Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In short! Psycho Shark (2009)!

See Japanese gravure idols on a beach holiday! Watch them film each other with the shakiest hand-held camera that ever zoomed in on a pair of breasts! And another one and so on! Get a headache! Hear them shout things like "booby squeeze" and "sexy pose"! Watch them shower while wearing bikinis! Try to adjust your standards! Remember you always thought you didn't have any! Have an existential crisis!

Watch the girls watch another shaky videotape with bikini models on vacation! Enjoy the meta while your headache gets worse! Applaud the models' use of the fast forward button! Stare at a two person beach party! Have some more bikini showering with traumatic flashbacks! Or something! Listen to senseless blabbering! Doubt that you're up to watching this thing all the way through! Get another existential crisis! Miss out on more breast-zooming because you're crying! Rejoice at the words "the tape is almost out"! Look at those shark hunter feet and legs that won't be important later on! Decide that this might be directed by a Japanese Doris Wishman! Watch the awesome first murder as represented by some bubbles underwater and half a glass of cherry syrup! Mentally apologize to Ms Wishman!

Think about how short life is! Cry again! Be surprised by a sudden, moody four second shot of a shadowy guy standing in the ocean by night! Start to hope for a wereshark! Get the next pair of breasts thrown into your face a second later! Thrill to the astonishing shark attack dream sequence! Stare at that dark screen for a few seconds! Be glad about the respite from all the excitement! Watch a shakily shot psycho murder! Hope for more feet! Try to ignore the film's attempt at suddenly having a twisty plot! Succeed admirably! Brew yourself a nice cup of tea! Return and find yourself confronted with the best breast physic in volleyball videogames and some not entirely breast-related slow-motion! Try to ignore the film's permanent repetition of the same handful of scenes! Fail, as the film does at being a horror movie or a softcore concoction! Wonder about a flying digital mega shark even The Asylum would be ashamed of! Puzzle why this crap gets licensed while actual films are languishing in limbo! Oh bondage up yours!


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)

Square-jawed reporter Clark Kent (George Reeves) and his partner Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) come to the small American town of Silsby to have a look at the deepest-drilling oil well in human history.

It seems as if the reporters have come in vain, though. For some mysterious reason, the boss of the drilling project (Walter Reed) has closed down all drilling operations, and that just after the drill has poked into the hollowness at the Earth's centre. At first, Bill Corrigan, as the bossman is called, only explains his reasoning vaguely with a report to the head office he had to make. There's nothing else forthcoming from the man, at least until after the elderly night-watchman of the drilling operation dies from a heart attack caused by something terrible he has seen. Or so the film explains. I suspect the truth is quite different and the pair of midgets dressed up in furry suits with bad bald wigs who have crawled out of the centre of the Earth he sees have caused the old man's death by inducing a deadly attack of laughter.

After the watchman's death from ridiculousness, Corrigan becomes a lot more forthcoming towards Clark, telling him of the mysterious phosphorescence he found once the drill went deeper. This being the 1950s and all, any glowing stuff can only be explained as radioactive matter.

So the new guests on the surface of the Earth aren't just frightening/hilarious to behold, but also potentially deadly carriers of radioactivity for anyone coming into contact with them. It's fortunate that they only seem to have come to look around a bit and just didn't count on the surface natives getting as easily riled up as the examples in Silsby. Soon, there's a well-armed, angry mob out for innocent mole-men blood, and only Clark Kent's other identity, the insufferably smug Superman, can protect them.

Lee Sholem's Superman and the Mole-Men is a bit of a dry-run for George Reeves' stint as Superman that would begin about a year later in the TV show The Adventures of Superman, and the film's interpretation of Clark Kent and Superman are basically identical to those in the show (at least as much as I've seen of it). Officially, Clark is defined as mild-mannered, but in practice he's as unpleasant a know-it-all as every male lead in a film from the 50s ever, just with the added surprise that he seems to be quite competent in his job as a reporter. In fact, Kent the reporter seems to be much better at his job than he is at being Superman. In the latter position, he prefers looking superior and talking down to people to diffusing problems before they come to a crisis point. That "Superman is a dick" meme fits Golden Age Superman here just as well as it does the Silver Age variation.

Ideologically, Supes and the Mole-Men isn't as unpleasant as one would fear. Most of the film plays out as a slightly silly appeal for not shooting people just because they are different (or furries), which isn't something genre cinema of this (or really any) era is exactly full of. Of course, if you read the film as an allegory of the "race question" in the US of the time as some people like to do, the film's ending can easily be interpreted as approving of the rather less pleasant notion of segregation. Or I might just be over-interpreting what is a cheap little B-movie that aims to entertain its kid audience and teach it a valuable lesson about being nice to each other.

I don't know about the teenage audience of the film's time, but I was entertained enough, if not always in the ways Sholem probably intended. The film's budget was obviously very low, so the unavoidable flight sequences are realized by a camera filming the moving ground (super-groin-cam?) while the rest of our smug hero's effects-heavy superpowers are just ignored. And I already explained about the terrifying mole-men.

There really isn't much exciting to look at on screen. Sholem's direction is of the usual point and shoot style and doesn't show any memorable ideas or any variety, but at least the director keeps the film's pace fast and filler-free and shows as much solid competence as you can hope for in this sort of film.

Superman and the Mole-Men is certainly a disappointing film for an audience expecting the blue Boy Scout in some sort of grand cosmic adventure, or hoping to witness a plot as weird as those in his Silver Age comics, but if you can accept its limitations, it's a perfectly fine little film.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Three Films Make A Post: The First Monster Musical!

Darkside Blues (1994): Surely, you can't go wrong with an anime based on a manga written by Hideyuki Kikuchi, the guy who wrote the novels Vampire Hunter D and Wicked City are based on? Turns out that you really can't, at least in this particular case.

Although its plot is rather distractible and opaque, and it is prone to revolutionary kitsch, this anime concerning the emotional and political awakening of some inhabitants of Shinjuku, or to be more precise, Kabukicho, one of the last places on Earth not bought out by an evil multi-national corporation who now lords over its realm as a semi-benevolent dictatorship, is really quite something. It's filled to the brim with wonderfully bizarre details even in the least important corners of its universe, and it tends to do quite clever things with its details when you'd least expect it.

It's probably a bit too full of ideas and characters. There's enough fascinating stuff in Darkside Blues to fill one or two full seasons of an anime TV show, so it is at times actual work for a viewer to unpack everything that's going on. Not that I mind when a movie accepts that its audience doesn't consist only of people unable to use their brains.

Zeiram 2 (1994): Evil space thing Zeiram returns to Earth in a new, less impressive body for a rematch against galactic bounty hunter Iria (Yuko Moriyama) and her electrician friends (Yokijiro Hotaru and Kunihiro Ida). After some back and forth, everyone ends up in a parallel universe again, and a bit of fighting ensues.

Sounds exactly like the first movie, but plays out in a much less entertaining fashion. One reason for it is the rather draggy pacing of the whole affair. The annoying humour to Iria fighting a guy in a rubber suit ratio is skewed in the wrong direction. Even Amemiya's monster design is just not as good as it was in the first movie. There are still moments when the film becomes excellent silly fun (just watch Iria go all Mary Poppins on us!), and the last twenty minutes are pretty swell, but Zeiram 2 contains just too much unnecessary baggage to come close to its predecessor.

Genocyber (1993): There is a reason why the name Koichi Ohata strikes fear into the hearts of even the more hardened friends of anime from the 80s and 90s, and that reason is M.D. Geist, possibly one of the worst examples of the form ever made - and if you know worse ones, please don't tell me. Ohata's later attempt at lobotomy through anime, Genocyber, is not much better than his anti-classic. Throw a bunch of ideas "borrowed" from a dozen better anime into a pot, add footage of children dying in sprays of gore, and heat it with the help of random, confused storytelling, and voila, you have cooked yourself some Genocyber! I have to admit that some of the bio-mecha-demon transformations are somewhat awesome, but nothing would be awesome enough to slog through the rest of this crap.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

In short: Cyber City Oedo 808 OVA 1-3 (1990)

Japan in a far, cyberpunk-y future as it could only have been imagined in the early 1990s. Three hardened cyber criminals - the badass, madly pompadour-ed and ponytailed Sengoku, the badass hacker and wearer of Geordie LaForge's old eye visor Gogol/Goggles, and the badass gender bending hair-metal-hair-favouring melee expert and Goth in spirit Benten - are roped into the service of the Cyber Police to hunt other cyber criminals. For every caught ex-colleague, they'll lose a few years of their original sentences of several hundred years in prison.

Which would be an okay deal, if our reluctant heroes wouldn't have to wear some of those darn explosive collars around their necks and wouldn't have to work under the secretive (possibly cyber and badass, too) Hasegawa. Hasegawa for his part seems to like nothing more than to set their collars on random countdowns during which they have to solve their cases.

In a bit of structural cleverness, each of the episodes concentrates on one of the three cyber policemen and relegates the other two to supporting roles.

In the first episode, Sengoku and his colleagues have to deal with a very peculiar hostage situation caused by a hacker (or is it a ghost?) in one of Oedo's space scrapers. Mild carnage, manly behaviour and angry ranting about morality ensues.

The second episode finds Gogol (who is not only a badass cyber whatever, but also a lover of Russian literature; probably "Dead Souls") the victim of a rather complicated (cyber?) conspiracy whose goal it is to use him as the final test object for a new-fangled military police cyborg (made out of mutilated dead bodies and metal) and to let the military replace the Cyber Police. Heavy carnage, manly behaviour and intense badassness ensues.

The third and - alas - final episode concerns Benten's investigation (he's the only one of the three who actually seems to investigate his cases) into what looks like vampire attacks on rogue bio scientists. A very mean old capitalist also makes an appearance. Heavy carnage, manly behaviour and melodramatic gothy vampire stuff ensues.

Although I think that the some of the "Cyber City Oedo 808 is the best cyberpunk anime ever!" talk on the 'net is a bit of an exaggeration (*cough* Mamoru Oshii *cough*), I can't say these three OVAs aren't very entertaining pieces of anime. That doesn't come as a surprise from films directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Wicked City, Ninja Scroll, and so on), a man who seems unable to make boring films, or dumb films that are dumber than strictly necessary.

If you're like me and have come to Kawajiri mostly through his more sleazy output, you'll be shocked to hear that Cyber City does not contain any nudity at all, and can in fact hardly even be called sleazy. The first episode also lacks some of the director's trademark visual grotesquerie (although the nature of the episode's antagonist will turn out to be quite grotesque). Fortunately, his trademark violence is still on board. The second and third episode do a visually much more interesting job at crossing cyberpunk with horror elements; the third even manages a visually impressive take on vampires.

While Kawajiri hits all the required beats of fight movies, he also manages to squeeze some interesting ideas and even a bit of characterization into the anime. The military cyborg and the vampire (and to a lesser degree even Sengoku's enemy) are cool things for the characters to fight, but are also used to reflect their inner lives. It's not really deep stuff, but makes the carnage more interesting because there seems to be something more at stake for the characters than just conquering bad guys.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Monster Dog (1984)

Original title: Leviatan

Rock star Vince Raven (a two-hundred years old looking Alice Cooper), his girlfriend Sandra (Victoria Vera) and a van load of fodder are on their way to Raven's old family mansion to shoot a new video for one of the singer's songs there, the last one being "shit". Not surprisingly, given that this is a film directed by Claudio Fragasso, the audience has the fortune to see that clip two times during the course of the movie. It is indeed shit.

Anyway, Raven's return home after an absence of more than twenty years comes at a somewhat inopportune time. People in the area have been attacked by a pack of roaming wild dogs that act surprisingly intelligent, and are accordingly nervous. Even before the singer and his gang have arrived at the house, they have already encountered a police roadblock (which is what the inhabitants of planet Fragasso consider to be an ideal defence against dogs, animals known to always travel by road), have run over a dog, and have met an older guy in bloodied clothes muttering the mandatory "you are all going to die, but I'm not giving out any useful details" warnings. Raven and Sandra also see a creature that does not look like a dog as we know it at all, but like a werewolf.

When the meat finally arrive at the house, the fun really begins. The caretaker is missing, the mandatory psychic among the group has a bad feeling and later an extensive nightmare about Raven being a werewolf and killing everyone - how could things get any worse?

Well, the next day, the caretaker's corpse is somehow thrown through a window that's rather high up in the mansion's wall, for one. Then, the local group of psychopathic werewolf hunters arrives, planning to kill the singer as a werewolf as they did with his father before him, the fact that the murders were already happening before Raven arrived in town notwithstanding.

And that's only what happens before the dog pack and their supernatural leader attacks.

Say what you will about the movies of Claudio Fragasso (for example that they are shoddy and stupid beyond belief), but don't pretend they are not designed to be as entertaining as possible just by virtue of stuffing as much stuff that was exciting in other movies Fragasso vaguely remembers into a ninety minutes running time. Monster Dog seems out to prove my case here.

Nothing that happens is any good in a traditional view of the art of filmmaking, of course, but what the film lacks in quality, it sure tries to make up for in the sheer quantity of silly crap. Seen from this angle, the film is something of a mother lode of the crazy, even though it does not show Fragasso at his most insane. But when someone's most insane is Troll 2, even his third most insane is pretty mad.

The greatest strength of Monster Dog lies in the absurdity and sheer stupidity of most of its details. And boy, does Fragasso love to put a lot of needless yet stupid details into his movies. There's not only no good reason to, say, have the dead caretaker crash through an upper window that should be quite unreachable from the outside, it's an idea so actively nonsensical I can't help but admire Fragasso for not only having it but putting it on screen without any explanation. We can only assume that the werewolf/monster dog is either really, really good at throwing full grown men or is some sort of spider dog scuttling around house facades like Peter Parker. Excitingly enough, this is only one example among dozens, one of them as awe-inspiringly stupid as the next. Did you, by the way, know that lycanthropy is a heart disease?

If the overabundance of stupid details isn't enough to make a viewer happy, she can further delight in moments of Very Bad Acting, Alice Cooper staring sinisterly right into the camera, Very Bad Special Effects (though Fragasso mostly tries to avoid showing us too much of Monster Dog), and lots of scenes of people acting like utter fools, even for horror movie characters. Yes, sure, let's invite the armed, not the least bit suspicious men in; they say they know Vince after all, while leering suspiciously. Yes, let's leave the screeching, traumatized woman alone with the mutilated corpse. And so on.

It's all enough to make a boy dizzy with admiration for Fragasso's very special art.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

In short: The Expendables (2010)

The CIA (in a short scene that also includes a rather stupid cameo by that Schwarzenegger guy) embodied by cameo-Bruce Willis hires a not completely morally bankrupt group of mercenaries lead by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and spiritually mentored by a biker/tattooist/ex-mercenary (improvised by the curious mixture of decay and off-beat charisma that today is Mickey Rourke) to assassinate a South American dictator (David Zayas). But before the troop is really in, Barney and his right-hand man Christmas (everyone's except my favourite Hollywood action movie Brit of the last few years Jason Statham - and my problem isn't so much Statham himself but that all of his films are borderline unwatchable) go on a little sightseeing tour of the island.

Said tour ends with the acquaintance of the dictator's daughter Sandra (Giselle Itie) who turns out to be an enemy of all her dad stands for, the discovery that dad is controlled by a rogue CIA man (Eric Roberts eating the scenery's mother), and an exploding pier full of soldiers.

At first, Barney is determined not to take this particular job any further, but the memory of Sandra's moral uprightness in doing the right thing even when it means working against her own father and some rambling soul-searching with Mickey convince him otherwise.

After taking care of their rogue mercenary ex-friend Gunnar (Dolph Lundgren) who has hired himself out to Mr Bad CIA Guy, Barney, Christmas and the rest of the gang (Jet Li, Terry Crews, Randy Couture) start a night attack on the bad guys' base.

The Expendables is another of Sylvester Stallone's attempts at milking his 80s action movie achievements and his audience's nostalgia for them for success and money, and like it was with the last Rambo movie, he sort of succeeds. The Expendables tries to go about the business of self-copying a bit differently than Rambo did, though.

Where that movie was all earnest and dramatic soul-searching and slaughter, The Expendables tries to be a bit lighter, uniting Stallone and other action guys of his (and later) generations not just for "looking for their souls" (yes, that's how the film likes to talk), but also for stupid quips and sometimes limp, sometimes charming attempts at self-irony. Well, that and slaughter.

As it was with Rambo's earnestness, this film's lightness doesn't convince me too much either. It's all well and good for Stallone to show he understands that much of the traditional action hero poses are more than a bit silly, but instead of, you know, doing something about that problem, he decides to go the way of least resistance and just wink at his audience and let his band of badly aging muscle men exactly do what they always did, reminding me at times unhappily of Wes Craven's Scream. Stallone also still doesn't have much of a clue about what to do with female characters apart from letting them save souls and be damsels in distress, but I didn't expect anything else from him in this respect. Speaking of being intellectually stuck in the past, it comes as no surprise that Terry Crews and the awesomeness that's still inside of Jet Li are sorely underused.

Fortunately, it's not all winking all the time, and much of the film's running time is spent on the loveable carnage Stallone as a director and as an actor is much better at than at trying to be Quentin Tarantino (or worse, profound). Once the film stops trying to be clever or to make a point, it's pretty much as physically immersive as action movies get, so much so that I didn't have any trouble just ignoring the rest of the movie and so enjoyed myself immensely.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

TNT Jackson (1974)

Diana "TNT" Jackson (Jeannie Bell) comes to "Hong Kong" to look for her brother Stag/Stack (Stack-o-lee?). She doesn't know yet that he has been killed in a drug deal gone very bad. With the help of friendly, two-fisted bar owner Joe (played by beloved - or so the Internet tells me - Filipino comedian Chiquito; not doing any comedy), TNT finds out the truth about her brother soon enough.

The young woman swears vengeance on the killers of Stag, planning to do some punishing with her superior martial arts. Her plans are made easier to accomplish by a few helpful factors: firstly, the drug cartel TNT is after is not as united amongst themselves as it should be. Someone has begun to attack their deliveries and make off with the product. Secondly, Charlie (Stan Shaw), a high-ranking member of the cartel who also just happens to be the killer of TNT's brother shows a lot of interest in her. And thirdly, a female government agent (Pat Anderson), has managed to penetrate the inner circle of the gang.

Looks as if the vengeance business isn't as lonely and difficult as people say.

I've got my reasons for usually being quite hard on the films Filipino exploitation mega-producer Cirio H. Santiago directed himself, namely that the man's directorial style is terribly bland, and that his ability to make the most boring movies out of perfect exploitation ideas is maddening to the extreme. Because of these dubious tendencies, I go into Santiago's films with a large amount of trepidation, quite certain the director will be able to ruin even the best of set-ups through a special brand of wilful apathy only paralleled in certain late period Santo movies.

So it comes as something of a surprise that Santiago's TNT Jackson left me enjoying myself quite a bit. As was often the case with Santiago's movies, TNT was co-produced with Roger Corman for the American's New World Pictures, and therefore made with a large eye on the US market, with Santiago's native Philippines a secondary concern that could be satisfied with a local star like Chiquito in a secondary role.

Obviously, TNT's attempts at crossing the blaxploitation film with a very US American version of the martial arts film (that is to say, a version that mostly lacks people in front of or behind the camera even vaguely acquainted with the basic concepts of fighting on screen) do not add up to a "good" film of any kind, even before you have witnessed this film's particular idiosyncrasies, but they do end up being pretty enjoyable through sheer persistence.

This time around, Santiago actually manages to completely avoid his most debilitating weakness, the love for long and painful - often painfully long - scenes of filler. Being Santiago, he goes even one step further and seems to just have decided to throw any pretence of a coherent plot out of the window. The whole film is just a massive conglomeration of stuff that just happens to vaguely centre around TNT's vengeance, but never comes together as anything I'd call a story.

It's all bizarre dialogue, ridiculously choreographed fights during which clearly no bodily contact is ever made (cleverly emphasised by the lack of any exaggerated sound effects - we don't want people to think anyone's trying to hide his or her lack of martial arts skills here, right?), a heroine played by a woman who looks even more ridiculous in a fight than anyone else here (which is quite an achievement, once you have seen Stan Shaw waggle his legs, or, as the film calls it, "fight") with a stunt double who looks nothing like her (but can do acrobatics, hooray!), random naked fu, random moments of Chiquito being likeable and being the only competent person on screen (even his few fights look sort of believable!), and so on, and so forth. All this random stuff is presented without even the slightest attempt at making it gel dramatically. In place of all that high-falutin' logic and emotional depth, Santiago sets random, silly crap. But this once, the director/producer also seems to have realized this amount of silly crap needs to be presented with complete earnestness to be charming instead of annoying, and proceeds accordingly.

It's a laugh a minute, but I found myself laughing with the film, and not at it.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Ghosts of Hanley House (1968)

A strapping young man in a small Texas town makes a bet with a friend. If he will spend a night in the notoriously haunted Hanley House at the edge of town, his friend will give him his brand new Ferrari (which is not the sort of car anybody involved in this production could actually afford, so it is never appearing on camera). That's fine by our young man, given that he doesn't believe in ghosts at all.

Because these are the 60s and not the stuffy old times of Gothic horror, our young hero decides to invite some people to spend the night there with him in a very free interpretation of the word "party". After some difficulties, he finds a handful of willing co-victims (some older guy, the mandatory medium, the new girl in town, and his betting partner - although he'll have to hide the last one's car keys to make him stay), and a black maid to clean up the house for them (oh yes, this is definitely Texas in '68), so project spook house can start.

Unfortunately, our hero is very wrong not to believe in ghosts. Everybody will have quite an unpleasant night, full of barking, knocking, strangling and highly unpleasant revelations about the cause of the haunting which will lead to the need for some gravedigging.

The Ghosts of Hanley House, the only directorial effort by Louise Sherrill, is another film among the seemingly endless number of US local independent productions of the 60s and 70s. It's a film belonging squarely to the weird amateur school of filmmaking. As such it suffers from some typical problems many productions of its type share. There's the usual assortment of sound problems (dubbed lines aren't always spoken by the actors and are much louder and clearer then the poor location sound, the sound effects have a strange position in the mix, that sort of thing), ropey acting, and awkward dialogue.

The most productive among the movie's flaws are the visual consequences of the combination of an inexperienced director with a decided lack of funds which leads to scenes full of static camera set-ups (cameras can move, you say?) that are only interrupted by peculiarly lit close-ups of actor faces wearing way too much make-up and so can't help but remind of expressionist silent movies. The latter shots are often used to let the actors stare disquietingly into the camera while uttering their lines, as if they weren't talking to their peers but directly to the audience.

Sherrill also has a weird tendency (born from inexperience or indifference) to show reaction shots a few seconds too late and seems to try to make up for it by letting them linger just a little too long. This, the staring, and the film's not-quite black and white (that looks slightly tinted blue to me; it might just be the state of the print, though) in combination aren't bad for the movie, however. It's quite the opposite, in fact: These technical inadequacies help give the film a mood very much of its own - as if something about what Sherrill is showing the audience is not quite right, a feeling of strangeness a good horror film should strive to evoke.

Now, don't get me wrong here, I don't think for a second the director was purposefully going for an effect this avantgarde in its conception for her cheap little horror movie done with amateur actors. It's rather one of those things that can just happen to a movie when outward circumstances combine in just the right way. "Those things" did happen to local independent productions more frequently than they did to other film, as if the lack of experience (sometimes of ambition) of the people making them made it easier for those films to become interesting instead of professional, and purposelessly strange instead of well thought-through. Obviously, I don't think purpose matters much in art. What matters for this particular film is that the peculiar mood of slight wrongness is there, and is as strong as I could wish for.

That's what I look for in a movie like this, and that's what The Ghosts of Hanley House delivers.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

In short: Killer Bees (2005)

aka Killing Bee

Original title: Satsujinbachi - kira bi

A gaggle of Japanese Girl Scouts and their lone male chaperone are happily going camping quite a few hours away from civilization, as if not one of them had ever seen a horror movie.

At first, it's all long, painful scenes of teenage squeeing and insufferably cutesy humour, but after some hours, the first of the kids is attacked by a mysterious insect (there will be some discussions if the killer animals are in fact bees or rather hornets - I'm saying they're bad CGI), and suffers from anaphylactic shock. Being a brilliant man of action, the chaperone is convinced the most intelligent action to take now will be loading the ill girl on his back while one other girl leads the way with a flashlight, and just leaving the rest of the teenagers alone with Mother Nature.

Naturally, the girls staying behind make the acquaintance of some friends of the grumpy digital insect that bit their friend, too. It doesn't look good for the future of the Girl Scout tradition in Japan.

If this short plot description makes you think this direct to DVD killer animal concoction sounds rather bland, you are right on the money. It's one of those films that consist of a lot of teenagers screaming and (if the audience is lucky) dying, a bit of crying and a whole lot of wandering through (at least quite pretty) woods and not much else.

It's a bit of a shame, really, because the handful killer bee attack scenes are hilarious. Who knew that Japanese bees are sneaky like ninjas, often lone wolves like Solid Snake, have their own stalker cam, and know exactly which parts of a teenage body to attack for maximum deadliness? They also are active by day and by night and just love flying into fire.

Alas, we don't get to spend as much time with these true heroes of the film as I would have wished. Director Norihisa Yoshimura does seem to prefer crying teenagers to exciting CGI animals, which just possibly might be the wrong direction to take when the core of your film's cast consists of inexperienced actresses around the age of fifteen.

Friends of unconvincingly acted yet enthusiastic death scenes can look forward to a few moments of fun, as well as to a new reason not to scream when attacked by killer bees, but if one hopes for anything a bit more exciting (or just a bit more), one will be sorely disappointed by this particular killer insect movie.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Evil Clutch (1988)

aka Horror Queen

Original title: Il Bosco

After gifting their audience with one of those much-loved holiday slide shows (complete with mandatory boring off-screen mumbling and terrible jokes) during the credits, the young lovers Cindy (Coralina Cataldi-Cassoni) and Tony (Diego Ribon) decide to make a camping trip into the Alps. And good riddance, the audience says.

After picking up a woman named Arva (Elena Cantarone), who claims to have been attacked by someone in the vicinity and inconclusively looking around for the attacker for a bit, they come to a quiet little village. Arva runs off, but our hero couple is unfazed by anything that might be strange about the woman's demeanour. They make the acquaintance of a writer (going by the credits he's called Algernoon; played by Luciano Crovato) who speaks through an electronic box. Writer guy tells the couple an utterly delightful story about them becoming possessed by demons and killing each other. Later on, he'll demonstrate the dangers of the area by brandishing a fishing rod. In fact, Algernoon is trying to warn our heroes off from staying in the area, but instead of just saying something like "whoever goes into the woods gets massacred by the local witch, who just happens to be my daughter", he's going the classic vague rambling route. Not surprisingly, Algernon is creeping Tony and Cindy out so much they don't want to have anything more to do with him.

Of course the two young people decide the best way to get away from their new-found "friend" is to go camping in the woods. There they meet Arva again. The woman invites the couple to stay overnight in an empty house she knows about, and their experiences with Algernoon notwithstanding, they agree.

Little do our heroes know that Arva is a witch who likes to play with a bucket o' demonising goo she stores in the house and castrates men with the giant claw (alas, not as big as a battleship) that grows out of her vagina. Sure, Algernoon could have told them, but then the film would have ended early.

As the title Evil Clutch already hints at, this is another Italian attempt at squeezing a few bucks out of pale imitations of other films.  Given how late the film comes in the history of Italian rip-off film culture, with all the lack of talent behind and before the camera and lack of funds a film being made at this point in time implies, it will come as no surprise that Evil Clutch does not manage to stitch an entertaining monster out of the parts it hacked off of other films. It's especially unfortunate because the first two Evil Dead films this wants so desperately to remind us of were themselves made on shoestring budgets, yet still managed to be excellent movies. One might think Evil Clutch's director Andreas Marfoni could have tried to learn something from Sam Raimi's films, but the Italian prefers to just copy parts of the setting and use lots and lots of low-hanging steadicam shots that implicate the drunken frat boy brother of the American films' force of evil.

Too much of Evil Clutch is spent on moments of refined boredom that are punctuated by ropey gore and pus effects which never manage to be all that interesting. From time to time, these effects are at least funny, but I couldn't shake the impression Marfoni didn't know which of them were worth spending time on and which ones just boring busywork for the effects people. So excellent (yesyes, and tasteless) ideas like the vagina claw or the cuckoo clock with the wee little blood-spitting head instead of a cuckoo inside are drowned out by uninventive mutilations and much brownish decomposition of body parts you'd need someone with the imagination and fearlessness from being ridiculous of Lucio Fulci behind the camera to make interesting.

I probably hardly need to mention that the script (also by Marfoni) only contains enough plot for twenty minutes, or that not much of it makes any sense. These wouldn't be insurmountable problems, if Evil Clutch just weren't so dull for most of the time.

Technorati-Markierungen: ,,,

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In short: Cobra Mission (1986)

Four Vietnam veterans (Christopher Connelly, John Steiner, Manfred Lehmann and Oliver Tobias) have enough of being disrespected by random drunks and/or their families. What would lead to a drunken bender, a bar fight or a divorce for most people soon finds the quartet being convinced by their former commanding officer (played by the cameoing Enzo G. Castellari, who'd probably have made a more exciting film had he directed this one) to return to Vietnam and rescue some of those legendary US prisoners of war the Italian film industry cares deeply about.

After further cameos by Luciano Pigozzi/Alan Collins, and Donald Pleasence as a mad, commie-eating Catholic priest, our guys are armed to the teeth and on their way through the jungle.

Surprisingly enough, they even manage to find and free a handful of prisoners, but finding and freeing and actually rescuing them turn out to be quite different things, because The Man turns out to be totally evil, you know.

I have often read that Fabrizio De Angelis' Cobra Mission is supposed to be one of the better Italian rambosploitation (or is it explodinghutsploitation?) movies, but I can't say I agree with that assessment. Sure, the lead actors have have held their creased visages into cameras pretending to be real macho men in a few hundred of these films and are kind of good at their job. Yes, the cameos and small parts for people like Pleasence, Pigozzi, Gordon Mitchell, or Ethan Wayne are nearly as nice a thing to have on screen as having good old friends as dinner guests. And of course there are exploding huts and Filipinos pretending to be Vietnamese dying in various ridiculous poses aplenty.

But unfortunately, Cobra Mission falls into one of the saddest traps a vietnamsploitation film can fall into: it's neither mad and viscerally exciting enough to delight as a cheap piece of crap, nor good enough at being earnest and po-faced to work even vaguely as the message movie it likes to pretend it is between the shouting and the shooting. The film's message movie parts are also of the unpleasantly jingoistic "bring our boys back home (even if we Italians don't have any boys there)" variant, with a mild helping of racism, which does not help to endear them or Cobra Mission to me.

From time to time, the jingoism and the racism is unexpectedly interrupted by sudden moments of relativism that show (some of) our heroes' enemies as actual human beings with actual human motivations, moments in which the film also seems on the cusp of developing a consciousness of said heroes being utter jerks. If the film had developed these elements further, Cobra Mission could have become something quite special, but the film's admittance of complexity never goes all the way, and so the next piece of right wing whining is never far away, while the action is never good (or silly) enough to make up for it.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tahkhana (1986)

aka The Dungeon

The evil sorcerous son of a Thakur uses the opportunity of his father's death to make a play for the family treasure that is secreted away in a nearby dungeon and can only be found with the help of a map pendant that has been broken in two pieces - at least I think that's part of his plan. He'd also very much like to revive the evil godhood (made of clay and blood, we are informed) he is worshipping through the blood sacrifice of innocents.To keep things simple, he kills his brother and kidnaps the man's daughters to sacrifice them right in the treasure dungeon. Unfortunately for our evil sorcerer, his brother's best friend Mansingh and his men arrive just in the nick of time to ruin his plans and rescue at least one of the children, Aarti (soon to grow up to be Aarti Gupta). Sapna (growing up to be Sheetal), the other sister, is lost in the jungle somewhere together with half of the pendant. Mansingh decides that it's appropriate to entomb his sorcerous enemy in the dungeon alive together with his godhood and take Aarti in as an adoptive daughter.

Twenty years later, Aarti knows nothing of her tragic family history or her lost sister. She's in love with Mansingh's son Vijay (played by some bland guy parts of the internet - I blame the IMDB as the source of this and more errors - insist is Puneet Issar, but who definitely isn't). But the happy cavorting of the young lovers has to come to an end. Mansingh is lying on his deathbed, and before he dies, the old man tells the story of Aarti's inheritance to her, Vijay and his nephews Anand (who definitely is played by Puneet Issar) and Shakaal (Imtiaz Khan), asking them to find Sapna and help Aarti take possession of her birthright. Mansingh also hands Aarti the other half of the treasure map. The question now is just how to find Sapna.

The answer to that question is less pleasant than the usual Bollywood story of lost siblings would suggest. By chance, Sapna stumbles into the hotel Shakaal owns looking for work. Shakaal (and who would have thought that of a character in a Bollywood movie named Shakaal and played by Imtiaz Khan!?) is a proper sleazebag, and so offers Sapna a job as a dancer, but appears soon enough at her doorstep to take what he probably sees as the proper reward for his help.

Sapna isn't the kind of girl willing to prostitute herself though. During Shakaal's following attempt at raping her, Sapna is killed. It is only then that her killer sees her pendant and realizes whom he has murdered; not that he's sorry about anything he's done, mind you. Shakaal takes the pendant for himself and makes a copy to hand to his family once a proper opportunity arises, which will be soon.

Once the untrustworthy treasure map is in their hands, Aarti, Vijay and co decide to move into the Singh family's old mansion near the treasure-holding dungeon. Unfortunately, they're taking Shakaal with them, too.

But the bad guy's attempts at gaining the treasure (and trying to rape every woman he lays his eyes on) won't be the worst of our heroes' problems. The old evil sorcerer has revived his Godhood through his own death, and the unpleasant monster is now wandering the dungeon, killing whomever he can lay his claws on.

Fortunately, the local country strongman and all around swell guy He-ManHeera (Hemant Birje) is around to help put villains and monsters in their place. Or rather pillar-ly looking stone "stakes" into their hearts.

Outward appearances and a longwinded plot synopsis notwithstanding, Tahkhana is one of the less complicated films from the Indian sub-continent I've seen. Unlike many other of the horror movies made by the Ramsay Brothers, Tahkhana doesn't rejoice in the complex net of plots and subplots that make up your typical masala film. At times, the film seems consciously constructed not to be like a masala, what with it killing one of the long lost sisters off very early on. That's just not how a lost sibling plot is done in India.

I wouldn't call the film's plotting tight or lean, exactly, but it is a very simple story told in a comparatively linear way, which also explains the film's rather short (for commercial Indian cinema) running time of less than two hours. Given these time constraints, it's no wonder that there's not much room for comedic relief (although what is there is still painful enough, thankyouverymuch) or minor plots which aren't closely interleaved with the main plot. There's even only room for two musical numbers, both of which are musically forgettable and mildly sleazy - just as you'd expect of the Ramsays.

What there is room for is a number of quite entertaining action and horror set pieces, the former obviously dominated by Hemant Birje and Puneet Issar, who both also seem just too happy to show off as much chest and ass as they can get away with. The Ramsays' films are nothing if not generous with both beefcake and cheesecake; a quality I've always found highly admirable. Apart from that, Birje also is an expert in screen strongman fighting and would have played Hercules more than once if he'd gone to Italy. He's even throwing a few pillars.

The horror scenes aren't quite as great as they are in other Ramsay films. The Hammer worship filtered through an Indian style isn't as convincing as I'm used from the brothers' output, the lighting isn't as freakish, and the film's monster just isn't one of the brothers' best. The big lumbering guy is physically impressive enough, even though his combination of monk's robe, dark oatmeal face and shaggy gorilla costume is more silly than frightening, but he's just a grunting monster without any dimensions of spiritual or human evil, which seems to be a step back for a Ramsay movie.

Given the nature of Tahkhana's Big Bad, the whole film feels more like an adventure movie with an added monster than the sort of silly yet loveable and enthusiastic scream fest I by now expect of a Ramsay film. That's not to say Tahkhana is a bad film; it is entertaining enough. I just don't think it shows the Ramsay Brothers at their best.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Three Films Make A Post: It Will Scare You To Pieces!

Red: Werewolf Hunter (2010): Syfy Channel original movies are one of the banes of human existence. Somehow, these films always manage to take a perfectly good b-movie idea (in this case: Little Red Riding Hood's descendants are a clan of werewolf hunters) and make a disappointingly bland movie out of them. If it's not the miserably bad CGI and just plain uninventive monster design, it's scripts that go through the motions of being an exciting ride instead of actually providing one, and direction so devoid of personality or style you couldn't get away with in most TV shows anymore, that kill films of this type. Or - as in Red - all those things at once.

Most of the actors on screen seem as bored by the film as I was. The only exceptions are Felicia Day and Stephen McHattie - both are game, but find no-one who wants to play.

Twice Dead (1988): Ostensibly a horror film about a haunted house, Twice Dead really wants to be a film about two annoying teenagers fighting a gang of late 80s Hollywood "punks". Director Dragin doesn't even seem to be trying to make the "punks" or the ghosts even the least bit menacing, creating a film that feels tired and pointless. The mandatory 80s cheese is not ripe enough to make up for Twice Dead's lack of anything else.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010): It would probably have needed a better world or a lot of bad compromises to let Edgar Wright's intensely nerdy and geeky and clever comic adaptation become the blockbuster Universal seems to have wanted it to be.

On the other hand, what do I care about Universal's bottom line when the film as it is is just about perfect, beginning with its pixelated Universal logo? That logo is just the beginning of the movie's show of just the right amount (which is to say a lot) of love for the formative pop-cultural influences of many people my age or a few years younger.

But beside this love, Wright's film also has a clear look for the things that just might be wrong with its pop-cultural loves and consequently its characters, and so never steps into the trap of using its cleverness only for the sake of being clever. The hyperactive excitement bolsters a (at its core old-fashioned) story about growing out of being a jerk. Just like it was in the comics.

In any case, the film's fidelity to its sources also explains why a certain type of elderly movie critic just didn't get Scott Pilgrim, and also explains to me why so little of what these guys have to say about movies interests me anymore; they are just so goddamn old that their little souls have shrivelled to the point of having no ability to recognize joy when they encounter it in a movie anymore.

Looks like I'll have to change my "I generally dislike comedy" shtick, too, or I'll at least have to amend it with "unlike Edgar Wright's got something to do with it".


Friday, November 12, 2010

On WTF: Wardat (1981)

What's better than Eurospy movies? Obviously Bollyspy movies with Mithun Chakraborty.

Wardat is quite a recommended example of its particular sub-genre, but if you want to know exactly how much insanity it contains, and how it applies it, you'll be better off reading my write-up on WTF-Film. I promise there will be rejoicing.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

In short: Damned By Dawn (2009)

Claire (Renee Willner) and her boyfriend Paul (Danny Alder) are visiting Claire's family way out in the middle of nowhere. Claire is concerned about the health of her grandmother (Dawn Klingberg), and mystified by a package containing an urn the old lady sent her. She's also very conscious that this might be the time to say goodbye to the old lady. The very first night in the family home is disturbed when peculiar screams coming from outside wake up everyone. While the menfolk are going out to look who or what is causing the ruckus, the women of the family stay in the house alone, and are soon visited by the cause of the noise: it's the family banshee (Bridget Neval) coming to see grandma off!

After a game of peek-a-boo, Claire gets so frightened by the appearance of the supernatural creature that she pushes the poor dear off a balcony. The banshee is highly displeased and awakens a handful of undead whose bodies just happen to be buried right by the house. These dead people have no sense of humour at all, and start killing off the family members one after the other. Possibly even worse is the fact that these dead come back too and proceed to make the survivors' night even more miserable.

The Australian Damned By Dawn is another case of a movie that is just not bad enough to annoy or to delight, yet also not good enough to be all that satisfying. First time writer/director Brett Anstey's film suffers from some of the typical flaws low budget movies have to fight with. The special effects are just plain bad. Worse, they even manage to combine two very different types of badness - simply atrocious sub-SciFi-Channel-level CGI for the more ghostly dead and the make-up of The Crow for the Evil Dead style talkative freshly dead; I think the combination of the two makes the effects feel even worse than they would if Anstey had gone with only one type of crap effects work.

The writing shows a complete inability to build up tension properly. Anstey's already running off to the directly horrific when he should still be easing his viewers into the situation and acquainting them with his characters; consequently, I never found any reason to care about the situation or the characters, even though the acting is better than could be expected. It sure doesn't help Damned by Dawn's case that "pushing a banshee off a balcony" is one of the silliest reasons for an infestation of the undead I've ever encountered in a film not made in Italy.

Damned by Dawn isn't a complete waste of time, though. The last act sees the movie find its feet a little, and while it is still not impressive, it coheres a bit better and even contains some scenes that are perfectly serviceable. For one, there's a stupidly fun gross-out moment in the Italian style concerning a dead guy, puking, bugs and guts that won't win any friends of tastefulness in horror over, but is well worth a smile. For two, Claire's final girl moments are working well enough they could be called mildly exciting, if not for the much too close look the film provides of its The Crow undead at this point.

Sure, that's not much, but it's still more than a lot of films I could name manage to achieve, and so I at least don't actively regret watching Damned By Dawn (and yes, of course I wrote "Dead by Dawn" repeatedly).


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Shaapit (2010)

The young lovers Kaaya (Shweta Agarwal) and Aman (Aditya Narayan) are spontaneously eloping. Their ride back home is rudely interrupted by an accident caused by a ghost standing in the road.

Nobody is hurt, but when Kaaya's parents arrive at the hospital and see their daughter's engagement ring, they aren't happy at all. Their problem is not the secrecy of the elopement, though. It's just that they have until now avoided to inform their daughter  of…the family curse. About three-hundred years ago, the family's noble ancestors got into a bit of trouble. One of them, the brother of the Maharajah Rajnisingh, drove a woman soon to be married to someone else into suicide through his unwanted advances. The poor girl's father was a powerful magician, and so cursed the present and all coming generations of the Maharajah's family. Never shall one of their daughters marry and live. (In truth, the back story is more complicated than that and also includes an evil woman whose fault everything is, black-clad assassins and a musical number with fire-swallowers, but the characters will learn about it only much later.)

After having explained this, Kaaya's parents force the young lovers to part. Just living together instead of marrying seems to be an idea so alien to everyone concerned it's not even mentioned; I think it would have spared everyone a lot of trouble. After some intense sulking, Aman makes the solemn vow to find a way to break the curse, so that Kaaya and he can be together.

As luck will have it, Aman's best friend Shubh (Shubh Joshi) thinks he knows someone who can help - the parapsychologist Professor Pashupathi (Rahul Dev). While Pashupathi swallows Aman's bizarre story without blinking he is not willing to help the young man out, because he thinks that Aman's just having a fit of romantic self-aggrandizement he'll get over soon enough.

Aman is dead serious about the whole undying love business, though, and decides to prove his commitment to the Professor by stealing a haunted book from a library. Surprisingly enough, he manages this feat, if only by laying waste to the whole poor library (that barbarian). Obviously, nobody in this movie cares about things like the sanctity of libraries, so the Professor is now quite convinced of Aman's will and ability to see things through and agrees to help him. Pashupathi thinks that the only way to break the curse lying on Kaaya is to lay the ghost to rest who seems to be its focus and weapon. It's just like in a Supernatural episode, just with less classic rock and no shotguns loaded with rock salt. Remember when there were still ghosts in Supernatural? But I digress.

At first Aman, Shubh and the Professor are trying to keep Kaaya completely out of the loop of their investigations (for her own safety, etc, blah blah), but after Aman does something very stupid, they have to take her with them. Don't worry, potential reader afraid of women doing anything worthwhile in movies, Kaaya will soon enough land in a coma where she will spend the rest of the movie.

Anyway, their investigation leads the intrepid quartet (and later trio) first into a burnt-out cinema to get guidance from random ghosts and a tennis ball (a plan that is so stupid it works perfectly), then into an old prison, and then into the palace of Rajnisingh himself, until they will finally have enough information to know what to do about the ghost and the curse.

Genre movie specialist Vikram Bhatt's Shaapit (which seems to translate into "The Cursed") is a bit of a problematic one. It's a film front-loaded with flaws, but it's also a film that can be a whole lot of fun when watched with tolerance for these flaws and an appreciation for its sillier and more imaginative aspects.

First and foremost among Shaapit's flaws is its lead Aditya Narayan, who seems to come from a background as a playback singer rather than that of an actor. Now, the history of cinema is full of singers who turn out to be much better actors than anyone would have expected; unfortunately, it is just as full of singers who couldn't act their way out of their own toilet. Narayan certainly belongs to the latter class. He's pretty, in a fifteen year old (and yes, I know he's twenty-three) boygroup member sort of way, but he has neither the charisma nor the acting ability to be the character the audience has to spend most of its time with. In fact, he only has one facial expression, a rather puzzled look somewhere between "where am I?" and "what's my line?", and really nothing to recommend him as an actor.

One the plus side everyone with less screen time is perfectly serviceable.

Which is much more than one can say for the film's (mostly CGI) special effects. Those are perfectly dreadful, lacking physicality as well as any - in my book more important - sense for the design of frightening or at least threatening monsters. I suspect the ghosts wouldn't even be frightening enough for the next Scooby Doo live action movie.

There's also some terrible green screen work on display, but the film's combination of bad green screen and detailed-yet-fake sets is actually one of its good points. In contrast to the ghost(s), these things ooze charm and a sense of excitement; that they aren't "good" on a technical level seems beside the point, especially when talking about a commercial Hindi film.

So, what's good about Shaapit? Well, it really depends on what you are looking for in a film. As a horror film - that is a film out to scare, frighten, disturb or disquiet - Shaapit is a complete loss. As long as Bhatt pretends that his film is a horror film in that sense of the word - so for about its first forty minutes - it's not very good at all. The only "horror"s on display are the usual rote shocks on the level of a carnival's haunted house. If you're afraid of a film basically shouting "boo!" every few minutes, you'll be pretty afraid, though. Even the situations that should be traumatic for characters and audience don't feel that way. Bhatt also doesn't try to explore the pretty dreadful emotional situation Aman and Kaaya find themselves in any way you'd connect with "horror". Instead, he goes for a very Indian feeling version of melodrama, which would probably work just as well as the more "horror" way to go about it if there was only someone with a personality in the male lead.

Fortunately, Shaapit soon changes its track and transforms into something sitting between an actually supernatural Scooby Doo episode and an Indiana Jones knock-off, an investigative adventure movie with ghosts and Undying Love melodrama lurking in the background. And suddenly, many of the film's problem aren't all that bad anymore - the ghost that never was all that frightening now becomes more of a physical obstacle; there's room for a big flashback scene with a bit of swordfighting and the film's only musical number that has dancing (and is any good).

The film also allows itself to get silly, with a scene of time-travel based on the traditions of the Inga (no, I don't know either), which seem to be holding one's breath while submerged in a bath tub, a little séance - complete with digital headshaking, obviously, and a grand finale that is dominated by an extensive game of catch the urn. And while Bhatt doesn't manage much trying to be frightening, he turns out to be quite good at silliness and excitement, and while that's not what Shaapit initially promised, it's a lot of fun.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

In short: Zeiram (1991)

Intergalactic bounty hunter Iria (Yuko Moriyama) and her partner, the computer Bob (Masakazu Handa), come to Earth to capture a dangerous creature named Zeiram (Mizuho Yoshida) who has escaped from some sort of imprisonment. Don't ask me, the film doesn't tell anything more.

To not endanger any primitives, the bounty hunters plan to fight their prey inside of a dimensional bubble that looks like an exact copy of the Japanese town Zeiram will appear in, just without any inhabitants. Unfortunately, things don't work out completely as Iria and Bob had planned, and two bumbling electricians (Kunihiro Ida and Yukijiro Hotaru) cross over into the alternate dimension with them. Still, after some fighting, Iria manages to capture Zeiram.

Alas, various mishaps - and the fact that Zeiram is quite a bit more resilient to her ways of freezing him than Iria had expected - soon find the space monster up and running again and Iria stranded on our side of the dimensional barrier. Will the supposed audience identification characters survive until she'll be able to return?

Zeiram is one of the directorial live action works of Keita Amemiya whose work as a character and monster designer (especially in the tokusatsu realm) make him beloved by millions. At least I imagine him surrounded by a host of admiring young women and men like the character designer version of the young Rolling Stones. As usual with Amemiya's films, Zeiram's small number of locations and actors hints at a budget probably lower than most people's electricity bill, but most other typical problem fields of films just scraping by don't apply here.

The acting - a classical breaking point in low budget films featuring men in rubber costumes (even Japanese ones) - turns out to be perfectly decent for a plot and characters as slight as what the film needs. Nobody will win any acting awards for her performances here, but Moriyama knows how to handle herself in the action sequences, Ida is as bland and annoying as a white wall, and Hotaru just annoying, so everything's just as it should be.

One could certainly complain about the slightness of Zeiram's script. It is, however, the exactly right sort of slight for what the film is going for - being a decently paced, fun piece of fluff about people fighting a guy in a rubber monster suit (that later goes all stop-motion on our asses) and its rubber-monster-suited friends. And it really succeeds at that, mostly by avoiding all the ballast attempts at doing deeper meaning and character would be in a film that only really ever wants to show off some cool monsters and a pretty woman fighting them.

Another reason why Zeiram is as fun as it is to watch is Amemiya's very charming monster design, crossing a bit of classical slimy monster with the silhouette of a wandering chambara film swordsman and a wee little No mask head on a tentacle to excellent effect. There's also a slight family resemblance with the Predator in Zeiram's face. Amemiya also mixes things up a bit later on by cribbing from the Terminator, which provides a nice change and can therefore only be a good thing.

I know, it's only a film about a girl in a re-worked stormtrooper costume and two bumbling idiots fighting monsters, but I like it.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

In short: The Stranger Returns (1967)

aka A Man, A Horse, A Gun

Original title: Un uomo, un cavallo, una pistola

The Stranger (Tony Anthony) rides into another spot of bother. This time around, he's trying to steal a coach full of gold that a group of bandits captained by a sadist known as En Plein (Dan Vadis) has set their own eyes on.

As always, the Stranger has a plan to steal the stolen gold that might look good in his mind but quickly collapses under the stress of reality, leading to his capture and torture. Of course, our dubious hero escapes and the usual hither and yon around the gold ensues; until it all ends in a grand finale in which the Stranger picks off his enemies one by one but loses his ultimate prize.

Unlike the first Stranger movie I talked about yesterday, this second adventure of Tony Anthony's weird-faced wearer of blankets is already half on the way to the bizarre comedy stylings of the later entries in the series. Some of the film's humour is even funny.

Unfortunately, the silly parts collide with the usual Spaghetti Western scenes of sadism that are part of the film to prove the bad guys are even worse than the anti-hero in rather unpleasant ways, leaving behind an aftertaste of unnecessary and ill-considered mean-spiritedness. That this mean-spiritedness is especially directed at women might be par for the course for the Spaghetti Western genre, but shoe-horning scenes of female suffering between comedic scenes really pushes the film towards outright misogyny.

As it is, The Stranger Returns is not light-hearted enough to exclude the nasty parts, and not interested enough in the unpleasant depths of humanity to make effective use of its lighter moments as a good contrast. It just hangs somewhere in the middle.

Luigi Vanzi's direction is less interesting than his work on the first film. It's all very routine, watchable Spaghetti Western by numbers, without even a single scene as tense or spirited as the nearly dialogue-less middle part of the first film.

The Stranger Returns certainly is an alright Spaghetti Western (aka "I've seen worse"), but its transitional position just before the Stranger series becomes really silly and imaginative makes it a less successful film than I'd hoped for.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Stranger in Town (1967)

aka A Dollar Between The Death

Original title: Un Dollaro Tra I Denti

A nameless stranger (Tony Anthony) rides into a small, very dusty town in Mexico. The gunman arrives just in time to witness the bandit leader Aguilar (Frank Wolff) and his men slaughter a group of soldiers. The bandit has gotten wind that the army troop he's just gotten rid of has been ordered into town to accept a princely sum in gold the USA are borrowing to the bedraggled Mexican government.

Now Aguilar and his men only have to put on the uniforms of the dead and can accept the money in their stead. And if need be, the nice new Gatling gun the bandits just scored as a bonus to their new clothes will certainly come in handy.

The Stranger - who has changed from Clint Eastwood's old musty poncho into a cavalry uniform - makes himself known now. After a bit of threatening staring and other forms of blustering, the nameless one manages to convince Aguilar that he's the ideal man to help the bandit get the gold from their US counterparts without a fight. He knows the officer of the cavalry unit guarding it, after all (which is a lie) and so will be able to vouch for Aguilar's authenticity to him. Aguilar agrees. If need be, he can still attack the Americans. The plan works out well, surprisingly enough. The North Americans know that something's not right, but are in no position to fight, and so the gold lands in the hands of the bandits and their new friend.

The problems begin afterwards, when the Stranger decides that he'll be wanting half of the gold for his services. Aguilar disapproves and counter-offers one gold coin, a little roughing up and potential death. The Stranger doesn't like that offer too well, and just barely manages to escape with his life and the gold.

This starts the expected cat and mouse game between our hero and the bandits, with the gold changing owners a few times and the Stranger getting tortured for a time, until the decisive shootout leaves only one man standing.

Unlike the later adventures of the stranger I have seen, this first movie about the character isn't a whacky to completely insane comedic yet still violent take on the Spaghetti Western, and Tony Anthony isn't mugging like a loon. Instead, the film is closely shaped after the first film of Leone's dollar trilogy and Sergio Corbucci's Django. Anthony's character is a virtual carbon copy of A Fistful of Dollar's Joe, just played by a much less charismatic actor then Eastwood. Anthony's later turn to scenery chewing now makes much more sense to me. It's overcompensation for his excessive woodenness here.

Trying to mould one's film after two excellent models like director Luigi Vanzi does here isn't such a bad thing, at least when it is done with the appropriate style. At first, Vanzi plays it a little too safe, trusting in Wolff's proven abilities at playing a charismatic bad guy, Anthony's sleepy lids and reams of mediocre dialogue to carry his film, while not doing anything beyond routine pointing and shooting  himself, leaving a viewer acquainted with as many Spaghetti Western as I am by now dreading a competent yet unexceptional final hour with the movie.

Then, very suddenly, Vanzi changes his tune. The dialogue dies down nearly completely and is replaced by gazes and small gestures. A film of people talking (and very seldom shooting) at each other turns into one of people looking, and watching and very regularly shooting each other; the camera lingers and glides and waits; actual tension grows. Although the film might still use the basic structures taken from Leone and Corbucci, it now develops a breath and a rhythm of its own. If a film is like a dance - and this one surely is - Vanzi has gone from stumbling over his own feet to an unexpected display of unassuming virtuosity.

A Stranger In Town's plot stays rather thin, of course. There are no surprises, no unexpected or expected political or moral messages waiting for the viewer. There's just violence with an undercurrent of suppressed sexuality, and the threat of more nastiness than the film is actually going to deliver. A Stranger In Town is not a film out to explore any new depths or to find out some hidden truths about the concept of the frontier. Rather, it's a cheaply done cash-in on the Spaghetti Western wave whose director somehow stumbles into making a cheaply done cash-in that at times works so well it can delight and surprise.


Friday, November 5, 2010

In short: Cazador De Demonios (1983)

aka Demon Hunter

A small town in Mexico. The shaman Tobias (Jose Tablas) is clubbed to death by a farmer believing the old man to be responsible for the stillbirth of his child. He might even be right about that, what with the shaman slaughtering a chicken over the wife's belly during delivery. Be that as it may, death doesn't stick with Tobias, and so he returns as a floating image by day and a murderous nahual/sasquatch/furry/demon/whatever by night. Tobias starts off with killing his murderer, but the dead guy isn't just satisfied with one single killing and so continues a random killing spree throughout the next nights that culminates in the kidnapping of the town doctor's wife Rosa (Roxana Chavez) for procreation usage. Unpleasantly, he's not as romantic as the Creature from the Black Lagoon when going about things.

The town's sheriff (Roberto Montiel), priest (Tito Junco) and doctor (Rafael Sanchez Navarro) will have to join their forces of authority to conquer the creature that is threatening their peaceful (well, if you can call a place where everyone's a violent jerk even without a supernatural threat going around peaceful) town and/or marriage. After the sceptical sheriff has stopped hunting for a bear with human saliva, that is.

Cazador de Demonios is one of those sad little films that could be contenders either in the league of cheap-but-good little films transcending their poor circumstances through tightness or cleverness, or in that of so-bad-they're-fun ones, but doesn't manage to get any further than to be sort of boring, kind of alright.

The film's budget doesn't seem as low as that of other Mexican horror films of its period, so there's a surprising amount of varied outside locations to see, no filler needs to find its way from the library on screen, and the actors are all perfectly competent. Unfortunately, the film's director and writer Gilberto de Anda doesn't know what to do with any of it, and so decides to very slowly set up a bunch of thematic threads (the typical duel between reason and faith, the fact that everyone in town seems rather…well…evil, the shaman demon's need to live out his physical cravings) that never build up to any kind of actual pay-off and instead just seem to hang in the film's air for no good reason whatsoever.

For a film about a murdering and raping creature, Cazador also turns out to be just very unexciting, which just might be caused by the film's complete lack of dramatic tension and the absence of ideas about how to sensibly fill its running time. You could probably cut out twenty minutes and would not lose anything important, except some of that feeling of tedium.

There's some skulking around in the dark, some screaming, some body parts, people wandering around and talking, a torch bearing mob appears at random, and in the end the movie's monster dies in one of the limpest final confrontations I have ever seen.

It's all so joyless and perfunctory I don't even have it in my to make fun of the hairy guy (understandably barely on screen) who is supposed to be the monster.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

In short: Santo Contra Los Cazadores De Cabezas (1971)

An enemy of heroic Santo (El Santo) talks the chief of a large tribe of Amazon Indians into declaring a war of vengeance on the White Man (the heads of certain people will probably explode when they realize that the film's white men are all from Mexico). But before the chief can begin his war, he'll first have to sacrifice a very special victim to his gods. The chosen one is Mariana de Grijalva (Nadia Milton), a descendant of the conquistadores who nearly extinguished the Incans a few centuries ago. She's easily kidnapped by an Indian sleeper agent who has been working for her father for a decade now, and slowly, very slowly transported to the place of her sacrifice.

Fortunately for Mariana, her dad's best friend knows the glorious El Santo's secret radio frequency, and so the wrestler, Mariana's dad, her boyfriend and various redshirts and traitors are soon on their own way traipsing through the jungle (technically, it's probably supposed to be the Rain Forest - or not, but obviously, it isn't) to rescue her. Various dangers are to be conquered and a lot of walking ensues.

This is probably the most walking-oriented of all Santo films, keeping very much in the tradition of jungle "adventure" movies throughout the history of insomnia cures by being terminally boring. Director veteran Rene Cardona (senior!) really puts out all the stops when it comes to the walking. It makes up about sixty percent of the movie (boy, do I wish I were exaggerating). Even the traditional scenes of people pointing at library footage of animals are mostly replaced by it.

And because that's not enough walking, Cardona has additionally developed a very clever plan to get even more mileage out of it: the unlucky viewer is treated with scenes of both parties - the bad guys and the good guys - walking separately through the same patches of jungle. So the film goes something like this: first, the bad guys walk and walk and walk, then they exposit about the dangers that will threaten their pursuers. Then there's the walking, walking and walking of Santo's band through the same area, followed by about thirty seconds of Santo conquering the respective danger, and Santo and friends talking for three minutes about said danger. Then it's back to the walking bad guys again and so on, and so forth.

It would all be a bit easier to take if the film would at least spend a little time on the actual action, but Cardona films the scenes of Santo fighting a drugged caiman, a helpless leopard, invisible piranhas, invisible vampire bats, invisible electric eels and Indian ambushes in such a short and blandly perfunctory manner that it's impossible to derive any fun from them. It's as if the director is absolutely convinced that all this walking and talking about action that isn't happening is much more entertaining than anything else he could show us. I can't even excuse it with the usual lack of funds, because really - would Santo punching a group of mooks for five minutes instead of five seconds be that more expensive than Santo walking?

After fifty minutes, the film became so painful I even began to wish for some of the musical numbers and stage fight repeats most lucha movies use to fill up their running time. Hell, even Blue Demon reading from his books about UFOs would have been a delightful diversion from THAT DAMNABLE WALKING.