I’m going to assume that many people who’ll read this are too young to remember such a thing (technically, so am I), but when Home VHS first showed up you couldn’t get many or even most of the popular or classic movies you’d assume people would immediately seek out on the format. That vacuum in the market (or, rather, on the shelves of video stores) wound up being filled by smaller, often more offbeat material that otherwise might never have seen that kind of prominence. To put it bluntly, the reason most American video audiences were exposed to Evil Dead, Troma or the early works of Peter Jackson was that they were the guys who got in early to a market that the big boys hadn’t figured out yet.
A similar phenomenon is now going on in the world of “on demand” video streaming services – not everything has arrived yet, but much of what has is pretty obscure, unusual material that knows it has a better chance to be seen in a yet-uncrowded market. So I’m going to dig into one of the more popular of such services, Netflix Instant, and point you in the direction – with links! – of some singularly odd stuff that (many of) you can see at the push of a button.
NOTE: I am aware that the particular service being used as the jumping off point here is not available in the same form (or at all) in all regions and territories. However, I hope that won’t prevent folks from seeking out the listed titles in some other (legal!) form if the mood so strikes them.
It’s exactly what it sounds like: A gory/silly spoof of 50s-style alien invasion movies in which a small town is beset by grotesque alien clowns. It’s pretty much just wall-to-wall visual gags based on monsterized versions of clown iconography (popcorn guns, cotton candy cocoons, giant mallets, a circus tent spaceship, etc.) courtesy makeup FX maestros The Chiodo Brothers, who also directed. I’ve found that this makes a great party movie with the right crowd.
When people talk about “idea driven” science fiction no longer getting made, this is the kind of movie they’re talking about: an ultra high-tech U.S. Navy aircraft carrier and its crew are inexplicably transported almost half a century into the past. That alone would be pretty incredible, but in this case it’s the specific place and time that are the hook. They’ve arrived off the coast of Hawaii in December of 1941 … just in time for the attack on Pearl Harbor. While we get to see the attendant spectacle one expects (re: then cutting-edge F-14s dog fighting with WWII-era Japanese Zeroes) the real action is cerebral – they have the power to change the course of history, but should they?
FULL DISCLOSURE: I know the guy who made this, and our work has played some of the same venues together. That said, I was interested in the movie before I met him, and it lived up to what I’d heard about it – namely, that it’s a highly imaginative, low-budget indie action/horror piece with a laser sight on jaded genre fans. A hitman dispatched to kill a Chinatown crime boss discovers that his target is actually a centuries-old vampire, and that he is now the target of his minions. It has a lot of the problems that other semi-pro efforts have, namely that it’s very much a showcase for the filmmaker’s influences (Evil Dead and John Woo shoot-em-ups most heavily, in this case). But the decision to swap out traditional Western vampires with their Chinese mythological counterparts – hence, a whole different set of rules, weaknesses, etc. – is inspired and the homebrew gore FX are suitably charming.
One of John Carpenter’s most unfairly overlooked movies features “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in what is easily the best action movie ever to star a professional wrestler. He’s an average down-and-out guy who discovers the secret to end all secrets: Earth has been conquered by aliens … and nobody knew it! See, the invaders are in control of The Media, and are broadcasting a brainwashing signal that makes them look like regular humans to us. Only special sunglasses can reveal the “real” world – and, as a bonus, lets Piper see “through” subliminal advertisements (example: Billboards for cushy consumer goods actually just say “Sleep More!” or “Obey!” in big bold letters.) Notably, South Park’s infamous Timmy vs. Jimmy “Cripple Fight” was a deliberate recreation of Piper’s epic slugfest with Keith David (yes, the one you’re thinking of) from this film; often called one of the best street brawl scenes ever filmed.
Renegade cartoon iconoclast Ralph Bakshi and fantasy art demigod Frank Frazetta teamed up for this animated swords-and-sorcery oddity about a young barbarian trying to save a princess from a wizard’s ice fortress. The story, setting and characters are arch to the point of self-parody (right down to the veeeeeery uncomfortable lisping, mama’s-boy gay villain) but visually it’s kind of breathtaking. Bakshi filmed real actors performing the scenes, then had animators trace and ink their movements onto animation cels by hand frame by frame – a process called rotoscoping. If you’re an animator who’s been lucky enough to only ever know the digital form of the medium, just watching this should make your wrist ache.
What would a Square/Enix cut scene look like with live actors and what was at the time one of the highest CGI budgets ever attempted in Hong Kong? Like this movie, a remake of an early-80s kung-fu classic from action legend Tsui Hark. I have seen this, all the way through, three times, and I still have no idea what happened. But it looked awesome.
Think of this as a good version of Cowboys & Aliens – or, if you prefer, a live-action precursor to Trigun. It’s a Western, set on an alien planet that for whatever reason resembles the American Old West, in which a murdered sheriff’s son is drafted to take his place and battle the lizard man outlaw who threatens a peaceful town. The whole genre mashup visual gag doesn’t really last long enough to carry the movie, but it’s clever and you get fun cameos by George “Sulu” Takei (oh my!) and Julie “Catwoman” Newmar.
This one-of-a-kind sci-fi comedy still feels ahead of its time, a send-up of a continuity saturated, sequel driven, cross-marketing obsessed genre film culture that was only just taking shape when it came out. Peter Weller is the title character, a wealthy Japanese-American surgeon/physicist/rockstar who, along with his similarly multi-talented backup band, is also a globetrotting spy/soldier/superhero currently trying to stop the evil Dr. Lizardo (John Lithgow!) and two warring alien races from starting a nuclear war. The big gag is that the film pretends to be occurring in the middle of a (nonexistent) franchise that the audience is expected to be familiar with from dozens of prior movies, comic books, TV shows, etc., complete with random visual gags and unexplained “oh, that guy!” cameos and plot-turns.
An ass-kicking alien police officer chases his nemesis across the stars to the obscure planet called Earth. Unfortunately, in Earth terms our bad-ass hero is only about the size of an average action figure. That’s pretty much the whole premise, but you’ve gotta love that title.
Do you want to see The Book of Revelations re-imagined as a sci-fi/fantasy rock-musical in which a virtuous folk singer and his hippie army must rescue his girlfriend from the evil Mr. Boogalow – a record executive who may also be The Antichrist and scheming to plunge civilization into Disco Armageddon? If so … seek help, but know that that actually is the plot of this movie.
The director of Ong Bak brings you the story of a mentally handicapped Thai girl who, despite functioning at the intellectual level of a toddler, has an extraordinary gift for physical mimicry … which she uses to become an unbeatable martial arts vigilante by memorizing old kung fu movies. The premise is in somewhat questionable taste (you won’t believe what her ultimate opponent turns out to be), but the set pieces – in which star JeeJa Yanin executes flawless style imitations of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Tony Jaa and others – are incredible.
B-movie workhorse William Lustig directs a pitch dark entry in the holiday-themed-slasher subgenre, in which the body of a Gulf War casualty returns to life as a murderous zombie (he was already kind of a bastard beforehand) who dons an Uncle Sam costume and kills those he deems unpatriotic on the 4th of July. The goofy premise gets unexpected weight from telling the story largely from the POV of the killer’s young nephew – who had idolized his war hero uncle and must now learn a tough lesson about the unquestioned lionizing of the military and other patriotic symbols.
Retro-gamers: Remember that big glut of arcade brawlers that glommed onto the Warriors aesthetic, imagining urban war zones of candy-colored gangs and pop-iconography confetti (Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, you get the idea)? Here’s a movie that’s sort of working the same angle. The threadbare plot – a soldier has to save his rock star ex-girlfriend from a street gang – plays out in a retro-futuristic downtown where the cars, clothes, music and even architecture of various eras and pop influences inexplicably coexist. Willem Dafoe is a memorable villain.
Paul W.S. Anderson and Len Wiseman are both guilty of making “check out my crazy-hot wife!” movies (can you blame them?) but they’ve got nothing on John Derek, who cast his then-wife Bo Derek as Jane opposite Miles O’Keefe (from the MST3K classic Cave Dwellers!) as Tarzan in what amounts to a nigh plotless excuse for Bo to run around topless in the jungle. Eye candy aside, this is one of the most astonishingly bad modern movies ever released; though it also features a hilariously go-for-broke turn by the great Richard Harris as Jane’s madman father – a Great White Hunter gone native who lives like a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Colonel Kurtz and at one point engages a trumpeting elephant in an impromptu flute duet.
I’ve always been a sucker for the tone and feel of American kitsch culture from that brief period of early 60s pop shininess before the 50s had fully transitioned to the 60s. Now, thanks to Mad Men, so are lots of other people, so maybe they’ll also enjoy this campy lark best described as Jurassic Park by way of Disneyland. A construction team on a tropical island unwittingly finds and thaws out two dinosaurs (a “good” Brontosaurus – back when it was still called that – and an “evil” T-Rex) and a caveman. Hijinks and family-friendly action ensue.
Uwe Boll finally made a great – not just good, but great – film, and this is it. Scoff if you like, but the first time I saw Rampage it took me hours to process just how such an efficiently made, ingeniously brutal and genuinely frightening film could come from the same guy who gave us the execrable Postal. The story follows – partially in real-time – the execution of a heavily armed killing spree in a small American town by a young “quiet guy next door” psychopath. The idea is to show in chilling detail just how much horror one sufficiently equipped maniac can actually do in a place and time no longer equipped to even anticipate him, much less stop him … and also how easily pure evil can hide being a mask of “everyday aggravation.” Boll (shockingly, given his other work) resists the temptation to either moralize or sensationalize the onscreen action, to the point that it almost plays out like a documentary. It’s not an enjoyable film, and I’d especially recommend that anyone who was close to or seriously affected by the recent real life shooting spree in Oslo think twice about clicking “play,” but it’s a visceral and vital one.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.