Tag Archives: Low budget

THE WEIRD WORLD OF CHILDREN’S GRINDHOUSE

His name may not exactly be celebrated among cinephiles, but ‘s impact on the mid-20th century movie scene is undeniable. Growing up in an environment of circus performers and vaudevillians, Murray made a fortune in the 1950s and 1960s by importing low-budget family films (among other genres) from Mexico and Europe, dubbing them in English, and re-releasing them on the US market, showing them at cheap weekend screenings. Providing affordable afternoon film screenings aimed specifically at children (and at pre-digital age parents looking for a way to keep the kids occupied for a few hours) earned Murray the title “King of the Kiddie Matinee.”

Poster for K. Gordon Murray's Little Red Riding Hood and the MonstersBut besides revolutionizing the concept of the children’s matinee, Murray also inadvertently assisted in the creation of a certain subgenre of film that flourished in and around the 1960s —one which, though rarely discussed, is the source of some of cinema’s finest examples of unintentional weirdness.

This particular subgenre has never been given an official name, but the term “grindhouse children’s films”, coined by internet critic Brad “Cinema Snob” Jones, encompasses its nature quite well. With their grainy visuals and audio, hokey acting, and flimsy sets, these movies do indeed call to mind the grindhouse cinema aesthetic. The films’ content, meanwhile, are clearly crafted for a kid audience. This dissonance results in distinct examples of mid-century cinematic weirdness, some of which have made it into 366’s Canon.

While a many entries in this genre were the work of Murray himself, many more were made in his wake, churned out at minimal cost to take advantage of the easy profits of the matinees Murray had helped invent. Perhaps one of the most bizarre (and egregious) was 1965’s Fun In Balloon Land. Produced by Giant Balloon Parades Inc., and the sole directorial credit of Joseph M. Sonneborn Jr., this little absurdity pushes itself to 52 minutes by poorly slapping together two unrelated segments. One consists of a young boy wandering around a cavernous warehouse filled with assorted parade balloons (which, with their vast sizes, bulbous shapes, and poorly-painted features, are frankly the stuff of children’s nightmares) and holding awkward conversations with them; the other is a recording of a Thanksgiving-themed balloon parade with a narrator gushing over the (equally ugly) floats Continue reading THE WEIRD WORLD OF CHILDREN’S GRINDHOUSE

CAPSULE: ASSASSIN 33 A.D. (2020)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Jim Carroll

FEATURING: Morgan Roberts, Ilsa Levine, Geraldo Davila, Donny Boaz, Lamar Usher, Jason Castro

PLOT: Muslim extremists use a time machine to go back to 33 A.D. to try to assassinate Jesus; with the encouragement of his Christian girlfriend, an agnostic genius tries to fix the time stream.

Still from Assassin 33 A.D. (2020)

COMMENTS: I wouldn’t say its impossible to make a good Christian time travel movie; would have nailed it. But I am pretty sure it is impossible to make a good Christian time travel movie that involves terrorist strike teams with assault weapons going back to 1st century Judea to assassinate Jesus. Assassin 33 AD is Donnie Darko meets The Passion of the Christ done on the kind of budget usually reserved for an episode of “The 700 Club.”

Assassin33ad.com boasts that the script has “won more International Screenplay Awards than any know [sic] script in history.” Starting straight off with the line “I’m just struggling. I went from saving an embassy and killing terrorists to being head of security at a research lab,” delivered casually by a rugged man to his wife on a Sunday drive, you can see why. That’s the kind of expository introductory dialogue slick Hollywood movies are too afraid to put in for fear it might sound “clumsy.”

The wife who needs filling in on what her husband has been doing with his life is Heidi Montag, a former Playboy model and current aspiring Christian pop singer who, like much of the cast and crew, was drawn from a cable TV show called “Marriage Boot Camp Reality Stars.” In another fine bit of screenwriting, Montag’s husband chuckles fondly, “That British accent!” This is necessary foreshadowing, because the accent will turn up as an important plot point late on, and without that bit of dialogue we’d have no way of knowing  that she spoke with a British accent. Assassin33ad.com reveals that a producer warned the director when he was planning to cast Montag that “Reality stars can’t act.”

Maybe all the praise for the screenplay comes from its nimble handling of the multiple timelines that infest the second half of the movie. I can’t opine on that, because I quickly lost track of how many time-clones there were running around, and which one were alive and which ones were dead, after the second or third time the hero (Ram Goldstein!) and/or villains leapt  backwards or forwards in time like chronological yo-yos. Personally, it seemed to me that they made up the rules of time travel on the fly:  somehow, even though he just invented time travel accidentally twenty four hours ago, Ram knows that there’s a lag between changing the past and overwriting the present that could take “minutes, possibly hours, maybe longer,” Continue reading CAPSULE: ASSASSIN 33 A.D. (2020)

CAPSULE: MURDER DEATH KOREATOWN (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: None listed

FEATURING: None listed

PLOT: An unemployed man becomes obsessed with a murder that happened in a nearby apartment complex, but his investigation turns paranoid as he imagines a wide-ranging conspiracy.

Still from Murder Death Koreatown (2020)

COMMENTS: Though taking its starting cue from a real-life murder, Murder Death Koreatown is, it’s safe to say, fictional, as you will doubtlessly decide for yourself by the time its deranged protagonist starts spouting theories about the Pastors, ghosts, and voices speaking to from the sewers. It’s like a re-edited version of one of those paranoid YouTube videos that leave you wondering whether the uploader is genuinely crazy or is just stringing you along for the lulz, or like Under the Silver Lake remade on a $100 budget in the style of The Blair Witch Project.

Our unemployed, over-stressed narrator begins by following (real-looking) blood splatters on his sidewalk, and then discovering that one of his neighbors murdered her husband in a neighboring apartment complex in L.A.’s Koreatown. He discovers some minor inconsistencies, and interviews some (real-looking) locals to see if they noticed anything unusual. As his investigation continues, he starts uncovering connections which aren’t really connections—and which sometimes don’t even rise to the level of coincidences—but which are completely obvious and convincing to the protagonist. We ought to be suspicious when we focuses the camera on the blinds in his apartment and marvels, “look at this weird light…” (we have no idea what he’s talking about, but it’s a hint that he takes significance from stuff we wouldn’t even notice). Also, unless you’re Dale Cooper, it’s never a good idea to admit evidence from your dreams into a murder investigation. It’s not really a spoiler to suggest that the movie is a believable study of one man’s descent into delusional paranoia.

Your enjoyment of Murder Death Koreatown will be linked to your tolerance for watching feature-length shot-on-cellphone vlogs. The movie is, by necessity, talky—there are no significant effects or action sequences. Unfortunately, the narrator’s voice isn’t compelling: he delivers most of his lines in a drab “woe is me” tone, and at one point his bleats of terror make him sound like a Muppet startled by a spider. On the plus side, the actor they found to play the shifty-eyed homeless vet in the alley is so convincing that you might believe he’s a real hobo, and that the plot was actually built around his schizophrenic ramblings. The effective horror soundtrack is another element that supersedes the budget; in fact, it’s so well-made that it at times undermines the film’s found footage credibility. Ironically, it’s too professional a touch for a movie that’s trying to make its amateurism into a selling point.

If you’re willing to overlook the budgetary issues, however, Murder Death Koreatown is a solid watch—and if you plot it on a dollars spent to entertainment value curve, it’s off the chart. It holds our interest for just over 70 minutes and does an exceptional job of viral marketing, which is a solid double for a microbudget feature. You can read some of the movie’s promotional gimmickry at the link embedded below.

For more along these lines, Graham Jones’ Fudge 44 (2006) has a similar low-budget, mock-vérité appeal.

K Anon / Murder Death Koreatown

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in mystifying its own ending, Murder Death Koreatown leaves us, like the investigator, grasping for a transcendent truth that the film itself cannot sustain.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)

 

6*. SHE’S ALLERGIC TO CATS (2016)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Sonja Kinski, Flula Borg, Honey Davis

PLOT: Mike Pinkney is an aspiring director living in East Hollywood, where he dreams of making his passion project: a remake of Carrie featuring an all-cat cast. No one is interested in his work, so he makes ends meet by working as a dog groomer, where he meets a beautiful woman who improbably agrees to go out on a date with him. Unfortunately, his run-down rental house suffers from a rat infestation that threatens to ruin his big chance with his dream girl.

Still from She's Allergic to Cats (2016)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Michael Reich and star Mike Pinkney had previously worked as co-directors on music videos for Ryan Adams, the Shins, My Chemical Romance, Yuck, and other bands.
  • Reich wrote the part explicitly for Pinkney. They took acting classes together to prepare, which is where they met Sonja (daughter of Nastassja, granddaughter of ) Kinski.
  • The movie was shot in Reich’s own house and neighborhood. Honey Davis, who plays the landlord in the movie, was Reich’s landlord at the time.
  • Parts of She’s Allergic to Cats were inspired by director’s Michael Reich’s work as a dog groomer in Hollywood, where he expressed the anal glands of pooches belonging to George Carlin and , among other celebrities.
  • It took the movie four years from its film festival debut to finally be released on video-on-demand.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Take your pick from two briefly glimpsed images from the climactic montage: a naked woman holding a bowl of rotting bananas while rats crawl over her, or a naked woman whose upper half is a banana. We’ll accept either answer. (If you’re looking for a non-nude pick, Sonja Kinski posing seductively with a DVD of Congo is your go to).

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Sensual dog grooming instructional video; anal gland expression

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In She’s Allergic to Cats, dog groomer Mike Pinkney bashfully confesses to “making weird video art that nobody wants to watch.” He’s wrong. Somebody wants to watch this portrait of a pathetic artist struggling to make an all-cat version of Carrie while dealing with a rat infestation and an internal video monologue that consists of glitchy nightmares run through a circa 1989 public access AV board. That somebody is you.


Original trailer for She’s Allergic to Cats

COMMENTS: The old writer’s cliche is to “write what you know.” The danger of this advice, of course, is that, if every aspiring writer  Continue reading 6*. SHE’S ALLERGIC TO CATS (2016)

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)