Tag Archives: Independent film

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: KATERNICA (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: James Edward Newton

FEATURING: Fran St Clair, Paul Richards, Annabella Rich, Anna Fraser, Tony Mardon

PLOT: A theater student discovers a forgotten one-act play; its production triggers mysterious disturbances in the lives of both her sister, an aspiring actress, and a washed-up thespian attempting to resurrect his career.

Still from Katernica (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Alarming theatrics—both narrative and cinematic—couple with puzzling body horror, resulting in a baffling and unnerving foray into the improbably verité realm of stage-on-screen.

COMMENTS: Fill me in out-of-focus nougat, dip me in close-up chocolate syrup, and call me an Art House Bar. Katernica is a film about a play about madness, and it could only fall deeper into somber-sweet pretension if it were French instead of British. But mysteriously, this languidly jumpy beast keeps your interest. The characters are broadly relatable and interesting; the coat hanger plot frame holding up the story is quirky; and there’s an undercurrent (and over-current) of something strange—and even more so, it introduces one of the most bizarre characters I’ve ever seen on screen.

With a cast of five, everyone’s at least a little bit interesting. Esther shows an academic’s pluck in decrypting an obscure little play. Her sister Eve fascinates with a mysterious pregnancy and similarly mysterious emotional history. Jerry elicits both sympathy and disdain as a washed-up director. The doctor (named, I should tell you, “Katernica”) turns the knob from coldly unpleasant Eastern Eurotrash archetype to something neat to behold. These four are the main movers and shakers in the story, ticking events forward to a mid-film bit of nastiness and the final scene: a monologue delivered at Art House amped to eleven.

But then there’s Mister Case. This guy… the only (admittedly poor) comparison I can make is to the post-encounter Edgar from Men In Black. We first hear him, painfully expressing the importance of saving Eve’s baby, then see him in a blurry close-up. With every line of dialogue, with every movement, it looks as if he wants to rip out of this suit of human skin that so obviously pains him. He has a very shadowy ambition (which comprises the second of the two interesting and weird things about Katernica), and enlists the aid of the doctor—and the unwitting aid of the pregnant actress. As both a role and a performance, Mister Case is unfailingly, and fascinatingly, creepy.

Katernica has its shortcomings. From my modest encounters with theater, I know that Katernica is accurate—but I simultaneously feel that as a genre it’s best avoided on film. But, of course, sometimes a little rough-cut gem happens. James Edward Newton, the director and co-writer, puts before us something both flashily mundane and obscurely menacing—not unlike an unlabeled box of mixed confectionery.

Katernica [Blu-ray]
  • A mysterious play envelops the lives of an ambitious drama student, her actor sister, and a washed-up director in a surreal nightmare.

 

CAPSULE: ALTERED PERCEPTIONS (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: Jorge Ameer

FEATURING: Oran Stainbrook, Matt Fling, Danny Fehsenfeld, Vincent Giovanni, ,

PLOT: Pandemic, violence, and sedition threaten to destroy the United States; a father and son embedded in opposing political organizations are its last hope.

COMMENTS: Like most movies, Altered Perceptions ends with the standard notice, “This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.” I’m going to go ahead and ignore that. With characters like slimy Senator Ted DeMarcos, bigoted Governor Ron San Diego, and an obvious George Santos look-alike as a spineless henchman (sportingly portrayed by director Jorge Ameer himself), it is clear just which politico goons the filmmaker is referencing. Indeed, the protagonist’s name—Alex Feretti, son of Dr. Feretti, a Whitehouse disease big-wig—echoes a certain Dr. A. Fauci of pandemic fame.

And what a pandemic! Sure, Covid was bad enough, but it seems that the vaccines and boosters for it trigger a nasty mental deterioration coupled with homi- and suicidal violence in many who received it, especially blacks and HOMOsexuals (emphasis mimicking DeMarcos’ singular pronunciation). This leads to chaos in the country, which a gallery of secessionist goons take advantage of, ultimately requesting that all Blacks and HOMOsexuals who have received the vaccine voluntarily check in to observation facilities in America’s South and Southwest. And oh yes, it affects the elderly, too (cue not-at-all-President-Biden being called on to step down); and what with the pre-eminent disease guy (aforementioned Doctor F̶a̶u̶c̶i̶ Feretti) being a prominent homosexual, it’s all looking very bad for various put-upon groups.

The paragraph above is ill-wrought, so as to better give you an idea of the narrative flow of Altered Perceptions—and I haven’t yet even touched upon the fully-frontally nude time traveler who is desperate to enlist the help of Alex Feretti, who is not only the son of the nationally known doctor but also the top aide to Senator DeMarcos. These shotgun blasts of social commentary, interspersed with interludes of well-intentioned guesses at what a gay relationship is like, crackle over the course of two hours as we watch society collapse from both macro- and micro-focus. And before I forget, there’s a strange plot from North Korea brewing as well.

Jorge Ameer kept my interest throughout, it is true. But much of that stemmed from the constant crinkling sound I heard as the plot unfurled. The screenwriter is a neuropsychologist, and while axes are ground, its never clear what they ultimately end up swung at. Ameer is obviously earnest, but his technical (and storytelling) proficiency is only a few notches above Tommy Wiseau’s. The acting ranges from C- to B+, with son Feretti scoring the former and father Feretti the latter, rendering their interactions one-sidedly stilted. And while I don’t hold clunky special effects against anyone, others do—and are so warned.

Still, I much prefer a film’s reach to exceed its grasp than vice versa, and while I could reel off any number of further quibbles, I’d feel petty doing so. Ameer takes a stab at making a Big Movie with Big Ideas under the restraints of a low budget. If you will allow the use of a crummy double-metaphor, Altered Perceptions is like a slice of Swiss cheese: there are plenty of holes; but also like a slice of Swiss cheese, it holds together just enough to make it a notable addition in the greater Sandwich of Cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… this is a glitchy, channel-surfing trawl through recent American history, where the dialogue is stylised and repetitive, the characters dumbed down, and the narrative unbelievable to the point of surrealism. Yet this is part of the point: for here, as in a Neil Breen film, artifice is foregrounded, the medium is the message, and ultimately it is the viewer’s perceptions which are altered, as Ameer – who also plays one of DeMarcos’ aides – infects us all with the maddening irrationality of America’s contemporary culture wars.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: I SAW THE TV GLOW (2024)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman

PLOT: Two misfit teenagers become obsessed with a paranormal TV show, leading them into delusions that persist into adulthood.

Still from I saw the TV glow (2024)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Glossy yet staticky, ever-glowing with pinks and purples, I Saw the TV Glow broadcasts lo- and hi-fi visuals that always threaten to drift away into dreams and nightmares. Paired with its melancholy psychological depth and extreme narrative ambiguity, Schoenbrun‘s plucky hallucination is a clear contender for one of the weirdest low-budget, high-impact films of 2024.

COMMENTS: To sophisticated eyes, “The Pink Opaque” doesn’t seem too entrancing; but when you’re a teenage outcast yearning for an escape from reality, you cleave to any alternate reality you can. The fake TV show within the movie is about two teenage girls who communicate through a psychic bond; in each episode they fight a different “monster of the week” sent by the “big bad,” Mr. Melancholy, who is also the Man in the Moon. The show’s theatrical character designs are culled from “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” Nightbreed, and A Trip to the Moon, and the mythology and general vibe resemble “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or a juvenile version of “X-Files.” Or does it? Owen’s memory may be unreliable. The show’s stylistic characteristics aren’t stable, but get jumbled up in his mind. The series finale he remembers seeing—or maybe which Maddy only convinces him he saw—includes the main characters being drugged with amnesia-inducing “luna juice.” It has a much darker tone than the rest of the series, more indigo than pink and more murky than opaque. It seems highly unlikely the Young Adult Network would greenlight this disturbing ““-adjacent finale.

Owen is drawn to the program for several reasons, the most important of which is that he has trouble making, and keeping, friends, and Maddy is so obsessed with the show that she showers anyone who expresses the slightest interest in it with attention. “The Pink Opaque” also has a forbidden allure for Owen: it airs in the latest original programming slot on the Young Adult network, after his strictly-enforced bedtime, and his stern father disapproves of it, scoffing that it’s a “show for girls.” Sneaking over to Maddy’s house to watch it, or secretly watching the clandestine VHS copies Maddy leaves for him, is an adventure. Maddy’s attachment to “The Pink Opaque” is even unhealthier: although we are spared direct evidence, there’s a strong implication of abuse and neglect in her home life. The show is the most escapist form of escapism for her—that is, until she decides to actually run away from home, leaving a burning husk of a TV on the lawn in the wake of her disappearance. Coincidentally, “The Pink Opaque” is canceled when Maddy leaves town.

While the following paragraph may be spoiler-ish—so zip out of here if you wish to go in blind—it is likely you’ve already heard that I Saw the TV Glow is a metaphor for gender dysphoria. The allegory, however, is not too on-the-nose. If I didn’t know writer/director Schoenbrun was trans1, would I even pick it up? Given the clues scattered about, I think I probably would, but I can’t say for sure. Owen’s backstory is only revealed in hallucinations and hallucinatory flashbacks. All we really know is that he feels like he doesn’t fit in—that pervasive teenage affliction that, in his and Maddy’s cases, is simply more pathological than their peers. Meanwhile, the theme of the effect of media on vulnerable populations—which was also explored in Schoenbrun’s debut, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, wherein a similarly alienated teenage protagonist gets delusionally swept up in a viral Internet phenomenon—is more at the forefront. By the film’s end, imagery merging humans and TVs, reminiscent of Videodrome, reinforces the focus on pathological fandom in the face of pervasive media—but leaves a crack for Schoenbrun’s underlying metaphor to shine through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a trippy experience about soothing teen angst and existential uncertainty with media… the narrative doesn’t always engage, and some choices feel broad or more like weird-for-weird’s-sake flourishes. Still, there’s enough here to applaud and consider for days afterward, particularly the raw performances by Smith and Lundy-Paine, who each have a magnetic screen presence.”–Brain Eggert, Deep Focus Review (contemporaneous)

  1. The original text of this review read “Shoenbrun was a trans woman.” Further research, inspired by a reader, showed that Schoenbrun does not specifically identify as a “trans woman.” Most common they refer to themselves as “nonbinary, using they/them pronouns.” However, in interviews Schoenbrun does identify as “trans” or “transfeminine,” though not specifically as a “trans woman.” Since “transness” is so essential to the movie’s theme, I have chosen to use the word “trans” here. ↩︎

CAPSULE: JOBE’Z WORLD (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Michael M. Bilandic

FEATURING: Jason Grisell,

PLOT: A rollerblading courier is given the task of delivering a bespoke drug to his favorite actor, and his tenuous grip on survival is violently wrenched when the thespian overdoses.

Still from Jobe'z World (2018)

COMMENTS: You’re clearly in a bad spot when staring down a three-barreled bazooka wielded by a PTSD-stricken drug user, particularly when he blames you for the death of his all-time favorite actor. But either through mellow disposition—or mind-numbing desperation—Jobe takes this turn of events in reluctant stride. His evenings all kind of suck anyway, having landed a career of sorts as a drug courier, rollerblading his way around downtown New York City, supplying various oddballs with their various fixes.

Jobe’z World unfolds with a grim breeziness, beginning with a foray in the further-flung cosmos as the protagonist regrets existing in the one tiny pocket of the universe where anyone cares. He’s a chill guy, or wishes he could be. And his journey through a momentous NYC night is lit with shadows, through a camera which overlays a plastic, off-colored palette. Writer-director Michael Bilandic creates a world slightly unmoored from time, and sets his protagonist on a gauntlet through minor terrors and once-removed personal tragedy.

The MacGuffin here is a fading actor in the tradition of Orson Welles, who would have been considered a relic thirty years prior. For drug users and washed-up celebrities, perhaps time becomes meaningless (the actor greets Jobe with the line, “What’s your name? You know, like that Depeche Mode Song”—managing to make a dated, obscure reference out of a dated, obvious one); and for Jobe, a drug dealer, time shrinks and stretches, always in the opposite direction he would like.

This is a small-gauge film, with small tragedies, small perils, and almost a hiccup of a conclusion. By the end of Jobe’s trial-by-night—New York style—his lingering earnestness is lathed away. While this might be viewed as unfortunate, it is, at least, easier. Around halfway through we learn that Jobe peaked some twenty years prior, having burnt his chances at professional rollerblading. Like the actor he’s blamed for killing, he is better off fading into the hazy background alongside the motley burnouts to whom he delivers drugs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Writer-director Bilandic fails to infuse the painfully thin proceedings with any narrative momentum or comic flair, resulting in an oppressive weirdness for weirdness’ sake.”–Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SASQUATCH SUNSET (2024)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner

FEATURING: , Christophe Zajac-Denek, , Nathan Zellner

PLOT: A fictional nature documentary following a family of four (at first) Sasquatch trying to survive in the Pacific Northwest.

Still from Sasquatch Sunset (2024)

COMMENTS: Sasquatch Sunset has to think up some creative solutions to overcome the central problem of the premise, which is: it’s absolutely nuts. It’s a vignette-based, documentary-style work of imaginary anthropology about a mythical subspecies, starring a couple of famous actors who are unrecognizable in their Bigfoot fursuits, liberally spattered with sex and scatology. The fact that such an noncommercial property was able to get greenlit is a testament to the pull of “name” producers like and Jesse Eisenberg. The fact that it is an unlikely success is a credit to the talents of the Zellner brothers, who continue to push the oddball envelope after the cult success of their supernatural TV satire “The Curse.”

Sasquatch Sunset‘s chief gambit to keep you watching is to pepper its Animal Planet-esque scenes of a quartet of Bigfeet foraging for food and shelter with comedy—particularly, grossout comedy. There’s a Sasquatch sex scene in the first fifteen minutes, a bit of slapstick with a turtle who gets treated like a cellphone, skunk sniffing, and so on. You learn more about the Sasquatch reproductive system than you would ever want to know, capped by an unforgettable use for Bigfoot placenta. Perhaps the grossest and most absurd scene occurs when the family discovers a logging road, which disorients them so much with its unnatural regularity that they break into spastic gibbering fits and spontaneously evacuate all over themselves (including shock lactation.) Between these moments, you drink in the natural beauty of Pacific Northwest logging country, with its majestic redwoods, and try to count the infinite stars (along with one Bigfoot who can’t count past “ugh.”)

While the movie is entertaining you in its unpredictable way, it is also sneaking in empathy for its subjects—and making you wonder just how human they are. The beasts have humanizing traits and a sense of natural curiosity; the youngest even has an imaginary friend. Be prepared for family members to pass away, in grotesque and painful ways, and new ones to join the clam, at less than replacement rate. And, although no humans are seen (we are apparently as mythical to Bigfeet as they are to us), evidence of our presence sneaks in frequently; the mere sight of a red “X” on a sawed-down redwood confuses the anthropods, but raises alarm in us viewers. Several times, the Sasquatch family enacts a strange branch-banging ritual that suggests that they are more intellectually developed than they seem, and which may have a wistful significance.

The obvious precursors for Sasquatch Sunset are two works by Jean-Jacques Annaud: the prehistoric Quest for Fire (1981) and the ursine bildungsroman The Bear (1988). Both are fictional features set in primeval landscapes; the first uses a fake language of mostly caveman grunts, and the second has no dialogue at all. It’s a specialized subgenre, but one that was overdue for a revival. Scatological comedy was an unexpected addition to the formula, but one which makes intuitive sense; these pseudo-humans don’t share our bathroom taboos. But, as the melancholy title and odd ending makes clear, this story is a tragedy, not a comedy. At the end, the survivors stand in a world that’s not their own. They are the end of the line, their numbers are unsustainable, and their morphology is soon to become nothing more than an iconic curio suitable only for a roadside attraction.

One note: a lot of cinemas reported walkouts during screenings: often the sign of a weird movie, but in this case maybe the sign of a gross movie. This was not the case when I watched it, as I was the only one in the theater.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Consistently weird and frequently wonderful, ‘Sasquatch Sunset’ uses its high-concept premise to consider a host of themes: collective living, coexistence with nature, longing stirred by seclusion.”–Natalia Winkelman, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)