Sunday, April 20, 2014

Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939)

A certain Harry Crowel (Charles “Future Emperor Ming” Middleton doing some fine mugging), now preferring to be called after his prison number 39013, has escaped from prison. He’s out for revenge on his former (legal) business partner Granville (Miles Mander) whom he makes responsible for his prison stint.

39013 is quite the evil master mind, so soon Granville’s various business holdings are exploding left and right. One of these attacks kills the little brother of circus performer Gene Townley (Charles Quigley). Together with his performing buddies Tiny Dawson (Bruce Bennett) and Bert Knowles (David Sharpe), and their rather handy dog Tuffie, Gene hires on as a very special security detail for Granville, in the hopes of laying hands on 39013 this way.

Little do they expect that Granville isn’t Granville anymore but 39013 who keeps the real Granville locked up in a hidden cell in his house for regular gloating sessions. Consequently, the daredevils’ missions to thwart 39013 tend to be rather more dangerous than they should be. Fortunately, they’re serial heroes. Additionally, a mysterious shadowy figure our daredevils imaginatively come to call the Red Circle leaves them helpful – yet not too helpful – warning messages under their own red circle symbol.

In general, serials do have a worse reputation now than they actually deserve, and I think much of the blame for it lies in later generations like mine watching the poor things in inappropriate ways. They were, after all, made to be seen in weekly instalments, and neither to be binged on like a TV show made in the 2010s – which makes their repetitive nature annoying – nor to be watched in the often horrible film versions that try to stitch a serial into a narrative that makes sense as a movie – which doesn’t work because the source material was usually just not written that way.

When watched properly (or if you’re like me once a day), perhaps as an appetizer before each film in your own private Bergman retrospective, it becomes far easier to appreciate the serials’ actual strengths, as well as their weaknesses. The latter mostly lie in cardboard characters, sometimes illogical plotting, again repetitiveness, and sometimes pretty horrid racism (in Daredevils represented by the fortunately not very frequent horrifying “comedy” stylings of Fred “Snowflake” Toones, and the horrifying way the rest of the cast treats him, which is to say, worse than the dog). The first three things aren’t much of a problem if you’re watching the episodes with the fact in mind that what you’re seeing was meant to provide a jolt of excitement before the evening’s cinematic main event; the last one is inexcusable, but for me at least (and in this case) easily shrugged of by seeing it as a sign of its times and the people the serials were made for. Everyone’s mileage will of course vary at that point.

What’s good about serials, and the Republic serials of directors John English and William Witney (with English shooting the talky stuff and interiors, and Witney the outside scenes and the action), of which Daredevils is supposed to be one of the best, is the sheer excitement and pacing of the action sequences, with some really imaginative stunts, and as many explosions and destroyed buildings as the budgets could come up with or the directors could special effects magic in. It’s all pleasantly breathless, sometimes uncomfortably dangerous looking, shot with surprising care if you keep the shooting schedules and budgets for these things in mind, and directed with a lot of visual imagination. You can, in fact, watch this and see how Witney (co-)invents not a little of the visual language of action filmmaking; much of it is still used today.

While the acting of our three heroes is at best serviceable, they do have the right sort of physicality for the action, and given that Daredevils expresses all that’s important to it, and all that’s good about it, through its physicality, that’s exactly what the serial needs.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Universal Van Damme: The Order (2001)

Rudy Cafmeyer (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is one of those charming rogues and cat burglars one hears so often about, though with a side-line in kicking people in the face, because he’s JCVD. Rudy’s father Oscar (Vernon Dobtcheff), a professor of archaeology doesn’t approve of his son’s lifestyle, curiously enough.

Right now, Oscar is concerning himself with a mysterious and secret (so secret, we will later learn, they’re on the TV news in Israel) sect. He seems to have found the lost final part of the group’s holy book, so off he goes to Israel where he disappears without a trace.

Of course, Rudy travels to Israel to find his Dad, and soon finds himself chased through Jerusalem by bad people with guns as well as the Israeli police. During the course of his adventures, Rudy will team up with honest cop Dalia (Sofia Milos), watch Charlton Heston die, save his dad, fight crazy cultists, and will just perhaps also save the world from total destruction.

For at least the first half of its running time, Van Damme veteran Sheldon Lettich’s The Order is a pretty family friendly action adventure with broad comedic touches, the kind of film you could imagine watching with your imaginary children, at least if you are a desensitised monster like I am. Tonally, it’s an attempt to fuse classic Van Damme-isms like That Kick with elements of the post-Indiana Jones adventure movie and a bit of daft yet pleasant Da Vinci code historical conspiracy nonsense (which did exist long before Dan Brown descended from his spaceship).

The film does grow increasingly strange and a bit more violent the longer it goes on, though, with many a minor character dying while the whole affair’s tone – which started out quite comic-book like anyway – shifts into full-out, yet cost-conscious craziness, with a pretty stupid coup d'état among the sectarians that leaves Brian Thompson in charge to fulfil a dubious prophecy even after he knows the dubious prophecy is actually false, and stupid main henchmen Ben Cross deciding that he’ll still have use for money on his Swiss bank account after he has helped his boss start World War III, and all sorts of off-handed craziness.

The film’s strangest – and potentially offensive to the easily offended, which is to say at least half of the inhabitants of the Internet – part comes quite a bit earlier though, when Jean-Claude disguises himself as a Hasidic Jew to escape police attention only to end up in a prolonged chase sequence full of other dubious national stereotypes (also to be found in the curiously upmarket Pino Donaggio soundtrack) and some Jackie-Chan-lite choreography.

What all this adds up to is certainly not what Serious People will call a good film, but, as somebody perhaps not all that serious, I found myself rather charmed and certainly entertained by The Order’s comic book nonsense, the hammy acting (Jean-Claude is the most subdued actor on screen!), and the all-around cheap professionalism of the production.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

In short: Guru, the Mad Monk (1970)

Thanks to the generosity of Vinegar Syndrome, now you too can delight in one of Andy Milligan’s movies in beautiful high definition without having to pay a price, or rather, without having to pay a monetary price, for watching a Milligan movie takes its psychological toll on most of us. In fact, a viewer of any given Milligan movie might never be the same afterwards. Just look at your once mild-mannered blogger who is now, just like Milligan himself, quite hateful of everyone (yes, even you!).

Guru concerns the shenanigans medieval priest Father Guru (Neil Flanagan) gets up to in his position as the head of the Church’s island death camp. Bodysnatching, vampirism, torture and a guy in a particularly horrible hunchback costume ensue. Given the film’s Milligan-typical claustrophobically cramped sets, the school play costumes and the sub school play acting, it should be as easy – if boring – to make fun of this as of any film by the director, but as it is always the case with Milligan films and me, Guru is no laughing matter but a film making me decidedly uncomfortable.

The at times absurdly cramped sets and the even more claustrophobia-inducing blocking Milligan prefers take on oppressive hues, with people not so much standing beside one another but crawling into each other’s faces, often times shouting their decidedly angry dialogue at one another with all the enthusiasm their very basic acting talents can manage. Hardly a scene goes by where someone doesn’t do or say something deeply unpleasant while the camera looks on unmoving and most probably unmoved by human empathy, gleeful in its unwillingness to engage beyond The Swirl.

Milligan, his films convince me again and again, hates me, not just in my function as his audience, but also as a member of the human race, and while he can’t hurt me physically (one hopes, for one does not believe in life after death), he sure as hell can hurl his hate for humanity in my face in film form again and again, which he does quite effectively in Guru.

There’s an unbelievably unpleasant, brutal, undertone to the film – as to Milligan’s whole body of work – the sort of feeling that turns what should be nothing more than MST3K-style fodder for cheap laughs into something quite different, a very personal outburst of loathing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Battle of the Last Panzer (1969)

Original title: La batalla del último Panzer

During the Allied invasion of France, at a point when Germany has been beaten back far enough that more than one soldier of their side knows which way the winds blows regarding the whole master race thing, a single Tiger tank finds itself caught behind enemy lines, and worse for the handful of soldiers involved, commanded by a Lieutenant (Stelvio Rosi) who is still a gung ho Nazi out to win a war that’s already lost.

Not surprisingly given these circumstances, the handful of soldiers decreases in numbers fastly, what with the good Lieutenant’s unwillingness to just surrender to someone. There are encounters with the French resistance, a village repeatedly in need to change the flag congratulating their newest conqueror/liberator, an innkeeper’s wife (Erna Schurer) with a bad taste in men to live out her existential crisis with, and much interpersonal wrangling. And that’s before the Americans get wind of the German tanks loose behind their lines and send in Guy Madison (as well as a dubious plan). It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that things will end badly.

If you are one of these sad people populating even sadder parts of the Internet demanding historical accuracy from your cheap Spanish war movies, and get in a tizzy when an on-screen Tiger isn’t an actual Tiger, or when soldiers wear the wrong helmets, or really, if you’re the kind of person who cares about the helmets people wear in a war movie instead of what any given film has to say about the people wearing those helmets, you’ll probably probably die of a heart attack watching this. Me, I’m made of sterner stuff when it comes to films that aren’t documentaries, and really don’t think the helmet makes the movie, though it is of course nice when a film can afford the money and care to find the right ones.

Really, José Luis Merino’s Battle of the Last Panzer is worth a bit of tolerance, seeing as it features a handful of moments of clever filmmaking and a script with some ideas of its own you don’t find in every World War II film - though generally more often in those made in Europe, because the filmmakers will approach the theme from a different direction, and perhaps with more mixed sympathies.

The film’s script is quite loosely structured, only escaping the description of “episodic” by not having all that much happen in it at all. However, the stretches of little happening with an undercurrent of watching psychological damaged people getting close to their breaking points, followed by violence, followed by little action again, which make up the film’s structure seem to fit the nature of the war as its German protagonists experience it quite well. Now, I’m not necessarily saying the script uses this structure on purpose, however, the impression while watching stays the same in any case. What I definitely am saying is that the film is more interested in the psychological pressure of the situation and exploring the strain of people in a situation built to crush them than in clever plotting. This approach works quite well for the film, too. It has its share of boring scenes, but also a cast of characters that is as a rule more complicated than you’ll find in most war movies.

The complicated relationship between Erna Schurer’s Jeanette and her husband, as well as the thing going on between her and the Lieutenant come to mind at once, or the fact that the Lieutenant is not just a deeply unpleasant Nazi thug (though he is that, too) but also shows moments of kindness. He also suffers from PTSD, something films generally seem to think is ennobling, and therefore only inflict on whomsoever they deign to be the good guy in any given situation, as if history (and hey, even World War II) wouldn’t make quite clear that monstrosity and vulnerability are both very human traits, and both traits can appear in the same person, perhaps even one entwined with the other so much it becomes difficult to tell which is which.

The violence here is generally not of the fun and adventurous sort, yet also keeping away from the kind of gruesomeness that produces a visceral reaction in its audience (one suspects there wasn’t a budget for the latter). It stays in a middle ground where violence is a bad thing, and war is hell, but there’s nothing spectacular or emotionally disturbing shown. There is, though, one blunt yet clever directorial trick in a scene that would have been a big (or biggish, with the budget involved here) violent action set piece in most films but turns it into something quite different, and arguably more interesting, here. When the Lieutenant and his surviving crew slaughter the French resistance members, Merino films the action through a simple red filter, turning what we see of the violence surreal and strange, and echoing the estrangement, and what I’ve read described as the tunnel vision of battle, of the men involved.

It’s difficult to disapprove of a film that exchanges a sure-fire moment of outward excitement for something like this, and for me, this scene is emblematic of Battle of the Last Panzer’s ambition as well as of its strengths. Not a bad thing for a cheap exploitation movie.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: Live by the gun. Die by the gun. Come back for more...

Machete Kills (2013): Objectively, there's not much of a difference between this one and the first adventure of mythical superman Danny Trejo. Subjectively, I didn't enjoy the second film nearly as much as the first one, or really, enjoyed it at all. It might be because some jokes don't get funnier by repetition, or because director Roberto Rodriguez has now completely fallen under the spell of urine-based colour schemes, and I never liked the colour yellow all that much, and certainly not to the exclusion of all other colours in the spectrum, or just because Machete really wasn't a film screaming for a sequel. In the end, I just didn't find much to enjoy in the film.

King Kong (1933): One thing I always forget about the Merian C. Cooper's and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong - probably because of its status as a "classic" - is how hard the film is working for its audience's enthusiasm. Willis O'Brien's special effects work is not just pioneering, it's also still overwhelming in the sheer number of effects and the pace with which they rain down on the audience after a necessarily slow first half hour. Once the film's middle is reached, the film’s sheer speed becomes so exhilarating, most of our blockbusters right now can only dream of it. Just a few of King Kong's contemporaries outside the musical genre managed to feel this alive, the film seemingly breathing pure energy and sheer enthusiasm for filmmaking as a visceral thing. Even after eighty years, it's still glorious.

Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return (1999): We don't know what happened to Children of the Corn films 6 to 665 but if they are anything like this outing, I'm rather glad they don't exist, for Kari Skogland's direct-to-video anti-epic is more than enough to convince me to keep away from films with the words "children" and "corn" in the title for the next few hundred years. I do appreciate that this film actually is a sequel to the earlier films, but its continuity is confused to say the least. Bizarrely, someone involved in the production decided to leave out the more interesting parts of the series' mythology, so there's little fun with creepy kids or cornfield-dwelling supernatural entities to be had (and what we get to learn about said cornfield-dwelling entity is so lame I would have preferred a complete absence). Instead we get, well, a lot of nothing consisting of some lame pseudo-shocks, many a non-surprising surprise, and the only visible effort to keep the prospective audience awake consisting of featuring Stacy Keach and Nancy Allen in roles that - again - amount to nothing of interest in a film beyond even trying to be vaguely entertaining.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Man Called Noon (1973)

aka Un hombre llamado Noon

A man (Richard Crenna) is nearly assassinated while making what looks like preparations for a classic western showdown. He barely manages to escape with his life and – after a somewhat nightmarish chase – finds himself sharing a hobo-style train ride with the surprisingly friendly outlaw Rimes (Stephen Boyd). The man does need all the help he can get, it seems, for a grazing shot to the head has left him without memory; he only remembers that his name is Jonas, and that someone named Janish was involved in the attack on him, but apart from that he has no idea what’s going on with him whatsoever.

Rimes takes Jonas with him to the ranch of Fan Davidge (Rosanna Schiaffino), which just happens to be a place a certain Janish has turned into a safe house for his bandit gang - without Fan’s consent. Janish isn’t on the ranch right now, but various dangerous developments suggest that Jonas is actually a gunman called Noon. At the very least, he has very practical experience with meting out brutal violence, and is certainly a ruthless man.

Both traits will come in handy once various people start trying to kill Noon while he’s trying to solve the mystery of his own identity; a gold treasure is involved too.

Peter Collinson’s British-Italian-Spanish co-production (of course shot in Spain) The Man Called Noon is quite an interesting film. An adaptation of a Louis L’Amour novel, the film stands with one foot in the realm of the psychological western as made in the United States during the 50s, with the other – particular when it comes to its depiction of violence - in the world of the Spaghetti western. Collinson made quite a few fine genre films that often seem to straddle eras and sub-genres the way Noon does, never quite reaching the heights that give one posthumous cult status as a director, but generally turning out films at least worth watching.

Noon certainly is, despite being marred by a slightly overcooked finale that contains more melodramatic posturing than the rest of the film together. Outside of the finale, the film is tight, yet often growing unreal and dream-like. Particular some of the scenes of violence are filmed with stylistic methods you can often see connected with dream sequences, suggesting its action taking place in Noon’s (to leave it at that name) mind as much as in the outside world.

Even outside the action scenes, Collins tends to position his camera at peculiar angles, shooting very traditional western scenes in uncommon ways that turn the often seen into something a bit stranger. I suspect it’s an attempt to let the audience share some of Noon’s confusion, the befuddlement of someone who still knows the rituals of his job and genre by instinct, but doesn’t know what they’re actually meant for. From time to time, Collinson overdoes this a bit and things threaten to feel a bit silly, but the largest part of the film expresses a peculiar mood of alienation very much its own, with Noon stumbling through a fun house mirror world quite like a noir protagonist who isn’t at all sure anymore if he’ll want to find the truth about himself. Although, it has to be said, Noon lets its main character off quite lightly in the end.

Richard Crenna does a good job on the acting side, believably embodying Noon’s state of confusion and basic decency as well as the coldness and ruthlessness he only still remembers as reflexes. Crenna’s performance even suggests another dimension the script doesn’t really seem to be interested in: that forgetting parts of what he was is exactly what enables Noon to change and possibly find a future, his loss of memory helping him regain some buried part of his humanity (while killing a lot of people, of course).

As a fan of European genre cinema of the era, I’m also happy with the rest of the film’s cast, the well-known faces of Farley Granger, Rosanna Schiaffino, Aldo Sambrell and last but not least Patty Shepard, who gives a pretty unhinged performance as capital-e evil Peg Cullane. Why, Shepard’s so evil, she even owns an adorable black cowboy outfit she wears when she’s out doing evil!

And if that doesn’t sound like a recommendation, I don’t know what does.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

In short: Tom yum goong 2 (2013)

Kham’s (Tony Jaa) peaceful country life is disturbed when another gang of evildoers steals his elephant. This time around, the bad guys around a certain LC (RZA, because why hire an actor and martial artist when you can get a rapper who can’t act and is shit in his action scenes presumably for free because he’s an – admirably – big martial arts fan) want to use the poor elephant to blow up some foreign politicians. The elephant bomb is not the most stupid thing in the movie.

If you expected Tom yum goong 2 to be a return to form for Tony Jaa and director Prachya Pinkaew, there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed, for it’s rather overly polite to call the film not very good. It’s not just that RZA – whose love for martial arts movies, it turns out, doesn’t make up for him being crap in them - makes a horrible main bad guy. There’s also the fact that for every fun stupid action movie idea, the film has three ideas that are just stupid, the trouble the films plot has to even connect the action scenes decently, and that Pinkaew’s direction seems rather disinterested.

The action itself fluctuates between the by now routine Thai choreography style, badly integrated CGI, and too many moments that are clearly meant to impress the audience with their stupid awesomeness (I’ll just say burning feet) but mostly feel like acts of a filmmaker trying way too hard and embarrassing himself with it. It’s a shame too, for there are a handful of moments in the fights that still show the brilliance early Pinkaew/Jaa had. Unfortunately, these moments are never where any given scene stops, because each and every fight here goes on way past its welcome, editing things down looking like a lost art.

Last and worst, if you were hoping that the casting of JeeJa Yanin beside Jaa would lead to either some awesome team-ups or awesome fights between the two, like I did in my naiveté, you will also be disappointed, for JeeJa spends most of her fights being everyone’s punching bags in what I can only see as a desperate attempt to make Jaa look more impressive. Well, at least it fits the film’s series of other wasted opportunities.

Friday, April 11, 2014

On ExB: Gold of the Seven Saints (1961)

I’m really not watching enough US westerns, despite the genre offering many obvious treasures I still haven’t encountered yet. On the positive side, this does mean that when I do watch one, I more often than not get to see very fine films like Gordon Douglas’s Gold of the Seven Saints, a film that finds Roger Moore doing a horrible Irish accent, yet still turns out to be quite fantastic, for the very first time.

What makes the film at hand particularly fine I explain in this week’s column over at Exploder Button, so just click on through, ahem, pardner!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Salt in the Wound (1969)

aka The Liberators

aka War Fever

Original title: Il dito nella piaga

World War II, somewhere in Italy. Lieutenant Michael Sheppard (George Hilton), freshly arrived at the front from West Point, manages to bring himself into quite a bit of trouble on his very first mission, getting the shooting squadron he commands killed by sheer obstinacy, and ending up having to team up with the two men he was supposed to have being shot – Corporal Brian Haskins (Klaus Kinski) and Private John Grayson (Ray Saunders).

After various violent misadventures the not exactly loving trio ends up “liberating” a small Italian village. Here, the cynical Haskins learns he still has love, though probably not much decency, in his heart, and Grayson finds himself protecting a little boy, while Sheppard just might learn something about the realities of the lives of people not born into the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, the soldiers’ new found self-realizations and the peaceful village life that makes them feel like human beings again might not amount to much for them in the long run, for a German combined arms unit is closing in to “liberate” the village right back.

Salt in the Wound is one of the clear highpoints in the storied career of Italian genre film director Tonino Ricci. Ricci was one of those low budget filmmakers who could turn out pretty horrible crap, but when provided with an interesting script, actors actually there to act (if only a little), and a smidgen of money, his films ended up rather interesting, or even – as in this particular case – pretty damn great. Ricci, going by the resulting films, was putting as much visible effort into his films as the budgets allowed, with many a beautiful shot of unbeautiful things, and much clever – if not exactly subtle – editing. Competence (and more) in the required action scenes is pretty much a given in this context anyway.

A large part of Salt’s effectiveness does of course rest on its acting ensemble, with fine, multi-dimensional performances by Hilton and Saunders and a Kinski palpably enjoying to be allowed to show other emotions in a genre film beyond craziness; though Klaus does of course do craziness here too, and even particularly fine. That’s probably because the film actually gives him (as well as Saunders) opportunity to show where all the violence he expresses comes from. Having said that, I suspect people not fond of the ways of Italian genre cinema will not be satisfied with even these performances, for while the film has some interesting ideas of its own, and its characters are more multi-dimensional than in a shoot ‘em up style war film, it shows these things in the most unsubtle ways possible, with many an opportunity for melodramatics for everyone involved. For me, this approach fits the themes involved well. I also don’t believe war movies are a very good place for emotional subtlety (not to be confused with psychological subtlety), with melodrama’s heightened emotional states rather more fitting to the experiences the characters in these films go through.

Watching Salt, I found particularly impressive how little this film with a traditional “redemption through violence” plot actually believes in violence as being redemptive, eschewing that idea not only in the final scene when the film’s last survivor of our protagonists puts his new medal unto the grave of an unknown soldier (who just might have been one of our other protagonists). For a film of its style, Salt seems honestly and deeply bothered by the cost of violence, not just as a melodramatic gesture but at its actual emotional core. It is hardly a sign one can misinterpret that the film’s most directly redemptive moment for any of its characters is when Saunders breathes life back into a little boy, a thing that – in a film from a very Catholic country that starts quoting from the bible and sees Saunders character struggling with the difference between his religious belief and the way the world is – is hardly an accident, and is pretty much the opposite of redemption through violence.

It’s also rather uncommon in the genre to not just show bad men (or rather “bad men”) redeem themselves in dubious manner, but for a film in it to actually show why these men probably weren’t quite right even before the war began. Again, it’s all very melodramatically realized, but it’s also effective and thoughtful.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

In short: C.I.D. Raju (1971????)

This film can and should be watched on YouTube right now. I don’t know about the legality of the whole affair, but then if some company subtitled this and brought it out on DVD or BluRay (one can dream, right?), I’d buy the hell out of it.

I only write up films I watched in a language I don’t speak without the help of subtitles in very special cases, but a thing as inspired as this Telugu effort by K.S.R. Doss does deserve a mention as well as a YouTube link, so I’ll drop a few words that’ll hopefully entice some of you to give the film a shot. Even though I didn’t have a clue about what was going on in C.I.D. Raju for most of its running time (and neither did my watchalong partner, the ever inspiring Beth of Beth Loves Bollywood), Doss’s hyperkinetic direction that at times reminded me of Eisenstein or Universal horror (or perhaps their over-enthusiastic Indian brother) and sure loves swirling more than sainted Andy Milligan, keeps things decidedly exciting even if you don’t speak the language. The film’s series of serial-like but even more hectic and pleasantly ridiculous fight scenes, copious moments of bug eyes, all-around pleasant insanity and bizarre stuff that certainly wouldn’t be any less bizarre once I understood why it’s happening, speak the international language of Awesome anyhow. Or really, in the case of a film this enthusiastic and unafraid to be loud, shrill, and melodramatic, I should probably speak of shouting rather than speaking.

If you enter Doss’s wondrous world, you will – hopefully - be delighted by things like the film’s ass kicking heroine (where’s Die Danger Die Die Kill’s Todd to tell me what her name is when I need him?) kicking ass in improbable yet inspiring ways (which are always the best ways), turning into a ghost with not one, but two, musical numbers, many guys with huge pompadours, a main bad guy who dresses like a cowboy (for reasons I hope the film never explains), a monster looking through very large holes in a way Alfred Vohrer would highly approve of (and mauling people in also improbable yet inspiring ways), national stereotyping only the most po-faced could be outraged by, a soundtrack that of course includes a bit that sounds a lot like the James Bond theme but also includes surf guitar and a farfisa organ, and only very few seconds in which the camera holds still, leading to two-and-a-half-hour movie that just blasts by while you’re having fun.

Monday, April 7, 2014

On Fist of B-List: Night of the Kickfighters (1988)

In the spirit of jolly cooperation that dominates M.O.S.S., today finds me reciprocating Karl Brezdin’s piece about Kinji Fukasaku’s Black Lizard with a post of my own over at the glorious Fist of B-List.

So if you want to learn what happens during the Night of the Kickfighters – and it is inspirational indeed – please follow this handy link.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Three Steps in the Dark (1953)

Horrible old man Arnold Burgoyne (Nicholas Hannen) summons his family to his mansion for a charming family dinner, or rather, to ruin as much of their lives as he can, and not for the first time. Some of them, like mystery novel writer Sophy (Greta Gynt) are independent enough of the old bastard to be able to assume the position of annoyed bystanders, but people like Arnold’s nephew Henry (John van Eyssen) are in the rather more unlucky position to actually need Arnold’s approval and money.

Consequently, Arnold quite disapproves of Henry’s marriage plans with former stage dancer/actress with another secret Esme (Hélène Cordet) in the most frightful manner and does his very worst to ruin the relationship with monetary threats. Why, he has his lawyer right there to change his will if Henry doesn’t behave.

In a turn of events that doesn’t surprise anyone, some benefactor of humanity shoots Arnold before he actually can change his will. This, together with some thin circumstantial evidence, does turn Henry into the main suspect of Scotland Yard inspector Forbes (Alastair Hunter). Sophy, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in the theory at all and puts all her powers of deduction to work to counteract the policeman’s theories. Given the kind of person her uncle was, Sophy isn’t so much interested in finding the true killer as in protecting her family, but she’ll find out the truth anyway.

On more than one level, Daniel Birt’s Three Steps in the Dark is your typical British B-movie (in the actual sense of the term) of the early post-war years, with an old fashioned mystery plot, generally decent acting, taking place in slightly cramped sets and containing a rather obvious mystery that is solved quite unspectacularly too. Birt’s direction isn’t much to write home about either, showing few stylistic flourishes or much visual imagination. At least, there’s no feet dragging, though, and the director does keep things moving, which is a feat in a film as talky as this one.

It’s really the talk that’s most interesting about Three Steps, or rather, the tone of the talk is. For while the dialogue isn’t exactly scintillating, it is snarky and sarcastic nearly throughout the whole film, with characters being politely rude to each other more often than not. It’s quite fun to watch and to listen to, particularly when it is delivered with the clear delight of Greta Gynt (who has grown to be one of my favourites among British actresses in this kind of B-movie) who is even allowed to combine a sharp tongue with the sharpest mind of all characters on screen without having to assume the role of the femme fatale nor falling into the sensuously neutral Miss Marple role.

The film’s rather amoral tone is quite remarkable too, with only very little – and very possibly only polite – disapproval shown for the murder of Arnold, and quite a bit more excitement for the less savoury parts of the lifestyles of the rich and idle than strictly nice. In fact, given the strictness of the British censorship regime of the time, I can’t help but imagine that the film would really rather like to be like one of the later Italian giallos of the sub-type that was all about the joys of loudly disapproving of the lifestyle of the rich while getting off on it at the same time, if only the times had allowed for actually showing any of the really fun stuff. As it stood, Three Steps just had to make do with what it could, and showed a bunch of not unsympathetic characters being snarky and not caring too much about a murder beyond questions of convenience.

Turns out that’s more than enough to entertain at least me for an hour of running time, even sixty years after Three Steps in the Dark was shot, which is surely more than the people involved in the film ever had ambitions for.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

In short: The Internecine Project (1974)

Professor Robert Elliot (James Coburn) is an up and coming star of the military-industrial complex, soon to be promoted into a highly influential US government position. Unfortunately his overlords (represented by Keenan Wynn) need him to get rid of the four people in London who helped him with his own personal, and highly effective, mix of espionage, industrial espionage (in a clever nod to realism, the film doesn’t treat these two things as independent of each other) and good old blackmail.

Elliot, true believer in his own superiority that he is, decides the best way to get rid of his soon to be former associates is a complicated plan that will result in all of them killing one another in a single night with not a trace pointing to Elliot himself. As it goes with these plans, things go well until they don’t go well anymore.

Ken Hughes’s British/German co-production turns your typical 70s paranoia into a crime procedural very much like a nastier heist movie. For most of the time, the result is a deeply focused film, perhaps at times even too deeply focused, with only limited space to get an actual feel for James Coburn’s character.

The film’s only actual detour is Elliot’s relationship with his former girlfriend, journalist Jean Robertson (Lee Grant) but instead of revealing much about Elliot, or even just humanizing him, the scenes between the two don’t add much more than a distraction. I honestly don’t know what the writers were trying to achieve with the subplot. As it stands, it mostly seems there to deflate the tension every twenty minutes or so.

Which really is a bit of a shame, for the rest of the movie is very tense indeed, with Hughes using simple yet effective traditional thriller tricks to string the audience along while not keeping anything about Elliot’s plan secret. I don’t think contemporary thriller writers could even conceive of keeping tension without holding things back or adding twists to a plot, so if nothing else, The Internecine Project’s clearer approach does feel novel again in a movie, at least from the perspective of 2014.

The only real twist here is how Elliot gets his comeuppance in the end. Given when this was made, I was actually a bit surprised things didn’t end well for him, how ever much I was hoping for an ignominious result to his exploits.

The film’s politics are of course 70s standard fare of the type you could still use in a movie today without anyone complaining it to be too far fetched. Alas or fortunately – depending on your tastes – the politics here aren’t explored very deeply, and are only ever used to enable the plot. Which is perfectly alright in a film as effectively plotted as The Internecine Project is.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

In short: Avengers from Hell (1981)

Original title: 鬼域

Avengers from Hell is a three story omnibus Shaw Brothers feature directed by Lee Pooi-Kuen from the studio’s decadent late period, though this one’s really more competent and routine than decadent.

The first story concerns a rookie beat cop’s (Alex Man Chi-Leung) intense obsession with a haunted house and the resident ghost of a murdered woman (Lee Yin-Yin), the sort of thing that will need an intervention by his girlfriend (JoJo Chan Kei-Kei) sooner or later.

The second one is another tale of a philandering Hong Kong business man (Phillip Chan Yan-Kin) cheating on his pregnant wife on foreign soil (though it’s the Philippines for a change), killing his mistress (Lily Chan Lee-Lee) over a pregnancy, and soon having to fend off a pissed off ghost you’d probably root for over him if it hadn’t nasty plans for his wife too.

The third one is the comedic close-off of the whole affair with the tale of luckless elderly gentleman Liang Jiu (Lau Hak-Suen) who finds a pair of glasses that brings him in contact with a ghost who will finally help him win at gambling for once. Hot mah-jongg action is of course to follow.

As the basic plots of the film’s segments suggest, Avengers from Hell isn’t a long lost classic of Shaw Brothers horror but rather the sort of quickly shot, competently made film the studio’s exploitation arm excelled at this late in its existence (one could argue throughout it); it’s also the sort of film nobody involved took for anything more than another job to fill some cinema slots when nothing more profitable came around.

Fortunately, everyone involved was at least a professional, so the film might not be all that original, but it is neither lackluster nor boring nor seems too disinterested. Director Lee Pooi-Kuen provides some pleasant moments of lurid fun – although this isn’t the sort of Hong Kong horror film that becomes more than mildly unpleasant and never gets really icky at all -  and keeps everything moving along nicely and not without a degree of visual style.

All the while, the thirty minute segments never overstay the welcome of their basic set-ups, so while it is rather difficult to become very excited about Avengers from Hell, or find hidden depths in it, it’s also rather difficult to not be entertained by it on the basic level it wants to entertain.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mysterious yet orderly guest post: Black Lizard (1968)

Every member of The Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit is grand in her or his specific way, so for March (or for slow pokes like me, April) we decided to invite other members of that glorious organization to do a guest stint in our respective endeavours. So today, I'm proud to present to you Karl Brezdin of the wonderful Fist of B-List (the place for all your low budget martial arts needs). Take it away, Karl:

It’s been said many times that a hero is only as good as his or her villain. While cliché, this is proven and provable! The films that brought us Skywalker-Vader, Creed-Balboa, and Matrix-Bennett are all examples of how contrasting characteristics bring balance to the relationships between protagonists and antagonists. The characters headlining Kinji Fukasaku’s 1968 crime film Black Lizard may or may not have chairs at the same table as the aforementioned duos, but they are definitely in the same restaurant. In news that will surprise no one, the food and cocktail pairings are really good there.

Kurosawa regular Isao Kimura plays Detective Akechi, a stern but clever everyman drawn into a strange plot after he’s hired by a wealthy jeweler named Iwase (Junya Usami) to protect his daughter, Sanae, (Kikko Matsuoka) from being kidnapped. The paranoid father also expects that Akechi, Japan’s “number one detective,” will also identify and apprehend the person behind numerous threatening letters to Iwase about the impending kidnapping. He suspects that someone is trying to extort him out of the Star of Egypt, a spectacular jewel that enhances everything from strapless ball gowns to replica basketball jerseys.

The source of the letters is a vivacious nightclub owner named Ms. Midorikawa (Akihiro Miwa) who moonlights as a criminal mastermind known as Black Lizard. She “acquires” precious stones and dresses to the nines at all times. Obsessed with the impermanence of human beauty, she laments the effects of anxiety and “spiritual weakness” on outer appearance; this neurosis is manifested in her secret collection of taxidermied lovers and cohorts from years past. Shes inevitably crosses paths with Akechi, and what follows is the cinematic 1960s Japanese crime-mystery equivalent of a H.O.R.S.E. game between Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. (Virtually everyone else in the story is a prop or a pawn). Their perspectives on criminal behavior are near-perfect mirror images, the dialogue underpinning their one-upsmanship crackles, and their adversarial dynamic evolves into something romantic.

Based on a screenplay by literary icon Yukio Mishima (itself based on the novel by Edogawa Rampo), Black Lizard was an engaging cinematic departure for this reviewer when considering the wider body of Fukasaku’s work. While the film is categorized as a comedy on several prominent websites -- none bigger than IMDb -- I’m not sure that label adhesive really has any sticking power after a critical viewing. There’s a certain visual campiness between the gaudy vibe of the Black Lizard’s island lair and her garish naked-and-neon nightclub, for sure. However, I found that neither the characters nor the dialogue necessarily suggested farce. The Black Lizard’s obsessions are shallow and creepy, and her tactics are usually brutal.

To that point, Akihiro Miwa is an absolute powerhouse as the titular Black Lizard. A drag queen icon in his native Japan, Miwa brings both elegant beauty and criminal calculation to a very dynamic role. His costumes are fantastic -- at one point looking like a ruffle-shirted clone of Purple Rain-era Prince -- and his line delivery is wonderfully over-the-top. This might be grating for some, but I thought it worked well opposite Kimura’s delivery of Akechi’s lines, which were a bit more downbeat, and I daresay dull. There’s a lot of voice-over monologue in this film too, but it’s thankfully more contemplative than expository. At one point, Fukasaku weaves his main characters’ separate thoughts together to make a more cohesive whole. The symbiotic relationship between Akechi and the Black Lizard is well-illustrated in both the narrative elements and the technical ones.

Those watching this film for signs of Fukasaku’s directorial trademarks might be a bit disappointed. The handheld technique on display in his Yakuza Papers films is mostly absent here, save for a lone scene of first-person perspective as a camera bobs down a long and colorful nightclub corridor. Beyond a colorful car chase and Sanae falling victim to an ether rag on more than one occasion, there’s very little choreographed action, and even less on-screen violence. Though this film is largely character-driven, we’re still left with a visually engaging piece of work. Fukasaku uses full and smart compositions in his shots, and balances the darkness of this criminal underworld with bright colors quite well. His idea of a coroner’s office is a little curious -- Akechi goes fact-finding in a dissection room containing what appears to be a bubbling hot tub of dead bodies that goes unacknowledged -- but the locations are varied and materials are put to good use. As is the case with a lot of Sherlockian and James Bondish films, some of the hijinx and convenient circumstances require a willfull suspension of disbelief from the audience, but they were consistent with the wild overall tone of the film.

One can only hope that Black Lizard’s growing cult status will help propel it towards a proper DVD release, and I’m not alone in thinking it would benefit greatly from a high-definition remastering by a prestigious label.

-- Karl Brezdin

Monday, March 24, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen,

please do not panic! Your host will take a short sick break. Normal service will resume when I’ve gotten rid of those pesky humansbacteria.

Music Monday: Stuck Edition

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cool Breeze (1972)

Freshly released from prison, criminal mastermind and sharp dresser Sidney Lord Jones (Thalmus Rasulala) already has a new big plan to steal jewellery worth three million dollars. With the help of people like whiny, religious bookie Finian (Sam Laws) and former Texan football player turned small-time tough Travis Battle (James Watkins), whatever could go wrong?

Everything, of course, for the heist always goes wrong. However, the trouble isn’t just with Jones’s plan, and the following interest of the police, but also with the little fact that the project’s money man, Mercer (Raymond St. Jacques) has plans of acquiring all the pretty loot for himself. Things probably won’t end too well for anyone involved.

This Gene Corman blaxploitation film directed by Barry Pollack (who didn’t exactly have much of a movie career before or afterwards, it seems) is based on the same novel as John Huston’s flawed classic The Asphalt Jungle but never really plays in the same league. The jury’s out if it’s even trying to, if it just goes for the exploitative thrill of being a blaxploitation version of a revered Old Hollywood classic (which I’d approve of quite a bit, actually), or if somebody involved just thought the novel’s plot the archetypal heist movie story and structure, so why not use it.
In fact, to my eyes, the film’s main problem is that it doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind which of these three things it wants to be, and instead meanders back and forth between these approaches, while adding some comedy cops. Even though I think adding comically stupid white people to an exploitation movie is a time-honoured way to pay back some of the indignities people of colour had to suffer through in the movies, it doesn’t exactly help an already imbalanced film. Lincoln Kilpatrick’s (black) Lt. Knowles is a lot more convincing but the film muddles up his role and character too by only mentioning his corrupt ways in an off-side manner late in the movie when he’s putting pressure on Finian, which to my mind is just sloppy writing.

It’s this sloppiness that is the script’s main problem more often than not, leading to a film that just blithely wanders around the best bits of the movie it remakes (or of the novel it adapts), only from time to time stepping into the right spots, making changes seemingly at random and in spaces where there just isn’t any other way to go about things a few decades later. It would, for example, be too awkward even for Cool Breeze to cast James Watkins as a cowboy, so they go with the in itself rather clever “poor farming country boy with football talent he never truly managed to live up to” variant; too bad the film doesn’t know where to take this, nor how to fit it in with its various other elements.

Despite these major problems, Cool Breeze does have some recommendable aspects, too. The 70s atmosphere is as strong as in any blaxploitation flick, with some choice, naturalistically real feeling locations and the kind of period detail these films generally achieved by just going out and shooting, and don’t mind if you’re allowed to or not. Taken singly, and if you just pretend a movie’s single scenes don’t have to make a whole together, there are also some fine moments in the film. The scene between Knowles and Finian I already mentioned is, for example, tough and unpleasant, suggesting a lot of history between these two men, and telling no friendly lies about what kind of people the men involved are.
It would of course be much better if that scene and others of similar quality would ever add up to a movie with a coherent personality (or you know, a coherent mood, tone, theme, or plot), but then, those movies don’t give us a theme song where Solomon Burke declares someone is looking “like a cool dude”, so there’s something to be said for Cool Breeze’s approach.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Assignment Naschy (sort of): La herencia Valdemar & La herencia Valdemar: La sombra prohibida (2010)

A man assessing the antiques in an old mansion somewhere in rural Spain disappears; then the woman called in to do his job disappears as well. The company both worked for doesn’t like the police but calls in a private detective who will spend a very long train journey listening to a melodramatic flashback about the sordid history of the house with cameos by Aleister Crowley, Lizzie Borden, Bram Stoker and poor H.P. Lovecraft, as if his actual life hadn’t been crappy enough. People run through the woods. A guy talks to manikins. Cthulhu is embarrassed by a really bad cult. Three hours of my life just disappeared.

On paper, I should be all over this. Cthulhu Mythos stuff, the late 19th Century occult boom and Gothic horror, all the things this film in two long and tedious parts is built on are pretty much catnip to me. Add to it the – I think – final appearance of the great Paul Naschy as loveable butler, and I should be in some sort of movie heaven singing the praises of some deity, at the very least.

Unfortunately, what La herencia Valdemar truly is, is tepid, overlong and boring, a film so lacking in control it feels the need to bloat up a ninety minute story into two ninety minute films full of pointless overlong scenes of nothing of import happening, and a lot of side-business that should have ended on the editing room floor. You’d think the filmmakers would have noticed they had a problem when they could summarize film one at the beginning of film two in about a minute without leaving out anything important, but then you’d probably think people with enough of a budget for the films’ very pretty photography and set design would have enough of a clue not to let their work pointlessly sprawl into various flashbacks, add lots of characters with no use to the story at hand at all, and would actually not let every scene run on and on and on and on for what feels like hours.

Tonally, the films are just as much of a mess, wildly meandering from way-to-overcooked melodrama to “ironic” winking at the audience, pointless attempts at the grotesque, and sheer stupidity, resulting in a double-film nobody involved – certainly not director José Luis Alemán – seems to have any control over, nor even just a simple idea of what kind of film this is actually supposed to be.

I do assume the idea wasn’t to make a draggy, boring and tedious one, at least, though that’s exactly what I just waded through.

Friday, March 21, 2014

On ExB: Phoenix the Warrior (1988)

aka She Wolves of the Wasteland

Ah, the cheap, female-led post-apocalyptic low budget film, a genre that’s closer to my heart than it deserves. The film I’m talking about in this week’s column over at the glorious Exploder Button is a particularly fine example of the form, as full of nonsense and joy as the end of the world and the resulting clothing shortages allow.

So I suggest you click on over and take a look.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: Aliens Invade! Mankind fights back!

The Wolverine (2013): After the apocalypse of crap that was the first Wolverine movie, I didn't expect anything at all from James Mangold's sequel, so it was a rather pleasant surprise to find it to be a highly entertaining mix of action movie tropes, good-natured Japan clichés, appropriate comic book silliness, and even half-way poignant moments. Add to these points the production's decision to cast the Japanese characters with actual Japanese actors instead of any Asian looking guy or girl they could grab from the street, and the (for contemporary blockbuster cinema) surprising amount of time The Wolverine has for its female characters. The film has reached the point where Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima are actual female leads again, and not just the girls on screen to look pretty and motivate the lone hero.

And isn't it a fine thing too that the film's usually very lone hero actually needs a lot of help to get by, which the film treats as a strength and not as a weakness?

The World's End (2013): I think I've repeatedly gone on record as a big admirer of Edgar Wright, so it won't come as much of a surprise to anyone that I really, really like the last film in the thematic trilogy that started with Shaun of the Dead. Having said that, I also think it’s fortunate the film at hand is the final film in the thematic trilogy because it's hard not to see that things begin repeating themselves now, and it's probably good Wright is doing something probably quite different next with Ant-Man (as he did, to be fair, with Scott Pilgrim, a film many sad people seem to hate for reasons inexplicable to me). At this point, The World's End repeats Wright's favourite themes and character types on a still highly entertaining and clever level. It's also at its core probably Wright's saddest movie, though this is the kind of film that really isn't out to make its audience sad; the sadness is just there if you're of the temperament to see it.

Children of the Night (1991): Tony Randel's vampire horror comedy is a bit of a strange egg. Tonally, it rather undecidedly jumps from broad small town satire to gore to really stupid comedy to slightly less stupid comedy to grotesque semi body horror to dark fairy-tale and back again, putting quite a few moments of actual magic in between triteness, annoying stupidity and stupid fun. The permanent tonal shifts make it impossible to a) get a very good grip on the movie as a whole and b) to ever be as much drawn into the film's very weird world as one would wish. Still, there's as much to like as to hate in here, and this is the sort of small town horror movie whose true hero isn't one of its theoretical leads (Peter DeLuise and Ami Dolenz), nor Karen Black chewing scenery, but Garrett Morris as said small town's black town drunk. Which is to say, a film worth fighting through the unfunny moments for the actual surprises it contains.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Cyclops (1957)

Even though her fiancée Bruce has disappeared in plateau somewhere in Mexico, Susan Winter (Gloria Talbott) is convinced he is still alive. She manages to get together three men to help her with a small expedition into the area. These are Russ Bradford (James Craig), a bacteriologist and old friend of Bruce’s who is in love with Susan and is really coming along to prove his friend’s death, alcoholic stock market trader Marty Melville (Lon Chaney Jr.), out to find some uranium, and hired pilot Lee Brand (Tom Drake).

After some trouble with the local governor, the quartet barely manage to land where they want to go – turns out having Lon Chaney Jr. grabbing the control stick of one’s plane in mid-flight is not a good thing. But hey, at least there’s more uranium to be found here than Marty could ever have dreamed of! In a strange coincidence, there’s also a frightening amount of preposterously giant fauna around. After boring interpersonal problems and too much footage of “giant” animals slaughtering one another, our heroes finally meet the titular personage (Duncan “Dean” Parish), though the “cyclops” really is a giant guy with a half melted face and brain damage. You’ll never guess who he was before the glories of radiation had their way with him.

Bert I. Gordon’s The Cyclops is a bit of a shame, for it puts a rather interesting and effective twenty minutes of film behind forty minutes going on two-hundred of library footage of planes, pointless feet-dragging, and the kind of interpersonal conflict that doesn’t even make sense if you believe every character in the film to be a fool as well as an arsehole.

Worse, the film’s early three hours of running time are mostly dull as dishwater with scenes that shouldn’t have been in the movie in the first place going on for far too long while little of importance to character, theme, plot or audience enjoyment happens. It’s, as is regularly the case with Gordon’s films for me, particularly frustrating because the director actually was one of the more visually dynamic ones of his time and budget bracket, talents that are wasted when there isn’t anything in Gordon’s own script to actually apply them to. The animal slaughter involved doesn’t exactly help improve things, adding a degree of unpleasantness that still manages to be pretty dull, adding insult to the injury of animals dying for our enjoyment by not containing even the suggestion of enjoyability.

The thing is, once the actual film begins about forty minutes of real time in, the still conscious viewer is actually treated to something worthwhile. Jack H. Young’s “cyclops” make-up is as gruesome as anything I’ve seen in a film from this era, really making the so-called monster look like the victim of radiation damage, enabling the film to make its so-called monster painfully human at the moments when it counts. And make no mistake, this make-up, the big guy’s background and his unceasing desperate grunting (thought up in a time when sound design generally was an afterthought), as well as his undeserved end combine not just into one of the sadder giants in Gordon’s giant-rich filmography, but reach a point amounting to actual tragedy; which is no mean feat given that the giant also has an embarrassing wrestling match with a python (or is it a boa?).

I find this aspect of the movie so surprisingly dark, so effective in its darkness, and so atypical for 50s horror/SF films I’d nearly be willing to suggest it’s worthwhile wading through the dullness that comes before. At the very least, this part of The Cyclops illustrates that Gordon, despite what people - including myself - often unfairly suggest had ambitions as a filmmaker beyond making a quick buck by showing giant or tiny things.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

In short: Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)

After taking a time-out in the last movie, our old friend He Who Walks Behind the Rows is back again. Unfortunately, the mysterious Godhood's return to kids' favourite corn-based horror series isn't all one would have hoped for.

For one, He (as his friends call him) is now some sort of living flame thing, which must be awkward when you're a mysterious power living in a cornfield. Consequently, He now lives exclusively in a corn silo, stinking up the neighbourhood while waiting for his followers to throw themselves down into the silo once they reach that horrible age of eighteen. This time around, there's one exception to the age rule though, because the production was able to hire David Carradine for ten minutes of sitting in a comfy chair, which he does while doing a cult leader shtick, until his head splits open and a fire-breathing something burns a hole into useless sheriff Fred Williamson's head, which might be the one scene that makes this rather tepid and boring outing worth watching.

I really don't know what it is with the film's whole obsession with fire anyhow, seeing as He will also be beaten (until the inevitable, lame kicker ending, of course) by fire ("fight fire with fire", the film helpfully explains), which makes even less sense than the whole cult this time around. The lameness of this film's cult also has a lot to do with the lameness of the supposedly creepy kids, or rather, the bored looking teenagers led by Adam Wylie playing a boring prophet named (I kid you not) Ezeekial as if he were a kid staring someone down playing with marbles.

All in all, it's so dispirited and dispiriting stuff, I'll even spare us all a plot synopsis, and only mention that you'll also get to see final girl Stacy Galina, Alexis Arquette, Eva Mendes, Ahmet Zappa, and Kane Hodder, if that sort of thing is important to you, but honestly, excitement lives elsewhere than in Ethan Wiley's movie.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Unknown (1946)

Some nasty business has been going on in the old Southern Martin family about two decades ago, leaving daughter Rachel (Karen Morley), and sons Edward (James Bell) and Ralph (Wilton Graff) in thrall of their dominating mother Phoebe (Helen Freeman) and in various states of mental un-health; the only sane member of the family is their black butler Joshua (J. Louis Johnson) - who is also one of the few black characters in 40s movies I’ve seen neither there to demonstrate the supposed superiority of the white cast, nor to provide the kind of comic relief that makes a boy want to slug the filmmakers. The interactions between said white cast and him are of course still rather painful to watch. Of the family, particularly Rachel is bad off, hearing the cries of her long lost baby daughter and having lost track of minor details like what decade it is quite some time ago, living in a kind of perpetual young womanhood.

Things change when the matriarch dies and the mysterious benefactor who financed her schooling orders young Nina Arnold (Jeff Donnell) to go to the reading of Phoebe’s will on the old Martin plantation. Nina, it turns out, is Rachel’s long lost daughter. Fortunately for Nina, her – still mysterious – benefactor has hired international men of adventure and private detectives Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and Doc Long (Barton Yarborough) to help and protect her, for there’s something very wrong in the house even if you ignore the whole decadence and madness vibe. The baby noises Phoebe hears seem to be quite real, for example, Nina’s new uncles are nasty old men beyond expectation, and somebody who likes to dress like a proto-giallo murderer is sneaking through the dark trying to kill our heroine.

The third and final Columbia movie based on the popular radio show I Love a Mystery, again directed by Henry Levin, changes up tone and style quite a bit, turning from the two-fisted charms of the pulpy mystery to the melodramatic joys of a – still pulpy so don’t worry – Southern Gothic old dark house tale.

One’s appreciation of this development will certainly depend on one’s sympathy for the type of melodrama that’s generally part and parcel of Southern Gothics, or rather, on one’s tolerance for the film’s broad application of it. The acting of everyone involved except for Donnell, Bannon and Yarborough – fittingly given their position as outsiders – is as broadly melodramatic as a film can get away with, more than just bordering on areas some viewers will read as camp and/or will feel decidedly uncomfortable with.

Melodrama’s the watch word not only for the acting: The Unknown’s plot and mood are just as melodramatic, which makes complete sense when you see both as an expression of the genre-mandatory decadence and madness (the beautiful twins, the film would probably call them), the feeling of a world moving on outside while the Martin family inside can’t – or won’t - move with it. In this context, it can hardly be an accident that Rachel specifically is trapped in a perpetual past. It also seems rather poignant to me that Nina’s addition to the family, as someone who is young and very much not part of the noble tradition of come-down slave-owning shits by anything but blood, is the thing that might drag at least some family members back to sanity and the world, unless they manage to drag her down with them.

Levin tells this tale with his usual professionalism but also a good sense for the appropriate shadowy mood. While you can’t exactly feel the decay of the house (40s low budget filmmaking in general being not really up to that particular task independent of the talent of the directors involved), Levin provides the film with its fair share of cheap yet effective Southern Gothic thrills, and never loses control of his scenery-chewing cast, unless you think letting them chew the scenery is already losing control of them.

It’s not what I expected of the final I Love a Mystery film, but The Unknown is a very pleasant surprise as a film that knows very well what it’s doing and does it well, too.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

In short: Children of the Corn: The Gathering (1996)

Student of medicine Grace Rhodes (a very young looking Naomi Watts) returns to her rural home for an off-semester to take care of her mother June (Karen Black) and her younger siblings Margaret (Jamie Reneé Smith) and James (Mark Salling). June has suffered some kind of mental breakdown that leaves her unable to leave the house for more than a few steps in what looks a lot like agoraphobia but perhaps isn’t, and doesn't do much for her abilities to take care of her household and kids either. June's problems are somehow connected to a rather strange dream she has every night, in which a dead boy kills her.

As Grace and the people of the town will soon learn, June's dreams are rather prophetic, for soon a dead boy in preacher's garb (Brandon Kleyla) crawls out of a sealed well and does something magickal using a man he kills. The boy’s ritual induces an inexplicable fever spiced up with a bit of levitation in all of the town's children that eventually results in creepy staring and possession. Which is of course the point at which more murders start.

To save her siblings and herself, Grace will team up with the town's former mayor Donald Atkins (Brent Jennings) and learn the truth about her former home’s oldest, darkest secret.

As should be obvious after this synopsis, it's difficult to avoid the suspicion watching the fourth Children of the Corn movie that Greg Spence's film wasn't actually written as part of the franchise but only got the "Children of the Corn" moniker because the script takes place in a rural area and the producers had the rights to the name; why, the corn fields aren’t even important to the movie at all.

That's of course only a bad thing if you're missing He Who Walks Behind The Rows desperately, because the rural horror film we get may not seem to be part of the franchise but it is about as good as mid-90s direct-to-video horror gets. That's not saying too much, of course, but in case of The Gathering it does describe a competent and entertaining little flick most viewers probably won't have minded to rent from their video store (remember them?).

In fact, The Gathering's He Who Walks-less backstory, and the way it is revealed, is its greatest strength, connecting it to the great tradition of cursed rural towns in horror, and giving the series of supernatural shenanigans enough of a connection to the larger thematic streams of its sub-genre to make them a little more interesting and meaningful.

Yet I also wish Spence had explored these thematic connections a little deeper, for while the reason for the killings makes sense in the realm of the movie, the ways the various murders happen seem less part of one coherent supernatural phenomenon but rather too much like what they actually are - an unconnected series of special effects sequences not based on what fits the backstory best but on what (supposedly) looks coolest, which is a particular shame in a film whose backstory emphasises connections between present and past. It's not a fatal weakness but it is this point that keeps The Gathering from being a memorable film instead of a diverting one.

Of course, in the context of how most mid-90s direct-to-video films turned out, diverting isn't bad at all.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Attack of the Puppet People (1958)

Loneliness is a terrible thing, and so is letting people go. Owner and only worker of a small doll factory situated in an American office building Mr Franz (John Hoyt) knows the pain, and he’s found a way to keep people from leaving him behind: he’s shrinking them down to doll size, keeping them in suspended animation, and only taking them out when he wants them to party like it’s 1959.

Franz’s new secretary Sally (June Kenney) doesn’t suspect any of this until she falls for epitome of manliness Bob Westley (John Agar), the best darn sales representative ever to come from St. Louis, and promises to marry him and go away with him. And who wouldn’t, with a marriage proposal taking place during a drive-in showing of The Amazing Colossal Man!? Mr Franz won’t have it of course, and first doll-izes Bob and tells Sally he’s gone off back to St. Louis.

Sally finally realizes what’s up, and does the obvious thing, namely going to the police’s missing persons bureau and telling the cop in charge (Jack Kosslyn) all about how her boss turns people into dolls. To everyone’s surprise, it’s not a very useful approach to the problem, and soon Sally finds herself reunited as doll-sized former secretary with her hunky doll-fiancée. The couple also make the acquaintance of a bunch of other idiots Franz has shrunk down. Clearly, it’s time to party, and perhaps find a way to trick Franz and get back to size again.

Oh Bert I. Gordon. I know, I have called your films boring more than once, but when you were on, you really were on; though I’m not completely sure on what exactly you were. Anyhow, Attack of the Puppet People, an AIP production containing no attack of the puppet people (they’re too involved in being ineffectual, singing the movie’s theme song, and so on), is a thing of utter, slightly deranged beauty, delivering one moment of improbable strangeness after the next, while generally featuring perfectly competent filmmaking and special effects that are mostly delightful, if not convincing.

Well, unless you start fixating on that telephone model that seems to change size every other scene, or the fact that the film can’t really seem to make up its mind how small its puppet people actually are. That’s just part of the charm of the whole affair, though, if you ask me.

And truly, how could I – or any sane audience member – complain about little things (tee-hee) like this when confronted with a film whose rather meta (and pretty weird) marriage proposal sequence is only the tip of the iceberg of pure delight. The film’s high point surely is the scene late in the film, when Franz has decided to have one last doll party (in a theatre, no less, and yes, he calls it a theatre party), and presses his puppet people into playing together with a Jekyll and Hyde marionette - until uncultured old John Agar rips the marionette to pieces, that is. Or, while I’m talking potential high points, what about the cat kindly Mr Franz shrinks down too and houses in a matchbox? Or how about the fact that the older puppet people seem to be mostly fine with their imprisonment – because parties! – more than once seems to attempt to build up to some sort of political subtext but never gets its act together enough to actually gain one? I’m also quite fond of the decisive kind of sloppiness that finds a film repeatedly mentioning the elderly postman turned doll but then never gets around to showing him when it’s time to show the doll people. Because his spot is taken by Marlene Willis whose job it is to sing the theme song, one assumes.

It’s all absolutely fantastic, with barely a second of the film going by that isn’t willing to trade in logic for imagination, and little to distract the willing viewer from Gordon’s inspired creation of a world as much based on his own obsessions and interests as that in Edward Wood’s films was on Wood’s; although Gordon was much more surface-competent a filmmaker than Wood. If that’s not enough to make a girl or boy excited to run out, find a copy of Attack of the Puppet People, and drag an unsuspecting man or woman (hopefully not looking or acting like John Agar) into a combined viewing/marriage proposal, I don’t want to live in the same world as her or him.