“Strawberry Mansion” is a quirky, cheap DIY-looking sci-fi parable about a future when dreams are being taxed, and some villainous successor to Google or Facebook has figured out a way to inject “product placement” into those dreams.
It takes place mostly in the titular structure, a Pepto-colored folly that a film buff might see as being right at home on the streets where Terry Gilliam or his Canadian counter part Guy Maddin live. And if you aren’t passingly familiar with those two icons of odd, we need to have a little talk.
Co-writer/director Kentucker Audley, who turns up in lots of off-Hollywood cinema and in the occasional horror film (“She Dies Tomorrow”) stars as Mr. Preble, a government dream auditor who shows up at the home of retiree Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller). She’s been dreaming off the books, and she’s kept all these now-banned format tapes of those dreams that Preble will have to don his whimsical dream-immersion helmet to research what she’s been using in her dreams.
A hot air balloon shows up? That’s taxable at a $35,000 rate. This restaurant or that beach scene has a value for tax purposes.
“Bella” is sanguine about the whole misunderstanding and invites Preble to stay in her spare room, usually home to Sugarbaby (a turtle fed on strawberries). Once Preble gets started, he’s privy to all of Bella’s somnambular wanderings. He even sees her younger self (Grace Glowicki) in those dreams, while he is a translucent, flickering video image of himself as a bystander.
There are warnings in Bella’s voice from a trapped housefly. Is someone trying to kill him in her dreams?
“DREAM of me, Mr. Preble!”
Meanwhile, in his waking life, Preble is starting to become aware of his and everyone else’s craving for Rocket Fuel cola and Cap’n Kelly’s fried chicken, home of the new “chicken shake.” Yes. That’s right. And people CRAVE that.
The effects are adorably primitive, mostly 1970s TV era video “special” effects. Giant costumed mice in sailor suits crew the barkentine (a model ship) Preble finds himself commanding in one dream, a sax-playing waiter with a frog’s head might be in a dream, or might have stepped into Preble’s reality.
And then there’s the whole suggestion that he “turn yourself into a caterpillar” to get out of this.
Meanwhile, there’s this omnipresent “I’ve got your back” pal (Linus Phillips) who’s always there to catch Preble and offer him a fresh bucket of chicken to fortify him. Phillips is the stand-out player in the cast, largely by pitching his performance as “wacky” while everybody else goes deadpan.
There’s a whole lot of “bizarre” going here, but it’s easy enough to follow and its meaning and message are simple enough to understand.
Sure, there’s a chance you’ll empathize when Preble states the obvious — “I think I’m losing my mind.” But for those who like a couple of scoops of avante garde on their strawberry waffle cone, the weirdness rarely lets up in this original take on a big cultural bugaboo.
Cast: Kentucker Audley, Penny Fuller, Grace Glowicki, Linus Phillips and Reed Birney.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney. A Music Box Films release.
Running time: 1:31