On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age.
First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing.
Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.
The Pitch: Tragically, Fifty Million Bricks Still Goes Exactly as Far as It Once Did
Two core memories stick out to me from my eighth grade French class: (1) My teacher using the overhead projector as a visual aid while she vented her frustrations about her inability to stop growing hair on her big toe; and (2) watching “A Town Called Panic” for the first time when a substitute was in charge. It’s worth noting that neither of these experiences have had any real bearing on my ability to speak French — but given that one is a borderline traumatic memory and the other introduced me to a delightful midnight movie that I’ve cherished ever since, I think they cancel each other out and make for a pretty decent year.
Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Tavier’s feature-length adaptation of their French-Belgian TV series of the same name is a whimsical stop-motion pastiche whose characters are almost entirely played by antique Western toys. Our three heroes are the appropriately named Cowboy, Indian, and Horse, who live together and spend their days drinking, showering, and attending the occasional piano lesson. It’s a rather aimless existence, but a fun one nonetheless. “A Town Called Panic” is the movie that Sartre might have written if he was a chill pastoral guy with no major grievances about anything.
But nothing tranquil lasts forever. Cowboy and Indian’s attempt to build Horse a barbecue as a birthday present — a well-deserved gesture, as he appears to do the bulk of the household chores and scheduling duties — goes horribly awry due to the nefarious actors in the online brick sales industry. (The anthropomorphic brick avatar named Max who guides them through the purchase emits a fucked-up “Dude, you ran out of eggs” energy that I don’t appreciate.) Despite setting out to buy a sensible 50 bricks, a coffee cup mistakenly placed on the zero key results in 50 million being delivered. The brick crisis takes them on a globe-trotting journey to Antartica (which is naturally right below their house) as they try to return to their calm sitcom-like existence.
Loyal IndieWire After Dark readers who stuck with us through the entire month of October watched us gyrate between slasher comedies and Lovecraftian horror on a scale not seen since the Grateful Dead played their legendary Playin’ in the Band>Uncle John’s Band>Morning Dew>Uncle John’s Band>Playin’ in the Band sandwich on 11/17/1973. Much like our dear friend Horse on his annual June 21st birthday, you all deserve a break. I’ve often found “A Town Called Panic” to be a perfect post-midnight vibes shift that can wash any daylight-induced problems away with its utter silliness. Grab a mug, place it as far away from your keyboard as is humanly fucking possible, and bask in stop motion glory while remembering how luck you are to (presumably) not live directly above Antartica. —CZ
The Aftermath: Fuck the Police, But You Can’t Miss Piano Class
Even in a world of semi-anthropomorphic, Belgian stop-motion, cops are useless.
There’s an admirable expediency to the Policeman’s swift sentencing of Steven when he unwittingly implicates himself in the disappearance of Horse, Cowboy, and Indian’s walls. But the speed achieved is immediately undercut by his failure to make progress on any of the crimes to follow. Three missing persons cases? That nautical squatting incident? A Santa Claus identity theft to rival “A Nightmare Before Christmas”? At least the buck stops at music school.
Fantasy worlds don’t have to seem “real” to be satisfying on screen, but they do require a stable enough internal logic to stay compelling. For all its gigantic waffle vending machines and TV-set scuba helmets, “A Town Called Panic” heroically sticks to its guns (and arrows) from start to finish with an ideal ratio of hand-waving and attention to detail. No, it won’t be explaining how the Earth’s core interconnects with Antarctica, pseudo-Atlantis, and a little pond in Panic. But if a title card says one year later, then it’s Horse’s birthday… “like every June 21!”
Each location in “A Town Called Panic” feels fully imagined, making adventuring through them all the more fun. Every residence is filled with dreamy oddities, from Cowboy and Indian’s standing glass shower that fills to the brim to the Fish Family’s security system of attack barracudas. I yearn to visit the places we didn’t get to see in Panic; chief among them the Briquenet Factory where some poor schlub is undoubtedly pissing in a cup to keep up with all those same-day construction supply orders.
Floating through Patar and Aubier’s little village of hapless people and musically gifted farm animals feels more cozy autumn afternoon than midnight movie to me. But it pulls off enough puzzling genre moments that I could definitely see discussing it with an After Dark-type crowd.
Here’s a laundry list of questions I had while watching the film:
- Why are Janine and Steven such drastically different sizes?
- Have Cowboy and Indian ever really gone to war with each other? Sequel? Spinoff?
- What language were the robo-Penguin scientists speaking? More importantly, what is their deal?
- What’s the local currency in Panic? Can anyone do the conversion between 100 piano classes and 50 million bricks?
- Are the cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens Steven’s children, workers, pets, or something… else?
- What was Donkey reading before bed? Also, who taught Donkey to read?
- How does Janine support her husband’s massive breakfast habit?
- Will Horse and Jacqueline have back problems from standing up to dance like that?
- Why was Simon’s receptionist desk piano so big if it played the same set of notes?
- Should they rebuild Panic after the fireworks incident — or just call it?
“A Town Called Panic” feels closest to 1977’s “The Point” in the canon of this column. Much like The Pointed Village, it’s a zany feat of filmmaking set in a universe strange enough to merit visiting at least once over the course of your cinematic career. Plus, it’s a testament to the under-tapped potential of toy-based animation. Even with Batman, LEGO ain’t got nothing on the mystery-laden, crime-ridden underbelly of Panic. Fuck the Police(man); justice for Steven! —AF
Those brave enough to join in on the fun can stream “A Town Called Panic” for free with ads on Plex. IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…