PLOT: Seven years after the death of his wife, Shigeharu Aoyama decides it is time to marry again, but he has no idea how to meet an appropriate mate. His movie producer friend comes up with a plan: they will hold a fake audition for a movie role where the widower can secretly interview dozens of women. Aoyama becomes smitten with shy, mysterious Asami and asks her out; but when she disappears just as things start to heat up between them, he goes on a quest to find her, only to discover that his ideal love may not be the innocent creature she seems.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Poster and cover images always feature Asami holding a syringe, a moment that hints at bad things to come. But the weirder images that sticks in my mind are the shots of the mysterious beauty sitting in her apartment, head down, hair covering her face, telephone within arm’s reach. The implication is that she has been sitting there, motionless, in a trance for the entire time she has been offscreen, just waiting for Aoyama’s call. Also, she has something lying in the background. Something wrapped in a burlap bag…
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Thing in the bag; disembodied tongue; torture hallucinations
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Takashi Miike’s most accomplished film, Audition initially shocks because of how normal it seems, before the director slyly pulls the rug from under our feet and launches us headfirst into a nightmare of pain. Fortunately, a perfectly positioned 13-minute hallucination sequence gives this movie the surreal hook (meathook, as it were) needed to elevate this master of the perverse’s best-made movie onto the list of the weirdest movies ever made.
1963 was such a productive year for horror/exploitation that even Arch Hall, Jr. was involved in a better than normal effort. The Sadist is the film Hall Jr. will most likely be remembered for (if he is remembered at all). Here, Junior pivots away from the low-rent Elvis Presley persona that daddy Arch Hall, Sr. was crafting for him to instead play a cartoon psychopath inspired by the real-life sadist Charles Starkweather (in the first of several films loosely based on Starkweather’s infamous 1958 killing spree—to make sure we get the reference, writer/director James Landis names the antagonist “Charlie”). The Sadist is easily the best film of both this actor and this director, which is not to say that it’s great cinema. Surprisingly, the best thing about it is Hall’s energetic performance. Away from daddy, Junior bounces through the entire film with a near-perfect trash performance.
While Landis wasn’t quite the hack that Arch Hall, Sr. was, he still hampers the production with rusty pacing and ill-conceived narration (supplied by Hall, Sr). The headlines of murderous mayhem proved to be the inspiration for the Landis/Hall Jr. team. They worked together in two additional features: 1964’s The Nasty Rabbit, about Russian spies smuggling killer bunnies into the U.S.A., and 1965’s Deadwood 76, which features Junior as a singing Billy the Kid. Both were written by Daddy Hall and again reveal a lead who clearly wants to be elsewhere. Junior seemed to reserve all of his enthusiasm and hammy tricks for The Sadist. He giggles. He slaughters. Once The Sadist locates Hall as its steam, it transforms into a model of creaky relentlessness. The small cast is exceptional, with Helen Hovey memorable as Doris, who is pushed to the verge of victimization and fights back. Mother Nature serves Charlie his sentence.
PLOT: In Berlin, a young girl who lives alone with her guinea pig commits a vile act of barbarism, a deaf couple is assaulted by racist hooligans, and a man descends into dangerous sexual depravity.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Adroit, repugnant, diverse, and surprisingly psychedelic, German Angst delivers some nasty weirdness, but its potential to earn a place on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made is hampered by inconsistency. The interconnected sections deliver brutal and heady gore/sci-fi combos, but only the final section of this three-part anthology produces the kind of potent, tantalizing content found in true weird contenders.
COMMENTS: Gutten Tag, Herr veirdos! Deutschland’s recent horror export, German Angst, is a powerful example of a radically uninhibited artistic endeavor. Served on three separate but interlocking platters, the third course surpasses the first two by offering genuine, hypnotic suspense to hammer home a message about unrealistic expectations of sexual pleasure. The hodgepodge of violence with brainy, supernatural exposition evokes strange emotions, but the shocks of the first two portions dampen the sociopolitical and spiritual undertones, rendering it an overbearing torture-fest.
Part one, “Final Girl,” directed by Jörg Buttgereit, is a straightforward shocker featuring a young girl (Lola Gave) who castrates her dad with shears. The plodding pace is unsettling and is heaviest during the loitering close-ups of feet and nostrils. The news broadcasts about global terrorism, while the girl pouts through her own pre-pubescent dissonance in her room filled with stuffed animals and teen magazines. Implications of telepathic soul-swapping accompany the torturous acts, as evidenced by the presence of a mystery man smoking a cigarette, as well as a guinea pig leg amputation that might have some connection to the defiled patriarch. The message (perhaps a statement about diminished human empathy) seems intentionally vague, but gets further diluted by the distraction of witnessing a bound-and-gagged man get his junk snipped off.
The focus on a lack of human empathy in the opening segment smoothly translates into the next movie, “Make a Wish” by Michal Kosakowski. In this act, fascist punks terrorize a deaf and mute Polish couple amidst the squalor of dilapidated German architecture. The terrorized victims transform into the aggressors through a kooky Freaky Friday-style soul-swap that occurs with help from a mysterious medallion. Once again, the graphic, hateful violence deliberately prevents it from being truly weird by invoking a sense of indifference about the characters, regardless of its peculiar supernatural twist. The racist savagery of the second piece feels especially trashy and mean, but some odd fun can be found in the cartoonish acting. The malicious stabbings and rage would be strengths in the torture porn genre, but here, presented with an exaggerated sense of nauseating discomfort, they end up dulling the more subtle ideas. A prime example is the line: “Let’s waste them and grab a pint, yeah?” delivered by of one of the hooligans. It’s primitive and crass. It’s a shame that more time wasn’t spent exploring the mystical talisman aspect.
Even less restraint is shown in the third and final act, “Alraune,” directed by Andreas Marschall, which features a genuinely intriguing premise involving a privileged photographer who can’t resist the pleasures of a creepy, drug-fueled sex club. After hitting a bong load of strange herbs, the photographer (Milton Welsh) is blindfolded and experiences complete sexual elation (peep his rising nipple hairs)—the catch being he’s not allowed to see what’s happening. After curiosity gets the best of him, he descends into his own depravity in a truly horrifying way. With the Hitchcockian suspense, a sprightly dance-club scene, and—just in case you haven’t had your fill—more genital chopping, this third section is a near-perfect example of List-candidate material and has a whopper of a finale that will induce sinister grins from weird movie lovers. The reason why “Alraune” is particularly tolerable in spite of its grossness is similar to the reason why rapper Danny Brown is tolerable in spite of his misogyny; the material is so cleverly absurd that it’s not even offensive.
During the course of German Angst, people’s faces get smashed in with blunt objects, babies are killed, genitals are severed, and a man gets raped by an alien. It’s quite an original horror film with some redemptive angles such as the mystery medallion concept, oddly penetrating guinea pig close-ups, and druggy alien sex-club. Unfortunately, overall these concepts can’t overcome the shocking, nihilistic carnage. It would be wise to consider the movie’s most vital message: don’t do ANY online dating in Europe. Auf Wiedersehen!
The Raven (1935) marks the second teaming of Universal’s dual horror stars: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It is also downright mortifying in its pedestrianism. Director Lew Landers simply did not have the sense of style or vision with which Edgar G.Ulmer imbued The Black Cat(1934) . Worse, Landers lacked the foresight or directorial strength to shape or reign in Lugosi’s performance. Lugosi’s overacting is both the key to that which remains most fascinating about The Raven and, paradoxically, sinks the film into abject parody. It was Lugosi’s deliriously sadistic antics here which inspired the two-year UK ban on horror films. The ban significantly hurt Lugosi, causing his salary stock, never good to begin, to plummet. Seeing The Raven today through a decidedly more jaded contemporary lens, one wonders what all the fuss was about. Still, one can easily imagine why 1935 audiences were nonplussed regarding the Hungarian ham.
As the Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed, stark staring mad Dr. Vollin, Lugosi melodramatically throws up his arms, laughs maniacally, and screams: “Poe, you are avenged!” It plays like a scene out of a wretched comic book, with a Transylvanian Marx Brother in the lead role. The reason for Vollin’s madness is his unrequited love of the prettified Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), which never seems feasible. In gratitude for Vollin saving her life, Jean does a Poe-inspired ballet for him, but the dance is as dull as she is. Earlier, Vollin compares himself to a god, and that is ultimately the nagging problem with Lugosi’s screen persona. Karloff inspires us to identify with his suffering and outsider status: Lugosi, with few exceptions, distances himself from his audience.
While Lugosi undoubtedly sends The Raven crashing, the film would have imploded from boredom without him. Aside from Karloff, the rest of the cast is a non-presence, alternately delivering lethargic line readings and grotesque comedy relief, which is anything but. The only relief is supplied by the two stars, who are our lifeline, even through all that Lugosi pretension.
Lugosi has a chilling, seductive moment when asking Jean if her injured neck still hurts. We sense his glee in the potential of her pain. This scene of intimate sadism works far better than his later howling. However, even in Lugosi’s most embarrassing moments, he remains alluring through his presence and his idiosyncratic mangling of the English language: “Torture, I love torture! What a deeelicccious torture!” When Vollin has just mutilated Karloff’s Bateman, the victim, upon seeing his own reflection, shoots out the room of mirrors. Lugosi’s Vollin responds with a hair raising cackle. Vollin would have felt at home in Margaret Hamilton‘s castle.
Unfortunately, Karloff is saddled with one of Jack Pierce’s absolute worst makeup jobs, which seriously threatens to undermine his performance. The actor even has a been there, done that canned monster growl. Playing second fiddle, Karloff’s discomfort occasionally shows. Still, he is our humanist touchstone. The strength of his performance lies in his introduction as a gangster on the lam, pre-mutilating surgery. He has an outcast monster-like sense of resilience and pathos, and with no help from his director or makeup man, Karloff is forced to rely solely on his own internal resources. He succeeds with underrated, protean skills, delivering a refreshingly nuanced performance, even through a fake, pancake eye. Fortunately, Karloff never descends into Lugosi’s level of cringe-inducing caricature.
The rest of the film is merely a commercial for torture devices. Just as in a commercial, little drama is drawn from the props. Apart from the two leads, The Raven is adolescent, gothic decor.
PLOT: A shock comedian stranded in Manitoba, in desperate need for a replacement guest for his podcast, gets more than he bargained for when he answers an ad from an eccentric retired sailor who promises he has “many stories to tell.”
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sure, some people are calling Tusk “the weirdest movie ever!,” but those are moviegoers whose cinematic diets consist almost exclusively of Kevin Smith stoner comedies. Heck, I’m not even sure this is Kevin Smith’s weirdest movie (he did bring us Chris Rock as the forgotten black 13th apostle in 1999’s Biblical apocalypse comedy Dogma). In my screening there was a 33% walkout rate, which sounds encouraging until you realize that there were only three of us in the theater. The evidence had to be scrapped on the basis of low sample size.
COMMENTS: Tusk almost literally seeks to answer the bizarre question that preoccupies its antagonist, “is man indeed a walrus at heart?” Most of the good will that the movie earns is for going all the way with its crazy premise, for its willingness to” go full walrus.” Most of the movie’s problems, on the other hand, come from its lumpy blend of horror and comedy, sincerity and irony. Tusk is sort of like what Human Centipede might have been, if it was made by people with triple digit IQs, but the script ultimately tries to do too much. Besides straight horror, it also fits in absurdism, a running series of Canada/USA culture clash jokes, and satire on the cruelty of Internet culture, and it doesn’t keep the many balls it juggles in the air at all times.
Although it’s certainly the blackest of comedies, at heart Tusk is a morality play. Wallace, who will become the film’s victim, begins as a victimizer. He hosts an improbably popular podcast whose sole purpose is to make fun of YouTube embarrassments, sort of like a version of “Tosh 2.0” with a mean streak that would make Howard Stern blanch. Long’s Wallace is smoothly loathsome, but when he picks up on references to Hemingway and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” you realize that there’s humanity buried somewhere under the crust of callousness. The deserving victim is a slasher movie trope designed so that we won’t feel bad when the character is offed, but Smith’s script takes on a much tougher task of making this victim simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic, of asking us to see the humanity beneath the monster. I don’t believe that the final symbolic redemption works on an emotional level, but I do appreciate the effort—it’s a nuanced, almost intellectual twist on the torture porn genre, more like “torture erotica.”
But for all the laudable ambition here, it’s a tough sell to say that Tusk overcomes its tone problems. The film’s comedy and horror, and its smart-assery and empathy, work against each other more than they support one another. The key illustration comes in the third act, when the focus shifts away from Wallace and his tormentor and onto the searchers combing the Canadian countryside looking for him. Tusk‘s “special guest star” leaps into the film as Guy Lapointe, a comic French Canadian detective in a beret with a Jacques Clouseau accent. It would probably be a fine performance in a wackier movie, but here it’s like a comic reef that springs a leak in a movie that was already limping to port. Lapointe essentially disappears at the movie’s climax, like the afterthought he is, and could have been written out of the script entirely: the part was always envisioned as a little more than gimmicky cameo to highlight some decidedly non-Quebecois celebrity hamming it up with a goofy accent (Smith’s original choice for the role was Quentin Tarantino). This broad performance is divisive, at best, but it is clearly out-of-step with the surrounding material, and my (quite common) reaction was to see it as a distraction and time-stretcher, rather than a comic interlude that throws the surrounding horror into relief. All in all, Tusk is the sort of movie that seems doomed to be considered “an interesting experiment.” Conceived of almost on the spot during a podcast where Smith pitched the story in real time based on a hoax advertisement about an old sailor looking for a roommate, the finished work plays like a movie made on a dare.
Although Tusk isn’t the kind of movie that gets remembered come awards season, there is one category it honestly deserves a nomination: Robert Kurtzman’s makeup.