Sunday, October 31, 2010

Curse of the Undead (1959)

aka Mark of the West

There's trouble in a small town in the Old West. The youngest daughters of of the town's families are dying from a mysterious illness. The local physician, Doc Carter (John Hoyt), is at a loss to explain what's happening to the girls, but he won't have to suffer from the doubts that come with his lack of explanations long. While out at night, he dies mysteriously with only two little marks on his neck to show as a cause.

Despite the way of Carter's death speaking against it, the doctor's son Timmy (the atrocious Jimmy Murphy) and his daughter Dolores (Kathleen Crowley) are convinced that their neighbour Buffer (Bruce Gordon), the local would-be major bad guy who has been trying various shady methods to steal the family's ranch for some time now, is somehow responsible for their father's death.

Timmy, as stupid as he is badly acted, provokes Buffer into a gunfight and pays for it with his life. Pained by the doubled loss, Dolores decides to throw all her principles in the wind, attract the anger of family friend and suitor, the perversely upright Preacher Dan (Eric Flaming), and hire a gunman to kill Buffer for her. And a gunman very soon appears in front of the Carter Ranch's door. Drake Robey (Michael Pate), as he calls himself, has been hanging around in the shadows of the area for some time, but nobody in town who is still alive knows of that. The gunman is in fact the true killer of Doc Carter, his deed however has nothing whatsoever to do with ranches or water rights. He's only a vampire returning to a place he once called home, and the doctor was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Although Robey is a cruel bastard and habitual liar, he's also something of a tragic vampire, not merely a wild animal hiding behind a human mask, and falls for Dolores, which pushes him into a fateful rivalry with the preacher. Preacher Dan soon finds out the truth about the nature and history of his enemy, but knowing it and making others - especially Dolores - believe that truth, or conquering his enemy, are quite different things.

The first half hour of Curse of the Undead is not very promising. Too many of the actors - worst of the worst being the guy playing Timmy and Bruce "Buffer" Gordon - are just not very good. The film tries its damndest to be as generic a Western as possible, neither showing any of the sophistication typical of one half of the better US Western movies of the 50s, nor of the heated intensity lying just below the surface of the other half. Like the machinations of Buffer, the early parts of the movie are just too bland and by the book to excite.

That state of affairs changes once the film introduces Robey, puts Buffer on the plot-enabling backburner and concentrates on the surprisingly complex relationship between Dolores, Dan and him. The interest in the nature of good and evil many 50s Western show appears here too, and what better character to explore that in than in a vampire? This is not to say that the film goes the full-on tragic vampire route with Robey. There's a certain amount of sympathy for him, but the film also shows the vampire as a conniving bastard who uses the tragic part of his fate (and a fate he is not at completely innocent of to boot) as an excuse to indulge in his own worst impulses (or as much as US 50s cinema allows - I'm quite surprised they got away with the child murders or the very obvious sexual aspects of his desire for Dolores). Michael Pate, whom I mostly know from heavy roles in other Westerns, projects just the right cross of physical presence (his Robey is a supremely physical vampire), sadness and unpleasant self-righteousness. Played this way, and supported by a variation of vampire lore that is low on the supernatural, Curse's vampire is supremely human, which seems like a nice change from the teen idol as well as the wild animal vampire modes that are en vogue right now. Though I hasten to add that there's nothing wrong with those modes per se - creatures like the vampire need to change to stay relevant to different times and audiences.

Unfortunately, Robey's counterpart in Preacher Dan is much less interesting. Dan is upright and good in that inhuman, flawless amount that tends to make me as a viewer slightly nauseous, so it's quite difficult to see this self-righteous ass as the hero and speaker of eternal moral the film sets him up to be. Although he's emotionally perfect and always right, he's also quite crap as a vampire hunter. It sure doesn't help his case that I find his theological arguments abhorrent - according to his sort of religion, Robey deserved to become an immortal killer for committing suicide, notwithstanding the fact he committed that "sin" to make up for the actual evil act of murdering his own brother in cold blood. And let's just not even begin to talk about the fact that there would be a few young girls alive and happy in Dan's town if his rather thoughtless godhood hadn't turned Robey into a vampire. Your mileage with this sort of theology may of course vary.

None of this is Dan's actor Eric Fleming's fault. He's doing his best to keep his stick-in-the-arse character looking like an actual human being and even succeeds partially, which is about as much as could be asked of him.

Crowley does her best with what the script gives her, and really manages to sell her emotional wavering between Robey and Dan excellently. As someone born in the late 70s I would have wished for more agency for her - you know, like having a hand in solving her own problems, at least - but for the time the film was made in, and the state of the genres it belongs to at that time, her role in the film is at least not as bad as it could be.

Edward Dein's direction of his own and Mildred Dein's (sister or wife, I don't know) script is alright. He sure is neither Andre de Toth nor Jacques Tourneur, but he doesn't do anything wrong. In some scenes Dein's play with shadows is even rather impressive.

So, if you can get over a slow beginning, Curse of the Undead is certainly one of the better attempts at crossing the genres of western and horror.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

In short: The Abomination (1986? 1988?)

Somewhere in rural Texas, mechanic Cody (Scott Davis) lives a quiet life with his mother. All could be well, if not for Mom's obsession with the TV show of preacher Brother Fogg (Rex Morton). Somehow, Fogg has the old lady convinced she's dying from a lung tumour. Mum doesn't seem to have bothered with going to a doctor to get a more grounded diagnosis, and now seldom leaves the house.

Surprisingly, Fogg isn't completely wrong about the woman's state. One evening, while Cody's out driving around with his girlfriend, Mom pukes up a tumour-esque lump of flesh, which she proceeds to throw in the garbage. I have to say, most tumours I have heard of don't pulsate like a beating heart and even fewer do what this particular specimen does when Cody is home, namely creeping into the man's mouth while he's sleeping the sleep of the innocent.

Soon, it turns out that the tumour is the biblical Abomination (which turns all things desolate, as Cody will inform us repeatedly). Abby, as the film unfortunately never calls the thing, puts a mind-control whammy on Cody, who then proceeds to kill various people and feed them to his new master. The Abomination soon grows large enough to move under Cody's bed, later to take over the kitchen cabinets, the toilet and the washing machine.

Obviously, Cody will have to get more food.

I had read rather nice things about Bret McCormick's The Abomination, so I went into this one with expectations of one of the more weird and moody pieces of gore movie making, but I was gravely disappointed by the film's lack of exactly these elements. Sure, the set-up is weird (but is going to be explained away in a very annoying piece of off-screen dialogue of the "it was all the hallucination of a violent maniac" type in the end), and the big monster in the kitchen cabinet effect - as well as everything else we get to see of the film's truly disgusting yet still rubbery looking monster - is extremely neat for a film of this type, but that's about all The Abomination has going for it.

The film's pace, even once Cody has finally begun his killing spree, is just completely wrong. There are too many long stretches of nothing at all happening, and when something is happening, it happens so damn slow that it is difficult to bring oneself to care about it. This particular problem is further aggravated by the fact that McCormick uses certain scenes up to three times. I'm sure if you liked the murder by the graveyard the first time, you'll surely love it after its second repetition during the course of ninety minutes. Right? Well, or you just might get bored out of your mind. Even worse is that all those long dragging moments of slowness and repetition bury the high weirdness factor the film's mad religious underpinnings could provide under a sea of molasses; McCormick seems unwilling or unable to do anything with his madder ideas.

The complete absence of a plot besides "abomination appears, Cody kills people, rinse and repeat the killing for the rest of the movie" makes the whole experience of watching The Abomination quite a chore. A neat looking rubber monster and a bit of gore alone just aren't enough to let the movie resonate with me.


Friday, October 29, 2010

On WTF: Ogroff (1983)

If I were in the marketing business, I'd probably try to sell you French amateur auteur N.G. Mount's Ogroff as the first serial killer romantic comedy with zombies and Howard Vernon, but that would be somewhat dishonest of me, seeing that I don't believe the film to be a comedy.

Be that as it may, my write-up on WTF-Film should make clear what I do believe about the film, and why you should do anything in your power to acquire a copy to see it for yourself.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Three Films Make A Post: A secret hidden by time that will reap its horrible revenge

Night of the Demons (2009): Given that I'm not exactly a fan of the original, I was expecting even less of this remake. That I got. What the remake also gave me was a new appreciation of how clever and effective a film the original is in comparison.

As long as the remake keeps as close to its model as possible, it's watchable as the type of trashy, tasteless movie certain people probably think all horror movies are and that can be halfway fun if you're in the right mood, or twelve. It's very dumb, but not too painful.

Unfortunately, director Adam Gierasch decides to put his own "ideas" into the proceedings after about an hour of tits and blood have passed. From then on out, you can actually feel your brain cells dying one after the other, or can at least come to the conclusion that Gierasch has managed the seemingly impossible - he has made a film that's even dumber than the original Night of the Demons.


Altitude (2010): Hint to screenwriters: Don't be like Altitude. If you are writing a movie about a handful of characters in an enclosed environment having to face various dangers that spends much more time on said characters than on said dangers - until it turns out they are all DANGERS OF THE MIND - you're probably better off not making everyone so annoying and clichéd that your audience will want them to die as fast as possible. Oh, and please don't go for idiotic twisty psychological revelations that have no connection to the psychology of actual people nor are much good for your movie's plot, either. And please, just don't get me started on the abysmal yet obvious final plot twist.

In other words, either create characters worth spending the time on for your Twilight Zone revival movie, or just make the flying tentacle monster movie this was marketed as.


The Devil's Playground (2010): And the last film in this sad trio of movies I'd in hindsight have preferred to avoid is a British viral non-zombie apocalypse caused by medical tests pursued by a moustache-twirling evil pharma company (great Cthulhu, they even have their own little killer commando!) trying to create a performance-enhancing drug. Don't ask me what performance-enhancing drugs have to do with a non-zombie virus, please. I didn't write the script.

The rest is exactly like at least half a dozen other zombie apocalypse movies from the UK. The only twist the zombie lore gets is that the virus transforms its victims into parcours runners, which turns out to make them more ridiculous than frightening.

The direction by Mark McQueen is competent in a contemporary action movie kind of way, but there's just not anything in here I haven't seen in better movies (which is to say, movies with their own ideas about humanity, or just about what zombies mean).

Dear horror directors, please stop making zombie films if you don't have anything new to add to the sub-genre.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Death By Invitation (1971)

Lise (Shelby Leverington) is the reincarnation of a woman killed as a witch way back in ye olden days of randomly applied white face paint and axing women at the stake.

As witches and non-witches alike love to do, Lise's nameless ancestress has sworn revenge on the descendants of the main instigator of her killing, one Peter Vroot (Aaron Phillips). Lise has managed to charm (or whatever, I'm doing exposition the film just doesn't bother with here) herself into the position of the favourite family friend of the 70s version of the Vroots (who are of course all played by the same actors as their old-timey versions), and is now beginning to kill the family members off one by one, probably so that the 70s version of Peter - an intensely unpleasant and self-important businessman with an intelligence only slightly above that of certain houseplants - can suffer a bit more before he comes to his bloody end.

Chances are, anyone reading this will have watched quite a few other movies following more or less the same plot line and has her expectations about how the film will turn out to be set. Death By Invitation has its own and very particular charms, though, which are only in line with expectations of the grandly but cheaply weird.

The film's director Ken Friedman obviously was trying to art house his little low budget horror movie up to the gills, producing exactly the indubitably 70s sort of mixture of the dubiously successful highbrow and the equally dubiously successful lowbrow I take to like a centuries old vampire does to schoolgirls and Southern small town waitresses.

Friedman puts quite a bit of work into avoiding the usual sad point and shoot trappings of this sort of film, so most shots are much better composed than you'd expect. At the same time, every shot is also as peculiar as they come. It's easy to see with how much thought every scene has been put together, yet on the other hand it is nearly impossible for someone not sharing Friedman's brainspace to understand what these thoughts are exactly about, leaving the happy viewer with a feeling of light-headed drifting and vague ideas that the film is somehow about feminism (or not).

Drifting is also what the movie's script (also written by Friedman) does most of the time. The conventional plot gets lost in weird scenes that come out of nowhere and lead anywhere. Lise prepares her first murder victim through a long, absurdly intense acted monologue about "the Southern Tribes", in which "the women were the hunters, the men were domesticated"; a man (actually the male lead, but let's not go there) gets himself "comically" (except that it isn't funny) lost searching for Vroot's office and later has a screaming match with the man trying to be louder than the music that's smattering in the background for no good reason whatsoever; an elderly priest does a particularly bad reading from the Book of Job at a graveside; library music jumps the audience's ears when they least expect it. Some of this is be supposed to be humorous, possibly ironic, but it's impossible to be sure in a film that doesn't include any normality from which the humour can successfully deviate.

The film's feel of inexplicable moodiness is further enhanced by acting performances that fit the bizarre tendencies of everything else on screen perfectly. Shelby Leverington is the only member of the cast who has gone on to something like an acting career (mostly on TV), and she's certainly the most professional person in the cast. I wouldn't call her performance "good" in a conventional sense - that sort of "good" doesn't belong into this movie anyhow - but it sure is intense. For most of the other actors, Death By Invitation is the only IMDB credit. They are therefore ideally qualified to provide the mixture of the awkward and the freakish that the movie needs to survive without just being a boring slog.

Although - truth be told - some viewers might still judge Death By Invitation to be boring and slow. It certainly is if you're on the look-out for straight thrills. If, on the other hand, you're looking for thrills of the more outlandish sort, you're in perfectly good hands with Friedman's film.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In short: The Other Hell (1981)

Original title: L'altro Inferno

Something is not right in a small Italian nunnery. The embalming specialist of the cloister (yes, every religious institution needs one, didn't you know?) has gone corpse-crotch-mutilatingly mad, a papercraft head with blinking red light bulb eyes pops up now and then, and nuns die in violent ways. Vincenza (Franca Stoppi), the mother superior of the place, tries to sell the deaths and the madness as accidents to the church hierarchy, but this isn't child abuse, so the Church sends the experienced Father Inardo (Andrea Aureli) to investigate.

Inardo witnesses more signs of highly unnatural influences in the cloister in form of a possibly possessed nun with stigmata, strange noises and the smell of secrets all around. For some reason, his bosses very suddenly decide to replace Inardo with the younger, much more sceptical of the supernatural Father Valerio (Carlo De Mejo).

The young sceptic soon learns that there are even stranger things afoot in the cloister than Inardo has experienced. What has all this to do with the masked nun living in the attic, in a room full of naked dolls hanging from the ceiling? The answer lies - as it always does - in a terrible secret in the cloister's past.

The Other Hell is one of the earliest cooperations between Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso, but it already is the expected mix of insane random stuff (hello camera that films the past!), hilariously bad special effects (hello doll-who-stands-in-for-a-baby and fake dogs!), utter tastelessness (hello groin-stabbing one, two and three!), hysterical acting (hello close-ups of sweaty nun faces and loud screeching!), recycled Goblin tracks (hello, soundtrack of Buoi Omega!) and a preposterously earnest subtext that doesn't survive contact with the rest of the film.

Said subtext is especially interesting this time around, as Mattei and Fragrasso seem to want to say something against the repression of female sexuality - unless they are trying to blame everything bad on female sexuality (the uterus is "the labyrinth that leads to hell", it seems). There's a basis for both interpretations in the film, but our heroic directors/writers are a bit too occupied with ripping off Carrie, The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby to give anything but mixed messages about anything.

It comes as a bit of a surprise what the film doesn't include, though, namely the scenes of female nudity - and whippings, oh wait, let's make that nude whippings - any exploitation film taking place in a cloister is by law required to have. Making a film that's thematically all about sexuality (and the devil) that then doesn't include any on-screen sex seems at once a bit perverse and rather clever; the latter isn't a concept I usually use in connection with these two intrepid purveyors of smut. One could nearly come to the conclusion that Mattei and Fragasso at this early point in their partnership still had artistic ambitions. These ambitions also show in a handful of surprisingly well-staged scenes, whose basic ideas might be cribbed from Bava and Argento, but that still can't help and pull The Other Hell more into the direction of serious dream-like horror than I would have expected from these two.

Don't worry, though, The Other Hell is still as immensely entertaining as most of the films Mattei and Fragasso are responsible for; it's just a bit more like an actual movie and less like, well, whatever Robowar is supposed to be.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Blood Link (1982)

Craig Manning (Michael Moriarty) is a successful doctor whose medical research aiming at some sort of diffuse self-realization leads him into self-experimentation with his self-invented mix of acupuncture and electro shock, not exactly to the delight of his girlfriend and colleague Julie Warren (Penelope Milford).

Caused by his SCIENCE!, Craig starts to have strange dreams in which he seems himself murdering women who are all at the tail end of middle age. As if that weren't disturbing enough, Craig's dreams of murder soon turn into day dreams, complete with sleepwalking. The doctor has the strange feeling that he is not just experiencing violent fantasies produced by his own experimental treatment and the depths of his subconscious, but has opened the door to someone else's mind. Craig is quite convinced that the person whose deeds he witnesses is his Siamese twin brother Keith, and that his brother can sometimes see through his eyes too (how that's supposed to work without Keith having undergone Craig's treatment, I surely don't know). Keith, however, is supposed to have died at the age of seventeen in a fire that also killed the brothers' foster father. Still, Craig visits his foster mother Mrs Thomason in the home for the elderly she's now being treated in to ask a few poignant questions about Keith's dead. Turns out that Mrs Thomason was lying about Craig's brother all these years to protect him from police interest.

Now that Craig is sure his brother is alive, he just has to meet him and somehow "save" him from his murderous impulses. A new vision soon shows him that Keith is in Hamburg, so Craig decides to look for him there. This is of course a very bad idea, and before you can say "I toldya", Keith sets a plan in motion that will put the blame for his murders on his innocent brother.

The old tale of the good twin and the evil twin already had survived more variations than anyone should care to count when Alberto De Martino made this thriller, yet it is one of those basic set-ups which - if treated with care - have so much thematic resonance that they are always worth exploring.

It's also the sort of set-up that gives a willing actor an opportunity to really do some Acting. One can do that subtly, showing the on the surface identical twins to be completely different persons through slight gestures and minimal changes in posture and voice, or one can do it like Michael Moriarty does here, by wildly chewing the scenery as if it were the only thing standing between one and starvation. That's not really a criticism of Moriarty's performance here, mind you. Rather, the broadness of his performance fits perfectly to Blood Link's not exactly subtle script that mostly goes into the most obvious directions, but at least goes there with enough conviction and technical to make for an interesting film.

For most of the time, Blood Link is also a relatively logical film, at least if you're willing to buy into the whole good twin/evil twin business and into the telepathy. In an Italian film of this era, that's about as naturalistic and un-dreamlike as it gets. Only in the final twenty minutes, the script gives up on reality as I know it completely, and goes for a sleazy yet fitting finale that's based on Keith's impotence, only to end on a not very well prepared but really disturbing scene where the differences between the brothers have completely disappeared.

The ending would really work better for a film that's more dreamlike than the often rather straightforward Blood Link. This straightforwardness, however, comes with the territory of the film's director Alberto De Martino. De Martino is the kind of guy who is always able to make solid and well-paced films, yet his films seldom prove to be mad enough to be completely to my (admittedly sometimes dubious) tastes. In fact, Blood Link is probably as weird as it gets for De Martino (unless a until now unseen by me film will prove me wrong), and might be a film to watch especially for those viewers who can't cope with more dreamlike Italian films.

Even if you can cope with less normal films, though, there's no reason to avoid this one. It is a perfectly fine thriller with a perfectly hysterical lead performance.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

In short: Ölüler Konusmaz Ki (1970)

aka Ölüler Konusmazki

aka The Dead Don't Talk

A young couple has come into a Turkish small-town for some unexplained "business". A carriage driver who likes to mention that it is the 15th of the month and he has to be home before dark a bit too often for comfort drives them to a guest house. It's one of those creepy gothic affairs, with doors that open and close without human influence, and a warm meal for the right amount of persons already ready on the table. A bit later, a rather creepy guy appears and delights everyone with slow movements and not the least bit suspicious glances at the lady of the couple. Later on, Creepy Guy (who is named Hasan, it seems) shows the lady what he loves - a painting of a woman in front of which he proceeds to have a break-down, because beautiful women always leave him.

Despite everything, the couple still decides to stay the night at the place. Not surprisingly, that's not a good idea. A dead guy wearing a hat and a trenchcoat arrives, opens his mouth very wide, laughs a lot, and kills the couple. Then follow a few random scenes of further killing and laughing. In between, a guy with a moustache (we will later learn that he is the headmaster of the local school) has heart problems.

Then, something comprehensible happens! Sema, the new school teacher arrives in town. The poor girl's new living quarters are of course in Hasan's house, and she is of course the new main goal of the dead joker's killing aspirations, but Sema turns out to be more resolute and resistant than anybody could have expected.

Turkey is still my go-to country when it comes to films that are at once frighteningly simple and utterly confusing. For most of Ölüler's running time, I didn't have much of a clue what was going on, despite the film being subtitled. Obviously, I was able to follow the part about a dead man walking around and killing people (and I even managed to understand his connection with the headmaster at a later point) while laughing a lot (and I mean a lot), but the why and wherefore and who of most everyone and everything in it was disturbingly unclear.

The film has the sort of disorienting effect that might be meant to simulate the experience of a combination of culture shock, jet lag and a dead guy laughing extensively in a viewer. Or Ölüler might be an avantgardist masterpiece. Or it might just be that writer/director Yavuz Yalinkilic's style is just completely confusing out of incompetence and/or a lack of funds.

In the end, it doesn't matter much, because this is a film about a dead guy laughing (did I mention that he laughs a lot?) and killing people, a classical folkloristic Turkish monster, screaming women, disturbed editing - in short, it's exactly what one would expect a Turkish pop/pulp cinema horror film to be, with nothing to disturb the pure experience of a horror movie pared down to some of its absolute basics. From time to time, the film is even effectively disquieting, mostly through scenes of the dead guy rubbing himself against a window, and the neverending laughter that annoys until it can't annoy anymore, but becomes uniquely unpleasant, like a dead and rotting thing dangling hypnotically before your eyes.

If you are inexperienced with the unique Turkish approach to filmmaking you will probably be better served with watching something less grating first, but if you've already developed the taste, this will mess you up pretty good.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

In short: Devils of Darkness (1965)

British writer Paul Baxter (William Sylvester) and his friends, the Forest siblings, are on vacation in a picturesque little village in France. As this is a British movie, there can only be something sinister afoot in continental Europe. And in fact, the village turns out to be the nest of a Satanic cult serving the very subtly named vampire Count Sinistre (Hubert Noel) and his chosen bride Tania (Carole Gray).

The Forests don't survive their stay in the village for long. The brother is killed in a caving "accident" when he stumbles onto the coffin of Tania. I think there might be a better place - preferably with locks - for a vampire's coffin than a dank cave, especially when her fiancée owns a village, but what do I know?

Soon after, the bereaved Forest sister doesn't survive the good Count's very special attempts at comforting her. Officially, she drowns.

Baxter is getting a little suspicious of the whole affair, but the local police blocks his attempts to find out what really happened (while drinking coffee, instead of tea - the fiends!), and his only hints for solving the mystery are a short glimpse of bite marks on the dead woman's neck and a golden bat talisman he finds where she was killed. The only thing Baxter can do is to pack his things and take his fancy new amulet back to England for further research.

What Baxter doesn't know is that the golden bat is the most prized possession of Sinistre - that's why he lost it so easily - and that the vampire's Satanist cult has a branch office in London. So while our hero is trying to find out more about the amulet, evil plans are set in motion by the vampire and his friends.

The best part of those plans is obviously the kidnapping of Karen (Tracy Reed), a girl Baxter has just met at a party, to try and use her as a hostage against the writer. That's a real tactical masterstroke by Sinistre, which only gets better when the rather distractible vampire decides that he'd rather have Karen than Tania as his bride. A vampire marriage crisis ensues.

What begins as a standard Gothic vampire film with a few short scenes about the awakening of Sinistre in ye olden times, soon turns into a standard Gothic contemporary vampire film. It seems however that Devils of Darkness' director Lance Comfort isn't satisfied with making "just" a nice Gothic genre piece, and so the film again transforms into one of those vampire films that try to be contemporary. Unfortunately, while Comfort manages to make his film very pretty to look at, he never finds a way to either lose the Gothic trappings completely or use the friction between the modern and the Gothic to any memorable effect.

This failure certainly has a lot to do with the film's inability to understand its contemporary pop culture, which leaves us with some of those dreaded scenes of very polite British mid-60s beatnik "orgies" as seen through the eyes of a scriptwriter nearing his or her fifties.

Then there's the rather confused and very very slowly developing plot that does contain some funny ideas (monogamous vampire counts? really?), yet prefers dithering to coming to any point; building any form of tension is right out anyhow. It's never a good sign when the best end a film can find for its main villain is to die by randomly running into a cross on a graveyard. Of course, Hubert Noel and his not utterly unthreatening thick French accent and presence are well served with that sort of ending, as they are with the bland William Sylvester as their enemy.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Return of the Sister Street Fighter (1975)

Original title: Kaette kita onna hissatsu ken

After her adventures in Japan in Sister Street Fighter and Sister Street Fighter: Hanging By A Thread, everyone's favourite female martial artist Koryu (Etsuko Shihomi) has again returned to her native Hong Kong. To nobody's surprise, she isn't going to stay there long, though. Sho, a private detective friend from Japan (played by Sonny Chiba's decidedly less awesome brother Jiro) comes to tell her that her old friend Shurei (Akane Kawasaki) has disappeared and is probably held captive by the criminal organization of a certain Oh Ryu Mei. For some reason, the detective is also bringing Koryu Shurei's little daughter Rika. The only lead Sho can give Koryu about Shurei's disappearance is the last person Shurei spoke with before she disappeared, a woman named Suzy Wong in Yokohama. Then, it's time for Sho to get killed in the mandatory attack on our heroine's first informant.

Now, there's really not much else for Koryu to do than to pack her bags and Rika and go to Yokohama. As always, the bad guys are starting a series of failed attempts on Koryu's life once she arrives, and as always, she (and in this case Rika) puts her trust into a junkie who is secretly working for the bad guys - in this case Shurei's sister Reika (Miwa Cho). Of course, there are lots of fighting, a little sneaking and crying and a redemptive death or two in Koryu's future, as well as the "surprising" revelation that the least freakish character (Yasuaki Kurata) among Oh Ryu Mei's killers isn't a bad guy at all.

Plotwise, this third and last Sister Street Fighter movie is quite a disappointment. Although the first and second movie were already a bit similar to each other, this one is more or less a remake of Hanging By A Thread, just with an even more ridiculous - and therefore satisfying - gold smuggling plan and a few elements pilfered from the first movie added to the mix. In theory, this sort of recycling is too cynical even for an exploitation movie, and should lead to the sort of movie that puts me into an even more annoyed mood than is my natural state of mind. In practice, I didn't mind the films lack of originality much, because Return - despite everything -still does manage to be a slightly different film from its predecessors.

For one, Return is quite a differently directed movie than the other two parts of the series, with (on the negative side) fewer of the moments of colourful visual excess Kazuhiko Yamaguchi seems to like to put in his movies as often as possible, but (on the positive side) also an even greater emphasis on keeping the action tightly flowing. Yamaguchi always has shown a hand for the latter in his movies, but often seems to prefer the weirdly psychedelic or the full-blown freak-out to the dynamic. That's of course lovely too, yet a script as close to that of a film that was made less than a year before is better served with getting a different treatment, as happens with Return.

And really, I'm not going to complain much about a martial arts movie full of exciting martial arts sequences. That would be rather silly.

Another reason not to complain about Return is the nature of its main villain. Oh Ryu Mei has the most Blofeld-like sense of style of all the main villains in the Sister Street Fighter movies (although he prefers a guy with a ridiculous hair cut who works as a food taster and wheel-chair driver to a cat), a sure way of showing his henchpeople who's boss, a lair that also makes excessively clear who is boss - what with him sitting five meters above his henchies, and an electric fist. Confronted with this kind of evil, I'm utterly helpless.

The rest of the film is as you'd expect: Etsuko Shihomi is awesome and cute (and sort of looking like a friend of mine, actually), the child actress annoying, the evil assassins silly as you could wish, the soundtrack funky as expected in this sort of Toei production, and everything's over and done with an hour before most films made in our century would be. It's a film that never overstays its welcome, and that is as generous with its bits of awesomeness as it is with its fight scenes.

So it's all good.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In short: Predators (2010)

A bunch of action movie clichés is abducted by aliens and parachuted onto a jungle world.

Now Tough Guy American Mercenary (Adrien Brody, speaking with a very silly Deep Manly Man Voice that gives Christian Batman a run for his money), Sniper With A Heart (Alice Braga), Danny Trejo (Danny Trejo), Russian Guy With Extra Large Gun (Oleg Taktarov), Untrustworthy Psycho In Prison Uniform (Walton Goggins), Big Black Man From Africa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), Yakuza Dude (Louis Ozawa Changchien) and Baby-Faced Doctor (Topher Grace) find themselves hunted by a trio of the loveable Predator species.

After some fighting, some dying and little thinking, the survivors meet  Larry Fishburne, who has survived quite some time on the planet and now proceeds to not just chew the scenery but eat it whole. Very probably with ketchup.

Anyway, the meeting with ole Larry doesn't turn out too well, and so the survivors of the survivors have to carry the fight to the aliens in the hope of stealing their spaceship.

I have to admit that Predators has exceeded my expectations regarding its quality quite a bit. Of course, I have seen both Alien(s) vs. Predator films, and therefore expected this one to be about as fun as getting my head mashed in with a big rock while Justin Bieber sings in the background, which probably is the kind of  expectations most easily exceeded.

Obviously, the movie is as dumb as a rock, and pretty darn silly to boot, but so was the best/only good film of the Predator franchise too (Vietnam "trauma" subtext notwithstanding). However, that first Predator was also a pretty great action movie, interested in the things all pretty great action movies are interested in - explosions, people dying in painful ways and gunfights - and in that respect it was an admirable success.

Although Predators isn't quite as good at the action as the old McTiernan piece (and hopefully does contain fewer future politicians in its cast), it seems to try to go back to the roots of the series by making an entertaining action flick with neat looking aliens as the main bad guys, and not whatever Aliens vs. Predator was supposed to be. As long as nobody is talking and the film doesn't attempt characterization, director Nimrod Antal delivers an entertaining joy ride of a film with more than enough dumb fun to keep me happy.

Dialogue and characterization are really bad, though, with "ethnic" characters I would call racist if the white people weren't painfully flat cardboard cut-outs, too. As it stands, the film's script just doesn't contain people as much as it does moving fleshbags the scriptwriters once saw in other movies and have transported into their own without a second (or first, I suspect) thought. There's some rambling dialogue about the protagonists being monsters themselves etc etc that's supposed to provide thematic depth, but it is much too superficial and ill thought-out to work. The actors are doing what they can with what they are given (which in Fishburne's case means provoking tears of laughter), but it's not much.

However, the shooting and the shouting stays fine throughout, so if you're going into Predators looking for cheap thrills, you're in for a good time.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

In short: Süpermen Dönüyor (1979)

aka Turkish Superman

aka The Return of Superman

Whatever you think you know about Superman from those American movies is wrong: the last survivor of the planet Krypton (which, and I quote: "exploded seven lightyears ago") didn't grow up in Kansas, but in Turkey. His name also isn't Clark Kent, but Tayfun (Tayfun Demir). The rest of his background is mostly as you remember, though. Please just keep in mind that his kidnapping-prone journalist love interest is now called Alev (Güngör Bayrak) and the Daily Planet consists of three desks in two office rooms.

Anyway, a bad guy named Ekrem (Yildirim Gencer) has invented a ray that can transform any metal into gold and also moonlights as a death ray. Ekrem's only problem is that he needs Krypton Stone as an energy source for his ray, and the only known specimens of that element (as well as a formula to produce more of it) are in the hands of the upright Professor Hetin (Esref Kolcak) who just happens to be Alev's father. Hetin certainly isn't going to give the element or his inventions to just anyone, so Ekrem makes dastardly plans (that for some reason start with trying to kill Alev instead of kidnapping her as a hostage) to steal them from the professor.

Fortunately, Superman is there to show Ekrem and his henchpeople the errors of their ways.

For once, a Turkish pop movie known as Turkish whatever actually deserves the title, but it's also for once a movie of its type I don't care much for.

On paper, Turkish Superman contains all the mandatory elements to make me happy: utter disregard for copyright laws as demonstrated by the film's hero being Superman in exactly the iconic costume, and even parts of the music being borrowed from the US movie (the James Bond theme also features quite prominently), special effects so special the substitution of Christmas ornaments for stars and planets in the film's intro isn't even their worst moment, a jumpy plot that just can't sit still for longer than five seconds, and Kunt Tulgar, Copperhead himself, in the director's chair.

Unfortunately, all this potential adds up to less than I had hoped for. Tulgar is a much weaker director than for example Yilmaz Atadeniz or Cetin Inanc are. Tulgar's frankly boring point and shoot style is only useful to demonstrate how much more creative his peers were visually. Atadeniz' and Inanc's films were often raw and sloppy, yet also full of an energy and excitement that made their films irresistible. Turkish Superman is only hectic in comparison.

The film's not made better by the fact that its Superman Tayfun Denim spends most of his time with the creepy smirk of a serial killer on his face. I wouldn't have been surprised if he had ripped someone's head off while wearing that expression. And what do you know? Turkish Superman does kill people.

The movie further suffers from the simple problem that Superman as a character just isn't a very good fit for the two-fisted action style Turkish popular cinema is specialized in. There's not much room for longer fisticuffs or interesting stunts when your film's hero is untouchable by normal physical means and so strong he wins his fights with a single punch. The easiest way out of this particular problem is to give our hero an equally super-powered foe, but Tulgar's film doesn't use this method, either for budgetary reasons or to ape the first US Superman of the 70s more closely.

Consequently, I found it extremely difficult to get excited about Tayfun or his adventures, and excitement is usually what Turkish pop cinema has going for it.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Ju-On: Shiroi Roujo (2009)

aka Ju-On: White Ghost

A new series of people falls victim to the malevolent influence of the house that has been at the core of all the unpleasantness of the other Ju-On movies (of which no US remakes exist, you hear?). It's all presented in short, at first awfully simple and self-contained seeming segments that are presented out of temporal order. Only after some time the basic gist of the story will become clear: a family movies into The House, two family members change through the supernatural influences there, until one of them kills everyone, and then himself. Afterwards, the angry dead begin to infect everyone who had come in contact with them or the house - like an unfortunate taxi driver, or a poor guy trying to deliver a Christmas cake to the house years later - perpetuating the evil.

Shiroi Roujo is one of two direct-to-DVD movies that came out in Japan last year to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the start of the Ju-On series in the same cheap V-cinema style as it began. Not surprisingly, given how far the budgets V-cinema has to work under have fallen now, it's less impressive than any of Takashi Shimizu's (who is listed as a "supervisor" for the two new movies, whatever that may mean) originals, although (or possibly because) its director and writer Ryuta Mitake tries his hardest to copy the non-linear structure of most of those films.

Unfortunately, Mitake never manages to create the feeling of disorientation nor the satisfying aha-effect when that disorientation lifts in this viewer. Unfortunately, that disorientation was one of the core elements that made Shimizu's films as terrifying and discomforting as they were. In part, the absence of this effect is certainly caused by the familiarity  of non-linear narratives in the context of the Ju-On movies - which is certainly not helpful in creating the mood of the uncanny these films live on - but I can't help to blame Mitake's rather bland direction style, and the not always excellent acting for it too. At times, especially in dialogue sequences, I couldn't shake the feeling Mitake just doesn't know what to do with the camera, leading to a lot of directionless wavering that stands in an unfortunate contrast to those scenes in which he is trying to imitate Shimizu's typically static, yet intensely eerie scene set-ups.

Mitake isn't too even-handed at producing stylish horror sequences either. Far too often, he puts his faith in jump scares of a dead old woman suddenly moaning into the camera while a sudden music cue plays VERY LOUDLY. This does of course make one twitch, yet it surely does not make one feel frightened or disquieted for more than the second the shock takes.

It's a bit of a shame because there are a few scenes in Shiroi Roujo that show its director to be capable of more interesting and more emotionally complex scenes of horror. There's a truly disquieting guest appearance of that cursed little boy ghost we all have had nightmares about making cat noises through a closed veranda door at a barking toy dog, and an equally creepy scene in which the future family killer is infected by the curse by touching a mirror, his mirror image lingering inside the mirror's frame even after he has left the room.

It's scenes like these, the sort of moments that can still hit me in horror films after decades of watching them, that make Shiroi Roujo watchable despite its unpleasant smell of been-there-done-that filmmaking and its more directly visible flaws. That these moments are hidden away in a routine-at-best cash-in on better films from the past could make one sad, or cynical, but does instead leave me hopeful for the next time I watch a film I don't expect anything from in the first place. You just never know where you'll be able to find a few seconds of the truly weird hidden away.

It does obviously help to get through a film like this one without too much annoyance when you're like me and think that there aren't enough directors trying to learn from Shimizu's best films, even if they - like Mitake - are only at the level of pure imitation.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Three Films Make A Post: She's Waiting To Love You…To Death

Twelve Deadly Coins (1969): I'm usually pretty alright with the genre conventions of 60s wuxia, but this Shaw Brothers production lays the knightly goodness of its protagonist (ironically played by professional bad guy Lo Lieh) on so thick it's nearly nauseating. The film's plot only works if everyone on screen is so dumb they should have problems putting on their clothes in the morning and tends to lose itself in scenes that just don't need to be there at all. So I don't think it's mere chance that this is the only script written by director Hsu Tseng-Hu.

Wearing his director's hat, Hsu (typically) does the usual Shaw house style dance, but isn't able to transcend the weakness of his script too well.

On the plus side, there's the always delightful Ching Li playing the adopted daughter of the main bad guy who falls for Lo Lieh's preposterous heroism. I also always enjoy it when Lo Lieh is allowed to be a good guy. It's almost as if people who aren't pretty can be heroic too.


Jonah Hex (2010): Looks like Uwe Boll is working under the pseudonym of Jimmy Hayward now, or - and what a terrible thought this is - there are now directors working in Hollywood who have been influenced by the German anti-maestro's "direction style".

The parallels between Hayward's film and a Boll ejaculation are truly shocking: there's the needlessly jittery camera movements, the puzzlingly idiotic framing, the script lacking even the slightest hints of intelligence, or sense, or flow, and a bunch of actors I know can do better giving performances they should be ashamed of. It's decidedly unpleasant, and not even funny in its complete crapness.


Have A Good Funeral, My Friend…Sartana Will Pay (1970): Sartana (Gianni Garko). Murder. Gold. A small town full of people with secrets. You know the rest.

Despite its ridiculously awesome (or awesomely ridiculous) title, this is probably the least entertaining or interesting Spaghetti Western by Giuliano Carnimeo I've seen. It's not a really bad movie, it's just routine where it should be lively and utterly devoid of the little moments of silliness that make Carnimeo's better films so watchable. There's nothing directly wrong with the film - it's just so generic I'm not completely convinced it really exists.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pai Yu-Ching (1977)

Martial world China. A masked, black-clad martial artist attacks the headquarters of the highly influential Green Dragon Band and steals its most important possession, a scroll known as the Green Dragon Pass (that somehow grants the group some sort of dominance over other martial arts groups, but that's neither going to be important later on nor explained to the unworthy audience). The intruder maims and kills quite a few of the Band's members (comes from only playing hippie jam rock), but loses a piece of jade during his escape.That piece of jade is easily identifiable as belonging to the well-known swordsman Pai Yu-Cheng (Tien Peng), so the ambitious second in command of the Green Dragon Band - hell-bent on using his group's problems to seize power from his aging and ill master - sets a prize on Pai's head.

Of course, it has all been a set-up. Pai is as honourable a swordsman as they come, the type of man who adopts incredibly annoying children he just met on the street as his martial arts students, protects the weak and needy, helps your grandma cross the street etc etc.

Nonetheless, Pai now has to fight through a lot of other martial artists out for his blood, all the while trying to find out who framed him and what the whole affair of the Green Dragon Pass is all about. There will be betrayal, some mannered flirting, and lots and lots of characters who are never properly introduced, acting for reasons that sometimes are even explained.

Fortunately for Pai, the Green Dragon Band is not exactly united, with various factions besides number two competing against each other to become the replacement of its leader. It might even be possible that the cause for Pai's troubles lies with these factional differences.

The Taiwanese wuxia Pai Yu-Ching is certainly not one of the major hidden gems of its genre. It is a rather unremarkable mishmash of typical wuxia elements that have already appeared in hundreds of better films, and would continue to appear in dozens more. If you don't expect too much of the film going into it however, and if you like the wuxia genre in its more conservative/classicist form, there's a good potential for entertainment to be found in it anyway.

Sure, the film's plot is only an excuse to throw as many fight scenes on screen as possible, and director Lee Ga's storytelling tends to the confusing side even for the less than rigid standards of the wuxia film. Most of the time, the director is just throwing stuff at the audience, probably in the hope that some of it will resonate, but at least the fight scenes that stuff is meant to generate are competent and professionally choreographed, and at times even mildly exciting to watch. Lee's direction is of the very basic point and shoot school, but the editing is dynamic enough - if a little rough - to keep the film flowing nicely, instead of stumbling around like the truly bad films of the genre do.

This isn't one of those late period, second tier wuxia films that try to evoke a feeling of grand adventure by misunderstanding King Hu and being slow and ponderous. Lee seems out to entertain with the simple tools he has available, and if you're willing to be entertained, he'll let his actors do their little dances of weird wigs, only very slightly strange martial arts, and comfortable melodrama for you with all the grace of the true professionals they are.

That Pai Yu-Ching will in a few days turn into just another part of the mush of clanging swords, the sound clothing makes when somebody jumps real high, and always the same library music into which many of the less directly memorable wuxia from Taiwan have dissolved in my brain over the years, doesn't change is basic okayness. It doesn't sound like much, but I don't regret my 85 minutes with the film.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In short: El Hombre Perseguido Por Un O.V.N.I. (1976)

aka The Man of Ganimedes

Spanish writer Alberto Oliver (Richard Kolin) is suffering from writer's block as well as from being the most boring man on the planet. These things still aren't the worst of his troubles, though. A bunch of alien mutants from the antimatter version of Earth have decided to abduct him for no good reason whatsoever.

So, when Alberto's not walking boringly through the Spanish countryside or charming various women with his non-existent charisma, some slowly shambling guys in silver-black face paint try to wrestle him into submission. However, Alberto is one of those two-fisted writer types and has no trouble punching out a few aliens. They really deserve it too - not only are they bothering Alberto by trying to kidnap him, they also are interrupting his un-life by first pushing his car down a ravine and then abducting it and letting it float writer-less in space. Yeah, I don't know either.

Alberto goes to the police with his troubles, but not surprisingly, the poor beleaguered cop the writer is telling his story to does not believe a single word of the bizarre nonsense about aliens he blabbers. It sure doesn't help his case that Alberto tends to spice up his conversation with mind-numbing philosophizing.

Until the aliens' UFO cruises a bit over town. Then, the cops decide to protect the writer from the aliens by recommending he change apartments and providing him with a bodyguard. Not that it helps much. Or matters in the long run.

Oh dear, this is not very good. El Hombre is the sort of low budget movie that tries to hide the fact that it can't afford any of its ambitions (like that of being a movie) behind long and painful scenes of its non-hero walking around and even longer and more painful scenes of said non-hero sprouting utter tosh, or slightly less long yet equally painful library footage. From time to time, this tedium is broken by bursts of bad special effects (good), unerotic sexy-times (not good at all) and random bizarre stuff like the car abduction (very very good), until it all breaks down in some nonsensical talking about nothing of consequence and random footage of astronauts again.

The film's tedium factor is still more increased by Richard Kolin's stone-faced performance that would recommend the man for playing a zombie, but certainly not the ladykilling two-fisted writer full of sadness over the death of his wife he is supposed to be here. Kolin is of course also completely unbelievable in his action scenes, but that's something of a positive in this particular case, because the ridiculousness of Kolin as a tough guy keeps the viewer from drifting away into sleep completely.

From time to time, the movie's cheap randomness nearly makes it worth wading through the tedium. There's the final attack on Alberto in which he is followed by one of the mutants who has mounted the decapitated head of a mutant buddy on his shoulder, the thing's sad flapping an excellent metaphor for the whole endeavour. And how could I forget the random checkerboard glasses the chief android wears? It's just too bad that all this is buried under the talking (oh, the talking!) and the sort of non-plot that sees our hero abducted only to be brought back to Earth five minutes later because the UFO didn't manage to cross over into its proper dimension. Basically, even getting abducted by aliens is only filler in El Hombre Perseguido Por Un O.V.N.I.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

In short: Backwoods (1987)

aka Geek

Welcome to the deep dark woods of Indiana. Future final girl - not that there are any other women to choose from for that role - Karen (Christine Noonan) and her doctor boyfriend Jamie (Brad Armacost) are going camping, and the audience has the dubious luck of watching them. After exciting minutes of camping shenanigans, the film stops the thrill ride to let the couple stumble upon a backwoods person named Eben (Dick Kreusser) standing helpless over the body of his suffocating little daughter (Leslie Denise), for some mysterious reason brandishing a shotgun. Fortunately for him, Jamie's up for a little emergency tracheotomy (for once in a movie without using a biro).

Thankful in his monosyllabic way, Eben invites the couple into his home, where it turns out that he's a complete hick cliché, with self-made moonshine and no knowledge whatsoever of modern technology like fridges. He also drops some of those "subtle" hints towards some dark secret horror movie heroes never get, and so it takes Jamie and Karen quite a while of drinking, coon hunting and skinny-dipping until they make the acquaintance of Eben's mentally ill son (hobbies: being locked-up in the shack, touching pretty hair, biting the heads off of chickens) William (Jack O'Hara).

Not surprisingly, Jamie acts like a jerk confronted with someone he as a doctor should be interested in helping, while Karen does the frighteningly idiotic "all women are mothers" about-face you'd expect from a movie without even a single idea of its own. Also not surprisingly, there are a few deaths in the future.

It's not much fun to feel as negative about a film as well-meaning as Backwoods as I do. I can respect that the film is trying to eschew the typical backwoods slasher "one kill per ten minutes" structure, and instead is going for a slow build up of tension until violence dramatically explodes in the end. The problem is that the film is just not good at building that needed tension at all, which leaves it only being slow.

For too much of the film, director Dean Crow (a relative of Crow T. Robot?) insists on showing us long scenes of inane dialogue between the rather jerky Jamie and the inexcusably clichéd Eben, while the script either pretends that this is the most exciting thing it could even think of showing us, or that Eben and his chicken-hating son are the stuff of moving melodrama. Turns out it shouldn't be and they sure aren't. For much of the film's running time, I was wishing this were the typical teenie backwoods slasher Crow goes out of his way to avoid. Those films at least don't have pretensions of depth they are then too inept to fulfil.

It surely doesn't help the audience or Backwoods that the acting is of the painful, yet unfunny sort, as is the film's music, and that the woods are so perfectly well lit they never produce the creepy mood they should.

However, I have to admit that the film is getting a bit more effective at being as thrilling as it pretends to be after everyone except for Karen and William is dead or knocked out. I suspect that if its first hour of bad hick theatre hadn't already put me half to sleep, I'd now say something along the line of "it's surprisingly effective" about Backwoods' final thirty minutes. As it stands, I was too bored by the first hour to care much about the rest of the film.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

New Female Prisoner Scorpion #701 (1976)

Original title: Shin joshuu sasori: 701-go

Nami Matsushima's (Ryoko Ema) older sister is working as the secretary of a man with a supposedly glorious future in the Japanese government. Somehow, sister acquires a tape proving her boss' entanglement in the sort of shady business that could destroy his career if it ever came to light. She plans to get out of the country as quickly as possible, but is kidnapped just before she can escape.

She had just been able to give the incriminating tape to Nami, but instead of giving it to the press, Nami and her fiancée try to exchange the tape for her sister. Their enemy isn't the sort of person who likes to make deals, though, and so Nami's sister ends up dead, with the blame for the murder put squarely on Nami, not without the help of her spineless fiancée who has no problem selling her out for a nice new rich fiancée and better career opportunities. Everybody is happy, except for Nami, who's put in prison.

But even there, the young woman isn't left in peace. Instead, her enemies sic the prison's warden on her who for his part hires his favourite girl boss prisoner to drive her to suicide or - if needed - simply murder our heroine.

Driven by hatred and the need for vengeance, Nami turns out to be tougher than anyone would have expected, taking every humiliation without breaking, and lashing out with frighteningly controlled violence when she needs it to survive.

After demonstrating enough of her brand of toughness, Nami leads the other prisoners in an attempted breakout.

It's not much of a surprise that Toei Studios wanted to continue the Sasori series beyond the first four successful films, even though neither their irreplaceable lead actress Meiko Kaji nor Shunya Ito, the director of the first three films of the series, were willing to take part in it further.

It's also not much of a surprise that New Female Prisoner Scorpion suffers terribly when you compare it directly with the other Sasori movies. This comparison is of course even more unavoidable with a film that plays out as a less brilliant remake of the very first Sasori movie. Although New Female Prisoner contains just as much of the nasty stuff and the technically excellent as its model and predecessor, it never manages to reach its intensity and intelligence.

Poor, beautiful Ryoko Ema is quite good as Nami, too, effectively projecting a toughness close to madness underneath her physical fragility, and I'd probably be all over her performance if I wouldn't have Meiko Kaji's reading of the same character to compare it with. It's like comparing a minor storm that knocked down a few trees in your backyard with a hurricane that has just flattened your city; although the former might be impressive in its own way, the latter is what you'll always remember.

Yutaka Kohira's direction basically suffers from the same problem. Everything on screen is up to the high standards of a Japanese exploitation movie of the 70s, the visual staging of scenes is way beyond what most directors in other parts of the world achieved at the same time working on comparable budgets, yet the shadow of Ito's original (not to speak of film two and three of the series) hangs so heavily over everything that Kohira's film can't help but disappoint. Especially problematic is how closely New Prisoner tries to stick to elements of the original films like the stylistic influence of no theatre without ever seeming to understand which role this elements had in them. How Kohira handles this is surely pretty to look at, but lacks the layers of meaning Ito brought to his work.

I suspect how much enjoyment one can derive from watching NFPS 701 depends on how much one is able to ignore the films that came before it. As a generic Japanese 70s exploitation movie, it's really a fine film; as the fifth film in the Sasori series, it's a disappointment.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Three Films Make A Post: You Are Who You Eat

A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010): Remakes don't have it easy. When they're completely changing their source material, we complain that they are so different from it that we can't see why the producers didn't just make a wholly original film. When they are keeping close to the original movie, we complain that we don't see why there's a need for a remake at all when it's only trying to reproduce the original as closely as possible.

The Nightmare remake tends to the latter version. Sure, the script changes up a few thing (to neutral effect), but keeps most of the iconic dream sequences and much of the basic structure of the original. Even some of the dialogue is the same.

Still, there's a decided difference in feel between the two movies: where Craven's original feels like the work of someone trying to stretch the teen slasher formula by applying intelligence and creativity, the remake is like a third generation photocopy of creativity and intelligence. In theory, it's the same thing as the original, in practice, it's serviceable for times when you don't have the original at hand.

Into The Darkness (1986): British would-be slasher (or is it a would-be giallo) about a shadowy figure stalking and slashing a fashion shoot in Malta while the viewer tries not to fall asleep or go blind from its visual blandness seems to be out to prove we Europeans can produce even worse shot-on-video crap than our North American brethren. In that respect, the film's a fantastic success, as it is in being the only horror film I can remember that's evil enough to torture me with Chris Rea on its soundtrack.

Don't expect the appearance of much blood and nakedness to keep you from drifting off; there's only a small appearance of Donald Pleasence (who is probably only in here at all because his daughter is playing one of the leads) to look forward to, and that only if you like your heroes to look embarrassed.


Shadows in the Garden (2002): Extremely neat dialogue-less (but not soundless) short by Wayne Spitzer about two creatures of the night stalking a town with the picturesque name of Cthulhu Gardens. One is a serial killer active during the nights of the full moon, the other a melancholic swamp creature trying to hold on to who he once was. Both do of course cross paths.

This is one of those no-budget shorts that manages to make its technical problems virtues, and so the graininess and imprecision of its pictures evokes a sad and melancholic note. It's the short film treated as a form of narrative poetry.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

King Cat (1967)

Some time in imperial China. The intensely righteous (and very brown-faced) Judge Pao (Cheng Miu) executes a regional governor for embezzlement and being a big meanie, although he knows the governor to be a relative of the highly influential Grand Tutor (Tin Sam) of the imperial court.

Pao's setting of justice before politics does indeed have its first consequence the following night, when the Grand Tutor sends out some of his men to assassinate the judge. Fortunately, the wandering swordsman and hero Zhan Zhao (Chang Yi) is around and uses his remarkable martial prowess to fight off Pao's would-be killers. Pao is so enthused about Zhan Zhao that he asks the hero to help protect the Emperor (Ching Feng) at a parade the next day.

The swordsman agrees, and not only manages to prevent the Grand Tutor's main henchman, Hua Chong (Lo Lieh in an especially evil turn), going under the not really properly evil sounding nickname of "Variegated Butterfly", from assassinating the Emperor himself, but also saves the Emperor's sister Yongan (Carrie Ku Mei) through judicious use of his cat-like ability to walk on walls. The Emperor, like Pao before him, is quite excited about Zhan Zhao, names him an Imperial Guard and gives him the honorific title of "King Cat".

Zhan Zhao doesn't seek this sort of honour, though, and also knows that this sort of public exposure can only bring trouble to a member of the martial world, so he sneaks away from court the next night to continue his heroic wanderings. At least (and after the judge has followed him through the night), the swordsman leaves Pao with a way to contact him when there is need for his service.

Zhan Zhao was just too right about his new nickname being bound to bring trouble. When word of "King Cat" carries to the martial arts brothers known as the "Five Mice of Xiankong Island", the youngest brother, Bai Yutang the Brocaded Mouse (Kiu Chong) is livid about this perceived insult by someone he has never met. So livid in fact, that he insults his fiancée, the swordswoman Ding Yuehua (Pat Ting Hung), by sneaking away to the capital to try and provoke Zhan Zhao into a duel against her wishes. The eldest brother (and the only one of them with a brain larger than that of a mouse, which would explain why these guys are known as the Five Mice) sends the three other mice after him, but a few overheard jokes about mice and cats later, and these three goofs are all too willing to help Bai Yutang in his stupid plans.

He thinks the best way to get in contact with Zhan Zhao is to break into the imperial palace and steal something precious, like that fantastic jade stove Princess Yongan has just been gifted. The theft goes rather well, but just after the brothers have left the palace again, the despicable Hua Chong sneaks in and kills and rapes (and it really might be this way around with that guy) the Princess' three maids. Initially, Hua Chong was just planning to kidnap Yongan to then rape her and become prince consort by default, but this Butterfly is never willing to let an opportunity for rape pass by, as the rest of the movie will continue to demonstrate.

Soon, Zhan Zhao is hunting the Five Mice, helping out Ding Yuehua in a spot of bother, and will in the end have to save Yongan from some rape-drugged incense sticks.

Director Hsu Tseng-Hung isn't one of the best known directors of the Shaw Brothers (he's probably best known for his later Golden Harvest phase), and - not surprisingly - delivers King Cat in the production house's house style of 1967. Of course, while lovers of auteur-oriented movies won't be satisfied by this, the Shaw house style for wuxia movies in 1967 was pretty damn great to look at. So Hsu's film spoils its viewers with a very pleasant mix of colourful costumes, a lot of neat sets, two or three beautifully realized scenes taking place in real-life nature, dynamic editing and fight choreographies of the fun and professional sort with more than enough rubber ball jumping to royally piss off anyone babbling about the need for "realism" in martial arts movies.

I suspect the film's script must have already felt a little old-fashioned in 1967, what with very straight heroes like Zhan Zhao who don't have that much personal emotional involvement in the evil plots they are preventing fastly going out of fashion for grimmer heroes. Despite all that raping and attempted raping (which is all handled off-camera), King Cat is far from grim and instead has a pleasantly light feel. As a viewer, you have the feeling that everything will turn out all right in the end, and even the melodramatic bits will be solved in friendly ways. This is the sort of film that ends without tragic renunciations of love, and half of the cast bleeding to death in the gutter, which makes for a very nice change even for someone like me who likes his downer endings.

Apart from the high level of craftsmanship the film shows on the visual side, and the mostly fine acting (Kiu Chong is a bit too theatrical for my tastes), King Cat also delights through the sort of pacing that threatens to make me use the phrase "merry romp". Hsu and his scriptwriter Ding Sin-Saai manage to control their typically sizeable cast and typically complicated plot so well that everything that might seem preposterous or under-explained in a less well done movie comes together into an actual story. Mostly, the plot even makes sense, or at least as much sense as a film including plans concerning rape-drug-incense can do.

There are also a lot of small, likeable details sprinkled throughout King Cat, like the identity of the person who is allowed to deliver the killing strike against Lo Lieh, or the simple delight of a film that ends with the scene of an Emperor trying to reward the heroes for their deeds, but the heroes declining, not out of the "patriotic" reasons of serving the state being reward enough and so on, but because they don't want to become officials, prince consorts, or that other boring stuff.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Things I Learned From "Birdemic - Shock and Terror" My Momma Never Told Me

  • You're not a real Mary Sue until you are a super successful software salesman whose company is going to be bought out by Oracle who is also into green energy, a totally nice guy everybody loves and able to charm the pants off of a newly minted Victoria's Secret model with your honesty, your wit and your ability to listen to what she says (that mostly shows in your talking and talking and talking about yourself) and you're also able to survive the birdpocalypse. It also helps if you are actually having the sort of charisma and personality usually reserved for wooden baskets.
  • Acting is what happens when people's lips move.
  • Mister Film invented the camera so that we could watch people driving around.
  • Fashion modelling shoots are usually done in photo shops situated in one of the side streets of a typical US small town.
  • US small towns have names like "Main Street". Though they might also be called "Half Moon Bay".
  • Sound editing is done with a hatchet.
  • Birds are those digital animals that attack people by hovering in the air without ever actually attacking them.
  • Some birds make bomber noises and explode.
  • In an emergency, it's best to just drive around town in a van and wildly shoot your assault rifle out of said van's window.
  • All Americans are sharpshooters.
  • In a few years, the children acting in this film will sue the producers for mental cruelty. Unless the children are as zombified as they look. In that case, they're just going to eat the producers' hearts - brains are of course totally unavailable.
  • Global warming is responsible for bird flu.
  • In the last few years, forty species have died out from global warming.
  • Scientists who study birds are called "ontologists". It's because they are all about the ontology of birds.
  • Humans are the worst animals of all; unless an eagle is trying to kill you.
  • We should all act more like astronauts. And just give peace a chance.
  • One peck to the head and you're dead. Better be careful when emptying your bladder in a field during the birdpocalypse.
  • Nobody told the drivers of all those cars merrily going their ways in the background that the evil birds of evil are attacking, so nothing's going to happen to them.
  • Eagles are well-known for their ability to puke acid.
  • Evil eagle number seven has reached rogue level 12, so he's getting a +4 bonus to in flight throat-cutting attempts. Chicks just love it.
  • Trees are endangered by the barf beetle. And forest fires that start somewhere in the air. I blame djinni for the latter.
  • I'm sure it's pretty clever to keep the windows of your car open during the birdpocalypse. If you're trying to win the Darwin Awards.
  • Seaweed is Mother Nature's greatest gift; Happy Meals are the greatest gift of the fast-food industry.
  • For a species that's threatened by extinction, there are a lot of eagles around. I suppose digital eagles just have an easier time reproducing. It's called "copying" in digital bird science (digitology), I think.
  • There's still life in the old bizarrely naive crap film genre.