15 Weird American Movies You’ve Never Heard Of

8. Shanks (1974)


“Deliciously Grotesque” [10]. This is meant to be a grim fairy tale starring famed mime Marcel Marceau as a mute puppeteer, who learns to control dead bodies like puppets in order to fight off a biker gang. Though meant to be a horror film, it mixes various subgenres including dark comedy, slapstick, sci-fi, silent film, melodrama, and various exploitation movie styles.

This was the first time Marceau had been seen without his trademark white makeup and it was also the first time that he had spoken on camera. It was William Castle’s final directorial gig, who was previously well known for his low budget B-movie horror productions that always had some type of theatrical gimmick.

In an article by John M. Miller for TCM.com, he said that “Released by Paramount Pictures and utilizing top-tier talent like composer Alex North, cinematographer Joseph Biroc, and production designer Boris Leven, Shanks is an exceedingly strange film, a horror-fantasy punctuated by stretches of dialogue-free narrative, morbid black comedy, and occasional sentimentality” [11].


9. Darktown Strutters (1974)


“Super Sisters on Cycles” [12]. This is definitely the strangest blaxploitation film ever made and possibly the weirdest movie that I have ever seen, which is really saying something. The story involves a group female disco looking bikers, with the main one searching for her missing mother. This picture is an unusual mix of silent era and Keystone Cops slapstick, Benny Hill, Looney Tunes, the 1966 Batman television show, the Naked Gun and Airplane type humor, and disco outfits and music.

I’m truly not sure if this movie should be considered racist or not. It’s totally out there; featuring wild three wheeler bikes, inept Keystone Cops with a cop car that has a huge siren on it, sped up fight scenes, a wild cartoonish black gang in a pink car, multiple musical and dance sequences including a blackface minstrel scene, the Klan riding around on bikes, a KFC Colonel Sanders lookalike as the villain, large joint, kung fu, walls falling off of houses, a guy dressed in a bunny costume with an oversized carrot, clowns and gorillas in jail, a ghetto alert map and nigger alarm in the police station, an undercover officer in drag and blackface who gets shot for being black, a Mr. Freeze like drug building, the colonel dressed in a pig costume with a cape, some Willy Wonka type of genetic cloning weirdness, a huge biker chase with the Klan that included a large car jump stunt, and a final battle between the Klan and a large group of black people.

George Armitage wrote the motion picture and in an interview he said that “I wrote Darktown Strutters in three days, and the script form is all one sentence, the entire script is one sentence. I just did it to have fun. I was going to direct it, but I had another script that I sold called Trophy, which was about two police departments who end up in a shooting war, and it was really a labor of love, so I asked Gene to excuse me to work on that, but it never got made, unfortunately. So Joe Viola came in to direct Darktown Strutters, but then he left the project and William Witney came in. And he was fantastic—I was an old Roy Rogers fan and he’d done so many of those…

When it was done, Gene said: “You know, we could punch this up a little.” He had a screening after it was first made and was taking suggestions, and he’d invited Richard Pryor to come. And I remember about three-quarters of the way through I looked down in the aisle, and Richard was crawling out. He obviously didn’t care for the film, but was crawling up the aisle so nobody would see him, and he escaped. So he didn’t contribute much to the movie, other than giving them a reason to say: “Hm, maybe there’s some work to be done here?” Still, I enjoyed that movie, I thought Witney did a good job, and it’s a lot of fun” [13].


10. They Eat Scum (1979)


This could easily be described as a direct attempt to clone a John Waters film, except changing the location from Baltimore to New York City. The story involves a weird family that includes a religious father, a punk rock sister, and a transvestite brother who is in love with their poodle.

It’s all sorts of weird and includes terrible acting, bad editing, shoddy camerawork and blurred images, a guy in drag with his chest hair showing, a dog prostitution service, tons of male actors playing female roles, toy guns, and the actors sounding like they are on helium half of the time. The weird dog sequences should be more than enough for you to either love or absolutely abhor this movie.


11. Forbidden Zone (1980)


“A chaotic musical fantasy” [14]. The Hercules family purchases a house that contains a door that leads to the Sixth Dimension through a large set of intestines. The daughter, Frenchy Hercules decides to take a look through the door and ends up trapped in the Sixth Dimension. Midget King Fausto has fallen in love with her and this angers the Queen, and she has her frog servant lock her up. Now the Hercules family and their friend Squeezit Henderson must go to the Sixth dimension to rescue her.

There is no really good way to describe this movie than utter insanity and total awesomeness, or maybe John Waters on speed. One attempt was made by authors Hoberman and Rosenbaum in their book Midnight Movies, saying that it is “a black and white freak musical that manages to synthesize ingredients of virtually every midnight hit into the cheerful consistency of bad-taste vaudeville.

Inspired by TV reruns like Betty Boop and Flash Gordon, and abetted by such counterculture standbys as the dwarf Herve Villechaize, Susan Tyrell, and Viva, this bargain-basement Hellzapoppin’-one-third animated and the rest shot in a studio combines the expressionism of [The Cabinet of] Dr. Caligari with the flakiness of R. Crumb – revels in the hyperbolic racial, cultural and musical stereotypes, converging in the giddy Cab Calloway-style numbers performed by the Oingo Boingo band” [15].

The band Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo were changing their musical style from cabaret to new-wave and wanted a way to capture what they were doing on stage, plus Danny and Richard Elfman were trying to transition to filmmaking [15].

It is as low budget as you can get, they tried to include as much as they could, shot whenever they had money, the sets were mostly made of paper, and the costumes were mostly underwear consisting of boxers and bathrobes [15]. Despite the low budget, they still created a great look with the black and white. The colorized version that has been released just isn’t the same; it loses something that was special about it.

It took several years for it to eventually be released on the midnight circuit, and it had mixed reviews. There were many critics and viewers who “attacked [it] for being racist, tasteless, profane, and incredibly cheap’” [15]. It’s for a lot of those reasons that it ended up becoming a cult classic, similar to John Waters, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

So if you love cheap weird films similar to John Waters, then you have to see this at least once.


12. Straight to Hell (1987)

Straight to Hell (1987)

“A story of blood, money, guns, coffee, and sexual tension” [16]. A surreal spaghetti western spoof directed by Alex Cox (Repo Man) and was meant to be an adaptation of the Italian spaghetti western Django, Kill (1967). A trio of hitmen and a pregnant woman end up stranded in a strange desert town after robbing a bank and trying to escape their boss because of a failed job. In the town, they encounter a series of unusual coffee addicted killers.

The main reason that the film has a cult status is because of the cast, consisting largely of Alex Cox regulars, some directors, and various members of punk rock bands. The cast includes Sy Richardson, Joe Strummer (lead singer of The Clash), Dick Rude, Courtney Love, Dennis Hopper, director Jim Jarmusch, Elvis Costello, and members of The Pogues, Amazulu, and The Circle Jerks.

This is viewed as a precursor to the Tarantino violence infused criminal worlds of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, with the Norwood character being very similar to Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction. The over the top gore and violence in this film represents both the future crime films that would come around in the 1990’s and the bloody spaghetti westerns from the 1960’s and 1970’s.

There really is no middle ground on this film, you’ll either love it or totally hate it.


13. My Lovely Burnt Brother and His Squashed Brain (1988)

This is a super low budget Italian film that was shot on video and easily draws comparisons to John Waters’ films and his crazy collection of weird families and characters.

The story involves a man who was badly burnt and wears a Ku Klux Klan mask to cover to face, because he blames the black man that caused his injuries. He lives with his ugly sister and becomes a raging zombie killer after she injects him with her urine, instead of the morphine that he needs for the pain.

It’s a super gross out comedy that should have you rolling in laughter and constantly questioning why the hell you’re watching it. It mixes silent film Keystone Cops style slapstick with gore and loads of blood.

There are also plenty of scenes and characters that simply defy explanation, including totally absurd overacting and facial gestures, urination, shoe licking, vomit, blow up dolls, and black & white slapstick flashbacks. The music is also all over the place as well, containing 80’s synth that sounds like it came from Revenge of the Nerds, Bluegrass, and punk rock.


14. Dr. Caligari (1989)

Dr. Caligari (1989)

“The MAD doctor is in” [17]. This has pretty much nothing to do with the 1920 version except in name; instead it is more of the attempt of a director (Rinse Dream of Café Flesh fame) to cross over from avant-garde porn into main stream cinema.

The result is a weird and at times incoherent story about the granddaughter of Dr. Caligari, who likes to perform neurological experiments on her patients. She focuses on a nymphomaniac and a cannibal that is addicted to shock-therapy.

Think of this as the colorized version of German Expressionism and Forbidden Zone, which also happens to be included in this list. The acting is passable, but it’s the inventive and colorful costumes and sets that really make this film pop and look interesting.

The combination of its psychosexual and disjointed storyline, the unusual sets and costumes, and nearly bad acting should make you question what you’re watching at some point.


15. What Is It? (2005)


This is a surrealist black comedy all created from the mind of actor Crispin Glover of Back to the Future fame. Its story, if there really is one, involves a young man and his search for snails; all while being tormented in nightmarish ways by his own hubristic, racist conscience.

The cast consists almost entirely of actors that have Down syndrome and there is constant imagery that is either meant to shock the audience or make you think, including scenes using black face makeup and male nudity. It is a movie that could be found to be gross, disturbing, shocking, offensive, intriguing, thought provoking, or leave you completely bewildered when you’re finished watching it.

You are unlikely to find this one on DVD or Blu-ray, unless you find a bootleg copy of it. Glover pretty much just shows it at small theaters as a road side attraction, with a Q&A session typically conducted afterward.

All the works cited can be found here.

Author Bio: Raul J. Vantassle is a jazz musician whose key strokes move about the page creating an explosion of formlessness to form, or just total bullshit. His heroes include John Waters, Robert Crumb, Charles Bukowski, and the Cobra Commander. His Knowledge of film goes across the board but he specializes in Asian and cult cinema. He may be the filthiest person alive. You can visit his blog here.