Halloween Top Five Oddest Horror FilmsA column article, Shot For Shot by: Nick Hanover
Pin, A Plastic Nightmare (1989) - Dir: Sandor Stern
Stephen King is fairly notorious for taking mundane objects and twisting them into something terrifying, whether it's a car in Christine or a St. Bernard in Cujo. It's a trademark of his that has resulted in plenty of jokes at his expense (The Simpsons, as always, did it best with an animated King trying to sell his editor on a book about a killer "lamp monster") but it's unlikely that King would ever stoop so low as to try to make an inanimate anatomical doll scary. But that's exactly what Sandor Stern attempted with the cult classic Pin, A Plastic Nightmare.
Adapted from a novel by Andrew Neiderman (perhaps better known as V.C. Andrews and as the author of The Devil's Advocate), Pin starts off as an incredibly odd family drama, focusing on the Lindens, whose patriarch Dr. Frank Linden (Terry O'Quinn, pre-Lost, obviously) teaches his children important life lessons with a combination of ventriloquism and a freakish medical doll they've lovingly nicknamed Pin. As in Pinocchio. Frank's kids Leon (David Hewlett, who would later star in that other weird Canadian horror film Cube) and Ursula (Cynthia Preston) are unsurprisingly not the most well-balanced of kids, what with the lessons via a medical doll and the added bonus of having a germophobic, unhinged mother. Leon in particular gets the short end of the mental well-being stick and has a disturbingly protective relationship with his sister, which seems to materialize after he witnesses a nurse raping Pin. Yes, that is an actual plot development in this film and it happens very early on.
But things get really insane after Ursula winds up pregnant and her own father performs her abortion, which, it must be noted, is an idea Pin had. You see, even though Ursula has figured out that Pin is as real as Santa Claus, Leon-- who is a grown ass man at this point in time-- still believes Pin is a real talking anatomical doll and he begins to spend an even crazier than normal amount of time with the doll, seeking its advice on matters big and small. Eventually Dr. Linden discovers Leon's extracurricular activities and he takes Pin away from Leon one evening, shoving the doll in the back of the family car as he speeds off to deliver a speech with the Mrs. Shit happens, the car crashes, Pin is indirectly involved. And Leon, being the creepster that he is, runs to the crash site and recovers Pin, who he immediately sets about treating like a long lost brother, complete with a makeover sequence. I wish I was joking.
These events make up only the very beginning of the film and what follows is an at turns hilarious, sad, and pathetic examination of one young man's mental instability. Stern attempts to get mileage out of the inherent creepiness of anatomical dolls and to expand on this effect Pin's speaking voice is almost supernaturally thin and reedy, which makes it difficult to believe Jonathan Banks, who would later become Mike on Breaking Bad, provided the voice. Hell, even Banks isn't sure he actually did the voice. Pin isn't your typical horror film in any way, shape, or form, so it forgoes surprises and twists in favor of just trying to make you feel dirty and guilty by association. Its subject matter and execution guarantee it a slot on any respectable list of the weirdest horror films of all-time, but I can tell you from experience that its true calling is on a list of Perfect Films to Play at Parties for Unsuspecting Friends.
Grace (2009) - Dir: Paul Solet
Pregnancy and childbirth are a natural fit for the horror genre, with their shared blood and gore and screaming, plus that parasitic perspective that is so easily attached to unborn children. But few horror films really and truly make unborn children or infants the actual villains of a story, instead usually focusing on sinister forces associated with pregnancy, a la Rosemary's Baby or in the case of the Alien series, horrific unnatural forces that work in ways that recall aspects of pregnancy. Paul Solet's Grace has no such qualms making a fetus its villain and as a result it stands out as a truly bizarre, unique work.
Grace starts out in a fairly typical fashion, detailing the strained relationship between Michael (Stephen Park) and Madeleine (Jordan Ladd), a married couple attempting to conceive. We get the sense that things aren't going well for the couple and when their attempts to conceive are finally successful, it's not treated as a cause for celebration so much as the start of even more trouble. At the heart of the problem is the icy conflict between Madeleine and Michael's mother Vivian (Gabrielle Rose), who can't help using her child raising expertise to lord over Madeleine, throwing everything from her vegan diet to her preference for more natural delivery methods in a condescending light.
But things really and truly fall apart after a car accident leaves Michael and Madeleine's unborn baby dead. Madeleine, understandably traumatized, refuses to have the fetus surgically removed and becomes determined to carry it to term. Somehow when she gives birth, the baby has rejoined the world of the living, leading Madeleine to tellingly name the baby Grace. Grace, of course, isn't a normal baby and the rest of the film details the weirder traits Grace exhibits, like an unhealthy scent and a desire to feast on un-baby like food. You know, like human blood.
What makes Grace really stand out, though, is that it is played entirely straight. This is not a campy horror film, nor is it cerebral and trippy like the iconic body horror works of David Cronenberg. Grace is instead as dramatic and serious as Rosemary's Baby, but with less vagueness and a commitment to the horror of its scenario that even that film didn't display.
The Basket Case Series (I: 1982, II: 1990, III: 1991) - Dir: Frank Henenlotter
Many horror series start out semi-respectable and then gain sequels that only further dilute the original, stacking on gimmicky storylines (Leprechaun in the Hood springs to mind) and inadvertently ramping up the camp aspects. But what of horror series that start off completely fucked up and somehow manage to evolve past that point to reach some kind of nirvana of weirdness and insanity?
Such is the case with Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case series, which begins as a disturbing if somewhat normal-for-horror film about conjoined twins seeking revenge against the doctors who separated them against their will. The basic idea of Basket Case may have come from a story in an issue of EC's Shock SuspenStories from 1954, titled "My Brother's Keeper," which was scripted by Carl Wessler and focused on separation anxiety between a pair of conjoined twins. But in Henenlotter's Basket Case, the separation is already a done deal and what's left is a need to enact vengeance on those who caused it, which thus provides plenty of opportunity for the Bradley twins (Duane, the "normal" brother, is played by Kevin Van Hentenryck while the "basket case" brother is mostly a puppet) to get their gory rocks off. Basket Case's key "twist," though, is that Duane carries his brother around in a wicker picnic basket, thus necessitating a lot of "What's in the basket?" dialogue. It's a fun film, with a lot of campy dialogue and gruesome kills, but the series really found its footing-- and its true oddness-- with the second and third installments.
The second film finds the Bradley brothers joining a freakish enclave run by their Aunt, who calls herself Granny Ruth (Annie Ross). This time around, the villains aren't surgeons but reporters eager to turn the Bradleys into their big break. Where the original Basket Case played up the otherness of Duane's brother, the sequel turns the tables and casts Duane as the outcast, with Granny Ruth's wayward home for weirdoes offering plenty of opportunity for Henenlotter to unveil even crazier effects and characters. It's the rare sequel that not only expands on the original in a fresh and innovative way, but actually improves on it, finding an altogether different perspective and more rewarding themes in its exploration of otherness. Of course, it's full of plenty of gore. [Editor's note: And features disturbing monster sex!]
But as far as weirdness goes, the final installment of the series takes the crown. A sort of road movie featuring the ever expanding cast of oddities that the twins have befriended, Basket Case 3 is also a story about the meaning of family and the sacrifices we make in the name of blood relations. In the case of this story, however, that family is starting not with the "normal" brother Duane, but with Belial, the basket dwelling twin, who is now set to be a father. From a technical standpoint, the third installment is probably the weakest in terms of story and character development, but it's also the most gonzo and the most accomplished in regards to effects. It's also the film where it becomes completely clear that Henenlotter and company have stopped taking the horror element seriously and have instead entirely embraced the freak element. Trust me when I say it's unlike anything you've ever seen before, and proof that "family films" don't have to be cuddly or generic.
The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) - Dir: Takashi Miike
Speaking of family, not all clans are as successful at achieving their dreams as the Bradleys. Quite a few families are instead made up of several generations of failures, as Takashi Miike is all too happy to show in his bizarre horror-comedy-musical masterpiece The Happiness of the Katakuris.
Miike is of course no stranger to weirdness, as he's the Japanese auteur responsible for the likes of Visitor Q and Ichi the Killer as well as the horror classic Audition and recent samurai classics 13 Assassins and Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai. But even in his canon, The Happiness of the Katakuris stands out as a truly unique and perplexing film, merging more typical horror elements with full on musical numbers and mesmerizingly odd claymation sequences. The story centers around the Katakuris attempt to run a bed and breakfast that they've acquired, which is situated near a busy road that they've been told will soon be running right through their property and hopefully bringing nonstop business with it. But at the moment, they've yet to encounter a single customer, until a disturbingly nude and mute quasi-celebrity stops in and kills himself in the night.
Soon, the Katakuris find that their guests have a bad habit of dying, leaving the family to clean up and attempt to hide any evidence of what's really going on. The film is full of Miike's excitable style, as human actors move and behave like cartoon characters and the plethora of violence is imbued with a kind of giddy kinetic energy. But the musical aspect takes the film in a completely unique direction, as the Katakuri clan attempts to solve their problems and figure out what's going on through the power of song and dance. The film's only real peers are works like Cannibal: The Musical and in an indirect way Sweeney Todd, but neither of those films embrace their horror elements as well as Katakuris does, nor do they feature the same level of artistry that Miike is somehow able to fill even his weirdest projects with. It may not be The Sound of Music, but The Happiness of the Katakuris is quite possibly the most unforgettable musical you'll ever encounter.
Sleepaway Camp (1983) - Dir: Robert Hiltzik
Slasher films, particularly those set in camps where teens ran amok and indulged in their most sinful desires, were rampant in the '80s. The success of franchises like Friday the 13th made filmmakers and producers eager to cash in on the latest horror craze, leading to some truly terrible and generic attempts at making that mad Jason money. But trends also have a tendency to spawn original ideas, whether by accident or design, and when it comes to originality in the slasher genre, Robert Hiltzik's Sleepaway Camp can't help but standout.
Sleepaway Camp's dedication to weirdness begins immediately, as we're witness to a traumatizing family lake excursion that results in the orphanhood of Angela (Felissa Rose), who wounds up taken in by her aunt, Dr. Martha Thomas (Desiree Gould) and her son Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). I've seen Sleepaway Camp innumerable times and I have yet to figure out just what the fuck the deal is with Dr. Martha, who looks and acts like a less stable version of Cillian Murphy's Kitty character from Breakfast on Pluto and may or may not be breaking the fourth wall for the entirety of her appearance. But like an odder, horror version of The Room, Dr. Martha is but one of many elements that is introduced and never spoken of again. All that matters is that Dr. Martha has forged some physicals so that Ricky and Angela can attend summer sleepaway camp and thus set the plot into motion.
The two are sent to Camp Arawak, which I believe with absolute certainty inspired the entire look for Wet Hot American Summer, all too-tight shorts and belly shirts on the guys, the girls clad in a dazzling array of poor fashion choices, the counselors well-beyond a respectable camp age. And on top of that, Arawak is predominantly staffed by pedophiles. So it should come as no surprise that grisly "accidents" immediately take place at the camp, from cooks falling into gigantic and impractical pots of boiling water, to teenage boys dying at the hands of carnivorous bees, to unspeakable acts with curling irons. Suffice it to say that Arawak's Yelp rating would be pretty abysmal.
Of course, that's all fairly standard camp slasher territory, but what differentiates Sleepaway Camp is its tendency to flashback to perplexing voyeuristic scenes of homosexual love affairs, the aforementioned rampant pedophilia, and what is without hyperbole the single craziest ending in the history of slasher flicks. To spoil it would be a gross injustice, you simply owe it to yourself to seek out the movie and witness for yourself the greatest mindfuck of '80s cinema.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic who has contributed to Spectrum Culture, No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on twitter@Nick_Hanover