Pranks From Beyond

God played another joke on me today. You may think that an odd thing to say. I mean, first you have to believe in God and that’s hard enough. How do you get to the point not only of believing, but suspecting — no, feeling rather certain, actually — that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has played a joke on you?

Well, an example may help. This past Easter, the kids and I were at a church event, searching for plastic Easter eggs filled with candy. One of us — Katy, I think — found a rather large, light blue, plastic egg. It had CARS 2 emblazoned on the side. We popped it open.

It contained a dirty, ugly, disgusting, white plastic joint from a sewer feed. Just a chunk. A fragment. Like it had fallen from space.

I was delighted.

When the kids asked if we should “show it to somebody,” I replied, “Are you kidding? If we show this to a grown-up, they’ll take it away from us — as evidence. No way! This is a prize, man! We are keeping this!”

We spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how it got there. The eggs were donated. Did some eager Mom get her kids to “hurry up and put those eggs together” and did one kid — with a snicker and a wink at the others — put this piece of crap in one of the eggs? Out of spite and annoyance? Or was there a darker explanation?

Whatever. I’ve got the egg, its contents intact, on the bookshelf beside my bed.

That’s what I’m talking about. Weird stuff like that.

Today, my daughter Sarah and I went to the local Goodwill to buy me a pair of shorts. I am fortunate in that our Goodwill has an organized book and dvd store. It’s really cool. I found signed Bradbury books there once. Two of them. And on some days a bus comes by and a small group of teenagers with severe learning disabilities browse through the books. Some of them can only express their excitement at a discovery by screaming really loud. So it’s pretty awesome.

Most days, when I look through the DVDs, it’s the usual stuff: “A Beautiful Mind,” “Animal House,” “Are Mormons Really Christians?,” “Final Destination,” “The Care Bears Movie,” “Stretching Techniques for the Aged.”

But today, as I skimmed the shelves (because I simply can’t look at every single DVD case like I used to), I saw colors and words that didn’t seem to fit with “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “G-Force.”

The DVDs are not lined there standing up straight, but are stacked flat, one atop the other. I pulled the dvd out to take a look.

There was Korean lettering all over the thing, but I finally spied some English words.

MONDO CANE, it said.

“Oh my God, no,” I whispered.

“What is it?” Sarah said.

“I think it’s… I think it’s MONDO CANE.”

Like a little kid, I didn’t know how to pronounce it. I had only encountered this film in books. I said it this way: “Mahn-doe Cah-NAY.”

Then I realized maybe it was just a long A sound. “Mahn-doe CAYN.”

“What’s that?” Sarah asked, amused at my strangely altered face and voice. She likely thought I was kidding.

“Well,” I replied (steady on, old boy), “you know how there are some tribes I guess? Who are so removed from civilization that they develop strange, bizarre customs? Probably to appease the gods or the dead?” I brightened. “You know — like the Aztecs! They sacrificed a *lot* of people, those Aztecs!”

“Oh yeah,” she replied. “I know about the Aztecs.”

“Well, this is a documentary about just how bizarre that sort of thing can get. I can’t believe it’s here. And a Korean import. But it says it’s compatible in three regions. I can probably get it to play.”

And then I saw it.

Another one. Yet different somehow.

“What the heck?”

I pulled the other DVD from between the various cases. It WAS a different one. A different MONDO CANE. It read, “Africa Addio — Directors’ Cut.” Then, by all that is holy, I saw another one. “Goodbye Uncle Tom — English Version,” it read. And, my mind reeling, yet another one. “Addio Zio Tom — Director’s Cut.”

I breathed. I blinked.

“I don’t understand. I don’t understand. Why are there so many MONDO CANES? I thought it was just one documentary!”

At this point, I should explain something. A very particular feeling was building inside me. This is what the feeling said in its feeling sort of way: “I cannot NOT purchase these DVDs.” There’s a kind of line traced in my mind somewhere — a line having to do with obscurity, cult status, a film I read about in “Famous Monsters” but never actually saw. If a particular film crosses that line, I have to buy it. Most of the time, fortunately, I don’t have to buy ANY of the DVDs at Goodwill. I’m a horror fan, sure, but I don’t *need* a copy of “The Ruins” or “The Gift” or “Pitch Black.” Those films come nowhere near that line. But if someone gets tired of their cult film DVDs or if they die and their family says, “What should we do with all those crappy movies he loved so much?” and, as a result, I run across a copy of “Blood Freak” or “Murder Party” or “The Old, Dark House,” I gotta get it. Call it Wannabe Film Curator Syndrome. Call it a sick and penetrating greed for the strange. The thing has crossed the line. I can’t pass it up.

That’s the joke. The joke God was playing on me. He knows only too well about that line. And He, in His divine providence, drawing straight lines with crooked something-or-others, placed Korean imports of MONDO CANE movies in front of me. On a quiet Tuesday afternoon. When all I wanted was a cheap pair of shorts. At Good-freakin-will.

“Here’s another one,” Sarah said.

She pulled out another DVD with the same packaging design, the same outrageous images. “Women of the World” the title read.

“Oh my God,” I whispered.

Sarah laughed.

“I’m not joking,” I replied. “This is freaking me out.”

I pulled loose a DVD with a cover that read “Africa Addio — English Version.” I felt like Sarah — there beside me — was barely restraining herself as I found yet another MONDO CANE movie. Was Dad losing it? Was it okay to laugh? “Mondo Cane 2” the DVD case read.

“Why are there some many MONDO CANES?” I cried again, shuffling the covers in my hands, incapable of reading the lengthy Korean descriptions on the backs. “WHY ARE THERE SO MANY MONDO CANES?! It makes no sense! I have to go look,” I breathed. I checked my pocket for my cell phone. It was there, cold and complacent. “I have to go look this up online.”

So I sat there on one of the Goodwill couches, a stack of MONDO CANE DVDs and a single Thomas Sowell paperback at my side. “The Barbarians are IN the gate!” the paperback stated. Sarah began checking her social media.

It turns out there are a lot of MONDO CANE documentaries. Made in the Sixties, the Seventies. By the same two directors. They had plenty of work. Strangeness and deviance exist all round the globe.

Comparing Amazon reviews is my usual go-to for a balanced appraisal.

One critic refered to “the still-shocking films of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, a body of work that has influenced everything from broadcast news to ‘reality TV’ and changed the face of cinema forever.”

One purchaser opined, “Haven’t seen them all. I have been loving Riz Ortolani soundtracks since the 70’s and looked forward to seeing the films with his music. These extremely powerful documentaries are incredible, but not for everyone. Fridays we shoot the hippos. I am surprised the photographers survived. Beautifully remastered.”

That was a different release, though. I questioned cannily whether these Korean editions were beautifully remastered — while another part of me wondered what the hell I was getting myself into. But all the ratings, I insisted, every freaking one, was either four and a half or five stars. I mean, that’s remarkable. Is it because these films have a kind of retro appeal? Are they “tame by today’s standards”? None of the reviewers seemed to be saying that.

I hadn’t eaten all day. I was getting dizzy. Staring at those Korean MONDO CANE covers. People were spending big money for these things on Amazon (an $80 boxed set is big money for me). And here they were. Four dollars each.

“If you don’t like them, you can sell them,” Sarah said.

It was kind of her not to judge me. We would probably go home and eat ravioli out of a can and here I was buying DVDs. And after I attempted, last night, to trim my DVD collection. Goodbye “The Corpse Grinders.” No, wait, that one has a tour of Ted V. Mikels’ studio. Goodbye, double-feature of “IT” and “The Shuttered Room.” Yeah, unless Roddy McDowall is in chimp make-up or killing vampires, his same-person-all-the-time performances drive me up the wall. Plus, that stupid “Psycho” rip-off ending. Sheesh. Not that I don’t enjoy a good rip-off, mind you. Goodbye, “Mega Piranha”…

“Okay,” I sighed. “Let’s go.”

I’ll need to go back in a day or so. To look for the missing DVD, a tribute to Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, GODFATHERS OF MONDO, by David Gregory.

And to buy some shorts.