Is it a horror film? Many of Ken Russell’s films could be argued as such, but there’s enough in Altered States that makes it less horror and more science fiction/psychological thriller. Based on the novel by Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States introduced the world to William Hurt (and also featured the film debut of Drew Barrymore). Edward Jessup (Hurt) is studying schizophrenia, but branches out into sensory deprivation experimentation with a floating tank. Eventually, he travels to Mexico to visit a tribe that provides him with an extract which he begins to take before his trips into the flotation tank, resulting in bizarre imagery and eventual physical devolution, once to a primitive man and to a near primordial blob. Side effects start to occur, causing Edward to suffer from episodes of partial regression even without the hallucinogenic drug. Russell’s direction shifts the source material’s content into something wildly uneven and almost fantastical, resulting in Chayefsky’s withdrawal from the project, though Russell claims he changed nothing from the script. Chayefsky seemed to feel the film was too rushed and intense, while his work was meant to be a deep study on the origins of man and where we sit in the world. It was his first screenplay since winning the Oscar for Network, but what resulted was something he couldn’t lend his name to. That being said, Russell’s film is audacious and certainly not a typical studio film, blowing the audience away with imagery and action that is sometimes difficult to grasp. It’s funny, it’s thoughtful, and aggressively wacky.
The cinematic history of first feature films is rich and inventive, not many of which could match the visionary debut of Darren Aronofsky with 1998’s Pi. Filmed in stark black and white, Pi is the beginning of Aronofsky’s obsession with obsession – the story of a man named Max (Sean Gullette) who is number obsessed, believing that the world and the whole of existence can be explained by numbers. But, his gift of mathematical understanding comes packaged with paranoia, social anxiety, and cluster headaches, forcing him to limit his contact with anyone other than his old math mentor Sol (Mark Margolis). When one of his stock market predictions causes his computer to crash, it spits out a 216 digit number he, at first, believes to be meaningless, until speaking with Sol, who claims to have seen the number years earlier. Max meets some stockbrokers who want to work with him, which leads to Max’s computer crashing again while spitting out the same number. Max begins to see the pattern and a tug-of-war begins – the brokers want him to give them the number; some Hasidic Jews who are studying the mathematical essence of the Torah want the number, also. Max’s narration of the story adds another layer of confusion, as we are never sure what may be in his mind versus what is happening in the real world (think a more inventive, yet rigid version of A Beautiful Mind without the trite love story). While Aronofsky’s films have gotten more and more digestible since his debut, you can still see touches of his need to explore the human psyche and the negative effects of obsession. Max may very well be the most intelligent man in the world, but at what price? If the only way to hold that intelligence is to also suffer from bouts of confusion, headaches, and paranoia, is it all worth it? The camera doesn’t allow viewers to relax, pitting the high contrast black and white against uneasy camera movement. Unlike Aronofsky’s other films, Pi has a surprising end that, while still dark, doesn’t necessarily appear as hopeless. Depends on how you look at it.
Winner of the Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design Oscars, Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 is the quintessential movie about “director’s block,” centering on Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), an Italian director who cannot bring himself to complete a new science fiction film he’s working on. He isn’t dedicated to the project anymore, partly because he is artistically frustrated and partly because he is having issues with his wife, caused mostly by his infidelity. This internal struggle leads to multiple flashbacks and fantasies, all interwoven within the fabric of the real story – Guido’s insatiable need to be fulfilled at every corner, while simultaneously hating himself for it and everything. In the end, we’re never entirely sure what is real and what isn’t, what is present and what has long since passed. Filmed in black and white and with a title that describes the amount of film work Fellini had done up to that point (six features, two shorts, and a collaboration with Alberto Lattuda, which counts as the 1/2), 8 1/2 is a deliberately unfocused masterpiece that serves as one of the best veiled autobiographical films of all time. Originally, the film was to end on a down note – a train ride with Guido and his wife that insinuates a suicide. Instead, he decided to go with a celebration on the beach: a loud, exciting finale to a film that felt like it needed a pick me up. It’s a comedy, it’s a drama. It’s simplistic, but altogether mind-boggling. It’s Fellini’s avant garde expression of creative anguish, resulting in quite possibly his most inventive work.
Most of David Lynch’s filmography would qualify for this list, although some lean a little harder into horror than the others. Mulholland Dr. could be classified as such, but is more a psychological thriller/neo-noir than anything. Originally, Lynch had planned this as his return to television, purposefully leaving it open-ended. When executives rejected it, he added an ending and it became what is now considered one of his greatest works. Doesn’t make it any easier to follow. Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) is moving to Los Angeles to try her hand at a career in the movies. She arrives at her aunt’s house to find a woman with amnesia (Laura Harring), whom Betty assumes was invited there by her aunt. She doesn’t remember her name, eventually adopting the name “Rita.” When it is revealed she has no memory of anything, Rita and Betty set out to find the truth, only to uncover mysteries that weave in and out of each other. Meanwhile, a director named Adam (Justin Theroux) is having his film hijacked by the mob, forcing him to cast people and beating his wife (Lori Heuring) and their pool cleaner (Billy Ray Cyrus!), whom she was sleeping with. Betty eventually auditions for Adam’s film and the two immediately connect, but the role is still given to someone else. Pieces start to fall into place when they find a waitress names Diane Selwyn dead in her apartment. Dreams are had, narrative structure gets hazy, and people are not who you think they are. But through all of this, Lynch’s prowess may have never been stronger. Despite the seeming disorganization of the plotlines, the performances and the way Lynch’s camera moves is incredibly alluring. As always, his use of diegetic music (specifically in the Club Silencio scene) is exceptional. Blue Velvet may still be Lynch’s best film. The second entry of his on the list below may be his most memorably bizarre. But Mullholland Dr. showed Lynch had a panache that he had never shown before – an unrelenting grasp on the mysteries of Hollywood and the allure of the lights.
It’s not freaky. It’s not unsettling. It’s not even really confusing. All that being said, none of it really makes sense. In an enormous chateau, a man informs a woman that he thinks they met a year before in Marienbad and assumes she’s waiting for him. She disagrees, claiming they’ve never met. Another man who may be her husband makes that man look stupid over and over playing a weird math game. The people are never named. We jump backwards and forwards in time and scenes appear to repeat themselves. Voiceovers pop in from time to time, but have no definitive connection to the “action.” Screenwriter Alain Robbie-Grillet wrote an incredibly detailed screenplay, describing decor, camera movements, and the sequence of shots. He wasn’t present during filming, but upon watching the finished product, was stunned at how perfectly Resnais followed the script. Everything was exactly has he had pictured it. The cinematography is epic. The tracking shots are magnificent. And while there’s no realy clarification about whether anybody knows each other or what the purpose of this gathering is, Last Year at Marienbad’s atmosphere and pacing is so beautifully wrought that none of it matters. Of all the films on this list, this is really the one that feels like the mysterious masterpiece; a film more feeling than knowing, less story and more smoke and mirrors. Resnais has others in his filmography that drip with mystery, but none are so beautifully dedicated to the fog of unknowing than Marienbad. While Lynch’s films provide visual nightmares, Resnais’ film is a weightless dream.
In the last post in this bigger list, I touched on The Exterminating Angel, Buñuel’s surreal comedy about a group of uptight snobs who can’t leave a dinner party. While that film was still baffling, its story could at least be generally followed. Bunuel’s partner film to that was The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a flip to that story as a group of upper-middle class French people keep trying to meet for dinner. And that’s essentially it. It begins with the group meeting at the Sénéchals’ home, who thought the dinner was for the following evening and have nothing prepared. So, they all decide to go to a local inn for dinner, only to find it locked. When they finally get in, they find an unwieldy staff and experience, as the manager has just died. They rush out. Two days later, they try again, only to have it quickly interrupted when two guests leave to have sex in the garden, resulting in another guest fearing this was a sign the police were coming (he is involved in illegal drug trafficking). Then, soldiers enter the picture, as the women meet a man when out for tea (at a place that has no beverages), a little bit of death, and strange shifts in narrative. But, all the while, the group continuously tries to stay polite – because that’s what you do when you are invited for dinner. Dream sequences begin to enter the story; at one point, one character’s dream appears to be happening within another person’s dream. All the while, Buñuel’s story is dreadfully antagonistic – all these people want to do is have dinner together, but Buñuel comes up with more and more insane ways to prevent that from happening as the film continues. The performances are wonderfully restrained, yet exuberant – the cast includes Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, and Jean-Pierre Cassel among others, who all exhibit a level of frustration that is all too familiar, yet entirely foreign, given the circumstances. The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as grabbing a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, so in some way, shape, or form, Hollywood finally took note of Buñuel’s brilliance.
Another master of the surreal reappears on the list with his most talked about film, if only for its confusing nature. El Topo (English translation: “The Mole”) is split into two parts, following the title character (played by Jodorowsky) through a desert. Part one is kind of a Western, with El Topo riding on a horse with his naked son. When they find a town whose people have been killed, El Topo hunts down the people responsible, kills them, and abandons his son to ride off with and marry a slave woman he names Mara (Maria Lorenzio), who convinces him to enter a gunfighting contest. Each of the men El Topo duels bestows upon him a different philosophy of living before El Topo kills him, mostly through luck. Racked with guilt, El Topo finds himself betrayed and shot, as Mara rides off with an unnamed woman and he is taken away by a group of dwarfs and mutants. Part two sees El Topo awakening years later, only to see the group that carried him off is treating him like a Christ figure, but they are all trapped in a cave they can’t escape, due to their deformities. El Topo decides to help them escape by taking a dwarf girl as his lover and performing for a nearby cult to earn money for dynamite. A monk (Robert John) arrives, disgusted by the town’s cult practices, but learns that El Topo is his father, who had left him years before. He wants to kill him, but agrees to wait and help El Topo free his people. Lots of death and an unsettling amount of bees litter the film, which functions as half surreal Western and half redemption story with Biblical implications. Jodorowsky’s penchant for graphic imagery is on display in full force; we are treated to plenty of innards being spilled. Peter Gabriel claims it was the inspiration for the Genesis concept album “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” Gore Verbinski credits it as inspiration for his animated film Rango. It was distributed with the help of the manager of The Beatles, Allen Klein. It’s divisive, to say the least, as many of the films on this list are. To some, it’s a ludicrous mash-up of death and blasphemy. To others, it’s a masterpiece of surrealism that stands alongside the best of Fellini and Buñuel.
If I had decided to include short films (which I define as less than 60 minutes) in this list, it would be unprecedented for me not to discuss Un Chien Andalou, the collaboration between Buñuel and Salvador Dali that includes a woman’s eye being sliced with a razor blade and dead donkeys lying in grand pianos. But, for the purpose of this list, I stuck with the feature films, leading us to Buñuel’s and Dali’s full length collaboration (and extension of Un Chien Andalou) L’Age D’Or, which translates to “The Golden Age.” Before I get into the synopsis, remember – this was 1930. The film is simply a collection of colorful vignettes, each thematically connected to the others. Basically, a couple tries over and over again to express their romantic and sexual feelings for one another, but are repeatedly prevented by the various stigmas of the day: family values, the church, and societal cues. The man (Gaston Modot) has an incredibly strange obsession with throwing off social norms, leading to fantasies involving a woman rubbing herself and sucking on the toes of religious statues, only to lead to him making out with his own daughter. He retreats to her bedroom and throws a bunch of her stuff out the window, including a plow, a giraffe statue, a burning tree, and feathers. The final story is a take on the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, involving a castle-wide orgy where each surviving member has planned to reenter society as a normal person. The only one to emerge is the Duc de Blangis, a character in the novel who greatly resembles Jesus Christ. And it all ends with a crucifix adorned with women’s scalps blowing in the wind (as films often do). L’Age D’Or clocks in at a mere 63 minutes, but is so littered with strange imagery that it feels like an extended dream sequence (which much of it is). Buñuel would move on to continuously question and attack the ruling class of his time – the bourgeoisie, the Catholic church, the class system – in favor of satirical rhetoric and visceral visuals. He’s made much better films. His writing and directing greatly improved. But long before Buñuel was locking rich folks in a room or never letting them meet for dinner, he was still collaborating with the equally twisted mind of Salvador Dali and producing cutting edge insanity like this which, while appearing dated today, was well ahead of its time.
It’s like a student art film made by an acid-dropper with a fetish for lizards. Funded by the American Film Institute, actor Jack Fisk and his wife Sissy Spacek, Eraserhead is David Lynch’s debut feature film, a nightmarish allegory on the equally incredible, but demoralizing realities of sex, parenthood, and reproduction. Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) lives in a dingy, industrial city. He attends his girlfriend Mary X’s (Charlotte Stewart) house for dinner and, after a surreal experience there, is informed by her mother that X has had his baby and they must marry immediately. But the baby….that baby is less a human child and more a mutant spermatozoon dinosaur. And it won’t stop crying. To the point that X decides to run out on them both, leaving Henry in sole care of the inhuman child. Through this nightmare of an existence, Henry begins to have visions, some of which appear to encourage him to kill the child. Eventually, Henry reaches a point where he cuts the swaddling off of the baby, only to find that the cloth was holding its entire body together. Organs spill out, and Henry goes to work on them with scissors, causing a thick, oily liquid to cover the baby. And so it began – a twisted new filmmaker was released upon the world. Lynch’s subsequent work – save 1999’s The Straight Story – has all fallen onto the same side of the spectrum. They are all one part comedy, one part drama, one part horror, all parts psychologically engrossing. Lynch’s films tends to be remember as a series of graphic moments – some good, some bad. But Eraserhead was the beginning of the nightmare: a low budget experiment that was crucified upon its first release, but has since grown in stature, thanks to a clearer picture of how David Lynch the writer/director works the system. And I refuse to call it a horror film.
It’s not the most unsettling. It’s not the most difficult to follow. It’s certainly not the weirdest movie on this list. But more often than not, it’s the “go to” movie for casual fans and cinephiles alike when asking the question “WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN??” Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey is inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel;” Clarke wrote the screenplay with Kubrick and a subsequent novel with the same title as the film released just afterward. It’s broken into four acts, each introduced by a title on screen (except for the second section, which is cut to with one of the most important transitions in the film history). The Dawn of Man (Part 1) centers on a tribe of African apes who awaken one morning to find a giant monolith. Soon after, one of the apes learns how to use a bone as a tool, resulting in their attack of another tribe of apes to claim a water hole. In celebration, the ape throws the bone into the air. Match cut to TMA-1 (Part 2), where a Pan Am spaceship is heading to a space station on the way to study an artifact found that turns out to be identical to the monolith the apes found four million years before. Jupiter Mission (Part 3) takes place on Discovery One, an American spacecraft headed to Jupiter with scientists Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) on board. Aboard with them are three other scientists in cryogenic hibernation and the ship’s computer, HAL-9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). As their mission goes on, malfunctions occur, all of which HAL blames on “human error.” A struggle begins between the crew and HAL, which results in catastrophic losses, and the eventual discovery of the same monolith, this time on the Moon. Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite (Part 4) sees Bowman on another mission to research yet another monolith, only to find himself pulled into a vortex of colored lights, eventually bringing him to a white bedroom, where he sees older versions of himself, shifting between viewpoints. Eventually, he finds himself old and bedridden, with the monolith at the foot of his bed. When he reaches for it, he is transformed into a floating fetus, looking down upon the Earth. And that’s the movie. There are clear themes: humanity vs. technology, man’s struggle with the power of mechanical reasoning, the existence of God in the span of dark nothingness we see in space. The most plot heavy section – Jupiter Mission – delivers the most memorable dialog, mostly from HAL. But those images of the monolith, the match cut from bone to spaceship, the incredible use of classical music to underscore the cutting edge visuals, and that final moment above the Earth’s atmosphere are engulfing and bewildering in a way not many films can boast. Kubrick has always been a distant filmmaker – a man whose narratives tend to be lacking in heart and emotion. In his brilliant filmography, 2001 may be his most removed from true human emotion. But it also might be his best. It’s also one of the most important films of all time. That doesn’t make it easy to understand.
— Joshua Gaul