Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Really Weird Movies

When you look at various compilers' lists of weird movies online, some of the titles that frequently pop up are Lynch's Lost Highway, Lyne's Jacob's Ladder, Fincher's Fight Club and Cronenberg's Naked Lunch. Certainly they all have bizarre elements, but my definition of weird is more demanding. Little people speaking backwards? Seen it. A sudden outbreak of frogs? Done that. To me, a truly weird movie provokes the questions: "Who the hell made this? Who did they think their audience would be?" And "Am I insane?"

Here a trio of films that I would consider truly "weird movies":

1. Sonny Boy (1989)

Turner Classic Movies aired this strange gem last year in its late-night "Underground" time slot, and I'm sure if you caught it, you're probably still reeling. I first saw it on VHS not long after it was released, and I'm still reeling.

It's 1970, and we're in a hardscrabble New Mexico town ironically named Harmony. Ironically, because it's run by a mean-as-hell sleazeball named Slue. Weasel, one of his henchmen, kills a couple checking into a motel, steals their car and takes it to Slue. He doesn't notice that there's a baby in the back seat, but when they make the discovery, Slue's wife, Pearl, happily claims the child to raise as her own. Oh...did I mention that Brad Dourif is Weasel, Paul L. Smith (the sadistic warden in Midnight Express) is Slue and David Carradine is Pearl? That's right, David Carradine in drag.

It gets even stranger. They name the child Sonny Boy, and soon Slue takes charge, training him to be the human equivalent of a rabid attack dog. He even cuts out the boy's tongue to make sure he'll never be able to speak a word against him. Soon Sonny Boy is running rampant through town on Slue's orders, killing and robbing the locals.

These are really not nice people. Slue exercises control over the local police force and surrounds himself with idiotic lackeys like Weasel to do his bidding. When he's not taking advantage of unfortunate travelers, he's making things (and people) go boom with his cannon. Pearl puts up with him, occasionally registering mild displeasure, but mostly going along for the ride. And being the kingpin of Harmony must not pay very well—they live in an end-of-the-road, broken-down compound that the Texas Chainsaw family would feel right at home in. As Sonny Boy (Michael Griffin) grows into a young adult, he begins to question his adoptive family and the terrible things he's being forced to do. This is all communicated via narration provided by the title character. Surprisingly, your compassion for this brutal and brutalized man-child grows.

Defiantly offbeat, Sonny Boy is a surreal and unflinching look at the ugliness of evil, and yet it has elements of melancholy and introspection that transport it beyond the traditional action-exploitation genre. Smith provides a suitable performance as the irredeemably cruel and sleazy Slue, and Carradine doesn't play Pearl campily. He doesn't raise the pitch of his voice or even adopt any particularly feminine mannerisms. It's just David Carradine in a wig and a dress, and all the other characters in the film interact naturally with him as...well, Pearl, Slue's wife. The movie is also a reunion of sorts for Dourif and Sidney Lassick, as they appeared in the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest together.

And once you've experienced the camera's-eye view of Carradine reaching down to take you in his arms...well, it's something you'll never forget.

2. Blood Freak (1972)

Haven't you always longed for a pro-Christian, anti-drug movie about a crazed killer with the body of a man and the head of a turkey? Fortunately, Brad F. Grinter and star Steve Hawkes have filled that void with their doo-wacka-doo epic Blood Freak.

As if the title of the film enough wasn't enough to give you a clue that we're in Herschell Gordon Lewis territory, Hawkes plays a lunky drifter named...Herschell! He helps a born-again Christian girl fix her flat tire, she invites him home and he falls for her drug-addled nymphet sister. He is plied with marijuana and soon becomes addicted (in about 10 minutes, as a matter of fact). The nymphet gets him a job at a local turkey farm, where he is plied with more drugs to persuade him to act as a taste-tester for chemically-altered turkey meat.

Ravenously ripping through his first bird (munchies, you know), he falls ill, staggers off into the woods, and wakes up with a thirst for junkie blood—oh, and a big ol' turkey head. He goes on a rampage, killing junkies, pushers and innocent bystanders alike. All of these events are grimly narrated by co-director Grinter, who sits at a desk and chain-smokes while he reads his lines off a piece of paper.

In true Lewis fashion, the gore is hilarious. Blood that's supposed to be jetting out of slashed arteries instead gushes out of tubes hidden inside shirts. When Herschell cuts off a pusher's leg, it looks like the actor was an amputee in real life, so it's probably the most convincing effect. However, the "actor" holds the plastic leg and screams continuously for about a minute afterwards. And the turkey head is so bad—it's been described as looking like a papier mache project made by a special education class—that it only adds to the fun. Of course, the screaming dubbed onto the soundtrack is completely random and sounds like the same two people.

Hawkes is a former movie Tarzan who suffered facial scars in a fire, ending his conventional career and pushing him into vehicles like Blood Freak. Grinter appeared in a couple of Lewis' early movies and also directed 1970's Flesh Feast, 1940s star Veronica Lake's pathetic swan song. Like Lewis, Grinter seemed to be based in Florida, and his last directorial credit was 1975's Barely Proper, a nudist colony film which would have been quite an antique in the post-Deep Throat '70s.

Now whether Blood Freak is a spoof of Lewis' films or an earnest homage is impossible to tell. The acting is wooden, yet the Christian message seems bizarrely earnest. What is clear is that this completely bonkers movie is a lot of fun.

3. L'Anticristo (1974)

When The Exorcist became such a huge international hit, the Italians were among the first to jump on the rip-off bandwagon with films like L'Ossessa (U.S.: Eerie Midnight Horror Show) and Chi Sei? (U.S.: Beyond the Door) and L'Anticristo (U.S.: The Tempter), all from 1974. Even though Chi Sei? offers us the spectacle of Juliet Mills (of TV's "Nanny and the Professor") puking and swearing, L'Anticristo wins hands-down for all-out weirdness.

Ippolita (Carla Gravina) is an anxious young woman who is wheelchair-bound as a result of a car accident caused by her father that killed her mother and left her paralyzed from the waist down. Frustrated at her lot in life and convinced that God has turned His back on her, she confesses to her uncle, also a priest, that she's been having blasphemous thoughts and that Satan is more real than God. And when her father takes up with a new woman, jealous Ippolita takes an even higher dive off the deep end.

She begins to act up in mildly devilish ways, so her worried father puts her under a psychiatrist's care. The shrink thinks her paralysis is psychosomatic, and he decides to try to cure her with regression therapy. While she is under hypnosis, she comes to the realization that she is a descendant of a centuries-old witch who'd been burned at the stake. Something about this realization makes Satan come a-calling, and next thing you know she's seducing her brother, flashing her uncle and hopping out of her chair to go kill German tourists.

What makes this version rise above the other Exorcist rip-offs is that it attempted to be different. Many of the others, from Chi Sei? to William Girdler's Abby, merely ran us through the same old obscenity-spewing and projectile vomiting (Abby is pretty damn hilarious, though). L'Anticristo attempts to give us something more. Of course, there's plenty of cursing and puking, but other things happen, too. During one of the dream sequences, for example, Ippolita taps into a flashback of her ancestor as she participates in an orgy to bring her into Satan's fold. At one point she is required to perform a certain intimate act on a goat's hindquarters, and although we don't see it in explicit detail, we are treated to a close-up of Ippolita eagerly swirling her tongue around her mouth! And she doesn't merely rise off the bed and levitate like The Exorcist's Regan...she floats up into the air and takes off out the window! And when she kills a guy and throws him down the stairs in a church, there's a strange, abrupt shot of his head spinning around in a very cartoonish manner.

Plus, we get not one but two has-been American actors: Mel Ferrer (Eaten Alive) as Ippolita's father and Arthur Kennedy (Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) as her uncle. Even the awesome Alida Valli (the martinet dance instructor in Suspiria) is along for the ride as Ippolita's combination maid and nanny. And—surprisingly—since it's Italian, the film is shot through with some virulently anti-Catholic sentiment.

This is Part One of a continuing series. There are plenty of weird movies out there.


Alex B. said...

Out of these 3 I've only seen L'Anticristo, and that was incredibly dull, despite lush production values and gorgeous photography by Joe D'Amato. Hell, it looked bigger-budgeted then the Friedkin original! But the boy's head spinning scene sure was memorable.

Weird Movie Buff said...

Good comments, Alex. It's true that "L'Anticristo" is slow-going, but its overall weirdness, art direction and cinematography make it compulsive viewing for me. It's like Pasolini remade "The Exorcist"!


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