Wednesday, October 29, 2008

In short: Love Ghost (2001)

Sometimes I act like the hero of a classic Romantic novel: I sigh, sink into my living room chair and ponder deep philosophical questions like "Why is Japanese pop culture so weird?".

Today an answer to said question came to me. It's all the ghosts' and ghoulies' fault! As I have learned by watching countless Japanese horror films (I've even seen Shinjuku Ghost Story, though only the first part - I am not infinitely strong), every nook and cranny of every village, town and city (let's not start talking about the countryside) in Japan is stuffed full with ghosts, curses, demons, giant flying turtles and spirals.

The only possibility to keep sane when confronted by this kind of danger every waking hour (and I'm not sure about dreams and sleep) is to distract oneself by as much bizarre shit as possible. Well, that or tentacle rape.

This grand realization came to me while is was watching Love Ghost. In it, some poor high school kids can't even consult their favorite love oracle, Tsujiura (basically standing in front of a road-side shrine and asking the next passerby the question one wants to have answered by oracle), without coming into contact with a supernatural entity called "The Handsome Boy of Tsujiura", whose predictions of course end in premature teenage death.

All trouble starts with the arrival of Midori (Risa Goto) in a new school, back in the town she left ten years ago. The film makes a big secret of something that happened when she left, but most viewers will have solved the "puzzle" about half an hour in, although some of the later twists just don't make enough sense to be too easily predicted. And yes, you guessed it, the secret has something to do with the "Handsome Boy".

Soon after Midori's arrival, teenage hormones run amok while Midori herself has to solve the riddle of her own past.

 

Love Ghost really isn't that good of a film. The script is, as I said, predictable, the pacing overtly sedate and the whole thing at least fifteen minutes to long, but if you are able to be very, very patient, you'll find a few worthwhile ideas. I'd even call the middle part of the film quite successful, not as a horror film, but as a quiet portrait of teenage heartbreak that for once does not try to glamorize the crappy time that many have at a certain age. Unfortunately, the film throws away any goodwill it might have created in its final twenty minutes when it suddenly tries to transform itself into a story of redemption its first hour just can't support.

At least nobody can blame the film for wanting to be just another Japanese horror movie about a female ghost with long black hair - it's trying hard to be something different.

 

Monday, October 27, 2008

Everybody likes a ghost story

And Juno Books, home of the paranormal romance, has a PDF with "Five Classic Ghost Stories" (by female writers) as a Halloween gift.

It aren't even the usual five stories, so what are you waiting for?

Here's the book!

 

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Zipang (1990)

Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate (don't worry, this will be the only sentence today related to any piece of history as we know it). The delightfully named Jigoku (Masahiro Takashira, sporting a most awesome 80s samurai hairdo) is Japan's most wanted criminal. Virtually hundreds of bounty hunters are on his trail, but nobody is able to catch him. What exactly it is that has made him so popular we're never told. He is the head of a small troupe of wandering entertainers - of course counting among their members a dwarf and a dwarfish latex elephant - who provide him with support in all the things he can't do for himself. So one of them has the useful ability to think (you bet he's wearing glasses), while others provide him with the suppressive fire of their portable cannons. Especially important is the man who carries Jigoku's nine swords in a kind of golf bag around with him. Our hero, you see, loves variety and is a true believer in the idea of having the right weapon for every enemy, even if that means he needs someone to throw his swords to him. Sometimes a man just needs his boomerang sword, or his dagger shooting sword, or the very special blade for killing Frenchmen.

Our hero may kill bounty hunters by the hundreds, but he's not cruel, he even entertains them with dancing, flute playing and ear wiggling before he kills them, as befits a good sportsman.

Alas a new and dangerous enemy has decided to try her aim on him - Yuri the Pistol (Narumi Yasuda), as efficient a bounty hunter as Jigoku is a...whatever he may be.

Fortunately, the flower of love blooms between Yuri and Jigoku as soon as the lay eyes on each other (in a "you're cute, baby!" kind of way), so their first meeting ends at an impasse.

Jigoku and his troupe now decide to go on a little treasure hunt, evading the usual death traps in a fashion certain American archeologists/grave robbers would approve of (which is to say: just barely), and acquiring a sword made of pure gold. As things like this go, the sword is even more popular than Jigoku's head.

The shogun himself (Chiyonosuke Azuma) wants it as the key to Zipang, the kingdom of gold he's read about in his edition of the diaries of Marco Polo. Seeing that he is the shogun and likes to laugh an especially evil laughter, he's not going to try to buy the sword (also, there wouldn't be a fight scene in it). Instead, he sends Hattori Hanzo (Yukio Yamato) and his portable ninja army to steal the sword.

The ensuing fight between Hanzo and his lots and lots of ninjas, Jigoku, Yuri and the nearly naked tattooed guy who jumped out of the place where Jigoku found the sword soon after our hero left, somehow activates the magic power of the sword.

Hanzo and Yuri are sucked into the sky in the best UFO fashion, while Nearly Naked Guy stands below and screams to be taken too, very much like a nearly naked, tattooed Japanese version of Fox Mulder.

While Nearly Naked guy starts a ritual that will help him and Jigoku follow to wherever Yuri went, the bounty hunter and Hanzo materialize in the Sunless Land, a place ruled by a king made entirely of gold, who likes to ask philosophical questions about the nature of love just as much as taking Yuri prisoner and sending his guard of stone armored weirdos against Hanzo.

And those guards are as tough as they are weird. Even Hanzo's bag of tricks that contains such ninja-typical weapons like a rocket launcher could possibly not be deep enough.

From here on, there are still a lot of fights to watch (personal favorite: the king's mecha-like armor), strange people and gods to meet, until we can finally learn an important lesson about the meaning of love. And that Jaws was popular in Japan, too.

 

The late 80s and early 90s were not a very good time for Japanese genre cinema. Most of its earlier proponents had fled into the financial security of TV or had to cope with the incredibly shrinking budgets the Direct-to-Video market allowed. I'm talking about the real dark ages of Japanese cinema here, the time before mad scientist directors like Takashi Miike invented themselves.

All the more wondrous is it to find a film like Zipang, that starts with an incredible concentration of weird shit per minute and doesn't let up during the whole of its running time. The throw-away fighting styles in the big bounty hunter fight alone would be enough to fuel half a dozen normal movies. Director Kaizo Hayashi just pulls the next bizarre situation out of his hat.

Even more surprising is the change of mood the film pulls off after the protagonists have entered the Sunless Land (whose occupants I suspect of being part of real Japanese mythology). The film shifts from a delightful piece of anything goes fun into the mood and storytelling style of a fairy tale - like a hyperactive Russian fairy tale film without losing its strange but existent internal logic - while still delivering the weird and wacky in unnatural doses.

This kind of film doesn't need acting as we usually know it, of course, but rather as much high-octane mugging and scenery chewing as possible. And by God, the actors deliver that in spades.

I could now proceed to chastise Zipang for some less than believable sets and some very unbelievable special effects, but a fairy tale does not need to be believable to be effective. I'd even say a fairy tale movie has some of its impact precisely because it knows very well that it does not show a version of reality, or another kind of reality, but something that is part of our imagination made visible.

To summarize: You owe yourself to watch this if you have even the smallest interest in things that are awesome.

 

In short: The Leopard Man (1943)

Her manager Jerry Manning (Dennis O'Keefe) persuades nightclub singer Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks) to indulge in a publicity stunt with a black leopard as the best method to outdo her main Rival Clo Clo (Margo; whose highly irritating habit of clicking her castanets wherever and whenever she goes did not endear her to me). Not surprisingly, the animal escapes and starts a series of murders. The conscience-stricken Jerry and Kiki soon doubt the leopard's responsibility for the acts. Might there be a more dangerous, human perpetrator?

The Leopard Man is one of the less well known collaborations between producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur and I am not surprised by this.

Of course, the film is well directed, well acted, an obvious product of seasoned professionals who probably were unable to make a shoddy movie. Nonetheless, I couldn't shake the feeling Tourneur and Lewton didn't put as much heart in it as in Cat People. The film just lacks the special spark of creativity I have gotten used to in films produced by Lewton. The film's themes aren't as intelligently developed as one would hope for, and the characters stay rather flat.

In comparison to much of the films the Poverty Row studios produced at the same time its pure competence lets The Leopard Man still look like a minor masterpiece.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Another good reason for the coming zombie apocalypse: Death Bell (2008)

Usually I don't like to post negative reviews on here. If I can't find at least a few redeeming qualities in a film, there's not much reason for wasting my time in reviewing it, unless I have either something worthwhile to say about it or it really managed to annoy me.

Death Bell, the new horror sensation from South Korea managed the latter quite easily.

I'll try to keep this short to avoid the unpleasant picture of me foaming at the mouth from pure irritation.

A bunch of students and three teachers are kept prisoner in their school by a mysterious psycho who lets them solve idiotic riddles. If they don't manage that, one of them is tortured to death in a mild Saw-variation. The mysterious killer has an equally mysterious love for using the most stupid methods of killing imaginable. It's especially important for him to ignore the way physics in the real world work. It doesn't matter a lot anyway, because his acts do not even follow the rules the film posits, so why care about physics? And why should they, when the whole plot only works thanks to the fact every character is an idiot?

Like me, you will be awfully surprised by the revelation that the murders have something to do with the supposed suicide of a female student a few years ago, as well as by the "surprising" (if you are as stupid as the characters) twists the film provides. The director, a certain Chang, also manages to add a few moments of the good old longhaired girl ghost, which doesn't make the whole mess more derivative than it already is.

The mixture of stupidity and unoriginality I could take, what fills my mind with stabby stabby thoughts when I think of Death Bell is that each and every idiocy, each moment I have already seen better realized in superior films is presented with the kind of grand gesture that just cries out: "Look how clever I am!", proving the people responsible (the guys with the pitchforks are already waiting for them, by the way) to be just as insipid as their audience.

Avoid at any cost.

 

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Twelve Gold Medallions (1970)

The Chinese Empire is under attack by the Tartars. While heroic general Yue slowly takes the lost territory back piece by piece, the traitorous prime minister plans on selling out to the invaders. Yue's success is a problem for his plans, so he acquires a royal order that will call Yue back from the front and leave the way open for his newly made allies. To make sure the order really arrives, the minister orders it engraved on twelve gold medallions, each of which will be transported to the frontline by a martial arts expert of great talent and dubious morality.

There's more than one patriotic fighter who wants to prevent the order's delivery. Especially effective in getting rid of the mercenaries is Miao Lung (Yueh Huah), a former student of the sword style of Jin Yang Tan (Cheng Miu). Little does he suspect that his master has heard the siren song of power and influence and has just been awarded the leadership of the martial arts school whose main reason for existence is the delivery of the medallions.

As soon as he learns this, Miao Lung's sense of duty and honor compels him to break up his engagement to Jin Yang Tan's daughter Jin Suo (Chin Ping). Her father uses the opportunity to convince the girl that Miao Lung has fallen in love with another woman.

Both men don't know that Jin Suo herself has also gotten into the medallion interception business.

If you think this should be enough complications for one film, you probably haven't seen many wuxias. The film finds time - without breaking a sweat, I must add - to also concern itself with the destiny of many other honorable and dishonorable fighters, betrayal and tragedies and even with a little comic relief.

But it is doubtful that the story will end in laughter and not in blood and tears.

Cheng Kang may not be as well known a Shaw Brothers director as Chor Yuen or Chang Cheh, but this doesn't make his films necessarily less interesting or less individual efforts.

The Twelve Gold Medallions for example is a film that tries to re-invent the classic wuxia formula in a way very different from Chor Yuen. Where Chor opts for conscious artificiality and stylization, Cheng uses a more naturalistic approach with as much location shooting as possible and stages that are (quite effectively) filmed to look as natural as possible.

The fight choreography is in part done by Sammo Hung and has a certain grittiness even in its more wacky moments. Most of the fights are relatively short, but bloody and intense. The high amount of different fighters helps to keep each battle unique, while Cheng's dynamic and fast camera work adds a further dimension of intensity to the proceedings.

The action is of course not all that's important in a wuxia. The Twelve Gold Medallions is not stingy with its melodrama and entwines it nicely with the action. Where weaker genre entries too often keep the emotionally tense moments and the action divorced from each other, here the melodrama lends additional tension to the action and is used to up the stakes so that more interesting things than the fate of a nation are in the center of the movie.

Acting and production values are as good as one can expect from a Shaw Brothers film. I must say I would have preferred less hissy fits by Jin Suo, whose childish behavior is unfortunately not untypical for women in films like this, but if it says something very positive about a film when that's the worst criticism I can come up with.

 

I just knew

my knowledge of Lovecraftian videogames wasn't complete.

An FPS for the Virtual Boy, no less!

 

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In short: The Masks of Death (1984)

An elderly Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) returns from his beekeeping duties to help his old associate Inspector MacDonald (Gordon Jackson) - the only policeman he doesn't outright despise, though he still treats him like a rather stupid child - unravel the mysterious case of three seemingly causeless deaths. The only visible marks on the bodies of the victims are expressions of abject fear on their faces.

While Holmes and Watson (John Mills) are somewhat stumped by the case, the Home Secretary (an embarrassingly drunk Ray Milland) urges the detectives to take on the "more important" case of the disappearance of a high ranking German personality from a locked room, which puts the Secretary's secret efforts for a peace treaty with the Germans into peril.

Annoyed as he is, Holmes still follows the call of the motherland and uncovers a conspiracy with possibly dreadful consequences. There is also a the return of Irene Adler (Anne Baxter) to awaken the old woman-hater's curiosity.

 

This short British TV movie reunites Cushing (in his last leading role) and John Mills in roles that weren't exactly new to them to nice effect.

Neither the script by Anthony Hinds nor Roy Ward Bakers very pedestrian direction are anything to write home about, but the two lead actors don't seem to mind. Cushing and Mills (whose Watson is not of the dreaded "bumbling idiot" variant) have a beautiful rapport as old friends who are too much in love with classic British stiffness to be all that emotional, yet whose small gestures and friendly bickering betray their closeness all the same.

Especially Cushing provides some telling acting details that seem to come much more from him than from the script (that just ignores how being old must feel to someone like Holmes) and give a glimpse into Holmes as someone who doesn't take to age well - it hasn't made him any milder and now even provides him with ample opportunity to turn his irritation onto his own growing slowness.

I need hardly mention that the idea of an old Holmes played by Cushing (whose calm professionalism I'd take about egomaniac horror icon Christopher Lee any day) at the end of his career brings with itself a certain melancholy even when the script doesn't do a lot with the concept.

The Masks of Death is the actors' film anyway. Besides the quite wonderful Cushing and Mills, Anne Baxter and Anton Diffring are also doing a lot to let one forget the film's slightness, making it a worthy final bow (and yes, I am ignoring Biggles here, even I have standards) for Cushing.

 

Friday, October 24, 2008

In short: The Silent Stranger (1968)

A nameless gunman (Tony Anthony) tries to safe an Asian man from three thugs. His help comes a little too late, and the dying man begs him to bring a small scroll to Japan. His master there will pay well.

So the Stranger and his horse "Pussy" get on the next boat to Japan. Having hardly even arrived, the gunman stumbles into the battle between two shady characters and their small private armies, both very interested in his scroll, and a festival of double-crosses, triple-crosses and quite a few fights. That's what happens when you don't speak the language.

There's a book waiting to be written on the connection between the Spaghetti Western and the Chambara and about the way these genres influenced each other. One of the chapters of this imaginary book would have to be about The Silent Stranger and would hopefully explain how this Italian-Japanese co-production came to life.

The Silent Stranger is one of the better movies that try to combine the Spaghetti Western and one or the other form of Asian action cinema. Thanks to the involvement of actual Japanese money, we have Japanese characters played by Japanese actors speaking actual Japanese - a cornucopia of authenticity. The biggest difference between this and many other Italian/Japanese cross-over films is that it's set in Japan, though, affording director Luigi Vanzi to have a lot of fun with a hero who basically doesn't have a clue what the things going on around him mean.

Tony Anthony's Stranger is obviously based on a certain character from some Leone films, but he looks and acts more like Clint Eastwood's goofier brother. A man who's not as clever as he thinks himself, he mostly gets by on a certain charm and a softer heart than other Italian Western heroes can afford. Anthony's muggy way of playing the role seems a little too over the top at first, but soon his slightly dopey grin turns out to be the ideal embodiment of what the film is trying to do.

While there are certainly enough dead bodies and moments of brutality here, the film mostly tries to be (and even is!) good fun. It certainly lacks the depth of a film by Leone or Corbucci, but it makes up for this through charm and playfulness.

I very much liked the way Vanzi plays out the disorientation that comes with Anthony's inability to communicate, perfectly shown in a scene where he uses a drawing to discern if he is actually paid in the right kind of coin, all the while trying to keep from looking as clueless as he really is.

 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Earth vs. the Spider (1958)

The daddy of sweet 50s teenager Carol (June Kenney, who might even still be somewhat young) disappears when he should be returning home to his family. Her jerky teenage boyfriend Mike (Eugene Persson, age 24 and looking older) thinks the man has just gone on one of his drinking binges, but Carol knows better.

After more jerkiness I began to hope Mike would be eaten by a giant spider soon, instead he caves in, borrows the car of his teenage friend Joe (Troy Patterson, with a birth year of 1923 the oldest teenager I have ever seen) and goes on the search for Daddy with Carol. They soon find his wrecked car and calculate he must have gone into a nearby cave. A cave with a real bad reputation - people enter, but they never leave. Nonetheless, the two waddle into the cave, and enter a world of very special effects gone even more wrong than one expects. Somehow someone involved in the production (and I'm looking at Bert I. Gordon) thought it prudent to enhance a mediocre cave set with something that looks very much as if said someone had scribbled a few cave-like lines onto the screen. From time to time we also see a few shots of the good old Carlsbad Caverns - of course without any actors in them. Our intrepid heroes stumble through this weird place and find some typical cave stuff (skeletons, the desiccated corpse of Carol's father) and a net right out of a gymnasium, um, I mean a giant spider net.

While they are climbing about on the net (and really, who wouldn't?) a giant tarantula - played by a normal tarantula badly, really badly superimposed - attacks them. No, it's never explained where the giant spider learned to make nets, but the poor thing isn't using them in the rest of the film anyway.

They get away and run straight to their science teacher Mr. Kingman (Ed Kemmer), who is something of a two-fisted scientist, and so not predisposed to completely believe their story, but at least interested enough in their story to phone the sheriff (Gene Roff) - whom I very soon christened Cletus - and urge the man to help him and a few others search the cave. Kingman also convinces Cletus to get as much DDT as possible. Just in case.

I don't know how, but the sheriff manages to acquire a whole truckload of the stuff. It certainly comes in handy when they encounter the spider (and also as a way to prevent the characters from procreating - a very good thing for our gene pool).

A short cancerous and kind of boring fight later the spider is dead and the sheriff bound to blast the cave entrance shut. Kingman has different plans, though - he wants to study the reason for the animal's abnormal size. So he uses his savings(!) to pay for the transport of the corpse into his school's gymnasium(!!), in the hope of selling the corpse to a university, it seems.

The thing he didn't account for is the power of Rock'n'Roll. The local student band (led by none other than our old friend Joe, who is their lead dancer and conductor) sneaks into the gym to practice for a coming dance, awakening with their sounds of joyous abandon the not quite dead spider. A very mild form of rampage ensues - it's not easy to go on a rampage when you're a special effect that can't interact with anything.

Fortunately, our heroic science teacher and the dopey sheriff are there to save the day with the help of much talking and the power of electricity.

 

I usually love giant monster movies, be they bad, good or in between, but Earth vs. the Spider (which should have been called One American Small Town vs. the Spider) doesn't make it easy. It may have a very bad reputation, yet it really isn't all that bad. Sure, the acting is atrocious, the effects laughable and the script vapid as can be, but there are still many films that are much worse than it.

On the other hand, one would be hard pressed to call it good, especially when one adds to its list of flaws the simple facts that it's kind of slow, and kind of boring, and doesn't even include a real monster rampage. So Earth vs. the Spider sits there in a place of total mediocrity, neither good nor bad enough to be of real interest - the most terrible destiny a film can suffer.

 

Monday, October 20, 2008

Possibly the creepiest thing I've ever seen

via Jeffrey Ford.

 

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Begotten (1991)

So this is what the director of Shadow of the Vampire did when he was young.

The official story here is this: God kills himself slowly with a razor and gives birth to Mother Earth who impregnates herself with his seed to give birth to a son. Other things happen.

But the truth is: You absolutely do not have to use this interpretation of the film. Like with much of really out there art, its creator's interpretation isn't better than your own.

Shot in high contrast black and white without speech but with a disconcerting soundtrack of noises and darkened ambient, Begotten looks influenced by expressionist silent movies, David Lynch, surrealism and God knows what else, yet it effortlessly creates a disconcerting voice of its own out of its influences.

The experience watching this is a lot like watching the base myth of some kind of ritual one of Lovecraft's pre-human races might have practiced. If it's a ritual of creation or destruction or both isn't quite clear. It is also possible that we are witnessing an apocalypse and the following re-birth of life, told by the way of a nightmare.

It's very much like looking into a place somewhere else where time and space don't follow the same rules as they do here, although there still remain enough parallels to our world to make all that we're watching supremely discomforting.

 

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Minutemen!

 

The Horror!? 100: The Demons of Ludlow (1984)

A surprise return of my series of incoherent ramblings about Public Domain films? You betcha!

Ludlow is a small town somewhere in North America. As is so often the case with American small towns, it has a dreadful secret that has already cost many of its inhabitants' lives over the course of two centuries. The town's bicentennial will turn out to be even worse.

Yet it all starts so promising with a dreary barn dance and the gift of a white piano-harmonium (the characters aren't willing to decide what type of instrument it is; I for my part can only say that it does sound a lot like a synthesizer to me) by the descendants of Ludlow's founding father, a certain Ethan Ludlow, who was exiled from the town for some misdeed or the other. How strange that the first notes of the mysterious instrument are the starting shot for a new series of puzzling deaths.

The local Reverend (Paul von Hausen) and reporter Debra (Stephanie Cushna) are doing their best to make sense of the curse that obviously lies on the town, but the mixture of poltergeist activities, people in bad period costumes with a certain love for murder, demonic hands and bad special effects is hard to understand.

 

The Demons of Ludlow is the first film of not exactly much-loved ultra-low budget director Bill Rebane I have seen, and I must say, it didn't hurt all that much.

Sure, the acting is pedestrian at best, the special effects are bad, the direction at TV movie of the week level and the supernatural menace not coherent in the least, but at least the film is moving at a certain pace (if you are able to ignore the long minutes of the preacher and/or the journalist looking puzzled by the frigging obvious), without incorporating a single second of stock footage.

There are also one or two moments I'd nearly call creepy, as well as many more moments (especially in the latter half of the film) that deserve at least a chuckle.

And really, how many films does one see in one's life that feature a hopping, ghost-pregnant pianonium?

 

Saturday, October 18, 2008

In short: Red Wolf (1995)

Ah, luxury cruises. What a great way to celebrate the new year. That's also what a merry band of gangsters thinks, so they infiltrate the crew and the house band of a luxury liner. While they're at it, they might as well steal the uranium that's kept hidden in a highly secured safe - it's the modern way of uranium transportation. Oh, and they're gonna have to kill everyone on board.

To their very lethal dismay, Alan (Kenny Ho), an Ex-Cop With A Tragic Past, is part of the ship's security detail and doesn't take to slaughter all that kindly. Well, slaughter he doesn't commit himself, so he goes on a hitting, kicking, shooting and macgyvering rampage to show the evildoers how it's really done. His only help is the supremely annoying Christy Chung, who - I am sorry to say - just isn't funny at all.

 

I don't know why anyone would think it to be a good idea to rip off a Steven Seagal rip-off of Die Hard, but this were the ways of Hong Kong cinema and I hope they always will be.

There are quite a few things that recommend Red Wolf as a rip-off better than the original:

Firstly, director Yuen Woo-ping who has made too many films and choreographed too many action sequences to not be able to deliver a nice pay-off for friends of screaming, kicking, hitting and shooting with creative use of just about everything that isn't nailed down; there's no idea so stupid Yuen wouldn't make an effort to look as cool as possible.

Secondly, there's the combination of slight sadism and not always so slight stupidity of much of the script. Usually, those aren't points one mentions to recommend a movie, but ideas like the uranium on board a cruising ship or the great use the film makes of its child actor (you'll see - and probably applaud) give Red Wolf the over the top feeling that really lets it work.

Thirdly, Kenny Ho might not be the best actor around, but he jumps into the action with abandon and (to compare to the movie's source) does not look like a geriatric hippopotamus.

Lastly, Elaine Lui makes a great sadistic first henchman, whose cure for heart attacks I'll keep in mind as an alternative to more conventional methods.

 

Friday, October 17, 2008

In short: My Friends Need Killing (1976)

Vietnam veteran Gene Kline (Greg Mullavy) is the victim of a heavy case of PTSD. It's not very surprising when you look at his complicity in a small massacre of civilians. One day he just snaps and starts to visit the old members of his platoon, killing one after the other.

 

My Friends Need Killing is - the beautifully exploitative title notwithstanding - more a piece of art house ambition than a typical exploitation movie.

Everything about the film - acting, direction, pacing - is raw, but relatively effective. What the film is missing most of the time is the typical grindhouse meanness, probably thanks to its very earnest wish to say something profound about the state of mind of its protagonist. Sometimes it even manages to do just that.

 

Thursday, October 16, 2008

In short: Horror Hot Line...Big Head Monster (2001)

Ben (Francis Ng) is the producer of a Hong Kong radio show that gives its listeners the opportunity to phone in and tell their own "true" urban ghost story.

Although Ben doesn't believe in the stories, the show is successful enough to warrant the visit of American reporter Mavis (Josie Ho) and her crew. It looks like Mavis is supposed to make Ben's show look bad, but when a strange call about an encounter with a "big head baby" comes in, and even stranger things start to happen around the production, her journalistic instincts set in and she and Ben start to look into things they had probably better ignored.

 

This grandly titled film is very atypical for Horror films from Hong Kong. There are no people puking up insects (actually no puking at all), no necrophilia, no cannibalism and not even a Buddhist exorcist. Instead the film tries its hand at the very un-Hong Kong notion of subtlety, even a little psychological depth, obviously influenced by Japanese films, but foregoing the mere rip-off for a strangely raw tone of its own (raw subtlety? Does this make any sense?).

We are never even getting a clear look at the titular monster, and when it's time for the finale, director Pou-Soi Cheang decides to steal from Blair Witch Project rather than Ringu.

The film should be a good choice for everyone who wants to see a different kind of Hong Kong Horror film.

 

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Chamber of Horrors (1966)

Baltimore around the turn of the century. We all know that those decadent Southerners from good families have their mental problems. Problems like Jason Cravette (Patrick O'Neal, giving a workmanlike Vincent Price impression) has, who first strangles his fiancé and then forces a priest to wed him to the corpse. Afterwards, it's off to a wedding night of corpse hair-fondling, the classic stand-in for necrophilia.

Jason is a madman, but he surely isn't a mad genius, so he holes up in one of the better brothels of the town, passing his time with dressing up a blonde prostitute who resembles his dead bride in a wedding gown and fondling the poor woman's hair while she has to play dead.

The police are as ineffectual as usual in films like this, so it is a pair of amateur detectives/house of wax owners (Cesare Danova - as bland as the younger hero is supposed to be & Wilfrid Hyde-White in his usual role) who track Cravette down.

The poor man is sentenced to death, but manages to escape; well, most of him does, he has to sacrifice his right hand to survive.

After a short stint in New Orleans where he acquires the sonic screwdriver of hook hands and an "adventuress" (Laura Devon) as a decoy, he returns to Baltimore and gives up on his old necrophiliac habits, instead opting for the more traditional business of vengeance. Will he be able to kill all those responsible for his death sentence? Will his decoy fall in love with the bland hero? Where will it all end?

 

Chamber of Horrors was initially the pilot episode of a TV mystery show, but the powers that be at Warner Brothers decided the whole thing was a tad too deviant to be shown on TV, and added a few things (including five seconds of Tony Curtis) for a cinematic run.

The best thing they added (sorry Tony) was the HORROR HORN, a visual and acoustic cue for the gullible viewer that is supposed to warn her of the four most terrifying moments of the movie. One might as well close one's eyes as the film recommends - it's not as if it showed anything after the HORROR HORN sounds one hadn't already seen before that. William Castle would have been proud.

William Castle is also an excellent reference point for the good-natured cabinet of horrors mood the film has. It's just a shame that director Hy Averbeck was such a typical TV director of his time, never showing an ounce of creativity when workman-like playing by the book sufficed. It is a little sad to imagine what someone a little more courageous could have done with the script.

This isn't to say it is a bad movie - the script moves along at a nice pace, and while it may be cliched it has a nice sense when to use those clichés for good effect. It also shows decidedly more sympathy for an "adventuress" like Marie than most films of its time would have done. Add this to the (sadly soon dropped) necrophilia of the villain and the quite ironic occupation of the heroes and you get a little more than you initially asked for.

In the first place, House of Horrors is just good old fashioned fun, and while I might lament what could have been done with a little more daring, I can't help but like the film as the entertaining mystery it is.

 

Monday, October 13, 2008

La Notte Dei Dannati (1971)

(This is based on a cut version of the Italian version of the film; the French version cut down on dialogue and added a lot of softcore lesbian footage; what is missing from the version of the film I have seen I do not know. I do know that this film cries out for a DVD.)

Jean Duprey (Pierre Brice) is a top-notch reporter specialized in weirder crime cases. When Prince Guillaume de la St. Laurent, an old, slightly eccentric friend (and who could blame someone with this name for being an eccentric?) of his writes him a barely understandable letter in which Jean also finds some coded hints leading to parts of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs Du Mal that don't explain the situation any better than the rest of the letter does, but all convey a certain mood of coming doom, the journalist is worried enough to grab his wife Danielle (Patrizia Viotti) and drive out to Guillaume's house for a visit. After all, the letter can be interpreted as an invitation.

Guillaume's "house" turns out to be the most classic gothic castle you will have found still standing in 1971, complete with plate mails and labyrinthine hallways to make Horace Walpole blush. The household also doesn't partake of the delights of electricity.

Guillaume himself does fit into his home nicely with his physical frailty and his vague babbling about a terrible truth that drives all male members of his family mad and then slowly into death once they have reached the age of 35. Instead of explaining to Jean right out what the hell is wrong and what said truth might be, the Prince prefers first mumbling something about the impossibility of believing it, then a falling into a kind of fit that nearly kills him.

Later Guillaume's wife Rita Lernod (Angelo De Leo) explains a little of her husband's troubles. He has been getting weaker and weirder day by day thanks to a psychopathic dementia that will soon kill him.

Jean is not satisfied with the explanation (since when do people die of psychic illnesses?), nor with the less than trustworthy looking doctor who tends to his friend but keeps his peace.

On their first night sleeping at the castle, Danielle has the first of what will become a series of nightmares. She finds herself as a witch being burned at the castle of the de la St. Laurents, just as it is depicted in a drawing on her and Jean's bedroom wall.

The next evening Jean has a second meeting with Guillaume, who still prefers to speak in riddles, only letting on that the library of the house contains the key to the truth. Guillaume also gives Jean his amethyst ring. Some days later, Jean will find out that the ring contains another of his friend's patented "coded messages that aren't helpful at all".

A little later, Guillaume dies and is nearly instantly buried in the family crypt in a ceremony of doubtful orthodoxy but inherent creepiness.

Danielle is quite happy that this means she'll finally get to leave the castle that feels "evil" to her. The night before their planned departure, she has an even stranger dream. A naked Rita presides on a throne over some more naked young women. A shadowy figure carries an unconscious (and of course equally naked) young woman onto a kind of slab. Rita gets closer to the slab and scratches her victim's chest with suddenly claw-like fingernails.

The next morning, a naked young woman is found dead in the vicinity of the castle. There are no discernible wounds on her body, except for the scratches on her chest...

In a twist no regular viewer of any kind of film will have seen coming, the local police ask super reporter Jean to stay at the castle to help them(!) in their investigation. Probably as surprised as we are, he agrees to the proposition. Rita is glad to have him and especially Danielle in the house a little longer, so Jean starts a long and rather circumcisious investigation that leads him to more dead women and the dreaded truth that drove his friend mad.

All the while, Danielle falls more and more under Rita's hypnotic power, helpfully providing more naked breasts and a little lesbian frisson.

As should be clear from the synopsis, neither a tight nor an original plot are strengths of La Notte Dei Dannati (which translates to "Night of the Damned", by the way); the film instead uses every cliché of gothic horror one could wish to see, without any irony to speak of. The exclusion of irony or humor is a very commendable directorial decision. Irony would have transferred the film from the realm of the dream into the realm of the ridiculous.

The castle interior is a little gothic dream, its lack of windows keeping even daylight scenes mostly illuminated by yellow candle light (and the set looking less like a set). The first scene back in the modern world comes as quite a shock - the castle is so much part of a nightmare that it makes the outside world seem unreal. Additionally, the passage of time as seen in the movie seems slightly skewed in a way more cynical people will interpret as a weakness of the script, but that does in fact only strengthen the irreality of everything happening in the castle until we can't be surprised by Danielle's difficulties in distinguishing between dream and reality.

Director Filippo Ratti was no Mario Bava and had probably even less money to work with than Bava usually did, but he artfully creates the kind of slow and -and I must repeat myself here - dreamlike mood one looks for in an Italian gothic, mostly leaving logic behind for atmosphere and getting away with it easily.

My only real gripe with the film is a certain lack of pay-off. The climax is quite weak, the banishing of the witch looks more like an afterthought than like a grand finale. I am tempted to say this is in keeping with the dream state of the whole narrative, but it's probably more based on lack of funds as well as ideas on the side of the producers.

Be that as it may, La Notte Dei Dannati is a very fine film that deserves to be rediscovered. It should satisfy every friend of gothic horror.

 

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mary Shelley Overdrive again

The talented, loud and garagey people of the quite wonderful band Mary Shelley Overdrive are at it again.

After giving away their last EP Hideous Sexy for free, they now present us with two more fine EPs (Shock Theatre & Bride of Shock Theatre) as free downloads.

You can find the download links on their web site.

When you're there already (and a bit better off than I am right now), you might as well think about buying their album.

 

In short: Moonchild (1974)

I'm not using this phrase all that often, so: What the hell did I just watch? It's the only film by a certain Alan Gadney, artfully photographed, lit and cut, but very confounding.

A young painter (Mark Travis, looking as puzzled as I must have), arrives at a mission that now is used as the strangest hotel not located in Twin Peaks or Japan. There he meets a bunch of strange people (including a fat and priestly Victor Buono and John "The Walker" Carradine). It seems he is caught in an endless cycle of repeating the same basic acts leading to his death over and over, since the time of the inquisition. That much of the plot is clearly discernible, but underlying it, every single character and every single act here is also highly symbolic of something having to do with the search for perfection in a mystical sense.

As far as I could discern, the symbolism is based on some part of the Western magic(k)al tradition, but not being Alan Moore, I barely understood half of it.

Still, it is a fascinating film: The acting is not bad, but so purposefully artificial and absurdly earnest even in the most ridiculous moments that it defies most concepts of good acting and arrives at a place only the most ruthlessly strange ever visit. The technically very proficient (if you ignore one boom mike smack in the middle of the picture), but highly weird (and of course symbolically overloaded) visuals do their best to make this one of the truthfully most trippy films I have ever seen.

Now, I can understand if someone finds the movie overwhelming and kind of irritating, but one thing it certainly isn't: boring.

 

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Vanguard (2008)

It's five years past doomsday somewhere in the English countryside. The attempt of "The Corporation" to kill three quarters of the world's population (to make the world a better place, of course) has badly backfired and instead created creatures called "Biosyns", basically the good old fast zombies. What is left of civilization is dominated by the Corporation and their brainwashed killer commandos.

Max (Ray Bullock, jr.) has been living alone in the wilderness for some years now, waiting for a man called Hareem Jabbar, who is supposed to help him find his way to a less lethal place without the Corporation or the Biosyns. Years of living completely alone and doing terrible things to survive, as well as fighting against the zombies have taken their toll on him. The competence with which he fights and survives seems to be based in barely controlled self-hate and rage.

Max's life is starting to change when a group of the Corporation's trackers is sent into his domain to neutralize him. They aren't the only survivors that he will meet, though. There are other people who want to get him to safety. If safety even exists...

 

Ah, the IMDb is still able to surprise me - not in a positive way of course. I just can't explain the negativity that place stinks of; the inability to take films for what they are is just puzzling.

User ratings and reviews there for The Vanguard are a great example of the kind of ignorance that turns the friendly guy next door into a hermit and the most self-controlled into a raving lunatic (Warning: I may be exaggerating, a little).

This film was obviously made for next to nothing, yet it still features surprisingly competent to really good acting, even without the mandatory incompetents in smaller roles. The ensemble carries the film in a way you seldom see in low budget films of this style.

The script makes a lot of a smattering of well-known pieces of post-apocalypse and zombie fiction, very conscious of the difficulty to make a film about the end of the world when the only location one can afford is a single patch of wood. Director/writer Matthew Hope avoids the pitfalls caused by this fact by letting his world building develop slowly, through bits and pieces and hints instead of too long expository dialogue. Sure, some of Max's off-screen monologue is bit flowery, but I'll take flowery over stupid any time.

Problematic for some could be the lack of much of a plot in the usual sense. Mood and characters are the points of interest here; it's about why characters are how they are and why they act like they act and less about the actions themselves. Which doesn't mean there's no action at all, there's just not much of a sense of outward progression that is part of a well plotted movies. Personally, I don't care all that much about plot, so I was fine with this point.

Visually, the film tries to create a sense of dynamics through much jittery camera movement and the use of the curse of film making in the digital age, filters. To my surprise, it succeeds most of the time - at least I never got nauseous or too annoyed.

I was also quite pleased with the Biosyns as a variation of the dreaded fast zombie as creatures more animals than walking corpses, something I don't think I've seen quite this way before.

So, if you can find a place in your heart for plot-deficient, character-heavy post-apocalyptic zombie films, I'd highly recommend this to you.

 

(Thanks to Lurple for pointing me into the direction of this movie.)

In short: Dr. Renault's Secret (1942)

Dr. Larry Forbes (Shepperd Strudwick - best name for the young male lead in a film of this kind I ever saw, to my chagrin billed as John Shepperd) has come to France to take his fiancé Madelon Renault (Lynne Roberts) back to the states with him to get married.

The first night he spends at an inn near the Renault's mansion, another traveling American is murdered there. The trouble is that the man was sleeping in a room that was supposed to be Larry's. It could be a coincidence, or someone could want to see Larry dead.

Dr. Renault (George Zucco) doesn't believe in such nonsense, but what would you expect from a man whose gardener is a convicted felon and whose servant Noel (J. Carrol Naish) is actually the product of Renault's experiments in transmutation - a gorilla who now is neither man nor beast?
Noel is completely infatuated with Madelon, which is no surprise since she is the only one who treats him with any decency; Dr. Renault being just too mad to be human in any way.

"Oh, who might be the killer?" he asked with a puzzled expression.

 

Dr. Renault's Secret was produced by Fox's b-division, compared to Poverty Row productions however it looks absolutely lavish. The script is technically a lot sounder than you'd see on Poverty Row, the higher budget does away with the need to stretch the running time with the help of much pointless dialogue. Instead, the film can afford something amounting to action.

Still, I can't help to think a Poverty Row film would be a lot more fun to watch. This movie's script might be comparatively tight, yet it is also lacking a certain amount of madness. That's the problem with solid craft - it seldom is as interesting as great craft or as surprising as amateur efforts can be.

The same can be said for Harry Lachman's direction. It's very competent but mostly lacking spark or fantasy.

The acting however makes the film worth watching anyway. Zucco is of course a wonderful mad scientist, even if his madness is a lot more low-key than we are used from him. The real star of the film is Naish who makes the ape-turned-man Noel a more tragic and much more believable character than he has any right to be. The apeman make-up here for once is rather effective as well, avoiding most of the silliness inherent in the concept.

 

In short: The Devil Has Seven Faces (1971)

For some reason she isn't aware of, Julie Harrison (Carroll Baker), an American living in Holland, is suddenly shadowed by, later even threatened by a bunch of gangsters and mysterious strangers from the home country. It seems her twin sister Mary was involved in a diamond robbery and made off with the booty. Her former partners now think Julie to be her sister and won't stop from anything to get it.

Fortunately, Julie can rely on the help of her lawyer Dave Barton (Stephen Boyd) who is infatuated with her and his friend Tony Shane (George Hilton), whom she promptly falls in love with. But is it possible that one or both of the men have other motives for their actions than their macho libidos? And what about the insurance investigator Steve Hunter (Luciano Pigozzi)?

 

The Devil Has Seven Faces is an entertaining if neither original nor aesthetically thrilling giallo of the apolitical criminal conspiracy sub-type. If you have seen a few of these films, you'll probably know how it will all end and which character has what secret just by my short plot synopsis and the actors playing them (come on, it's George Hilton!). But Osvaldo Civirani's direction moves at a nice pace and the main actors are all quite impressive in the same roles they are playing so often, so the film provides a nice enough time without delving into any of the depths other giallos explore or reaching the visual heights of films by Bava, Argento or Martino.

Additionally, the friend of Seventies fashion can find some fine examples of the work of colorblind designers in Baker's costumes, as well as some of the most atrocious wigs I ever had the dubious pleasure to see.

 

The Mountains Goats

aka John Darnielle, not satisfied with producing one of the records of the year, have just made their new EP Satanic Messiah freely available for download (of course with the possibility to donate a little money for the effort).

There's really no reason not to grab it here!

 

Thursday, October 9, 2008

In short: Confessions of a Psycho Cat (1968)

Virginia Marcus (Eileen Lord, jumping into her role with the uncontrollable enthusiasm of one of those mythical American pill-popping housewives one hears so much about) is a wee bit mad. How mad she really is, not even her psychiatrist does realize. Which fits her plans nicely. She invents her own private game of urban safari, promising three dubious characters (a junkie, an aging actor and Jake LaMotta himself) one hundred thousand dollars each if they are able to survive being hunted for twenty-four hours.

Most of the plot is told by the junkie character at the kind of party nobody ever bothers to invite me to, so copious amounts of softcore nudity are guaranteed.

Confessions is amateurish in every way - the acting is mostly atrocious, the direction dubious and unschooled, the script all over the place. Of course these are not necessarily faults in the wonderful world of exploitation. It is true, the acting is bad, very very bad, but especially Lord is bad in all the good ways (See her screaming! See her making mad googly eyes! See her laugh maniacally!) and LaMotta at least has presence.

Director Herb Stanley certainly never heard about the rules of filmmaking, but he has a handcamera and by god, he is going to use it, sometimes to wonderful effect and sometimes mindnumbingly idiotic.

And it's hard to criticize a script that contains a scene in which Jake LaMotta fights a woman in a torero costume. Like a raging bull.

The Most Dangerous Game can be proud of its progeny.

 

Knight Errant (1973)

This is a typical Jimmy Wang Yu feature after his stint with the Shaw Brothers.

Jimmy earns his money as a taxi driver, but has the sad tendency to always get into trouble he can only get out of using his kung fu. Since Taiwan seems to have very strange laws concerning things like self defense, he always ends up paying the hospital bills of the guys he's knocking out, even of the gangsters who tried to rape his girlfriend. Soon a problem appears that he can't make go away by hitting it and he learns a few important things about the morality of violence. Oh, no, wait. It's a Jimmy Wang Yu movie, so of course a problem appears that he solves by hitting, kicking and killing a few people.

Jimmy's father was working as an aide to a Japanese officer during the Japanese occupation, but secretly helped the resistance against them. After he made the escape of an important spy possible, the officer committed suicide, as did the officer's wife some time later. Their three sons were brought up by their grandmother, who trained them in the martial arts to take revenge on Jimmy's father.

Now the three come to Taiwan to kill their victim and - since it is a Jimmy Wang Yu movie and in Jimmy's little world all Japanese people are incredibly evil - his whole family.

Although they develop some devious plans, some of them involving a saw and Jimmy's blind sister, they aren't successful at all. Instead, Jimmy slaughters them all mercilessly.

Granny of course won't let the matter rest that easily and makes a final assault.

There's not a lot to say about Knight Errant. As in many of JWY's films the direction has a lot of sloppy moments and some inspired ones. The same goes for the fight choreography and acting. Unfortunately the sloppiness this time overwhelms most of the inspired moments as thoroughly as Jimmy does with his victims enemies, leading to a film I can't help but call a little boring.

It doesn't help the entertainment value of the film that there is not much of the madness on display that makes a lot of our hero's movies endearing in spite of themselves; there are no flying guillotines, no Yoga fighters with telescopic arms nor any midgets on display. Even the theoretically nastier moments of violence are somewhat subdued.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Book Report: Bill Landis & Michelle Clifford, Sleazoid Express

A very fine book about diverse exploitation genres and sub-genres as seen in the New York grindhouse cinemas around 42nd Street. It gives off a compelling "we were there" vibe, and, as long as they are talking about American films, the authors know their Ted V. Mikels from their Mike Findlays.

Problematic are the two chapters on Eurosleaze and Asian cinema. The viewpoint fixed on films that played the classic grindhouses is great when the authors are talking about American filmmakers from New York or Los Angeles, but when they start talking about Japanese cinema or Jess Franco, they sound like provincials nearly flattened by the glories of the Big City. Those two chapters are also full of highly annoying factual errors that could have been avoided by the magic power of Google.

Fortunately the rest of the book makes up for these faults, resulting in a fine and impassioned introduction to the wonderful world of exploitation.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

In short: The Last Hunter (1980)

Look here, future American presidents: Even Italian war exploitation movies are telling you that war is bad.

Antonio Margheriti and Dardano Sacchetti probably saw Apocalypse Now a few times before making The Last Hunter. The basic rhythm of both films has quite a few similarities and both films are not telling us that war (in this case the Vietnam war) is hell, but that war is madness.

Of course, the Italian film does this in a much cheaper way (I am sure I must have heard parts of the music one or two times before) as well as with much more dubious motives.

Captain Henry Morris (David Warbeck, displaying just the right amount of cynicism) is ordered to destroy a highly effective Northern Vietnamese propaganda radio station. On his way there he meets a lot of mad or half-mad people, hooks up with the war journalist Jane Foster (Tisa Farrow, looking terribly under the weather), enters an American outpost commanded by John Steiner, who amuses himself with playing recorded gunshots and explosions as his beloved music, shoots a lot of people, is tortured etc etc. Also, there are lots of explosions (many of which you can meet again in later Margheriti films. I can't blame the man - they are nice explosions.).

What makes the film surprisingly effective as a variation on its rather surrealist predecessor is Margheriti's assured direction. As I might have said about him before, the man knew how to use a meager budget to produce a rather expensive looking film.

I'm always fascinated by the way Margheriti can get away with the depiction of as much nastiness and depravity in his films as other Italian directors without looking like a cynical madman. The trick lies in the humanity of his gaze, I think. The camera may linger on many things a lot longer than one should be comfortable with, yet Margheriti often uses this to give the victims of violence at least a basic human dignity. In this sense, his films feel like a humanist counterpart to the nihilism of Ruggero Deodato or Umberto Lenzi.

His merry gang of constant collaborators helps a lot with humanizing the film, too. The script doesn't care for the kind of psychological depth that pleases the jury at Cannes, but still gives the actors enough to work with to create a certain amount of human depth. People like Warbeck, Farrow, Steiner and Pigozzi (aka Alan Collins) are able enough actors to make the best of what they get when in the hands of a director who cares at least somewhat about their performances.

 

Monday, October 6, 2008

Lovecraft is Missing

is a new HPL-inspired web comic. It just started, so there aren't too many pages up, but what is there does look promising indeed.

See for yourself!

 

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Alice, Sweet Alice aka Communion (1976)

Alice Spages (Paula Sheppard) is a very disturbed girl. That's not very surprising when you look at her surroundings - her family and neighbors are part freak show, part bad melodrama. There's her little sister Karen (Brooke Shields), one of those children who reign over their parents in a dictatorship of crushing sweetness. Their mother Catherine (Linda Miller) is not immune to Karen's influence, and treats Alice with in turns hotness and coldness, all the while trying gamely to ignore the psychic damage her child has already suffered. The father Dom (Niles McMaster) is usually absent; he has a wife to take care of. Alice's aunt Annie (Jane Lowry) hates the girl with a passion and uses every opportunity to demean her, very much like a human harpy - a harpy out of love, of course, or so she tells her sister (who sides with her over her daughter in any case).

Also part of this fine gathering of human specimens are the Spages' ridiculously overweight, child-groping landlord (Alphonso DeNoble); Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich), the local Catholic priest who seems a little too close to Catherine for someone living celibate, but is also by far the least fucked up person around; and Father Tom's housekeeper Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton) whose photograph you'll see when you look up "mean-spirited bigot" in your encyclopedia of choice. I could make this list even longer, but I think you get the gist.

On the day of her first communion, Karen is murdered by someone wearing a yellow raincoat and a mask - the same kind of raincoat and mask Alice likes to wear when she's out playing one of her more disturbing games.

After Annie is also attacked and her nice auntie identifies her niece as her attacker, the police concentrate on blaming the deeds on Alice. The girl herself swears that she's innocent and that the real perpetrator is her dead sister.

Her mother and the quickly arriving father don't know what to believe, but they are sure that their daughter hasn't killed her sister. Dom turns to the ways of the amateur sleuth to find the true killer while the body count mounts.

 

Alice, Sweet Alice is a strange and quite unique piece of work. A mix of sometimes hysterically overacted melodrama, American hyper-realism and the hypnotic trance state of the (anti-Catholic/anti-authoritarian representatives of the) Giallo shouldn't produce a watchable movie, least of all a very good (if weird) one. Nonetheless it does that here. The film's director Alfred Sole shows a fine sense for storytelling through visual moods. His camera is always on the look-out for the creepy and the ambiguous in the ordinary.

I already mentioned the hysterically melodramatic tone most of the actors reach for on the slightest provocation, but their quite purposeful overacting makes for a very effective contrast to the many subtle touches and moments of the film. The hysteria makes the wrongness of certain subdued gestures more obvious than it would otherwise be. A dialogue about the truthfulness of any reaction seems to be going on right under the skin of the movie. All characters here are hiding their lies, probably even from themselves, some behind screaming and some behind silence. Alice is the ideal screen for everyone's projections, leaving behind a twisted and creepy little girl - her guilt or innocence don't matter here at all.

Alice Sweet Alice shows an interesting direction the American horror film could have taken. Not a real genre anymore, but a crossroads where other genres meet to look under the skin of society (or, if you're so inclined, the world); perhaps like David Lynch without his love for the enigmatic or Brian DePalma without his egocentrism.

 

Saturday, October 4, 2008

If someone wants

a Beta access key to the new Good Old Games digital distribution site for older games, I have one on offer.

GOG concentrates on older games, low prices and no DRM. The selection isn't all that big (believe it or not, many major publishers won't even sell their five years or more old games without DRM shackles, as if anyone who wanted to copy these games wouldn't already have done so), but there are some real classics for very little money on offer, as well as great support.

The first commenter who wants the key shall get it.

 

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Frankenstein Conquers The World aka Frankenstein vs. Baragon (1965)

This review concerns itself with the "International Version" of the film, complete with gloriously non-sensical ending added for us Internationals. (Also: Wow, there are a lot of bad plot summaries for this film out there).

It's the year 1945, shortly before the end of the war in Europe. A group of Nazi soldiers storms into the lab of a mad looking scientist, takes away a metal case and storms out again. The doctor, a certain Dr. Liefendorf (Peter Mann), uses his immense scenery chewing talent to silently emote either great anguish or a very bad case of constipation - we will probably never know.

A German U-boat transports the doctor's metal case to Hiroshima, where another quite mad looking scientist opens it and presents a beating heart inside a tasty looking nutritional fluid. He explains to a small group of other scientists and assorted on-lookers that this is in fact Frankenstein's (it should be Frankenstein's monster, goddammit!) heart, indestructibly beating on and on and on. So it's a perfect starting point for his ambition to create a super soldier who will be impervious to bullets! Before he can even cackle evilly (actually, he's a humanitarian who wants to lower the number of people killed in wars), the Bomb drops.

Fifteen years later, the American scientist Dr. Bowen (Nick Adams, for some reason completely unable to move even one of his facial muscles) works together with his colleagues, the kind-hearted (aka female in a kaiju) Dr. Togami (Kumi Mizuo) and the less kind-hearted Dr. Kawaji (Tadao Takashima) on some experimental radiation magical science thingies to cure radiated people (cancer patients?).

Their project isn't going too well, but that is going to change very soon. There is a strange orphan boy (Kenichiro Kawaji) roaming the town, you see, who steals to survive (when Dr. Togami isn't throwing food at him from her balcony), leaves dismembered rabbits in schools and seems oddly impervious to damage.

When Bowen and Togami are strolling around on the beach, they observe the strange boy getting arrested by the police. After a short look at him, they realize fast that the boy's place isn't in an orphanage, but in the hands of SCIENCE!

As it turns out they are right about that. The boy does look quite freakish, just like Frankenstein's monster as played by Boris Karloff seen by a one-eyed drunk for five seconds and then described ten years later to the make-up artist of the film, who proceeded to cross poor Boris with a Neanderthal. Obviously, the poor guy can't speak either.

The boy's other peculiarities are stranger still: He feels no pain and has an in-built resistance against radiation (how the scientists find that one out, the film never outright tells us, but I suspect they just radiate him). Oh, and now that he's well fed he's growing at an impossible rate.

Next time we see him, he has already grown to the size of one and a half Nick Adamses, yet is still unable to speak. Instead, his anger management problem becomes clear when he criticizes the TV schedule by throwing a TV out of the window. Dr. Togami is the only one who is able to calm him down, which could have something to do with the fact that she's not hitting him with a chair like Dr. Bowen, and instead talks him down.

After the TV and chair accident, the humanitarian scientists decide that it's best to chain him into a cell in the basement of the clinic building (and may I just ask what a clinic specialized in radiation needs a cell for), at least until they have built him a larger and more comfortable cage. The clinic management's idea to just put him into a zoo instead doesn't go over too well with Dr. Kawaji. He doesn't think this is the way a human being should be treated (while shackling a human being in a cellar is perfectly alright).

Since their monster is a media celebrity anyway, the scientific three decide to call upon the public to find out where the hell their lab rat came from. Their plan is met with a certain amount of success, when a Mr. Kawai (Yoshio Tsuchiya) connects stories about a child who was often seen playing alone in the ruins of the research lab we already know from 1945 with his own knowledge (he was one of the Japanese mad scientists breathless admirers) of Frankenstein's heart.

The boy must of course be Frankenstein, regrown from his heart! This does not sound the slightest bit mad to the intrepid searchers after scientific truth, so Dr. Kawaji flies to Germany and meets with the German mad scientist, who of course confirms the story with again much enthusiastic over-acting. He also explains that the only way to make sure about the wonder boy's identity is to cut off an arm or leg of the boy and to wait and see if it regrows. If it does, he is Frankenstein. Even better: The cut-off body part should be able to survive on its own.

While all this is going on, an earthquake hits an oil field back in Japan, waking terrible but cute monster Baragon, who shows us his blinking horn for a second (more about the glories of Baragon later).

When Kawaji returns home, he and the others discuss the German madman's idea. Kawaji comes out in favor of science through mutilation - after all, it's not a real human they're going to mutilate, while Togami (who is obviously the only even slightly morally responsible person in the whole film) declines. Bowen just doesn't know and doesn't want to make this kind of decision in a rush.

But Kawaji really likes a little mutilation in the evening and so he sneaks to Frankenstein's cell to do the deed. While he's still trying to find courage in a drink (yes, he brought the bottle - and a glass! - with him to the "operation"), a bunch of TV people suddenly arrives, sets up cameras and spotlights...and enrages the poor monster so much that it breaks free (if losing a hand in the course of the break-out) and goes on a small rampage.

During that rampage, two of the TV camera men get crushed by debris, but really, it's their own fault.

Nonetheless the Japanese Defense Force is now out to kill him.

Frankenstein himself is a lot more clever than he looks, so he flees into the mountains (which, as our scientist buddies inform us, is as cold as his home in Frankfurt. Whatever they mean by that.), only coming down to pillage villages for food without harming a single human.

All the while, the scientists are trying to convince the public and the government that Frankenstein is relatively harmless and that the best solution to the situation would be to let the monster find a place to settle down and there feed him. (Usually after they just have uttered something like, "kill him if you must, but we as scientists would very much want him to live. Or not.") They are also trying to keep the crawling Frankenstein hand they found in the debris alive, but are just a little too stupid to do it.

The peaceful idea isn't very popular when Baragon suddenly appears in the mountains, too, breaking through the Earth's crust outward to devastate villages and eat all inhabitants. Yes, Baragon would be a fearsome beast if not for its inherent cuteness: Just try to imagine a gigantic, but slighter armadillo-dinosaur with the digging abilities of a mole and with big funny eyes, a blinking horn smack in the middle of its face and large, moving ears that look like batwings. Kawaii!!!!

The public of course believes Frankenstein to be the people-eater (non-purple).

Fortunately Mister Kawai again appears bearing useful information - he saw Baragon when the earthquake happened, he just thought he had an hallucination. Sure, Frankenstein's monster regrowing from its heart - no problem. Giant monster? Nah, must be a hallucination.

The trouble is that no one believes the newest story of the eminent scientists about some big reptile from the Inner Earth causing havoc, so the army is still hunting for Frankenstein.

At least our sort-of heroes are able to find Frankenstein's hiding place before anyone else does; it's just sad that Kawaji has again changed his mind and is now planning to blind the monster and cut out a few pieces for further research. If the others need their big baby so much, they can just grow a new one.

As luck will have it, Kawaji's soon thrown flashbang is not blinding Frankenstein. Rather, it disturbs Baragon's peaceful slumber and makes the poor dear mightily mad (but oh so cute in its rage). Kawaji is in luck though, because suddenly Frankenstein, now clad in a gigantic fur get-up (and no, I don't know where he found the kaiju bear he must have killed for it) attacks Baragon and even saves his would-be mutilator's life.

After an inconclusive first round, the battle continues in the closest village and by a nearby lake, until Frankenstein finally proves the superiority of tool-usage (alright, tree-usage) over cuteness.

Instead of ending it here, the International distributor of the film had a burning wish that Toho just had to fulfill...

So suddenly, as Frankenstein is still cheering his victory, a giant octopus suddenly appears and drags him down into the lake. The End. No, no one asks the question why there is a giant octopus in the lake. Or why he jumps onto land and attacks Frankenstein. Or is at least a little concerned about this new giant plague. Oh well.

 

There is so much wrong with this film I hardly know where to start. It's probably best if I say right now that a lot that is wrong with it is wrong in the most delightful way.

Yes, the plot - as you have witnessed - does not make a lot of sense, but I don't think it is trying to. There's just no other explanation for the nonchalance with which the heroes of the piece (and yes, Kawaji is supposed to be a hero, I think; at least he is never really criticized as the mad scientist in training he is) change their opinions without the slightest provocation, just to change it again very soon after, or for the most obvious of plot holes. Nick Adams, to just give one further example, is somehow able to know the subject matter of phone calls he isn't participating in.

There is also no rational explanation for Nick Adams, whose bizarre presence I already tried to describe.

But there is so much else to love! Baragon, the master of evil cuteness! The silly but neat looking Big Frankenstein! A giant monster smack-down! A solidly rousing score by Ifukube! Model-work ranging from the delightful to the abominable, both loveable in their way and hard to beat in combination! And of course Ishiro Honda's direction that keeps the film moving at a crisp pace that makes the silliness a lot more fun!

One can of course lament the traces of depth and intelligence that get lost in the noise of falling buildings and stomping monsters, but not every film about a giant monster has to be a meditation on the Bomb (especially when the first Gojira, of course also by Honda, has already done that job admirably); sometimes a monster is allowed to be just a monster.