01 February 2014

Weird Tales

How many times have you heard someone say, "That was a really quirky book"? Or "What a quirky movie"? The first thing that comes to mind when I hear that is of course "offbeat," or "strange." The second thing that comes to mind is that I would probably enjoy it. Especially if it's in the mystery/suspense genre.

Crime stories have a hard time being humorous. Sometimes they are, and sometimes that works; a few of my alltime favorite films--Raising ArizonaThe Big LebowskiA Fish Called Wanda, etc.--are sort of based on criminal activity but are primarily comedies, not mysteries. Now and then, though, you come across a real crime story, one that's more concerned with suspense than laughs but that delivers the humor anyhow, the kind of humor that lurks just below the surface. Those movies and novels (1) never seem to take themselves too seriously, and (2) are often overly violent. (Who knows, maybe the folks who make them can get by with the ultra-violence because they don't take it all too seriously, and they know the viewer won't either.)

Weird details

For those who might enjoy this kind of story, here are ten mystery/crime/suspense movies that I've recently either discovered or re-watched that I think fall solidly into the category of quirky. It should surprise no one that four of these are Coen Brothers films and that another four came from the delightfully scary mind of Quentin Tarantino--and it should also be no surprise that I liked them a lot. Anyhow, here's my list, with the best ones first:

1. Pulp Fiction. By now an oldie, but still a goodie. Sam Jackson's scripture-quoting scene will always be fun to watch. Especially interesting to me was the fact that the story wasn't told in sequence--it kept jumping back and forth.

2. Fargo. Another Oscar-quality quirkfest. How could a movie not be good with characters like these, one of whom ends up in a woodchipper? Yah, you betcha, I know whatcha mean there, Lou . . .

3. Blood Simple. A movie not many folks seem to have heard about, but if you've seen it you'll never
ever forget the scene with the window and the knife, near the end. Trust me.

4. In Bruges. Another film that never generated much buzz. It features the wackiest group of killers since Get Shorty.

5. Reservoir Dogs. From Mr. Blue to Mr. Orange, this is an edge-of-your-seat, can't-believe-what-just-happened story. I've seen it maybe half a dozen times, to make sure I did believe it.

6. Kill Bill. I'm cheating a bit here, because it took two movies to actually kill Bill: KB and KB2. Both were over the top, featuring everything from swordfights to snakes to live burials to Ennio Morricone themes.

7. True Romance. This really is a romance, sort of, but not exactly The Bachelorette. Tarantino's script includes another of those absolutely unforgettable scenes, this one between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken.

8. Miller's Crossing. An unsung triumph: great characters, good plot, and as crazy as . . . well, as crazy as Joel and Ethan Coen.

9. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. From the old saying "May you be in heaven half an hour before, etc." Yet another movie that few folks have seen or heard about.

10. Burn After Reading. Zany performances and surprises at every turn. George Clooney hasn't made many bad movies, and this one was great fun to watch.

Possible runners-up: Seven Psychopaths, The Mexican, Bottle Rocket, The Pawnshop Chronicles, Grindhouse, and Django Unchained. And yes, I realize Django-U was more western than crime/suspense, but if we're talking quirky, it's right up there with the rest.

Weird males?

My wife, I might mention here, has not seen any of these (except Fargo), and is not likely to. In fact I think she's convinced that my IQ, which probably isn't high to begin with, drops a few points with every viewing of this kind of film. Maybe it does--but what can I say? I love this stuff. Maybe it's a guy thing.

Can you think of other goofy or otherwise outrageous suspense movies? Suggestions are welcome--there's plenty of room for more guilty pleasures in my Netflix queue.

Weird sales

In the BREAKING NEWS category: I'm pleased to report that over the past two days I've received acceptances for new short stories at The Strand MagazineWoman's World, and The Saturday Evening Post. And yes, all three tales are quirky …


  1. A week with three sales is a mighty good week.

  2. Thanks, Janice. Since my cash register usually says NO SALE, this really was a good week.

  3. John, I like quirkiness but not violence. I would have hated Fargo had it not been for Frances Dormand's stellar performance as the pregnant police chief. The same for Bruges if it hadn't been filmed in Bruges (and maybe the really good script too). And why did I also enjoy Seven Psychopaths? Probably because I'm a shrink! ;)

  4. Liz, I agree. But in the quirkiest crime films, violence always seems to play a big part. Strangely enough, of the ten movies listed, the most violent by far was True Romance. (Don't be fooled by titles, right?). Next was probably Reservoir Dogs--and yes, both of those had ties to good ole Quentin.

    One that I didn't mention, but that I really really liked, was No Country for Old Men. Best (worst?) villain I've ever seen.

    I too was pleasantly surprised by Seven Psychopaths.

  5. John, seems we have the same taste in quirky movies and the roles played by their stars. And yes, No Country for Old Men is a great addition to the list.
    I can watch the violence in those movies because I know it isn't real life, it's only a play-acting movie.

  6. Have you seen Bandits? Netflix even tagged it as quirky.

    And congrats on all your recent sales! I'm just curious, how long was your story at Strand before you heard back? I sent them a story in November of 2012 and haven't heard anything, and I'm wondering how unusual this is.

  7. R.T., I think No Country was pretty typical of the Coen Brothers' recent efforts. In my opinion, they're among the best directors in the business. I even like their non-crime-genre movies, like The Hudsucker Proxy, True Grit, O Brother, Where Art Thou? etc.

    Liz, I HAVE seen Bandits, and just neglected to mention it. Yep, it would fit right in, as would other Elmore Leonard adaptations like Out of Sight. Too many good movies, too little space . . .

    As for your question, my story to The Strand was out only for a short while this time, which was very unusual. I once had them accept a story of mine that I'd submitted two years earlier(!?!?). I think they're a bit like Reader's Digest used to be: if they want a story, they respond (eventually), and if they don't want it, you just never hear anything back from them. I can't complain, though--they've been extremely good to me.

  8. Great list!

    Another Coen Brothers’ gem is Barton Fink. The movie begins with a New York playwright going to 1940s Los Angeles to try screenwriting, but it turns into a terrifying crime story.

    John Turturro and John Goodman. Superb and definitely Coen quirky.

  9. Thanks, Peter. I swear I think I like every one of their movies. And--have you noticed?--both Turturro and Goodman show up in a LOT of them.

  10. John, Good point about Coen’s casting. Add Frances McDormand as well. And John Goodman is back in the Coen’s newest, Inside Llewyn Davis. I’ve heard his performance is wicked. Not sure it’s my kind of movie, but I’ll see it just because it’s Coen Bros with Goodman.

  11. Peter, I think McDormand has been in at least half a dozen of the Coens' movies (I believe she's married to Joel, but I might be mistaken there). Watch Blood Simple again sometime and notice how young she looks.

    Thanks for the info, on their next movie. I'll look forward to it.

  12. Good list, John. And Congratulations on the sales!

  13. You're right, John. She is married to Joel. And let me congratulate you on your sales. Not surprised, of course, but pleased.

  14. Thanks, Terry and Herschel. Several acceptances at once is rare for me--it helps to offset the MANY times that I go for long stretches without one.

  15. Congrats on that amazing trifecta, John!

    A quirky comedy/adventure movie that flew in largely under the radar was Bill Murray's "The Man Who Knew Too Little," which is a send-up of, well, you know what. Filmed in London and very watchable though a bit slap stick at times.

  16. That's a movie I had completely forgotten about, Dale. And I think just about anything with Bill Murray's gonna be quirky.

    One thing about these SS columns, whether they're mine or yours or one of our colleagues', is that they (and/or the comments that follow them) always either teach me or remind me of novels and stories and movies that I need to read/watch or re-read/re-watch. Isn't it fun, living in an imaginary world . . . ?

  17. Wow, John! You just keep knocking them out of the park. (I'm hoping some day to hear back from The Strand...)

  18. Thanks, Eve! But I assure you, I also strike out a lot. I wish I knew the secret . . .

  19. Congrats, John! Celebrate by watching another quirky flick: "Fried Green Tomatoes."

  20. Good movie, Jeff. I've got that DVD right here on my shelf. We even eat those now and then, down South (the tomatoes, not DVDs)--but I prefer fried dill pickles. Seriously.

  21. I was away for the weekend so I am just catching up. I have seen all of your top ten except True Romance which I do not even remember hearing about, and Bill, which sounded too nasty for me. Oddly, I havent seen any of your runner ups. For quirky crime, how about Lucky Number Slevin?

  22. I forgot about Slevin, Rob--I saw that last year. Yep, it qualifies.

    True Romance is good. It came out in the early 90s, stars Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, Samuel Jackson, etc. If you see it, watch for the scene I mentioned between Walken and Hopper, sometimes called "The Sicilian scene." Top-notch.


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