Editor’s note: This post was originally published in September 2014. We’ve selected it as one of the posts we’re republishing for our 10th anniversary celebrations in May 2017.
A Lynchian renaissance is happening at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where David Lynch studied painting before his surreal entry into filmmaking with 1977’s Eraserhead. The school is the site of Lynch’s first major museum exhibition in the United States. It was there that he created several short films to animate his artworks, planting the early seeds for Eraserhead — starring Jack Nance as a young father crippled by the anxiety of fatherhood. A mutant baby, industrial cityscape, and shadowy apartment building leave an indelible mark on the viewer. Criterion is re-releasing Eraserhead on Blu-ray September 16. In honor of Lynch and his surreal universe, we’re celebrating 50 other weird works on film — many that rival Lynch’s strange aesthetic.
“I don’t know what the rabbits will do. But any number of things could happen.” —David Lynch on his avant-garde short Rabbits, full of expressionist shadows, eerie lighting, and a disturbing laugh track.
In Louis Malle’s Black Moon, we encounter a violent battle of the sexes when we meet young Lily driving along the French countryside. There, she witnesses male soldiers executing female prisoners. Although she is disguised as a man, her long blonde locks give her away. She escapes to a lush manor home (Malle’s own estate in Cahors) that immerses her in a world filled with talking beasts, feral children, and flowers that cry in pain. Lily’s hallucinatory journey suggests parallels to the anxiety surrounding her own sexual awakening and the social revolution of the time.
At turns startling and wildly humorous, Dušan Makavejev’s 1974 avant-garde satire Sweet Movie confronts themes of sexual, political, and personal repression, pushing the disgusting, depraved, and taboo front and center. What else would you expect in a film that references the visceral, transgressive antics of Viennese Actionists (starring real-life member Otto Meuhl)? You will never look at chocolate the same way ever again.
Any number of Takashi Miike films belong here, but the way the controversial Japanese filmmaker sets us up for a traditional yakuza film in Gozu and then veers into bizarre mythological territory deserves the utmost praise. The 2003 film is loosely based on the ancient tale of Orpheus and Eurydice — except with lactation, talking vaginas, and demonic cows.
In My Skin
Esther’s leg is severely injured at a party. She develops a morbid fascination with the wound and her body following the incident that finds her cutting, cannibalizing, and manipulating her own skin. New French Extremist director Marina de Van, also the star of the film, depicts the alienation we often feel from our own bodies and the corporeal obsessions that sometimes consume us.
Three adult siblings while away their days at the family compound playing bizarre games, shielded by their parents from the real world, never allowed to set foot on the other side of the towering wall that surrounds them. They speak a different language — a “zombie” is a “flower,” while “pussy” means “light” — and the only outsider granted access to the family is a young woman who performs sexual favors for the oblivious brother/son. The balance of this surreal world is upset when one of the young women escapes into forbidden VHS tapes of Hollywood films, growing increasingly agitated with her existence. “Dogtooth is not a film that came from an image or a story I’d heard; it’s mostly the result of time spent wondering about human perception, and about whether people understand the world they’re living in,” director Yorgos Lanthimos stated in an interview.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man
A Japanese salaryman mutates into a machine in Shinya Tsukamoto’s cyberpunk cult hit Tetsuo: The Iron Man. An abrasive soundtrack by Chu Ishikawa (of Zeitlich Vergelter fame, often cited as Japan’s Einstürzende Neubauten), supplied by handmade metal instruments and cacophonous samples, provides the soundscape for Tsukamoto’s nightmarish world.
Even Dwarfs Started Small
Harmony Korine on the influence of Werner Herzog’s 1970 film Even Dwarfs Started Small, in conversation with Herzog:
My father loved the movies. We didn’t talk much when he was around, but every day after school, when I guess most kids would go home and do their homework, we’d go to the movies. By the time I was sixteen, I was seeing three or four films a day, including a lot of art films. I saw all your films. My dad rented them for me at first, and then he took me to the theatre to see Even Dwarfs Started Small  – which is my favorite movie of all time. It was when I heard the girl screaming in the cave and saw the monkey being crucified in that film that I knew I wanted to make movies.
Werner Herzog in conversation with Harmony Korine on the director’s haunting film Gummo, which borrows liberally from Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small:
I see Gummo as a true science fiction film in the way it shows a scary vision of the future: a loss of soul, a loss of spirituality. And yet you clearly see all that with very tender eyes. I am very interested, too, in how you show the effects of a tornado on people. . . . What I like about Gummo are the details that one might not notice at first. There’s the scene where the kid in the bathtub drops his chocolate bar into the dirty water and just behind him there’s a piece of fried bacon stuck to the wall with Scotch tape. This is the entertainment of the future.
Canadians do it weirder in Sandor Stern’s Pin. A doctor uses a “talking,” life-size, anatomically correct medical dummy to teach his children about the birds and the bees. The doctor’s nurse secretly uses Pin as a sex toy, and he becomes the fractured alter ego (and disturbed sexual id) of the family’s son.
“Unless we again begin to tell fairy stories and ghost stories at night before going to sleep and recounting our dreams upon waking, nothing more is to be expected of our Western civilisation.” —Surrealist animation icon Jan Švankmajer
Un chien andalou
Roger Ebert on the influential 1929 silent Luis Buñuel film (featuring writing from Salvador Dalí): “Un Chien Andalou was one of the first handmade films — movies made by their creators on a shoestring budget, without studio financing. It is an ancestor of the works of John Cassavetes and today’s independent digital movies.”
Bad Boy Bubby
Rolf de Heer’s Australian cult film centers on the story of Bubby — a stunted 35-year-old man who has been confined to his mother’s home, subject to her sexual and psychological abuse. He is eventually forced into the real world, where his fear and desire bewilder those around him—and he finds acceptance. De Heer’s use of binaural microphones and 32 different directors of photography transports us to Bubby’s strange universe.
In an interview with Bomb Magazine, Canadian body horror auteur David Cronenberg discussed his conceptual process behind films like 1983’s Videodrome — once dubbed “a Clockwork Orange of the ’80s” by Andy Warhol:
My images come out of the process of making film. I do really think that movies work on the level of dream logic. However realistic or narrative they might like to think they are, they are dreamlike. . . . In as much as the mind is ever in charge of anything. I don’t think it is always in control.
Katsuhito Ishii, Hajimine Ishimine, and Shunichiro Miki’s cult favorite Funky Forest won a spot on our “creepiest pop culture high schools” roundup:
There really isn’t anything quite like Funky Forest—a fever dream of a movie that could only be born from the Japanese film industry. Defying all genres, but with a decidedly comedic feel, the 2005 cult movie is a grab bag of body horror, dancing, music, pervy imagery, aliens, and other surreal situations that are set in one of the strangest high schools we’ve ever seen. There really is no explanation for something like this.
Aria is what happens when you bring together directors like Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, and Jean-Luc Godard — an experimental, oneiric anthology filled with striking visuals.
Inspired by cat-obsessed manga artist Nekojiru (which translates to “cat soup”), who took her own life in 1998, Tatsuo Satō’s psychedelic anime finds one feline sibling in search of his sister’s soul. “Nekojiru could have become a model for young, independent female artists looking to take manga outside of the relationship and light humor genres,” writes Thom Bailey. Satō’s mythological story is filled with surprising emotional gravitas.
Surreal without being overtly strange, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Porcile confounds many due to its dual plot and scathing conclusion. The director rabidly indicts his bourgeois protagonists, drawing parallels between a German industrialist, an Italian cannibal, and pack of man-eating pigs.
The New York Ripper
“Godfather of Gore” Lucio Fulci’s misunderstood giallo film The New York Ripper bears all the hallmarks of his controversial oeuvre: fetishistic eye violence, stomach-churning special effects, and a twisting mystery. The 1982 film’s nihilistic tone is the perfect match for its seedy backdrop — the bowels of the city before its sleazy strip was vanquished, when New York was a much meaner place. In a technically admirable turn, Fulci gives his maniac murderer a hilarious, terrifying voice that rivals the squeaky tone of Donald Duck — reminiscent of Bob Clark’s early slasher film, Black Christmas.
The story of Marquis de Sade, told with animal masks, claymation, and a talking penis.
On the Silver Globe
“Plays like Tarkovsky’s Stalker by way of a Jodorowsky acid-trip spectacle,” said BAMcinématek of Andrzej Zulawski’s Jerzy Żuławski adaptation. From Cinefamily on the Possession director’s cosmic allegory:
A three-hour spaceman journey straight into the center of Andrzej Zulawski’s poetic heart, On The Silver Globe is the director’s most phantasmagorical film. In 1976, Zulawski embarked on the largest-scale film production in Polish history, and over the course of two intense years, executed an eye-popping, grandiloquent sci-fi epic concerning astronauts who crash-land on the moon and kickstart their own bizarre, primitive society. Sadly, the Polish government deemed the film subversive, shut the production down just before shooting was completed, and destroyed its film print materials, sets and impossibly lush costumes. Ten years later, using secreted footage, Zulawski was able to piece together a version of the film that came as close as possible to his original vision—and the results will defy your mind, as even in its reconstituted form, On The Silver Globe is a true brainquake that effortlessly takes you to dizzying heights, and just keeps on elevating.
Drawing Restraint 9
“The film concerns the theme of self-imposed limitation and continues Matthew Barney’s interest in religious rite, this time focusing on Shinto,” reads the summary for 2005’s Drawing Restraint 9. I prefer to think of it as, “Matthew Barney and Björk play cannibalistic sushi rolls.” Ambitious, perplexing, hypnotic.
“In 1970 I was making Multiple Maniacs. I was probably sneaking into that church to film the ‘rosary job’ and having my friends talk to a priest about the Black Panthers and ending the Vietnam War, so he wouldn’t look and see what we were shooting. That was probably one of my most insane years,” John Waters said in an interview with Lifelounge. And Multiple Maniacs, starring Dreamland icon Divine and a giant lobster, could easily be his most deranged film, rivaling the best-worst of Pink Flamingos.
The Hourglass Sanatorium
From the director brave enough to tackle an adaptation of Jan Potocki’s sprawling novel The Saragossa Manuscript, Wojciech Has’ The Hourglass Sanatorium (an adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s short story collection) is set in a dilapidated world where trains carrying the dead shuttle into the beyond and fantasy blurs with reality. A young man visits his dying father in a sanatorium, but is thrust into a dreamlike world where he is forced to confront his memories.
Michael Atkinson on Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s 1977 film about a house that eats young girls:
It may be impossible not to be stunned into dumbness by Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hausu (House), an incredibly 1987 Japanese horror lark that was actually made in 1977. An uncanny prophecy of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 a decade later, this exhumed freaker conjoins New Agey schoolgirl farce and the cheesiest then-there-were-none haunted-house dynamic imaginable, while the painted backdrop skies suggest Teletubbies and the special effects run from solarized-video-absurd to cardboard-hilarious. The rum-stumble cast and crew obey no rules—the movie often seems to have two or three conflicting scores running simultaneously, and inappropriate freeze frames and pointless fades to black are the norm. The story isn’t a story at all: A gaggle of sailor-uniformed schoolgirls (with names like Gorgeous, Prof, and Fantasy) head to a weird aunt’s cheap-set house for spring break, and start getting minced up, one by one, into crude superimpositions, perambulating body parts, and rivers of blood that look like cherry Hi-C.
Slava Tsukerman’s new wave cult classic pushed the boundaries of independent filmmaking in form and finances — budgeted for $500,000, it earned $1.7 million in the first few months of its release. The director spoke about what he hoped audiences would take away from his alt sci-fi story in a 2010 interview:
I like films that are made on many different levels; different audiences will understand them differently, and that is okay with me. There were some people who came up to me and “explained” Liquid Sky and the way it works, which was completely unexpected for me. But after some thought, I realized they were right: you can view the film this way, as well. I think some very young, unsophisticated audiences would find one thing and other audiences would find another. Films have great success with different types of people. There is this really big film critic who said that he was completely shocked that a general audience would like such a complicated, intellectual film. So, I guess most people didn’t know it was a complicated, intellectual film—some people thought it was the stupidest film ever made. Actually, when you read a lot of comments about the film on the Internet and different places, they are all extremes: some people think it is the worst film ever, and some people think it is the best film ever. There is nobody in the middle, and I like it because that was almost my belief of the way to make it. [Richard] Wollheim said this thing I read about, and I loved it: “If everybody laughs, it is as bad as everybody hates. It’s only good if half of the people laugh and half hate.”
Quentin Dupieux, aka French electronic musician Mr. Oizo, made a movie about a sentient tire with telepathic abilities and murderous intent.
Although it was previously lost in straight-to-video purgatory, Intervision Pictures rescued Andrew Jordan’s Z-grade cult film in 2011. “Things is, as they say, all filler and no killer, but that’s most of the charm. The violence is nasty and pornographic, but I’m in it for the stuff between the kills,” writes DVD critic Daryl Loomis. “This includes an excess of beer drinking, the consumption of bread sandwiches, staring at walls, and pacing aimlessly around rooms. Add into this a series of completely inexplicable interludes featuring 1980s adult film siren Amber Lynn as a news anchor and there is something very special going on here. Not anything very good, but special nonetheless.”
Like father, like daughter. Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s directorial debut is a bizarre, provocative tale about a surgeon (Julian Sands) who keeps a woman (Sherilyn Fenn) captive by amputating her limbs. Part erotic drama, part black comedy.
A Page of Madness
Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1926 silent was thought to be lost for nearly 50 years until it was discovered in a shed during the 1970s. The film was written with Yasunari Kawabata, who became the first Japanese author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Set inside an insane asylum, A Page of Madness hails from the Shinkankakuha school, or School of New Perceptions (of which Kawabata was a founding member), favoring avant-garde experimentation over naturalism.
Viva la muerte
Images Journal on preeminent Spanish surrealist and Panic Movement founder Fernando Arrabal’s 1971 film:
The tragic loss of his father haunts much of Arrabal’s work, although no more strongly than in his 1970 film, Viva La Muerte. Based on his own 1959 novel, Baal Babylone, the film is set during the tumultuous days of the Spanish Civil War. Episodic in structure, Viva La Muerte is a harsh and often nightmarish coming of age tale of young Fando (Mahdi Chaouch) and his search for meaning in a universe that is sorely lacking in any.
A transgressive cult classic in which necrophilia is used to assault bourgeois sensibilities from Jörg Buttgereit. The Super 8 processing adds to the film’s grimy, gross-out textures.
One long, paranoid, drug-fueled hallucination. A cleverly disguised vampire film.
Post Tenebras Lux
“The Latin title means ‘The Light After Darkness’ — takes its cues from Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975),” writes Sight & Sound. “Framed in the now little-used Academy ratio, it stitches together fragments of personal memory and fantasy, garnished with a smattering of visual effects and the odd hint of social commentary, to build a poetic, psychedelic rhapsody in which the director’s tendencies towards abstract expressionism are allowed off the leash.”
Why yes, that is Sean Connery in a mankini with thigh-high boots. Not pictured: a flying stone head that talks and is obsessed with guns. Thank you, John Boorman.
The Holy Mountain
Sex, drugs, and spiritualism. An astonishing epic of the imagination that all weird cinema aspires to be.
Jack Hill’s 1964 film lives up to its name: Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told. An inbred family of regressed siblings cause mayhem for the guardian who watches over them after their father’s death. Listen for star Lon Chaney’s rendition of the movie’s strange theme song during the film’s opening titles.
Ed Gonzalez on György Pálfi’s grotesque mind-bender:
A batshit-crazy whatsit that applies a dazzling visual vocabulary to gleefully crass buffoonery, Taxidermia suggests a Jackass flick as directed by Roy Andersson. . . . The tableaux depicting the pathetic, single-minded lives of father, son, and, finally, sickly taxidermist grandson are insanely stitched together with highly conceptual graphics, and director György Pálfi’s vision includes a 360-degree pan around a vomit trough and the conflation of an orgasm to the killing of a pig. All this helps to shape Pálfi’s crudely bombastic but impressive philosophical view of the body as landscape and art, a source of personal discovery, wonder, and annihilation.
The Boxer’s Omen
Buddhism and black magic. Set in a supernatural landscape, and filled with the over-the-top violence and action expected of a Shaw Brothers film.
Drunken cartoons. This might be the wackiest you’ll ever see Felix the Cat, whose hard-partying hallucinations lent a lot of weird to this Otto Messmer and Pat Sullivan animation from 1928.
A precursor to the Japanese cyberpunk movement, released before the more popular Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Gakuryu Ishii (aka Sogo Ishii) constructed a post-apocalyptic world where mutant biker gangs and punks fight dirty to the death. Real-life Japanese punk bands such as The Roosters, The Rockers, The Stalin, and Inu make appearances.
Black Devil Doll From Hell
A foul-mouthed, pimp-handed puppet who talks like a Blaxploitation character is possessed by an evil spirit and defiles a Christian woman. Yep.
Evil Dead’s Sam Raimi and the Coen brothers made this bizarre slapstick comedy, starring Evil Dead collaborator Bruce Campbell, while the horror filmmaker was in college. Scripted by the future art-house duo, Crimewave relies on prop humor, ridiculously bad puns, and worse dialogue. Cartoonish in its appeal, Crimewave’s confused style reflects its tortured production and is frequently stunning.
Exte: Hair Extensions
The itch that will make you scratch your weave. Simply a movie about psychotic hair extensions that kill the women who wear them.
Herman Yau is known for respectable mainstream films like Ip Man: The Final Fight and Love Lifting, but he has a few gore-soaked Category III-rated shockers in his closet — like Ebola Syndrome. Picture Anthony Wong as a burger-flipping misanthrope who contracts and spreads Ebola. Offensive, lunatic, and violent. Hugs afterward recommended.
The first film born from Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement, The Idiots takes place at a commune where a group of friends seek to upset the bourgeois by drooling, picking their noses, running around naked, and more. “The Idiots is a stunning film — one that challenges the director, the actors and the viewer by pushing the boundaries of what filmmaking can be,” writes The Digital Fix. “On top of that, it is great entertainment that is itself very funny, while challenging attitudes and the hypocrisy of modern society, and questioning the rules and behavior that we all live by (and make films by).”
They Eat Scum
Underground film icon and Cinema of Transgression founder Nick Zedd made this 1979 trash film featuring mutants, a punk cult leader, terrible acting, and a nuclear war in Brooklyn.
The Hands of Orlac
A celebrated pianist loses both of his hands in an accident. The new hands grafted onto his body belong to a murderer, and he loses control of his will. Robert Wiene’s expressionistic use of shadows heightens the tension in The Hands of Orlac, while Conrad Veidt’s (Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) over-the-top acting style adds a hysterical sensibility.
Created while Jamaa Fanaka was studying film at UCLA, Soul Vengeance was a twist on the blaxploitation genre’s obsession with virile men. Pushing the limits of good taste in this campy thriller, Fanaka’s ex-con protagonist seeks revenge by having sex and murdering his enemies’ lovers. Yes, with his monstrously large penis. The Penitentiary series director was part of the LA Rebellion group of African-American filmmakers, who aimed to create a provocative, politically minded, alternative brand of cinema. “They were reacting to a certain degree against the blaxploitation films in the ’70s as being inauthentic. They wanted to do things differently and, of course, they were strongly influenced by black-power politics. Who wasn’t? White leftists and liberals were too at that time. The professorship, though, didn’t get it,” UCLA Film & Television Archive head Jan-Christopher Horak stated in a 2011 interview.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
The first Thai film to win the prestigious Palme d’Or, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives centers on the last days of its titular character. “Questions of the unknown seems to be at the heart of this film, especially the search for greater truth. Appropriately cryptic, fears and desires transform into a hyper-emotion,” Sound on Sight observed. “The excitement of discovery as well as the fear of an end blend into one. As Boonmee recalls past lives (and maybe even future ones), his identity becomes somehow more certain. We are not necessarily more privy to his mortal experience, but as his fragmented existence comes together he becomes more serene, and the audience does as well.”