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DIRECTED BY: Tim Kirk
FEATURING: Patton Oswalt,
PLOT: The viewer watches the old exploitation roadshow feature Sex Madness (1938), synced to a podcast where the “Film Dick” interviews the director’s grandson and uncovers shocking secrets about the production.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a clever idea with a mildly weird twist, but the execution doesn’t live up to the premise’s promise.
COMMENTS: In the early 90s, a troupe of comedians from the Midwest revolutionized bad-movie watching with “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which you might recognize as that show where silhouettes at the bottom of the screen toss out wisecracks while a giant monster or juvenile delinquent movie unspools in real time. Like Tim Kirk’s previous experiment, Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein (2015), Sex Madness Revealed takes that conceit to the next level: instead of making a series of one-off jokes at the expense of the film, it invents an entire new fictional narrative and overlays it onto the original. Without going too deep into spoiler territory, Revealed proposes that the base movie, the 1930s VD scare film Sex Madness, is actually a coded message from a secret society. It’s a parody of the way certain paranoid fans 1 believe movies work: directors slide secret messages into their work to signal Illuminati connections, or to slyly confess that they faked the moon landing, or whatever. This cinematic conspiracy theme explains why Room 237‘s signed on as producer.
Sex Madness itself is an oddity, a nearly plotless pastiche of padding, stock footage, subdued salaciousness (an as-titillating-as-possible-at-the-time lesbian seduction), and hypocritical moral shock (grotesque shots of syphilis chancres, both faked and real). The lack of a real plot in Sex Madness leaves the commentators room to speculate and to invent a story that’s more interesting than the one playing out onscreen. The task the writers give themselves is a tough one, and although it is impressive that they are able to craft a meta-narrative that holds water, the script often strains mightily. One character’s passing resemblance tolaunches a major portion of the plot. Sometimes, the writers inspirations are just silly and don’t come across: for example, a mysterious sound artifact leads to speculation that the actors’ performances are being controlled by the offscreen director via electrical shocks. Some minor observations approach brilliance, however: once the grandson explains that grandfather selected the wood grain in one of the film’s drab office sets for its subliminal vaginal connotations, you’ll never be able to see the room any other way.
The plot is ultimately merely serviceable, and so are the performances. Oswalt and Zabrecky recorded their lines in one day, and it sounds like it. That’s not to say they are bad: they both deliver professional readings. But they don’t have time to dive deeply into their characters to create something more than a competent caricature. As the gung ho but arrogant podcast host, Oswalt is OK, but his character isn’t completely convincing; his exhaustive command of minutiae from the dregs of exploitation cinema (e.g., instant recall of a minor exploitation actresses’ high school mascot) is a little much, even for a bad film nerd. As the eccentric grandson delivering shocking revelations, Zabrecky gives a laid-back but melodramatically sinister performance that also fails to transcend the workmanlike. If you’re drawn to this type of cinema and this type of narrative experiment, the end result is something you might enjoy listening to once; but it’s not a movie with heavy replay value. Which is a shame, since Sex Madness Revealed is currently only available on physical media, whereas it would be a fine choice for a on-demand rental one evening. (If you’re a legitimate fan of Sex Madness itself, by all means buy this disc—and may God have mercy on your soul.)
As usual, Kino Lorber treats even its nichiest releases with respect. Extras on the Sex Madness Revealed DVD or Blu-ray include the option to watch the original version of the film with no commentary track, or to listen to a real commentary track from co-writers Tim Kirk and Patrick Cooper overlaid on top of Oswalt and Zabrecky’s fake commentary track. There’s also the trailer for Kirk’s Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein and a short installment of Rob Zabrecky’s comedy seance series, “Other Side with Zabrecky,” where comedian Will Forte asks to speak to the spirit ofThat last one is pretty weird; and, personally, I enjoyed it more than the feature film.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: