dark ominous mind-bending

Such are adjectives used by Netflix and Amazon to push entertainment product. Wait, can everything be "mind-bending"? Below is a sample of recent movies and TV shows with additional categories to classify their mind-bending properties.

Travelers (Showcase/Netflix series)

cult -- Travelers from Earth's future are guided by an omniscient AI "Director"
apocalypse -- Future earthlings live in domed cities surrounded by uninhabitable wasteland
dimensional doorway -- The Director sends Travelers back to "the 21st" via quantum entanglement
super powers -- Travelers are trained for hard combat and communicate via "coms" implanted in their necks

The OA (Netflix series)

cult -- Followers of a blond angel-like woman are viewed as nuts by non-followers
apocalypse -- None
dimensional doorway -- The angel's followers learn ritualistic movements that cause people to jump to parallel Earths
super powers -- Teleportation into "host bodies" in parallel Earths

Another Earth

cult -- Guilt-ridden woman believes doppelganger Earth that has appeared in sky may offer a forked causal path where she is not guilty
apocalypse -- None (miraculously the doppelganger Earth doesn't cause tidal devastation on our planet)
dimensional doorway -- It's hinted that that the "other Earth" is a parallel world but an actual, physical space shuttle is launched to go visit it
super powers -- None


cult -- Psychopathic protagonist receives messages from a superhero character on a Christian TV channel; protagonist has one devoted follower (Ellen Page) who shares his delusional worldview
apocalypse -- None
dimensional doorway -- Protagonist also receives messages in otherwordly dreams, including one bizarre sequence where snakes slice his skull open
super powers -- Protagonist has no powers (a la Batman); instead, he fights crime by viciously knocking wrongdoers on the head with a pipe wrench


cult -- Parents pretend their adopted son wasn't rescued from a crashed spaceship; they convince each other he is a normal kid
apocalypse -- Only the hell unleashed on Earth by the arrival of this bad seed kid
dimensional doorway -- None, but possibly the spaceship receives power and messages from "elsewhere"
super powers -- Superboy character uses heat and X-ray vision, flying, and strength for evil rather than good

The Endless

cult -- Two boys raised by cult and deprogrammed return to the commune as adults
apocalypse -- Lovecraftian demon entity (seen only in charcoal sketches) controls commune territory
dimensional doorway -- Cult members "ascend" in mass suicide but remain trapped in time-loop personal universes
super powers -- The entity watches from the skies and controls humans with teleportation and telekinesis


cult -- In the Unbreakable/Split/Glass universe, it's unclear whether special talents rise to the level of super powers; believers in powers (such as Mr. Glass' mom) have cult-like faith that they exist
apocalypse -- None
dimensional doorway -- The villain has multiple personalities, one of which, The Beast, may have super strength. There is discussion of personalities emerging from "the light" within the host's consciousness. The light is not explained but may be a portal of some sort
super powers -- The Beast can climb walls and bend steel bars; he eats humans to build up strength

Stranger Things (Netflix series - Season 1)

cult -- Kid is kidnapped; initially only Mom (Winona Ryder) knows he is in "The Upside Down"; believers in that scary place maintain a cult-like bond in the face of skeptical normals
apocalypse -- None, except that the Upside Down is a dark, gloppy mirror world of our world
dimensional doorway -- Telepathy experiments in government lab attract beastie from The Upside Down
super powers -- The beastie can move between dimensions, drawn by the smell of blood; girl escaped from government lab has psychic powers


cult -- Bond of love causes normal man to act as enabler for beautiful woman who periodically transforms into Lovecraftian monster
apocalypse -- None
dimensional doorway -- Monster's huge bulk balloons into normal space, seemingly from the Beyond
super powers -- The woman claims her transformations aren't occult but rather science (stem cell treatments) run amok; she is superhumanly powerful and aggressive after transforming

The Umbrella Academy (Netflix series - Season 1)

cult -- Stern disciplinarian father raises seven mysteriously-conceived children as super heroes
apocalypse -- Preventing the end of world is the main plot driver
dimensional doorway -- Doorways in time and space open and close throughout the series
super powers -- Teleportation, telekinesis, hypnotic suggestion, time travel, super strength, uncanny knife throwing, communicating with the dead, ectoplasmic tentacles

The Magicians (Science Fiction Channel - TV series)

cult -- College campus for teaching magic expels some students; rejects wishing to practice become low-class "hedge witches"
apocalypse -- "The end of magic" is a frequent plot driver
dimensional doorway -- "Travelers" can jump to other worlds. Other dimensions can also be accessed by diving into a fountain on the college campus
super powers -- "Magic" isn't just conjuring tricks but includes teleportation, telekinesis, telepathy, and communicating with spirits. Some characters are gods and have godlike powers

mexican horror, 1970s quasi-scary tv movies, etc

Adding things to a blogroll is so 2004, but regardless, I recently found The Dwrayger Dungeon, which takes screenshots of great crap movies and tv shows (mostly of the psychotronic variety) and arranges the shots in top-to-bottom narratives, with captions channeling the style of an enthusiastic 13-year-old circa 1962. Here's an example, chosen at random, from a post on the classic Mexican horror film The Witch's Mirror:

witch's mirror

The poster below isn't from one of those narratives, but rather a collection of DVD covers and magazine ads for 1970s made-for-tv movies that would have been lost to the mists of time were it not for sites like The Dwrayger Dungeon:

devil dawg

woof woof -- ruff ruff -- scratches -- gnaws on bone in corner

Slacker discussion from Alex on Film - excerpts


Slacker (1991) was Richard Linklater's first film and still his best. Discussion of it tends to center on its role in defining "Gen X," the American youth-type that came between Boomers and Millennials. Yet it's a product of Linklater's mind: he wrote the words, rounded up unknowns of a certain age to speak them, and filmed them ingeniously. In some ways Slacker embodies every group of American 20-somethings who came out of college liberal arts programs, took a look at their employment opportunities (nonexistent or soul-deadening) and didn't want to leave the house (or communal house). In other ways, it partakes of the special chemistry of Austin, TX around 1990. Slightly run-down, cheap to live in, students everywhere, as well as an assortment of old, weird, human relics from the hippie '60s still visible in the streets. The monologue at the end about a "weapons giveaway program" is a verbatim rant from Jim Roche's Learning to Count, from the early '70s. Linklater didn't write it but he channeled it, especially its hostility. Slacker is funny but also angry; when people aren't delivering monologues to no one, they are bickering. The blog Alex on Film covered the movie last year, and I chimed in recently in the comments. Below are some excerpts from the post and comments.

Alex Good (from the main post): Mostly, the slackers are students. The few who most obviously aren’t are either old men or criminals. But what are they students of? I don’t think they’re MBAs or in law or med school. They’re not engineers or science majors. Instead, the sad joke is that they’re what had become, by the 1980s, the ring of scum around the university bathtub. They are students of the arts and humanities. Their interests are music, literature, film, history, and philosophy. Which means they have no role at all to play in modern life.

This is why they seem so adrift. While perhaps not lazy (a charge Linklater fiercely resists), they clearly aren’t getting much done. Hence the refrain we hear throughout the film of people being asked what they are up to and them saying “nothing much” or “um, nothing.” One of them has a band practice in another five hours, so . . . there’s the rest of the day shot.

But they are more lost than even this implies. They are a hundred performers in search of an audience. As Linklater sits in the back seat of the cab he drones on about alternate realities while the cabbie is clearly paying no attention to him at all. This encounter becomes the model for almost all the subsequent engagements. Even the band at the end is playing to an empty club. As Linklater points out in his commentary over this scene, most dialogue is a conversation and involves interaction but “this movie is very one-sided.”

Tom Moody (from the comments): Slacker is somewhat unique to Austin, Texas, in that it was a town where people could “drift,” from say, the ’60s to the ’90s. Texas conservative types were calling it the land of the lotus eaters decades ago. The University of Texas has a huge student population — 40,000 or so — and many graduates chose to hang around, because Austin was a relaxed and pleasant environment (it has since become more silicon valley/yuppie/materialist). Slacker is kind of the down side of all that hanging out. At the time I saw it, I took it as a black comedy — or what we’d now called cringe comedy — of/for stoner intellectuals. It is depressing, but that made it funny. [...]

You’ve made a good observation that these are likely mostly humanities students, and not engineers or business graduates. Since the 1970s, in the US, there is an awkward period for such students, where they haven’t found their “paying job” or “day job” yet and are just getting by from day to day, wondering what it all means (with agonizing self awareness from having just read Sartre and Joyce in school). Eventually the money runs out and they become nurses or paralegals, go back to school for a professional degree, start a meth lab, or what have you. Some will launch zines (then), blogs (2000s) or a twitter account (2010s) and may actually build an audience. In Linklater’s case he raised money and made a film.

In Slacker, because it was Austin in 1990 and relatively easy to live comfortably, you had a larger mass of these artistically sensitive people together in one place, with possible role models being the older anarchists and criminals you also have noted. (Austin at that time had a population of “dragworms,” which were homeless ex-hippies panhandling along Guadalupe Street, aka The Drag.) What makes the movie difficult is the tone of simmering hostility throughout. Couples bicker and bemoan that “humans need to be unhappy.” The woman handing out Zen “oblique strategies” cards has a shiner on her eye from domestic violence. There is a lot of petty theft happening (“2 for 1 special?”) The partying-with-camera at the end badly needs a killer from the woods to end the vacuous revels. Linklater’s upbeat statements, which you’ve quoted, should probably be discounted. Clearly, at the time he made this, he was pissed off about living in post-Reagan America and sick of his peers. The anger wasn’t necessarily generational, although Douglas Coupland’s book had a similar world-weary tone (from the excerpts I’ve read).

Alex Good (from the comments): Do you think he was that negative about these people? It’s interesting that because it’s so much a film of its time and place, his attitude and our attitudes have probably changed a lot with perspective. I mean, personally I can identify somewhat with some of the slackers (at least the less successful or likeable ones). I was a bit like this at this particular time. So if I’d seen this movie in ’91 (which I didn’t, at least that I recall) I think I would have had a different reaction to it than I have today, especially since I’ve seen what happened to this generation and also seen their replacements (the hipsters and the digital natives). I think Linklater probably feels differently today as well. At the end of the day, I think I feel more sorry for them than anything. I don’t enjoy their vacuous revels, but that killer was waiting in the woods for most of them.

Tom Moody (from the comments): I saw it in the theatre when it came out and clearly remember it, as well as my reactions, and the reactions of my friends (both boomer and gen-x). A boomer who had run a bookstore in the ’60s called Grok Books found it incredibly dismal (“where is the hope and sense of purpose that I felt at that age?” she asked). My gen-x friends found it amusing. Having suffered firsthand through the “yuppie” era I was glad to note a cultural shift from faux-’50s, morning-in-america sweetness to something more like the cynicism of the ’70s.

The film came out during the Bush recession and the standard media narrative (now) is that these slackers of 1990 became the dotcom millionaires of the Clinton era. Certainly a few did.

As for Linklater’s negativity towards his characters, you have the guy going to get coffee in his bathrobe (shades of Dude Lebowski). He thoughtlessly picks up the newspaper the paranoid guy is reading, walks back to his apartment with it, and cold shoulders his girlfriend, who wants to go out to a park and play frisbee. He starts showing interest, but only sexually, and she cuts him off by saying “that’s something I can do better myself.”* It’s a funny moment but dark. Why is he such a jerk? Is belittling his sexuality the answer? Dozens of these little moments have a way of adding up to a cumulative malaise — contempt not just for the world of the slackers, but the slackers themselves. As I noted, the negativity was refreshing after Tom Cruise and sunny Reagan fakeness but it makes for a tough emotional go, then and now. If viewers “dislike the people in it” (as you noted) that’s on Linklater, not “a generation.”

*The actual line is "No, no, no -- that's one thing that would be more effective on my own."

Alex Good (from the comments): Ouch! Is the standard narrative now that the slackers turned into dotcom millionaires? That’s even worse than the hippies selling out. Seems so unfair.

You’ve got an interesting take on the film. Darker than mine. I just had the sense that everyone is ignoring the slackers and in some of the worst cases maybe it’s made them bitter. But overall they seem paradoxically extroverted and withdrawn. Sort of manic. Perhaps today they’d all be taking medication.

Afterthoughts: It's a sign of Linklater's talent that people treat Slacker as if it were a documentary and not a one-man show with a hundred puppet performers speaking his lines. The narrative structure recalls Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty, where a peripheral actor in one scene walks out and becomes the main actor in the next. Phantom's a dream film, about as far from the documentary form as can be. And yet, people read Slacker for what it says about a generation, not as a collection of routines and riffs by an adept film comedian.

gaslight this

In the film Gaslight (1944), Charles Boyer plays tricks on his wife (Ingrid Bergman) to make her think she is crazy, so he can have her committed to an asylum and find some jewels hidden in her house. Alex Good, at Alex on Film, prefers the less-well-known 1940 version:

In 1944 MGM managed to get a bunch of stars in alignment (and it wasn’t easy), but I prefer Anton Walbrook [in the 1940 film] to Charles Boyer. Walbrook is a more believable and altogether nastier piece of work. His creepy voice has an unnerving way of making his lines sound a bit like perverted baby-talk. And while it will be accounted heresy by some, I think Diana Wynyard is more convincing in the role of the bride coming unglued than the always composed Ingrid Bergman. Wynyard has the haunted, neurotic look of Véra Clouzot in Les Diaboliques, or Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. Finally, the amateur sleuth/hostler Frank Pettingell is a lot more fun than Joseph Cotten (“Saucy shirt, isn’t it?”), and Cathleen Cordell is a more erotic housemaid than Angela Lansbury, without having to try so hard. There’s some real heat generated between her and her louche master.

In the comments we discuss the term "gaslighting." The Maddow mafia evidently thinks Trump invented it but it was slung around quite a bit in the Bush II era. Good notes that Maureen Dowd even applied it to Bill Clinton, in the 1990s. How long has the verb "to gaslight" been around? One article traces it as far back as the 1960s TV show Gomer Pyle USMC:

Here’s an example of the verb “gaslight” in “The Grudge Match,” an episode that aired on 12 Nov. 1965 (antedating OED’s 1969 cite for the verb, as well as the Dec. 1965 cite for the verbal noun).

Duke: You know, you guys, I’m wondering. Maybe if we can’t get through to the sarge we can get through to the chief.

Frankie: How do you mean?…

Duke: The old war on nerves. We’ll gaslight him.

In addition to being a hoary cliche of political discussion, "gaslighting" has also been embraced by the therapy community. Search the term and you'll pull up many articles with titles such as "12 Signs You Are Being Gaslighted by a Narcissist." (Shouldn't that be gaslit?)

But for all its cliche-dom, repetition, and use as a Trump-cudgel, what does the term even mean? Politically, it seems to have devolved from “employing elaborate ruses to make a person think he or she is crazy” to merely “scaring people or psych-ing them out.” As a therapy trope its connection to the film(s) is tenuous. Most spouse abuse is not predicated on a calculated program of deceptions for material gain, it's just the guy being an a-hole. Both the pundits and the shrinks make the term mean what they want it to mean. They are, y'know, gaslighting us.