Tag Archives: Low budget

CAPSULE: TAMMY AND THE T-REX (1994)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Walker, Theo Forsett, Terry Kiser, Ellen Dubin

PLOT: Mad scientists transfer Tammy’s boyfriend’s brain into a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Still from Tammy and the T-rex (1994)

COMMENTS: What can you say about a movie called Tammy and the T-Rex that the title doesn’t already tell you? The movie indeed gives us both Tammy (debuting 90s bombshell Denise Richards, whose earnestness as a dino’s gf helps sell this absurdity) and a T-rex (a 13-foot animatronic model capable of rolling its eyes, lowering its eyelids, curling its lip, and clamping its jaws—and not much else).

Obviously, the latter of those two is the star and the film’s raison d’être. Literally so: the movie’s producer funded the film specifically because he had access to the animatronic model for two weeks, and asked writer/director Stewart Raffill to create a screenplay to showcase the prop. All credit goes to Raffill for taking the lemon he was handed here and making reasonably palatable lemonade. Tammy and the T-rex garnered no awards—it didn’t even get a theatrical release—but the energy never flags, and it’s a reasonable way to burn 90 minutes.

Raffill’s checkered resume included the Star Wars spoof The Ice Pirates, the execrable E.T. ripoff/McDonald’s commercial Mac & Me,  and a forgotten sequel to Mannequin; so to say that Tammy and the T-rex is his greatest contribution to film may seem like moderate praise, at best. But the movie fills its “dumb fun” niche admirably. It’s helped by some lucky casting: Richards is joined by fellow then-unknown Paul Walker, making for an attractive couple of young leads. These two play their ridiculous situation relatively straight, while the comic mugging is left to the villainous mad scientists and the gay black sidekick (a stereotype, sure, but a pioneering character in 1994). Terry Kiser (Weekend at Bernies) shows what he can do in a non-corpse role, which is speak in a funny German accent, pose as a chain-smoking surgeon, and deliver lines like “We must remember that he’s going to a far, far better place… Helga, take him to the morgue.” That said, none of his antics are quite as funny as the scene where Tammy plays charades with the T-rex, or when the dinosaur checks a pay phone for quarters. The film is aware of its own cheesiness, but unpretentiously so; it hits the difficult mark of self-mockery that isn’t self-congratulatory, something that more recent spoofs like Sharknado miss badly.

The broad comic tone is like a film without the misanthropy and shock value. It feels like one of the campy, late night B-movies that used to run on cable’s “USA Up All Night” in the 1990s, movies edited for content to produce PG-13 versions of goofy-but-exploitative drive-in features. Which leads directly to the next point: although Tammy plays mostly like a PG-13 creature feature/teen rom-com, it does feature incongruous moments of R-rated gore—heads getting ripped off torsos by tyrannosaurus jaws, that kind of thing. The original film was released in most countries in a “clean” version, while the alternate cut with gore and more swearing played in Europe. The U.S. VHS tape, where most people originally saw the movie, featured the sanitized version. The “gore cut” was thought to be lost until Vinegar Syndrome found and restored an Italian 35mm print. I’m not sure the extra blood and guts adds too much (does making your actors clutch pig intestines to their abdomens ever add too much?), but it is a novelty, and it did provide an excuse to re-release Tammy to film festivals and in a deluxe Blu-ray set. Look for it to run as a second-tier midnight movie when repertory theaters reopen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…ludicrously, brilliantly weird; a ‘bad’ movie that, by embracing its campy tone and demonstrating a slight-but-significant self-awareness, is really anything but.”–Shaun Munro, Flickering Myth (festival “gore cut” screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Kristie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THINGS (1989)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Jordan

FEATURING: Barry J. Gillis, Bruce Roach, Doug Bunston, Amber Lynn

PLOT: Don visits his brother Doug in a remote cabin infested by things; Doug’s wife suffers a miscarriage and the two brothers investigate the fuse box after the power goes out.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This cinematic monstrosity is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, horror or otherwise. But it pushes the envelope of ineptitude so incredibly far that it turns a corner, reaching Zen levels of disorientation and otherworldliness.

COMMENTS: The closing credits begin with a notice that is probably more telling than the filmmakers intended. After we see the hapless Don Drake running through the woods, we are told, “You have just experienced THINGS.” I certainly have. I experienced many things: dismissiveness, confusion, disgust, and ultimately, wonderment. I watched this movie under the impression that it was a purposely bad, contemporary movie designed to invoke the strange era of straight-to-video horror. Upon discovering that this was actually from that era, I felt confusion, betrayal, surprise, and once again, wonderment. Things does not seem like it could have been made as anything other than a joke. That it stemmed from ambitions other than snarky tomfoolery blew my mind.

Things kicks off looking like a ’70s porno from Hell. A young woman in a Lucifer mask is propositioned by a skuzzy Canadian named Doug who wants her to have his baby. She disrobes, and then withdraws a baby—in a carrier—from a nearby shower stall. The man is pleased until the unseen infant nips his hand. Doug awakens on the couch, his encounter just a dream. His reality sucks even worse, though; his wife is in horrible pain from some procedure (which we later learn was performed by the evil Doctor Lucas), and his brother Don is coming to visit. Doug, Don, and Fred (an affable friend of Don’s) exchange bizarre remarks and make allusions to previous, infinitely superior horror movies. But as needs must, the “things” begin appearing and zed1-grade gore ensues.

Whoever the hell Andrew Jordan is (was?), it at least can be said of him that he knew his good horror films. No fewer than half-a-dozen classics are referenced—from Evil Dead to Videodrome—in an amusingly oblique manner (particularly Evil Dead: “How’d that movie start that you’re always talking about,” asks Don while holding a tape-recorder, “Y’know that weird one, with all the weird things?”). Even odder are the intercuts with 80s porn mega-star Amber Lynn as a newscaster very blatantly reading off of cue cards. The film claims to be set in America, but by the tenth “aboot” and the line, “Agh! The blood is just dripping like maple syrup!,” I saw through the façade. That, however, was the only revelation I could tease out of this morass of non-sequiturs and ambiguous—to put it politely—narrative spasms. (I almost wrote “narrative leaps” there,  but changed it after considering how the story never really goes anywhere.)

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what happens in the movie, and at a further loss to explain how it kept my fascination throughout. Unfortunately Things appears to be the writer/director’s only film credit (although leading man, co-writer, co-producer, etc., Barry Gillis, went on to rack up intermittent IMDb credits), so I may never view another window into his creative process. But it could be worse: I could have lived the rest of my days never having witnessed such a spectacle in the first place.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Basically, this movie is like the lovechild of Hotline Miami and Evil Dead as directed by Max Headroom. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and anyone with a stomach for gore and even a little bit of a taste for the weird owes it to themselves to give this one a try.” -Alex, Movie Russian Roulette (DVD)

CAPSULE: LUCKY (2004)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Cuden

FEATURING: Michael Emanuel, David Reivers, Piper Cochrane

PLOT: An alcoholic writer finds inspiration when a stray dog starts telepathically dictating scripts to him—and then orders him to kill.

Still from Lucky (2004)

COMMENTS: Lucky is an ugly little movie—shot on video, dimly lit, and occurring almost entirely in one trash-strewn house—but that may be an appropriate aesthetic, since the story is about an ugly little man.

Lucky begins as a black comedy about Millard Mudd, a schluby alcoholic writer specializing in cartoon scripts. Early on, there’s a long series of sketches where Mudd goes on “dates” with various women: a masochistic prostitute, a nun, his own half-sister. These segments employ an R-rated type of sitcom humor, with a mild touch of the surreal. Even when there’s a decapitation by chainsaw, the severed head is so silly and unrealistic that the effect is light. But things take a turn toward the grindhouse when the talking dog Lucky arrives and grows increasingly abusive in his telepathic dialogues. Mudd’s loose hold on his mind slips further, and he gives himself over to sadomasochistic sex fantasies. An interlude where he discusses the tortures he plans to inflict on his victim as she lies there bound and nude, objecting to his plans with no greater distress than if he had insisted on ordering out for pizza when she was in the mood for sushi, is particularly disturbing. For the final murders, even the pretense of comedy fades away. The way the perversity slowly ratchets up, while (mostly) maintaining the same deadpan style throughout, shows skill, but obviously won’t be to everyone’s taste.

The editing is good, shifting back and forth between fantasy and reality to create a sense of pace and action that the producers  couldn’t otherwise afford. The acting is adequate—the most impressive performance, perhaps, is given by Sydney the dog as Lucky (kudos to her trainer). And while it would be hard to make the case that the movie as a whole succeeds as more than a curiosity, the screenplay (by Stephen Sustarsic, who had previously produced scripts for “The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”) is actually solid. Much of the story is told through Mudd’s internal monologues, a technique which locks you into his mindset and makes the movie seem like a translation of a novella. The speeches never feel too intrusive or like they are substituting for something that could have been conveyed with action, and they’re always to the point. Lines like “I made three big changes during my life. I switched beers when I was sixteen. I switched back when I was thirty. And I killed a girl last week” tell you all you need to know about the character—and all you need to know about the movie. That quote either intrigues you, or immediately turns you off.

We waited so long to review this one, unfortunately, that the DVD went out of print, and the film is not available streaming. Used DVDs should be obtainable, if you are interested.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“No matter how weird things get, you’re willing to follow this character along his twisted little journey, hoping that maybe he can pull himself out of this hell he has created for himself.”–Film Threat (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Jasper Oliver,” who explained, “On paper it looks like standard cheapo horror comedy fare but in actuality it’s an immensely flawed and disturbing little film that sits with you long after viewing.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: WELCOME TO THE CIRCLE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: David Fowler

FEATURING: Taylor Dianne Robinson, Ben Cotton, Matthew MacCaull, Hilary Jardine, Cindy Busby, Andrea Brooks, Michael Rogers

PLOT: After a bear mauling, a man and his daughter are rescued by a strange cult in the woods.

Still from Welcome To The Circle (2020)

COMMENTS: “The meaning is the message.” “And the message is the meaning.” “So what is the message?” “That is exactly the question.” “What is?” “We have to figure out what it is.” “What, the message?” “The meaning.”

No, that’s not a transcription of a first draft of a discarded sketch where Abbot and Costello meet the Dalai Lama; it’s a typical “circular” dialogue exchange in Welcome to the Circle.

To be fair, this cult’s dogma is supposed to be mumbo-jumbo; and given all the crazy things people believe in nowadays, it’s not too much to ask us the audience to take the seductiveness of this verbal jujitsu on faith. The decision to give the Circle’s philosophy no intellectual content whatsoever is deliberate; the movie’s thesis is that the things we believe can override reality, and so it’s important to focus not on the strings, but on who’s pulling them.

It’s a thoughtful idea rife with possibilities and potential allegories, but unfortunately the message gets lost under too much obfuscating trickery. It’s relatively straightforward horror ride through the first act, but then the plot loses its way with information overload (founder Percy Stevens’ strange and confusing backstory, in which a tiger shark plays a role) as it’s simultaneously diving into a rule-free, anything-can-happen abyss. It’s a nice touch that cult membership includes an unusually high number of creepy mannequins—most of the prop budget went to this small army—but other ideas don’t pay off. Too many sudden cutaways to stock footage montages (marionettes, chess moves), too many portals that pop characters from one location to another, too many ostentatiously delivered Zen warnings that “nothing has any meaning” and “the thing we have to do is nothing.” It’s tough for a movie founded on such a free-floating structure to work, unless it has the budget to pull off some majorly distracting special effects, or a long series of catchy/scary surrealist ideas consistently pitched on the level of a .

Needless to say, Welcome to the Circle can’t match these standards. There’s no one we strongly care about to interest us in entering this circular labyrinth. Greg, bear victim and loving father, should be the character we identify with, but there are a couple problems. He’s  too slow on the uptake: he leaves his daughter in the care of the winsome twenty-something females who put her in a creepy happy-face mask for a couple of days, before finally thinking to look for his cellphone to call for medical help after his mauling. And Greg is pushed to the sideline relatively early in favor of a new main character, a stoic cult deprogrammer (who talks, one character observes, like a “stoned robot”), headed into the Circle intent on rescuing one of the females. It’s a bold narrative gambit, but we would need to be much more invested in the overall stakes of this story than we are for this perspective shift to pay off.

Ultimately Welcome to the Circle lacks the budget and, unfortunately, the imagination to fulfill its lofty ambitions. The film’s meaning gets lost in its message—or maybe it’s the other way around.

David Fowler’s previous credits were mostly writing the narration for Disneynature documentaries like Elephant and Penguins. A low-budget surreal horror film was an unexpected choice for a directorial debut. Artsploitation Films picked it up and debuted it on VOD and physical media in late 2020.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…starts out as a familiar horror movie before descending into complete trippy nonsense.”–Josh Bell, Crooked Marquee (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CRUMBS (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Miguel Llansó

FEATURING: , Selam Tesfayie, Mengistu Berhanu, Tsegaye Abegaz

PLOT: A long-dormant spaceship hovers over an apocalypse-blasted earth, so Candy goes on a quest to secure himself a seat on board.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Plenty of post-apocalyptic movies capture the dregs of civilization as well as Crumbs, but no others that I can think of have a “raised-hand” spaceship, Michael Jordan the god, or Santa Claus inside a bowling alley ball-return.

COMMENTS: Smirking absurdism and epic pathos are in constant tension in Miguel Llansó’s directorial debut. This friction is perfectly encapsulated during an encounter near the end of Crumbs, when we watch the protagonist, Candy, unbutton his shirt—in a display of machismo directed at a burnt-out Santa Claus—to reveal the iconic “Superman” garb. Only, Santa doesn’t recognize it, saying “it looks like a Nazi symbol.” This quip cuts right to the chase: the “superman” was a Nazi ideal, and it was such displays of toxic machismo that brought about the nuclear war.

“Crumbs” aptly describes of what civilization has been reduced to: scavenging and subsistence-level survival, all man’s machines crumbled to rust. Crumbs intersperses its quest narrative with history-laced interludes courtesy of a pawnbroker to whom various wanderers try to sell their findings. A cheap plastic “Max Steel” sword toy is not, as is commonly presumed, from the great artist “Carrefor“, but by “Mattelo“; a Samurai Turtle dated “third century” was “worn by Molegon warriors as a lucky amulet”; “Dangerous“, by Michael Jackson—a third-century farmer—is a gift worthy for a wedding. These items, and more, are crumbs left along Candy’s path as he travels to find Santa Claus in an abandoned pond in the old city.

The narrative is triggered by ominous signs at the bowling alley which Candy (Daniel Tadesse) and Birdy (Selam Tesfayie) have adopted as their home, untold numbers of years after a hinted-at world war. Birdy is convinced that the spaceship—which had hitherto been idling in the sky—has begun to start its engines, and the magnetic field being emitted has triggered the alley’s lights to flicker and the ball-return machine to reactivate. Candy goes off to find the one man who can secure their place on board, while Birdy stays home. She regularly prays at their shrine to Michael Jordan, but is haunted by the voice coming from the ball-return. Investigating it, she finds Santa Claus inside, pacing around a display of toys, asking what her Christmas wish is.

While Llansó’s sophomore feature tickled with its high energy and zany surrealism, Crumbs is a more contemplative work. Its tongue-in-cheek tone is couched within a soft, dreamy tone. The natural beauty of Ethiopia’s wildlands, alongside decayed industrial hulks of machinery, is on full display at the hands of an able and loving cinematographer. Candy is an unlikely hero, a deformed (though not un-handsome) fellow trying to do right by his lover. The weight of Crumbs‘ reality anchors the absurdity until the final moments of the credits. The spaceship sails peacefully toward the æther as two men inside talk about vintage music; then it explodes. Even if reduced to crumbs, Earth is all we’ll have.

Crumbs is available for separate purchase, but it was also released as a bonus feature on Arrow’s 2020 Limited Edition Blu-ray of Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it’s hard not to succumb at least somewhat to this sci-fi whatsit’s strange, whimsical spell.”–Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE WILD, WILD WORLD OF JAYNE MANSFIELD (1968)

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DIRECTED BY: Charles W. Broun Jr., Joel Holt, Arthur Knight

FEATURING: , narrated by Carolyn De Fonseca

PLOT: Jayne Mansfield narrates her visit to Rome, Paris, New York City, and Hollywood.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: This brazen cash grab (and virtual grave-robbing) flits along with an airy-but-bizarre tone of narration and titillation, before a jarring interruption in the final minutes. Laughably odd becomes wrenchingly tragic at the drop of a hat.

COMMENTS: For almost an hour and a half, we go on a guided tour of a couple of European cities and a couple of coastal American ones, before a coup-de-grace deflates the whole affair. Jayne Mansfield, dead—and nearly decapitated—in a car accident. Before this movie was even completed. So who have we been listening to? Having begun this film with no knowledge of it (and only passing knowledge of the starlet), I have to tip my hat to Carolyn De Fonseca for her dead-on characterization (please pardon that accidental pun [that one, too]) of Jayne Mansfield. Simultaneously, I have to wag my finger and tut-tut at the trio of directors who went ahead with this project.

The Wild Wild World of Jayne Mansfield claims to be a “documentary.” I took a semester about documentary film in my college days, with a focus on the reliability of documentaries and their makers. In this film, we witness Jayne Mansfield traveling around trendy European hot spots–that much can be gleaned from the footage. According to this “documentary,” Rome is (in 1968, anyway) teeming with handsome sexual harassers to a slightly greater degree than Paris is teaming with homosexuals, transvestites, and lesbians. New York City in 1968 had its share of convincing transvestites as well. And Hollywood? Like the rest of the world, it was going through a “topless women do various mundane things” craze. Everything, however, is undercut by the fact that we’re lied to from the beginning about who’s talking to us.

There was probably a respectful way to make this movie. The filmmakers sat on a pile of footage of Mansfield’s recent jaunts, and there must have been people she spoke with who could have fleshed out a real documentary. Instead, there’s a continuous rush of ditzy observations and a laser-keen focus on society’s fringe element—all set to a jaunty score at times reminiscent of Goodbye, Uncle Tom and at others, the James Bond theme.

Broun, Holt, and Knight show as much of Mansfield as they can, show as many other breasts as they can, and pepper it all with daydreams ostensibly from Mansfield (for example, her vision in the Colisseum of her dream-man gladiator). There was also a nigh-untenable degree of faux-modesty—“Mansfield” remarking in wonder at how shameless/fearless all these women/love-making couples/etc. were, and how she simply could not work up the nerve to go fully nude at a nudist colony.

But then it gets weird. There’s a crash-montage of photographs, accompanied by a rubber-burning/metal-crunching sound effects, and the tone slips into maudlin garishness. Suddenly all the mind-numbingly banal remarks (my favorite being, “Poor Caesar! Brutus was his friend!”) are brought into focus: this was a person. Who died horribly. Melodrama worthy of Guy Maddin, I’d say, coming out of the blue, and interrupting my dismissive chuckling.

Severin re-released The Wild Wild World of Jayne Mansfield on DVD and Blu-ray in 2020, with your choice of two different, equally flawed transfers, and a host of extras including a short interview with Satanist and Jayne hanger-on Anton La Vey. The tame 1966 mondo feature Wild, Weird, Wonderful Italians is also tossed in to make the bottom half of a double feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Once it gets to the car crash… the movie is surprisingly dark and serious in tone, clearly cashing in on the very real, and very tragic, event that took the life of its star (and, as the photos clearly document, her dog as well)…  Recommended for those with a taste for misguided vanity projects and bizarre documentary features.
” -Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!

366 UNDERGROUND: MY NEIGHBOR WANTS ME DEAD (2019) WITH BONUS INTERVIEW

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DIRECTED BY: Nick Gatsby

FEATURING: Eric Willis, Scott Mitchell

PLOT: A hapless tenant finds himself dying at the hands of his neighbor over and over again.

Still from My Neighbor Wants Me Dead (2019)

COMMENTS: There’s a grandeur that kicks off Nick Gatsby’s first feature film that is both beautiful and disorienting. Haunting choral music, haunting wind sounds, and a haunting, burning moon (?) behind scraggly, leafless branches. The moon turns green, and there is a cut—appropriately—to psychedelically-lit puzzle pieces. This abstraction crops up throughout the rest of the film: interesting shots cut up by post-production static, over-exposure, jump cuts, and—my favorite—hilarious intertitles. With what seems like zero dollars on hand, but plenty of focus for fastidious editing and micro-effects, Gatsby has put together a creative anomaly; I wouldn’t describe it as a movie, per se, but it would hold its own among the video installations I’ve enjoyed at various modern art museums.

The story, such as it is, remains basic: a man mysteriously appears in a chair, slumped over. He awakens and is quickly menaced by a (largely) unseen neighbor. He’s about to be killed, and on a very short timer. Looming butterflies act as harbingers. Skulls appear, tiki bars are disregarded, and only in the fifth iteration do things seemingly fall into place.

Watching My Neighbor Wants Me Dead with a group was apt, as the chatter (pleasant though it was) acted as something of a distraction. And wouldn’t you know, the film’s tagline is “A film about distractions.” More than most (more straight-forward) narratives, My Neighbor lends itself to multiple interpretations. I saw it as a meditation on depression: the protagonist continually tries and fails to survive and get out of his door. Distractions subsume him: the promise of a “Tiki Bar,” threats from his neighbor, and even idly wandering through his barren apartment. Knowing a thing or two about depression myself, I know that one of the main challenges it presents the sufferer with is distraction: a simple, but driving distraction from being able to just face the day.

Gatsby earns plenty of bonus points for style, and several more for the oddball humor sprinkled throughout. There’s a cartoon intermission, plenty of ragtime music, and obscenely pictographed phrases during the intertitles. The ending did elicit a bit of, “Well, I should have seen that coming…”; but seeing as how I didn’t, I can’t complain. I am glad to say that I look forward to Gatsby’s next (great?) outing.

BONUS INTERVIEW: In the final minutes of the screening, filmmaker Nick Gatsby mysteriously appeared, telecommuting from his bunker in Colorado. The 366 crew all chipped in questions for him about his film. Continue reading 366 UNDERGROUND: MY NEIGHBOR WANTS ME DEAD (2019) WITH BONUS INTERVIEW