Saturday, August 30, 2008

Bandh Darwaza (1990)

The Master leads a charmed life: He has a cooler cape than that wimpy Dracula, hypnotically red eyes and the most beautiful lair any demonic being of the vampiric persuasion could ask for. Said lair isn't just spacious as well as dark, damp and unnaturally foggy, it also contains a swimming pool (mostly used for bathing virgins before biting and de-virginizing them) and an astonishingly big ugly statue of a bat - with red glowing eyes of course. If this isn't enough to make you shiver in breathless adoration, let me tell you that The Master is the leader of his own private vampire cult as well. It is wonderful, really. Whatever The Master desires his minions - Mullet Man, Woman Who Looks Like A Deranged Drag Queen With An Unhealthy Love Of Leopard Patterns, Pudgy Man With Fake Bald Head Who Should Really Wear A Shirt, Hypno Guy With Fake Beard and Other Guy With Fake Beard - will get for him, or his minion's minions, The Nameless Henchmen Who Stole Brother Tuck's Robes, will do so. Did I mention the writhing lady dancers?

The Master's great enemy is the local Thakur (possibly the first uncorrupt Thakur in Bollywood history?), who has sworn to some day kill His Evilness. I'm not quite sure what stops him. He knows who his enemy is, he knows that The Master lives (if I may call it that) and corrupts the local female population to sin inside that swell temple on the Black Mountain, yet he does nothing. It is possible that his private troubles distract him from the more important things. His wife, and I quote here "is like a barren patch of sand" in which he has been trying to plant the strong and beautiful flowers of his children for the past five years. The state of affairs has degraded so much already that the Thakur's mother (a hobby florist?) is starting to shove pictures of other women whom she deems useful as secondary flower beds in his face.Don't you just love it how everyone is completely sure that the wife is the one who can't produce children?

Still, Thakur and wife love each other very much, and nobody is less happy about the lack of a stinking and shrieking little monster in the family than she is. But her maid - secretly a core member of the vampire cult - knows someone who can help the poor woman in her plight. She just has to follow her to The Master's temple. The wife agrees with a certain hesitation, yet follows her maid into Vampire Central. The Master promises her that he is well able to solve the little problem for her, she just has to agree that she will keep the child only if it is a boy. If it is a girl, she will have to send her to The Master. She agrees, and the gracious vampire proceeds to "bite" her. This "bite" results in the wondrous birth of a little baby girl nine months later (and solves the question who is the "barren field" in this marriage). Regrettably, the girl's mother does not want to keep her promise and refuses to give her child to The Master. This decision doesn't do her any good, though. Her maid poisons her milk and takes off to Black Mountain, baby girl in arm.

With final strength the betrayed woman tells the Thakur the truth about the child and dies (not without begging the gods to protect the girl, obviously). He finally decides to destroy "the pit of sin" and attacks it with a handful of man. And I must say, the performance of the vampire cult and its leader here is less than satisfying. Who isn't killed outright runs for her life; The Master himself succumbs to one puny dagger-poke to the heart.

Nearly a happy end, it seems, but in truth just a short twenty-five minute teaser before the main titles of the film start (and before Johnny Lever's first terrifying appearance).

Is it possible that the surviving members of the cult will start their evil works again when the baby is grown up? Is it possible that a few drops of blood will revive The Master to all his glory again?

See the answers to this questions in the rest of the movie! Also:

See an abominable dance during a musical number made worse by the bewitched sub-Mithun (our hero, oh yes) hallucinating another, even worse dancer!

See the mighty race between horse-drawn carriage and jeep!

See the female lead characters get captured and/or kidnapped so often you'll lose count! (And may I just say here that the absurd frequency of that happening is nearly subversive?)

See a woman say come-on phrases like the stinking drunk from the bar on the corner!

See Johnny Lever get slapped!

See some of the ugliest pieces of clothing of the Eighties in the Nineties!

See an Indian woman using Fu! (and getting captured anyway)

See our heroes stumble through very nice Indian landscape in search of the newest victim of a kidnapping! (Pro-Tip: She is in the same temple where you found her the last time. Not that you should look there. Or try to attack your light-hating enemy by day, for that matter)

See a man dressed like a pimp in the first half of the film, and acting like one in the second!

See Sub-Mithun-Fu and Pimp-Fu!

See The Master breaking through a brick wall! And another! And a window! And another brick wall again!

As you can see, Bandh Darwaza is a film full of charms. It may be the very dubious charms of a completely mad piece of pulp, but charms they still are. Director/producers Shyami & Tulsi Ramsay are the father's of Bollywood's short horror boom. Following this impressive outing I'd call them a mixture of Roger Corman and William Castle, in any case people whose other films I'll seek out as fast as possible.

Before I start foaming at the mouth in enthusiasm, I'll talk a little about the less successful parts of the film.

Seldom have I seen a less talented bunch of actors in one movie - those not completely made of wood are mostly trying to out-bug-eye Amrish Puri (who is the only thing really missing here), with a reasonable amount of success, I might add. Well, if I had to wear the kind of clothing they have to wear, I'd probably make bug-eyes, too.

The musical numbers are fortunately few. Not that the songs themselves were bad, it's just that none of the actors can dance any better than act. Never again will I make fun of Karishma Kapoor's dancing.

But Bandh Darwaza has some real strengths as well. The vampire make-up is stiff and weird, yet also original, and The Master with his snarling and staring makes quite an impressive figure (also observe how big he looks).

You also can't say the film doesn't have a sense of style, it just isn't a cultured style. The Ramsays aren't ashamed of the cheapness and pulpiness of their film at all, on the contrary they revel in it, bathing everything in (metaphorical and non-metaphorical) lurid colors that stop just short of breaking the moral rules of Bollywood cinema completely.

The extreme emphasis on the most lurid and extreme moments of Bandh Darwaza's script gives the film a fascinating drive, the kind of raw energy that drives a good pulp novel (that I suspect the Ramsays to be more artistic than they let on isn't important here; it's just one thing more they have in common with the best pulp writers).


Thursday, August 28, 2008

In short: Zone Troopers (1986)

It's World War II again, 1944 in Italy to be precise. After an inexperienced Lieutenant has gotten himself and most of his men killed, stoic Sgt. Rock Stone (Tim Thomerson) hasn't got much of a squad anymore. What's worse is he and his three surviving men are stranded behind enemy lines. Since all bad things come in threes, the local area is just teeming with German soldiers (some of whom even speak recognizable German).

The bad guys seem to be searching for something. Might it possibly be the crashed UFO the GIs stumble upon? Or the bug-eyed alien crash survivor.

One thing the Sarge knows for sure: If the Germans want it, it's his job to make sure they don't get it.

Someone must have liked his old DC war comics a lot and I am the last one to disagree with someone who lets not-Sergeant-Rock meet aliens. I could of course argue against the "war as boy's adventure club" tenor of the movie, or against the Germans all being demonical caricatures, but that wouldn't be fair to a film that doesn't take itself serious enough to merit this kind of annoyance. It's really much too friendly and just plain entertaining for that. Also, I don't believe in art as moral education.

So, if you always wanted to see Nazis disintegrated by blasters, or Hitler decked by a Polish-American, dig it out. And some digging is in order. For some reason, no one has seen fit to release this early (as in: when some of his films were actually watchable) Charles Band production on DVD, so you'll have to live with bootleg VHS copies.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hex (1973)

In the USA between the wars a gang of war veteran bikers led by Whizzer (Keith Carradine) and including a young Gary Busey and a nearly fresh-faced Scott Glenn rides through the Midwest, purportedly on their way to California (where else?), in truth just moving to not to have to stay somewhere. A little mass brawl doesn't make them a lot of friends in a small Nebraskan town.

They hide themselves on the farm of the sisters Rio (Christina Rains) and Cacia (Hilary Thompson), without asking properly, of course. Still, their first evening goes comparably well, especially the part where the sisters introduce the men to the art of weed smoking (of which Gary Busey does not approve).

Sadly said non-weed-smoker Busey later tries to force himself on the younger sister Cacia. To the happiness of B-movie friends everywhere he doesn't succeed. The rest of the gang is not all that bad, you see.

Alas Rio can't let the thing rest and puts a hex on Busey. Well, at least it will probably be the only owl-induced death in his career.

Busey won't be the last victim of Rio's interesting code of morals, of course. It doesn't help the health of the bikers either that Rio sees killing off Whizzer's friends as the best way into his heart. Whatever happened to love potions? But who am I to criticize methods that lead directly into one of the stranger happy ends I have seen?

Hex is the kind of silently (if you can ignore the kazoo-based soundtrack) weird movie that was only possible in the Seventies. It's one of these small one-off projects made by people who would go on to work exclusively on television; as far away as possible from the one interesting moment in their careers, I sometimes think.

I hesitate to call Hex an artistic success. After all, I am not at all sure what the film was supposed to achieve. It is very definitely not a horror film, although it has two or three scenes that are effectively horrific. It's not a comedy, either. There are quite a few funny moments on screen, but just as many moments that are just inexplicable. Hex also features some very typical early Seventies sentiments, ranging from the ironic pot-smoking to a romanticized love for "the simple life". The latter is nicely undermined by the way the simple life turns out not to be all that simple and some strangely poignant moments when life in a place that hasn't changed much since the days of the Old West and the undeniable modernity of motorcycles and airplanes come together.

All in all it's a very confusing, but also a very interesting picture. Just don't go in and expect it to make sense.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Vengeance (2006)

The young Thai police Captain Wut (Watchara Tangkaprasert) is on the hunt for a gang of escaped prisoners. As the Gods of scriptdom decree, his hunt leads him directly into the cursed jungle that has cost his father - a brutal gangster - his life and turned the young man into the heroic but haunted loner he is.

And cursed the jungle really is. It is full of demons (beware of the Fruit Tree Maidens, boys!), very hungry and aggressive wildlife and some big but size-changing CGI snakes. Fortunately for Wut he not only has the help of some red-shirts, who are always useful when it comes to feeding grumpy animals, but also of a local hunter and his daughter.

Even more helpful is the sudden appearance of two young women from a village inside the cursed part of the jungle. Their help is of course without any selfishness and has nothing to do with anyone turning into hungry (and quite moldy looking) vampire demons when the full moon rises.

In a brave flash of originality, one of the women, Si-On (Chirapat Wongpaisanlux), falls in love with Wut and tries to protect him from her family.

Will anyone survive this most hellish of all cannibal-less jungles?

Whatever you think about the plot of Vengeance, it is hard to deny how much fun is cramped into its sensible 100 minutes running time. Sure, it is the kind of fun that is at least partly based on the viewers and the movies broad ignorance of common sense or consensus reality, but I am nothing if not ignorant. So I can't do much else than admire the anything goes spirit of a script that dumps cops & robbers, demons, amok-running animals, human sacrifices, time travel and moldy vampires fighting an especially big CGI snake into one beautiful mess of a film. The whole glorious wrong-headed thing stands very much in the tradition of Hong Kong films like The Seventh Curse or The Witch From Nepal (alas without a guest appearance by Italian zombies), films that achieve their state of being pure entertainment through awesome overload.

Vengeance isn't completely there yet. It still wastes a little too much time with attempts at characterization when it should just throw the next eaten gangster at us, but what an auspicious beginning for the career of (following IMDB) first-time director Preaw Sirisuwan!


(Oh, can someone please explain what the digitally blurred cigarette was supposed to achieve?)


Monday, August 25, 2008

In short: Horoscope 2: The Woman From Hell (2000)

What is worse than a Hong Kong black magic CATIII movie? A film like Horoscope 2 that uses the well-known basic plot of the sub-genre adds a very stupid twist to the ending and tries to be just not sleazy enough to get a CATIII rating.

The trouble with this way of doing things is obvious: most people I know watch this kind of thing for their sleaziness and their bloody-minded outrageousness. If you subtract the outrageousness but add nothing like characterization or suspense or interesting visuals to replace it, you don't have much of a movie.

The only things of note here are a slumming Simon Yam (who doesn't even try to act), a lot of worms, a little puke and two interesting facts: 1.) Powdered dead babies are good for your health (or not) 2.) Don't mess with sports archers


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973)

Madeleine (Christina Lindberg), a young woman, lives on a farm with her parents. She hasn't spoken a single word since she was raped as a girl. Nonetheless she seems shy but content.

Looking at the film's title, this isn't a state that can last very long. Soon she meets the slimy-charming Tony (Heinz Hopf) who exploits her naivety well. After filling Madeleine up with alcohol and invites her into his apartment where he drugs her and starts to hook her on heroin. The friendly chap is a pimp and this is the cheapest way to get more prostitutes and fulfill his final dream of settling down in Switzerland.

While Madeleine is being drugged, Tony also forces her to sign some terrible letters to send to her parents, so full of hatred for them that he thinks they will never try to find her.

Finally, when she is fully hooked, he introduces her first "customer" to her. Madeleine still has a lot of fight inside her, though. She scratches the man's face badly.

Tony isn't amused and cuts out one of her eyes. In the woman's future lie eyepatches and the name of "pirate".

This seems to break her, and she settles into her life of being victimized and abused. Tony even gives her a percentage of her earnings and one free day per week. After all, where is a junkie going to go?

One day Sally (Solveig Andersson), a fellow slave, steals a letter for Madeleine from Tony. It's from her parents and does sound very much like a suicide letter to my ears.

So it is with no great surprise we watch Madeleine finding her parents dead by suicide.

Instead of destroying her completely, her parents' death gives Madeleine a very grim kind of strength and she starts to use her money to pay trainers. Thus the determined woman learns martial arts, shooting and stunt driving.

She takes her time until she achieves something like perfection in the skills necessary for her new chosen profession.

As soon as she is ready, she starts killing her customers one by one and you can be certain she won't forget Tony.

There are a lot of different cuts of Thriller - I saw the 104 minutes version (thankfully) without hardcore inserts, as far as I know this is the cut to watch.

And what an interesting film this is. Sure, the low budget is obvious when one looks at some of the locations and most of the acting that is not done by Lindberg or Hopf is far from brilliant, but those two are the only people in the movie who really need to act, and both are doing their job well enough. Hopf's strange falseness in line delivery and mimic would be more than a little annoying in most roles, here it fits Tony's character perfectly.

Lindberg is probably playing the role of her life.

Bo Arne Vibenius direction is the second star of the movie behind Lindberg. He mostly resists the temptation to sleaze the proceedings up. There is a little nakedness, but not a single moment that tries to milk the story for titillation (that's what the hardcore inserts were for anyway). Instead, the first half of the movie goes for a cool and distanced look at the proceedings; not necessarily a cruel look, more one that trusts the viewer to have emotional responses without being pushed into them.

Which doesn't mean there isn't a strong directorial voice in Thriller. What the film lacks in funds is more than made up by a surprisingly thorough sense of detail, be it in the way Lindberg's wardrobe is color-coded or in the way Tony is never looking at the waiter when he first gets his hands on Madeleine in a restaurant.

The revenge part of the film is even more interesting. Where the first half is hyper-realistic, the second is stylized into the surreal. The "action sequences" consist nearly completely of extreme slow motion shots, as if the world around Madeleine had slowed down to incomprehensibility. Sandwiched between slow-motion death is one of the stranger driving sequences of my career with Madeleine in a stolen police car, pushing lots of cheap, rusty European cars, which of course explode at the slightest provocation, off the road until we are ready for the next slow-down.

The woman's final vengeance is of an archaic cruelty, but also strangely beautiful.

I am a little at a loss what to make of the film. I'd highly recommend it and will certainly watch it again, but I am completely unsure if the movie was meant to feel the way it feels. Did Vibenius use the way the revenge is filmed to show us the state of mind of his protagonist? Or did he use the slow motion overload just to pad out the running time?

I am not even sure if I want to know the answer to that.


In short: House of the Damned (1963)

Lawyer Joe Schiller (Richard Crane) hires some old friends, architect couple Scott and Nancy Campbell (Ron Foster and Mary Anders), for the survey of an impressive manor. There are some strange stories going around about the house: One of its occupants lost her mind and shot a man and is now held in an asylum; the last tenant, a Captain Arbuckle, carny director (a relation of Colonel Parker, perhaps?), has disappeared.

As soon as Scott and Nancy arrive, strange things start to happen. It is as if they weren't alone in the house. While they are asleep, a not quite right looking shadow sneaks into their room and steals their keys, only to sneak most of the keys back the next morning. Somebody doesn't want the pair to enter certain rooms, it seems.

What is the secret of the old building? Will Scooby Doo come to their rescue?

House of the Damned is a pleasant enough Sunday matinee movie and feels like a less intelligent, more harmless and gimmickless William Castle film. The acting is serviceable, the script mostly fine - at least if you are willing to overlook the total obviousness of the mystery's solution and the groan-inducing stupidity of the ending.

Director Maury Dexter even manages some nicely framed shots and a few atmospheric moments.

If you will like the film depends on your tolerance for harmless early Sixties horror. I don't ask for much and am mostly happy with a harmless little film like this one.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Happy birthday, Gentleman from Providence!

A link for those who don't know what the hell I'm talking about.

Misterios de ultratumba aka The Black Pit of Dr. M. (1959)

Dr. Masali (Rafael Bertrand), psychiatrist and all-round scientist has one great scientific goal - finding out what comes after death and returning to the flesh again to talk about it, also known as a-tamperin' in God's domain (queue ominous music here). To achieve this he and his colleague Dr. Aldama (Antonio Raxel) make the most scientific of plans. Whoever of the two will die first, will find a way to help the survivor experience what comes after death and return. Aldama is the first to go. Masali is all too eager to contact his dead friend and - like any good scientist would - holds a seance. Aldama is willing and able enough to help Masali fulfill the dream, but can only speak in cryptic clues as to how he will do this. At least he makes clear that at a certain date, at a certain time, a door will close for Masali and the door to the afterlife will open.

In another part of the country, bland young Doctor Jimenez (Gaston Santos) has by now been dreaming of a certain young woman (Mapita Cortes) for several days. He is very surprised when he finds her as a dancer in a club he visits. She seems to recognize him, too, but reacts to this with obvious terror.

The young woman's name is Patricia Aldama, and yes, she is the daughter of dead Dr. Aldama. Her mother lied to her about him, though. She didn't want her permanently high-strung and fainting daughter to learn that her father had left them when Patricia was very young, so she had always told her that her father was dead.

So it is no wonder she doesn't recognize the man who now visits her and tells her the truth about Dr. Aldama as the ghost of her own father. The dead man also tells her she has to deliver a key to Dr. Masali. Money and perhaps something else will await her in his asylum.

Fascinated, but with a certain amount of dread, she follows her father's wish. When she arrives at Masali's she is soon disturbed by the arrival of young Dr. Jimenez, who is the asylum's new intern. As you do with people you don't know, he tells her about his strange dreams, only shaking her nerves even more. In his defense, I'll have to say it doesn't take much to shake her. I am reasonably sure breathing in her direction alone could do the trick.

While the two future lovers get to know each other, Dr. Masali tries to calm a very dangerous female patient (Carolina Barret) down with the magic of a musical box. At first his experiment is successful, but a ghost-induced accident closes the musical box and leads the woman into another rampage. Unfortunately, modern security conceptions have not been developed yet, and a conveniently placed glass of acid meets the face of the orderly Elmer (Carlos Ancira) before the patient can be subdued again. Masali (to whose expertises we can add plastic surgery) operates at once with somewhat undesirable consequences.

When he finally returns home from his work, he finds Patricia there. The key she hands him opens a small box that contains a little jewelry for her and a paper knife that sat on Masali's desk just a few seconds ago. The scientist knows this to be a sign from Dr. Aldama, whom he also recognizes as Patricia's strange visitor. A theory that proves correct when Patricia asks to see a picture of her father and promptly faints when she sees it.

Now all pieces a very cruel god needs to punish Dr. Masali for the terrible sin of wanting to know things are in place.

Misterios de ultratumba is an extremely artful example of the Mexican Gothic, brilliantly conveying a brooding mood of dark fatefulness.

Director Fernando Mendez made a handful of gothic horror films, among them the excellent El Vampiro, but this is by far the most accomplished of them all, in quality up there with the best of Hammer, nearly reaching the heights of Bava. The film shows a deep understanding of the use of sets that don't try to look realistic (the gallow scene especially comes to mind here), as well as of the importance of shadow and light to convey mood in a black and white picture.

The script certainly isn't very original and doesn't contain a lot of surprises for people who know their gothic horror, but is very well paced for a film in a sometimes talky and slow genre and does not take a wrong step.

What did surprise me is the depth of cruelty the film shows against Dr. Masali, who isn't a very nice man, yet never does anything remotely immoral. His only sin is his atheism and his thirst for knowledge, both sins that are in the world view of the movie so grave that it's not the least bit troubling when innocents have to suffer to punish the guilty. It is of course possible to read the movie a little differently: as a warning against a god who is as tolerant and kind as the Great Cthulhu himself.

Ethical problems notwithstanding, the film is one of the masterpieces of gothic horror and should be required viewing for everyone interested in the genre.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

In short: Her Vengeance (1988)

Thanks to Lurple's review, I have sought out and watched this rape revenge flick by Ngai Kai Lam, who also directed The Story of Rikki and The Seventh Curse, both prime examples of over the top Hong Kong film-making.

After those films, I would have expected more than a little bit of extreme violence, but would not have expected the intensity of acting and characterization the film delivers. This is of course thanks to the excellent performances by Pauline Wong and Chin-Ying Lam (known from a multitude of Shaw Brothers films, Mr. Vampire and so on, and so on).

The violence starts out gritty and quite nasty, only the finale when our avengers turn into psychopathic variations on MacGyver shows something of the exuberance of the violence in Rikki (which would be completely out of place in a film like Her Vengeance), but toned down to a more down to earth feeling.

Especially good, and showing off Ngai Kai Lam's quality as a director, is the intensity the movie reaches through reduction. There is no filler in the film, every moment is a necessary escalation on the way to its conclusion.


The eldritch secrets of the Nut Cluster Crunch

Exactly what my sugar-deprived mind needs.


Via Grim Reviews


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Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007)

A charming little urban legend is told in Japan: There is a creature called a "Slit-mouthed woman" who wanders Japanese towns to ask the important question "Am I pretty?". She's tall, has long black hair, wears a long coat and a white surgical mask behind which she hides her carved-up mouth. Oh, and she kidnaps children, mutilates them with a big pair of scissors and finally kills them.

When an earthquake hits a Japanese town, the legend comes to life and starts taking children. She takes her second victim, abused little Mika (Rie Kuwana), nearly directly out of the hands of the girl's teacher Kyoko Yamashita (Eriko Sato). Kyoko herself has a past as an abusive parent, and her own daughter lives with her divorced husband.

The police remains skeptical when the young woman describes the kidnapper as the slit-mouthed legend - the only thing her honesty gets her is a temporary suspension as a teacher.

Her colleague Noboru Matsuzaki (Haruhiko Kato) seems to know more about the legend than he is letting on. He shows Kyoko a photo of his mother, who looks exactly like the kidnapper minus the face mutilation, and tells her that he hears a voice in his head whenever a kid is being targeted by the creature. He thinks he could be able to follow the voice to protect the next victim.

When the teachers arrive where the voice in Noboru's head leads them, they are just able to rescue another of their pupils from the Slit-mouthed Woman, killing her during the course of a nasty fight. They are shocked when the freshly killed evil-doer turns into a rather different dead person, the mother of two other children.

The part of the urban legend that talks about the immortality of the Slit-mouthed woman is not very precise - her body can be killed all right, but her evil spirit will just possess another woman.

Noboru and Kyoko are the only people in town unhinged enough to actually believe this kind of story, so it lies in their hands to hunt the creature down and rescue her victims.

Now it is certain: Koji Shiraishi is my new unsung hero of Japanese horror. A Slit-Mouthed Woman doesn't deliver the creeps as intensely as Ju-Rei does, and isn't as strange and meta-oriented as Noroi, instead it relies heavily on the construction of its own disturbing mythology out of bits and pieces of authentic urban legend, folklore and the directions these lead in and a very unflinching look at child abuse in the family. The fact that the film only talks about abuse by mothers is problematic, but the movie's husbands (with Kyoko's ex-husband as the big exception) are conspicuous in their near-total absence. I am tempted to say the fathers would have to spend time with their children first to be able to abuse them, and if they would, there would probably be less slit-mouthed women. But I might be reading a little much into it.

The scenes of violence against children are what will make or break the film for most viewers. Shiraishi resists the temptation to sensationalize them too much, but he doesn't shy away from the amount of brutality necessary to make his point.

As should be very obvious now, A Slit-Mouthed Woman, has a fairly different feeling from many other Japanese horror movies. Where those films are very much about the influx of the irrational into an overtly rational world and are drawing their power from strengthening our doubts of an orderly world by undermining it, Shiraishi's film shows us an open wound in the veneer of our civilization and starts to open it further.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Spiritual World (2008)

Ming (Nuttamonkan Srinikornchot) is able to see and speak with ghosts. Unlike the typical ghost seer in movies, she isn't afraid of your typical ghost, but in fact seeks out their company. She moves from place to place, always on the look-out for hauntings. She doesn't just try to help them cross over to be reincarnated, she seeks their protection from the one ghost she fears. Ming doesn't know who he is, but is quite sure he has something to do with some terrible memory she has repressed.

The ghost isn't the only one following her around, though. There is also the victim of a vengeful haunting who wants her help in getting rid of his troubling ghost. She has repeatedly refused to help him, but he doesn't take "no" for an answer.

Although Ming doesn't know about it, a third man is trying to locate her. It's her childhood friend Budd (Anuchit Sapanpong) a young forensic doctor obsessed with finding out the truth about his father's mysterious death many years ago. His questions will lead Ming to the truth she was trying to forget.

The Spiritual World isn't so much a horror movie as a very effective melodrama utilizing ghosts. The script is strong and intelligent, with both Ming and Budd heavily traumatized by their past and now obsessed with death. Ming is yearning to cross over to the other side to find peace, while Budd is talking to uncaring corpses to find the truth, ignoring how close he brings himself to destruction.

I was impressed by the intelligent way the film handles its characters. Sure, there is something of a twist ending, but it's not of the kind that destroys (or even disrespects) the characters for a cheap shock.

The horror scenes themselves are actually the biggest weakness of the film. Director Tharatap Thewsomboon mostly uses long shots, creative camera angles and shots of dilapidated locations to build atmosphere (which works well), but as soon as a ghost appears, we are treated to ugly digital filters, fish lenses and highly irritating jump cuts. This would be a death sentence for a more shock oriented film. The Spiritual World's different focus helps it survive these moments of creative emptiness quite well.

Another, more problematic flaw lies in Anuchit Sapanpong's performance. He is obviously trying hard to perform a difficult role, but he sometimes comes over as moping pretty boy instead of traumatized and obsessive pretty boy.

Fortunately, the movie's focus lies on Nuttamonkan Srinikornchot, who plays an equally difficult part very convincing.

There aren't many genre films that show such a deep understanding of broken people as The Spiritual World does. The understanding even goes as far as making a very harsh ending unnecessary - I found the belief in people's ability to live with their wounds very comforting and truthful.

So, all in all, this is far from your stereotypical  horror film.


In short: Bad Ronald (1974)

The slightly disturbed teenager Ronald (Scott Jacoby) accidentally kills a teenage girl during an argument. He's living alone with his mother (Kim Hunter) who decides that the best way to solve the situation is to hide her son in the house. The result of a night of home improvement is a nice hidden room under the stairs for Ronald.

The police doesn't find him, but some time later, his mother dies.

The boy stays in the house even when a family with three daughters moves in. His mental health isn't exactly improving and soon he develops an obsessive interest in his unwitting hosts.

Bad Ronald is one of the better American TV movies of the Seventies, mostly thanks to a creepy and surprisingly weird basic idea that doesn't lend itself to the kind of melodramatic schlock Seventies TV could become.

TV director Buzz Kulik's direction is workmanlike and solid, the acting more than adequate and the setting nicely developed. Its status as a TV production of its time prevents the movie from exploring the darkest aspects and possibilities of the plot very far, but also keep the film away from becoming a mindless hackfest.


Goliath versus The Vampires (1961)

Maciste (this time dubbed to "Goliath", showing the well-oiled muscles of Gordon Scott) lives somewhere and sometime in a little village. There, he has a peroxided fiancé Giulia (Leonora Ruffo), a mother, and his usual hobby of being incredibly heroic. While he is taking care of a child rescue situation, his home village is attacked by a band of raiders, wearing no armor but some silly black helmets. Even stranger is that they don't steal anything. It seems to be more fun to kill as many men as possible, burn the place down and get away with the women (including Maciste's Giulia).

We'll soon see that they actually didn't even want all women. Once onboard their ship, the elderly and middle-aged meet their destiny as shark-munch.

When Maciste returns and learns about this, he swears to get the people back and avenge the dead. One of the survivors even knows where the kidnapped are brought to, a place I like to call nearly-Baghdad.

Nearly-Baghdad's ruler is the mopiest Sultan around, nothing is fun for him anymore, not even mass belly-dances. This is less surprising when one keeps in my that he isn't the true ruler of the place anymore. Instead, the true power behind the throne is Kobrak (Guido Celani), a masked, blood-drinking fiend who usually appears with his own private supply of Bava-light. Kobrak plans don't end with the possession of nearly-Baghdad - he has started to use his power base there to build an army of featureless and mindless automatons that will someday conquer the world. For this, he needs the bodies of slaves.

Fortunately Maciste and his child sidekick soon arrive in town to set things right.

From now on the film is a cornucopia of fun things: Maciste throwing more pillars than can be good for his back, an early oriental surf instrumental band, said mindless automatons, distrust, treason, two women but only one Maciste, kidnappings, the battle of the two Macistes, the helpful kingdom of the Blue Men (who might be the least effective fighting force on the planet) and many more beautiful nonsense. Oh, and just to prove the script was written by Sergio Corbucci and Duccio Tessari, the death of the kid sidekick. Not that anyone would care afterwards or would at least mention Maciste's responsibility for his death.

Goliath versus The Vampires (who are in truth one vampire) is a fun peplum with many earnestly played moments of utter silliness and a handful of atmospheric sequences. Script and direction never forget the most important things in the genre and incessantly throw lots of strange stuff at the viewer like the hero throws with anything he can put his hands on. (And after one has seen the arm-flaying that is his other combat routine, one is thankful to see him throw things).

Some of those things are even original. The kingdom of the Blue Men, with their blue mask-like faces and their blue bread and wine for example is a nice variation of the underground kingdoms no good film should go without. The torture sequence is also quite singular. Maciste isn't stretched or tied with ropes or chains to show his physique off, instead he's thrown into a hole in the ground. The automaton then place a bell over the hole and start hitting the bell with large hammers. See, the soundwaves will destroy his brain and make him the prototype of an even better warrior for Kobrak. The vampire doesn't take the fact into account that our hero hasn't got a brain anyway. Well, truthfully Maciste's brain (such as it is) is saved thanks to a heroic deed done earlier in the film - a nice deviation from the norm.

If you like this kind of film, you'll like this one a lot. If not, I can't imagine it will change your mind about the peplum.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Book report: Jeffrey Thomas - Thirteen Specimens

A collection of thirteen stories, vignettes and difficult to classify texts by Thomas, who is best known for his Punktown novels and stories that mix Lovecraftian horror, SF and any other genre he can get his hands on.

The stories here are equally diverse in content, starting with the whimsical ("These Are The Exhibits") and ending in the sad and horrifying ("Door 7).

As usual with story collections, not every story is a masterpiece, but the good outweighs the bad heavily.

The already mentioned "These Are The Exhibits" sees a woman taking a tour through a very peculiar museum and opens the collection on a lighter note with an undercurrent of sadness.

Further favorites here are:

"Close Enough", a meditation on guilt and memory by way of a slightly different Vietnam war.


"The Mask Play Of Hahoe Byeolsin Exorcism", which sees a man on his way to meet his Vietnamese Internet bride stranded in South Korea and (as every good Giallo character would do, too) witnessing a murder. But the story is much more complex than that, as befits something about objectification and "othering".


Book Report: C.L. Moore - Black God's Kiss

This fine book published under Paizo's Planet Stories imprint collects Catherine L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry stories, which initially appeared in Weird Tales during the 1930s.

An excellent foreword by Suzy McKee Charnas says most of the things that are to say about the Jirel stories and leaves me with nothing much original to add.

Moore was an exceptional representative of the classical Sword & Sorcery writers, in part as one of the few female pulp authors, in part thanks to her lyrical (something that isn't identical with "overwrought") style and a very vivid and original imagination that produced something much better than mere pastiches of Robert E. Howard with a female protagonist.

As with many of the great pulp writers, Moore's stories are something that should be read more than talked about, so I suggest you'll just do that while I shut up.


Also seen

Rock on Fire (1994)

At its heart a basic but competent Hong Kong action film with a heavy portion of sleaze. Made interesting by the intense performance of Mikie Ng as "Icy", Japanese Red Army villainess with the hobby of biting through men's jugulars during sex.


Naked Evil (1966)

British horror movie about a West Indian obi man in London who lends his services out in a gang war. While he's at it, also takes his revenge on the headmaster of a "school for colored people".

The film obviously prides itself on its sympathetic look on black people in London, which unfortunately alternates with conscious and unconscious racism of the more unbearable kind. If people treated me the way the "villain" of this piece is treated by its "heroes", I'd curse them, too.


The Lost (2005)

Clever and quite nasty adaptation of a book by Jack Ketchum. It somehow achieves its nasty effect in a very classy way.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

In short: Chanbara Beauty (2008)

You would think it's impossible to complain about the lack of quality in a movie about a young woman dressed in boots, a bikini and a cowboy hat killing zombies. You would be wrong.

I was watching Chanbara Beauty in the hope of some low-brow, gory fun. I didn't expect a second Machine Girl, but I didn't expect to be bored, either.

The movie's road to boredom is paved with the following things:

  • The unbelievable inability of the lead actress to achieve the only thing she has to do besides wearing the already described get-up (which doesn't look all that hot on her, either): Looking as if she doesn't care
  • A script that's even to flawed for this style of movie: There are zombie apocalypse survivors who belong to the last few percent of humanity and are still not barricading the rooms where they are sleeping, melodramatic moments that would hardly work even if anyone here could act, and a downright insane insistence of playing the damn thing straight like a real movie with real actors, instead of a shoddily thrown together piece of crap. Where silliness could actually lead to something amounting to fun, we are tortured by a painfully humorless script
  • Locations that consist of a warehouse, a few square feet of studio backlot and approximately one and a half sets, made by the apprentice of the apprentice of a set designer who got his job because all of his predecessors were killed by long-haired ghosts
  • Bad zombie make-up. I mean the kind of zombie make-up an amateur movie would be ashamed of. Especially painful during daylight shots
  • An overabundance of (badly done) digital special effects where they don't belong, including digital blood, digital melee weapons(!), digital muzzle flashes, digital sparks

How could anyone get this wrong?


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Yongary - Monster From The Deep (1967)

South Korea, somewhere on Bizarro Earth. What a family! Ona, daughter of the head of South Korea's space program (just go with it) has just married Sung, son of the country's prime minister and top astronaut (or is it only astronaut). While their parents and Ona's sister Suna (without any redeeming features) and her boyfriend/would-be-boyfriend/who-the-hell-knows Ilu (Ilo?) - genius scientist - mouth off terrible nonsense (something you will get used to during Yongary), the happily married pair drives off to their atrociously looking wedding suite set, they are attacked by a sudden itch to scratch themselves (just go with it - there is no other choice). Luckily, Ilu finds the two before they can scratch themselves to death (no, it won't get any less painful). He promptly drags the prime minister's youngest son Kenny Icho out of the bushes, who has misused Ilu's newest invention, the itching ray, on the pair.

After this little problem is solved, the newlyweds land in said set and we soon see them doing what newlyweds tend to do. She is sitting in the suite and pouts, while her husband sits on something that is supposed to be a terrace and stares wistfully at a piece of cloth with painted stars (aka the night sky) on it.

Before they can continue to even more exciting activities, a blinking doo-dad calls for Sung's return to home base (so, yes, he is the only astronaut around).

Some nation in the Middle East seems to be performing atomic testing, so obviously South Korea has to investigate what other world powers like Liechtenstein would ignore. The best way to observe tests like this is obvious: Launch a capsule into orbit to observe from there. All goes more or less well, but the atomic testing seems to have awoken a living earthquake that promptly starts to make its way to Korea.

What ever may it be? We are very much surprised to learn that yes, Bob, this is a Giant Monster moving underground. As soon as the bad copy of Gojira with a horn on its nose appears, we wish it would have stayed underground.

South Korea's forces (consisting of - count them! - two tanks) are quickly overwhelmed and the fire-breathing thing quickly dubbed Yongary goes on a very mild rampage, full of bad matte work, modeling that permanently gets the perspectives wrong and not much entertainment value.

Finally, the Kenny runs away to observe the monster more closely. He quickly learns two important facts about the beastie. Firstly, it drinks oil (just like Gamera! What a coincidence!). Secondly, it seems to be allergic against ammonia.

But woe! Nobody except super scientist Ilu believes him, so the military is allowed to launch a guided missile strike against Yongary, something which, as Ilu explains, will only help to energize it (no, I don't see a connection between drinking oil and getting blown to bits either, but oh well).

Or will, as really happens, strike Yongary unconscious. The Kenny can't let the monster rest, though, so he sneaks away again, this time bringing his stolen itching ray device with him, and attacks the helpless sleeper with it. Yongary wakes up again and starts to scratch himself in an incredibly stupid way, explained by Icho as "dancing" and accompanied by music supposedly meant as surf guitar. I think.

Now the prime minister has no other choice than to put Icho's ammonia plan into action (I personally would have stuffed the little bugger into the next closet - it's possibly not too bad I don't have any kids). It works marvelously. The big one really dislikes ammonia so much that he dies of severe, gory, rectal bleeding, polluting a river as his final evil deed. No, really.

The End.


A Colt Is My Passport (1967)

A professional killer (Jo Shishido, the man with the chipmunk face) is hired by a gang to kill the head of rival yakuza family. He and his younger protege (Jerry Fujio) do the job professionally and perfectly.

Jo's clients aren't as impressed I was by the the performance, though. They weren't planning on having their enemy killed right in front of their boss.

This isn't the only trouble the killer and his associate are getting into: Their victim's gang wants revenge and manages to kidnap the two man at the airport, right before they can step into the safety of a plane.

Our dubious heroes are able to escape their predicament quite easily, but must now trust into their clients to hide them and get them onto a ship to safety.

They hide in an inn that's mostly frequented by trucker. Here the obligatory sad but kindhearted waitress just waits for the magical charm of some surgically altered cheeks. Of course, their enemies will find them there. Of course, the waitress will help them. Of course, their first escape attempt will not be successful and the younger man will be kidnapped.

Everything will end in a final showdown between Shishido and a bunch of nameless henchmen.

As you can see, the plot of A Colt Is My Passport is far from being original, but, as is so often the case, the important thing is again the execution.

Director Takashi Nomura handles characters and plot as minimalist as possible. Motivations and background are deliberately kept unclear (there is even a moment when Shishido stops his client's explanation of the reason for the murder with a short "That's enough."), everything and everyone is driven by either loyalty or money. This world of archetypes is shown in pictures that remind me in their coolness (in both senses of the word) of a more dynamic Jean-Pierre Melville with Jo Shishido as an even cooler and more suave Alain Delon.

The film's pacing is absolutely perfect, the action fast with a tendency to the slightly surreal, while staying far away from the barely controlled madness of Seijun Suzuki's movies for the Nikkatsu studio.

The music comes from a place where Cool Jazz and Ennio Morricone had a love child that had nothing better to do than to become the rhythm of Japanese action films.

And, as if all this wasn't enough to let me wait anxiously for the coming Criterion edition, the tense finale turns out to be as perfect as they get.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Simon, King of the Witches (1971)

We first meet our anti-hero Simon (Andrew Prine), when he has to leave his home, a storm drainage, to avoid drowning due to a rain storm. He is quite unimpressed by the weather and rants directly into the camera, shouting at us of his magical powers and his grand destiny as a future god. Shortly thereafter, he is arrested for vagrancy.

His arrest turns out to be a very helpful thing for his career, since it is in his cell where he meets Turk (George Paulsin), a young casual prostitute, who is a true innocent (not to say The Fool) at heart. Turk is fascinated by the charismatic Simon and drags him to the daily party in the house of rich gay semi-decadent Hercules (Gerald York).

It is here where Simon takes two important steps on his way to godhood - he meets Linda (Brenda Scott, two-times ex-wife of Prine), the pill-popping daughter of the local DA, who falls for him as soon as she has set eyes on him and he starts selling amulets of dubious use to the party-goers.

Simon becomes a regular fixture at Hercules' parties, selling stuff and making Tarot readings. When one of his customers pays with a fraudulent cheque, Hercules provokes Simon into putting a curse on the man. Simon agrees if Hercules will carry half of the weight of the deed.

Then, with the help of Turk and the life of a poor innocent goat, Simon curses the man. Soon, his victim dies under somewhat strange circumstances - to my glee by daylight.

Afterwards things go a lot smoother for the magician. His business provides him with enough money to leave his drainage and rent a basement as living room and place for magical practices.

His next step on attaining his precious godhood is loading a magickal thingum with energy. His use of sex magick with Linda doesn't achieve the craved results, though. If we follow his thoughts, destiny has caught him in a trap: his love for the girl prevents him to correctly complete his working, while sex with someone he doesn't love wouldn't provide the proper amount of energy.

There is a another way to acquire the energy through more negative emotions. Turk helps him to talk an aging gay man into a ritual consisting of ritual (and mostly symbolic) violence against the poor guy, a method that finally works. Simon plans on doing a great working to be able to step through his magical mirror.

Unfortunately all his plans come to nought when Linda's Dad finally has enough of his daughter's obsession with this shady madman and pressures a narcotics cop into planting drugs in Simon's place. At least, Turk is able to warn Simon of the cops looking for him. The magician still misses the proper time for his working, though.

Two minor drug dealers persuade the irate Simon easily into doing a different kind of working altogether.

He sacrifices the narc cop to curse the whole higher echelon of the city. Soon, the place is nearly drowned by a torrent of rain and one by one high ranking officials are implicated in a large corruption scandal.

Of course, this kind of magick has its price.

This is a strange one. I don't know what drove TV director Bruce Kessler to make this film (a spell, perhaps?), but highly approve of the fact that he did.

On first glance, the movie has all the trappings of a typical occult scare exploitation flick of its era. It stands out against his peers through the way it treats its subject matter.

Firstly, there is the simple technical accomplishment to mention. This is a product of professional, sometimes even inventive film making that doesn't use a low budget as an excuse for static camera, bad sound and everything else we know from (and sometimes love about) classical exploitation.

The script is another reason for the effect the film has. At once more intelligent and actually slightly knowledgeable about the subject matter of the film, it never takes the easy road of making people black or white. There's a palpable sympathy for the countercultural characters like Simon or Turk, but neither are they treated as heroes that can do no wrong, nor are the "straights" depicted as evil to their bigot bones. Also very worth mentioning is the film's sense of humor, mostly discernable as slightly distant, slightly ironic view of the proceedings. I never had the feeling that it took itself all that seriously, although it evades the trap of low-brow comedy.

Lastly I have to talk about the wonderful performance of Andrew Prine as Simon. He portraits a deeply weird, amoral, self-ironic, delusional, sentimental and cynical man as well as one can wish for, never going so much over the top with it as to make Simon unrelatable or unlikable.


In short: Snake Woman's Curse (1968)

A cruel landlord drives the elderly farmer Yasuke to his death. Afterwards, he takes Yasuke's wife and daughter on as house servants. The wife is mistreated, worked nearly to death and finally kicked into a heap of wood, resulting in a deadly wound to the head.

The daughter is mistreated, worked nearly to death, raped twice by the landlord's son and afterwards rejected by her fiancé with the nice question why she didn't kill her rapist (who is about twice her weight). Not surprisingly, her mother's ghost suggests suicide as the best way to have less trouble. The daughter agrees.

Afterwards, the family's ghosts drive the evil bastards to madness and death. Only the fiancé is allowed to live, probably out of a misguided sense of sentimentality.

Snake Woman's Curse is one of Japanese ghost story specialist Nobuo Nakagawa's lesser films. The melodrama might be effective (and oh, do we want the evil bastards to die), but is still too heavy for my tastes. It's like the emotional version of torture porn - after a while, you start to shrug and wish the film would get on with its business.

Visually there is little of Nakagawa's usual stylish use of colored lighting and shadow on display. It is competently made, but lacks personal flair.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

The New Gladiators (1984)

The future looks dire. In the year of 2072, Earth is in a dubious state. The bloodthirsty masses are entertained and kept in their place by the beauty of violent TV shows. No other show can beat the ratings of market leader "Killbike".

This doesn't make the boss of the permanently second placed network WBS (hm, do they have a connection to Warner Brothers?) "your friend Sam" (Giovanni Di Benedetto), who only communicates with his subordinates via video screens, very happy at all.

Friendly Sam orders his second in command Cortez (Claudio Cassinelli) to develop a revolutionary new show that will take the future of television back into the glorious past of entertainment: Gladiatorial combat to the death between convicted killers.

This wonderful idea proceeds well, but the helpful artificial intelligence Junior (who has more to do with the running of the world than the humans have) discovers a fatal flaw in their concept - they need a real hero among their killers to effectively channel audience sympathies. There is no better candidate for this than the "Killbike" champion Drake (Jared Martin).

The trouble is, Drake isn't on death row. But Junior has a plan.

Some time later, Drake's beloved wife is brutally murdered, her killers are shot. Drake, who, as we will find out later, is innocent of the crime, but is sentenced to death anyway. He could of course become a gladiator instead.

When our hero arrives at the training facility for the show, he finds himself the favorite target of their SS-garbed warden Raven (Howard Ross), as well as of some of his own "colleagues" like Kirk (Al Cliver). Only Abdul (Fred Williamson!) is just too damn cool to waste his breathe with stuff like this.

But Drake's natural charisma and his love for nearly suicidal acts in favor of the other gladiators soon win them over.

Which is a good thing when you see that their "training" is a combination of mild brain-washing and physical torture.

Drake is even charming enough to bring technician Sarah (Eleonor Gold) over to his side. With a little research she finds proof for Drake's innocence. Even worse, she finds proof that Junior must have something to do with the frame-up, which should be impossible, since its programming doesn't contain a potential for EVIL.

Disturbed, she visits Junior's inventor Professor Towman (Cosimo Cinieri). Towman has retired from scientific work and now lives, playing the organ, in a ruined church full of computer equipment. He agrees to give her a (beautifully quaint looking) keycard for Junior's inner sanctum. Before he can also give her the codes to reprogram his wayward creation, he is murdered.

At least, Sarah is able to get a little more information from Junior now, none of it very pleasant, though.

Drake and his friends won't be too happy about the fact that the winner of their game is going to be disintegrated.

Fortunately, they all have seen Spartacus, well, make that The Arena and know just what to do.

Many critics will tell you that Lucio Fulci's Eighties work in other genres than horror was completely and absolutely terrible hackwork made by a man totally disinterested in the movies he made.

After watching The New Gladiators, I am not one of them. It's surprising what a neat little piece of Italian SF-action cheese this is. It has everything this kind of film needs: A minimalist score by Riz Ortolani, production design that mixes old Rome, neo-neo-fascism, Blade Runner and Eighties ideas of high tech into a memorable thing of shoddy beauty, unnecessary gore (including a little eye mutilation, of course - it is a Fulci film), Fred Williamson, Al Cliver and Jared Martin as a surprisingly solid, even somewhat sympathetic hero.

Fulci develops at least two quite rousing scenes of male bonding and (of course, again) just ignores the stupidity of parts of the film's backstory and worldbuilding with the correct amount of verve.

It's also amazingly fast-paced for a Fulci film, the action is not brilliantly staged, but competent enough. And I dare you not to laugh or cry out in happiness during the final gladiatorial fight on motorbikes (not that vehicles were in use during training - oh well) including the silliest helmets and ornaments imaginable. Also, two decapitations for the price of one.

What puts The New Gladiators close to my heart is something different, though: It's the honest, if misguided, interest Fulci shows in a thing he normally didn't care about at all: His characters as something like people. Mind you, I am not saying the film works as a character study. But it develops enough motivation for most actions in the film to keep the characters somewhat believable, the most un-Fulci-like thing I have ever seen.


Saturday, August 9, 2008

In short: Gore from Outer Space (2001)

When last we saw our hero (that is, me), he had just taken another step on his continuing road to a brain weirder than the brain that wouldn't die by watching and praising Crazy Lips. Obviously he had to see the sequel.

And let me tell you, Gore may at first look like the more coherent of the two films, but will turn out to be even more looney. There is much less sleaze around this time, and no gore at all, but when confronted with a mixture of alien abductions, aliens, alien Indians, multiple genre changes, missing daughters who may or may not exist, a classic kung fu fight, three musical numbers, rebirth as a spider, time travel, the return of some dead members of the cast of the first film, the return of even more actors from the first film, puking, silly flying model houses, bathroom-less houses, evil mothers, political candidates from outer space (with theme song), a jailbreak, and everything else you never wanted in a film, you are not going to complain about the lack of sex. Well, I won't.

In short: Crazy Lips (2000)

This charming little piece of classical Japanese "What the fuck!? How the hell should I know? Let's add a little more sex!" cinema, starts out harmless enough. The women of a Japanese family are besieged by the press and the police to lead them to the only living male of the family, who is the main suspect in a series of murders by decapitation.

The problem is, the family really doesn't know where the brother is. Neither do they think he could have killed anyone.

Finally, they seek the help of a duo of psychic investigators. Very soon, the film escapes the grasp of things like plot progression, logical motivations or good taste to never look back. Instead of those boring things, it features just about everything Japanese people love (if we do believe their movies): perhaps-incest, a terrible evil summoned down from the sky, Japanese FBI agents, a man with an unconquerable penis, guns, family as a form of slavery, decapitations, dead journalists, ghosts, non-consensual sex with a corpse, sex, more sex, an insane plot twist, an absurdly good choreographed action sequence, a musical interlude, sex of dubious consensuality, puking, a few buckets of blood, very strange humor and (I think) sex.

If you are not offended by now, you probably are in the market for Crazy Lips. I salute you, sister or brother!


Friday, August 8, 2008

Give a stranger who makes unrealistic promises your money!

Oh, and I have my invisible childhood friend to sell to you.


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In short: Demons 2 (1986)

After the events of the first film, the part of Berlin that was the background for the demon outbreak has been sealed and declared a "Forbidden Zone". A handful of future Darwin Awards winners breaks into that zone and (surprise!) wakes up one of those pesky demons.

While this is going on, the films cuts away from time to time and shows us the boring exploits of a bunch of Yuppies in a high class apartment high rise in Cologne. For some reason (probably a demon who wants to get in on the reality show action), every TV in the building shows the exploits of the intrepid demon tourists.

Soon, the freshly hungry demon steps out of one of the TVs and starts killing and demonizing yuppies (Yay!).

The gentlemen Bava and Argento are trying to cash-in on the success of the first film. Unfortunately, they leave most of the deranged sense of fun of the first film behind, leaving in its place nothing much at all.

Best (I'll be honest, only entertaining) thing in show: The demon child that gives birth to a shrieking demon muppet. So, that's where Cookie Monster comes from.


Two good Lovecraftian films

Many Lovecraft inspired movies not made by Stuart Gordon tend to be rather dreadful, so it's a nice surprise to watch two very good Lovecraft films in one day.

The Music of Erich Zann (1980)

This short film uses its length of just seventeen minutes to adapt one of my favorite Lovecraft short stories as faithfully as possible.

Lovecraft's technique of directly showing as little of the supernatural as possible and reaching his effects by insinuation and hinting at terrible possibilities that aren't spelled out lends it self perfectly for a small project like this.

The film uses brilliant minimalism in all of its aspects - lighting, production design, acting, effects - and achieves a wonderful creepy mood without overtly doing all that much.

Il Mistero Di Lovecraft - The Road to L. (2005)

This feature-length movie uses the basic concept and some of the footage of an earlier short project, about which I have talked a little, to expand on the fictional journey of H.P. Lovecraft during his hidden years to Italy, where he found the basis of his Cthulhu mythos in local folklore of the Po delta and the truth behind the folklore. To my surprise, this version of the story avoids most of the things I criticized about the short version and should now be of interest to horror movie watchers in general and not just Lovecraft fanatics like me.

The Road to L. uses the Blair Witch method of fake documentary work. It shows the attempts of a small film crew to find real proof for Lovecraft's journey.

The more they look into deserted houses, strange disappearances, and try to get the cooperation of a very unwilling local populace, the more they step outside of the comfort zone of accepted reality and come close to a terrible discovery.

The film comes to Lovecraftian horror from a different but related angle as The Music of Erich Zann. Instead of adapting a Lovecraft story, the film drags some of Lovecraft's ideas into the here and now, where they are able to fend very well for themselves. Lovecraft himself of course used seemingly non-fictional reports as the framework for his stories, which makes this a clever and respectful way to go about a project like this.

Parts of the film are extremely creepy, especially the ending is very effective. My only problem with it was the amount of squabbling and hissy fits between the crew members - it seemed a little too much, without enough reason for the break-downs.

In short: Ju-Rei: The Uncanny (2004)

Ju-Rei is a strange little film. It is a Japanese Direct-to-Video production with many of the problems that typically plagues these movies, like mostly bad acting and a non-budget. Additionally it is highly derivative of Takashi Shimizu's Ju-On and uses all clichés connected with the terrible word "J-Horror" (to digress a little: I daily pray for the person who coined that abomination to be visited by a little blue boy).

But its director Koji Shiraishi (who would go on to direct the higher budgeted and very good Noroi) does a few quite inspired things:

  • He uses the problematic device of telling the episodic story backwards, starting with "Chapter 10" and counting down to the prologue, surprisingly well, leaving the viewer with the knowledge that all will end as badly as it began
  • Most of the chapters contain at least one moment of brilliant framing - Shiraishi really knows how to use static shots to creep the viewer out
  • The film makes good use of the claustrophobic feel much of modern Japan seems to have. As a Westerner, one tends to forgot that Japan isn't just high-tech and modernism, but also people living in small, anonymous spaces
  • Ghosts who are society's unpaid dues, work as a kind of infection that eats a society from inside out


Vedma - The Power of Fear (2005)

American reporter Evan Berkhoff (Valeri Nikolayev) works at a very American tabloid. His newest (last chance-, of course) job is to make up something interesting about a few deaths in the mysterious, very American town of Castleville (which must be situated next to Castle Rock and Castle-of-Death-on-the-Thames). In stark contrast to real tabloid writers, he actually has to go to Castleville for fact-gathering. After a chance meeting with a Catholic priest, he continues his way to the town. Suddenly the very-American-if-America-was-Estonia landscape gets hit by a dreadful rainstorm. Our intrepid journalist's car gets stuck in the mud. To show us his expert use of intelligence, Evan also locks himself out of his car. Fortunately he can make out an occupied house in the distance. Inside, an old woman welcomes him not warmly, but at least lets him stay the night. She even is so nice to let him take a warm bath.

When he is soaking, an attractive woman called Meryl (Yeygeniya Kryukova) tries to seduce him. Evan hasn't much of a problem with this, only when Meryl turns into an old woman and tries to attack him he suddenly changes his mind about a closer acquaintance with her, and drowns her in the bath tub.

She does not seem to be all that dead, though, and attacks him in the form of loud, watery special effects. He manages to flee in the car of the priest he had met earlier on, who turns out to be quite dead now.

This fits rather nicely when you are naked and in need of new clothes, so Evan steals the habit of the dead man and now makes a fetching Catholic priest.

He still can't drive a car very well though, as the collision with a nearby tree proves.

Back on foot again, he is picked up by a deputy whose assumption of his priesthood he doesn't contradict.

The next morning, the local Sheriff (Lembit Ulfsak) tells him of the last wish of a murdered woman named Meryl - the priest who would arrive the night after her death is to spend three nights in the chapel where she is laid out and pray for her. Nobody says it out loud, but the townspeople all know that Meryl was a witch and hope against better knowledge that the stranger will somehow be able to calm her spirit down. Or want to use him as a sacrifice for Meryl's wrath.

The next few days, Evan is more or less a prisoner by day, and fighting a hopeless battle against ever stronger supernatural manifestations by night. Only faith can save him.

Yes, this is another version of Gogol's Viy, with a different philosophical slant and of much inferior quality.

Vedma is not as bad a film as some reviewers say, though. It has considerable flaws, but also its effective moments and clever ideas.

Among said flaws is the slightly silly and completely unbelievable American setting - every part of the production screams Russia so loud that I soon forgot that the action is supposed to take place somewhere else.

Much more problematic is the ineffectiveness of most of the film's big scare scenes. Evan's nightly adventures in the church are the least interesting parts of the film, a sloppy and unoriginal mess of loud and un-scary effects that annoy more than they frighten. These scenes are mercifully short, though.

The last major flaw is the movie's ending one of those happy endings that talk about the renewed faith of a character without any believable attempt at showing the reason for his new faith. So, Evan's faith in Jesus is based on his fear of being eaten by a witch? My, how long will it last?

But there are also things to like about Vedma. When you can ignore that they are not filmed in America, you get to see some beautiful location shots of half-ruined buildings and will even see a lot of effective moodbuilding through weather and natural lighting.

Everything non-supernatural that is happening in town is also very good. The way the townspeople avoid talking about Meryl, the way they look at each other, the way they look at Evan - all this is expertly executed and much more creepy than the flying women and bats who assault Evan in Church.

The mood of the town as a place where something hasn't been right for many years is so strong you can sometimes nearly touch it.

In the end, these scenes are what make the film worth watching, if you don't expect too much from the rest.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Diary of the Dead (2007)

It's the end of the world again. A group of film students and their professor are out somewhere in the woods to shoot a horror movie when the news hit: A nearly inexplicable wave of violence hits the world. It seems like the dead are coming back to life to devour the flesh of the living.

Our small group of survivors decides to get into their camping van and get back to their families. On their way, they stop and pick up Debra (Michelle Morgan), the girlfriend of director Jason (Joshua Close). Debra is one of those believable women with high survivability in life or death situations who are George Romero's way of doing penitence for Barbara.

They decide to try and reach Debra's family first. Of course, this being the apocalypse, their way is fraught with dangers, some of them including the living dead, others Jason's growing obsession with filming their ordeal to document it and last but most important: other people.

So, this is what happens when George A. Romero finally decides to accept his role in horror as "the zombie guy" - an unexpected (and much more original than it is given credit for) mixture of old standards, newish trends (the movie is filmed in the popular in my house "fake authentic footage" style) and the zombie apocalypse as a way of thinking about the parts of our world that interest Romero the most at the moment.

In this case Romero tries to come to terms with the ubiquity of mediated experiences in the age of the digital camera and YouTube. What is better: a clearly manipulated traditional media or a choir of voices so large that it can be hard to understand what it says? Why do we film the catastrophe? Is it really to document? To keep others informed? Is it a way to survive without having to do the rotten things survivors do? A psychological armor? And what does it say about a movie that shows us an imaginary apocalypse?

At first, Romero seems to go for the very easy answers conservative media critics love so much, but the farther the film goes along, the more obvious it gets that Romero doesn't have clear answers for us and is much more interested in asking questions and exploring areas of thought while (and I do love him for that) still staying true to his cast as characters and not just mouthpieces for ideas.

Romero does this with great success. Somehow, offhandedly, he also manages to create an excellent zombie film of a much more harrowing and claustrophobic type than Land of the Dead was.

There is an elegance in the tonal shifts between the abstract, the funny and the downright disturbing I have not seen in Romero's films before.


Latitude Zero (1969)

A trio of intrepid explorers, Dr. Tashiro (Akira Takarada), Dr. Masson (Masumi Okada) and annoyingly rude American reporter Lawton (Richard Jackel) are on a deep-sea diving mission, when a beautiful model underwater volcano erupts a little too close to their bathysphere. Fortunately, the sub-marine of humanitarian genius Captain Craig McKenzie (Joseph Cotten, probably slumming, certainly having fun) is close by.

McKenzie is the founder of a secret utopian society of scientists and other do-gooders based in an underwater city called Latitude Zero.

As our heroes will soon see, it's a very late Sixties kind of utopia, a place where funky architecture meets glowing buttons, where women wear vinyl, gold and short skirts, where no man (not even Joseph Cotten) likes to keep his breast fully covered and where the wondrous is the ordinary.

Of course a good genius needs an evil genius as his archenemy. McKenzie has his nemesis in form of Malic (Cesar Romero), a specialist in the creation of nonsensical chimeras like ape-bat-monsters, cute little attack bats and his crowning achievement, a lion-costume/vulture-costume-hybrid with the brain of his betrayed lover. He will - in contrast to my own feelings - be very surprised to learn the creature doesn't like him all that much.

The feud between the two men comes to a climax when Malic kidnaps Dr. Okada (Tetsu Nakamura), a scientist just on his way to Latitude Zero.

McKenzie and his new-found friends pay a visit to Malic's charmingly named island lair of Blood Rock. Will magical science like their jet-packs and their imperviousness to bullets help our heroes win the day? What are the giant rat costumes planning? Is vinyl the future of fashion?

If you haven't got it by now, let me tell you: Latitude Zero is a very silly movie, full of gorgeous late Sixties production design, monster costumes so cute, you want to cuddle them and actors playing gamely along with every silly idea director Ishiro Honda can come up with. As the friend of Toho Studios' kaiju and SF movies will understand, this means an astounding amount of silliness that would be enough to fill two or three comparable American movies. Fortunately, Honda never believed in a less is more aesthetic and prefers to deliver simply more of everything.

Of course, Latitude Zero is not a masterpiece, but very fun pulp SF that steals only the best from Jules Verne without all that pesky science.