Most viewers, even those who eventually became its biggest fans, initially found Richard Kelly‘s debut feature, Donnie Darko, to be strange, convoluted and challenging to fully comprehend on a single viewing. However, compared to his 2006 follow-up, Southland Tales, Darko now seems like Where’s Waldo? Perhaps the absolute craziest film ever made, Southland Tales is a wild ride through pre-apocalyptic paranoia, fevered hallucinations and madness that really defies any kind of classification. It is pulpy, surreal, funny, political and, above all, very weird. I won’t try to convince anyone that this film is a success, per se, but its wild ambition and complete originality make it well worth a look.
If you’ve never heard of Troma Entertainment, there is no better place to start than their 1984 masterpiece, The Toxic Avenger. Though at first glance, this may seem like a terrible movie, it is actually that rarest of all “so bad it’s good” movies: the kind that is simultaneously self-aware and very sincere. Sure, it’s filled with cheesy puns and one-liners, and the performances are uniformly over-the-top and cartoonish, but that’s all part of director Lloyd Kaufman‘s unique, immediately recognizable style. Kaufman may be a trash filmmaker, but he has embraced sleaze so fully that he almost transcends it. He is truly the greatest trash auteur since Roger Corman; in fact, he’s greater, because his films are even trashier than Corman’s ever were.
The Toxic Avenger takes place, as all canon Troma films do, in the fictional town of Tromaville, New Jersey, “the toxic waste dumping capital of the world.” Melvin Ferd (Mark Torgl) is a scrawny, awkward nerd who works as a janitor at a local health club, where he is perpetually tormented by a quartet of bullies. Bozo (Gary Schneider) and Slug (Robert Prichard) are a couple of meat-head juvenile delinquents who spend their free time either working out or going on vehicular homicide sprees with their equally unredeemable girlfriends, Wanda (Jennifer Babtist) and Julie (Cindy Manion). Early on in the film, we see them run over an innocent boy on a bicycle (D.J. Calvitto) in an obscenely graphic shot gloriously preserved on Netflix in the original unrated version. When Wanda later pleasures herself to a photo of the messy murder, it’s almost as if the film is commenting on the exact kind of repugnant titillation it so gleefully provides.
Valerie (Geena Davis) is a sort of ditzy manicurist who works at beauty parlor in San Fernando Valley with her gloriously superficial and oversexed friend Candy (co-writer Julie Brown). After discovering her physician fiancée, Ted (Charles Rocket), attempting to cheat on her with a nurse he brings home, she kicks him out and wrecks most of his belongings in a musical montage of destruction and bittersweet flashbacks of the better times they spent together. Of all the film’s musical numbers, this is the weakest, but still great visual fun and prime ’80s nostalgia, as when Valerie shoves a box of Ted’s cigars into the VCR, or when she sends a bowling ball crashing into his Commodore 64 computer. As if her relationship troubles aren’t bad enough, the next morning a spaceship full of furry, horny aliens lands in her pool, and Valerie has to figure out how to keep them secret until they can fix their flooded ship and head back to their home planet.
For all of his musical influence and his famous/infamous turn as Jareth the Goblin King in the Jim Henson production Labyrinth, my original introduction to the cultural phenomenon that is David Bowie came from a strange, somewhat disjointed British science fiction film from the 1970s. The first film in which Bowie ever appeared as a leading actor, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a surreal, satirical, and ultimately very bleak look at American values, as seen through the eyes of a visitor from another world. In much the same way that the Martians in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds find themselves vulnerable to Earth’s diseases, Bowie’s alien finds himself far from immune to the destructive allure of earthly pleasures like alcohol, sex and television.
Thomas Jerome Newton, as Bowie’s alien calls himself while on Earth, lands in the New Mexico desert in search of water to bring back to his home planet, Anthea, where his wife and children are in danger of dying from a sever drought. Using the advanced technology of Anthea, he gains incredible wealth and a great deal of notoriety by patenting various inventions and becoming the head of World Enterprises Corporation, a technological conglomerate he forms with the help of patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry). Newton’s ulterior motive with the company is to construct a space vehicle with which to ship water back to Anthea, but he soon becomes distracted from this purpose by a dalliance with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a hotel chambermaid who introduces Newton to alcohol and sex, and with whom he eventually moves into a house in New Mexico.