Would you believe me if I told you that a film involving ESP, serial murder, LSD experiments, a disfigured ladies man who is strongly clairvoyant, a fairytale witch and a strong undercurrent of nihilism, actually exists? Well, believe, nonbelievers, because it does, all in the form of the 1967 Herschell Gordon Lewis film, Something Weird. Nothing, maybe not even my description above, can adequately prepare you for this film.
The film opens up with a woman walking in a deserted looking cement alleyway, the kind you would need a razor to scrape clean. The camera is angled where we initially only see her legs, but think less sexy and more ominous. The sparse Jazz soundtrack, pregnant like a storm cloud, underscores the impending sense of doom. Sure enough, another pair of legs come into the picture, black-slack clad and belonging to a man, who immediately starts to give chase. There’s a struggle and then a collapse, with the woman’s whole form slumping into frame, blank eyed, bloodied and frozen with the trauma that is death. It might be simple in set up, but this is one of the ugliest cinematic death scenes period. It actually shocked me the first time around, especially since I was mentally prepared and outright anticipating the Grand Guignol on strychnine violence that has earned Lewis the nickname, “The Godfather of Gore.” I was not, however, prepared for the stark ugliness and restrained violence, giving the former an even stronger impact. The audio only adds to this, depriving the audience of expected sounds, like screaming, footsteps and threatening words. Instead, it’s just the disjointed harsh imagery and one woeful jazz bass line.
Like a cupful of cold water to your face, there’s an immediate cut to two men practicing karate, complete with an overly loud yell. After an impressive demonstration, the film pinballs to an electrician, getting hit by a broken power line cable and then falling down to the ground, right to his death. Another man, Cronin “Mitch” Mitchell (Tony McCabe), gets hit in the face with the same cable. Unlike the fellow before him, Mitch lives but part of his face ends up horribly disfigured. The once boyish man is now reduced to borderline accosting his nurse and weeping in the bathroom, looking horrified at what his face has become. However, some curses beget gifts, and Mitch has now mysteriously attained extraordinarily strong powers of clairvoyance.
Despite his new gift, Mitch spends his time with his face mostly swathed in thin black fabric and dark sunglasses, working as a dime-store psychic. (Well, more accurately, a $2 one.) But life has more twists in store for our unlikely hero, which soon come in the form of a cackling, decrepit old woman. Turns out that the old biddy is actually a witch (Mudite Arums, yes that is how she is billed), as in any generic fairy tale or one of the more subdued Sid & Marty Krofft efforts. (Proof, there is a pouty red mouth painted on one of her knees, for no discernible reason.)
She notes what a pretty face he had before the accident and offers him a deal; get his old, flaw-free visage back and become her lover. Naturally, Mitch is aghast at the suggestion but is forced to rethink his reaction when, almost like a free sample, she magically removes all of the scar and tissue damage. It’s not long before he gets to test it out, coming to the rescue of a pretty, blue-eyed and potentially Quaaluded out damsel at a swanky restaurant. After he manages to shake one (fantastically) drunk harasser from her table, and then sweet talks her into coming home with him. As he swoops in for the seductive kill, the lovely Ellen (Elizabeth Lee) transforms into the Witch, who finds the whole thing hilarious, laughing even as she beckons him to fulfill his end of the bargain, which he does.
Meanwhile, there is a killer still on the loose, getting his next victim by murdering her with a primitive but effective flame thrower. (All in that same ugly, bombed out looking cement alley.) The police, with nary a lead in sight, get both Mitchell and Dr. Jordan (William Brooker), a Federal agent, on the case. Everyone is skeptical of Mitch, whose psychic prowess has now gained him national TV exposure. A small demonstration at the station, however, quells all but Jordan, prompting the Chief to invite Mitch and his companion/secretary, Ellen, to a shindig he is throwing at his house. The party’s a hit, with a skeptical Jordan zeroing in on Ellen, while Mitch starts to make some friendly talk with the Chief’s raven haired wife.
It’s only a matter of time that the party goers want to see a display of Mitch’s powers. In lieu of the usual psychic parlor tricks, the crowd, and the Chief’s wife in particular, request that he communes with the dead. (Yeah, that always seems like a good idea for a party!) Needless to say, it doesn’t go well, with Mitch levitating and then momentarily passing out. Turns out, his powers are a little too good, with the session unleashing a ghost, a serene looking bride, who is nevertheless scaring the parishioners at a local church. After being begged by the Reverend to at least check it out, Mitch agrees, purely on the grounds that no one mentions it to Ellen.
The ghost indeed shows up, grabbing his hand as they smile at each other before she completely disappears. Potential foreshadowing? You will soon be the judge and jury.
While Mitch is helping the living and the dead, Dr. Jordan continues his wooing of Ellen, with semi-results in that he is able to meet her for drinks and even defend the both of them from some local (and suspiciously clean-cut) thugs, best utilizing his chop-suey skills. Jordan, however, loses major points for coming about * this * close to sexually assaulting Ellen. At this point Mitch is canoodling with the Chief’s wife but psychically senses that his secret Hag is needing him. All of this results in one of the silliest bordering on surreal scenes in the whole film, with Jordan being attacked by his very own blanket! Whatever image is running in your head right at this very second is undoubtedly and eerily close to the reality. For better or worse, though, Jordan wins the fight of man versus textile fabric.
It’s only going to get even more strange, as Mitch decides to test out some government grade LSD that Jordan had given him earlier in the film. His red-soaked vision at first takes him through a desolate landscape, chasing Ellen who transforms into the cackling witch. He is able to track down the killer, in the same cement hell-alley that the women had been slaughtered in. The murderer bellows “I cannot be stopped!” before shooting Mitch in the head and our hero collapses to the ground, with the look of sad loss and defeat in his waning eyes. Believing the killer to be Detective Maddox after his vision, Mitch calls the department, putting the officers and Jordan on alert.
It’s a sunny afternoon and Mitchell is walking down the street. Before he can even finish ogling a curvy redhead, he gets hit with a sniper bullet, to the head, and our protagonist, our hero, is murdered before us. Jordan, taking his sweet time, finally catches up to Maddox, whom we’re never a 100% sure is the real killer, and murders him before the police can catch him. He is questioned on why he didn’t get to Mitchell sooner and potentially save his life. Jordan hollowly defends himself, only to break down later in the evening to Ellen, claiming that he loves her and wanted her all to himself. This prompts a delighted Ellen to reveal her true self, forcing the la ronde effect to come into play, with Jordan becoming disfigured with the Hag behind him, laughing knowingly.
Something Weird is truly something else, marking a truly layered note in the career of Herschell Gordon Lewis. For your cult film lovers, undoubtedly you’re nodding your head with recognition, perhaps even admiration, at the name of one HG Lewis. Rightfully dubbed “The Godfather of Gore,” Lewis helped usher in a new age of gooey horror, starting way back in the early 1960’s. A lot of his films, ranging from the game changer Blood Feast to The Gore Gore Girls, often played out like Grand Guignol on amphetamines. Despite the fact that the man also made biker films (the incredible She Devils on Wheels), kids films (Jimmy, The Boy Wonder) and sexploitation films (Suburban Roulette), the gore factor to this day is often the first thing that people in the know think of when they hear the name of HG Lewis.
But everything you think you know goes out the door with Something Weird. There is little to no gore, it is more sadly bleak, with our hero killed, a serial killer potentially still loose and the same old strange cycle of life just going on and on. But on top of all that, is an absolutely solid performance from Tony McCabe as Mitch. McCabe, who passed away under unknown circumstances only a year after “Something Weird” came out, is genuinely nuanced and likable. Mitch is no saint but that is part of his charm. He’s a bit of a ladies man whose basic core is good. It’s a damn shame that McCabe’s career was cut so short, since he shows incredible potential and charisma here.
Part of the beauty of Something Weird is that this is a film that clamps its fists down and refuses to be categorized. The closest one could come would be to call it a “nihilistic fairy tale,” which would be halfway honest to the spirit of the fairy tale genre pre-Disney. But even that only paints the broadest of pictures. Some will automatically detest it for not being what they expect but the best art is often the type that defies expectations. Boxes are meant to not only be opened but then ripped apart and burned.