Some praise the feeling of realism in Vittorio De Sica’s films set in post-war Italy. Others enjoy the way Werner Herzog’s varied documentaries beautifully immerse audiences in the universal human condition. The ten films listed below go for broke in making viewers forget about the world as they know it and challenge them to say “what if…?” in ways they never thought possible. The boundaries of reality, imagination, and cinema in general are pushed to the limits and they will leave an indelible mark on the psyches of those who watch them.
10. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Imagine the pitch meeting for this film- “A man claiming to be Elvis and a man claiming to be JFK are alive and well holed up in a Texas nursing home. They must do battle with a mummy named Bubba Ho-Tep who lives off of the souls of the occupants of the said nursing home. Elvis will be played by Bruce Campbell and JFK by Ossie Davis… Yes, I said Ossie Davis.”
Strictly on premise alone, Bubba Ho-Tep deserves to be on this list. Director Don Coscarelli had previously brought audiences the midnight movie series of the Phantasm films, so his experience with unusual horror was well-honed. Without giving away the entertaining premise of just how Elvis and JFK (who claims to have been “dyed”) ended up in a nursing home, the creative path of the script is richly developed from a novella by Joe R. Lansdale, originally part of an anthology entitled The King is Dead: Tales of Elvis Post-Mortem.
Campbell does a legit Elvis impersonation and there is heart in this movie without making fun of mental illness or the elderly. More so, the quest for conquering Bubba Ho-Tep empowers the two protagonists and gives them a new lease on life. The comedic touches in addition to the sincerity with which Davis and Campbell go about their mission is what gives this movie substance beyond just the far-reaching script.
9. The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
A list of highly unusual films would not be complete without an entry of the prolific, English filmmaker, Ken Russell. While his best-known films include the “rock opera” Tommy, Altered States, and Women in Love, many may not know that Russell also created several brilliant biopics about classical music composers including Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Delius, Elgar, and Mahler. Not only are these films detailed with facts about these great artists, but Russell also indulges in fanciful imagery and dream sequences that symbolically portray these lofty figures.
In his script for The Lair of the White Worm, Russell took inspiration from Bram Stoker’s 1911 novel of the same name. Starring Amanda Donohoe and Hugh Grant, the film tells the contrived story of a family and their connection to the d’Ampton worm – a storied beast who an ancestor was said to have slain. We are taken through a far too complex tale of mysticism, horror, and ancient religions that sets the scene for some outlandish moments.
The films of Ken Russell are bold, colorful, sexual, kinky, funny and rich in symbolism. This one is no exception, but the comedic, over-the-top, and almost B-movie feel of The Lair of the White Worm makes up for any imperfections, of which there are many. There is ample snake/dragon/worm, vampy and phallic imagery permeating the film and few directors do fantasy sequences with quite the élan that Russell did throughout his career. Even if this admittedly manic film is not your cup of tea, Russell is a director whose oeuvre should not be overlooked for its visual creativity, lavish productions, and acerbic wit.
8. Alice (1988)
Lewis Carroll’s groundbreaking, 1865 book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland challenges the mind’s eye to vividly envision its unique world and varied inhabitants. Czech, surrealist director Jan Švankmajer considered this book to be “one of the most important and amazing books produced by this civilization” and he wanted to give it the treatment it deserved as seen through his magical eye.
Švankmajer took on the Herculean challenge of making a visual representation of this tale like no other. He is a master of the art of stop motion animation which is a process where a figure is masterfully moved a fraction of an inch, a frame of film is shot, and the process is repeated over and over and over again. When the film is projected at the standard 24 frames per second, the figure appears to move smoothly and in a lifelike fashion, as in Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Stop motion animation incorporates real objects instead of computer-generated ones making the story come alive that much more.
Alice expertly mixes live-action and impossibly smooth stop motion animation, therein delineating the representation of the real world from that of Wonderland even more vividly. Kristýna Kohoutová is ideally cast as Alice giving an attentive and dedicated performance reacting convincingly to the fantastical creations and situations before her. The perfectly peppered sound effects also aid in bringing the magic of Wonderland to life. If you enjoy this world of stop motion, be sure to explore Švankmajer’s other imaginative films like Faust or Little Otik. Once seen, Alice is a rabbit hole you will never forget having gone down.
7. The Brand New Testament (2015)
To come up with an original premise for anything these days is a tall order, but Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael achieved this feat in his script for his 2015 film, The Brand New Testament. He posits that God, who is a bit of a curmudgeon, lives in a humble apartment block in Brussels with his wife and daughter. Like the rest of us, God potters on his computer, but instead of buying groceries online or checking stock quotes, He creates laws and situations that upset mortals’ lives. His daughter Ea suspects wrongdoing and after discovering what her Father is actually up to, she mischievously uses the computer to send the inhabitants of the entire world a text message with the exact day that they will die. What each person does with this valuable information is vastly different and highly entertaining. Ea eventually out six new apostles to then create the titled “brand new testament.”
Reminiscent of the wit and mood of the wildly successful film Amelie, The Brand New Testament sells its absurd situations to viewers with style and the cast devotes itself to the fanciful scenario. The jokes play well and a fine line this side of blasphemy is expertly-tread. What IS offensive (to comedy) is a farcical side plot involving a gorilla which takes the film in the wrong direction. That misstep aside, this inventive comedy will amuse and charm.
6. November (2017)
This hypnotically haunting film is as peculiar as they come. Director Rainer Sarnet weaves a dark fairytale set in an Estonian forest where the plague exists, evil spirits dwell and the devil resides. Also inhabiting a nearby village is a “kratt” which is a large, three-pronged, mechanical creature made up of a smattering of pieces of metal, human hair, blades, and a cow’s skull. This mythological being noisily rolls across the pastoral scenery wreaking havoc and seeking human souls. Mystical events unfold making November feel like the darkest of folk tales come to life.
Similar to other films on this list, November’s plot can be considered secondary to its imaginative mise-en-scene. Hay-filled barns, foreboding forests, moonlit fields, and low-ceilinged, timbered residences place us securely in its moody setting. The crafted substance of its production design enhances the gravitas of November’s puzzling diegesis. Rich and luminous black and white cinematography by Mart Taniel is the film’s greatest asset deservedly winning it the International Cinematography Prize at the 2017 Tribecca Festival. Take a trip to an Estonia of long ago through the eyes of these visionary artists and you will never forget the journey.