Tag Archives: Mental illness

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TRACK 29 (1988)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Roeg

FEATURING: Theresa Russell, Gary Oldman, Christopher Lloyd, Sandra Bernhard,

PLOT: Linda leads a boring existence in a small southern town, taken for granted by her model-railroad aficionado husband; she is roused from her stupor by the arrival of Martin, a volatile young Englishman who claims to be the child she gave up for adoption at birth.

Still from Track 29 (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: If Track 29 were only about the taboo subjects at its heart – sexual assault, incest, adoption, infidelity – it might get our attention for that audacity. But those touchy subjects pale in comparison to the outlandish manner in which these characters behave, seemingly immune to any rational expectations of behavior. For what could have been (and once was) an intimate drama, it’s a lot.

COMMENTS: The pairing of a screenwriter with a message and a director with vision is a risky thing. Two strong points of view can sometimes coalesce, but they can just as easily result in conflict and confusion. Usually, one of those voices has to dominate the other. Now, I’m not 100% certain what happened when a Dennis Potter screenplay wound up in the hands of Nicolas Roeg, but I’m willing to hazard a guess: Roeg won.

Potter’s script is based upon his BBC teleplay “Schmoedipus,” and it’s instructive to watch both because you can see where expanding the material has taken it from a comparatively sedate affair to become hyperactive and exceedingly peculiar. Much of Potter’s dialogue makes the transition intact, but the whole tone of the piece changes significantly. Opening up the setting from a cramped suburban London rowhouse to a sun-kissed beach community in the Outer Banks changes the stakes, as does the creation of a more violent backstory for the child’s conception and the introduction of railroads as an unexpectedly prominent theme. (The title is a reference to the lyrical location of the Chattanooga Choo Choo.) The characters themselves have undergone an enormous transformation. The middle-aged Elizabeth becomes Russell’s youthful, childish Linda; her husband’s tedious office job becomes Lloyd’s doctor with a toy train fixation, and the quietly seductive stranger played by Tim Curry on television is a wholly different animal as embodied by Oldman, fresh off his portrayal of Sid Vicious and primed to play the angriest of young men. 

Oldman is fully schizoid, turning on a dime from deranged madman to bereft toddler. (There is no reason for his character to be British, except that it reverses Potter’s gambit in the teleplay, where the young mother’s child has been shipped off to Canada.) His unpredictability is magnetic, as he lures Linda in with sweetness and just as quickly turns antagonistic. Amazingly, though, Oldman shares the wackiest scene in the film with Lloyd’s appearance at a model train convention that unexpectedly turns into a rabble-rousing political rally. As Lloyd becomes more histrionic on behalf of (double-checks notes) toy railroading, the crowd gets increasingly amped up. This is intercut with Oldman’s full-blown assault on Lloyd’s personal track Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TRACK 29 (1988)

CAPSULE: FANG (2022)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Richard Burgin

FEATURING: Dylan LaRay, , Jess Paul

PLOT: Billy lives with his Parkinson’s-stricken mother; his dispiriting routine is interrupted by a rat bite which seems to catalyze an unnatural change in him.

Still from Fang (2022)

COMMENTS: Billy’s world is cramped. He sweeps a broom for nine bucks an hour on a crowded warehouse floor for Mr. Wolfson. After a short walk home, he can only look forward to his small apartment where he looks after his fading mother, Gina. On top of this dreariness, he is trapped inside his own mind, and is forced nearly every waking hour to pretend to know how to interact with all these callous normies he finds himself amongst. Daily, he faces patrician disregard from Wolfson and maternal fury from Gina. But he has a refuge.

More than ten million years in the future, the planet Graix is thriving, with wide-open spaces and a civilization descended from rats which were sent from Earth in the deep past, when a nigh-unlivable planet forced humanity into a “Noah’s Ark”-style gambit.  Billy has much more to say about this world, as it is his—the good part, at least. His mother’s caretaker, a young woman named Myra, thinks so, too. After his spiel, she looks at his drawings of this world and sincerely opines, “This is really cool.”

Richard Burgin takes great care and consideration in and for Billy’s character, and Dylan LaRay is to be commended for his spectrum-informed performance. But Burgin cannot be too kind to Billy. The protagonist’s small world looks smaller on camera, with furtive lens movements coupling with angled close-ups. The lighting is overcast. And every other character is performed, it seems to me, as slightly “too much,” as a way of capturing the daily bombardment Billy endures. (Even ignoring the confined Hell of his life with his mom.)

The supernatural element may or may not be real. We can be certain of two things: Billy is primed for a mental breakdown, and he is bitten by a small white rat. He witnesses down fur growing from an awful wound on his arm, and his hyper-perception (the foley in Fangs is not a comfortable experience) takes a tone more sinister than even his underlying circumstances should allow. While there is a facsimile of comic relief—in the form of a pair of warehouse co-workers, one of whom invariably talks about breasts, as well as a delightful scene with a zealous hardware store clerk—there is not much of it. And knowing the genre, the character’s perturbation (undiagnosed autism), the mother’s affliction (Parkinson’s disease, stage five), and observing Billy’s life in the first ten minutes, we know this will not end well.

That in mind, please take the “Recommended” notice with this warning: Fang is very painful at times; but its most painful moments are its most impressive. Billy’s encounters with his mother—sometimes with Myra bearing witness—tilt dismayingly between disturbing and sweet, cruel and caring. At times, all four, as when she condemns her boy in the most vulgar and harshest terms, and then on the heels of this excoriation mistakes him for his father and moves to seduce him. Fang is at its best when it is true to what it is at heart: a hushed, harrowing tale of mental disintegration. While some of its more overtly “Horror film” elements misfire, the genuine sadness of the son’s and mother’s experiences was enough to make me shudder.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A dash of body horror combined with a pinch of surrealism and a peck of psychological horror... Fang is a perfect midnight movie.”— Bryan Staebell, Scare Value (festival screening)

CAPSULE: STOPMOTION (2023)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Aisling Franciosi, Caoilinn Springall, Tom York, Stella Gonet, Therica Wilson-Read

PLOT: Ella struggles to complete her famous stop-motion animator mother’s final work after the woman is hospitalized; she abandons that story and starts another when she meets a creepy little girl who invents a fairy tale about a mysterious man “no one wants to meet.”

Still from STOPMOTION (2023)

COMMENTS: The painstaking nature of stop-motion animation—move a puppet a fraction of a millimeter, snap a picture, repeat for an hour until you’ve animated a full second—means that the form is usually relegated to short films. Just ask or what it takes to animate a full-length feature without a million-dollar team of animators backing you. So it comes as little surprise that celebrated short film stop-animator Robert Morgan decided to craft his debut feature as a hybrid film, a mostly live-action story enveloping small snippets of his animated passion. The subject is, naturally, the making of a stop motion movie, and the focus is on the madness inherent in this most laborious and solitary of artistic pursuits.

The film begins in hybridized fashion, with protagonist Ella (a deranged-looking Franciosi) seen in the flicker of a multicolored party strobe—her facial expressions chopped up into stop-motiony frames. Ella is working on an animated feature about a cute fuzzy cyclops (who foresees his own death) for her ailing (and domineering) mother—the daughter supplies the hands, the mom the imagination. Mom, indeed, calls Ella “puppet” (not “poppet”). When Mom leaves the picture, though, Ella flounders, searching for inspiration, until the arrival of a brunette moppet who might be the spitting image of Ella at eleven. Nightmares and hallucinations ensue as Ella abandons the cyclops story and pursues a new one, with new materials and a growing unhealthy obsessiveness.

Morgan’s animations are obviously the highlight, and they disappoint only in their limited screen time. The girl morbidly encourages Ella to use meat, bone, and mortician’s wax to fashion new puppets, which look like the distressed, putrescent protagonists we’re familiar with from shorts like “Bobby Yeah.” The main puppet’s face is decorated with red blotches, like excema scratched raw, and the boogeyman is covered in bleeding sores and patchy hair. The sound design is oppressive, full of screeches, clanks, thumps, and heavy footsteps. A black, egglike blob and icky procreative imagery feature prominently in the second half. The animated segments, delivered via a fairy tale structure that requires increasingly dreadful visits over the course of three nights, scores a spooky vibe. The violent, gory finale highlights some squirmy visuals, but represents quite the tonal shift away from the dread-based horror of the earlier segments.

In his director’s statement Morgan describes Stopmotion as a “psychological piece in the vein of classic Lynch, or Cronenberg,” and the specific films he cites make it appear like he studied this site’s canon for inspiration: Naked Lunch, Barton Fink, Black Swan, Santa Sangre, Mulholland Drive, INLAND EMPIRE. All of that places the film firmly in our circle of interest. But as a psychological horror, Stopmotion delivers on horror, while coming up a bit short on the psychology. It’s about the madness of creativity, and traffics in concepts like self-doubt, the mystery of inspiration, Eros overcome by Thanatos, and obsession. But, powerful as these themes are, they ultimately don’t synergize in an enticing way. Stopmotion doesn’t add anything new to the portrait of the artist traumatized by their own work; there is no meaty psychological hook for Ella to dangle from. It’s admittedly style over substance, but the surplus of style makes up for a shortfall in substance. Morgan still has room to grow, and if he puts it all together someday, he’s shown the promise to create a masterpiece.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a disappointing path, more than a bit dimestore Freud, hardly managing to reveal Ella’s fracturing psyche to us in convincing terms, and instead succeeding only in having us assume most of what we’re watching is simply Ella’s confused imagination. In the process, though, you do get a tantalizing primer in how modern stop-motion animation works, and how Morgan’s own physical process musters his greasy weirdness out of everyday substances.”–Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WAIKIKI (2020)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Kahunahana

FEATURING: Danielle Zalopany, Peter Shinkoda, Jason Quinn

PLOT: A Hawaiian native who works three jobs to make ends meet undergoes a breakdown when her van hits a homeless man.

Still from waikiki (2020)

COMMENTS: Kea starts Waikiki with three jobs: a hula dancer at a tourist show, a part-time instructor of native Hawaiian language at an elementary school, and, most lucratively, a gig at a hostess bar where she sings karaoke duets with lonely old men (a vocation that is slighter sadder than outright prostitution). Still, she can’t quite make ends meet—thanks in part to her estrangement from an abusive boyfriend—and is living out of her van. She also has a history of unspecified mental illness: when she tells her ex that she’s hit a homeless man, he wonders if she’s imagined it. That hit-and-not-run is the impetus for her sudden descent into homelessness. Guilty Kea gathers the bum into her van, carting him around for the rest of the movie as her already bleak fortunes sink lower.

Shots of dingy, dark concrete streets alternate with visions of tranquil blue seas and cool streams cutting their way through verdant forests. Honolulu (outside of Waikiki’s beaches) is an ugly city, plopped smack into the middle of a tropical paradise. He aili’i ka aina, he kanau ke kanaka, Kea scrawls on a whiteboard for the edification of her young students. “The land is the chief, the people are the servants.” Cut to a shot of a crane hoisting metal girders into the sky (construction projects are omnipresent in Waikiki‘s Honolulu). Kea looks grim and anxious filling out an application for housing; then, dolled up and adorned with a stage smile, she sways and mouths Connie Francis’ cheesy lyrics: “There’s a feeling deep in my heart/Stabbing at me just like a dart/It’s a feeling so heavenly…” The contrasts are obvious, but meaningful. We don’t mind when Kahunahana hammers them, because he’s getting at something uncomfortably true: the precariousness of the daily lives of millions of workers, as glamorous-on-the-surface bottle girl Kea sinks into dereliction in the space of a couple of days.

As the bum, Peter Shinkoda’s function within the story is ambiguous. He isn’t exactly mute, but he almost never speaks, and when he does it’s only on fragments. He becomes Kea’s voluntary responsibility, but in a sense, he drags her down to his level rather than redeeming her. He also serves as a conduit for her flashbacks. She berates him, calls him “pilau,” and the camera focuses on his face as it segues into a brief montage of her childhood memories before cutting back to a shot of her gazing into a mirror. Coupled with shots later in the film, the editing suggests an identification between Kea and Shinkoda that runs deeper than the surface plot might suggest.

Waikiki is being pitched by some as “the first narrative feature written and directed by a Native Hawaiian filmmaker.” A quick IMDb search reveals the existence of Keo Woolford‘s The Haumana (2013), which itself doesn’t seem like it could possibly be the first narrative feature written and directed by a native Hawaiian. That said, it’s still an extremely rare occurrence, and the novel native Hawaiian perspective here is one of Waikiki‘s pleasures, along with breezy island cinematography and a magnetically dark and ironic performance from Zalopany.

In limited theatrical release at the moment after an unusually long festival run, Waikiki should find a bigger audience on VOD starting December 5.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…ventures into the surreal… while it creates some confusion as far as the narrative is concerned – or what there is of it — the writer/director shows a strong handle over sequences that stir the subconscious.”–Stephen Saito, The Moveable Feast (contemporaneous)