(David Cronenberg, 1983)
What’s The Story? Max Renn (James Woods) is a jaded cable TV honcho who finds a new buzz in ‘Videodrome’, a mind and body-altering S&M channel.
Soon after schtupping Blondie Debbie Harry, his stomach slowly transforms into a video socket and his hand a gun...
What’s It About? It's a conspiracy-themed sci-fi satire on the notion that we are what we watch.
“I wanted to see what it would be like,” Cronenberg ponders, “if what the censors said would happen, did happen.”
Videodrome also pre-empts virtual reality and reality TV by asking, what if TV became as ‘real’ as real? Try running that one past the Big Brother housemates.
Weird Fact: In an early draft, Renn’s gun-hand grew into a grenade...
22. Picnic At Hanging Rock
(Peter Weir, 1975)
What’s The Story? On St Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group of boarding-school girls and their teacher vanish during a day-trip to the titular landmark.
What’s It About? It’s vaguely implied that the lasses have been abducted by aborigines for trespassing on sacred ground, suggesting the perils of (European) civilisation tampering with nature.
There’s also a theme of sexual blossoming, the girls’ disappearance representing a ‘crossing over’ into womanhood.
Ultimately, though, it’s a mystery about mystery - elusiveness is the whole point.
“I did everything in my power to hypnotise the audience away from the possibility of solutions,” says Weir.
Weird Fact: The cast and crew’s watches played up on the Rock – just as the girls’ watches do in the story.
21. Un Chien Andalou
(Luis Bunuel, 1929)
What’s The Story? A woman’s eye is slit open, a hand swarms with ants, a mouth turns into armpit hair, a transvestite ignores the traffic and a couple break up and make up. It’s a love story, see?
What’s It About? Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s Surrealist soup turns Freudian thinking into film by twiddling riffs of deferred desire in parallel with disconnected, dreamlike images that deny any satisfaction for sense.
Follow? You’re not supposed to. “This film has no intention of attracting, or pleasing, the spectator,” said Buñuel. “Indeed, on the contrary, it attacks him.”
Weird Fact: The Pixies’ squalling classic ‘Dolittle’ album-opener ‘Debaser’ homaged Buñuel but changed “Andalou” to “Andalusia”. Because it sounded better.
Next: Sick, El Topo, Freaks...[page-break]
20. Sick: The Life And Death Of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist
(Kirby Dick, 1997)
What’s The Story? Dick’s doc focuses on cystic-fibrosis sufferer Bob Flanagan, who turned his life of “coming, coughing and bad runny bowels” into S&M performance art.
Among other things, this process involved skewering his cock on a nail.
What’s It About?Sick is a touching, bawdy S&M love story and memorial to Flanagan’s often-inspired takes on art, desire and illness.
Essentially, he's transcending his ailment by wilfully exceeding the pain it gave him.
According to Dick, that crucified-penis close-up was a purely aesthetic decision (“I thought the impact of the image would play well cinematically”).
Weird Fact: Flanagan starred in Nine Inch Nails’ widely banned video for ‘Happiness Is Slavery’.
19. El Topo
(Alejandro Jorodowsky, 1970)
What’s The Story? Ultraviolent, black-clad gunslinger El Topo avenges the slaughter of a small town’s inhabitants, and is then injured in a face-off with four grandmasters of pistol-duelling.
Years later, he’s rescued by mutant dwarves and sets off to liberate his keepers from their underground hidey-hole.
Everyone gets killed by more outlaws and El Topo burns himself alive.
What’s It About? It's a lateral metaphor on the Old and New Testaments. The grandmasters are the prophets Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah and Jeremiah while El Topo, naturally, is ol’ JC.
Weird Fact: El Topo is one of Marilyn Manson’s favourite movies, and he’s desperate to star in Jodorowsky’s long-awaited sequel.
(Tod Browning, 1932)
What’s The Story? Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is a beautiful circus trapeze artist, adored by Hans the midget but canoodling with Hercules the strong man.
When Cleopatra learns Hans is sitting on a huge inheritance, she plots to deprive him of his fortune by poisoning the tiny toy-boy.
But the circus’ malformed members – including the pinhead twins, the limbless Living Torso and, naturally, the bearded lady – plot a nasty revenge on this depraved gold-digger.
What’s It About? ‘Who are the real freaks?’, jabs real-life circus man Browning. The 'stars’, or the ‘normal’ people in the film? A bit like real life, eh? EH?
Weird Fact: Studio boss Louis B Mayer banned the ‘freaks’ from eating in the MGM café because they were upsetting their fellow diners.
Next: Primer, Head, Boxing Helena...[page-break]
(Shane Carruth, 2004)
What’s The Story? Engineer buddies Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) design a superconducting machine in Aaron’s garage. Then, er...
What’s It About? ...they realise that the machine can be used as a portal to ‘travel’ back to the time it was turned on - it works by creating a time loop.
As Abe says, it’s like “two ends of a street and both are cul-de-sacs”. So, entry to/exit from the machine can only happen safely at either the past or the future end of the street.
If you enter at the past end, you enter the back-side of the loop and, when you exit at the future end, you’ve effectively travelled back in time – but never further back than the start-up time of the machine.
Weird Fact: Shane Carruth made the film for $7,000 and had to keep it ultra-lean. The 78-minute running time came from cutting just two minutes out of the 80 originally shot.
(Bob Rafelson, 1968)
What’s The Story? The ‘60s. Processed-pop moptops The Monkees slosh around in a stream of consciousness featuring musical numbers, spinny-eyed psychedelic asides, genre dress-up lunacy and even the odd dash of Vietnam satire.
What’s It About? Basically, it was Monkees co-creator Bob Rafelson – and cameo star Jack Nicholson – getting out of their heads and devising a lurid action-painting satire of the band’s birth, phoney existence and spectacular commercial death. It didn’t work. And no one bothered to go see it.
Weird Fact: Guitarist Michael Nesmith’s mum invented Tipp-Ex in the ‘50s. When she died, Nesmith inherited $25 million of her estate.
15. Boxing Helena
(Jennifer Lynch, 1993)
What’s The Story? Creepy surgeon Nick (Julian Sands) nurses Helena (Lynch Sr fave Sherilyn Fenn) after she’s hit by a car.
Well, actually, he develops a deranged obsession with her; removing more body bits than strictly necessary in a bid to ensure she’ll never leave his caring clutches...
What’s It About? Advanced acrotomophelia (amputee fetish) driven by paranoid megalomania, aggravated by Helena’s own Stockholm syndrome (captive’s perverse attachment to captor).
Nick’s urge to utterly ‘possess’ Helena completely overrides her increasingly disturbing lack of extremities, while the stress of Helena’s resulting ordeal plays havoc with her emotional response.
The gleaming great cherry of spookiness on top of this deeply odd cake? Director Jennifer Lynch was the inspiration for dad Dave’s weird opus Eraserhead.
Weird Fact: Kim Basinger paid heavily in court for doing a runner on her original casting as Helena (“It was the best $8m I ever spent”).
Next: Huckabees, Jacob's Ladder, Schizopolis...[page-break]
14. I (Heart) Huckabees
(David O Russell, 2004)
What’s The Story? (Environ)mentalist Albert (Jason Schwartzman) hires ‘existential detectives’ Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to investigate a bizarre minor coincidence, but soon gets mixed up with a rival nihilist philosopher (Isabelle Huppert), convenience store kings The Huckabees and a paranoid fireman (Mark Wahlberg). Result? Enlightenment!
What’s It About? Existentialism 101: the practical anti-philosophy that discounts conceptual/spiritual moral frameworks. Only through shared human experience might we one day achieve transcendence.
Weird Fact: Hoffman’s character wears a completely faceless watch: no hands, no numbers. A timeless classic, etc.
13. Jacob’s Ladder
(Adrian Lyne, 1990)
What’s The Story? Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is a Vietnam vet pummelled by sizzling fevers and hallucinogenic panic-attacks... And menaced by shadowy G-men with vibrating faces.
He vents all to sympathetic chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello), but when his war buddies start getting picked off in dodgy accidents, Jacob is forced to decide if he’s going brain-mental from experimental drug tests back in ‘Nam or if he’s about to get popped for real...
What’s It About? He’s in purgatory, and the vibratey-faced men are demons out to claim him for Hell, while Louis is a guiding angel, trying to work out his fears and regrets and get him into Heaven...
(“If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth”).
This is all backed up by the opening scene – a ‘Nam flashback – where Jacob is ambushed and bayoneted. So, the film is all a metaphysical allegory for his journey from death to afterlife. Easy.
Weird Fact: Louis’ speech is sampled in UNKLE/Thom Yorke’s ‘Rabbit In Your Headlights’.
(Steven Soderbergh, 1996)
What’s The Story? Suburban schlub Fletcher Munson (Steven Soderbergh) works for Scientology-alike group Eventualism as his life disintegrates.
His wife (Betsy Brantley) is having an affair with the dentist next door, Dr Korchek (also Soderbergh), and someone’s trying to kill his boss...
What’s It About? Having just made Crisscross remake The Underneath, Soderbergh was bored out of his mind and desperate to recapture the spirit that had driven sex, lies & videotape to landscape-shaping Cannes glory.
The resulting mix of mid-life introspection and slapstick served as an artistic reboot, exorcising demons and allowing Soderbergh to climb out of “the arthouse ghetto”, make Out Of Sight and partner with George Clooney to produce some of the noughties' most entertaining and provocative films.
Weird Fact: Soderbergh’s real-life ex played his on-screen missus, lending a keen edge to the post-modern frippery.
Next: Pound, Tetsuo, Altered States...[page-break]
(Robert Downey Sr, 1970)
What’s The Story? Eighteen dogs await either adoption or gassing. The twist? The mutts – including a boxer, Pekinese and mad Mexican hairless – are played by real human actors. Barking...
What’s It About? Life. That horrible limbo between birth and death; the terrible unknowingness of when you will be taken. What with dogs being man’s best friend, their plight feels all the more unsettling.
Would it have worked as well with humans? Of course not. We hate other people; we love cute little doggies. Er, even when played by humans.
Robert Downey Sr’s film asks, “When life goes to the dogs, where do the dogs go?” Caught up in the hellish whirlwind of survival, it’s a question no one thinks to ask.
Weird Fact Robert Downey Jr features in his first role. As a puppy.
10. Tetsuo: The Iron Man
(Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989)
What’s The Story? A regular Japanese Joe (Tomorowo Taguchi) accidentally runs over a freaky fella (Tsukamoto) with a stomach-churning penchant for pushing big bits of scrap metal into festering wounds on his body.
Assuming he’s killed the perve, our protagonist dumps the ‘corpse’. But then, oddly, he starts to morph into a walking cutlery drawer...
What’s It About? Many view Tetsuo’s sleazy but sterile dystopia as a protracted whine about the dehumanisation of Japan in the wake of her industrial megaboom.
Others cite several scenes – particularly the massively controversial ‘drill dick’ murder bit – as evidence of a general riff on male impotence and the ultimate weakness of the flesh. See also Number 23 (Videodrome).
Weird Fact: Director Tsukamoto also starred in Ichi The Killer (2001). At least a quarter of the alleged bucket of man-fat used in the icky Ichi title sequence was his.
9. Altered States
(Ken Russell, 1980)
What’s The Story? Over-eager psychophysiologist Dr Jessup (William Hurt) is anxious to progress in exploring consciousness, so he sets out to experiment on himself...
A few ethical dilemmas, hours of sensory deprivation and LSD-aping Ken Russell visuals later and he’s a slobbering neo-Neanderthal living RIGHT ON THE EDGE.
What’s It About? From the pen of Network scribbler Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States could be seen as a satire on babyboomers’ attempts to conquer the beast within and expand the mind via LSD and free love.
From Russell’s demented POV, it’s an excuse to tear people apart, scare epileptics and traumatise William Hurt.
Weird Fact: During shooting Ken Russell insisted mega-bore Hurt was silent at meal-times, or foot the bill. Hurt paid for every dinner.
Next: Visitor Q, Dwarfs, Society...[page-break]
8. Visitor Q
(Takashi Miike, 2001)
What’s The Story? A father gets it on with his prostitute daughter. Then, the family’s lives are turned inside out by the arrival of a strange guest who encourages mom, dad, son and daughter to satisfy their darkest needs.
Necrophilia, murder, dismemberment, heroin and anal rape are on the menu, all washed down with a barrel-load of milk squirted from ma’s wildly lactating breasts. Did we mention it’s a comedy?
What’s It About? It’s a modern-day Gulliver’s Travels shot on DV; grainy images and jagged satire combine to demonstrate how humans are pathetic, self-serving, squabbling, rancid and downright low.
Miike especially bludgeons the nuclear family, and explains/excuses his OTT imagery as a cultural thing: “In Japan, violence isn’t as controversial as it is in the West, so it’s easier to make a crazy, extremely violent film.”
Weird Fact: Gratuitous sexploitation cinema? Of course not. Miike claims to have been influenced by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s metaphysical chin-stroker Theorem (1968).
7. Even Dwarfs Started Small
(Werner Herzog, 1970)
What’s The Story? Egged on by cackling leader Hombré (Helmut Döring), the inmates of an asylum rise up against their oppressors, tying their supervisor to a chair.
A monkey is crucified. Chickens are forced to eat each other. Plants are torched. Oh, and it’s all set in an alternative universe inhabited solely by dwarves.
What’s It About? There’s method to Herzog’s madness: Dwarfs unmasks man’s beastly nature, trashing his bourgeois values.
The dwarves aren’t freakish, society is. And the cannibalistic hens? “Chickens frighten me because they are so stupid,” says Herzog. “When you look into their eyes, it’s really, really weird.”
Weird Fact: Herzog celebrated wrapping Dwarves by leaping into a field of cacti.
(Brian Yuzna, 1989)
What’s The Story? Orange-faced, Jeep-driving class president-in-waiting Bill Whitney can’t shake a creeping sense of alienation in his sterile Beverly Hills ‘hood; or the notion that something vaguely rotten lurks behind the white marble pillars...
Turns out his nearest and dearest are an alien race engaged in murderous, body-morphing sex orgies, sucking precious nutrients from their less monied peers. Good instincts, then...
What’s It About? A none-too subtle wad of phlegm in the beady eyes of America’s vampiric upper classes and their sniffy, gated communities.
The metaphor couldn’t be more direct: Yuzna literally accuses them of being another species, feeding off those below them and spunking their swollen bank balances over each other’s smug little faces.
Not sure about the body-morphing, mind. That just looks cool.
Weird Fact: Society bombed in the States but was a hit in Europe (Yuzna: “Europeans are more willing to accept the ideas buried in a movie. To Americans, it was all a big joke”).
Next: Pi, Donnie Darko...[page-break]
(Darren Aronofsky, 1998)
What’s The Story? Pill-popping maths boffin Maxmillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) treads the dark path to a numbingly complex theory: everything in the universe can be predicted through graphology and numeric patterns.
Suspecting he’s about to crack The Code with his Blue Peter-esque homemade supercomputer, shifty representatives of both Wall Street and a Kabbalah sect start to hassle him. Max snaps, and decides to drill out his demons. Literally...
What’s It About? Generally speaking, it’s the old ‘troubled genius’ chestnut, but, in a sense, the film isn’t really about Cohen as such. It’s more of a florid riff on - hold tight - the concept of nonlinear dynamics. Chaos theory.
Aronofsky pokes fun at narcissistic academics setting out to achieve the impossible – in Cohen’s case, finding a pattern that makes sense of apparently chaotic systems.
Weird Fact: A bona fide human brain appears in the film. One prop runner clearly earned his keep...
4. Donnie Darko
(Richard Kelly, 2001)
What’s The Story? Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) sees rabbits. But the rabbit is in his head, or maybe it’s his sister’s boyfriend. Or an acid trip. Or God. Or the wooden head of a bunny in the kitchen... The one certainty is that the world is coming to an end. Very soon...
What’s It About? Love. Anyone can point out the oddity of bunny-suits, '80s tributes and time travel, but this is just a romantic tale of Everyteen Don – forgetting the world, running off with a girl and losing his cherry along the way...
“I don’t care if you’ve seen it 80 times,” says Kelly. “It’s not about mental illness. Gretchen is not a mystical recreation of Rose as a young girl, Cherita Chen isn’t a spy for the Chinese government.”
Given the choice of dying, turning back time and saving his beloved, or living a life without her, Donnie chooses the former. It’s really that simple. Everyone dies. Love survives.
Weird Fact: Donnie was shot in 28 days – exactly the time-span of the film itself.
Next: Being John Malkovich, Eraserhead...[page-break]
3. Being John Malkovich
(Spike Jonze, 1999)
What’s The Story? Puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) stoops to a day-job at a finance company in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s feature debut.
The ante ups when, behind a filing cabinet, Craig finds a portal to 15 minutes of fame where he transforms into John Malkovich.
He and colleague Maxine (Catherine Keener) tout the trip to punters, Maxine humps Craig’s wife via Malkovich’s body, and a chimp recalls childhood traumas.
Then things get a bit weird...
What’s It About? “I don’t know if I was consciously trying to do anything,” Kaufman claims, “but decide what would happen to these individuals.”
Despite the third act’s riffs on Oedipal desire and delusions of fame, Kaufman insists he just ran with the Malkovich idea to keep the film open (“I don’t have any solutions, and I don’t like movies that do.”)
Weird Fact: Far from softening the film, Malkovich asked Jonze and Kaufman to be meaner to him.
(David Lynch, 1977)
What’s The Story? Against a bleak, post-industrial backdrop, sticky up-haired Henry (Jack Nance) is about to get a real shock.
During a dinner of still-twitching man-made chicken with his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) and her family, he discovers he’s about to become a father to Mary’s baby-creature.
When the child is born, it looks like a cross between a sperm and a calf foetus. Mary and Henry break up.
The baby wails incessantly. Henry dissects it, while a lady who lives behind the radiator sings about Heaven and stamps on foetuses...
What’s It About?Eraserhead is a murky excursion into fatherhood anxiety, post-nuclear nightmare and folksy Americana.
It’s also a self-referential wink at the idea of audience befuddlement: Henry’s final dissolution into the light is like losing one’s self in the film.
As Lynch claims, “I felt Eraserhead. I didn’t think it.”
And here’s another theory: Lynch’s wife left him a year into the making of the film and a few years after his daughter was born.
He’s called the film “my Philadelphia Story”, referring to the classic comedy about commitment anxiety. A veiled fear-of-marriage confessional, then? Maybe, but don’t ask Lynch (“I love the idea that one thing can be different for different people”).
Weird Fact: Lynch worked a paper round to help finance the film.
Next: The Wizard Of Oz...[page-break]
1 The Wizard Of Oz
(Victor Fleming, 1939)
What’s The Story? Farm girl Dorothy (Judy Garland) is snatched from rural Kansas by a tornado and dumped into a world of witches, wizards, talking scarecrows, human/lion hybrids, flying monkeys, disturbing dwarfish folk and men with upturned funnels on their heads.
What’s It About? It’s a political allegory for late 19th-century America. L Frank Baum, author of the original book The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, was a political activist, and illustrator WW Denslow had dabbled in caricature.
The Lion, Tin Man, Scarecrow, Yellow Brick Road, silver slippers, cyclone, monkeys, Emerald City, little people, witches and wizards were all popular images in political cartoons of the 1890s.
Baum and Denslow simply drafted them into a single story, all carried by an everywoman character Dorothy, representing the American people.
According to historian Hugh Rockoff, the Tin Man is the downtrodden industrial worker. The Scarecrow is the farmer.
In the book, the Scarecrow and Tin Man work together to defeat the tyrannical Wicked Witch Of The East (future president Grover Cleveland, who supported the rich-favouring gold standard currency).
In 1890s Minnesota, the Farmer-Labor Party, a coalition of industrialists and farmers, was big news.
The Lion is 1896 Democrat Presidential candidate William Bryan (described as having “a great roar but no bite”). The Wicked Witch Of The West was Republican William McKinley, who won the Presidency. The Munchkins are the ordinary citizens, the 'little' people.
So, Dorothy follows the Yellow Brick Road (the gold-standard currency) to the promised land of prosperity (Emerald City) but finds the whole thing is an illusion constructed by the Wizard Of Oz (Republican chairman Mark Hanna) to dupe the American people (Dorothy).
It isn’t the Yellow Brick Road that gets her home, it’s the ruby slippers (representing the free silver movement – the alternative currency of the people).
So that Christmas childhood fixture is really a barely veiled call for revolution in America.
There’s no place like the home of the brave...
Weird Fact: The now-iconic ‘Over The Rainbow’ signature tune almost didn’t make the film. MGM thought kids wouldn’t get it, and that it would be degrading for Judy Garland to sing in a barnyard.
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