Tag Archives: Low budget

CAPSULE: TICKLES THE CLOWN (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: BC Fourteen

FEATURING: Voices of , Jennifer Fourteen, Marco Guzman

PLOT: 2000 years in the future, the alien Illuminati have taken over Earth, and the key to defeating them lies in the DNA of an imprisoned sociopathic clown super-criminal.

Still from Tickles the Clown (2021)

COMMENTS: Tickles the Clown is notable simply because, by all rational criteria, it shouldn’t exist. A spoofy science fiction saga mocking conspiracy theories done in the style of an extremely cheap video game, it appears to come solely from the obsessive mind of one “B.C. Fourteen,” a prolific (111 writing credits) director/screenwriter who also produces work under the names “B.C. Furtney” and “Christopher Maitland.” It’s the latest installment in a four-movie-and-counting series that includes Bigfoot vs. the Illuminati, Trump vs the Illuminati, and Bigfoot vs Megalodon.

Besides the unaccountable fact that there were three previous movies in the series, two things stand out about Tickles. The first is the animation, which appears to use some video game engine modeling technology like Unreal Engine together with a stock library of motion captures. It’s clearly not hand animated; characters’ faces never change expression (for that reason, several of them are almost always depicted in helmeted spacesuits), and backgrounds are completely static. In place of expressive movements, characters sway slightly or gesticulate at random, like video game avatars awaiting entry into conversation with a player. The effect is slightly uncanny, but, at feature length, mostly tedious. One of the movie’s biggest shocks come in the credits, when you discover it took a team of eleven individuals to create this animation.

The second notable feature is the movie’s insane world-building (much of which we gather from the explanation on the back of the DVD, along with a lengthy exposition drop or two). The series is set two millennia in the future, and the Illuminati antagonists are stereotypical “grey” aliens led by a clone of , who is building some kind of Death Star and also has black magick rituals up his sleeve. Meanwhile, Big Foot—a jive-talkin’ Big Foot, no less—has joined the Rebel Alliance; a conversation with a werewolf who appears on his spaceship’s viewscreen divulges some backstory that is likely familiar to longtime viewers of the series (aw, who am I kidding?)

As for the movie… it’s mostly dull and talky, but every now and then it sparkles with some demented absurdity. The main plot has heroine Princess Kali repeatedly returning to criminal mastermind Tickles’ maximum security cell to try to convince or bribe him into giving up a blood sample (for ludicrously contrived reasons, they can’t get the genetic markers they need if the blood is taken involuntarily). Thus, most of the movie is just a drawn-out conversation between Kali and the recalcitrant-but-horny Tickles, who taunts her with his super-genius insights into her character and background (and tries to get her to show him her boobs). In other words, it’s a Silence of the Lambs rip-off plot in a Star Wars rip-off setting. But those odd touches! It starts off with a quote from Nietzsche, which is not a promising opening for an indie comedy. Every now and then, a bit of live-action stock footage—a mushroom cloud, a cup of tea, an elephant penis (!)—appears to punctuate the script’s point. There’s the relative star power of Bill Oberst, Jr., who injects a surprising malevolent life force into the perpetually grinning Tickles, laughing maniacally and generally playing the role like a potty-mouthed Saturday morning cartoon villain hopped up on too much sugary cereal. Big Foot is cringily voiced as an African American (he even says “word!” at one point). There are numerous plot holes, including the fact that Tickles’ big escape from a maximum security galactic jail is completely unexplained in-movie (the box cover clarifies the situation, albeit with a typo, although to be fair it also describes a completely different plot than the one in the movie).

Tickles the Clown is intended as a comedy, although it’s not very funny. It often plays as a comedy of errors, though one not funny enough for the so-bad-it’s-good crowd. By all accounts, it’s not any better or worse than the previous three entries in the series. Even as cheaply produced as these movies are, given the spotty distribution—Tickles is only available on DVD, one of the previous three movies is on Amazon Prime, but not the rest— it’s hard to believe they are making enough money to justify hiring Bill Oberst for voiceover.  Forget the question of whether the psychopathic clown and the alien Aleister Crowley clone will team up to defeat Big Foot and the generic space rebels, the big mystery posed by the Illuminati series is: how are these obscure movies continuing to get made, in the face of the world’s utter indifference?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The series is pretty wild for the most part but what could be something very fun and memorable has been a tough chore to finish…  It’s one of the most difficult films [in the series] to watch and I was not a fan. Skip it.”–“Blacktooth,” Horror Society (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MONDO HOLLYWOODLAND (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Janek Ambros

FEATURING: Chris Blim, Alex Loynaz, Alyssa Sabo, Jessica Jade Andres, Ted Evans

PLOT: A being from the 5th dimension enlists the help of a purveyor of magic mushrooms and observes a cross-section of the town’s residents in an effort to define the concept of “mondo.”

Still from Mondo Hollywoodland (2019)

COMMENTS: The fabled Hollywood sign, symbol of dazzling entertainment throughout the world and physical representation of the film industry’s outsized sense of self-importance, began its existence as an advertisement. “HOLLYWOODLAND” arose in the Santa Monica mountains nearly 100 years ago to lure prospective Southern California residents to a new real estate development. The last four letters were stricken when the sign made its shift from billboard to civic symbol, and the sign enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom.

So while the most obvious inspiration for the title of Mondo Hollywoodland would seem to be the similarly named 1967 quasi-documentary about the region’s curious subcultures, the newer film leans more into Hollywoodland’s origins as a neighborhood. The Dream Factory is ever-present in the lives of the absurd, deluded, ridiculous people chronicled here, but they are still people, and this is a movie that looks for the community among them.

Early on, when the narrator identifies himself has being from the 5th dimension (presumably not the band), we can take comfort in knowing that everything about to ensue is pretty silly. Further exemplifying the flimsy structure of this endeavor is the decision to divide Southern California society into three classes, each of which is trying to buy into the Hollywood dream despite repeatedly seeing the cracks in the façade.

We begin with the Titans, ostensibly the power brokers who make blockbuster entertainment and break the hearts of aspiring stars. And yet our focus on Ted, a perpetually coked-up mid-level executive desperately trying to bring a Disney Channel starlet to heel, reveals these masters of the universe to be puny. There is no world beyond sci-fi epics and last-minute dialogue changes for these Titans, and Ted’s triumphant fist pump (earned by completely caving in) belies his fear at losing what little power he has.

The Weirdos occupy the opposite end of the spectrum, determined to better their world and generally clueless about how to do so. Hoping to take down a Trump-allied neo-Nazi, they pass out flyers at a gun-sense rally. Meanwhile, on the artistic front, they advocate for harmony. One even mediates a conflict between two pieces of wood. They are obsessed with politics, the state of the world, and whether their empathy and good intentions are enough to bring about utopia. At least, they are when they’re not tripping. Weirdo Daphne is so disillusioned with the slow pace of change that she takes matters into her own hands, torching a car. “Hope they got the message,” she says, even though it’s doubtful if even she knows what the message might be.

Enter the Dreamers, certain that their taste of fame and fortune is just around the corner. Not surprisingly, this section of the film flirts with sadness, as all these dreams seem to be deferred. From an agent whose clients are all up for the biggest roles but never get the gig to an acting coach whose credibility derives entirely from his stint on “Mad About You” to a wannabe fitness guru who longs for even the reflected glory of training the stars. Central to this section is Anna, the granddaughter of a one-time Grace Kelly stand-in who goes on a date to a concert by the grandson of Bing Crosby. The barest glimmer of Hollywood’s allure is being pushed away by generations.

Boyle, the hapless mushroom dealer, is our connecting thread, popping in and out of stories while still carrying on his own peculiar battle against the rats hiding in his rented bungalow. Regularly high on his own product, he is frequently flummoxed by the simplest interactions, and wants only for things to be “groovy,” a condition that has eluded him since the disappearance of his cat. But he also becomes the unifying force that brings our Titan, Weirdo, and Dreamer together in a genuinely hilarious low-rent heist. They’re a marvelously motley crew, and the success of this scene as the film’s climax is a tribute to the laid-back vibe the film has cultivated.

We never learn, precisely, what “mondo” is to this crowd, but if it means anything, it’s a special kind of magic that happens when aspirations manage to outdistance reality. Mondo Hollywoodland is self-evidently a Dreamer’s enterprise (having nabbed actor James Cromwell as an executive producer, the film’s publicity spares no effort to highlight the connection), but it is determined to face down the formidable opposition of a negative world and to be, in the end, groovy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Our lead protagonist, Boyle, is a mushroom dealer, and the entire film feels like a psychedelic bender... If you’re a fan of the experimental or WTF genre, you will find a home here.” – Alan Ng, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE WANTING MARE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Nicholas Ashe Bateman

FEATURING: Jordan Monaghan, Josh Clark, Edmond Cofie, Christine Kellogg-Darrin, Nicholas Ashe Bateman

PLOT: Moira, the latest in a matrilineal line, suffers the nightly dream of a hopeful yesterday while enduring the desperate circumstances of her dystopian milieu.

COMMENTS: Imagine yourself outside, idly contemplating the setting sun. You are about to arise to go and do something—anything—when an insect lands on your forearm and begins crawling around. The next thing you know, you’ve been observing it for the better part of ninety minutes, intermittently enthralled by some detail, but mostly in a trance-like state as arm and insect come in and out of focus. Suddenly the insect flies off, heading over the horizon as you gaze placidly in the direction of its escape. So it was with this reviewer and The Wanting Mare.

Moira lives a life of wistful ennui in a rustic hipster’s paradise. Her home is well-worn but soundly constructed. It’s not in the city, but within easy walking distance. And it overlooks a beautiful stretch of coast. Her days are spent milling about, in the house or on the beach, and her nights are spent in town, in the basement of a derelict building. Deep-blue mood bulbs are strung around what was once a dance floor, and a superannuated eight-track player blasts out a live recording of a singer who we eventually learn was Moira’s mother. Moira does not like sleeping, because she always has the same dream.

Nicholas Ashe Bateman (whose full name always showed up wherever I read of him online, so I shall extend this courtesy—up to a point) tips the viewer off right from the start. The film’s opening line, spoken by a dying mother to her infant daughter, is “You’re gonna have a dream.” So will the audience. If “smash cut” refers to scattershot sequences of violence in action movies, then I shall dub whatever NAB is up to “drizzle cut.” Despite concrete scenes of action (mostly dialogue), The Wanting Mare primarily drips micro-scenes together in montages of hypnagogic (a word I looked up exclusively for this sentence) smears of images. Movement along a beach. Swaying to some music. Even the handful of scenes featuring amateur bullet extraction have a lazy, semi-shaky effect.

I’m something of an idiot when in the act of watching a movie, so it took me until the final scene to realize that this story was a parable. I had already begun to forgive the filmmaker for the shambling first half, and this new awareness effectively cleared the faults I had been stacking in my mind. The Wanting Mare‘s plot device is a promise of leaving on a ship that departs this city once a year, a voyage for which you need a white ticket. Time and again, key characters forego an opportunity to escape to a mystical land of horses and winter, in order to live their lives as best they can, and change their world for the better. It took awhile to get there, and I risked falling asleep at times, but when that insect on my arm flew off at the end, I kind of missed it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a gorgeous effort, poetic and somber and dreamlike. But it lacks a central voice, and without that, any real connection with the audience.” -Hope Madden, UK Film Review (contemporaneous)

16*. BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL (1965)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gigi Darlene

PLOT: Meg awakens beside her young husband, who leaves her alone in their apartment to go to a business meeting. Stepping outside her door to empty the trash, she is assaulted by the building’s janitor, and kills him while he’s trying to rape her. Fearing that no one will believe her story of self-defense, Meg gets on a bus to New York City, where she shacks up with a series of roommates.

Still from Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965)

BACKGROUND:

  • Background information about Doris Wishman can be found in the Indecent Desires Canonical entry.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s either the snarling face of a rapist or a woman in her underwear. (Or, I suppose, I random shot of a shoe.) We selected the moment when Gigi Darlene demonstrates her junior-high tumbling skills for her drooling lesbian roommate by crab walking across the apartment floor (in her underwear, of course).

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Drunken belt-whipping; random plants, ashtrays, and feet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Bad Girls Go to Hell has the visual sensibilities of a drunk and apathetic , the narrative talents of an Ed Wood, and the moral sensibilities of a 42nd Street raincoater; yet, somehow it creates a sense of alienation and dislocation reminiscent of Carnival of Souls .


Original trailer for Bad Girls Go to Hell (mildly NSWF)

COMMENTS: It’s amazing how barren a movie that clocks in at just Continue reading 16*. BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL (1965)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: WINTERBEAST (1992)

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DIRECTED BY: Christopher Thies

FEATURING: Tim R. Morgan, Mike Magri, Bob Harlow, Charles Majka

PLOT: On top of a mountain near the remote Wild Goose Lodge, ancient Indian stop-motion demons are stirring.

Still from Winterbeast (1991)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: There are numerous bizarre touches scattered throughout Winterbeast, but there is one scene that earns this scrappy little amateur film an outside shot at our list: an unexpectedly ian masquerade at about the two-thirds mark of the movie, scored to a scratchy phonograph recording of the children’s song “What Can the Matter Be?”

COMMENTS: Begun in 1986 and released (to VHS) in 1992, Winterbeast is a few minutes of fairly competent stop-motion animation padded with about 75 minutes of totally incompetent live-action story. The action features mostly cardboard characters, with the exception of a hard-drinking, girlie-magazine loving NYC reprobate park ranger, and a plaid-jacketed businessman who sounds like Larry “Bud” Melman and does for New England wilderness lodges what Jaws‘ mayor did for public beaches. It’s nowhere near a good movie, but it has a small cult following for a reason: it’s peppered with weirdness.

Some of the weird bits are just the sloppy mistakes you usually find in bare budget films. There is, for example, a moment when a man breaks out a glass pane in a door window, presumably so he can reach inside and undo the lock. But when he strikes it, the door immediately swings open, because it wasn’t locked at all. So why didn’t he just use the door handle in the first place? (Maybe because the door in question doesn’t even have a handle.) With segments filmed over a period of years, there are constant editing boo-boos: shots from the same scene are often poorly matched, using different film stock and sound equipment (and sometimes costuming). Lead Tim R. Morgan’s mustache appears to change length and even color randomly throughout the movie.

These mistakes are likely the result of little care being put into anything except the monster sequences. But other flakes of weirdness are almost inexplicable: when Charlie opens his case of Indian artifacts, there’s one item that’s very out of place (I won’t spoil the surprise, you’ll know it when you see it). There are just plain goofy moments, such as when a character unconsciously copies a pose of a cigar-store Indian statue. (It’s worth shoehorning in here that Winterbeast‘s understanding of Native American ethnography appears to be based on research done at 1980s off-reservation souvenir shops.) And then there’s the previously-referenced musical number, complete with a plastic Halloween pumpkin prop, which is a genuine mini-masterpiece of microbudget surrealism.

Oh, and did we mention the rampaging stop-motion monsters? There’s a tentacled dream demon, an animated tree, a bug-eyed Bigfoot, a dinosaur, a giant chicken, and more. For the most part, they look pretty good—except when the giant models are shown picking up their quickly-made hunk-of-clay human victims, and either decapitating them or—in the case of one hapless, topless victim—smashing them against the side of a building. The creatures are only seen briefly, but the filmmakers obviously believed they could carry the picture, and they just needed to build enough movie around them to showcase these effects.

Remember how much fun 1970s homemade Harryhausen tribute Equinox was? Now imagine if it was done by a crew with half the talent at animation, and a tenth of the talent at every other aspect of filmmaking. Still fun, but in a different way. Realizing that he had created the perfect film, Christopher Thies never wrote or directed another movie after this.

Winterbeast is available as part of Vinegar Syndrome’s “Home Grown Horrors” box set (for the time being, exclusively available here), where it joins fellow apocrypha candidate Beyond Dream’s Door (1989) and the slasher Fatal Exam (1988) in a triple-feature of some of the best cheapo horror movies of the video store boom. It’s loaded with every possible extra feature you could imagine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie may be uneven in terms of the quality of its cinematography but it is so consistently bizarre and filled with enough seriously WTF moments that you can’t help but love it.”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (“Homegrown Horrors” box set)

CAPSULE: TEN MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Erik Bloomquist

FEATURING: Caroline Williams, Adam Weppler, Nicole Kang, William Youmans, Nicholas Tucci

PLOT: DJ Amy Marlowe is bitten by a flying animal on the way to her final broadcast, and things get a little bloody.

COMMENTS: Does Ten Minutes to Midnight embody low-budget horror? Let’s go down the list. Closed environment? Check: radio station, nary an outside scene. Undercurrent of macabre humor? Check: the night manager is a skeezy, New Wave-vintage coke-snorter, while the oddball security guard spouts good cheer with a sociopath’s menace. Pile of corpses? Check: the ladies room becomes shin-deep in victims. Brief run-time? Check: 72 minutes zip right along. Throwback lead? Super check: Caroline “Stretch” Williams owns her role as DJ Amy Marlowe. But sophomore director Erik Bloomquist throws in peripherals left, right, and center. With all that weight on the sides, the center does not hold.

From the start, Ten Minutes veers into ambiguation. The establishing shot, something I always note, shows an upside-down clock positioned at—you guessed it—11:50. (The outdoor light levels and an urgent broadcast about “tonight’s” rain storm answer the “AM or PM?” question; warning: you will get very comfortable with this clock setting.) Amy’s adventure begins offscreen and the dual bite-mark she receives on her to work introduces one possible explanation for the strangeness that ensues.

As far as cast goes, aside from the over-caffeinated security guard Ernie (Nicholas Tucci, deceased) and the station’s past-his-prime manager, there’s young-guy-with-lip-piercings radio technician Aaron who might be nursing a crush for the mature blonde DJ. And oh yeah, incongruous UC Berkeley grad Sienna (Nicole Kang) is there to act as some generational counterpoint to Amy.

You cannot hope to adequately convey much with a runtime under an hour-and-a-quarter, but that doesn’t stop our boy Bloomquist from trying. Ten Minutes explores transition—Amy is menopausal and retiring, Sienna is starting a new job, Aaron just broke up with another redhead, and callers’ lives are at a crossroads. It explores aging, death, purgatory, the modern work environment. It wants to be a vampire movie, a psychological study, a meditation on mortality, and a horror comedy… Imagine you’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet that is rigged to explode unless you consume all the offerings, from the bad pizza to the passable fresh-carved roast beef, in 72 minutes; Bloomquist seems to have endured an artistic form of this hypothetical. As a rule, I don’t mind a movie leaving me with more questions than answers, and I don’t necessarily shy away from incoherence. But while Ten Minutes to Midnight left me overstuffed with bloody imagery and thematic twists, it left me hungry for something more substantial.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In the span of just 70 minutes [Bloomquist] manages to cover an awful lot of ground, creating a surrealist tone early on that he never lets up until the closing credits roll…  a B-grade feature wrapped up in a 1980’s mindset that gloriously marches to its own bizarre beat.”–Peter Gray, This Is Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE PLANTERS (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder

FEATURING: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder, Phil Parolisi, Pepe Serna

PLOT: Emotionally-stunted Martha Plant is a terrible telemarketer and prefers her side hustle of burying junk in the desert for treasure hunters to dig up; things change when she offers her spare room to a recently released mental patient with multiple personalities.

Still from The Planters (2019)

COMMENTS: The appropriately named Martha Plant is an odd woman with an odder passion: she shoplifts souvenir shop trinkets, buries them in the desert, posts the GPS coordinates on a lonely bulletin board, and then digs them up later to find the cash left behind by grateful treasure hunters. (“It’s one of the most successful enterprises in the area,” she brags.) Martha is such a great crackpot that all she needs is an equally oddball sidekick, and the script almost writes itself. Enter Sadie, who literally comes careening down a sand dune, padlocked into a bicycle helmet and carrying a red suitcase, and crashes into Martha, the only landmark visible for miles. Laid-back, whimsical wackiness ensues.

Well, there are a couple more complications. One, Sadie has been released—or rather, cut loose—from a mental hospital that’s gone bankrupt. And she has multiple personalities, which show up over the course of the film. Two, while working at her day job selling air conditioners by phone, Martha develops a friendship with a lonely widower who’s just as socially awkward as the two women. And three, when Sadie peeks into the tins Martha buries, she sees biblical scenes (which play out in claymation): Jesus carrying on a casual conversation with the two crucified thieves, Moses parting the Red Sea, that sort of thing. Sometimes Sadie sees herself inside these little clay parables. These hallucinations are obviously the weirdest feature of a movie that otherwise merely leans to the absurd side of quirky, but it sets up a final scene that, for what it’s worth, indeed goes all the way into the surreal.

With its squared-off mise en scene, bright colors, deadpan line deliveries, twee musical selections, and eccentric characters, comparisons to are inevitable. And although that’s a great touchstone to determine if this might be your bag, Anderson rarely gets anywhere near this weird. Readers of this site might instead find connections to a similar mismatched-oddball desert buddy comedy, Rubin & Ed (although The Planters never gets quite that wild or aggressive). At any rate, it’s unfair to write this original comedy off as simply ersatz Wes. It’s its own weirdo thing.

The Planters has a terrific DIY backstory. It was created almost entirely by the two lead actresses/co-directors, from scriptwriting to costumes, sets, lighting, props, and sound, with no other crew. Begun in 2016, it took half a year to shoot, and spent a couple more years in post-production (Sam Barnett’s claymation creations took a while), finally arriving at film festivals in late 2019, and getting a very limited theatrical release in December 2020. The best part about it all is that, watching the film, you have no idea that the actresses are alone on set; everything seems to flow naturally from deliberate stylistic choices rather than result from filmmakers scrimping to cram their vision within their limitations.

The Planters is currently free on Amazon Prime for subscribers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Odd. Quirky. Deliberately stilted at times. Colourfully shot with interesting camera angles. Filled with eccentric characters.”–Carey, OrcaSound (contemporaneous)