“Weird” cinema is a category in search of an essence. It is characteristically difficult to pin down and more-often-than-not transcends genres, blending elements of experimental film, horror, mystery, science fiction, and psychological thriller in equal measure. Films like Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Videodrome (1983), and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) might all be considered classics of “weird” cinema, but their different approaches also speak to the diversity of the sub-genre. Given the protean quality of the designation “weird” cinema, below is a list of ten international films that unmistakably capture the essence of the eerie, the unsettling, and the strange.
Japanese director Takashi Miike is known for both his Yakuza style gangster movies as well as surreal horror films like “Audition” (1999). Yet with Gozu, he reaches a new level of bizarre. When the San Francisco Chronicler media site advised viewers to “stay far, far away” from this film, I knew I had to see it and I was not disappointed. Following the unusual day of a Yakuza hitman who is ordered to kill his best friend, the film moves through a series of strange encounters with gender-bending assassins, animal spirits, and even a lactating woman as the protagonist Minami attempts to track down a missing body. With its mix of horror and comedy, Gozu plays with genre while seeming to break every taboo imaginable. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is for those who want a mind-bending gangster mystery that knows how to pack the punches.
I will admit that I am a fan of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. His use of super-8 montages and avant-garde story telling give many of his films an old-time feel that is both aesthetically pleasing and refreshing in an age of HD cinema. Brand Upon the Brain is a silent film that tells the story of a troubled childhood passed in an ancestral home on a desolate island. If you thought your family was troubled, wait until you see what Maddin has on display! The film is filled with surrealist elements that Robert Ebert described as akin to a “collaboration between Edgar Allan Poe and Salvador Dalí.” He was not far off the mark. Those seeking a fascinating exploration of human imagination and absurdity will relish this film. Its technique and subject matter push the boundaries of filmic storytelling.
While any David Lynch film could easily make this list, Inland Empire holds a special place in the weird film pantheon. Its meta-narrative plot featuring a movie within a movie mixed with its odd flashbacks to Polish prostitutes and dialogues between anthropomorphic rabbits makes it a challenging and cerebral piece of cinema. It features many common Lynchean tropes, but its development marked a departure for Lynch in many respects. The screen play was developed in the process of shooting and Lynch himself did much of the filming on digital video. In his usual fashion, Lynch manages to employ fragmented narrative, dream-like settings, and sudden twists to offer a compelling film detailing the splintering psyche of a Hollywood actress.
Shot in Cold War Berlin, this psychological horror film is an exposé of a crumbling marital relationship and a descent into Lovecraftian horror (yes, there is a tentacled monster featured in the film). Following a limited release in theaters in 1981, Possession acquired a mystique as one of the “video nasties” over the coming decade as it traded hands in VHS format. The story follows Mark, a Cold War spy, who is trying to find out why his wife, played by Isabelle Adjani, is acting so bizarrely upon his return home. What he discovers is unsettling to say the least. Over the years, academic film critics have become more appreciative of the film, noting director’s Andrzej Zuławski’s vivid eye for detail and metaphorical use of Cold War Berlin, a divided city in a crumbling society mirroring the relationship at the center of this disturbing movie.
From the opening scene, The Oregonian conveys a feeling of disquiet that lingers throughout the film. When a young woman finds herself on the side of the road following a traumatic car accident, her world becomes a walk through a nightmarish landscape populated by odd characters and a monster that resembles a plush toy. The film premiered at Sun Dance in 2011 to mixed reviews, with its incoherent plot and puzzling vignettes turning off some critics. Be that as it may, film maker Calvin Reeder’s audio and visual effects are effective at creating a creepy atmosphere that plays with the imagination. Those inclined toward indie-bizarro-horror might also like Reeder’s follow up The Rambler (2013).
An avant-garde, experimental film shot in the late 1980s, Begotten was initially intended as a performance piece rather than a film. It was inspired by the French dramatist Antoin Artaud and the philosophical musings of Friedrich Nietzsche, and this should tell you something about what you are in for. The critic Susan Sontag praised the film upon its release, and ever since it has held a cult status among serious film critics and fans alike. Aside from its mesmerizing visual aspects, what makes the film so interesting is the fact that it was largely distributed underground by fans through bootleg copies during the 1990s, defying the mainstream. The film is replete with allegorical and mythical themes, presenting a visual if not horrific exploration of the creation myth. Writer and director Edmund Elias Merhige is intentionally opaque, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions on the film’s treatment of suffering, death, and rebirth. Even better is the fact that the movie is freely available on the internet here.
Director Ingmar Bergman is a heavyweight of modern cinema, and Persona certainly lives up to Bergman’s famed reputation as a master of the craft. The story follows a young nurse (Alma) who is summoned to the countryside to attend to a famous stage actress who has mysteriously stopped speaking. The film plays upon themes of duality and personal identity as Alma conveys her personal traumas and fears to her patient. Dialogue and atmosphere are mixed with cinematic beauty in this psychological portrayal of a woman coming undone. Bergman himself confessed that with Persona he felt he was “working in total freedom” and that the film “touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.” Critics have agreed, and many have expressed their frustrating inability to summarize this “modernist horror movie.”
Readers might find it odd (maybe even irreverent) to follow up a Bergman masterpiece with this horror film directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton. However, Yellow Brick Road is an often overlooked work that mixes the found-footage genre with Lovecraftian-style horror. When a team of young explorers sets out into the wilderness to uncover the fate of an entire town that mysteriously vanished, things get weird. Well-paced and haunting, Yellow Brick Road conveys a sense of eeriness that many fans of weird fiction will find intriguing. Its chronicling of a malicious yet hidden power that preys upon the sanity of individuals gives a modern twist to themes that any fan of H. P. Lovecraft can not help but find entertaining.
When strangers accidentally meet in a Moscow bar and recount stories about their lives, it becomes difficult to determine what is fantasy and what is reality. This Russian film by director Ilya Khrzhanovsky is rich on atmosphere and dialogue. The screenplay was written by Vladimir Sorokin, a postmodernist Russian novelist and scriptwriter with a talent for playing with themes of truth and authenticity. What could be more fitting for a post-Soviet intellectual? 4 was dubbed one of the most decadent works of post-Soviet cinema when it was released, and its portrayal of Russian life in decline and disquisitions on Soviet-era politics certainly captures a specific ambience of post-Cold War Russian society. Yet it also presents a fascinatingly odd narrative in which rumors of cloning experiments conducted during the Stalinist era appear to acquire an aura of truth as the movie progresses. Its non-linear storytelling might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but 4 is a philosophically rich and psychologically heavy film with few competitors.
Also entitled “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” in North American markets, this film is arguably more “quiet horror” than “weird” cinema. Yet it is not without its merits and is a great film that defies the typical “girls in distress” motif so common to psychological horror thrillers these days. When two students at a girl’s boarding school find themselves locked-in over winter break, things take a turn for the worst as a dark presence appears to haunt the halls of the institution in which they are trapped. The film is well-constructed and meticulously directed, evoking a subtle feeling of impending dread throughout. No less striking is the sober cinematography that works perfectly with the pace and atmosphere of the movie. It would not be surprising if this movie appears on many lists of modern horror movies, but its moody feel and split plotlines also transcends the horror genre making for an enjoyable viewing experience that is both cold and unsettling.
Alistair Rey began his career in Romania writing political propaganda for post-authoritarian governments. He has since advertised himself as an author of “fiction and parafiction,” an archivist, a political satirist and a dealer in rare books and manuscripts. His work has appeared in the Berkeley Fiction Review, Juked magazine and Weird Book, among other publications. A complete list of works and stories is available at the Parenthetical Review website (parentheticalreview.com).