Wednesday, December 31, 2008

In short: The IPCRESS File (1965)

Since David of Teleport City and Permission to Kill has already done an admirable job reviewing this, I'll only add a few short thoughts I had while rewatching this very excellent spy movie.

What I find always extremely interesting when watching British movies is the way they deal with class politics. The IPCRESS File is rather subtle about it, so subtle that I'm not sure how much someone not looking for the intricacies of class relations would get out of them here. Michael Caine's Harry Palmer is of course part of the working class, but of a very specific kind of working class person who is more educated, competent and intelligent than most of the people he's working for. Palmer's sarcasm (or "insubordinance") shows very clearly how conscious he himself is of the fact that it's his upbringing that will always hinder him being more than a footsoldier; he just doesn't seem willing to be all that bitter about it, even when his superior Ross (Guy Doleman) uses him as tool.

Ross, on the other hand, is interesting in that he's more of a professional than of an upper class twat, although his scenes with Dalby (Nigel Green) - as upper class as they come - show where he initially comes from and how good he speaks the language of that place. He's an upper class man in transition to competence yet still as morally bankrupt as his class tradition demands, using his own private working stiff to do his dirty work for him.

Also of interest (and just pretty damn cool) is the film's aesthetic, at once as far away from the also Saltzman-produced Bond films as possible and very much in the same spirit of style. Where the Bond films go for the exotic and the colorful, The IPCRESS File uses the mundane and the brownish grey, yet both series are equally stylized - the Palmer films just make an art out of pretending to be artless.

Daily Twitter Terror

  • 10:37 Bizarre: Even the Pitchfork best of the year list contains unknown (to me!) pearls.
  • 11:14 The only explanation for the hysterical hate for Miller's Spirit - Miller eats little children.
  • 12:11 Friendly Fires, an indie synth pop band I actually like - finally someone doing the genre rhythmically interesting with a certain funkiness.
  • 14:50 I don't care if its art.
  • 15:50 Joan As Police Woman: Now she's gone and went all Joni on us, which is most certainly a compliment.
  • 20:21 Wait, Alfonso Brescia directed a cooperation with the Shaw Brothers? What!?
  • 21:30 Stopped reading the Eurogamer Year's Best after seeing: 10. World of Goo...8. Gears of War. What's the testosterone crap doing in the list &
  • 21:30 why is the Game of the Year on 10?
Automatically shipped by LoudTwitter

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965)

The US space program is in trouble (again). Their new-fangled Mars rockets tend to explode in orbit, without anyone knowing why or seeming all that interested to know why, as long as they can shoot another rocket.

Dr. (who knows of what) Alan Steele (James Karen), though, is a secret humanitarian and has developed an android to pilot the next Mars mission. Disguised as Airforce pilot Frank Saunders (Robert Reilly) for a public that just wouldn't understand sending a machine up when so many men are willing to risk their lives (oh yes, this is the film's explanation), the poor machine isn't much luckier than its predecessors. Which comes as no surprise when you know that the rockets are shot down by an alien spaceship carrying the last remnants of a race of hairless, pointy-eared gnomes and their leaders, The Princess (Marylin Hanold) and Dr. Nadir (Lou Cutell), in desperate search for "breeding stock" for their after a war womenless race. It's only after shooting Frank's rocket down that the aliens finally understand they are destroying manned spacecraft - therefore leaving possible witnesses to their presence. It seems best to just start with phase 2 - breeding stock acquisition - of their plan (number 9?), while searching for Frank.

The android itself is barely functioning, but whiling his time away with the killing of passersby and the molesting of women. How will it all end?

With a lot of stock footage, that much I can promise.

 

What begins like a candidate for the elusive club of brain-addled masterpieces like Robot Monster, Eegah and Plan 9 From Outer Space soon implodes into a truly astonishing mass of stock footage, footage of people driving around, stock footage of people driving around, stock footage of the US army, stock footage of the US army driving around etc etc etc, without the traditional filler minutes of people talking and talking and then talking some more usually added to make the proceedings a little less boring. Now, I'm used to films like this having their share of filler, but Frankenstein Meets beats almost every other movie in this respect - (and in this respect only). Someone less sunny and more cynical than me could think that the production didn't have enough money to shoot more than half an hour of actual own footage.

If you are very very patient, you'll find some cracktastic pearls here, though, like the absurd overpronounciation of every utterance our aliens practice (I am quite sure Dr. Nadir is speaking in boldface) or the sexualized evil gloating the good Doctor and the Princess practice while watching the "electric purification" of bikini-clad women (who, by the way, are the most willing prisoners one could possibly wish for). Or the US military operating to the soundtrack of (bad) surf music.

But now I'm letting the film sound entertaining, something it absolutely isn't, unless you are an expert viewer of the painfully bad or a masochist, or a masochistic expert viewer of the painfully bad, like me. Normal people will be rather bored, I'm afraid.

Oh, and the "Space Monster" of the title is a seldom seen guy in a ratty gorilla suit wearing a Halloween mask whom the Princess uses to discipline their henchpeople. The film prefers to show us stock footage instead.

Technorati-Tags: ,,,

Daily Twitter Terror

  • 08:23 A moment of silence for Germany's last great radio program please. It will be missed.
  • 10:30 I approve of the Daily Cabal. Don't think they'll care. www.dailycabal.com/
  • 12:37 SGR is not only a brilliant webcomic, but also made by someone with taste in music and ability to write about it? tinyurl.com/8abgg3
  • 13:22 The British Pound is the new Dollar, it seems.
Automatically shipped by LoudTwitter

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Lady Hermit (1971)

A young (and I mean really, really young) woman named Cui Ping (Shih Szu) is searching for a mysterious swordswoman, the Lady Hermit, whom she deems to be the only teacher worth learning from. Cui Ping plans to become a good enough fighter to challenge the current "Number One In The Martial World", Black Demon (Wang Hsieh), who is a right bastard. It's not as if it was personal between Cui Ping and Black Demon - she lacks the expected backstory about murdered parents and is instead driven by a combination of youthful arrogance and just as youthful righteousness. Not a bad combination in a woman brandishing a whip and a sword.

Said woman is more than on the right trail to find her heroine - she has already met her in the form of a maid (Cheng Pei Pei) working at the escort service Cui Ping has made the base for her search. Leng Yu Shuang, as the Hermit's real name is, has been laying low there for a few years to recover from a grievous wound to her hip she suffered when fighting (and losing against) Black Demon.

Also working for the escort service is Chang Chun (Lo Lieh in one of his knightly roles), soon to be one third of a love triangle between the heroines, and really not of much other use.

To make matters a little more complicated, Black Demon's henchmen have slowly closed in on the Lady Hermit and are concocting their own version of a protection money racket - led by someone claiming to be the heroine (just with a lot more beard) to flush the original out. So the rest of the film's plot should be more or less obvious.

If someone could explain the reason for the bizarre differences in quality and style of the films of The Lady Hermit's director Meng Hua Ho to me, it would be very much appreciated. How it is possible that the man responsible for The Oily Maniac and Mighty Peking Man was just a few years earlier making an excellent wuxia like this is beyond me. Who knew how good he was in making the best of location shots? Or making real neat looking action scenes?

Of course, The Lady Hermit is a very formulaic film, but that's one of the reason we call movies like it "genre movies". The question in a case like this is: how well does a film use the formulae of his genre and (if the genre is already getting decadent one way or the other) how does it twist them? The former does not seem to have been a problem for Meng Hua Ho at all - the movie contains everything one expects of a non-mad wuxia, realized in as dynamic and exciting ways as possible. The fights are as well choreographed as they are bloody, which is no surprise in a Shaw Brothers film, of course, but also show a fine sense for action set pieces like a fight on a suspension bridge (including really bad model effects - always a plus) that some people in Hollywood would go on to steal a few years later for that film with the permanently screeching woman, or, as we call it, the Anti-Lady-Hermit.

The twist in the genre formula is the consequent way in which the film substitutes typical male roles with female characters and vice versa - not completely atypical for the wuxia, but seldom played this straight and unflinching. Also, Lo Lieh as Damsel With A Sword In Distress really is something.

And speaking of "really being something", there are our heroines. Cheng Pei Pei was a much more accomplished actress at this point in her career than in her earliest years (and keep in mind she was only 25 when this film was made) and this is surely one of her best performances. Where many wuxia heroes tend to be rather bland, she projects a rare mixture of determination, competence, fragility and humor combined with the ability to kill people with tea cups.

Shih Szu, only 16 here, mostly lives off youthful charm, but what could be a problem in other roles becomes a believable part of her character here.

All in all, there's no reason to miss this, unless you're on of those people who are categorically against watching really good films.

 

Daily Twitter Terror

  • 09:41 Tasty? tinyurl.com/7xlukz
  • 09:47 All those bad reviews of The Spirit I read really make me eager to see it as soon as possible.
  • 09:59 Mondo Macabro in Bollywood Horror Collection Volume 2 shocker! tinyurl.com/9gbh38
  • 10:08 Nanashi No Geemu sounds like something I just have to play. tinyurl.com/8khg7s
  • 15:16 I do rowdieism and goondaism.
  • 23:19 Zombie Related Injuries or Fatalities tinyurl.com/7krh4l
Automatically shipped by LoudTwitter

Sunday, December 28, 2008

In short: Timecrimes (2008)

Hector (Karra Elejalde) learns why it is not a good idea to poke through the woods around one's home. He finds a quite dead looking naked woman and is chased by a guy with a bandaged head who's brandishing a pair of scissors.

As it is customary in cases like this, Hector's flight from the faceless killer leads him into a nearby research facility and into a time machine. Did I mention Hector is not the luckiest of men?

Of course, if you step into a time machine once, you're bound to fuck some part of the past up badly, which just leads to the next badly planned attempt at putting the plot threads together again, and so on, and so on. If you now add to this Hector's impressive talent for bad luck and his equally impressive stupidity, you'll know where this film is bound to go.

Don't make the mistake and think Timecrimes is as intelligent as some of its reviews will let you think. It is not necessarily a dumb film, but far away from a film like Primer's interest in the philosophical dimensions of its concept.

On a technical level, the movie is flawless, if lacking a little in character and/or a style of its own. Everything is streamlined, designed to be as clear as possible and to keep the film moving, which is perfectly fine, yet a little disappointing if you like your time travel films to use their basic concept for something a little more ambitious than mere excitement. Of course, one should take what one can get, and I'll be damned if I continue criticizing a film for trying to entertain me. It's not the film's fault when it has other ambitions than I wish it would have.

Be that as it may, as a thriller with some nice moments of black comedy, Timecrimes is very effective, thanks to an unrelenting (but not too fast) pace and real fine acting all around. Karra Elejalde's Hector is a convincing Everyman and his transformation into someone who will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals would be a lot less believable in the hands of another actor.

I have some minor quibbles with the script - Hector starts out so clueless as too be annoying and not every of the characters' actions make as much sense as I would like them to do - but Nacho Vigalondo's direction is assured enough to help one ignore these flaws.

 

Help out some good people

Apex Publishing, one of the really good small publishers of fantastic fiction has been hit hard by the economic troubles. So, if you still have some of that Christmas money (=are not me), read this and buy here.

 

Technorati-Tags: ,

Daily Twitter Terror

  • 11:30 It's nice to be home again.
  • 13:41 If you need someone explaining to you who Gollum is, you have no business playing a game based on Lord of the Rings.
  • 14:10 Vivian Girls. I already liked them when they were male and called The Godz; so no criticism here.
  • 14:29 And another new e-zine about "dark fantasy" [sic]. www.morriganezine.com/
  • 14:30 Pro-tip for e-zines: get an RSS feed or I (very possible reader) might forget all about you before your next issue comes around.
Automatically shipped by LoudTwitter

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Book Report: Poppy Z. Brite, Drawing Blood

Young traumatized drifter and comics artist Trevor McGee returns to the house where his father had killed Trevor's mother and brother and then himself to finally get rid of the shadows of the past and find an answer to the question why his father did leave him alive.

There, in the small town of Missing Mile, he not only meets the very literal ghosts of his past, but also Zach, a hacker from New Orleans whose own traumata are nearly as bad as Trevor's. Obviously, they are going to fall in love.

Usually, I am not one of Brite's detractors, but Drawing Blood left me as cold as a book can. Besides some formal problems I have with it - especially a sub-plot in Zach's home of New Orleans that does not have a function in the book which could not have been filled more elegantly and less book-bloatingly in very different ways - the novel falls down flat for me in its core.

While reading, I was never able to believe Trevor and Zach as the traumatized and hurt people they were supposed to be; it felt mostly like Brite was going through the motions of oh-so-sexy pain and telling me how hurt her characters were, without ever writing about truly damaged people.

The patness of the ending did not much to change my mind about the characterization here either. I am sorry, but this is not the way pain works - actually, it's not even an effective romantization of pain.

 

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Horrors of the Holiday Hiatus

I will be in one of the most horrific states known to man in the next few days: without Internets or tubes! You'll have to wait a while for more pointless ramblings or links into the depths of the circle of hell reserved for memes.

Happy Holidays to all, may you meet this guy when he's in a good mood and will eat you first:

 

Technorati-Tags:

Daily Twitter Terror

  • 09:45 Achievement Unlocked - That's what games are all about, obv. tinyurl.com/5daj4c
  • 10:36 Another secret: I think Miller's Spirit can only improve on the Eisner comics.
Automatically shipped by LoudTwitter

Monday, December 22, 2008

Daily Twitter Terror

  • 13:15 Slept for 11 hourse. Gah.
  • 14:03 Steven Seagal: "I am hoping that I can be known as a great writer and actor some day, rather than a sex symbol."
  • 20:47 Way to go in pulling all your material from YouTube WB! Just think what would happen if people could see videos of your artists!
Automatically shipped by LoudTwitter

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Ghost Hill (1971)

Two swordsmen, the absurdly straight and knightly Shadow Tsai (Tien Peng) and the rather more dubious Black Dragon Fung (Tong Wai) are fighting a duel for the title of "Sword King" as well as the possession of a blade called the "Purple Light Magic Sword". Fung wins the fight, but only because Tsai is so fair that he isn't willing to strike down his enemy while he can't see his sword, so the resident martial arts master gives title and sword to Tsai. A slightly disgruntled Fung and a very happy Tsai go their ways.

Tsai needs the sword for something different than prestige - it's the only way to take revenge on the killer of his father (and we're not going to learn about the why and wherefore of that death), whose skin is supposed to be impervious to weapons and who also is a fearsome fighter even with the little handicaps of being old and blind. He is also protected by his daughter Swallow (Polly Kuan), an effective swordswoman in her own right.

Such a simple tale of revenge wouldn't be enough for a film very much in the spirit of the Chor Yuen school of the wuxia film and so the house of Tsai's master is attacked by a strange group of fighters. One of them pretends to be Fung - and really, who else would have a motive to kill Tsai's master and make off with the Purple Light Magic Sword?

At the same time, Tsai's potential revenge victim, who is also - as we will learn a little later - the teacher of Fung, is attacked and killed by a strange group of fighters pretending to work for Tsai.

All this devious killing is part of the plan of a certain King Gold (Sit Hon, yes, having his skin painted golden) to get Fung and Tsai to kill each other, because he...um, you got me there. Wants to piss off the best swordsmen around? Well, he is a man who has lots and lots of other things to do: Raping women (thankfully off-screen) while wearing his pet parrot on his shoulder, taking baths in scalding hot water, throwing his servants into said water, shooting people with his harpoon arm, laughing evilly after every second sentence he says etc, etc, so it is all too explainable why not every single one of his plans can be a hit.

This one turns out especially badly for King Gold. Instead of causing at least one dead swordsman, his plan only leads to Fung, Tsai and Swallow talking things through (after some drama and fighting of course) and combining their efforts against Gold (whom, as I'd like to emphasize, they held no grudges against before he tried to mess with them).

Of course, all this is not complicated enough at all, so what about a little emotional trouble? So, Swallow is in love with Tsai, Tsai is probably (he is the strong silent and slightly stupid type) in love with Swallow, and Fung is very definitely in love with Swallow and also rather jealous of Tsai being such a swell and well-loved guy.

Still not complicated enough? Alright, King Gold also has a daughter named Gia (Hon Seung Kam), who is also a little in love with Tsai - and, as it turns out, not King Gold's daughter at all, but the daughter of a dead enemy, taken in and raised as Gold's daughter to be married by the golden madman as soon as she's old enough (and can I get an "Ewww" here?). Turns out this is going to be a good reason for her uniting with the other three swordspeople against him. It was probably not Goldie's best idea to teach her the art of fighting.

As you can see, there are a lot of plot points to resolve until our heroes can attack King Gold's mountain with the help of a lot of guys we didn't meet before, go through his creatively trapped (ice! fire! poison!) Ten Gates of Death and kick his ass.

 

The Ghost Hill (and I don't have a clue why the film is called that way) is a rather fine example of the slightly mad wuxia type beloved Chor Yuen pioneered. Taiwanese director Shan-si Ting was no Chor Yuen, to be sure, as he was missing Yuen's incredible sense of color, framing and use of sets, but his film should be a lot of fun even for people not completely in love with the wuxia genre. The film goes along at the slightly mad pace these things should have - fast enough to confuse the average viewer with its quite complicated plot line and the merry bunch of characters. But really, why should a film have just one old master when it can have three (or is it four? I'm not sure anymore)? The same goes for bearded evildoers and death traps.

Many of the Taiwanese wuxias I know have a little trouble keeping their intensity up when the fighting stops and the melodrama starts. This is not a problem here, thanks to a very well-cast and well-played core of characters. For once, even the chemistry between the love interests is as it should be. That everyone knows how to look good in the not brilliantly but well choreographed fights is a given in any case. The characterization is of course more archetypal than deep, but all four heroes are in the hands of actors who know how to make an archetype come alive. My favorite though is Sit Hon's King Gold, with his permanent belly-laugh and his parrot - and a lair that is probably the historical source for every place those Hindi villains are inhabiting.

I wouldn't really know what to criticize about the film if not for the fight scene between Swallow and Gia which is partly sped-up in the most irritating and obvious way possible - and for no good reason, since other fights show both actresses to be more than capable enough to provide a good fight without this kind of non-trickery.

 

Meme of the year

Which famous Serial Killer are you?

Ed Gein

You're Ed Gein. Mr. Gein was a man who usually kept to himself and wasn't very social. Unfortunately, he grew up in a household where his mother never allowed him to make friends and usually bad mouthed the female gender, (excluding herself, of course). Because of his depressing childhood, Gein became extremely lonely. Apparently, murdering people and using their appendages as decorations for your house is easier than making friends.

Personality Test Results

Click Here to Take This Quiz
Brought to you by YouThink.com quizzes and personality tests.

 

Daily Twitter Terror

  • 12:03 "Insect Insertion Down The Skirt". Thanks, Japan...I guess.
  • 20:12 Mad Norifumi Suzuki could make something weird and idiosyncratic even out of something as unpromising as a sex comedy.
  • 20:13 I'll have to look for his trucker comedies with Bunta Sugawara, it seems.
Automatically shipped by LoudTwitter

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Daily Twitter Terror

  • 10:48 Another B-movie shame - Stephen Chow: is not all that funny, now is he? #
  • 12:11 @davidkidd And I was afraid it was my notorious lack of humor... #
  • 23:23 Code Red is going to publish the first correct AR version of the wonderful Messiah of Evil! tinyurl.com/3u2ran #
Automatically shipped by LoudTwitter

Friday, December 19, 2008

Book Report: Robert Dunbar, The Pines

Years after the (completely natural and less than mysterious) death of her husband, Athena, a coloured, terribly unhappy woman from the city, still lives with her mentally handicapped and/or just plain strange son Matty in the ramshackle family home in the Jersey Pine Barrens she and her husband had planned on renovating. Athena has trouble relating to her son and spends most of her time away from him as a voluntary rescue helper for the barely operational local emergency service of her only friend Doris and with a rather sordid affair with corrupt cop Barry. If we can believe the book, the communities in the Barrens are something from Lovecraft's nightmares (well, those that weren't xenophobic): incestuous and degenerated to an unbelievable degree with a higher percentage of mental illnesses than you'll find in the average psychiatric clinic.

Also, people tend to disappear there more often than seems credible without sinister goings on deeper than the things Barry and the Sheriff Frank are up to.

Now, the disappearances turn into outright murders. People are mangled and ravaged by something the authorities (if you want to call them that) think is a roaming pack of dogs; something that seems to be closing in on Athena in a way no normal pack of animals would do. Even worse is that Matty seems to have some form of mental rapport with the monster that might just be the source for the legend of the Jersey Devil...

 

I had read quite a few good things about The Pines and was glad when Leisure Books announced their new mass market edition. Say what you will about Leisure (like, for example, that most of their original novels could really use another rewrite or just stronger editing), but they are doing their bit to keep some of the more marketable horror fiction of the past thirty years in print.

The novel itself is an interesting piece of work, flawed in many aspects, but successful enough in one single element that I can still recommend it heartily.

Most troubling for me are moments of nearly cringeworthy dialogue, especially the permanent (and just incredibly annoying) use of "dialect" - one of the major sins of dialogue writing committed by authors everywhere. If you are not a linguist, or really really good at what you do when trying to sound like "the local people" (who are for some reason always much less educated than yourself and so obviously must be stupid and have to sound that way, too), just don't.

The local people lead quite neatly to the book's next problem: characterization. Some of the core characters, like Athena or Barry's partner Steven, are well drawn, nuanced and believable, but as soon as we come to the "Pineys", Dunbar pulls out all stops to push us into the most cliched "degenerate villager" stereotypes imaginable. Combined with the language they use, these caricatures are sometimes hard to take and I have quite a bit of trouble not to think of the author having some rather problematic ideas about the mental capacities of uneducated people.

While it's hard not to sympathize with Dunbar's themes of redemption and emotionally closed up people opening up to life again, the plot he utilizes to explore them has its own problems. The core of the plot is strong, there is just a lack of control - many sub-plots just fade out without having gone anywhere, important ideas aren't explored enough, most of the murders would better be handled off-stage and the ending - as well as the way Athena has to act to set it up - isn't properly constructed at all. The explanation for Dunbar's version of the Jersey Devil is not original, yet fine enough, but it does in no emotionally or logically successful way lead to the ending the book has.

Now, having been less than enthusiastic about dialogue, plot and characters, why is it I still don't think the time reading The Pines is wasted? It's Dunbar's language when he's not writing dialogue or action. One seldom finds a book this evocative of a mood of dread, despair and the humid oppression of rot. The author paints a disturbing picture here of nature far from being a thing of beauty or romantically wild, but a thing of terror more deserving of fear than the thing that hides beneath the bed or in the cupboard. This element of the book is Lovecraftian in all the best meanings of the word and strong enough to keep the novel afloat through some very rocky moments.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

 

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

In short: The Boneyard (1991)

Police psychic (that's what they did before there was a CSI) Alley Cates (Deborah Rose) has retired from her job and life in general when her old friend/boss Jersey Callum (Ed Nelson) talks her into helping him one last time. Three half decomposed child corpses have been found with a mortician, and Alley is Jersey's last hope to identify them. The mortician tells the police the funniest thing about these corpses. If you believe him, his family has been cursed with keeping the world safe from the Living Dead by feeding them the scraps that the morticionary business provides. The corpses are just "playing possum" now to get to a better and more fun food source.

When Alley, Jersey and his partner Mullen (James Eustermann) make a nightly visit to the morgue, the mad ramblings turn out to be plain truth. It does not take long until a motley crew of survivors is trapped in the sublevel of the morgue with three very hungry undead.

 

The Boneyard was directed by James Cummins, who mostly worked as a special effects man on films like House. As far as effects people directing films go, he is one of the better ones - ironically enough some of the later special effects look rather hilariously bad and are the biggest flaws in a very entertaining piece of film.

We aren't talking big art, of course, but a likeable piece of horror comedy with equally likeable protagonists - most of them middle aged or older, not pretty and very much feeling like real grown-ups, something much of the movie part of the horror genre avoids like the plague. Understandably enough, since not very attractive people like Alley or Jersey need a certain amount of characterization to be accepted by the viewer, a lofty goal that can only be reached by a costly combination of actors who can actually act and script written by someone who's not the director's ten year old nephew. The script here does just enough to provide the actors with the opportunity to make watching their characters worthwhile and I for my part was very happy with an older, overweight woman as my heroine. That, and the sly humor of most of film, is what makes it worth watching, even when the badly thought out final stretch arrives and we are suddenly treated to some dubious animatronic creatures instead of the very effective zombie make-up of the children, as it seems in an ill-advised go for the elusive giant poodle zombie slapstick comedy fan.

Still Alley, Jersey and the gang are very much worth your time, while poodle zombie and the other thing (you'll know what I mean) may be a bad fit for the tone of the movie, but are certainly funny enough in their unfunniness.

 

Monday, December 15, 2008

Santo En La Venganza De La Momia (1971)

Professors Jimenez (Carlos Ancira) and Romero (Cesar del Campo) have finally located the tomb of the Opache prince Nanoc. Both are eager to start an expedition into the jungly depths of Central America at once. They don't shy away from progressive decisions, like taking more than the one woman with them that the law requires. Besides secretary Rosa (Alma Rojo) - whose job "is of course to take notes" - there's also room for semi-spunky Susana (Mary Montiel), photographer and future love interest who will have some interesting things to say about the manly manliness of the most important part of the expedition, the great El Santo himself. Santo is of course responsible for the expedition's security and shows his talent for the job by throwing big kittens around, letting most of the people around him die and punching a mummy very hard.

The good Prince Nanoc is still rightfully pissed about being buried alive for a minor transgression of religious taboos (out of love!) and answers to people who trample through his tomb like the antiquity-destroying archeologists here do in the only language that's really fun on film - shooting them in the back with a bow and arrow. He's not one of those old-fashioned Egyptian mummies, so he does not only use a weapon, but is also as stealthy as Solid Snake and rather sprightly for someone this dead. Even sprightly enough to wrestle the idol of the masses himself. After Santo, who has obviously been hit too hard on the head in the long, long wrestling match (featuring El Rebelde!) at the beginning of the movie, finally accepts the existence of things like the living dead, that is - it's not as if he had ever met vampires or zombies or martian invaders before.

 

La Venganza De La Momia lies somewhere in the qualitative middle of the Santo films. Directed by Rene Cardona (senior, I suppose) with his usual lack of flair, but with relative competence, the film looks as if it had quite a budget: the mummy looks fine (and what does not look fine about it is very nicely explained away), the location shots have been made in something amounting to a real jungle, Santo is wearing swanky safari clothes (I especially like the ensemble with the green neckerchief he's wearing in the first half of the film), the actors seem to be awake all of the time and there's a real neat organ on the soundtrack. As I have already mentioned, the production could even afford two actresses with speaking roles. Also two times the odious comic relief in form of one of the professors (he's nearly blind! he's nearly deaf! hilarious!) and a "comical cook". These two are quite painful to watch but if one has seen the comic relief in Purana Mandir, one does not even flinch anymore when confronted with minor annoyances like them. So this is what happens when you don't have to provide a muscle car for your star.

The "funny"people are the only real filler in the film - unless you count fifteen minutes of stage wrestling - leading to a dapper pace of the proceedings.

I haven't got much more to say about the movie. It's not a mandatory Santo, but one of those pulp-friendly serial-like outings of our hero which are quite a bit of fun for those with a taste for them.

We are additionally treated to some choice dialogue and the most entertaining romantic sub-plot I have seen in a Santo film until now. And, you know, Santo punches a mummy.

 

Darlings of the Day:

"Any woman would be happy if a man as manly as you would love her a little."

"Sergio, bring the mummy to my tent. Prepare another tent for the ladies."

 

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Coffin (2008)

I'm probably just showing my cultural ignorance, but I had never heard of Thai coffin ceremonies before watching this film. Apparently, if you are suffering from bad fortune, a way to get rid of it is letting yourself be locked into a fresh coffin while monks pray outside.

The Coffin concerns itself with two participants in one such ceremony, Chris (Ananda Everingham) and Sue (Karen Mok).

Chris wants nothing more than the awakening of his girlfriend Mariko (Aki Shibuya) from a coma, while Sue does not want to die of her terminal lung cancer, especially this close to her wedding. Both of them get what they ask for, but of course there is a price to pay for everything, as the Karma Preservation Theorem posits.

Chris and the newly conscious Mariko are soon beset by bloody visions of a woman and a baby who do not seem to have anything good in mind.

Sue is even worse off: her fiancee dies in an accident, but finds still time in his busy afterlife schedule (I heard the beaurocratic hoops the newly dead have to jump through are terrible) to haunt her.

By different means, Chris and Sue learn of the risk that is part of the coffin ceremony - bad fortune does not dissolve into thin air, but is instead put upon your loved ones, who usually aren't all that keen on their new state of lifelessness.

 

After the first half of The Coffin, I was quite convinced of having a new Asian horror sensation of the clever sort to rave about. Alas, its final third undercuts much of its effect, not so much as to make it unwatchable, but more than enough to keep it from being a mandatory film for people interested in Thai horror cinema.

It's all director Ekachai Uekrongtham's fault, really. The film is a mood piece most of the time, the kind of film that lives (or dies) from the director's ability to make ideas palpable as part of its atmosphere. Uekrongtham succeeds all the way through. Ironically, this is the film's problem. It starts out with an ominous mood, slowly rises to moments that feel (to this viewer) exactly like the point between sleeping and waking, that moment when you feel as if someone you lost was right beside you, then fills this moment with as much dread as love and loss. Talking about grief by way of the supernatural may not be all that original, but it works perfectly here. Until Uekrongtham ends the movie with kitschy melodramatics - as if there was no difference between accepting things one can't change and saying thanks for being kicked.

The Coffin's aesthetics make it clear that this was a conscious decision, based on something the director truly believes, and not an inability to convey what he wants to convey. Unfortunately, this doesn't help me relish it more. I'm not sure how much my irritation with the later parts of the movie is based on the philosophical differences between Uekrongtham and me; what I do know is that I felt somewhat cheated or lied to by its ending.

There are a lot of good things to find here too. First and foremost, Uekrongtham knows how to frame and film scenes as effectively as possible. He shows the kind of technical competence bordering on genius one does not often find, paired with the ability to be content with doing what's best for a scene and not what looks most flashy.

Some of the horror effects are a little unsubtle, but used in a context that makes it difficult not to feel uncomfortable while experiencing them.

The acting is solid enough, even if a little more intensity (not to be mistaken for Tom-Cruisy teeth-grinding) would probably have been more fitting for the film's themes of loss and guilt.

It's as problematic for me to recommend the film as it is not to recommend it. People interested in partly brilliant, partly annoying movies would be a perfect fit for The Coffin. Or people with a much more laid back view of life and death than I possess.

 

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Philosophy and videogames

MMO design god/guru/whatever/don't ask me I don't really play MMOs Raph Koster is known to take a very systemic approach to design.

This is what he has to say about torture.

How could one not link to a post explaining how and why torture is bad game design?

 

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Los Campeones Justicieros (1971)

El Mano Negra (David Silva), evil mastermind and mad scientist, returns! Years ago, a team-up of Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras, El Medico Asesino, Tinieblas and La Sombra Vengadora put an end to his evil plans. Now, freshly escaped from jail, the fiendish tea drinker sets out to take his revenge. He has everything one could need: a lab which looks a wee bit as if it was situated in his mother's cellar (which is perfectly fitting - the Miss Mexico gala seems to take place in her living room), three nameless and talentless wrestling goons, the named and talented wrestler Black Shadow, and an army of midgets dressed in some very fine (and also very red) cape ensembles. It's even better - El Mano Negra also has a plan: after his first attempts to kill his archenemies fail, he decides to kidnap the wrestlers' goddaughters (yes, each of them has one, and of course each of the goddaughters is a candidate for becoming Miss Mexico). This will provide him with a fine way to get his hands on our wrestling heroes and also with "volunteers" for his hibernation and mind control experiments.

 

People who are much more knowledgeable of the lucha film than me have not been kind to this film, so I approached it with a certain amount of trepidation. To my surprise, Los Campeones Justicieros turned out to possess some unexpected positive qualities that made it somewhat endearing (it is also possible that I made my green tea too strong again and was intoxicated while watching, but oh well):

  • The budget of this film must have been absolutely lavish for an Agrasanchez production: 6 wrestlers (the goons don't count), 5 motorcycles, a boat, a plane, at least 3 or 4 cars (one stolen from James Bond's kid brother), plus a horde of midgets equals an immense budget. The poor Agrasanchez people didn't even have enough money left to put filler into the film (except for a long, long, long waterskiing sequence - but what would you do when you had A BOAT for your film?)!
  • The action scenes are rather enthusiastic (especially when the lucha film you have seen before this one was the Dr. Zovek/Blue Demon team-up) - the Agrasanchez Little People ensemble was seldom this good at throwing themselves at masked wrestlers.
  • There is some kind of plot that could even be said to move along at something amounting to a pace. Even more bizarre is the fact that the script contains one and a half surprises - which I won't spoil here, of course.
  • And then there's the music - someone locked a mediocre hard bop ensemble up, promising not to let them out until they had produced a soundtrack for the mighty Los Campeones Justicieros. That worked out nicely. It's not only the first time something as good as mediocre can be found in an Agrasanchez film, the music itself is also a true test of one's love for the lucha genre. If you are willing to watch a film whose musical accompaniment has nothing whatsoever to do with the things you see on screen and seems to consist of more drum solos than the drum solo portion of a Grateful Dead show but with less jugglers and fire-eaters, just because said film features masked wrestlers, then you are one of the truly devoted.
  • The film also answers one of the burning questions of our time: Does a luchador wear his mask in bed?
  • Also, there are lots of midgets fighting against luchadores

Honestly, this is rather fun. Did I mention the midgets and the masked wrestlers!?

 

          Did you know

          that Team Love Records had their complete catalogue of music online for free downloading in the past few years? Me neither.

          They have changed their policy now and have a monthly rotation of downloadable albums - which does not change the fact that they are putting some fine music onto the net.

          This month's load contains the brilliant Rabbit Fur Coat by Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins among other fine things. So go and make yourself an account, download, listen, enjoy and give these good people some money!

           

          In other musical gift news, Momus spends this December presenting us with his albums on Creation Records. The first one's already online here.

           

          Tuesday, December 9, 2008

          Temptress Of A Thousand Faces (1969)

          Hong Kong, poor Hong Kong! When not overrun with midgets shooting acid from their goiters or gangsters shedding blood in a most heroic fashion, the (swinging) city's peace and quiet is disturbed by evil masterminds like the Temptress of a Thousand Faces (Pat Ting Hung). As her name suggests, she is a master of disguise, using those magical latex masks we know and love from a lot of movies to good effect.

          As far as evil masterminds go, Tempie's one of the less intimidating ones - she's a big time jewel thief without a proclivity for bloodshed, so the non-jewel-possessing part of the world is safe from her plans.

          Her biggest ally is in fact the Hong Kong police itself, here mostly present through The Detective, an older guy who is always barking at his underlings how incompetent they are without ever showing the slightest trace of competence himself, Porn Cop (so called because the film never bothers to give him a name and he has trouble discerning between porn and reality) and our heroine, Chi Ying (Tina Fei Chin).

          All would be swell for the Temptress, if she wasn't crushing on a reporter named Yu Ta (Liang Chen), who - what are the odds! - is also the boyfriend of Chi Ying.

          What's an evil woman to do when she's in love with another woman's boyfriend? Well, why not start with kidnapping the guy's cop-girlfriend to a) strip her down to her underwear and tie her up nicely and b) tell her that you are not that evil - after all, you are robbing rich people, who are all evil themselves and when you were still poor, nobody helped you; also, men are evil. and c) torture her by spinning her around really fast in something reminding me of a shower cubicle; afterwards torture her some more with electro shocks.

          Surprisingly enough, Chi Ying continues her hunt for the Temptress afterwards, which soon leads to another kidnapping. But this time, the Temptress disguises herself as the policewoman to rob some more jewels (really, she has to pay off the cost of her lair) and discredit her enemy.

          That goes rather well, what with every copper in town as stupid as one of those damn flies that tries to drown itself in a bowl of soup again and again.

          Chi Ying is not willing to give up though, and uses the hypnotic powers of leg rubbing to escape from the watchful eyes of Porn Cop. She's caught again soon enough, but not before she's had a bout of sweet sweet love-making with Yu Ta.

          It must have been very very sweet love-making indeed, since the reporter is now absolutely convinced that Chi Ying is not the Temptress. He starts the woman's rehabilitation at once by putting on drag (and hot damn, that's a sight that will sink into my nightmares) and robbing some jewels. He leaves the Temptress' card at the scene of the crime, leaving the Detective not much choice than to let Chi Ying go free.

          Alas, she doesn't even have the chance to go and thank her man - the henchmen of the Temptress (some of course in the guise of blindmen) grab her again!

          After dressing Chi Ying down to her underwear and installing a TV tuned to the Yu Ta bedroom channel, Tempie (the tramp!) again dresses up as the cop and has some fun with Yu Ta - who is of course oblivious to the fact his girlfriend now has a different body below her face.

          The part with the TV is a mistake. A very pissed off Chi Ying punches and shoots (while still in her underwear, obviously) through a whole lot of henchmen and goes off to rescue her men.

           

          As you might probably have guessed, this Shaw Brothers epic is one of the studio's experiments with the Eurospy formula, spicing things up with Diabolik-like supervillaindom and as much sleaze as it could get away with. Which, in 1969, was quite a lot, as long as nobody got too naked.

          Temptress (directed by the South Korean Chang-hwa Jeong, a typical Shaw house style director without much of a distinctive voice, but the sure hand of an experienced craftsman) pushes all the right buttons of the genre: the cheap but cool sets, the sometimes outrageous outfits (Tempie's got a thing for a wide variety of henchpeople uniforms), the highly dubious plot and so on and so on.

          There's enough action to keep everything moving all the time. As usual in this genre, the fight choreography is nothing to write home about, but Tina Fei Chin does much of her fighting herself while dressed in mini-skirts, high heels and wearing gravity-defying big 60s hair, so I'll give her a pass for the effort alone.

          Really if this film does not sound fun for you, there's not much I can do - it's probably the perfect Shaw Brothers not-Eurospy film with all the problems and virtues this title brings with it.

          (A warning to sensitive people: there is a Wong Jing-like rape "joke" at the end that could make you a little mad. Personally, I am so desensitized that a scene in which Porn cop and another cop are grabbing two of Tempie's harem henchwomen to "have their fun" and the rest of the police and the henchwomen are laughing at those whacky comedy cops does hardly even register anymore.)

           

          Sunday, December 7, 2008

          In short: Elves (1990)

          Kirsten (Julie Austin), a valleygirlish creature leads the charmed life of a princess: her little brother is an obnoxious pest, her mother (Deanna Lund)- cat-killing bitch - hates her and her grandfather (Borah Silver) has a very suspect "German" accent. He's also her father as well as her gramps.

          That is not the only surprising revelation this Christmas will have for her. She'll also learn that she is the product of genetic experimentation which makes her the perfect woman for mating with one of the killer elves the nazis employed, producing the Antichrist. Soon a stiff elf puppet and a group of neo-nazis are trying to lay their hands on the young woman. The only thing that stands between humanity and the elfpocalypse is ex-cop turned store detective turned store Santa Claus Dan Haggerty and his mystical flabby fatness.

           

          Sounds great in a totally braindead way, doesn't it? Unfortunately it is far from it. Elves is mostly a terrible bore of a movie, taking itself far too seriously without ever reaching anything like naive charme. From time to time a bit of smirkworthy dialogue nearly wakes the viewer up, but if you are looking for entertainment going beyond watching a stoned Haggerty doing nothing of interest, you have come to the wrong place.

           

          Tumbarumba

          is a deeply fascinating Firefox extension/art project that tries to integrate twelve pieces of fiction into your browsing experience.

          I really love experiments like this. You can download the extension here.

           

          Technorati-Tags: ,,,

          Witchcraft (1964)

          The two British country families of the Laniers and the Whitlocks have been feuding for more than 300 years now. In the mid-seventeenth century, the Norman Laniers managed to discredit the Saxon Whitlocks as the leaders of a local witches' coven, leading to the death of family matriarch Vanessa by being buried alive. This little coup made the Laniers the leading family of the community, with the remaining Whitlocks their eternal enemies.

          In 1964 not much has changed between the families. Although the Laniers' head of family Bill (Jack Hedley) is a rather civilized man, it does not take much to rekindle the hatred of Morgan Whitlock (Lon Chaney junior in one of his more dignified late performances).

          The Laniers have fallen on hard times and are in need of money. Bill is planning on building a housing estate on his land, but needs the help of the shady (is there any other kind?) building contractor Myles Forrester (Barry Linehan) for its funding.

          Trouble arises when Forrester thinks it cheaper to just flatten the graves and crypts on an old cemetery where the ancestors of the Whitlocks (of course including Vanessa) are buried, instead of moving the gravesides.

          Lanier himself had nothing to do with the decision, but the enraged Whitlock does not care much.

          When Lanier visits the graveyard at night to assess the damage he hears scratching and moaning from Vanessa's sarcophagus. This can't of course be real - or so the man thinks until the people around him start dying in strange accidents. All this can't have anything to do with the devil dolls that are found near the victims, or the strange mute woman in the mud-crusted coat (Yvette Rees), don't you think?

          Then there is the little tryst between Lanier's younger brother Todd (David Weston) and Whitlock's niece Amy (Diane Clare) to cope with. Lanier couldn't care less if the girl's a Whitlock or not, but Whitlock does have a different perspective on things.

           

          Director Don Sharp and writer Harry Spalding were two of the more talented workhorses of British genre film in the late 50s and early 60s, both probably not all that artistically inclined, but very capable of making the best of low budgets and tight shooting schedules.

          With this in mind, I went into Witchcraft expecting a solid film, no more, no less. What I actually got was an effective and moody piece about the collision of the supernatural and modern times.

          The script is stronger than usual in this type of film - the protagonists are understandably skeptical when it comes to the reality of witchcraft but are not disbelieving their own experiences so much that the viewer stops taking them seriously anymore. Spalding even goes so far as to make everyone in the film act rather sensible. As sensible as I'd expect someone suddenly confronted with a hidden coven of witches with real supernatural powers to act, at least.

          Sharp's direction is a career high, making good use of the clear black and white of the early 60s and reaching a quite perfect gothic mood in the second half of the film. The attack on grandmother Lanier alone is worth the price of admission.

          Even if Witchcraft does not reach the dream-like heights of Bava's masterpiece, the photography and the look of Vanessa bring to mind Mask of the Demon, and I'd be very surprised if the Italian film hadn't been an influence on it.

           

          Saturday, December 6, 2008

          In short: Get Carter (1971)

          London gangster Jack Carter (Michael Caine) returns to his Northern industrial hometown to find out the truth about the supposed accidental death of his straight brother Frank. His London bosses don't want him to make a mess by crossing their local partners, but once pointed in the direction he will go, Jack isn't somebody who can be dissuaded by anything.

          Get Carter is a rather very cynical gangster/revenge flick from the bizarre filmography of Mike Hodges, and probably the director's best one at that. Influenced by film noir, John Boorman's Point Blank and the painful ugliness of its setting, Caine's Carter walks through the film as someone who does not give a shit about himself anymore; he hasn't, as his gaze tells us, for a long time. When the few things he actually cares about are destroyed, he answers with the only things he truly understands: violence of the very casual kind and a rage he neatly holds in its cage until the opportune moment to let it out has come.

          Hodges seems to find a certain delight in showing us some of the most consequent and least moral acts of vengeance that can be found on film, all too fitting for the city where they take place, itself an act of architectural violence.

          A slight leavening of the blackest of humor only emphasizes the meanness and hopelessness of the film. I'm not sure if hopelessness is even a fitting word for the world Get Carter creates. Hopelessness implies at least the existence of hope - Hodges is not that optimistic here.

          Another thing I found rather remarkable was the fact that the film avoids the temptation to let the viewer identify with its protagonist - we're there to gaze into the abyss, not become it.

          Thursday, December 4, 2008

          Now this is the kind of music blog

          I have dreamed of.

          The Old, Weird America dives into Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and explores artists, songs and influences further.

           

          Technorati-Tags: ,

          Tuesday, December 2, 2008

          Holy Flame of the Martial World (1983)

          It's an old story: a pair of star-crossed lovers with two children knows where the secret creed of the Holy Flame of the martial world is hidden. The chiefs of every martial arts clan of mythic ancient China want that secret, so they hunt the two down and kill them in a fit of overenthusiasm. The children miraculously survive some of baby fu (which is the technical term for fighting with a baby on your back) - the male one is rescued by The Phantom (Philip Kwok) who comes too late to be of help to the babies' parents, while the female one has the dubious luck of becoming the adoptive daughter of Tsin Yin (Leanne Lau), head of the Er Mei Clan and one of the killers.

          Eighteen years later, the Phantom sends the boy who has (somewhat) grown into the not exactly spectacular form of Max Mok to retrieve the Holy Flame and take vengeance on the killers of his parents.

          Nobody knows that there are actually two Holy Flames, a yin and a yang version, one only useable by an eighteen year old male virgin, the other by a female one. Soon each twin has one of the weapons. Will they kill each other with the the things, or will they slaughter the bad guys?

           

          Holy Flame of the Martial World is a late period Shaw Brothers film and as such one thing first and foremost: a bizarre construction out of the maddest elements possible.

          Sure, the underlying vengeance tale is an old hat in the martial arts and wuxia genres, but moments of earnest melodrama have to take a backseat when scores of bizarre characters attack each other with everything the Weird Fu sub-genre loves (except - inexplicably - midgets). Good old Philip Kwok uses what could very well be my all-time favorite fighting technique, the "Ghostly Laughter". Just imagine him with one of those bad white wigs that are supposed to signify age on his head, sitting in front of his enemies and laughing heartily. So heartily in fact, that his laughter causes an enormous storm which blows his enemies away (unless they "seal their energy flow"). It's enormously silly to look at, and I highly approve.

          Most of the film is like that. It throws as much weirdness at its viewer as possible, most of it without anything amounting to an explanation. But really, what explanation could there be for Golden Snake Boy being played by a girl (and who is he/she anyway?) or for the Blood-Sucking Clan whose members are always on the lookout for female virgins to feed them to an English-speaking green corpse?

          Or for the fact that the Holy Flames look very much like cheap plastic toys, until they grow and our heroes fly on them, that is? And, now that I think of it, did you know that coming into contact with a special snake bladder will give you the power of the Magic Finger?

          With so much bizarre awesomeness thrown at me as fast as possible, I was even able to ignore the obvious flaws of the film - like Max Mok's complete lack of charisma and the ram-shackle state some of the sets were in. I just hadn't time for small change like this while watching a film with flying mirror balls.

           

          Neil Gaiman about Art and why Freedom of Speech is worth defending

          especially when you have to defend the things you find at least problematic.

           

          Technorati-Tags:

          Sunday, November 30, 2008

          In short: Blood Castle (1970)

          (Il Castello Dalle Porte Di Fuoco, as the film is originally titled, should not be confused with Blood Castle made in 1972 or the other Blood Castle made another year later, nor of course with Castle of Blood.)

          Ivanna Rakowsky (Erna Schürer) comes to a small town in Eastern Europe to work for Janos Dalmar (Carlos Quiney), the local Baron. The townsfolk are not pleased with their Baron. They believe he and his hounds are responsible for a series of murders of young women. It would sound a lot like the usual babbling of superstitious peasants, if not for the rather problematic fact that each of the young women had an affair with Janos before her demise.

          When Ivanna arrives at the castle to take her new position as a chemist, she steps into a Gothic soap opera. Her employer is at times charming and soft, at other times abrasive, while the household's chief servant Olga (Cristiana Galloni) is homicidally jealous; the maid Cristiana (Agostina Belli) is also in love with the Baron.

          Given this heated atmosphere, I wasn't at all surprised to learn that Ivanna is to help Janos continue his recently deceased brother's research into "matter regeneration". The baron seems to think that successful research could even be used to revive his brother, whose body rests in a bubbling fluid in the lab.

          It does not take long for Ivanna to fall in love with the completely irresistible Janos, overlooking little problems like the murders, or the locked part of the castle nobody is allowed to enter, or that she spent her first night in the castle naked and bound to a rack while someone lovingly fondled her body and admonished her to stay pure.

          What oh what might just be the secret of it all?

           

          Blood Castle certainly isn't one of the better Italian Gothics (can I blame the Spanish influence into the production?). One problem is the pedestrian and terribly unoriginal script - although the last third of the film has some amusing Freudian elements; another one a direction seriously lacking in flair. Director Jose Luis Merino was one of those typical Spanish and Italian (he worked in both countries) filmmakers who had to dabble in each genre a little, without achieving much of artistic merit or entertainment value. Still, it is surprising to find a film taking just about every cliche there is in the Gothic handbook (and adding lots of mild nakedness), but stealing none of the genre's visual trademarks. Were the coloured lights and the fog machine broken?

          Yet having said this, I must still admit I had a certain amount of fun watching Blood Castle. There was always another cliche to mark on the checklist, while the last third threw around some gloriously bad ideas a better director could have used to produce a more than decent film.

           

          Saturday, November 29, 2008

          Purana Mandir (1984)

          Curses! The Singh family could tell you about curses, if the head of their family wouldn't be so damn stuck up. Their troubles began when one of the their ancestors, a thakur (those are always trouble one way or the other) helped track down a nearly demonic sorcerer, rapist, child-murderer, grave-robber and corpse-eater (we are unfortunately not told what he thinks about kittens) named Saamri (Ajay Agarwal). It's not a big surprise that the good thakur knew only one answer to this charming list of crimes: death by beheading. Saamri didn't have much appreciation for capital punishment and cursed the Singh family terribly: each woman of the family, be she part of it by blood or by marriage, will die as soon as she gives birth to her first child until one day Saamri himself shall rise and end the Singh family line forever.

          The thakur was less than amused. But he had a theory: If he put the demon's head into a chest hidden in his palace and put Shiva's trident on top, and hid his body at the local temple, there would surely be no resurrection. Pro-tip: If the local priest tells you that burning is the preferrable method to get rid of the remains, listen to him. Those guys not only know Cure Serious Wounds spells, but are also experts in demon recycling.

          Alas, the thakur went with his method and so helped perpetuate the curse.

          In modern times, Suman Singh (Arti Gupta, dressed in the most astonishing combinations of 80s headwear I ever had the misfortune to behold) wants to marry her supremely creepy, leering stalker-boyfriend Sanjay (Mohnish Bahl, let's not talk about him any further), but her dad (Pradeep Kumar) is strictly against it. (And honestly, I wouldn't blame him for it even without the curse.)

          The young lovers think it's the class difference between them that lets Daddy sic his red waiter uniforms wearing henchmen on Sanjay. In truth, the old man has seen what the curse did to his wife, but is for some reason unwilling to tell anyone the truth.

          There will be quite a bit of "Nahiiiiin" screaming and melodrama before he finally changes his mind and the young lovers decide on the solution to their problem: birth control. No, wait, that would be reasonable, so instead they pack Sanjay's friend Anand (Puneet Issar, mostly shirtless and mustachioed - I loved him) and his girlfriend into a red chevy impala and drive to the old palace to somehow solve the problem by having the friends act as if they are on holiday and Sanjay flirting with a local village girl - only to get information of course.

          You can probably guess that this isn't the brightest idea, but if it leads to phenomena like moving eyes in a picture, giant bodyless ghostheads, headless ghost-bodies, Anand doing Chiba-fu when fighting against local tribals (who very much act like Hollywood Indians crossed with burning-torch-mob villagers), another chase between a coach and a car and finally the resurrection of Saamri himself, I am not going to complain.

           

          I watched Purana Mandir thanks to the magic of the Internet together with Beth of Beth loves Bollywood whose review of the film you shouldn't miss. In contrast to Beth, I prefer Bandh Darwaza, the other film by the glorious Ramsay Brothers on Mondo Macabro's Bollywood Horror Collection Vol. 1 (and where, dear Mondo Macabro, is volume 2?) over it, but both films are very close in spirit. That starts with the similar monster make-up and does not end with the unfair chase scene. The biggest differences between the two films are Purana Mandir's ill-conceived comic relief sub-plot with Jagdeep and (poor) Rajendranath that stops the film dead in his tracks with a disturbingly unfunny riff on Sholay and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and the fact that it stops for a breather a little too often.

          Fortunately, the film is still a very fine piece of breathless Bollywood pulp horror with many elements to recommend it.

          There are for example the nice, blue-green-red lighted locations and sets that look very much as if Mario Bava's less talented but very enthusiastic Indian twin brother had designed them. I would not want to live in a palace this foggy.

          Or the musical numbers that are usually not all that well picturized but feature unforgettable sights like a belly-dancing disco aztec princess or the least seductive dance of seduction this side of Bandh Darwaza.

          Speaking of the musical numbers, the best of them comes at the least expected moment. The locals are going to sacrifice our heroes to appease Saamri, the poor darlings are already bound and the knives are at their throats, when the tribals suddenly break out into the most carefree and chipper song and dance number imaginable. There is even torch juggling! I really can't conceive of what the Ramsays thought there, but it's definitely one of the supreme moments of psychotronic film I have had the pleasure to witness.

          And how could I not mention my new personal hero Anand again, another proof of the mustachio theory of manliness? Not only does he help his friend Sanjay selflessly, he is also one of the greatest ass-kickers of India, his fighting style a combination of Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba's breathing in Street Fighter. He even does the two-fingered eye-poke!

          Is it any wonder that his girlfriend dreams up a dubious but hilarious nearly-sex scene when she watches him work out!?

          Now add to all this Saamri's favorite killing technique - staring really hard at his opponent until the victim's eyes turn white and start to bleed (clear shades of Lucio Fulci here) and a silly but fun final fight that throws logic out of the window for a nice little burning and trident stabbing and you have a recipe for good clean fun with a deep moral message about the necessity to burn undead abominations dead.

          The Ramsay's direction style is raw (some would say primitive) and direct. Subtlety is not one of their strengths, even for Bollywood film makers, yet the film achieves what it sets out to do by mercilessly pummeling the viewer with classical masala elements, pulp action and the pulp version of gothic horror (see the steadicam of evil!), leaving me breathless with happy giggling. Problems only appear when the film slows down a little - especially the middle part has some real moments of drag, which are fortunately forgotten as soon as Anand pummels someone again.

          It is truly difficult to understand how I could live without films like this for so long.

           

          Habit (1997)

          Sam (Larry Fessenden) is going through a hard time: His father first disappeared, then died, he is a borderline alcoholic and his girlfriend Liza (Heather Woodbury) has left him for a kind of trial separation.

          When he meets Anna (Meredith Snaider) at a Halloween party it is lust on first sight. Anna likes to be mysterious. She does not talk much about her past nor her present. Actually, there is not much she and Sam do talk about. Instead they have sex.

          Which would certainly a nice thing for Sam, if not for Anna's special kink: she bites Sam and sucks his blood. At first this just feeds Sam's obsession with Anna even more, but when his health and his grip on reality slowly deteriorate and his friends start to look at him funny, he gets strange ideas about this lover who hates garlic, does not eat and is never around during daylight.

          The problem with obsessions is that it is hard to get rid of them.

           

          Larry Fessenden is an interesting case. A true independent filmmaker with a very personal style and very individual themes, he has made his home inside the horror genre while using the aesthetics of independent filmmaking that have come down from John Cassavates. As it goes with artists who trade in bastardized forms, Fessenden tends to sit between the chairs. He's too much of a horror filmer for parts of the art house crowd and too much of an art house director for some horror fans. He does not seem to care much, though.

          Habit is a kind of remake of a film he made fifteen years earlier, made basically with the same core cast. I'd like to compare the two films, but I haven't seen the earlier version, so I'll just go with the theory that Fessenden must have had a reason to film it again.

          Fessenden's decision to play the lead role himself suggests an auto-biographic reading of the film's story about addiction, obsession and self-destruction (and it seemed quite obvious to me that Anna is exactly what Sam is looking for - his own special way of an easy way out).

          I wouldn't be impressed if the vampirism in the film only worked as a metaphor - a trap art house directors using non-realist elements step into all too often - but the supernatural here is metaphor and fictional reality at once, making for a fascinating and balanced way to look at a very imbalanced life.

          Visually, Habit is a beautiful example of the classic hand-camera and guerilla location shooting style, which is a very effective way to give everything a semblance of reality.

          Hyper-realism is a style the acting goes for too. This and the 1982 version are the only movie acting credits for most of the actors (with Fessenden himself as a big exception), yet a certain amateurishness in the performances just helps to keep up the film's mood. Well, if you ignore Aaron Beall whose reading of Sam's best friend Nick is false all the way through.

          What is most fascinating about the film for me is something completely different though. It is Fessenden's eye for the little gestures of his characters that makes the film more than a nice little distraction, as well as the story he does not tell, yet that is barely visible in the cracks and crevices of what we are shown.

           

          Friday, November 28, 2008

          Conqueror of Atlantis (1965)

          Hercules (Kirk Morris, this time dubbed into Heracles, which makes sense) is the victim of a shipwreck. Fortunate as he is, he washes up on a desert beach, right in front of beautiful princess Virna (Luciana Gilli). Obviously she can't take her eyes off the mostly naked male beauty before her and promptly falls in love with Herc as does he with her - at least as much as he is able to, having by my count had about 123 girlfriends before her. It doesn't seem to matter much anyway. She has to get to her father's camp, while Hercules should better trot into the other direction. All the longing glances let the two forget things like giving Hercules water and food to help him survive a walk through the desert, but don't fear for him. This is the kind of desert people routinely cross in broad daylight without water or shelter, as we'll see throughout the rest of the film. After Virna and her entourage are already gone, our hero finds a ring belonging to the princess lying in the sand, so he starts to wander through the desert after her caravan. He finds a group of nomads under attack by bandits instead. Being Hercules, he of course helps the nomads fight off their attackers.

          His new friends take him to their leader Karr (Andrea Scotti) and after some male bonding procedures no tent can survive (damn, is there a homoerotic subtext here!?) the two become fast friends.

          Another bandit attack, during which Herc shows a surprising amount of tactical acumen, and Karr tells the sad tale of his peace-loving people, who are regularly attacked by the men of evil nomad king Assour (Mahmoud El-Sabbaa). Assour is of course Virna's father.

          Hercules (after showing un-American insight into the uselessness of torture) promises Karr that he'll take care of Assour.

          A visit to Assour is rather fruitful - his attacks are revenge for supposed raids by Karr, raids that only leave dead bodies and stolen gold in their wake.

          When Assour, Karr and Hercules finally understand that this is just a plan by a different enemy to keep them separated, said enemy attacks. If Assour and Karr had just talked with each other before. Or had sent each other messages...

          The true enemy of the desert people are the Atlanteans, the last survivors of Atlantis, now residing in an underground city on top of a volcano.

          The Atlanteans are in dire need of a queen and Virna looks fit enough for the job, so they kidnap her. Hercules and Karr pursue them and stumble into a Flash Gordon serial: The golden skinned men in the blue rompers who kidnapped Virna aren't exactly Atlanteans. They are instead the reanimated and gold-plated corpses of asphyxiated desert nomads, whom the only surviving male Atlantean Ramir (Piero Lulli), obviously the twin brother of Ming the Merciless, uses as mindless slaves.

          The Atlanteans have a problem, you see: They are immortal, yet there aren't many of them left - besides Ramir, there is only the queen and barely a dozen female "warriors" with psychedelically coloured whigs. Personally, I wouldn't try to solve my population problem by kidnapping another queen, but what do I know about things like that.

          Many (or competent) they are not, but they have great plans. They want to build an army of Golden Phantoms (the official name of the gold-skinned guys) to CONQUER THE WORLD!

          A devious plan that would probably succeed if not for Hercules. Or Ramir's hobby to show prisoners around his lab and explain his fantastic contraptions, like a blaster (which Hercules will later put to good use), a machine that robs people of their will or gives it back again (which Hercules will later put to good use) and a machine that regulates the gas streams of the volcano (which Hercules will later - you get the gist).

          Before the movie is over the excited viewer will experience many things, including: Feats of strength! Men fighting golden phantoms with the large iron ball and chains that they use like bolas! The explosive truth about cities build over volcanoes! The fact that Atlanteans lose their immortality when they fall in love (because it's forbidden and they get shot afterwards)! Daring escapes! A cackling mad scientist! And more!

           

          Young Alfonso Brescia doesn't disappoint. As we all should know, Brescia would later go on to film a few mad and/or dadaist SF films and invent the SF porn genre and has a big place in my heart as one of the great holy fools of cinema.

          At the point in his career when he made Conqueror of Atlantis he seems to have been still rather sane. Someone with my lowered expectations regarding logic can't help but call the plot here sensible, even logical, as if Brescia had actually tried to make a film that does make a certain amount of sense. Well, if you are able to overlook a few pesky things, like the dubious intelligence of the bad guys, or the bizarre nature of their culture or their plans, but really, who cares about those things when there is a wonderful lab to look at, and women wearing, um, things and undead cyborgs with golden skin dressed like toddlers and soldiers who use spears when they could use blasters. And so on and so on. Which is my longwinded way of saying that the script is absolutely awesome in its wrongheadedness and that the pulpy nonchalance with which it switches from peplum in the desert into Flash Gordon mode is a true joy to behold.

          What else can I say about a Brescia film I have not already said elsewhere? The editing is either grotesquely inept or brilliant: There are important transitions missing and everything seems to move just outside the normal way time and space work. There are actors, some of them even seem to have an idea what they are supposed to be doing. Kirk Morris makes a fine Flash Hercules, even if the does not let him throw any pillars around and Piero Lulli knows what's important when playing an evil genius: Ranting, cackling and ominously staring into the camera.

          Conqueror of Atlantis is a fine film when you want to relive some of the beauties of classic serials, or if you want to start your education in the works of maestro Brescia, but don't want to dive into the headier stuff at once. Or if you want to have an exceedingly fun time.