Warning: This article contains material of a graphic nature. If that gives you pause, you shouldn't be seeing the films I'm going to be talking about anyway. Reader discretion is advised.
As I've said in more than one review over the years, weird goes a long way with me. What I mean is that, if a movie is genuinely weird or bizarre, odds are it's showing me something I've never seen before, and my attention will more than likely be held. Some of my favorite films are unrepentantly weird. Sure, I love a good Oscar-caliber drama or a high-concept Hollywood comedy as much as the next person, yet I also reserve a spot in my heart for the truly outrageous.
I call them my "freak films" - not because they are about freaks (although, in some cases, I guess they are) but because they are movies where I allow my freak flag to fly proudly. I like these pictures because they are weird/strange/odd. Freak films also serve an important purpose: they are litmus tests. I enjoy showing or recommending my freak films to friends, to gauge their reactions. If they appreciate them too, I know we are on a very special wavelength together. Anyone who likes any of these pictures is okay in my book.
With this in mind, I have compiled a list of five of my favorite freak films. There are others, but these are some of the most extreme and enjoyable ones. They aren't for every taste - that's for sure - but if you are in the mood for something very different, try one of these on for size.
Frankenhooker - For years, this was the freak film, as far as I was concerned. I often carried a VHS copy around to make my buddies watch it. And every single one of them will tell you they saw it under my coercion. Frank Henenlotter directed this horror/comedy about Jeffrey (Andrew McCarthy look-alike James Lorinz), a guy who accidentally runs over his fiancée Elizabeth (Patty Mullen) with a riding mower. Taking the few salvageable parts of her body left, he sets out to reconstruct her, Frankenstein-style. To replace the missing appendages, he invents a strain of super-crack, which he then doles out to local prostitutes, who smoke it and promptly explode. (This leads to the movie's best line, in which a pimp tells Jeffrey, "Good luck with those exploding bitches!") Once Elizabeth is re-assembled, Jeffrey jolts her to life - only to discover that she's got too much hooker in her; she escapes his lab and goes on a sex spree. Why do I like this movie? It's genuinely funny - none other than Bill Murray was quoted on the video box, calling it "the best movie of the year" - in a totally self-aware kind of way. Yeah, you'd be disappointed if the flick wasn't tawdry and sleazy (which it is), and yet it is those things quite intentionally. If someone else likes this movie too, I know that person has an admirably perverse sense of humor.
Teeth - From the moment I heard the premise of Mitchell Lichtenstein's debut film, I knew I just had to see it. This is the story of Dawn (the phenomenal Jess Weixler), a young, innocent, abstinence-preaching teenage girl who gets date raped and discovers that she is afflicted with vagina dentata. For those of you who don't speak Latin, that means she has teeth in her vagina. And do you know how she figures that out? Why, she bites off the penis of the date rapist, of course! When this festival fave was picked up for theatrical/video distribution, it was sold as a horror movie, which is somewhat misleading. Sure, the idea of a girl with chompers in her va-jay-jay (as Oprah calls it) is horrific, but Teeth is really a biting (no pun intended) social commentary about how males often sexually victimize and exploit young women. Jess Weixler gives an exquisite performance as Dawn, who slowly learns to use her unique gift as a way to empower herself. Equally funny and squirm-inducing, Teeth is one ride you will never forget. Guaranteed.
Forbidden Zone - The Rocky Horror Picture Show may be the "official" Ultimate Cult Movie, but honestly, I'll take Richard Elfman's delightfully demented 1979 fantasia over Dr. Frank N. Furter any day of the week. This black-and-white oddity was spun off from Elfman's prior stage show The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, which eventually morphed into the rock band Oingo Boingo. Long story short, the Hercules family discovers a door in their home that leads to the Sixth Dimension. When daughter Frenchy enters it, she discovers a midget king (Herve Villechaize), a ruthless queen (Susan Tyrell), a gigantic frog, and even Satan (Danny Elfman) himself. Forbidden Zone mixes live action filmed on intentionally cheap sets with animation and some really great Oingo Boingo-esque music. Everything that happens is hallucinogenic and it's virtually impossible to look away. You never know what you're going to see from second to second. The movie is also available on DVD in a color version, but stick with the black-and-white; it adds one more off-kilter vibe to a picture that's already overflowing with them.
House of 1000 Corpses - A true throwback to the grindhouse films of the 70's, Rob Zombie's horror opus is probably the most well-known title on this list. However, that doesn't make it any less freaky. Using the old trope about a group of lost travelers (including a pre-"Office" Rainn Wilson) stumbling upon a house of horrors, the director fashions a movie that at once pays tribute to schlock of days gone by while still managing to take the genre to the next level. This is the kind of exploitation fare that makes you feel all grungy while you watch it, which is precisely the point. Zombie employs grainy photography, archival peep show footage (as punctuation), and buckets of blood. That said, he also shows an artistic side, through his use of clever camera angles and ironic placement of music. The standout performance comes from Sid Haig, who plays a murderous clown/museum proprietor known as Captain Spaulding. He's hilariously funny without ever sacrificing the character's sense of danger. House of 1000 Corpses is one of the most brutally violent movies I've ever seen. I still remember sitting in the theater watching it on opening weekend. Wanting to assess the audience's reaction to something so grotesque, I turned around in my seat during the horrific finale, which involves the basement laboratory of a guy known as Dr. Satan. Everyone else in the theater looked catatonic. In some cases, people literally had their hands frozen over their bags of popcorn, unable to move. Now that's a freak show for you!
Plaster Caster - This one's a documentary, which only makes its prurient value that much greater. Director Jessica Villines takes as her subject a woman known professionally as Cynthia Plaster Caster. An infamous rock-and-roll groupie, she has devoted her life to making plaster casts of rock stars' penises. Among her "subjects" is Jimi Hendrix, and yes, we see her work in all its glory. (Or lack thereof. Hendrix…um…"lost it" mid-cast.) Now, in fairness, Plaster Caster is in no way an exploitation piece; it is a serious, well-made documentary that challenges you to redefine your definition of "art." Having said that, it's also a movie about a woman who makes plaster casts of rockers' junk. Not necessarily one for everybody, and therein lies half the fun. You can watch the doc for its intellectual value or for its shock value. Both are intentionally part of the package.
This last freak film must be accompanied by a story. I saw Plaster Caster at the 2001 Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore. The showing went beyond Standing Room Only. The theater was so jammed with people wanting to see the film that they were standing against the walls and sitting on the floor. I'm astounded that the fire department didn't declare the screening a safety hazard and shut it down. As it happened, Cynthia Plaster Caster was in attendance to present the film, and she ended up sitting in the seat directly in front of me. About 2/3 of the way through the documentary, we see her in action as she "casts" a punk rocker. That was one of the most surreal moments of my life. Sitting two inches in front of me was the woman who, just a few feet away on the screen, was simultaneously "plating" a guy to keep him erect while making a cast of his genitals. After the screening, I approached Cynthia to tell her how much I liked the film. And guess what? She wasn't weird at all. She seemed like a very nice, intelligent, charming woman - albeit one with a rather curious hobby.
If you're interested in freak films, these are five good ones to start with. All are available on DVD, although you might have to search to find a few of them. Got any favorite freak films of your own? E-mail me at email@example.com and we'll compare notes.