If you're in the mood for a trip down a mental rabbit hole featuring two solid, well-liked character actors in early-career roles: Brain Dead (1990, Adam Simon)
“Reality is in the brain.” This one little line, delivered offhand during a conference meeting, nails down Adam Simon’s Brain Dead quite succinctly. It’s a rubber-reality movie about brains that misfire, lose their way and generally don’t work as they’re supposed to. Initially, it’s Jack Halsey’s brain that has stopped working properly; Halsey (played in a gloriously eccentric performance by professional glorious-eccentric Bud Cort) is a mathematician who one day up and kills his wife and kids, then promptly destroys the work he’s been doing for the Eunice Corporation. Corporate company man Jim Reston (a slick, reptilian Bill Paxton) enlists brain surgeon Dr. Rex Martin (Bill Pullman), an old friend with revolutionary theories on biology and psychological brain function, to cut the crazy out of Halsey: either Halsey gets better and remembers the formula Eunice so desperately needs, or he turns into a vegetable and can’t give said formula to anyone else.
But after being hit by a car while leaving the sanitarium where Halsey is being kept, Martin gradually realizes that maybe his brain isn’t working so well, either… and hey, what’s with that blood-covered guy in the white suit he’s been seeing around lately…
You get the gist. Pullman plays this wonderfully – initially an affable, awkward fellow, he slowly lets his creeping paranoia turn him into a rambling, shouting ball of defiant scrambling energy. The deft screenplay, adapted from a script by the late, great “Twilight Zone” writer Charles Beaumont, allows certain symbols and names to recur without feeling overly insistent, and if it’s a bit on the nose at times (the Conklin Mattress Company’s slogan, seen on the side of the truck that hits Pullman, is, “To sleep, perchance to dream,”), it also has a lighter touch than expected. (There are even knowing nods in the direction of H.P. Lovecraft and Shock Corridor.)
Meanwhile, the director keeps things moving at a good clip without losing the basic thread of sense – while Brain Dead is tricky, it’s never haphazard. Simon climbs into Dr. Martin’s consciousness at one end, careens through until he tumbles out the other and wraps it up in an appropriately ironic location. It’s a fun trip.
If you're in the mood for a visually impressive piece of industrial-flavored dystopian sci-fi (and don't care if the story goes south): Hardware (1990, Richard Stanley)
Richard Stanley’s future-shock sci-fi slasher Hardware is, if nothing else, a stirring act of world creation. There’s a familiar feel to much of its broken-down grubby look – a little Road Warrior here, a little Blade Runner there, a dash of Damnation Alley for flavor – but it seems weirdly appropriate given the movie's concentration on scavenging. For a film whose male lead (Dylan McDermott) sells scavenged scrap metal in the desert, whose female lead (Stacey Travis) combines discarded machine parts to make sculptures and whose villain, an unstoppable military prototype robot portentiously named Mark-13, can rebuild itself from anything given an appropriate power supply, a piecemeal junk-shop aesthetic can only be called appropriate.
Beyond that, there are a number of tiny touches (like the reindeer steaks in Travis’s refrigerator advertising themselves as “radiation-free”) that make this decrepit world feel complete — Hardware feels more lived-in than the average dystopian flick.
It isn’t enough, though, to just construct a setting – you’ve got to have something to put inside that setting. This, unfortunately, is where Hardware falters. Stanley directs the hell out of this, coming up with a number of striking visuals and visceral setpieces (I especially liked the associative cross-fades in the shower-to-bed sex scene, with the implied voyeurism made concrete by the final cut to Travis’s perverted neighbor), and he also keeps the main thematic throughline about the contrast between the organic and the constructed as strong as he can. What he can’t do, though, is keep the movie from losing the majority of its momentum once the robot kicks to life and things get splattery. A slasher movie set in a crumbling futuristic world is still just a slasher film, and though there’s still things to watch for in the film’s back end (notably a hallucinatory sequence with McDermott), it can’t transcend the limits of its genre.
Watch it to soak in the atmosphere. The killer robot is incidental.
If you really just want to watch a movie that's going to show you something you've never seen before... over and over: The Eternal Evil of Asia (1995, Chin Man Kei)
Might as well lead with the best foot forward here: Chin Man Kei’s bonkers supernatural horror/fantasy The Eternal Evil of Asia has a scene in which a Thai wizard turns a man’s head into a giant dick.
Do I really need to say anything beyond that? With that, you know if this movie is for you. But far be it from me to reduce 85 minutes of delightful lunacy to one mere image. Whereas some films have one ludicrous element adrift in a sea of dross (I’m pointing an accusatory finger at you, Welcome Home Brother Charles), Eternal Evil of Asia is front-to-back wacky. It hits the ground running with a sober explanation of the dangers of Thai sorcery, which somehow transitions into a warning that you should never take pale kids to the bathroom in a movie theater, and then immediately moves on to a guy being hounded by his noodle-loving dead parents into killing his family, his neighbors and then himself.
The plot, such as it is, involves a group of guys being stalked and subsequently enchanted to death by a wizard they inadvertently offended when a love charm went horribly, horribly wrong; this basic logline functions as an excuse to go nuts on the weirdo-content front. Airborne sex magic? Sure! Self-cannibalism? Why not? The day gets saved by the power of Ellen Chan’s vagina? Of course it would! And there’s more, plenty more, that I’m not giving away. It’s a crazy-nuts-awesome rainbow of sex and gore and magic and sex and ghosts and noodles and sex and poorly translated subtitles and some more sex. You need this like you need to not anger a Thai wizard.
The Netflix streaming library is vast and daunting and mostly filled with crap. Steve Carlson is the Netflix video clerk, and every week he hand-delivers three awesome movies you've never heard of before. He's been writing about movies in one form or another on the Internet since 2002 and co-hosts the Bad Idea Podcast. Someone once called him the lonely Magellan of exploitation cinema. He thinks that's the best compliment he's ever received.