape he is, shoots and stabs his way through bad guys. This will take him through a painfully amateur and yet thrilling pursuit within a small-town grocery store, an ambush in the woods from sword-wielding cultists dispatched with exactly one bullet each, and ultimately back to the foam-rock caves of the cult’s lair to confront them and a testy summoned demon. Flynn’s sidekick in this quest is local cop Eddie Green (John Henry Richardson), who plays it hilariously straight as a hard-boiled stereotype who is not the least bemused by demon-summoning Renaissance-fair rejects. Consultations with a nun and a psychic take just long enough to drop a clue, throw in some ham, and move on to the next body-count scene. While the dialog is hokey, with the occasional glib line, there is mercifully little of it. The pace jogs along nicely, with just enough reflective inter-action palette cleansers to allow you to catch your breath. Even though the gins never run out of ammo and can be blessed by the local clergy in preparation for taking down Satanists, Flynn and his team will sometimes abandon them for swords.

While Steve Barkett isn’t exactly a major talent, as a producer he has a talent for spending the money where it counts. Empire of the Dark is chock full of ballsy stunts, cheesy late-80s monster-madness special effects, and a full orchestral score which punctuates the whole movie with a trite, but ear-friendly, action soundtrack. Cinematography is on point and the shooting location (which I’m guessing is in the U.S, Northwest?) does it many favors. Just be advised, it still gets silly! Every cultist is dressed in an identical Dollar Tree hooded robe and mask costume. One after another, they die like flies, yet there seems to be thousands of them, like a video game level you can’t clear. The big bad demon is sometimes a puppet and sometimes stop-motion animated. The fake blood is played by what appears to be dainty smears of raspberry jam. Vast plot holes are never explained. But this movie doesn’t care beans whether you’re cheering it or laughing at it, as long as it kept you amused.

Let’s not kid ourselves: this is the exact movie all of us would have liked to make when we were 14 years old. Empire of the Dark is best served with a bag of Halloween candy and an ice-cold Mountain Dew. The fact that this movie is not better known, even as a cult weird-o fan favorite, is flabbergasting. But that’s life when you’re a vanity project.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Enveloped by an exceedingly melodramatic and non-stop symphonic score, and peppered with delirious optical effects and endearing stop-motion monsters, Empire of the Dark is a trampoline of a movie, repeatedly reaching its ambition before hilariously tumbling down into sublime silliness.”–Laser Blast Film Society

(This movie was nominated for review by “Penguin” Pete Trbovich, whom stumbled upon it thanks to a lucky random Tumblr click. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: INSIDIOUS (2010)

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DIRECTED BY: James Wan

FEATURING: , Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye

PLOT: A young boy falls ill when he moves into a new house; mom is convinced the home is haunted, but when they relocate again, the kid doesn’t get better, and the apparitions get worse.

Still from InsIidious (2010)

COMMENTS:  Having launched the smash hit Saw franchise in 2004, director James Wan was still a somewhat hot name in horror in 2010, despite the fact that his intervening work had not been particularly successful. Producing independently, he once again teamed with scriptwriting partner Leigh Whannell for the haunted house flick Insidious, whose surprising box office receipts were hefty enough to launch a new four-film franchise1 and reignite his career.

Watching the film for the first time a decade after release, it’s difficult to see what the appeal was. It’s not that there’s anything really wrong with Insidious; it’s just not clear why it should succeed where so many interchangeable horrors lie forgotten. The premise is not particularly unique, there’s no breakout villain like Saw‘s Jigsaw, no special effects to speak of, no psychological subtext, nothing to tap into 2010’s zeitgeist, no killer nightmare scene that sticks in the memory. It is, in every aspect, an absolutely middle-of-the-road Hollywood-style spook show.

To its credit, Insidious leaves Saw’s torture and gore formula behind in favor of actual horror. Doors open on their own, there’s mysterious murmuring on the baby monitor, the burglar alarm goes off with no one around, and the frazzled mom sees shadow people lurking outside the window. But each decent directorial decision (a haunting use of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”) is counterbalanced by a poor one (no explanation for how the family affords a four-bedroom country estate and round-the-clock medical care on a high school teacher’s salary). The lighting drapes the spooky figures in just the right amount of obscuring shadow, and the other technical elements are professional. But the casting is ho-hum: Patrick Wilson is blah; Rose Byrne is fine, but doesn’t look much like a mom of three; is indisputably in the movie; Lin Shaye makes for an OK psychic exorcist, but her character inevitably invites unfavorable comparisons to Poltergeist‘s Zelda Rubinstein (an obvious inspiration.) On the other hand, her two nerdy, squabbling comic-relief assistants worked well (and could have supported their own spin-off comedy film).

As far as weirdness goes, the case for Insidious is slim at best. It’s no stranger than any other ghost movie you’ve seen, and comes complete with the usual deflating supernatural explanations for everything that happens. The trip through the looking glass into the spirit realm (here called “the Further”) is well done and eerie, with damned souls endlessly re-enacting ancient tragedies, deaf and blind to the living walking among them. The big bad boss demon (also the film’s Tiny Tim fan) could have been majorly scary, if not for the fact that his design reminded everyone who saw him of a certain character from The Phantom Menace (thankfully, not Jar-Jar, although that would have been a bold choice). Insidious ends with a twist that surprised absolutely no one (and may have ruined the film for some people who were willing to give it a pass up to that point). None of this, good or bad, rises to the level of weird, in our judgement. It’s ultimately a film to take or leave, to enjoy well enough and forget about as soon as it’s over. At least it’s not torture porn.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the time the absurdly deflating finale rolls around, Wan has managed to not only botch his own film, but sully the one cool element of Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace as well.”–Nick Schaeger, Lessons of Darkness (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Rick Yeoman, who asked, “Is Insidious included? Should be. At first the movie’s great, but when it reached the climax, I found it weird. I hate the twists. Not scary anymore. Ended up funny.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SEVEN WOMEN FOR SATAN (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Michel Lemoine

FEATURING: Michel Lemoine, Joëlle Coeur,

PLOT: French aristocrat Count Boris Zaroff is haunted by his decadent ancestors and resorts to murdering stray women for kicks.

Still from Seven Women for Satan (1976)

COMMENTS: Normally I jump on any Eurosleaze movie with “Satan” in the title, reasoning that if it has tits and horns, I’m bound to like it. Sadly, Seven Women for Satan is yet one more occasion where the infernal moniker is merely applied metaphorically. The French title of this movie is Les week-ends maléfiques du Comte Zaroff (The Evil Weekends of Count Zaroff), and, where English Wikipedia let me down, French Wikipedia translated to English tells me that another alternate title is Seven Women for a Sadist. Since IMDB is mum on the reason that this movie was banned in France, this same resource also explains the censors’ motives: “This film presents, under cover of an appeal to the strange and the surreal, a complete panoply of moments of sadism, cruelty, eroticism and even necrophilia which are not tempered neither by the least poetry, nor by humor. It can only be seen by adults.” There’s your review, ladies and gentlemen, goodnight!

In fact, I was counting, and it was not exactly seven women. Really, this movie is just a very loose translation of “The Most Dangerous Game,” except you replace the prey with naked women who aren’t given a remotely sporting chance. Count Boris Zaroff (Lemoine) lives an aristocratic life with his castle, cottage, butler, a handsome Great Dane, and his 1964 Peugeot 404 Coupé which handles off-road scenes most admirably. Zaroff is helplessly torn between his loneliness and homicidal urges that kick in about five seconds after he’s aroused by any female. His ancestor was actually the one hunting people for sport; our Zaroff tries to shake off that urge to randomly murder but, you know, “destiny” dude! That destiny is fortified by his manservant Karl (Howard Vernon), serving as the Svengali/Rasputin influence on poor ol’ Zaroff, who doesn’t want to date-rape hitchhikers and run them over; but he just can’t help himself, doggone it. Karl acts as the enabler for Zaroff’s habits, serving him women like dessert with the enticing line: “she is willing to submit to all that you might desire.” Zaroff, burping from the evening’s dinner, half-heartedly gropes a breast but laments that he just can’t do it tonight. He already hid one body today and he’s dog-tired, so Karl will save her for morning. It’s good to be the count!

Karl isn’t even the only negative vibe in Zaroff’s life. There’s also Anne (Joëlle Coeur), the ghost of his father’s mistress. She died under sketchy circumstances but still shows up for the occasional thunderstorm-lit ballroom dance with Zaroff. Then it turns out that the castle is still outfitted with a torture chamber, ready-made to fascinate guests who can’t resist playing with the deathtraps. In between all this, a march of fresh victims fall into Zaroff’s hands through sheer luck, and the movie dissolves into a hodge-podge of random erotic scenes, random death scenes, and random filler in between. It’s a pointless slog that somehow manages a dragging pace despite shifting gears every five minutes.

Reviewers invariably bring up Jess Franco, and well they should, because you will swear that surgeons sneaked into Franco’s bedroom and stole this whole thing from his brain while he slept. Unfortunately, with the disjointed pacing and characters who lack the survival instincts and common sense that God gave an alert stalk of celery, it will also remind you of Jerry Warren.

Since Seven Women for Satan is empty of substance, it’s a good thing that it’s so pretty to look at. If you enjoy watching the idyllic French countryside in all its spring glory, with crumbling medieval architecture and an occasional panicked woman running through it, then it’s a pleasant enough diversion. Every small lake has a convenient canoe tied to the shore in case a body needs emergency disposal. The dog, happily chomping leftovers from the dinner table or eagerly hunting down human prey, steals every scene he’s in. The soundtrack is relentless, so it’s a good thing that composer Guy Bonnet does his Euro-trashy best on squawking synthesizers and jazzy pianos. Hang in there and you’ll be rewarded with plenty of sexy eye-candy, such as a nymph contorting on a bed with a blue feather boa, which is apparently the best lover she’s ever had.

Final score: middle-of-the-road sleaze/horror which ranks as “interesting” at best, but not at all weird except for the stumbling, drunken pace. Seven Women for Satan is a movie with no reason to exist except as the cinematic equivalent of Grey Poupon flavor chewing gum. Check it off your Eurotrash bucket list and move along.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Lemoine conjures up and effectively exploits a weird, dream-like ambience right from the start of the film and manages to keep that vibe going up until it’s over. While we’re not treading and real new ground in this movie in terms of the story, there are plenty of quirky, interesting and exploitative elements and a thick atmosphere of weirdness that make it a pretty entertaining romp.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)