Film Review: Something Weird (dir. by Herschell Gordon Lewis)


Now that I’ve finished reviewing the Friday the 13th series, I can finally take the time to make a few comments about a film that I’ve been meaning to review for a while here on the Shattered Lens: Herschell Gordon Lewis’s 1967 film Something Weird.

How to describe Something Weird?  Well, I could tell you that it was one of the first films to realize that ESP, witchcraft, and LSD made for a potent combination.  I could also point out that everyone’s favorite company — Something Weird Video — took their name from this film.  However, I think the best (and maybe only) way to tell you about this film is to simply tell you what happens.

The film starts out brilliantly with ten minutes of vaguely connected and disjointed images.  We start out with a close-up of a pair of legs that apparently belong to someone being chased down a city street.

Cut To: 

Two guys practicing karate.  One of them we will never see again.  The other one is a doughy-faced guy named Alex Jordan (William Brooker).  The one we will never see again explains to Alex that he’s not actually that talented when it comes to the martial arts.  Alex looks annoyed.

Cut to:

Alex is fooling around with a blonde that we’ll never see again and who will never be mentioned again for the rest of the film.  “You’re electrifying,” she tells him.

Cut to:

Some random guy is electrocuted by a downed power line.  Cronin “Mitch” Mitchell (Tony McCabe) runs over to help him and gets hit in the face by the same power line.  He falls to the ground while a group of random people wander over.  “Has anybody called an ambulance yet?” someone calmly asks.

Suddenly, there’s a man in a suit kneeling down by the two bodies and apparently, he’s some sort of medicine man because, while looking at the first man, he says, “I’ll have to call the coroner on this man.”  

However, Mitch is still alive so he’s put into the back of a station wagon and driven to the local hospital.  As we watch Mitch being pulled out of the back of the car, the camera pans up to the cloudy sky and suddenly, a narrator comes out of nowhere and starts rambling about “the sixth sense, ESP!”  The narrator is also nice enough to let us know that Alex — the guy from the Karate lesson — is apparently a government scientist who is in charge of figuring out how to use ESP against America’s enemies.

This all happens in the first 10 minutes of the film and, unfortunately, the remaining 70 minutes of the film struggles to live up to the surrealistic brilliance of this little montage.

Anyway, Mitch is alive but now he’s got both a scar on his face and the ability to see the future.  As one of his doctor’s puts it, “He’s a different man since the accident … cynical.  Maybe even morbid!”  Once he’s released from the hospital, Mitch takes to wearing a black bandana over the lower half of his face and becomes a professional psychic.

 

He finds a little success but, as we’ve been told, he’s now “cynical…maybe ever morbid!”  However, things change for Mitch when he’s approached by a grotesquely ugly woman with a blue face and a cackling laugh.  She explains that she’s a witch and she’s willing to restore his face but only if he takes her as his lover.  Mitch reluctantly does this and his scars suddenly vanish.

Soon, Mitch is a celebrity, appearing on television.  Everywhere he goes, the witch is on his arm.  The rest of the world sees her as a beautiful woman named Ellen Parker (Elizabeth Lee) but whenever Mitch looks at her, he sees her in her true blue-faced form. 

Meanwhile, there’s a serial killer preying on the woman of Jefferson, Wisconsin and the chief of police (played by Lawrence Wood, the man who gave the infamous “fire sale” monologue in Lewis’s Scum of the Earth) invites Mitch and Ellen to come help with the investigation.  The government meanwhile sends Alex (remember him?) to the town to investigate Mitch and perhaps recruit Mitch into the service of his country.

Alex is, at first, skeptical of Mitch but then he sees Mitch exorcising a disgruntled spirit from a local church and he starts to think that Mitch might have some psychic abilities after all.  Mitch might just need a little help and Alex is there to provide it.

Meeting with Mitch in the police chief’s office (and with the entire police force looking on), Alex produces two white pills from his pocket and says, “I have a drug here — LSD.  Ever hear of it?”  Alex proceeds to echo many real-life MK-Ultra conspiracy theories as he explains that LSD will increase Mitch’s psychic abilities to the extent that he’ll be able to catch the killer.   Mitch replies, “I’ve never taken the drug before but I’ll be glad to, doctor.”

Well, needless to say, the LSD produces the typical cinematic red-tinged, desert-themed trip but it still ends with Mitch figuring out who the killer is. It also allows Mitch to understand that the killer is sane “98% of the time.”  However, there’s a problem because now that killer is out to kill Mitch and Alex has fallen in love with Ellen, the blue-faced witch…

To be honest, Something Weird is not one of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s best films.  Even by typical Lewis standards, the plot doesn’t make much sense and the acting is incredibly bad.  Whereas other Lewis films (like Blood Feast) featured performances that were deliberately over the top, the cast of Something Weird comes across as if they were as confused while making Something Weird as the audience would later be while watching it.  (However, it should be noted that Elizabeth Lee at least seems to be having fun in the role of the constantly cackling witch.) 

However, I still love Something Weird because, unlike so many other movies, it actually lives up to its name.  This is a movie that promises to be weird and that’s exactly what it is.  There’s just so much to love in this film.  Check out the way that Mitch’s “facial scars” never look the same from scene-to-scene.  (At one point, the scars cover his entire face but, in the next scene, they can be easily hidden by a bandana.)  Watch in amazement as the same set is used and re-used for almost every scene in the movie, with just the furniture occasionally being rearranged depending on whether the scene is supposed to take place in an office or a hotel room. 

Ultimately, my love for this film comes down to the little details.    I love how the ambulance at the start of the film is just an old school station wagon (complete with wood paneling) with a siren on top of it.  Even better is how the police captain’s office is decorated with a faded pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that literally appear to have been ripped out of an old history textbook.

In the greatest tradition of the grindhouse, there is no other movie like Something Weird and, for that reason alone, it’s worth watching.

A Roughie With Lisa Marie: Scum of the Earth (dir. by Herschell Gordon Lewis)


If there’s any exploitation director that deserves a critical re-evaluation, it’s Herschell Gordon Lewis.  Over the course of two decades, Lewis dabbled in every genre of low-budget filmmaking and even invented one with his 1963 “gore” film Blood Feast.  Many film critics tends to dismiss Lewis as being one of the worst directors of all time.  I would argue that, far from being the worst, Lewis was a unique filmmaker who, working with low budgets and mainstream support, always managed to create movies that had their own unique cinematic aesthetic.  Much like the great French director Jean Rollin, Lewis made dream-like films that — though initially dismissed for their lack of slick production values — have managed to survive the test of time and remain as interesting and oddly watchable now as the day they were first released.  That certainly not the accomplishment of “the worst director of all time.”

(Add to that, the worst director of all time is Garry Marshall.  Seriously, New Year’s Eve will be forever tainted, thanks to Mr. Marshall.)

Though Lewis is best known for his “gore” films like Blood Feast and the Gruesome Twosome, he dabbled in just about every genre of film.  Last night, I watched one of his non-gore films,  Scum of the Earth.  Filmed in 6 days in 1963, Scum of the Earth was released at the same time as Lewis’s better-known Blood Feast.

“Only an alert society can protect itself from those who prey on the weak — the scum of the earth.” — Closing Narration of Scum of the Earth.

Like many of the classic grindhouse film, Scum of the Earth presents itself as a warning to mainstream society about the evil lurking just underneath the facade of normalcy.  In this case, that evil is the “dirty picture” underground and the film starts with a montage of various “teenagers” selling pictures of a topless woman.  I like to think that, with this little pre-credits sequence, Herschell Gordon Lewis establishes that Scum of the Earth is nothing less than a black-and-white, low-budget version of The Wire.

Much like The Wire and Traffic, Scum of the Earth goes from showing us how the product is distributed to showing us how and why the product comes into being in the first place.  Mr. Lang (Lawrence Wood) is a cheerful man who spends his time sitting in a small office and sending out his henchmen, evil Larry (Mal Arnold) and the moronic Ajax (Craig Maudsplay), to distribute explicit photos of the innocent victims that he lures into his sordid web. (Indeed, they are truly the scum of the earth…)  The pictures are taken by disillusioned artist Harmon (Thomas Kerwin) and most of them feature Sandy (played by Sandy Sinclair).  It’s quickly revealed that both Sandy and Harmon hate what they’ve become but they’re both being blackmailed by the jovial Mr. Lang.

However, Sandy’s pictures are no longer selling as well so Lang offers her a proposition.  Sandy can retire from the business if she recruits a replacement.  For the rest of the 72-minute film, we watch as Sandy and Harmon recruit innocent Kim (played all wide-eyed and breathless by Vicki Miles) who desperately needs 500 dollars to be able to pay her college tuition.  Oddly enough, that’s the same way I paid my college tuition which, incidentally, was a lot more than 500 dollars.

Anyway, Kim soon finds herself in over head because 1) she’s incredibly stupid and 2) she’s dealing with the scum of the earth.  If Kim stop posing for topless pictures, she knows that copies will be sent to her kindly but slow-witted father.  (“You’re the best father I ever had!” Kim tells her dad at one point.)  Even worse, Ajax and Larry want to take some pictures of their own with her.  Whatever is a girl to do!?

 As a director Herschell Gordon Lewis has always struck me as being a bit of American Jess Franco.  Much like Franco, he made film that can charitably be called terrible.  Between performances that ranged from histrionic to living dead and a filming technique that seemed to mostly consist of little more than turning on the camera, it’s easy to dismiss Lewis and his films.  It’s only on repeat viewings — after you’ve gotten a previous taste of the Lewis aesthetic — that you start to notice that quirky details and the occasionally inspired visuals that give evidence to the fact that Lewis does not deserve his reputation for being one of the worst directors of all time.  Even in an admittedly lesser work like Scum of the Earth, there’s enough intentional strangeness to hold your interest.  To cite one example, the villainous Mr. Lang appears to love toys and he gives quite a few of his evil speeches while looking down at two nodding bobble heads.  As static as the majority of the film is, the final chase (in which two police officers pursue the portly Mr. Lang through a rather slummy strip mall) is a lot of fun to watch.  The best visual in the film comes when Kim is posing topless for the first time and Lewis gives us a shot, from her point of view, of the oppressively bright lamps shining down on her and casting the rest of the studio into total darkness.  It’s a scene that is full of genuine menace.

The cast is full of actors who will be recognizable to anyone who has seen any of Lewis’s other films.  Out of the cast, William Kerwin comes the closest to giving an actual performance, bringing a real sense of sadness and regret to the role of Harmon the Photographer.   Kerwin also appeared in Blood Feast, playing the dedicated cop who pursues the evil Faud Ramses who was played by yet another Scum of the Earth alum, Mal Arnold. 

In Scum, Arnold plays Lang’s henchman, Larry.  In 1963, Arnold was 30 years old and he looked like he was 40.  However, he was cast here as a character who tells everyone that he meets that he’s under 17 and therefore, he doesn’t have to worry about going to prison for distributing dirty pictures.  Or, as Arnold puts it, “Not me, Daddy-O!  I’m a minor!”  What makes this especially amusing is that in Blood Feast (which was, again, released that same year), Arnold is playing a character who is 5,000 years old.  What also makes Arnold’s performance as Larry enjoyable to those of us who are familiar with Lewis’s cinematic career is that Arnold essentially gives the same over-the-top performance here that he would later give in Blood FeastI kept expecting him to ask Kim if she wanted an Egyptian feast.

However, the film truly belongs to Lawrence Wood, who plays Mr. Lang with such an insane joy that it’s impossible not to root for the sleazy old pornographer.  Whether he’s giggling as a toy monkey somersaults across his desk or he’s politely explaining why nothing is actually his fault, Wood appears to be having such a good time that it’s just infectious.  Wood’s best moment comes when Kim expresses some reluctance about modeling for more pictures and suddenly, Mr. Lang starts to shout at her about how she (and all the other kids) are hypocrites.  “You’re damaged merchandise and this is a fire sale!” he shouts as sweat streams down his face and Lewis zooms in for a close up of his mouth, “You’ll do what I tell ya!” Wood screams, “Do you hear!?”  It’s a scene of lunatic genius that, in the best tradition of both Herschell Gordon Lewis and the grindhouse in general, comes out of nowhere and is all the more effective because of it. 

For this scene alone, Scum of the Earth deserves to be seen.