Tag Archives: Low budget

CAPSULE: APOCALYPSIS (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Eric Leiser

FEATURING: Maria Bruun, Chris O’Leary

PLOT: In a dystopian future/present/alternate history, a saintly albino woman has visions while reading the book of Revelation, and tries to convert an atheistic conspiracy theorist/hacktivist who’s being hunted by agents of the New World Order.

Still from Apocalypsis (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This straight-faced CGI-Revelation cum New World Order paranoia piece, steeped in psychedelic visuals, is a curiosity piece; a worthwhile trip if you want to follow the author’s off-center obsessions for 90 minutes, but it’s not essential weirdness.

COMMENTS: Taken at face value, Apocalypsis is an ecumenical outreach from the end times crowd to the chemtrails crowd, with bad acting and cheap but surprisingly effective acid trip visuals sprinkled throughout. I think that writer/director Eric Leiser is correct in assuming that people who will swallow a main character trying to use organite to shut down “the Grid” are also likely to find the Book of Revelation as credible a source of solid factual information as Infowars.

You have to grant that Apocalypsis avoids the pitfalls of boring, preachy “faith-based” films in favor of something more challenging. It replaces those pitfalls with conspiracy theory rabbit holes, but I’d much rather fall into those. Your spinster great aunt who goes to Bible study five nights a week is probably not going to dig Apocalypsis. It’s informed by experimental movie aesthetics, with about twice as many trippy montages as plot points. (Maybe Leiser’s recruiting the acidhead crowd, too?) The movie starts off by peering into some sort of cosmic whirlpool and never looks back, giving us double images, time lapse photography, fisheye lenses, negative images, and so on throughout the film to give it an on-the-cheap “mystical” aura. Most notable are the heroine’s Revelation visions, where you will see, among the CGI fractals, crudely animated scenes of what look like child’s dolls playing out Bible verses involving prophets, skeletal angels, seven-eyed lambs, and other briefly seen figures, accompanied by a “whooshing” sound. It’s surprisingly effective; going for too much realism would have been a huge mistake. It somehow seems right that the Archangel Michael and a seven-headed dragon are sculpted out of plasticine, and their choppy stop-motion battle is almost as unnaturally memorable as one of Ken Russell‘s bizarro green screen compositions in Altered States.

The main character, Evelyn Rose, is impossibly good, impossibly white, and persecuted by agents of the NWO for feeding the homeless. Leiser likes to shoot his albino subject in overexposure, to create glowing white-on-white compositions. Subplot visions send her to Japan to help with a nuclear disaster, but mostly she spends her time trying to convert her atheist friend Michael, who does an underground radio show where he warns listeners about the NSA trying to wipe out dissidents by nanobots, or radiation, or something. Michael has the squeakiest voice of any leading man in a 2018 feature, which is probably why his radio show’s ratings are so low. After Evelyn takes him to Church, he squeals, “That was so awesome!,” but he still professes “self-divinity” for a while. Black helicopters and such follow them both around a lot, and there are also guardian angels wandering around in the script. Much of it seems to have been shot in Central Park. According to the director-supplied IMDB synopsis, the whole film takes place in “a parallel universe entering a black hole,” although the screenplay doesn’t reference anything of the sort. It is, at bottom, a weird movie, for reasons both intended and unintended.

Apocalyspsis is actually the third part of a trilogy, although neither of the leads appear in the previous installments. Maybe the other two films explain more about that black hole, though. If anything, Apocalypsis feels like the opening movie in a trilogy; instead of resolving anything, it leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. Like, what just happened? Did we just get raptured through a black hole or something?

Apocalpysis is available solely on VOD at the present time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s as though David Lynch and Ridley Scott fell asleep in a candy store and collaborated on the same psychedelic dream.”–Porfle, HK and Cult Film News (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: MYSTICS IN BALI (1981)

Leák

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: H. Tjut Djalil

FEATURING: Ilona Agathe Bastian, Yos Santo, Sofia W.D., W.D. Mochtar

PLOT: American author Cathy King, traveling to Bali to research a book about witchcraft, gets tricked by a witch she’s interviewing, who turns her into a flying head to serve her own needs.

Still from Mystics in Bali (1981)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Even taking into account that this is all about an island culture’s religious folklore located halfway around the world, Mystics in Bali is still way weirder than it needs to be. The cartoonish special effects pile on the low-budget charm while we’re besieged by visions of animal transformations, witch battles, and humans barfing live mice. How can we refuse to consider it?

COMMENTS: The province island of Bali, Indonesia, is one of the world’s most popular tourist spots, mixing some of the world’s greatest surfing and diving on water with one of the most colorful and flavorful traditional cultures on land. Indonesia is the proverbial land of a thousand gods and a million ways to worship them, with ancient animism and spirit temples cheerfully coexisting with modern Hinduism. This is the background for our story, Mystics in Bali. Much of the structure of its story is based in traditional Balinese and Malaysian folklore. From some of the stranger aspects of this mythology, imagine how wacky our own religions sound to a non-practicer out of context. That helps us keep a level head on our shoulders (sorry) during this wild, dark ride—even though this could not be called a normal movie in any culture.

American author Cathy (Ilona Agathe Bastian) is in Bali to study black magic, intending to write a book. Her friend and local guide Mahendra (Yos Santo) takes her into the jungle and introduces her to an ancient witch, the Queen of Leák (a discipline of black magic). The first time the Queen (Sofia W.D.) appears, she’s a cackling hag with flowing white hair and waggling long fingernails, who warns them that she has many appearances. (Note to The Blair Witch Project: ten minutes in and here’s our witch. Was that so hard?) The Queen agrees to take Cathy on as a disciple, provided Cathy and Mahendra return bearing gifts of jewels and bottles of blood to offer the Queen in tribute. They do, and she transforms into a long glowing tentacle emerging from the bushes to claim it. She orders Cathy to remove her skirt so she can inscribe an incantation on her thigh to imbue magical powers. From here on out she demands to see her new apprentice alone, since her escort makes the Queen suspicious. Note that she is referred to as the “Queen” throughout the movie, but there’s nothing regal about her; she’s apparently the queen of the swamp she lives in and of the black arts she’s mastered.

Cathy dutifully returns alone to begin her witch training. This involves nightly dances and rituals during which the Queen and Cathy Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: MYSTICS IN BALI (1981)

CAPSULE: MOLLY (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Colinda Bongers, Thijs Meuwese

FEATURING: Julia Batelaan, Annelies Appelhof

PLOT: Gifted with supernatural powers, Molly survives as a scavenger in a post-apocalyptic world, while a warlord tries to capture her and force her to become his champion in deadly cage fights.

Still from Molly (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Molly‘s main—well, only—claim to weirdness is its namesake’s superpowers, and the fact that they’re entirely unexplained. That’s not enough to qualify it as a truly bizarre film, let alone one of the weirdest ever made. Still, although it may have mainstream genre aspirations, normals will never see Molly as one of their own.

COMMENTS: Detailed worldbuilding is not Molly‘s strong suit. It would rather focus on kicking ass. It throws you into its post-apocalyptic milieu without much explanation, trusting you have seen enough Mad Max movies to know what’s going on. Tropes like the lone scavenger, the orphan of the wasteland, the barter-based economy, and a scaled-down Thunderdome-style arena ground you. Other concepts are not fully explored: what exactly are the “supplicants”? They seem to be either an underclass (everyone who is not a warlord), or a nickname for the cage fighters, or simply people who (futilely and foolishly) ask others for food. Most significant of all, Molly’s telekinetic superpowers are not explained, although there are a few obscure hints, and the ending suggests that an (unlikely) sequel might explain more about her origins.

Molly’s magical abilities are important because they level the playing field, helping to explain how this slip of a gal, just barely out of her teenage years and not tipping the scales at much more than a hundred pounds, can slug it out toe-to-toe with the baddest asses the Wasteland has to offer. Make no mistake, fighting is what Molly is all about. She can be shrewd, to be sure—she uses a rope to retrieve her only arrow so she can fire it multiple times—but mostly, she takes on crews of guys almost twice her size with nothing but kicks, punches, and swipes from her wicked handsaw. There are three or four major fights sprinkled throughout the first part, but the final act is basically an extended thirty-minute melee as Molly carves her way through a small army of punk henchmen and drug-crazed zombie fighters on an oil rig turned floating fiefdom. Few of Molly‘s performers, including the lead, are especially athletic or polished; but, as other reviewers have pointed out, the film uses its performers’ clumsiness to its advantage. The battles feel authentic, like messy, stumbling, bone-crunching street brawls rather than precisely choreographed ballets. (At one point, Molly pelts an assailant with tin cans grabbed off a shelf.) Clever editing, including some invisible cuts used to make some of the fights appear to be done in a single take, helps immensely. At times it the camera employs a high shutter speed (the “Saving Private Ryan effect”) which reduces motion blur, making scenes seem choppier but allowing you to see details like water droplets or globs of sand suspended in the air. It’s a technique I find annoying in high budget films, but in a modest effort like this I think it’s a good choice to add some camouflage to the amateur stunt work. Sometimes the filmmakers shoot with a jerky handheld camera to emphasize the chaos, and at other times the camera is stable, allowing the performers to stagger about; they aren’t locked into a particular style, but go with whatever feels right for the scene. The pièce de résistance occurs when Molly finds herself hanging upside down over the fighting pit while supplicants claw at her. Molly—both character and film—survives by pure ingenuity.

Molly is far from perfect, as befits its modest, ramshackle setting. Freckly Batelaan is appealing in the lead—though I kept wondering how she kept her bookworm glasses on through all the fights, when mine fall off my face every time I bend over to pick up my car keys. The rest of the acting is iffy; the main villain is not over-the-top enough, and his top henchwoman, with her cybernetic arm, easily outshines him. The small budget is apparent throughout. But despite these handicaps, Molly manages to assemble an entertaining ninety minutes, and it does it the hard way—by making a fast-paced action film rather than relying on dialogue. Fight scenes are difficult to stage, and if Molly‘s crew can produce reasonable-looking ones on this meager budget, we can only imagine what they’d pull off with significant resources behind them. As a rental, you could do a lot worse than Molly; and, as a filmmaker, you could do a lot worse your first time out than making a movie people could do a lot worse than seeing.

In an earlier age Molly might have graced drive-in screens. Nowadays, Artsploitation releases it straight to home video and video-on-demand. The DVD and Blu-ray come with thirty minutes of behind-the-scenes footage and a director’s commentary from Thijs Meuwese; these featurettes will be inspiring to fellow low budget filmmakers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Colinda Bongers and Thijs Meuwese have managed to create a fun post-apocalyptic caper, and even more impressively: they manage to surprise.”–Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1952) AND THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN (1966)

I think “jaw-dropping” is the only apt description for movies like and Herbert Tevos’ Mesa of Lost Women (1952) or ‘s The Wild World of Batwoman (1966): categories like camp, cult, et. al. simply cannot do them justice. 366 readers are, of course, familiar with Ormond and Warren as two z-grade (cough) filmmakers; that category fits for virtually everything the two produced.

While Mesa of Lost Women may lack the feverish WTF element of Ormond’s later , it is, as per the norm with this filmmaker, mind-numbingly godawful. How godawful is it? It’s so godawful that the first time I saw it, I immediately wondered whether those endlessly annoying Medved boys ever saw it. How could little Ed‘s sweet little opus, Plan 9 From Outer Space, even compete with Ormond’s Mesa for title of worst film of all time? Of course, as the Medveds fancy themselves Christian critics, they might have been biased in not granting the title of “worst director of all time” to fellow fanatic Ormond; giving that award to our favorite transvestite director, to be frank, turned out to be an unintentional blessing for St. Edward D. Wood, Jr. (and to us).

Still, every weird movie lover owes it to himself or herself to see these masterstrokes of trash. While only Mesa is considered  “horror” per se, both are possessed with the zany queerness of the season and should perfectly serve any Halloween gathering.

Still from Mesa of Lost Women (1966)Mesa of Lost Women stars , somewhere between the golden locks of ‘s Kid and the chrome dome of Uncle Fester. Herbert Tevos’ script is narrated by , and the opening is priceless: “Strange is the monstrous assurance of this race of puny bipeds with overblown egos; the creature who calls himself ‘Man.’ He believes he owns the earth and every living thing on it exists only for his benefit. Yet, how foolish he is. In the continuing war for survival between man and the hexapods, only an utter fool would bet against the insect.” Talbot’s narration is utterly pointless, except for that fact that occasionally, and weirdly, he seems to be speaking directly to the actors—who then strain to hear what he is saying.

There is no actual mesa of lost women, only Tarantella (Tandra Quinn) and Coogan as stock mad scientist Dr. Aranya (that’s Spanish for spider, someone tells us) seeking to create a “super female spider with a thinking and reasoning brain; a creature that may someday control the world—subject to my will.” Yes, Dr. Aranya is creating spider women, spider dwarves, and spider puppets. Naturally, Bland Hero objects (“It’s monstrous!”) Apparently, the production ran out Continue reading MESA OF LOST WOMEN (1952) AND THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN (1966)

BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART TWO (1942-1944)

Read the introduction to the Monogram Nine.

Bowery at Midnight (1942), directed by , is a surprisingly dour crime melodrama, with a dash of horror (no doubt mandated by ‘s casting). It borrows heavily from another Lugosi vehicle, Dark Eyes of London (1939), although the earlier movie was from an Edgar Wallace story. Bowery At Midnight is comparatively muddled. As in Dark Eyes, Lugosi again sort of plays dual roles, and does some actual acting. The explanation of why his professor character needs a second identity (he uses a soup kitchen as a front to recruit gang members) is nonsensical, however, as is his need to keep zombies in the basement (?!?) Despite its muddled narrative, this, along with Black Dragons, may be the strangest of the Monogram Nine. It has pacing issues, but Lugosi’s performance and the ending, which is still jolting even today, almost make up for the film’s numerous flaws. It has quite a cult reputation, which is perhaps why fans have a trio of options to purchase superior editions from Roan, Troma, or the Retromedia Blu-Ray edition.

Still from The Ape Man (1943)Those who think Bela Lugosi reached the nadir of dignity working with may want to check him out with glued-on whiskers, hunched over, grunting like a monkey, and scratching his arm pit in 1943’s The Ape Man. It’s directed by William “One Shot” Beaudine who got his name because—you guessed it—he almost never did a second take. The plot rips off an earlier Monogram property, 1940’s The Ape (with ). That one at least had a decent central performance, despite its ludicrous plot. Ape Man, however, may be Lugosi’s most humiliating hour, with the actor looking more like an Amish preacher than an ape man, whining about his condition as he scrunches in a corner, needing spinal fluid. It’s poorly lit and, despite its obvious intent to be a parody, its dreadfully dull. It’s so bad that the white-bread heroes ( and Louise Curry) are actually a relief from the tedium. If they, and the film’s strained humor, are enough to interest you, it’s in the public domain, so there’s YouTube or some inexpensive DVD editions (none of which are remastered).

Ghosts on the Loose (1943, directed by Beaudine) is Lugosi’s second—and thankfully final—team-up with the Bowery Boys. As in The Ape Man, the film is poorly lit. Beaudine seems to have stuck the camera in the middle of room, yelled “action,” and left for lunch. The (very) minimal charm and energy of Spooks Run Wild is completely absent here, and Lugosi has nothing to do. He was lucky. Ava Gardner (of all people) embarrasses herself far more in this utterly dismal excrement. This is easily the worst of the lot, something even the most forgiving defenders of the Monogram Nine unanimously agree on. The Roan Group did what they could with the DVD.

By contrast, Voodoo Man (1944, again directed by Beaudine) is a hoot, with a trio of horror stars in Lugosi, George Zucco, and . Girls are disappearing from Zucco’s gas station. Yes, you read that right. Carradine is the imbecile abductor working for Dr. Lugosi, whose wife has been a zombie for 22 years. His scientific skills having failed him, Lugosi becomes a Voodoo Man, abducting pretty girls in an effort to transfer their souls into his wife. Darn it, none of the girls have worked so far. Yes, its a ludicrous reworking of The Corpse Vanishes, only this time we have a horror writer (Todd Andrews) whose bride-to-be gets abducted. A clearly stoned Carradine beats a drum, Lugosi and Zucco sport wacky robes, and Andrews wonders if the shenanigans would make a good movie starring Bela Lugosi. Its tongue firmly in cheek, Voodoo Man sizzles in its ridiculousness. Lugosi is good here, leading a colorful cast who seem to be enjoying themselves. It’s contagious. We should be grateful to Olive Films for not subscribing to the film’s reputation as bad cinema, because they remaster it like it’s a neglected masterpiece. This is my personal favorite of the Nine.

Return of the Ape Man (1944, directed by ) is not a sequel to The Ape Man. According to the credits, it also stars Lugosi, Zucco, and Carradine, but Zucco became ill and was replaced by Frank Moran. Lugosi and Carradine thaw out a Neanderthal  man and want to give him a brain transplant. Lugosi intends to use a wino, but things do not go right, and Carradine is toast. The result is a murdering caveman who plays the piano. Oh, and he hates blow torches, too. Lugosi echoes the film in being goofy and entertaining as hell. Some, probably people who used to pull the wings off butterflies, cite this as the worst of the Nine. Ignore them. Olive films did. My advice: buy the Blu-Ray of this and Voodoo Man and throw one hell of a bad movie party.

BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART ONE (1941-1942)

Professionally and personally, ’s best decade was the 1930s, but even that was a Grand Guignol roller coaster. Shortly after his star-making turn in ‘s Dracula (1931), Lugosi, known for throwing lavish parties for his Hungarian cronies, filed for bankruptcy. Paradoxically given his financial difficulties, he simultaneously became a prima donna, and was subsequently fired from Frankenstein (1931), which would have secured his inheritance the horror crown of the late . Instead, the role of Frankenstein’s Monster went to . Lugosi was denied a contract with Universal and forced to freelance during the heyday of the studio system. With that, and his personal life in shambles (wife #3 left him, and four years later he married wife #4 and abused her too until she left him as well), Lugosi zig-zagged between big budget productions and slumming in Poverty Row productions.

The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934) was one of the first of those Z-Grade chillers. It was made for Monogram studios, directed by William Nigh, and produced by George Yohalem. It has a wretched reputation as embarrassingly racist, cheap pulp, with Lugosi as a Chinese villain with a Hungarian accent. Clocking in at barely an hour, it still manages to be poorly paced, with long stretches of dullness. It’s halfway over before Lugosi even dons the menacing Fu Manchu attitude and silk robe, torturing the hell out of the white heroes, including the obnoxious wisecracking . Although we desperately hope that Lugosi will get to slaughter Ford, it’s the 1930s, and we’re going to be disappointed. Still, Lugosi delivers in a hammily animated performance and Lotus Long, in a criminally small role, almost steals every scene she’s in. It’s been remastered for DVD by the esteemed Roan Group and released on Blu-ray by Retromedia. The Mysterious Mr. Wong reportedly made a good profit for the studio; enough for Monogram producer Sam Katzman to remember, and offer a nine-picture deal to a down-on-his luck Lugosi in 1941.

Still from The Invisible Ghost (1941)
The Invisible Ghost (1941)

“The Monogram Nine,” as the series has come to be known, is the stuff of infamy. They are perhaps “topped” only by Lugosi’s later work with —although we could argue that the Monogram opuses are still better than Lugosi’s entire1950s output. Alas, as dreadful as they all are, none of the Nine approach the zany nadir of the Wood trilogy. Even bad movie lovers, coming to these movies for the first time, may be disappointed after sampling such delightful morsels as Glen or Glenda (1953). With one very slight exception, the direction in all of the Continue reading BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART ONE (1941-1942)

LIST CANDIDATE: NAILS (2003)

Gvodzi

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alexander Shevchenko, Irina Nikinitina, Andrey iskanov, Svyatoslav Iliyasov

PLOT: In order to cope with increasingly painful migraines, a young hitman explores the boundaries of self-trepanation… with nails.

Still from Nails (2003)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Even putting aside its bizarre subject matter, Nails‘ visual and audio design makes this a weird little movie. At times feeling like Metropolis with its hazy building shots and at other times feeling like a Flash animation upgrade of Begotten, Iskanov’s debut feature alternates between unsettling visual grandeur and disorienting close-up uncertainty.

COMMENTS: With under two-dozen slots to go, any sell for Certification is going to be a hard one. An hour-long head-trip (full of nails), Andrey Iskanov’s freshman entry strikes all the right notes for straight-up weird, and, on all counts for consideration, nails it. It’s disorienting to watch, alternating between art-house gore and art-house poetry. It’s strange to listen to, the soundtrack veering between Tetsuo: the Iron Man dissonance and New Age resonance. And it’s jam-packed with novice special effects that run the gamut between inspired and bizarre. There’s even some political commentary for those looking for a meaning deeper than its simple plot suggests.

Along with Dillinger is Dead, Nails falls into the “man puttering around his apartment” narrative family. An unnamed hitman suffers from crippling migraines that prescription medication and hard drinking can’t seem to fix. During a particularly nasty attack, our protagonist passes out on a magazine article about a healthy-seeming man whose autopsy revealed “over 500 grams of rusty metal” in his brain. Seizing an opportunity for deliverance, the hitman runs with the idea and delicately hammers a long nail into his skull. He has a nice long nap and upon awakening finds himself alive, free of pain, and acutely aware of reality in a way he had not been beforehand.

Nails begins with a brutal black and white palette and, like The Wizard of Oz, bursts into over-exposed color the moment the nail’s tip makes contact with brain. His apartment strangely brightens and everything inside gains a vivacious and sometimes sinister sharpness. Sitting to eat his first “enlightened” meal, he finds that his tins of food all contain different kinds of jellied-awful: fingers-in-green in one, creepy-shellfish-in-purple in another, and so on. Still, he revels in his new perception, poring over a book of Magic Eye-style patterns as he soaks in his saturated ambiance. But, as is their wont, things start to go badly. Another migraine attack requires further, more intensive treatment. Now with a head full of nails, his life goes literally out of focus; with the arrival of his girlfriend, the soundtrack ticks it up a notch and a climactic build-up further discombobulates with an alarming Spirograph-vision interlude.

The oddest flourish I found, however, was what seemed an indictment of contemporary Russian bourgeois society. The hitman’s apartment is stuffed to the gills with middle-class trappings: twee wallpaper, a hi-fi system, a grandfather wall clock, and so on. Only by damaging his established perceptions does the hitman come to see its shallowness and pointlessness. More tellingly, the movie opens with dialogue from one of his victims, who quips that the only thing that frightens him would be the death of the president—followed by a burst of chuckles before being shot. Putin had been president for three years by the time this movie was made, and already Iskanov could see that the wool was being pulled over the eyes of the Russian citizenry: trading self agency for cheap comfort. A vibrant, violent, trippy, industrial trepanation movie with socio-political overtones? Sounds… weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a fairly vague and amorphous little movie, but Iskanov deserves commendation for his comment to, well, weirdness.”–Scott Weiberg, DVD Talk (DVD)