Tag Archives: Unreliable narrator

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 choloroform. 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)

342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

“I asked the actor playing the priest, a very nice actor, ‘Would you mind repeating those lines, but this time would you wear this alien fly head?'”–Neil Jordan, The Butcher Boy commentary track

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eamonn Owens, Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Sinéad O’Connor, Alan Boyle, Aisling O’Sullivan

PLOT: In flashback, the grown-up Francie Brady describes his childhood in a poor Irish village: the son of a drunk and a depressed mother, he passes his days getting into mischief with his best (and only) friend, Joe. As his home life deteriorates, Francie increasingly blames his stuck-up neighbor Mrs. Nugent for his troubles. His escalating attacks on the poor woman result in him being sent first to a strict Catholic boarding school, then to a mental hospital, as he grows more violent and detached from reality.

Still from the Butcher Boy (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was based on Patrick McCabe’s stream-of-consciousness novel “The Butcher Boy.” McCabe co-wrote the adaptation with director Neil Jordan. The writer also appears in a small role as the town drunk.
  • The title comes from an old folk ballad (probably English in origin) that became popular in Ireland in the 1960s.
  • An uncredited Stephen Rea provides the narration as the adult Francie Brady.
  • One of Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll take any of the visitations from the glowing, foul-mouthed Virgin Mary, played with straight-faced seriousness by Sinéad O’Connor.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Boy in a bonnet; Virgin Sinéad; ant-head aliens

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With schizophrenic nostalgia, The Butcher Boy starts from an intense, uncompromising subjectivity and jumps down a rabbit hole of boyish delusion.


Original trailer for The Butcher Boy

COMMENTS: Shot on location in postcard-pretty County Monaghan with a cast of locals supplemented by stalwarts like Stephen Continue reading 342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

168. MR. NOBODY (2009)

“Oh, my God, and when you got up in the morning, there was the sun in the same position you saw it the day before—beginning to rise from the graveyard back of the street, as though its nightly custodians were the fleshless dead—seen through the town’s invariable smoke haze, it was a ruddy biscuit, round and red, when it just might as well have been square or shaped like a worm—anything might have been anything else and had just as much meaning to it…”–Tennessee Williams, The Malediction

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Toby Regbo, Sarah Polley, Natasha Little, Rhys Ifans, , Diane Kruger, Linh Dan Pham

PLOT: In 2092, after all disease has been conquered through cellular regeneration technology, 119-year old Nemo Nobody is the last mortal man left in the world. He recounts his life story to a psychiatrist and a reporter, but his memories are wildly inconsistent and incompatible, and at times fantastic and impossible. In his confused recollections he is married to three different women, with multiple outcomes depending on choices that he makes in the course of his life; but which is his real story?

Still from Mr. Nobody (2009) BACKGROUND:

  • The genesis of this story came from Jaco Van Dormael’s 1982 short film “È pericoloso sporgersi,” about a boy who must make an “impossible” choice between living with his mother or with his father.
  • According to Van Dormael the script took seven years to write, working about five and a half hours a day, every day.
  • Van Dormael published the Mr. Nobodoy screenplay (in French) in 2006, one year before production began and three years before the film was completed.
  • Despite being made in 2009, the movie was not released in the U.S. until 2013, and then only in an attempt to capitalize on the Oscar buzz surrounding Jared Leto’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club.
  • Leto temporarily retired from acting after Mr. Nobody, spending the next four years focusing on his band Thirty Seconds to Mars.
  • Mr. Nobody’s first name, Nemo, means “nobody” in Latin.
  • The movie is full of visual tricks and illusions, some of which are so subtle that they’re easy to miss. For example, watch for a scene where Nemo enters a bathroom then focuses on his own image in a mirror. When he turns around and the camera follows him back out of the room, we now see the perspective as if we had passed through the mirror; the reflection seamlessly swaps places with the real world.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Mr. Nobody‘s essential image is of branching, criss-crossing railroad tracks; if you want something with a little more surreal zip, however, check out the scenes of a fleet of helicopters delivering slices of ocean, slowly lowering them into place on the horizon.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Essentially an experimental narrative film disguised as a big-budget science fiction extravaganza, Mr. Nobody, an epic fantasia in which the protagonist lives a dozen different lives and a dozen different realities, was doomed to be a cult film from its inception. Even with a healthy dose of romantic sentimentality and whimsy a la , it is far too rare and peculiar a dish for mainstream tastes. The opening is confusing, the moral ambiguous, and reality won’t sit still; it’s got unicorns, godlike children, helicopters delivering the ocean, a future world where everyone has their own genetic pig and psychiatrists are known by their facial tattoos, and a malformed sub-reality where everyone wears argyle sweaters. It’s unique, unforgettable, and utterly marvelous.


Original trailer for Mr Nobody

COMMENTS: One of the enigmatic Nemo Nobody’s many possible past identities is a TV science lecturer who explains such esoteric concepts as Continue reading 168. MR. NOBODY (2009)

132. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)

“…unique perspectives and self-sufficient lifestyles are sacred things that should be fought for and preserved. So-called ‘eccentrics’ were my earliest heroes, and one of my biggest influences.”–Benh Zeitlin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Benh Zeitlin

FEATURING: , Dwight Henry

PLOT: Six-year old Hushpuppy lives with her ailing father Wink in “the Bathtub,” a community that turns into an island isolated from society when floodwaters cut it off from the mainland. After a second flood nearly destroys the Bathtub, Wink decides that he must destroy the levee so that the water will recede. This plan brings the attention of the authorities, however, who forcibly evacuate the defiant pair from their ramshackle home, all while Wink’s health is getting worse…

Still from Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
BACKGROUND:

  • Beasts of the Southern Wild was adapted from the play “Juicy and Delicious” by Lucy Alibar (who also collaborated on the movie screenplay). The action was moved from Georgia to Louisiana, and Hushpuppy’s character was altered to fit the personality of actress Quvenzhané Wallis.
  • Hushpuppy was originally conceived of as 9-12 years old, but Quvenzhané Wallis was so perfect for the role that the character’s age was changed. Wallis beat out a reported 4,000 other kids for the role. She was only five when she first auditioned and, since the minimum age to be considered was six, her mother lied about her age.
  • Dwight Henry (Wink) is a New Orleans baker; this was his first acting role. He originally turned down the role in order to focus on opening a new bakery.
  • The aurochs in the movie are actually pot-bellied pigs with horns glued on.
  • Won the Caméra d’Or prize at Cannes (given to the best first film screened at the festival).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hushpuppy coming face to face with the apocalyptic aurochs of her imagination.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Quvenzhané Wallis’ childish explanation, “once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub” turns out to be a literal description of the plot in this ridiculously original fairy tale that resembles The Tree of Life set in a post-apocalyptic bayou.


Original trailer for Beasts of the Southern Wild

COMMENTS: Although many movies purport to view reality from a child’s perspective (including Curse of the Cat People, My Life as a Dog, and Pan’s Continue reading 132. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ATTIC EXPEDITIONS (2001)

This post was originally lost in the Great Server Crash of 2010; the article was partially recovered from Google cache, and the rest of the text was recreated. Sorry, original comments were irretrievably lost in cyberspace.

DIRECTED BY: Jeremy Kasten

FEATURING: Andras Jones, Seth Green, Jeffrey Combs, Beth Bates, Ted Raimi

PLOT: Awakening from a dream to find himself on an operating table, an amnesiac is

Scene from The Attic Expeditions (2001)

informed that he is a schizophrenic murderer who has been committed to a private institution and is now being sent to a halfway home—nicknamed “the House of Love”—to be rehabilitated.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Attic Expeditions sounds echoes of some (better) weird movies: Jacob’s Ladder (in the way that the script offers different possible explanations for the protagonist’s hallucinations, and jerks the viewer back and forth between those theories) and Donnie Darko (in that it seems the director intended to tell a fantastical story that “made sense” on a literal level, but lost control of the story when he took it one paradox too far).  An interesting, confusing, out-of-control picture, it’s as fascinating for its misses as for its hits.  It falls just short of a general recommendation, but it is recommended to anyone interested in psychological, mindbending horror seasoned with heaping doses of confusion and who isn’t a stickler for great acting.  This is the kind of curious, singular picture that could wind up filling one of the final slots in the List.

COMMENTS: Trevor Blackburn may be a schizophrenic murderer, or he may be an amnesiac sorcerer, or he may be the victim of an unethical psychological experiment; or he may be all three.  It’s impossible to tell, especially since The Attic Expeditions is full of contradictions and contains segments where the timeline suddenly resets and the action repeats itself with slight variations.  The mystery promiscuously throws out clues, but every possible explanation for Trevor’s woes seems chained to its own refutation.  Trevor is an unreliable narrator in triplicate: he’s a definite amnesiac, a possible schizophrenic, and, to top it all off, his state-appointed guardian appears to be deliberately playing with his loose grip on reality.  Psychiatrist Dr. Ek (played by Jefferey Combs as a variation on Herbert West as a pot-smoking, skin-popping headshrinker) uses Trevor as a case study for an experiment in Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE ATTIC EXPEDITIONS (2001)