Tag Archives: Twist ending

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: LA CABINA [THE TELEPHONE BOX] (1972)

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“La Cabina” is officially available on YouTube from the Spanish Radio and Television Organization (rtve)

DIRECTED BY: Antonio Mercero

FEATURING: José Luis López Vázquez

PLOT: A man becomes trapped inside a telephone booth, with no prospects for escape.

Still from "La Cabina" (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: “La Cabina” is distilled horror, a bizarre situation boiled down to its most basic elements, unfolding briskly but methodically as it approaches a surprising but inevitable climax. You’ll never really understand what’s going on, but you can utterly empathize with the threatened protagonist and the way his plight only grows more alarming. 

COMMENTS: The fifth and final season of “The Twilight Zone” was noteworthy for giving one of its episodes over to a French short film adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s darkly cruel “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” With potent visuals and a classically unsettling twist ending, “Occurrence” was a perfect fit for the show, and also went on to nab that year’s Oscar for Best Short Film. It’s fun to imagine an alternate universe where the show continued for years, because “La Cabina” would have been the absolute highlight of a prospective Twilight Zone Season 13. The Spanish short contains all the elements that make for a great episode of the show, right down to a shocking twist that rivals those found in such classic installments as “Time Enough At Last” or “To Serve Man.”

The setup for “La Cabina” is devilishly simple. In the space of a couple minutes, we meet our hero as he sends his son off to school, and then watch him enter the telephone box that we’ve seen a team of workers construct. From there, the film rests on the shoulders of López as he watches helplessly from his Plexiglas cocoon while onlookers laugh at his predicament, good-naturedly try to help, then surrender and lose interest as their efforts bear no fruit. Known in his home country as a comic actor, López adroitly conveys the poor man’s journey from irritation to fear to despair without a word of dialogue. His distress is especially acute as those same construction workers return—not to extricate him but to hoist the box onto a flatbed truck for a long journey to points unknown. Even as he tries to communicate with a similarly trapped traveler or exchanges pitiful looks with a collection of circus freaks who have now found someone they can pity, López never lets you forget that he’s a decent fellow who has found himself in an especially bad spot, which helps to sell the story’s final transformation into surreal horror.

There are theories about what it all means. It could be an allegory for life under the regime of Francisco Franco, when people could be snatched off the street, never to be seen again. Or it might be a metaphor for the uncertainties of life, as a normal day can easily take an unexpected and even tragic turn. It could also be read as an “Everyman”-type tale expressing the notion that when fate comes, nothing can save us. That a very basic tale about a guy who gets stuck in a telephone booth can carry the weight of such interpretations is a testament to the sturdiness of Mercero’s storytelling. “La Cabina” is truly remarkable, though, for the wonderful outlandishness of its “what-if” premise. 

“La Cabina” left an impression in Spanish pop culture, so much so that López could reprise his role in a commercial for a telecommunications company more than two decades later. It’s not as well-known on this side of the Atlantic, but for aficionados of the horrifying twist, it’s a can’t-miss look at the shocks that can arise out of the most banal moments in life. Sure, you can learn the lesson about keeping an extra pair of glasses for after the nuclear armageddon. But the dangers of making a phone call? “The Twilight Zone” can hardly compete. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…La cabina continues to be no less entertaining when simultaneously becoming more and more weird and shocking… If you see the film for the first time, at the end, you may not be excessively surprised but you’ll be most likely wondering how it’s happened you haven’t seen La cabina before.” – John Moscow, Review Maze

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Atlas Obscura – Surely one of the only short films in history to earn a public monument, the city of Madrid commemorated the 50th anniversary of “La Cabina” by constructing a replica of the title box a stone’s throw away from the original shooting location.

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

CAPSULE: TOMMY GUNS (2022)

Nação Valente

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DIRECTED BY: Carlos Conceição

FEATURING: João Arrais, Gustavo Sumpta, Anabela Moreira

PLOT: A group of Portuguese soldiers living an isolated existence find themselves haunted by Angolan ghosts.

Still from Tommy Guns (2022)

COMMENTS: It’s difficult to discuss Tommy Guns‘ plot for fear of giving too much away. It’s not the appearance of ghosts/zombies near the end of the film that causes an issue; there is another, even less expected third act twist to contend with. We’re safe in saying that the film opens in Angola in 1974, one year before it gained independence from Portugal, as a title card announces that fact in the first minute. The movie then proceeds with what is—slight spoiler here—a thirty minute prologue showing the death of an innocent victim of the ongoing violence, a burial in which an elder warns that the corpse’s spirit will rest uneasily, and an odd riverbank encounter between a lone Portuguese soldier and a local woman that ends with him eating her necklace.

Afterwards, we switch focus to a group of young Portuguese soldiers, a company of eight men led by a strict and ruthless Colonel, who spend their days in some remote outpost doing not much of anything. The film was leisurely, yet confusing, throughout the prologue; it slows down even further in this segment. Although the troop chases, and catches, a traitor, and there is one brief ghastly apparition, relatively little happens throughout the middle of the film: it’s an accurate depiction of the drudgery of military life, endless training and waiting and little action. Things finally heat up when the Colonel decides to import a stripper for the restless (and horny) young men, leading to a third act payoff that’s fairly satisfying. Connections to the opening are ambiguous, but potentially meaningful (a quote from Horace could be significant).

Conceição’s film, only his second feature length effort, is ambitiously structured and deals with Portuguese colonialism in a way that will be most meaningful to those well-versed in this history. The writer/director was born in Angola during the conflict detailed here, moved to Portugal as a teenager, and has traveled back and forth between the two countries since, so this particular slice of colonial history holds personal significance to him. Many events are symbolic: I suspect the encounter between the soldier and the Angolan native represents Portugal’s treatment of her colony, and the idea of the dead returning to trouble the living has obvious significance. Nonetheless, the movie’s awkward pacing makes it difficult for the director’s ideas to penetrate the malaise: little happens for long stretches, causing your mind to wander. Some characters (like the white nun from the opening) are superfluous, mere local color; more economical storytelling would have helped the message land harder. Some critics have complained about the disjointed nature of the script, but the film doesn’t really switch genres as violently as advertised; the early war drama and the later zombie element feel of the same somber piece. In fact, despite the appearance of the walking dead, it would be difficult to categorize the film as “horror” in any meaningful sense: it seldom strays from the path of magical realism it sets for itself. The resulting experiment feels weighty and worthwhile, but, unfortunately, not always engaging.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Conceição has created a smart, strange film that is disjointed because colonialism is a thing of disjointed desires, histories, and deaths.”–Noah Berlatsky, The Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: FOLLOWING (1998)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan 

FEATURING: Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell, John Nolan

PLOT: Attempting to jump start his imagination by following random people through the city, an unemployed writer finds himself enlisted in assisting petty thefts, but soon becomes embroiled in a  more dangerous series of crimes.

Still from Following (1998)

COMMENTS: For those caught up in Barbenheimer fever, the pairing of a candy-colored meta-explosion of product placement with a sober biography of the man who shepherded the atomic bomb into existence is enjoyable precisely because it seems a strange alignment, a karmic fusion of two wildly opposed mindsets in one pop culture moment. But it’s not so crazy when you remember one thing about Oppenheimer’s auteur: Christopher Nolan is a populist. His subjects and their treatments may be high and mighty, but he really (I mean really) just wants to get butts in seats and eyes on the screen. Yes, his subjects can turn on dense physics or mind-bending twists, but it’s fair to assume that if he could have filmed Barbie with fractured narratives and looming existential dread while casting Cillian Murphy or Tom Hardy in the lead, he’d have taken the gig.

Proof of that conjecture lies in Nolan’s debut feature, which came out two years before his breakthrough with Memento. The story itself is a simple but impressively taut thriller about a foolish young man who makes bad choices, although none of us know just how bad until the very end. With grainy black-and-white photography and a core triangle of characters who have varying degrees of commitment to moral justice, it’s got all the trappings of a classic noir. The film is unusually economical for Nolan, clocking in at an hour and ten minutes, but still has room for some crackling dialogue, especially as small-time burglar-cum-criminal mastermind Cobb describes the psychology of his victims. (The small cast is solid if not flashy, with special praise for the haughty imperiousness Alex Haw embodies invests in Cobb.) There are a couple of familiar Nolan shortcomings. Only one character in the film gets a proper name, and it’s telling that even in a film essentially populated by only three characters, the female lead (Russell’s icy Blonde) is easily the least fleshed out. But all-in-all, Following succeeds because it knows what it is and sticks to that. It just works.

Of course, even this early in his career, Nolan’s gotta Nolan. We get the tale in a jumbled order that keeps us from seeing the ultimate fate of The Young Man (he calls himself Bill, but the generic credit suggests this may be a falsehood) until it’s too late. It’s not just showing off; Nolan knows that a straight linear cut of the film would make The Young Man’s arc obvious, even inevitable. By moving back and forth in the timeline, the audience can better occupy the mindset of the protagonist, making it more personal when the end comes. And Nolan is unusually interested in helping the audience navigate the plot. A simple visual code–Theobald appears in the three phases of his timeline as either scruffy, spiffy, or scarred and beaten–ensures that even as the story jumps backward and forward in time, we can keep our bearings. 

Aside from its twisty structure, Following isn’t especially weird. But there is a strange side effect of watching it retrospectively; when compared with all that has come after, Nolan’s efforts in this first film seem small. Considering the ambitious size of his Batman trilogy or his determination to destroy linear time as we know it–moving backwards through it in Memento, looping it in Interstellar, mirroring it in Tenet, nesting it in Inception, or unspooling it at varying speeds in Dunkirk–Nolan’s gambit here feels almost quaint. That’s the delicious irony in the relative obscurity of Christopher Nolan’s debut feature. In assessing the filmmaker’s career as a whole, it is inevitably a film that you have to go back into the catalog to find, that you can only experience while already in possession of the knowledge of the career to come. In other words, it is impossible to consider his output in a linear fashion. The Christopher Nolan timeline is unavoidably fractured. Which one imagines is exactly how he likes it.

Incidentally, if you want to keep the Barbenheimer vibe going, might I suggest that Following could be part of another great Barbie-Nolan double feature? After all, girl’s got some gritty indie film credits in her past, too. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Already in ‘Following’ you see Nolan’s affinity for convoluted chronological structure and the final twist, in which all the jigsaw plot pieces snap into place and you finally see the whole picture (along with the main character). You may wonder just how necessary/integral they are, but they help make the film fun to watch, even if they don’t necessarily add up to a whole lot.”–Jim Emerson, RogerEbert.com

(This movie was nominated for review by Mick Bornson, who called it “pretty weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: BOXING HELENA (1993)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: (credited as Jennifer Chambers Lynch)

FEATURING: Julian Sands, , Bill Paxton, Kurtwood Smith, , Betsy Clark

PLOT: Unable to cope with his recent breakup with the temperamental Helena, surgeon Nick Cavanaugh finds himself caring for her at his house after a car accident.

Still from Boxing Helena (1993)

COMMENTS: I honestly don’t recall which was the bigger source of discussion when Boxing Helena hit theaters. Was it David Lynch’s daughter helming her first feature? Or was it the prospect of so much sexiness revolving around “Twin Peaks” bad girl Fenn? Some of it was probably the titillatingly taboo premise of a man so infatuated with a woman that he hacks off all her limbs and puts her in a box. (Spoiler: there is exactly one box in this movie, and it does not contain Helena.) But the bulk of the attention circled around the fact that Kim Basinger had to pony up nearly $4 million as recompense for breaking her contract to appear in the title role (and that was after Madonna had rejected it outright). Many of the negative contemporary reviews congratulated Basinger on getting the better end of the deal—and with 30 years distance, watching the film with clearer eyes, we discover that those critics were absolutely right.

We learn at the outset that Nick has been emotionally scarred from his youth, with a slutty mom who rejected him and left him hungry for love. So maybe it’s easy to understand what he sees in Helena: the apathy, the dismissiveness, the belittling condescension… who could turn that down? What’s not at all clear is what she ever saw in him. Within two minutes of arriving at Nick’s party, she’s stripped down to her negligee and cavorting in the fountain. It’s hard to argue that she leaves anything on the table.

One of our most iconic weird actors, Julian Sands, is either terribly miscast or horribly directed. This beautiful, suave man flounces about like an emasculated mockery of masculinity, whining and pining for a lost love that it’s not clear he ever had. But as pathetic as he makes Nick, Lynch goes to great pains to make him more so, with mournful closeups as he jogs and his puppy-dog fawning over her. Later, when Helena mocks his poor bedroom skills, his defensive retort is, “If you were a real woman, you’d lie to me about our sex.” It’s hard to know if Sands is in on the joke or just fully committed to Nick’s painful lack of self-awareness, but his despairing cry of “she’s leaving?” actually left me in hysterical laughter.

Fenn, meanwhile, has almost nothing to do. She begins the film peevish; the loss of her legs makes her angry, the loss of her arms moreso. Her shift to a needier, more empathetic character is motivated not by any change in her but rather as a means of bringing about a change in Nick, an especially odd choice given that a massive plot twist essentially undoes all of the “learning” we’ve witnessed. So this movie about handicapping and torturing a beautiful woman in order to satisfy a broken male ego can’t even commit to its own questionable choices.

Once you establish that the whole thing is an elaborate melodrama with no real point, you can start to embrace it as unintentional comedy, with ridiculous situations, thudding dialogue, and overheated acting. This is best exemplified by the amazingly entertaining Bill Paxton, who shows up as Helena’s occasional boytoy in a Nigel Tufnel hairdo, mesh T-shirt, and leather pants, as cocksure as a 12-year-old trying to buy liquor. The movie may believe in him (when he busts out a Benjamin in payment for information, it cracks on the soundtrack with a snap), but there’s no reason we should. Bragging about his manhood one moment, hiding in the bushes like a Peeping Tom the next, he’s always absurd. The moment late in the third act when he sees what has become of Helena is a masterful double-take, a magnificent piece of comic idiocy.

Boxing Helena could have used a lot more of that, because it is resolutely dumb but lacks the wisdom to recognize it. Young Ms. Lynch seems to think she’s created something bold and erotic and profound. That is an impulse that should be cut off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I am probably prevented by some unwritten law from divulging the end of Boxing Helena. I can only say that, instead of adding an extra twist to this bizarre tale, it deprives it of what little point it had.”–Quentin Crisp, Christopher Street (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: LINOLEUM (2022)

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Linoleum is currently available for VOD rental.

DIRECTED BY: Colin West

FEATURING: Jim Gaffigan, , Gabriel Rush, Rhea Seehorn, Roger Hendricks Simon

PLOT: When a rocket crashes in his backyard, failed children’s TV-show host Cameron decides to rebuild it; meanwhile, a lot of strange, inexplicable things are happening in his suburban town.

Still from Linoleum (2022)

COMMENTS: Linoleum has a lot going on in it, and for a while you may get the sense that it has bitten off more than it will be able to chew. The core story follows Cameron, who once wanted to be an astronaut but has settled for a career as an astronomer-cum-children’s show host, and whose long-running Bill Nye-esque science program has just been shifted to the midnight time slot. It also spends a lot of time following his daughter Nora, who’s a fashionably lesbian outcast until the new boy in town makes her question her sexual identity. There’s also Cameron’s wife Erin, who’s debating her own career choices and her choice of mate, and Cameron’s father, who’s in memory care with dementia. And there’s the new arrival in town, Cameron’s doppelgänger, who crashes onto the scene in a red convertible in miraculous fashion. A lot of weird, reality-defying events happen in this suburban town in an unspecified VHS-era time period, much of it precipitated by the rocket capsule that crashes in Cameron’s back yard. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out Linoleum‘s numerous, deliberate Donnie Darko nods, from the FAA-baffling aeronautic MacGuffin to the mysterious old woman hanging around on the periphery to a climax occurring at a Halloween party. So, yeah, there’s a lot going on; to the script’s credit, it’s all eventually explained by the (guessable, but not obvious) ending twist.

Colin West’s third feature film sports capable direction, helped along by a solid cast of indie movie vets. But most of the film’s publicity and buzz rightly centers around stand-up Gaffigan’s unexpected thesping. Although he doesn’t quite sink his wholesome reputation—Cameron is likable, if a bit of a wimp—he does stretch in his secondary role as Kent Armstrong, who brings a different and darker energy. Kent is cocky, and he treats his son with a military dad’s disciplinary philosophy. He’s both a better (younger, more competent) and a worse (less empathetic) version of Cameron. Gaffigan differentiates the two parts nicely, making a strong case he should be considered for more dramatic roles.

There’s a lot to praise in Linoleum, and yet, for me, it doesn’t entirely launch—and I’m not really sure why. The plot mechanics work; the twist satisfyingly ties things together (presuming you prefer things tied up in tidy packages). But the scattered critical reception it received, ranging from raves to confusion, suggest it failed to land universally. Cameron looks at the tangled mess of wires and unknown components he’s gathered from the capsule wreckage and wonders how he’s going to assemble them into a functional rocket. An early trial of the boosters starts with nothing, followed by a gradual growing power-up, followed by disappointment. So even though the assemblage works, it doesn’t work exactly as intended. This is not quite the proper metaphor for my experience of watching Linoleum, but it comes close. On the plus side, Linoleum has a gentle, Gaffiganesque charm and a resolution that tugs on susceptible heartstrings. So although it falls short of a general recommendation, if you are looking for the unusual combination of a puzzle movie with a tearjerking element, I’ll understand if you value this film highly.

No idea why it’s called Linoleum.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…The overload of strange occurrences and oddball coincidences gets unwieldy pretty quickly… Linoleum teases these weird glitches for most of its running time before clumsily explaining them away in a rush of exposition in the final act.”–Josh Bell, CBR