Tag Archives: Unreliable narrator

CAPSULE: BUDDY BOY (1999)

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DIRECTED BY: Mark Hanlon

FEATURING: Aiden Gillen, Emmanuelle Seigner, , Mark Boone Junior

PLOT: Francis, a lonely, emotionally stunted man living with his stepmother, begins spying on Gloria; after a chance encounter on the street, they strike up a romantic relationship, but Francis becomes increasingly violent and unstable.

Still from Buddy Boy (1999)

COMMENTS: Like the hybrid the world was waiting for, Buddy Boy arrives with a healthy blend of paranoia and violence, neatly planting the man-against-the-world narrative inside a milieu of seediness, squalor, and surrealism. It’s a heady brew, and the success of the whole thing rests on the shoulders of our central character, a simple man who may be deeply mentally disturbed.

Francis’ unreliability is clear from the outset. Coming home to his apartment, he finds his stepmother laid out on the floor dead, an empty bottle of cleaning fluid at her side. He lays the old woman in her bed as if unsure of what to do. But by the next morning, she is quite evidently back among the living with no explanation. Did she ever die? Did any of what we’ve seen actually happen?

This uncertainty is central to the dilemma of Francis. When he watches Gloria through his peephole, he sees her heartlessly chopping up bloody cuts of meat in direct defiance of her professed veganism. And yet, when he confronts her, only vegetables are to be found. He’s understandably confused, and his uncertainty transitions steadily into horror. He scrubs his bloody hands raw with Ajax. He wears gloves and a mask to keep out the germs he imagines are everywhere (more than two decades ahead of schedule). He sees his own head served up as the main course at a dinner party. And at no point does he ever seem to entertain the notion that there might be something wrong with him. He’s that most terrifying of victims, the one who is certain he’s the only one who is sane.

At every turn, it’s becomes increasingly clear that Francis has seen the lie he wants to see, proof the world’s mendacity and his own unworthiness. As a result, you start to doubt everything onscreen. Just how likely is his relationship with Gloria? What does she see in him, and why is it enough to overcome his own self-loathing? Is his hideous stepmother (Susan Tyrell, in a performance that starts in fourth gear and accelerates from there) anything like the monster we witness, or is this just his frustration running wild? Meanwhile, the visions compound: he’s positive he’s seen a missing girl in the photographs he develops at a grungy photo processing shop. Guests at a dinner party are openly hostile to his faith, while his own priest seems to be a charlatan. People on the bus seem to be getting sicker and sicker. And what is wrong with the bathtub, anyway?

Trapped as we are inside Francis’ head, it’s ultimately impossible to trust anything we see. That’s damaging to Hanlon’s story, because once we lose the find reality in the things Francis experiences, there’s no suspense or surprise. Aiden Gillen’s central performance goes a long way toward holding the whole thing together; he’s enormously sympathetic, even as he makes choices that are increasingly worrisome. As the stakes heighten, though, it starts to feel artificial. Sure, Francis’ world is driving him mad. But in a life this hollow, a world this grim, any other outcome seems impossible.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fans of serious decadence (you know who you are) are vigorously advised to check out a curious, unsettling, darkly conceived and absolutely fascinating little film opening in a shroud of silence, called Buddy Boy. Not since Roman Polanski at the pinnacle of his European weirdness have I seen a film this strange and riveting leaves you shaken, with a penetrating vision as poisonous as gangrene.” – Rex Reed, New York Observer (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Brian, who called it “very weird, very compelling, very memorable.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PLAYDURIZM (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Gem Deger

FEATURING: Austin Chunn, Gem Deger, Issy Stewart

PLOT: Demir lusts after handsome auctioneer Andrew, Andrew lusts after blonde druggie Drew, and Drew has an intermittent death wish for Demir.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Taking his visual cues from Liquid Sky and his narrative cues from Videodrome, first-time filmmaker Gem Deger presents a hazy narrative teeming with homoeroticism, designer drugs, unnerving violence, tragic escapism, and the reliably cutesy presence of a house pig.

COMMENTS: With well over a century of cinema having come and gone, it becomes increasingly difficult to dismiss a film for being “derivative.” Variations on themes is the only way to tell a story these days, and it is with that in mind that I judge Playdurizm, the directorial, screenwriting, and acting debut of Gem Deger. Deger puts forward his manifesto in the opening sequence, narrating that “[Francis] Bacon said there’s nothing apart from the moment… I believe in nothing,” over a pink-lit sex scene. Whatever pretentiousness may come across in his art-housey introduction is, against the odds, grounded by the surreal tragedy that ensues.

Demir (Gem Deger) wakes up to the sounds of a pig rooting around what may be his bedroom. It is unclear, as it is quickly established that Demir has lost his memory—suffered a “complete reboot”, according to his house mate, Andrew (Austin Chunn)—and sees little option but to follow the pet pig as it scampers across the purple- balloon-covered floor. Demir is awkward, soft-spoken, and ostensibly allergic to peanut butter, making Drew’s suggestion he try some on his breakfast bagel a bit too cutesy-sinister. But the “Drew problem” Demir faces (he lusts fiercely after Andrew) is solved quickly enough with a drug overdose. However, an improbable man with a genuine Malevich soon appears, and his ambitions aren’t entirely to do with selling a “Black Square” painting to Andrew.

Ambition and amateurism collide throughout, making for a twitchy viewing experience. Austin Chunn looks the role—presuming, of course, one is envisioning an impressively sexy auctioneer—but at times seems more like he’s playing the part instead of inhabiting it. On the other hand, Chunn’s dialogue delivery when suturing a nasty wound is spot-on; contemplating his sewing hook and floss, I believed it when he advised, “this is going to… be a little minty.” Gem Deger’s performance simultaneously benefits and suffers from his awkward, heavily accented delivery. Ultimately, though, the chemistry between Deger and Chunn is undeniable.

The sound design, set design, and prop choices (Goebbels’ belt-buckle gun, anyone?) carry much of the weight, weird-wise. If someone told me that Deger had never seen Liquid Sky, I’d say they were lying. Any excuse for neon tones and lighting is good enough; the Day-Glo vomit, wondrous in its luminescence, is an obvious nod to Margaret’s makeup. Beyond the direct Videodrome name-drop (Demir and Andrew get high watching it together while Drew is lying dead in a cupboard space beneath the sofa), there is a slow tilt toward body horror and twin-dom that is what the cumbersome term “ian” was devised for.

Those fine lines between amateurism and ambition, pretentious and tragic, and derivative and original all weave together by the finale, as the story’s actual events come to light.  Deger admits his plagiarism in the title. This cinematic exploration of the adversities that so often befall the queer community is melodramatic, vibrant, frightened, and determined—not unlike that wondrous community itself.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…any film festival looking for a film that shirks conventional story telling with surrealism and puts danger and violence into romance and sex should consider it…”–Andre Mack, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

CAPSULE: KAFKA (1991)

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DIRECTED BY: Steven Soderbergh

FEATURING: Jeremy Irons, , Ian Holm, Joel Grey, Brian Glover

PLOT: Franz Kafka is a mid-level functionary at an accident insurance firm whose minor involvement with a group of revolutionaries leads to an unsettling discovery.

Still from Kafka (1991)

COMMENTS: Franz Kafka doesn’t deal in protagonists, technically. The term “Kafkaesque” suggests a main character who moves the action forward. Kafka’s oeuvre is populated almost solely by entities—from men to cockroaches—who shuffle through their environments without adequate comprehension, and without any ability to alter their fate. Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis” wiggles back and forth literally on his bed at the start of the tale, then squirms metaphorically as he tries to maneuver through his new circumstances; Josef K. in The Trial (the better translation is “The Process) proceeds from start to finish never learning anything substantial about the nature of his charges. Franz Kafka in Kafka starts out as a mid-level insurance functionary and finishes one pay-grade above where he began. The intervening narrative never quite rises above an elaborate shaggy dog story.1

In this way, Sorederbergh’s Kafka is like its literary inspiration. Beautiful Prague, in beautiful black and white, is a maze of courtyards and corridors. Kafka himself (deftly played by Jeremy Irons) is merely a face in the crowd, albeit striking in his bland way. Kafka’s work chum, Edward, goes missing, is found dead—suicide, suggests an incongruously-accented police detective, one of the film’s only smiling characters—and Kafka makes the acquaintance of some revolutionaries. Ominous rumors abound concerning “the Castle,” seemingly the seat of government, at the very least the seat of bureaucracy. The ostensible doings of the mysterious administrators situated there vex this gaggle of bomb-crafting anarchists.

Kafka succeeds in capturing omnipresent but ill-defined menace, while simultaneously eliciting a shrug both on the part of the audience and the main character. Soderbergh does his best, though, and the whole semi-nightmare feels stylish and important as it briskly shuffles along as if carrying a very important missive for middle-management.

The film’s climax is strange, but it is more thought-provoking than anything else. Kafka travels to “the Castle” by way of a passageway in a false-bottomed tomb, and the film switches from black and white to color. This suggests at least three intriguing interpretative possibilities. Is Kafka (the character) seeing the world as it truly is for the first time? Or is the whole (comparatively) dazzling sequence merely a fantastic dream on the part of the hero?

My preferred view is the most abstract. At the end of the graveyard entrance is a file storage room. The hero emerges from one of its drawers. Is he—and by extension, the viewer—merely an archived history of a failed experiment?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Clearly borrowing from the bravado visual style of Orson Welles’ breath-taking version of Kafka’s The Trial (1962), Kafka is a less intense, more entertaining affair than the former film. Kafka‘s surreal yet strangely familiar fictional worlds have been given a dash of Frankenstein by [screenwriter] Dobbs, which makes for a more immediately enjoyable experience but somewhat diminishes the power of the calculated atmosphere expertly borrowed by Soderbergh from Kafka’s prose.”–Niall McCallum, Eye for Film

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

CAPSULE: DRY BLOOD (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Kelton Jones

FEATURING: Clint Carney, Jaymie Valentine, Kelton Jones

PLOT: As Brian navigates his way through withdrawal from drugs and alcohol in a semi-secluded cabin, he may or may not be killing people.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It would have taken a far worse script (as it stands, it hits “Competent Soap Opera” level) or far more inspired acting (see previous parentheses; where’s Nicolas Cage when you need him?) to turn this into something of interest for us. Dry Blood is either a missed opportunity for a serious allegory on substance abuse, or a missed opportunity for mad-jack violent ambiguity.

COMMENTS: I typically avoid doing research on new releases, preferring to make my remarks based solely on the film’s merits. Somehow, though, I discovered that Dry Blood garnered a lot of awards. A whole lot of them. Would I say that Dry Blood deserved those Best Writer/Picture/Director/ and Actor awards? Oh no. Ohhh deary me, no. Unfortunately this movie isn’t that good. More unfortunately, it isn’t quite bad enough, either.

Brian (Clint Carney, who is to Nicolas Cage what James Belushi is to John Belushi) wakes up hung-over in his car and leaves a message for his ex-girlfriend to come and help him to sober up in his mountain cabin. Strung out on pills—primarily; we also see problems with alcohol, cocaine, and references to more injectable varieties of distractors—he keeps seeing glimpses of corpses, standing and otherwise, around his cozy abode. A local sheriff (Kelton Jones) keeps popping into his life uninvited, typically delivering a line of non sequitur dialogue (“Do you know where I could score any dope?”) before stating, “I didn’t say anything”. Brian’s ex-girlfriend, Anna (Jaymie Valentine), finally shows up and the duo morphs into a trio as the plot builds toward its inevitable mental collapse where we lose all ability to judge what’s real and what isn’t.

That in mind, Dry Blood does two things well. First, there’s the unreliable narration. Everything is viewed from Brian’s perspective, and he is obviously a troubled man. He becomes increasingly aware of this, but his heightened grasp on whether or not something is real somehow works to our disadvantage. Dead woman in the shower? Probably not there. Strange hair ribbons around key props (drug baggy, rusted knife)? Probably put there by Brian—for reasons unexplored. The arrival of his ex-girlfriend (not to be confused with the fourth main character, his ex-wife) should give us a greater grip on the proceedings, but she just muddies the water with platitudes and stilted delivery.

As for the second thing, it’s this film’s only true saving grace. Kelton Jones should really think about pursuing a career specializing in creepy cop characters. The sheriff seems plucked straight from the nightmare version of Super Troopers (Broken Lizard, if you’re reading, get on that right now). Whether he’s fondling his revolver during a “friendly conversation” or pulling over poor Brian “just to say good morning,” he’s a hoot. But he’s the film’s only hoot.

Which is a shame, because this movie could have been a fascinating depiction of the addiction-recovery cycle. Dry Blood begins and ends with Brian leaving different messages for Anna about wanting to sober up. Unfortunately, it over-plays its horror-hand and hitches its wagon (to mix metaphors for a moment) fully to standard genre gore-play. Brian never learns from his mistakes; having watched this movie on the heels of Odissea della Morte, it would appear that I never learn from mine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As you’d expect, the nature of the ghosts becomes more ambiguous as the film progresses, but the results are less of a clever attempt to mess with the viewer’s head or convey a filmic portrait of drug-addled mania and more just bafflingly incomprehensible.”–Sol Harris, Starburst (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE SIGNAL (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry

FEATURING: Anessa Ramsey, Justin Welborn, A.J. Bowen, Scott Poythress

PLOT: A mysterious signal broadcast through television distorts people’s thinking and turns an entire city into a horde of homicidal maniacs.

Still from The Signal (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Signal is a tough call, because does get increasingly weird (especially at the end). On the whole, however, its experimentation puts it more on the outer edges of the apocalyptic horror genre than firmly inside the weird movie genre.

COMMENTS: You might say that a movie looks like it was directed by three different directors to criticize its lack of continuity or coherence. In The Signal‘s case, however, it’s actually, literally true, and it’s an asset rather than a liability. Working from a script they co-wrote together, David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, and Dan Bush each direct one of the movie’s three acts sequentially, with each section taking the perspective of a different character affected by the homicidal signal. Although the Atlanta-based trio has continued to work in the horror scene, none of them have achieved this level of success in their solo work.

Bruckner’s opening segment covers the advent of the mysteriously broadcast signal, which manifests itself as psychedelic fractals on TV that speak telepathically to viewers and prey on their weaknesses. It introduces protagonists Mya and Ben, who are having an adulterous affair but seem like basically good kids. When Mya returns home to the apartment she shares with her husband Lewis, she observes that everyone in the city is acting oddly. Their behavior gradually changes from eccentric to outright psychotic, as hubby Lewis flies into a fit of violent jealousy, while another neighbor is in the hallway outside killing people with gardening shears. It’s the most straightforward and conventional bit of filmmaking, which is the necessary approach to establish the premise. Gentry’s second act takes the movie into grisly black comedy territory, shot from the POV of people suffering from signal-induced delusions and hallucinations at the most awkward New Year’s Eve party/massacre ever. Although it contains some of the most gruesome horror moments, including dastardly uses for pesticide sprays, this segment is the best and most memorable. It features a couple of sly comic relief victims: a kitschy party hostess who doesn’t realize she’s killed her husband, and a horny male guest whose single-minded dedication to getting laid blinds him to the carnage around him. It’s fortuitous that this only a third of the film—there wouldn’t have been enough jokes for feature length, but a half hour of palette-cleansing comedy is about perfect. Bush wraps things up with a denouement that’s perhaps a bit weaker than the other three, focusing on Ben’s attempts to fight the signal off by sheer willpower. This section contains a lot of “is this really happening or is it just a hallucination?” montages and dream sequences.

Though generally innovative, The Signal settles for some horror movie clichés and credibility stretches. People take what should be fatal amounts of physical abuse and come back later brawling like Ali vs. Foreman. And I’m pretty sure you can’t kill someone by shoving a plastic balloon pump into their jugular. These lapses are partly covered up by the hallucinatory nature of the proceedings, but at times they feel like a typical horror cop-out. Nonetheless, The Signal is a successful experiment, one that leaves its message about media oversaturation implicit rather than hammering it into your poor skull.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An outright horror film that nonetheless veers on occasion into surreal black comedy, The Signal (a favorite at last year’s Sundance and SXSW Film festivals) takes Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement ‘the medium is the message’ to extremes not explored since David Cronenberg’s seminal, frighteningly prescient Videodrome in 1983.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “bannanar,” who said ” that one blows my mind… good good stuff.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: PIERCING (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Pesce

FEATURING: , , Laia Costa

PLOT: Reed has a good job, a loving wife, a cherished newborn daughter, hallucinations, and a (hopefully satiable) lust to kill; he checks into a hotel planning to get his bloodlust out of his system by murdering a call girl, but the woman who arrives may be more than a match for him.

Still from Piercing (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s slick and sick, but plays like a milder version of a film that already made the List.

COMMENTS: Piercing will play better if you’ve never seen Audition, but if you have seen the older film, you may find that the newer one suffers (hee hee) by comparison to its sadistic sister. Piercing is adapted from ‘s 1994 novel of the same name. The author reworked the same general sadomasochistic theme three years later for “Ôdishon.” In doing so, Murakami improved the scenario by making the male protagonist more sympathetic and the female antagonist more mysterious. That’s not to say Piercing is unworthy of your time, or that you will always know exactly where it’s heading, but Audition initiates should prepared for a little bit of a disappointment.

Director Nicolas Pesce explored similarly dark territory in his debut, The Eyes of My Mother, which he shot in rustic and minimalistic grayscale. Here, he goes for a much richer stylistic palette, with a Technicolor style showcasing deep reds and mahogany wood paneling. The opening, in fact, puts us in mind of Rear Window, with the camera panning over an artificial mosaic of skyscrapers, inside whose windows we can imagine individual dramas playing out. Hitchcock, of course, would never have added an infant girl who tells daddy “you know what you have to do” in a creepy baritone.

Pesce creates a genteel atmosphere—a world where men put on ties to meet call girls, hookers wear stocking and fur coats, everyone drinks their spirits on the rocks before getting down to business, and guys use embroidered silk handkerchiefs to douse their dates with chloroform. The soundtrack is a selection of smooth and sophisticated pop, including “The Girl from Impanema” and needle drops from classic gialli like Profondo Rosso; even the most cloying number, the mellow folk-rocker “Bluer than Blue,” is given the best possible treatment. The hotel room and apartment interiors all look like 60s penthouse bachelor pads, with sunken living rooms and dramatic wall-mounted half-moon sconces, very mid-century modern. All the elegant trappings of civilization, of course, only serve to disguise the depravity and barbarism squirming inside the characters’ souls.

Abbott and Wasikowski are perfectly cast. He is superficially suave, but constantly bumbling as he hides his guilty secret; Wasikowski, keeping her natural Australian accent, is a psychotic pixie dream girl who lets on very quickly that she’s not quite all there. They are a perfect match. In terms of gruesomeness, Pesce doesn’t go quite as far as would, but he is willing to go quite a ways, and you should find yourself squirming often. Abbott’s casual hallucinations—he constantly carries on conversations with people who encourage him to carry out his secret murderous plan—keep things interesting, and cast doubt on Wasikowski’s character. Is she really as depraved as he is, or is it just his projection of her as a willing victim/collaborator in his elaborate fantasy? A grotesque dream sequence (scored to the aforementioned soft-rock hit) also mirrors the surrealistic excursion of Audition, and although it is put in service of revealing backstory, there are still some tremendously eerie moments here, with a scorpion-bug monster scurrying from out of a toilet to harass our paralyzed protagonist.

For an evening of dangerous fun, refined sickos could do a lot worse than Piercing. Pesce reaffirms his talent while broadening his range. He’s come close to a breakthrough weird movie with his first two films; his next project is a remake of Ju-on [The Grudge], after which we’re hoping he will be able to come through with something that will really blow our socks off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie gains momentum as it indulges in hallucinogenic phantasmagoria.”–Glenn Kenny, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

366. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

“Isn’t it true—it’s the Director who’s insane!”–The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Friedrich Feher, , Lil Dagover

PLOT: A young man, Francis, sits on a bench in the garden of an insane asylum; when a woman walks by in a trance, he explains to a bystander that she is his fiancée, and launches into the strange story of how she ended up here. He tells the tale of how a mesmerist, Dr. Caligari, came to his town with a sideshow, exhibiting a “somnambulist” who predicted the deaths of citizens who were later found murdered. After his best friend and romantic rival turns up among the victims, Francis launches his own investigation into Caligari, tracking him to the insane asylum where he discovers that the doctor, under a different name, is actually the director of the facility…

Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

BACKGROUND:

  •  The script was co-written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, two pacifists. Mayer had feigned madness to escape military service during World War I. Despite signing a contract allowing the producer to make whatever changes he deemed necessary, they strenuously objected to the addition (or the alteration; accounts differ) of the framing story.
  • discovered the script and was originally supposed to direct, until scheduling conflicts prevented his participation.
  • The early days of cinema were highly nationalistic. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was initially banned in France; not because of its content, but because it was German, and French distributors did not think they should have to face competition from a country they had just defeated in a war. But Caligari made such a sensation when film critic Louis Delluc arranged for it to be screened for charity that the French removed their ban on German pictures. The French even took to calling Expressionism “Caligarisme.” Caligari‘s release was also protested in the U.S. solely on the basis that it was a German production.
  • In screenings in the United States, Caligari was sometimes presented with a live theatrical epilogue explaining that the characters had fully recovered from their madness.
  • Among its many honors: ranked 235 in Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll of the greatest movies of all time; listed in Steven Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There’s no really a single frame of Caligari that stands out; it’s the cumulative effect of its Cubist settings, the spiky windows and dark alleys winding at weird angles, that gets under your skin.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Slanted city; greasepaint somnambulist; you must become Caligari

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s arguably: the first classic horror movie. The first classic Expressionist movie. Cinema’s first twist ending. The first movie shot from a perspective of radical subjectivity. The godfather of Surrealist film. And it still creeps you out today. It’s the first weird movie. Caligari‘s blood still flows through everything we love.


Blu-ray trailer for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

COMMENTS: The entire plot of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari could be thoroughly summarized in one medium-sized paragraph. There is little Continue reading 366. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)