Tag Archives: Low budget

CAPSULE: TERROR FIRMER (1999)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Alyce LaTourelle, Trent Haaga, Lloyd Kaufman

PLOT: A serial killer picks off members of a film crew making a -style movie.

Still from Terror Firmer (1999)

COMMENTS: once said, “It’s easy to be shocking, but it’s hard to be witty and shocking.”

I’m not sure Terror Firmer, and Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma output in general, wants to be either shocking or witty. In a movie that begins with a baby ripped out of the womb inside the first minute, it seems easy to make a case for the former. But since everything is played as a joke in the very broadest terms possible—e.g., when a man’s hand is cut off, he takes a bite of his own bloody stump, for no conceivable reason—the impact of the shock scenes is greatly diminished. It’s not as taboo-busting as Pink Flamingos (although it does have a number of rape jokes, which, besides racist and homophobic jokes, are perhaps the last real taboos left in existence.) Troma may poke at political correctness, but they don’t really take a stand behind any of their offensive ideas, playing them off as toothless gags as quickly as possible. What they really aim at is not to be shocking so much as to be simply gross—thus, the rivers and rivers of bodily fluids and waste, from director Lloyd Kaufman blindly peeing all over a fornicating couple to the killer puking voluminously over a couple of Frenchmen. As a grossout spectacle, Terror Firmer reaches a pinnacle that even John Waters couldn’t have dreamed up (though a few frat parties I went to in the 80s might have approached it).

As for witty… I’m not sure that was a big point of emphasis in the script. Yes, there are a couple of clever film industry jokes at the expense of self-important targets like Stephen Spielberg, “Cahiers du Cinéma” and Penny Marshall; and, for fairness’ sake, jokes at the expense of Troma’s own lack of taste, quality, and continuity. But in general, Lloyd Kaufman’s instinct is to go lowbrow, and to go for quantity above quality. The comedy calculus seems to be: if they can fit in four jokes a minute, that’s almost five hundred gags in the movie, and at least three or four of them will land. Terror Firmer isn’t witty, but it’s busy. Take, for example, a random but representative scene involving the shooting of the movie-within the movie from the middle of the picture. It’s set at a vegetarian rally and in the space of a minute it brings in protesters in bikinis, a surly script supervisor with a mohawk, a honking crotch sound effect, a piece of liver on a string, and a man in a cow suit with a functioning udder that leaks greenish milk; it ends with a scatological eruption. The result of such scenes, packed with chaotic, trashy punk mise-en-scène, is a movie that’s better in its tiny details than it is in its grand design. The movie’s frenzied parade of freaks and outrageousness keeps you from getting bored even when the juvenile jokes aren’t carrying the lame plot. It’s a Tromatic as any movie has ever been.

Bottom line: Terror Firmer is gross and busy rather than shocking and witty. But you can’t say that a movie with prosthetic hermaphrodite genitals, a naked fat guy running through the streets of New York City, and a puppet crucifixion (complete with dangling severed hand) isn’t going all-out for your attention.

The cast is huge. Will Keenan, who also starred in Tromeo & Juliet (1996), may be the closest thing to leading man material to appear in a Troma film. He reminds me a little of a slightly less handsome with slightly better acting chops (his impression isn’t too bad). Alyce LaTourelle does a decent job as the only straight character in the madness, but was never seen again after this. Kaufman is as goofy as one would expect; his lack of comic timing is itself a running joke. Trent Haaga got this part (his film debut) by publishing positive reviews of Troma movies; he later wrote screenplays (The Toxic Avenger IV, Deadgirl) and fashioned a career as a character actor. supplies most of the eye candy. Ron Jeremy and Lemmy from Motorhead have cameo roles (Lemmy’s is funny).

Dedicated fans may want to pick up 2020’s “20th Anniversary” Blu-ray release, but it’s arguably no improvement over the original 2-disc DVD release, whose special features it mostly recycles. Troma’s grimy visual style doesn’t really scream out for high definition. This print has also been reformatted to a widescreen presentation, when the original was deliberately shot in a 4:3 ratio intended to fit 1999 television screens. A new introduction from Kaufman and a fifteen-minute reunion featurette are the only bonuses not found on the original release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…pic wallows in bad puns and good bods and evinces a gung-ho approach that’s either refreshing or tiresome depending on one’s age and IQ.”–Lisa Nesselson, Variety (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: SHADOWPLAY (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Tony Pietra Arjuna

FEATURING: Tony Eusoff, Megat Sharizal, Juria Hartmans, Iman Corinne Adrienne, Radhi Khalid

PLOT: Anton Shaw is an unlicensed detective hired to track down a missing college student, but his own traumatic past keeps derailing his investigation.

COMMENTS: Under a glaring neon sign, at the cross-section between pulp-detective and pulp-romance, you will find Tony Arjuna’s Shadowplay—a movie with ambition. Among the themes explored, it primarily focuses on:

  • The effects of childhood trauma
  • The influence of dreams on reality
  • The slipperiness of identity
  • The cross-section between the written word and real life
  • The unreliability of memory

The question then becomes, does Arjuna’s reach exceed his grasp?

The story, as best as one might decipher, involves a would-be private investigator named Anton Shaw (Tony Eusoff), as he minds the shop for his friend and mentor (who is busy with a run of the mill adultery case). To kill the time, Anton reads a “choose your own adventure” novel, one with no author credited and no publishing house mentioned. The phone rings. Does he choose to answer? Turning to page 18, he does so, and thus begins the investigation of a young woman’s disappearance—an investigation that neatly mirrors his own past. His choices in the book are shown in real life, or perhaps vice-versa. For Anton, nothing is made clear until the end—and even then, he may have gotten no further than the chair in his friend’s office.

I’ll say right now that there are problems. The acting quality is very inconsistent, particularly with the female characters. As this is a riff on the “hard-boiled detective” story, there needs must be a femme fatale–several, in the case of Shadowplay. This numerousness is fine, but hearing a sultry dame huskily inquire, “Are you of indigenous descent?” strained even my generous incredulity. Perhaps it’s the script: the story is truly novel (so to speak), but many of the players are stuck with platitudinous lines that even the best actors would have difficulty giving weight to. Also, the scattered nature of the narrative leaves a lot of unhelpful ambiguity.

But, Shadowplay succeeds in two key ways. It’s beautifully shot, with a clever lighting and color scheme that creates a genuinely otherworldly aura. The aerial shots—of a very ’80s-looking Kuala Lumpur—ably define the environment, a nighttime hybrid of neon reality and neon dreams. The soundtrack, also very 1980s, enhances this effect, and by the film’s end I was in one of those pleasantly altered states of contemplation; the movie had transported me from my viewing room to its twilight vision of shadowy luminescence.

Shadowplay is, in all honesty, a very amateur outing, but it does give me hope for Arjuna’s future. He’s got a lock on sound and vision, and if he can just tighten his stories (and find better actors), I’ve no doubt he’ll be making great–and, hopefully, weird–movies in the future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Shadowplay is halfway there thanks to its aesthetic, I cannot stress enough how beautiful this film is to look at. Arjuna deserves praise for turning Kuala Lumpur into a psychedelic neon dreamland and…the soundtrack is outstanding, but this is where the good ends.” -Husna Anjum, EasternKicks.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)

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DIRECTED BY: John D. Hancock

FEATURING: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Mariclare Costello

PLOT: Jessica is fresh out of the psych ward after a mental illness when her husband moves her out to the New England countryside, but the house they have purchased and the surrounding town have a Dark Secret™️.

Still from Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

COMMENTS: Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971) is the directorial debut of John Hancock; nothing in his career would resemble anything like this movie ever again. Reportedly the script was originally written as a satire of horror movies, but Hancock wanted it reworked as a serious horror movie inspired by psychological thrillers like The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House. Horror veterans may groan at this point, because movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) taught us that converting a horror satire into straight horror is a precarious proposition. Amazingly, this movie outshines these modest expectations as well as its low budget—though not by much. It’s a dubious mix of giallo and Gothic set in a Connecticut location just south of Lovecraft country. True to Hancock’s aim, the tone does land somewhere between Shirley Jackson and Howie P. Right from the opening monologue, we have the title character adrift in a rowboat raving madly to herself while Atlantic seagulls fuss off-screen, followed by our opening theme in somber piano notes. You’ll be double-checking to see if Aaron Spelling produced this for TV.

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) is a bubbly gal recently released from the mental hospital, whose hobby is riding around in the back of a hearse touring cemeteries so she can do charcoal rubbings of headstones—but don’t worry, she’s going to be right as rain! Her concerned husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) has bought a home out in the country for her, based on the old “fresh air and simple living” cure for the mentally twitchy. Duncan’s buddy Woody (Kevin O’Connor), along to help them move in, ends up staying on. Despite the fact that Jessica hears voices in her head every two seconds and sees phantoms that disappear in the space of a jump cut, she’s optimistic for her recovery. The strawberry blonde vagrant they discover squatting at this home when they move in (you better believe she’s revealed with a jump scare) isn’t helping matters any. Emily (Mariclare Costello) offers to pack her things and hit the road, but Jessica begs her to stay for dinner, then indefinitely. No sooner does Emily play her guitar over after-dinner wine (Duncan is a retired Philaharmonic orchestra player, so he brings out his double-bass for accompaniment) than Woody puts the moves on her. You see, this clan is set up to be hippies, or at least part of the counterculture, although the usual Hollywood portrayal of Flower Children is muted Continue reading CAPSULE: LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971)

CAPSULE: THE SHASTA TRIANGLE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Barry W. Levy

FEATURING: Dani Lennon, Ayanna Berkshire, Helenna Santos, Deborah Lee Smith, Madeline Merritt

PLOT: Paula returns to her hometown of Shasta, CA where unexplained phenomena regularly occur, to look further into one such instance—the disappearance of her father. With the help of four childhood friends, they go into the surrounding woods looking for answers—which they do find, and quite a bit more.

Still from The Shasta Triangle (2019)

COMMENTS: The Shasta Triangle is an above-average low-budget genre film of the type that you’d expect to see on the SyFy Channel on a Saturday night, and if you temper your expectations to that level, you’ll enjoy the film. There’s nothing that’s particularly new here in terms of playing with the tropes, but it is refreshing to have the “group going into the woods” be all-female in this variation. You might recognize some of the cast from other genre work, particularly Lennon, Berkshire and Santos (also a producer and the co-story writer). These three also give the film’s better performances.

The premise is solid for what’s essentially  a friends-go-into-the-scary-woods movie. It all plays out fairly well, although the ending is somewhat muffed and may leave some dissatisfied; there’s a resolution, but it also feels like the filmmakers left themselves room to continue the story. Some may not feel a compelling need for them to do so. Still from The Shasta Triangle (2019)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays out much like a Luc Besson film. That is, it’s filled with audacious, original ideas worth exploring and experiencing, even if they don’t always hit the mark like you’d hope…  Subtle camera movements and transition-heavy editing create a disorienting effect that underscores the dream-like elements of the film.”–Justin Andress, The Model American (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: STAR LEAF (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Cranor

FEATURING: Julian Gavilanes, Tyler Trerise, Shelby Trerise, Russell Hodgkinson

PLOT: Ex-Marine James Hunter is stricken with PTSD after a tour of duty in Afghanistan; back home, he finds a trek to discover the legendary “star leaf” strain of marijuana to be less relaxing than he’d prefer.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aliens, drugs, and psychedelia do not a weird movie make. But in the case of Star Leaf, they do somehow make a rather enjoyable exploration of redemption.

COMMENTS: I’ve watched a great many films over the years, both professionally and otherwise, deserving of their IMDb ratings in the low single digits. Some are gloriously inept; others, just straight-up inept. Despite this, it was without trepidation that I sat down to watch Richard Cranor’s stoner/horror/sci-fi outing, Star Leaf. Despite having attended one of those herb-laced, East Coast liberal arts colleges, I’ve never quite understood the allure of marijuana. Fortunately, while Star Leaf is heavy on the cannabis, the weed merely serves as the leafy wrapping over a heart-felt, and fairly funny, musing on PTSD.

James (Julian Gavilanes) is a Marine sniper in the Hindu Kush, stationed with his friend Tim (Tyler Trerise). During a hillside stake-out, Tim encourages James to embrace the “pink mist” and take a shot at a boy whom they witness being fitted with a suicide vest. Fast-forward two years to civilian life in the Pacific Northwest, James, still haunted by this event, joins Tim and his girl Martha (Shelby Trerise) on a different mission: to find, and smoke, the fabled “Star Leaf,” a powerful strain of marijuana allegedly left on earth by extra-terrestrials. Things get crazy and then a little sinister when a strange Park Ranger appears mid-buzz.

There is a lot that Star Leaf doesn’t get right. The extra-terrestrial angle is underdeveloped (or should have been ignored); grey alien-types appear from behind trees every now and again and hassle the drug seekers without much purpose and zero scares. A time-loop/stacked realities “thing” doesn’t stack up logically, even allowing for the speculative physics. And then there’s the final problem that I often have with horror films: having made some fairly interesting characters, the director seems happy enough to kill them off. Or does he?

That final ambiguity is also problematic, but I know I’m giving you the wrong impression. Star Leaf actually hits a lot of right notes: witty banter, a good message, and yet another of those great nightmare-vision police officers (or, as he repeatedly corrects the trio while tapping his shoulder insignia, “Park Ranger”). This sinisterly-stilted entity is played by none-other than director Richard Cranor, and his Ranger Dave goes a long way to making Star Leaf into an odd-ball mix of hipster/stoner “Twilight Zone.” Russell Hodgkinson even appears as the ex-biker, still-Jewish stoner guru (if that name isn’t familiar, he plays a doctor in The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle). And then there’s the underlying message: forgiveness of one’s self and others. Star Leaf has all the makings of a “throw-away” movie (as well as a “throw-away” review), but it’s one those gems that makes the trash heap worth sifting through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the biggest qualm is in the form of the film’s second half… It’s unclear whether this is all just a part of the bad trip from the weed (judging from their weird trips after first smoking), or if it’s really happening. As such, there’s a question of whether the situation is a dangerous one or just head games. There’s just never a concrete feeling of real fear for the characters’ wellbeing, which is off-putting when there are aliens and terrorists after you.”–Mike Wilson, Bloody Disgusting (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BIRDS WITHOUT FEATHERS (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Wendy McColm

FEATURING: Wendy McColm, Alexander Stasko, Lenae Day, Cooper Oznowicz, William Gabriel Grier, Sara Estefanos

PLOT: The lives of six odd characters intersect in increasingly surreal ways.

Still from Birds Without Feathers (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Wendy McColm’s debut feature is a defiantly odd duck; a near-comedy about self-absorbed young people desperate to connect and perversely unable to get out of their own way. It seems like the kind of script you might write in the aftermath of a post-breakup acid trip.

COMMENTS: Each of the characters is alone, talking to themselves, when we first meet them. A depressed-sounding man (with an effeminate voice) recites bad advice into a tape recorder (“sometimes, you have to put others down to give yourself a boost in self-esteem”). A Russian immigrant practices saying “nice day” in front of a mirror, trying to erase his accent. A woman takes selfies in her underwear and uploads them to Instagram.  A stand-up comic recites his (not funny) routine and pumps himself up for a performance. A nurse practices saying the word “ow.” One other character pops up (or at least, is properly introduced) after the opening scenes: a chameleon-like woman who lives in the desert and is easily the strangest of them all. Even though these people will spend the rest of the movie bumping into each other, they remain, for the most part, alone; locked inside themselves by their own insecurities.

Social interactions in Birds Without Feathers often make little sense. In one scene, the stand-up is sucker punched by a passerby, then verbally abused by the passing nurse; he then asks for, and receives, her number. Several of the characters do “successfully” hook up together (never more memorably than in one scene that may change the way you think of Jeff Goldblum forever). But more commonly, social intercourse involves a coworker complaining that the dead look in your eyes is making him feel weird, or someone using “you know the awful thing about you?” as a first date conversation starter. A sense of lonely, uncomfortable melancholy pervades.

Writer/director Wendy McColm plays the Instagram model, and congrats to her on giving herself such an unflattering role: not only is Neil/Janet pathetic, she’s also the only character with (bizarre) nude scenes, and she gets her face spackled with white goop while making an uncomfortable confession. McColm’s character is probably the closest thing to a central presence, but the stories are fairly well-balanced between the six main players, with no one performer overly dominating the narrative. Although their lives all intersect at some point, there isn’t much of an overarching plot. Birds Without Feathers is really about a cast of eccentric characters put into a series of sketches. Some are dramatic, and even touching; some are funny (or almost funny, in an awkward shaped-like-a-joke-but-lacking-a-punchline way); and some are just flat-out weird. They’re not all hits, but there are enough good moments and perspective switches to keep you interested. It should go without saying, however, that this one is not for normies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays like ‘Mulholland Dr.’ and ‘Magnolia’ took a detour through Silver Lake, emerging worse for wear from the journey.”–Kimber Myers, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “DIVORCED DAD” (2018)

DIRECTED BY: , ,

FEATURING: Matthew Kennedy, Gilles Degagne

PLOT: A Divorced Dad and his even sadder-sack co-host, Gilles, produce a public access TV show that continually goes off the rails.

Still from Divorced Dad (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The format—cancelled web series repackaged as a home video release—rules it out from consideration as one of the weirdest movies of all time. It’s more of a supplemental oddity for weird movie fans (even more specifically, for fans).

COMMENTS: Served papers by YouTube after only five official episodes, Canadian comedy troupe Astron-6’s “Divorced Dad” (based, as the opening credits to each episode explain, “on a dream had by Divorced Dad”) never really got the chance to find its footing. Star Divorced Dad and co-host Gilles were developing a classic abusive, co-dependent comedy duo dynamic (if Divorced Dad was as passive-aggressively condescending to his wife and children as he is to the admittedly annoying Gilles, it might explain why he finds himself single). After Divorced Dad’s dreams were shattered for a second time when his mock public access webseries was yanked from the platform, Kino Lorber came to the rescue with this home video release of the show’s complete YouTube run, plus two completed but unaired episodes, and some odds and ends to pad out the disc.

The episode that got the show pulled—“My Sis,” in which Divorced Dad accidentally signs up the Islamic State as beneficiary of his charity bingo show—is hardly the hot stuff one might have predicted, given how quickly the heavy fingers at YouTube corporate pushed the ban button. Ironically, “My Sis” may also have been their most conventionally structured comedy, and could have been a breakout episode. The series’ other sources of mirth were more conceptual bits like Gilles demonstrating less-then-delicate bedroom techniques on fruit, Divorced Dad getting into it with a female “restler,” and the “Treasure Man” parody, a microbudget attempt to create an “Indiana Jones”-style adventure series. Most notably for us, in three episodes he suddenly finds himself lost in existential netherworlds: one where he’s driven mad by the show’s bad sound, one where he overdoses on blue slushies, and one where he zones out while Gilles is misbehaving in the supermarket. The sly surreal comedy in these segments would have been a bit abstruse for the average YouTube surfer.

The visual aesthetic is a drunken take on early 90s cable access TV shows, with vertical hold issues, wandering picture-in-picture effects, and strange lo-fi wipes. Divorced Dad’s video board operator doesn’t pay much attention to what’s going on in the show, instead spending his time checking out what happens when he spins the various knobs and dials before him. The end result is a show that looks like something you might find on an tape, with the absurdist comic sensibilities of an  live-action one-off.

Kudos to Kino Lorber for preserving this chunk of pop-culture flotsam, but… content-wise, it’s a little thin, as the main attraction takes up less than an hour of running time. Commentary tracks for the five original episodes beef up the presentation a bit. Besides the two previously-unseen episodes, extras include unaired footage (most notably, a hilarious faux-promo for “Treasure Man.”) There are also two “Merry Christmas” dispatches from a very depressed Santa (no one wants to hear that jolly old elf pleading “pray for me”). The disc’s hidden treasure, however, is “Chowboys,” a 9-minute short about cowboys on the range who contemplate cannibalism while hallucinating from hunger one chilly Christmas Eve. It’s described (sad spoiler ahead) as “the final film from Astron-6.” This is obviously a must-have release for Astron-6 fans; casual viewers might want to see if they can borrow a copy before shelling out a double-sawbuck, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Astron-6’s material may not be for everyone, but for those who have come to appreciate their quirky output, this release comes highly recommended!”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)