Tag Archives: Low budget

CAPSULE: THE SEED (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Sam Walker

FEATURING: Chelsea Edge, Lucy Martin, Sophie Vavasseur

PLOT: Three young women spend a weekend in a remote home for a photo shoot, but their plans are interrupted when a meteor shower delivers an alien.

Still from The Seed (2021)

COMMENTS:

  • Deidre: vapid; (conventionally) smokin’ hot; internet influencer.
  • Charlotte: geek-nerd; works at a pet store; has an old phone.
  • Heather: required because her father owns the remote house the three women are stranded in.

There are three other (human) characters, but here’s the thing: I’m talking about a low-budget science-fiction/horror thingy that is the kind of story horror filmmakers have been re-tooling since… (research pending). Gosh, if only I had Charlotte around to help me here—writer/director Sam Walker makes it obvious she reads books and knows things. Also made obvious is the fact that wherever these three pals are spending the weekend has no phone reception, or wi/fi, or even a land-line. (This last fact was deftly established by Charlotte’s line, “People don’t have land-lines any more”; this is patently a falsehood, as I assure you that I myself have a landline.)

The Seed spends the better part of an hour establishing their remoteness, their vehicleless-ness (though this assertion is later undermined), and the stinkiness of whatever it was that falls from the sky during a “once in a lifetime meteor shower.” I watched in vague impatience as the characters’ personalities were dictated, molded, established, reinforced, and etched in carbonite. An hour goes by, the vapid one vapids, the daughter of the homeowner freaks out about damaging the place, and the geek-nerd spares the life of a space entity and, in the one thing that kept me hopeful in the opening two-thirds, has an odd kiss with the odd boy who comes around to tend the lawn.

This capering, however, finally becomes interesting in the closing act. Elements from Eraserhead, and even Society, creep into the action. When Charlotte brings in the stinky baby-alien, its look and its swaddling (and its intermittent screeching) bring to mind Henry’s ordeal with the evil duck-fetus. And when Deidre attempts to kill the whats-it while Heather and Charlotte go off in the “buggy,” she instead partakes in something with a… shunting kind of look. And oh yes, there’s a bit of an Edward Blake-meets-2001: A Space Odyssey scene (with boobies). The final half hour ultimately makes The Seed worth watching, as the over-long opening setup allows a new personality for the two least interesting characters. Even Heather succumbs to the strange wiles of the alien entity and, in a stroke that emphasizes just how tedious she is as a person, transmogrifies into an unsettling facsimile of a chill young person.

This damning with faint praise (or, not even that I suppose) may suggest that I am not happy to have spent my time in this odd world of privilege, swish housing, and Chekhov’s mace. Somehow I was smiling by the end, even through the requisite “Oh-ho, you thought the problem may have been addressed, but you were wrong!” final shot. The Seed is effective B-movie fare, with sun-shiny pool scenes, fun creature effects, and just enough suspense in the finale to have me talking back to the television screen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a psychedelic interplanetary strain that’s like Society meets a Cosmopolitan photoshoot. Shudder’s latest original also brings to mind something akin to The Cleanse, in which an adorable puppet becomes something much worse. I don’t mention Critters or Gremlins because that denotes a bit more creature polish—The Seed has more in common with Brian Yuzna or Stuart Gordon weirdness.”–Matt Donato, Paste (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE GIANT CLAW (1957)

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DIRECTED BY: Fred F. Sears

FEATURING: Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, Edgar Barrier

PLOT: When an unidentified flying object terrorizing the globe is discovered to be an enormous, grotesque bird, the planet’s collective scientific brainpower and military might are brought to bear against the winged menace.

Still from The Giant Claw (1957)

COMMENTS: One of the great stories of cinema is the tale surrounding the production of Jaws. It seems the robotic shark that was built to terrorize the citizens of Amity was temperamental at best, unusable at worst. Accordingly, director Steven Spielberg was forced to scrap many of the intended scenes featuring the automated predator, instead resorting to obfuscatory tricks to keep the villain hidden until the last possible moment. This ended up working to the film’s benefit, as the star’s delayed entrance only served to magnify the tension. Spielberg had stumbled backwards into brilliance.

Of course, it’s questionable how much his tactics would have worked had the ultimate reveal of the shark not paid off the suspense. Once the chum-shoveling Roy Scheider comes face-to-face with Bruce the animatronic carcharodon, then we’re off to the races, because the reveal has justified the withholding. You can believe your eyes. It is the black-eyed, remorseless killing machine we were promised.

In some respects, The Giant Claw faces precisely the same dilemma. The filmmakers want to hold back the full and awesome power of their beast for as long as possible. We get hints, of course: blurry visions of an airborne foe, evocative descriptions of a flying creature “the size of a battleship,” an enormous footprint indicating the immensity of the monster, and many Spielbergian stares into the unseen maw of a force to terrible to behold. But at some point, the monster has to be revealed. And when at last it is… my goodness, how can I do this justice? Can it even be conveyed? I mean, here are just a few examples of my peers attempting to reckon with this thing:

All true, and that last one probably comes closest to illustrating just Continue reading CAPSULE: THE GIANT CLAW (1957)

CAPSULE: KUNG FURY (2015)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Sandberg

FEATURING: David Sandberg, Jorma Taccone, Leopold Nilsson

PLOT: After his captain is murdered via telephone, policeman Kung Fury must travel back in time to kill the assassin, Kung Führer (AKA Adolf Hitler).

Still from Kung Fury (2015)

COMMENTS: Kung Fury is one of the most ridiculous things I have seen. It is also one of the funniest. Even more impressively, it is that rarest of silly comedy films: one that has the wherewithal and willpower not to overstay its welcome. Apart from its other (considerable) qualities, I’d tip my had to Sandberg for shutting up shop and spinning the closing credits well before he wore through the already well-worn tropes that are the bread and bullets of the genre. From the opening skateboard car-flip to the smugly defiant Hitler soaring amidst the high-rises of 1985 downtown Miami on his mechanized Nazi eagle, it never felt forced, fatigued, or unfunny.

Even before (or… after?) Hitler’s appearance in downtown Miami, the city’s not a pretty sight. Street toughs hassle cops with impunity, flipping their squad cars like skeet discs for target practice. Arcade machines flash a nasty “Fuck You!” to the unhappy gamers who kick it after their sky unicorn is shot down on-screen. And transformer death machines spring to life, smashing up passing motorists and menacing passing canines. These hassles are all in a day’s work for… Kung Fury: a super cop who does not play by the book. The chip on his shoulder is as real as his sardonic gruffness is fake: years back, he lost his partner and mentor at the hands of a Kung fu master; before young Fury could pull the trigger on the assailant, he was “…hit by lightning and bitten by a cobra.” The rest is history.

And there is quite a lot of history: ancient Vikings astride their dinosaur mounts, the mighty god Thor (who utters his immortal words, “Stop! Hammer Time”), and, of course, the requisite hundreds of Nazi goons ready to fall under the righteous bullet spray sof Hackerman, Triceracop, Barbarianna and Katana. Oh, and a second welcome appearance from Thor and his epic pecs. Added to all this inspired lunacy is Jorma Taccone’s performance as a martial arts fascist; the actor perfectly captures the bizarre speechifying articulations of the erstwhile Führer.

Kung Fury is first and foremost a lampoon of ’80s crime/martial arts television and film. The creative team is spot on with everything—gaudy New Wave score, “futuristic” Tron-style animations, and even a seamlessly included advertisement for a newfangled mobile telephone. It’s as resourceful as it is silly. Leaning heavily on the retrowave vibe, occasional “tracking” issues conveniently crop up to disturb the image just when the most expensive effects sequences might take place. The fight choreography is masterful, too; during the Nazi fight, it switches to a long uninterrupted side-scroller video game ballet. Absurd surrealism pops up as well, as when Fury’s boss is shot through a telephone. (A similar stunt from a classic ’70s film comes to mind.) Sandberg is informed, witty, and has an eye for action timing. Kung Fury is, admittedly, no “Must See”, but I would be hard-pressed to recommend it enough.

At the time of this writing, the producers have made Kung Fury available for free (see below).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an insane and ultra bizarre film…”–Martin Hafer, Influx Magazine

CAPSULE: GALAXY OF TERROR (1981)

aka Mindwarp: An Infinity of Terror

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 DIRECTED BY: Bruce D. Clark

FEATURING: Edward Albert, Erin Moran, Ray Walston, Robert Englund, , Taaffe O’Connell, , , Bernard Behrens

PLOT: On a mission to investigate the disappearance of a lost spaceship, the crew of the Quest confronts an alien monster that hunts them by preying upon their worst fears.

Still from Galaxy of Terror (1981)

COMMENTS: No one ever accused Roger Corman of failing to capitalize upon someone else’s success. Having seen Alien reap box office gold, he and his mercenary studio New World Pictures quickly put together a film based upon a simple principle: an alien hunts a space crew one by one. Of course, what Corman and his cohorts never seemed to consider (or, more likely, could not be bothered to care) was that Alien was much more than merely a slasher film transplanted into outer space. The earlier film used foreboding and patience in a way that its imitator couldn’t even contemplate. Where Alien carefully developed the complex interpersonal relationships of the crew of the Nostromo, Galaxy of Terror just spits out one-line motivations and outsized character tics and hopes that will generate some empathy. We’ve got the blueprint here, but the only parts that carried over were the alien and the dead crew.

Galaxy of Terror is cheap. After all, it’s a Roger Corman production. But amazingly, it doesn’t look cheap, and a great deal of credit goes to the production designer, a promising young fellow by the name of James Cameron. (He also served as second-unit director and took on other behind-the-scenes roles.) The spaceship milieu is rich and convincing – the set is allegedly supplemented with spray-painted McDonald’s containers – while a walk through the chambers of an alien pyramid is vividly unfamiliar. The visual style readily evokes Cameron’s future endeavors, such as The Terminator and Aliens, and it’s entertaining to see him deploying his talents early on.

The story is considerably less accomplished. That notion of an enemy that can exploit your worst nightmares is intriguing (and would later be explored extensively by co-star Englund), but is only haphazardly pursued here, usually by a character announcing their worst fear and promptly being confronted with it in the next scene. Moran is claustrophobic, but her particularly grim fate is sealed less by confined spaces than by the vicious tentacles that attack her. Haig’s demise at the hands of his own crystal throwing stars is one of the film’s most effective pieces of visual horror, but makes little sense when you realize his weakness isn’t fear, but faith. In most cases, one has to assume that what the victims fear most is a large-clawed, bloodsucking monster, because that’s what most consistently does them in.

Which leads us to the film’s most notorious sequence, in which Continue reading CAPSULE: GALAXY OF TERROR (1981)

366 UNDERGROUND: DENKRAUM (2020)

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Weirdest!

Denkraum is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Luca Paris

FEATURING: Manuel Melluso, Danilo Paris, Alba Barbullushi, Valerio Mariani, Ilaria Del Greco, Salvatore Di Natale, Giacomo Aversa

PLOT: Alex observes videos on a computer monitor for a new social network named “Denkraum” (which may also be a self-aware entity).

Still from Denraum (2020)

COMMENTS: I think it’s fair to call Denkraum a Surrealist film; although there might be a science fiction or even a mystical solution to its conundrums, any answers are buried under so many abstractions and layers of speculation and contradiction that the search for meaning becomes an exercise in the paranoiac-critical method. Fortunately, we have a director’s statement (appended to the end of this review) to provide some clues to interpretation. Even so, I think most viewers will be completely perplexed by the film’s ambiguities.

As a cinematic experience, the movie proceeds something like this: Alex (whose youthful baldness combined with a baby face make him look simultaneously thuggish and nerdy, a look that seems calculated to invoke Max in Pi) scrolls through videos on an app branded “DENKRAUM.” Every now and then, he clicks play and we “enter” a vignette and watch it play out. These may be real recorded events, memories, or dreams. Most are too dialogue-heavy to make much of an impression; in one of the better ones, four nymphs lead a man into a swimming pool and drown him while a woman in a red dress previously owned by a dead girl watches. Although they all seem to know each other and be part of the same social circle, it’s not easy to keep the characters straight or to construct any sort of narrative connecting them; this is probably intentional. When not watching videos, Alex texts with various characters or AI entities, stares at the portraits he’s hung on his walls, and walks the streets looking grim and intense, with a various color filters suggesting alienation. The screen is constantly invaded by text messages (originally scrambled, they decode before our eyes). Sometimes these come from characters in the videos, sometimes from “Denkraum” itself. They are rarely helpful (“There is a distant and hidden place where nobody listens to your screams and a drunken dancing snake.”). Are they real communications, or simply cybernetic manifestations of the voices inside Alex’s head?

Denkraum is packed full of themes, including a shadowy religious cult, schizophrenia, techno-alienation, postmodern philosophy, misogyny and sexual violence, stalker (but not quite Stalker) vibes, a possible murder or two, pseudo-fascist gangs, indistinct conspiracies, toxic homophobia, and apocalypticism. Even on multiple viewings, the choppy delivery of the ideas makes it almost impossible to form a firm interpretation of the film. Again, I suspect this is intentional: the deluge of information suggests a nightmare version of a Facebook feed, where a political rant is followed by a relationship update status followed by a kitty meme followed by a livestream of college girls making out, while various friends and acquaintances are Continue reading 366 UNDERGROUND: DENKRAUM (2020)

CAPSULE: LO (2009)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Travis Betz

FEATURING: Ward Roberts, Jeremiah Birkett, Sarah Lassez

PLOT: Justin uses a spell book to summon the infernal spirit Lo to help him see his dead girlfriend once again, but the demon uses every trick possible to avoid fulfilling the command.

Still from Lo (2009)

COMMENTS: There have been many movies about demonic possession, but few about demonic summoning… and no other, that I can think of, where almost the entire movie plays out from inside the safety of a pentagram. (Lo‘s closest competition for time spent inside a thaumaturgic circle might be Viy.) For the first five minutes we watch Justin, in a pitch black room lit solely by candles, painstakingly (if clumsily) construct this magical barrier, following the instructions etched on the yellowed parchment of an ancient grimoire, christening the ritual with his own blood. He then speaks the magic incantation and successfully summons the demon Lo, a pathetic yet powerful devil with a partly exposed brain and useless crushed legs which force him to painfully drag himself from out of the inky blackness towards his summoner, angry and defiant but unable to cross the enchanted barrier and devour Justin’s soul. The spell Justin cast compels a boon from this creature. You see, he saw a demon drag his girlfriend off to Hell, and now he wants her back—or at least to see her one last time. And Lo must meet Justin’s demand—although, in classic Mephistophelian fashion, the spirit isn’t above resorting to temptations, tricks, half-truths, and twisting Justin’s requests in any way he can.

The way Lo achieves its aesthetic aims on a minimal budget is nothing less than magical. Darkness is an ally; the set is a essentially black box, props are minimal, and only the demon costumes consume a significant amount of dollars. The flashbacks that supply the backstory are told through reenactments on a stage Lo conjures in Justin’s darkened apartment. There are red curtains, applause, visible stagehands, and comedy and tragedy masks that react to the proceedings. For additional color, Lo also summons a fuzzy green demon rat, a lizard-headed Nazi demon, a pair of damned silhouettes who press against a saran wrap wall as they describe the torments of Hell, and a couple of (mediocre, but welcome) musical numbers.

The story advances almost entirely through the antagonistic dialogues of the demon and his summoner. Chances are good that you will guess the twist ending early on; but it’s such a perfect construct that it doesn’t detract from the poignancy of the reveal. Who can’t relate to falling in love with the wrong person, a love that might be mutual and true, but which fate and circumstance dictates must be temporary? And who can’t relate to the compulsion to understand the true reasons behind a disappearance, however horrible the answer might be? As breakup movies go, Lo supplies a real, mythic catharsis.

With all that it has going for it, I would love to nominate Lo for our supplemental Apocryphally Weird list. Is it ingenious? Definitely. Engaging? Undoubtedly. Passionate? Sincerely. Recommended? You know it. Weird? Ah, here is where the favorable adjectives falter. Lo is well off the beaten path of the average filmgoer—the one who doesn’t frequent this site. What we see in Lo, though, isn’t so much weird as offbeat, rare, counter-Hollywood: unusual in its approach, by necessity, but not so far out-there that it makes us question our notions of reality, or if what a film can and should be. So, despite the fact that we give Lo a high rating, we won’t be adding it to our List. That doesn’t mean we’re giving you a pass to skip it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a peculiar and experimental horror film about love gained, love lost, and the demons that can stand in your way. ‘Lo’ is an odd twist on Faust, and an entertaining indie film that impresses with its bare essential filmmaking.”–Felix Vaquez, Cinema Crazed (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kat, who argued “I’m a little surprised not to see Travis Betz’s Lo (2009) on the suggestion list. Like Ink, its imitations and inspirations are pretty obvious– but I personally think it outstrips Ink in a few key areas, never over-stepping its budget. I found it a little more bizarre, too, in the way it takes a simple trope of a premise and reels continually between drama and dark comedy.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: FRIEND OF THE WORLD (2020)

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Friend of the World is available for VOD rental.

DIRECTED BY: Brian Patrick Butler

FEATURING: Alexandra Slade, Nick Young

PLOT: The lone survivor of a mass-execution awakens in a bunker to find that an eccentric ex-military survivalist is her only company.

Still from friend of the world (2020)

COMMENTS: There is a small detail I’ve often noticed concerning low-budget films: they are either stuffed to the gills with smartphones, or such technology is mysteriously absent. Such dystopias fall broadly into two categories: “we’re all connected, and it’s horrible”; or, “once we may have all been connected, but a terrible event occurred, and it’s horrible.” Given a choice, I’d opt for the latter—which is to Friend of the World’s credit.

Taking place (almost) exclusively in an underground warren of rummaged-through rooms and cluttered corridors, Friend absolutely nails the claustrophobia of subterranean survivalism. Faces regularly dominate the frame, both skewing the sense of scale as well as bringing the characters’ personality extremes to the fore. “General” Gore (his claim to the title is questionable) dominates his frames, with one of those expressive—even “burly”—faces found on military blowhards through much of cinema’s history; Diane Keaton (no, not that one) is a millennial who survived a nasty massacre of many in her age group. Gore saves her, sort of, and then he saves her when they’re exposed to an unspecified-but-ubiquitous disease. Sort of. Then, hallucinations start. (You guessed it… Sort of.)

Friend‘s strengths, and weaknesses, are the double-edged swords of exiguous narrative, exaggerated performances, and elevated Art-Housery. Nick Young, who plays the gruff old-timer who never met a young person he could take seriously, had better be a stalwart of his local am-dram society. Half the time his bitter excesses are what’s needed, the other half, well, to quote a cohort he dislikes, are a bit “meh.” Innovative body horror spices up the proceedings with regularity (or at least as often as might be hoped for over a fifty-minute movie)—I’ve never seen one man excreted, fully formed, out of another’s back. The story contains an unclear sociopolitical agenda that is enthusiastically conveyed through audio cassette and Super-8 within the story. And then… well, it just kind of ends.

So I will, too.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A hybridised blend of Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) and David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), Friend of the World is low in budget, but big in ideas, mystifying the viewer with its surreally lysergic adventures in underland.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures

(This movie was nominated for review by Dan B., who described it as “…a bizarre, dialogue driven story that follows two complete opposite characters working out their differences while finding their way through a body-horror post-apocalyptic bunker.. a surreal and absurd existential trip into madness with elements of social satire, scifi and horror.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)