Saturday, December 18, 2010

It had to happen

From today on, I'm taking my yearly year's end blogging vacation. So there will be no new posts here from me until the January 1st. If you'd like to talk to me in the meantime, you can always pop me an email. I'll probably even answer, unless I'm on family visit with Yog Sothoth, who still hasn't gotten around to getting itself connected to the web. I'll also still be infrequently doing the annoyed and bitter thing on Twitter as @houseinrlyeh over the holidays.

To everyone reading this blog regularly, thanks and happy holidays, season's greetings and/or whatever else may apply to you! Hopefully, I'll talk to you next year.


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Friday, December 17, 2010

On WTF: Les Aventures Extraordinaires d'Adele Blanc-Sec (2010)

Luc Besson takes a much needed break in his writing and producing every French action movie ever and directs, writes and produces an adaptation of a well-loved series of graphic novels by Jacques Tardi. What arises from the good man's efforts is a very silly adventure comedy I found quite irresistible.

Read more about it in my last peace of weekly blatherings on WTF-Film before my looming holiday blogging pause.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

In short: Curse of the Coffee Hill (2010)

Original title: Ka Fei Shan: Si Zhou

During the course of an unspecified research project, college student Shi Min wanders Singapore's graveyards and photographs tombstones. One day, she photographs the wrong one. The mandatory mad elderly lady's warning of a terrible curse comes too late, and a ghost latches on to Shi Min. Thanks to the ghostly infection, the student develops a peculiar limp, has short moments of atypical behaviour (aka makes possession faces) and suffers from nightmares of being raped by a gang of five men. She also suffers from a handful of coffee-related terrors. Looks like the (now coffee-hating) ghost that is troubling Shi Min belongs to a woman raped and murdered decades ago by a group of coffee plantation workers. The poor dead darling is still looking for vengeance.

Even if you know as little about a local culture of filmmaking as I do of that in Singapore at this moment, you don't need any of that knowledge to be sure that someone is going to grab a camera, a few amateur actors and make a horror film based on an urban legend in any given place and time. The film at hand is very probably shot without proper permissions, and the lack of a budget prevents the appearance of much special effects beyond a little blood and (very little) ghost make-up. Although the lead actress shows some excellent gymnastics talent at the film's grand finale, which is its own sort of special effect.

The script only makes for a thirty minute movie (whose DVD is padded out by a documentary that sees the actors take a stroll around the film's graveyard accompanied by the local paranormal society), but that does at least leave the film without filler and gives it a feeling of tightness.

So, not surprisingly, Curse of the Coffee Hill isn't exactly a masterpiece, but it's perfectly watchable if you take it for the basically good-natured trifle it is. There are certainly worse ways to kill half an hour.


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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Spirited Killer 2 - Awakened Zombie Battles (199x)

Original title: I'd love to know

Despite the title, this film was probably made before the film that is known as Spirited Killer in Western markets, and does also - as far as I understand - not actually belong to the series of films of which Spirited Killer was the fourth part.

Anyway, here's what this one's about: three groups of people have independently and at the same time arrived in the same patch of jungle. One is a group of Chinese guys and girls and a mediocre Buddhist priest looking for the grave of one of the girls' grandfather (most characters here don't have any names, so who knows what the girl's is) to repatriate him and bring him into the fold in the family tomb back in China. The second group in the area is a merry band of Thai graverobbers, on their way to rob exactly the grave the Chinese are looking for. The third is a magically minded gang using the secluded location to ritually burn their dead leader and transplant his spirit into his successor.

Trouble arises when the mediocre priest starts his own ritual to find the body of gramps at the same time the graverobbers are bleeding on the corpse of Gramps and the spirit transfer is taking place. That's the sort of thing that really messes up everyone's mojo. So thanks to the magical accident Gramps awakens as a hopping vampire and the gang leader becomes one of those Thai martial arts zombie vampire dudes. Both turn out to be rather grumpy.

Obviously, only a Chinese/Thai team-up can win the day.

For once, I can't really blame the licensor (in this case Mill Creek continuing the bad policies of BCI) too much for trying to sell a film as part of a series it doesn't belong to. After all, Awakened Zombie Battles - like Spirited Killer - is another among the astonishing number of films featuring Panna Rittikrai and his stunt team, a patch of jungle that looks somewhat familiar to me by now, martial arts-mad undead of various forms and sorts, and frightening heaps of peculiar humour (that will also look somewhat familiar if you have seen a few Thai budget movies from this era). I can blame Mill Creek for their bizarre assertion (repeated on the packaging of the films more than once) that the language spoken in Thailand is called "Taiwanese", though.

But I digress. So, if you have seen any other film of this type (is there a decent name for this sub-genre?), you'll probably know exactly what to expect from this one, and it will certainly not disappoint you.

As it is with every other movie in the Thai jungle zombie fu genre,  AWZ is a somewhat fun movie if you don't set your expectations to high. The humour is incredibly low-brow, but does at times manage to be funny by the simple virtue of the film visibly not caring where good taste allows the application of humour to a given situation and where not and just applying it whenever it seems to get bored by playing it straight, which happens quite frequently. So the film delivers bizarre details like the fantastic equipment kit of an evil magician complete with pocket calculator and a fire extinguisher whenever it gets tired of showing scenes of people fighting or praying against each other. The mock wrestling match where I expected an earnestly dramatic fight was especially funny. At times, the film feels like a more low-rent version of an early Jackie Chan movie, just with an even greater tendency to drift off in all imaginable directions, and Panna Rittikrai fighting with cigarettes.

Apart from the humour, you get not much acting and a lot of fighting that is actually better - because it's more creative - in the humorous fight scenes than in the more dramatic ones, and a wee little plot that only ever really gets moving in the film's last third.

It's what I call perfectly fine entertainment.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

In short: Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

An army of Milla Jovovichs (realized surprisingly badly for a film made in 2010) attacks the headquarters of the Evil Umbrella Corp in Tokyo to finally take her (their) revenge on her arch enemy Wesker (Shawn Roberts). After laying waste to half of Tokyo, possibly killing Wesker in a plane crash and losing her superpowers (not that the film seems to want to remember that for much of its running time), the original Milla (or Alice, if you need character names in a film without characterization) tries to follow her companions from the last movie into a paradise known as Arcadia, supposedly located somewhere in Alaska. Upon arrival in the North, our heroine finds only a bunch of abandoned planes and helicopters, and her friend Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) who must have been lying on the ground, outside, in Alaska, in the snow, for a few months but is only suffering from PCA (short for plot-convenient amnesia).

Together they fight crime fly to an unnamed (I think; going by Resident Evil naming conventions it's probably called Squirrel) Big City, because that's the place where you want to be during the zombie apocalypse. The two women manage to hook up with another handful of survivors (Boris Kodjoe, Kim Coates and some other people sure to be eaten soon) who hide in a prison, and keep Claire's brother Chris (Wentworth Miller) prisoner there for reasons that will never make much sense (what a surprise), staring longingly at a ship anchored outside the city. A ship named Arcadia. Obviously, the zombies and their friends will soon get into the prison, but Chris knows a way out.

As someone who more than just sort of digs survival horror games as one of the few console-centric videogame genres close to his PC gamer heart, I do of course have my experiences with the Resident Evil games, which are the most low-brow and (alas) most successful series of their genre. I'm not madly in love with the series (that's what Silent Hill and Fatal Frame/Project Zero are for, after all), but I do respect its peculiar mixture of baroquely ridiculous and stupid plots and senseless violence. Although every new iteration of the series' movie adaptations has less to do with the games it is supposedly based on, their "writer" and (sometimes) director Paul W.S. Anderson uses all his powers of stupidity to keep his work as much in the dumb but bizarre spirit of the games as a Brit adapting a Japanese source can.

Still, stupidity and all, the first three Resident Evils didn't manage to charm me. There was always something artificial about their dumbness that managed to keep the films less fun than they should have been. This tragic state of affairs ends with this fourth film. Finally, the dumbness (as demonstrated by the idiotic plot - if you want to call it that, the non-characters non-acted by people who could act a little if they wanted to, the unbelievably absurd dialogue, and the mind-blowingly stupid use of slow motion and freeze effects as if The Matrix had never gone out of style) reaches critical mass and transforms what could be just another crap film by Anderson (whose Event Horizon I'll always cherish as actually nearly very good) into a movie so enthusiastically bad yet aiming to please that only those most soulless of creatures known as mainstream film critics could not appreciate its spirit of fun.

Needless to say, I sort of love it.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Pale Rider (1985)

A small group of honest, hard-working gold diggers under the unofficial leadership of Hull Barrett (Michael Moriarty) is in dire straits. Evil industrial gold mining tycoon Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart) wants to own the land they are panning gold on, and he isn't too particular on how to make the change of possession happen. LaHood has been sending his men (and his no-good son, played by a young and sleek Chris Penn) out to terrorize the diggers and lets his men rough them up when they come into the assortment of about a dozen buildings that go under the description of "town" here.

Apart from the fear for life and limbs, the digging hasn't been going so good for Barrett's group either, so the first families are starting to leave his fold for less dangerous and more lucrative pastures. Fortunately, Barrett's adopted daughter Megan (Sydney Penny) has a direct line to the big director in the sky. The girl prays for a miracle, and a few hours later a two-fisted, nameless preacher (Clint Eastwood) with an obvious dark past as a gunman rides into town.

The preacher fastly sides with Barrett and his people, even when LaHood calls in the evil, easily financially incentivized "marshal" Stockburn (John Russell) and his men to take permanent care of the miner situation. Stockburn just happens to be an old enemy of the preacher's (the film suggests he either killed the preacher or at least shot him and left him for dead), which probably makes it a bit easier for the nameless man to change his collar for a gun again.

The best thing I have to say about Pale Rider is that it isn't the worst film Eastwood appeared in (that would probably be one of the films with the ape), though it might very well be the worst one Eastwood directed himself. There's so much wrong with the film it's hard to know where to begin.

So, let's start out with the film's worst sins against my brain. Pale Rider leaves an at times ridiculous, at other times deeply unpleasant impression of something that just might be Eastwood's version of masturbating in front of a mirror; seldom has an anti-hero been so perfect, and his purported self-doubt been more perfunctory and unconvincing. Men either adore him or are killed by him, and all two of Michael Moriarty's women - hopeful wife and fifteen-year old daughter - want to fuck him. At least Clint does shy away from the daughter, but that still leaves us with a film that's basically a remake of Shane in which the kid wants to make sweet sweet love to her grandpa. Apart from being loved or feared by everyone, Clint is also utterly perfect in everything else, so perfect even that it is never in any doubt that he will de-priest (which doesn't seem to be a big thing here anyway), kill the bad guys, survive and ride on while his main groupie cries after him. Which, truth be told, robs the film of any tension - dramatic, moral or otherwise. Turns out that you not only need conflict but also at least a tiny bit of doubt about how the conflict will resolve in a narrative to create any tension. Neither actual conflict nor doubt are anything Eastwood seems to care to deliver in this display of painfully apathetic filmmaking.

The typically sedate pace of Eastwood's direction doesn't help to make the film any more exciting. Usually, Eastwood uses slowness to mirror the inner life of his characters and the rhythm of their existence, to make room to let the audience's understanding of the characters slowly grow. It's a bit like meditation, but with outbursts of violence.

Unfortunately, everyone here is a walking cliché of the least interesting sort, sprouting dialogue as dumb as I've ever heard (a point on which Michael Moriarty seemed to agree; at least his performance suggests it), and so the only thing the film's snail-like tempo shines a light on is that there's nothing of substance going on in it at all, and no life in it to speak of.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

In short: Curse of the Alpha Stone (1972)

The Seventies™! Geneticist Professor Abe Adams (Jim Scotlin) has a dream. He wants to fuse mysticism and science so that the awesome unified powers of chemistrynetics and alchemy will enable him to be the first human being creating the Philosopher's Stone. After some boring back and forth and a little sex, honest Abe accomplishes this feat and now has a merrily blinking piece of plastic that he hides in a miniature treasure chest as sold in every good novelty toy store.

Being a scientist-mystic (scientic?), Adams begins to experiment with a fluid filtered through his brand new Stone. His first experimental subject is the local black gay dope fiend (that's the technical term, right, or did Reefer Madness lie to me?), whom the exciting new drug first turns hetero, then into the kind of guy who has sex with a store window mannequin, then into a (still hetero) rapist. Oh boy.

Since this experiment is going so well, Adams is all too willing to make the logical next step: self-experimentation. After imbibing his tincture, the Professor is getting kind of irresistible for women, and seems to acquire a heightened endurance into the deal too, but as we all know, this sort of thing always ends badly, especially for the poor lesbian girl he's going to rape to death in the end.

Yes, Curse of the Alpha Stone is a late example of the great US wave of bizarre softcore films of the 60s and very early 70s, although it really is one of the tamer films of the late period of this type of exploitation movies I've seen. Ironically, the film seems to have only been released in 1985, a time when its sort of film must have looked incredibly quaint next to the hardcore porn that had long since taken its place.

Like many examples of its particular sub-genre, Curse tries to distract its viewers from its overabundance of technical flaws by drowning them in naked, predominantly female (and this being the early 70s, quite pleasant to look at) flesh and an insane plot. You probably know what's the deal with these flaws. Stiff, ahem, I mean wooden, ahem, bad acting meets point and shoot direction meets a warbling synthie score of the most monotonous merit (could it be I'm turning into Stan Lee?) meets offensive mean-spiritedness (groups the film doesn't like: scientists, gay men, lesbian women, people of colour, feminists).

More problematic than the film's often amusing technical ineptness or its dubious ethics is its timidity. For a softcore sexploitation film with a plot, Curse really is a bit too far on the tame side, never showing as much as it could be and never putting any real imagination into its sex or at least into the ways it avoids to show the audience sex. The vein of nastiness running through the film only truly comes to the surface for a moment or two. That makes Curse less unpleasant than it could be, but also leaves it a weaker film.

But hey, drugs!


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Friday, December 10, 2010

On WTF: Garo (2005-2006)

It looks like I just can't escape Keita Amemiya's work at the moment, so why not entertain the rest of the Internet with a piece about his "mature" tokusatsu show Garo, especially when the show turns out to be pretty great?

If you want to read more about it, my write-up on WTF-Film will enlighten you.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

In short: The Torment (2010)

aka The Possession of David O'Reilly

When their friend David O'Reilly (Giles Alderson) unexpectedly arrives at the doorstep of Alex (Nicholas Shaw) and his wife/girlfriend Kate (Zoe Richards) one night, the couple are puzzled but not alarmed. David seems deeply in shock and tells them a slightly improbable story about having found out that his girlfriend is cheating on him with another man.

Kate is a bit sceptical, but of course she and Alex invite David to stay the night. Unfortunately for them, David hasn't been very honest to them. He has problems alright, but their nature is quite a bit more outré than what he let on. David is pursued by strange, only half visible creatures who want to do him some sort of harm, and his flight has brought these creatures right to his friends' doorstep.

Well, or it might be David suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and is as much a danger to his friends as the monsters he imagines. Only the events of the following nights will show what is the truth.

The Torment (co-directed by Andrew Cull and Steve Isles) is a rather nice low-budget horror film from the UK. It's certainly good enough to make me want to avoid spoiling it, so please excuse my vagueness in the following.

Mostly, it's a film designed to keep an audience guessing if the things David (and the audience when only it and David are looking) sees are delusions or true. The Torment is pretty good at that for most of the time, although some early details should push the viewer into the right direction and should have been either omitted or kept more ambiguous to make the film's narrative core more effective. I at least realized early on what was true and what wasn't, though I was a bit afraid these hints would turn out to be mere plot holes later on.

I shouldn't have worried about that. If The Torment is something, than it is a carefully directed and designed movie. It looks like the directors have been inspired by the techniques found footage horror movies use to build tension and ambiguity and have applied them to a story that just wouldn't work as well in that other format. I'm always a bit puzzled that not more contemporary low budget movies take elements of the found footage form (like lots of hand camera work that produces closeness to the physicality of actors and location which helps build tension, ambiguity through limitation of what is shown to the audience and so on) and use them for a slightly different narrative style like The Torment here does.

At times, especially in its slower and quieter moments, The Torment is a very effective film that can make a shot of flight of stairs seem disquieting and meaningful, at other times, I found myself doubting the way its theoretically sane characters act. Would anyone really let themselves be drawn into what might or might not be David's delusions without seeing or hearing anything what he sees or hears or thinks to see or hear without at least mentioning the word "psychiatrist" a bit earlier than it happens in the film, for example? That's not the kind of problem that ruins a film for me - after all, when have characters in a horror movie ever acted reasonably - yet it kept me more distanced from the characters, and therefore made me care less for their fates than would have been preferable.

Still, The Torment shows that you still can make a good horror movie with little (yet fine) effects on a low budget if you know what you're doing.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Giant Behemoth (1959)

aka the less pleonastic Behemoth the Sea Monster

Strange things are happening on the coast of Cornwall. First, an elderly fisherman dies of something that looks a lot like radiation burns while uttering the word "behemoth". Then a glowing mass of unknown origin that leaves a different fisherman touching it with burns on his hand and a whole lot of dead fish get left behind by the flood on the same beach. Shortly after that, the fish along the whole Cornish coast are dying.

Fortunately Steve Karnes (dependable American Gene Evans), a North American marine biologist with a clear eye on the dangers of radioactive tests is in the UK and has an easy time convincing Professor Bickford (dependable Brit Andre Morell), the scientist in charge of investigating the reasons for the occurrences, to let him assist in the investigation.

After a bit of research and some doing of SCIENCE(!), Karnes develops the theory that the radiation and the deaths are a mere side effect of a much larger problem: some sort of gigantic, radioactive animal threatening the whole of the UK. Bickford is a bit sceptical about Karnes' theory, but doesn't take too much convincing to come around to the American's views. He's even coming around before he sees a gigantic footprint.

Bickford's (and with him the British authorities') willingness to listen to the American turns out to be rather fortunate, for soon the creature decides to go on a nice weekend vacation in London.

If not for the UK-based setting - thanks to this being a US/UK co-production even a somewhat believable one - one could easily mix up The Giant Behemoth with director Eugene Lourie's other two giant monster movies, The Colossus of New York and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, both of which were mainly taking place around the US. By the standards of giant monster movies of the 50s not made in Japan, there could be worse films to be confused with.

Behemoth belongs to the very earnest class of giant monster movies full of middle-aged men sitting earnestly in earnest looking rooms, with earnest expressions on their faces, discussing an earnest situation very earnestly, and as such, it really is pretty good. The movie is of course a far cry from the emotional and intellectual richness of the original Gojira (the film all earnest giant monster movies tried to yet could not reach before Shusuke Kaneko began making kaiju films), but most of the anti-bomb rhetoric here seems quite a bit less perfunctory and more thoughtful - if not necessarily more scientifically sound - than in many of the film's peers. This side of the movie is additionally emphasised by the look of the radiation burns the behemoth's victims suffer (and often die) from - an element of brutal naturalism I wouldn't have expected in a movie made in 1959. Of course, the film doesn't think its own ideas through as consequently as one would wish it did, but that it has ideas of its own at all seems like quite an achievement to me.

For an art director who was sitting on the director's chair only from time to time, Eugene Lourie's films usually had a rather bland look. In this case, there's some nice use of the actual landscape of the British Isles on display, but not much else that's visually arresting. Lourie's a perfectly competent director, mind you, he's just not more than that.

Perfectly competent seems to be the favourable description of Behemoth's monster too. As rumours say, Willis O'Brien and Pete Peterson had been asked to do the effects scenes only late in the film's development, and had neither time nor money enough to create something truly impressive, so their monster turns out to be a solid but uninspired creation and the effects sequences it appears in are rather variable in quality - the monster's first appearance being the worst of them, its tussle with some electricity lines probably the best.

Still, it's a nice enough example of the sort of giant monster movie that tries to be serious SF too, and as such should provide everyone who isn't hating seriousness or giant monsters with a fine time.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Three Films Make A Post: Some Things Shouldn't Be Disturbed…

No Such Thing (2001): Hal Hartley's movies are always problematic. On one hand, the man has a fantastic, personal sense of visual poetry and the ability to let actors shine doing non-naturalistic, yet deeply human feeling acting (just look at how fantastic, glowing Sarah Polley is here and compare with her performance in Splice!). On the other hand, he is a purveyor of the sort of clichéd and hackneyed culture (and worse media) critique certain art house directors (see also the insufferable Wim Wenders) confuse with depth. In No Such Things both sides of Hartley collide with a vengeance, but the director's better nature wins out for long enough stretches that I don't regret having watched the film. Still, thinking about what Hartley could accomplish if he'd apply his talents to the exploration of more interesting ideas than he usually does makes me a little bit sad.


Salt (2010): This is an ultra slick, competent and theoretically extremely entertaining big costly Hollywood spy action movie that has a plot as ridiculously unbelievable as any Bond movie with Roger Moore (just more complicated), although it's trying its hardest to pretend it's as clever and down to earth as a Bourne movie (and what does it say about Hollywood spy movies that the Bourne movies are as down to earth as they come?).

So far, so fun. Unfortunately, Salt is also a morally bankrupt hymn to the idea that the end justifies the means (quite unlike the Bourne movies who have a moral backbone) as probably befits a film coming from a country with government sanctioned torture. Which sort of ruins the fun. Completely.


Shutter Island (2010): Following the line of mediocre films Martin Scorsese had churned out this century, I had mostly given up on the director. Turns out that I was like one of those guys hating on Bob Dylan during the 80s - not wrong, but way too pessimistic.

Shutter Island is quite brilliant - a film that takes a preposterous plot (especially once the final reveal comes around) and makes it work through a peculiar combination of a sense of history (public and personal) and Scorsese's own private brand of operatic artificiality. It should be ridiculous, and yet it's pretty damn great.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Goku Midnight Eye I & II (1989)

We are in the year 2014 of a cyberpunk-y future of the late 1980s. Detectives of the Special Investigation division of the Tokyo police are trying to keep Hakuryu, the new mad scientist supervillain in town, under surveillance. It's more difficult for them than you'd think, for the department suddenly develops the highest suicide rate outside of moths flying around a campfire.

What the police don't know about Hakuryu is that he owns a sizeable menagerie of bio-technological freaks, one of which is a bare-breasted woman with peacock feathers growing out of her back whose feather eyes can hypnotize just about everyone to death. When the Special Investigation unit is down to their last - and only female - member, private eye and ex-cop Goku (Shigeharu Matsuda) decides to find out what killed his friends before the last of them will die too.

A break-in into Hakuryu's high rise confronts Goku with various parts of the mad scientist's menagerie. Unfortunately, a big strong guy, sleep-inducing robot mosquitoes and a cross between a naked woman, a cat (though the movie talks of her being a dog one time), and a motorcycle who spits laser beams (she's also working as a stripper) are are a bit too much for one shirtless but tie-wearing detective to conquer, and so our hero soon finds himself face to breast and feathers with the peacock woman. It's a meeting Goku only survives by poking out his left eye and jumping into Tokyo Bay.

This would probably be the end of our hero, but a shadowy benefactor saves his life and improves Goku remarkably with a cybernetic new eye that not only carries the 80s version of the Internet right into the lucky guy's brain, but also enables him to control everything computer-controlled from trucks to satellites. But wait, there's more! The Mysterious One also gives the detective a telescopic shock poking stick, all the better to high jump through Tokyo and poke holes in people with. Looks like Goku is well equipped for a rematch with his enemies.

The second Goku movie finds our hero hired by a girl with highly unpleasant family relations and a secret government background to help find her brother before his cybernetically improved body turns him into a mad mass murderer. The case is further complicated by the girl's tendency not to tell Goku the whole truth about anything, ever, and the military's attempts at killing the cyborg before anyone else can get to him.

Well, there's no problem an inter-dimensional rocket shot out of a flying car can't solve, or so I've heard.

The Goku movies are two manga-based OVAs directed by the glorious Yoshiaki Kawajiri (responsible for anime like Wicked City! Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust! and more in that style). Especially the first one holds everything the director's name promises, possibly even more. As is Kawajiri's wont, he bombards his viewers with a highly effective combination of an 80s machismo gone bizarre, the erotically loaded grotesque in its most imaginative form (the cat-motorcycle-lady gets a rider in form of a little person in plate mail in her final appearance to make her incredible mix of weird kinks even weirder) and as much blood, explosions and breasts as any guy's inner twelve year old could ask for, all presented through some great character design and in a rather breathless pace.

What's really fascinating (and not atypical for Japanese exploitation movie culture inside and outside of anime) about Kawajiri's work is that he seldom loses the control over his material. His films may contain a flood of the incredible, the strange and the sleazy, yet he nearly always manages to funnel their waters into something amounting to a parseable plot that often manages to be interesting or exciting enough that I could imagine it to make for an entertaining film even without the utter weirdness surrounding it. Of course, having the solid plotting and the grotesquery is even better.

The first of the two Goku movies is the superior one. That's not to say the second one is bad (it does after all feature a killer cyborg, a flying car, mad military men, incest and the best rocket ever), it's just looking downright conventional in comparison to the stuff the first movie throws at the audience without losing its stride.

It's all good, though, and I'd recommend both Gokus to everyone who thinks it might sound even vaguely interesting.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

In short: The Evil (1978)

Sceptical psychologist C.J. Arnold (Richard Crenna) and his M.D. wife Caroline (Joanna Pettet) have bought themselves a fine new home. It was dirt cheap, which might have something to do with the fact that the house is in fact cursed and haunted.

It's also badly in need of renovation, so C.J. calls together a group of people he once had in a therapy group (at least, if I understand the film right; clarity is not one of its virtues) and a former student (Andrew Prine) coming complete with girlfriend to help bring the house in order. Before you can shout "SPOOK!", the obligatory strange things begin to happen. Loud noises and winds from nowhere are only the beginning. Soon ghosts, very localized earthquakes, and demonic possession with frightening eyebrow growth begin to assault the protagonists. A very malevolent force locks the group inside the house and begins to kill them off one by one.

In the end, it all turns out to be the fault of the gate to hell sealed in the cellar, or rather the fault of the Devil as played by a drunken Victor Buono.

Future boring TV show director Gus Trikonis' The Evil is what happens when a guy with neither knowledge of nor interest in haunted house movies is hired to shoot one based on a script that is as rote and by the numbers as spook house movie scripts come.

Because neither Trikonis nor scriptwriter Galen Thompson have ever heard of the word subtlety, their attempts at scaring their audience consist mostly of auditory attacks in the form of loud screaming, loud "dramatic" music (by one Johnny Harris), and wind noises that at times have a striking resemblance to the noise tie-fighters make. There are no attempts at building mood, no concept of what is frightening beyond shouting at the audience very loudly, and not a single idea used in an interesting way. If I had ever looked for the true inspiration for Jan de Bont's dreadful remake of Robert Wise's The Haunting, this film would probably be it.

As it goes with shocks that aren't and lots of dramatic shouting, The Evil quickly gets tiresome, and - once the demonic possessions and attempts at more bloody effects start - unintentionally humorous.

At least the acting - if I just allow myself to pretend Victor Buono's performance doesn't exist - is as good as is possible with the script. Prine has always been fine in dubious or plain bad films, and the rest of the cast just follows suit and gives this mess a sheen of professionalism it doesn't deserve, as does the solid photography by Mario DiLeo.

It's just too bad that Trikonis just doesn't have a clue what to do with their efforts.


Friday, December 3, 2010

On WTF: Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre (2009)

How can you go wrong with a title like this? (And yeah, I know the US DVD title is Harpoon: Whale Watching Massacre, but I don't really care.) This is a truly strange one, with aspects that are just infuriating, and others that look quite brilliant to my eyes.

My write-up on WTF-Film still manages to come to some sort of conclusion about the film.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

In short: Man Made Monster (1941)

Thanks to his abnormal tolerance for electricity, the electrical one-man circus act Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney Jr.) is the only survivor of the collision of a bus with a high-voltage tower. Unfortunately, this talent awakens the interest of mad scientist Dr. Paul Rigas (Lionel Atwill), who soon uses the affable and friendly Dan as a helpful guinea pig in his plans for creating his own private electricity-driven zombie slave. Just imagine what an army made out of such men could achieve, etc.

When Rigas' experiments are successful, and Dan is all a-glow with dangerous electricity, Rigas' much more moral friend and sometimes partner in science Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds) steps into the lab and is so aghast he loudly exclaims that he will have to call the police on Rigas. That won't do at all, of course, and so the mad evil one commands his electro-slave to kill his friend. The murder done, Rigas orders Dan to confess to the killing.

Then follows a quarter of an hour of courtroom drama that of course concludes with Dan being sentenced to death - on the electric chair. Sometimes, the sadistic ways of the death penalty really bite its fans in the ass.

Directed by George Waggner in the same year in which he also made The Wolf Man with Chaney, Man Made Monster is certainly one of the more tolerable of the non-classic Universal films of the 30s and 40s. That doesn't mean it's anything like an ignored classics. Rather, the film is a professionally made, yet somewhat unenthusiastic revue of scenes you might know from other Universal films - sometimes in slight variation, sometimes not. Compared with the downright hate for its own audience and the genre it was working in that can be found in much of the studio's output besides their well-known classics, Man Made Monster seems at least willing to entertain the idea that it owes its audience at least a bit of coherence, maybe even a movie worth watching.

Waggner was never one of my favourite directors of Universal's horror films. He lacked the visual flair people like Browning (when he bothered to), Freund or Whale brought to their films, and had only a dogged professionalism to put into that hole, which is not much of a replacement. At least in Man Made Monster's case, Waggner manages to keep things comparatively well-paced (with the overlong court-room stuff and surrounding things as an exception that pumps a part of the film that should take five minutes at most up to fifteen - for no good reason whatsoever; and some sentimental mawkish stuff with an unnecessarily cute dog for whose inclusion I don't see much reason either). It's all very inoffensive, but also a bit dry.

That is, it's dry as long as Lionel Atwill doesn't start on one of his lengthy, mad-scientific rants. Once Atwill gets going, the "tampering in God's domain" (alas, not used in this exact form here) phrases are thrown around with abandon, and plans that make no logical sense at all are explained with much relish. The ten minutes or so of Atwill doing his thing are the main reason to watch the movie, and would deserve - as would one of Junior's better turns as monsterized everyman - to be part of a film that knows what it has in them.

But, as I said, it's all perfectly watchable, which is more than I can say about a lot of Universal's movies from the 40s.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958)

Bill Farrell (Tom Tryon), up to this point a man seemingly very much in love with his fiancé Marge (Gloria Talbott), comes too late to his own wedding. His sudden tardiness is only the first of the changes Marge discovers about her husband. He's getting absent-minded and confused about everyday things and doesn't act like a decent honeymooner at all on his honeymoon.

A year of marriage later, Marge is getting increasingly puzzled by her husband's strange ways. Good gawd, he's even given up drinking! Worst of all, Marge still isn't pregnant (oh, those 50s Americans must have been fertile like rabbits) although her Doctor gives her a clean bill of health. It's as if something were wrong with Bill.

When Marge - who is a real romantic, it seems - gives Bill a dog as a present for their wedding anniversary, the animal doesn't take to him at all, and Bill, who has always been a dog person, hates the animal right back. Just a few hours later, the dog is dead. (You'll learn a bit later that Bill doesn't like cats, either, so no gloating, dog-haters). This really awakens Marge's distrust, so she follows Bill when she sees him sneaking out one night, only to realize what the audience has been prone to from the beginning: Bill isn't Bill anymore, but a creature from outer space that has taken on the form of Marge's husband.

Marge, not the kind of girl prone to thinking things through, goes to the police with her story. Fortunately, the chief of police knows her, and so does at least not put her into the loving care of 50s psychiatry, but he doesn't exactly do anything about Marge's problem either. His inaction just might have something to do with the fact that the chief isn't the chief anymore either, but another alien. Turns out that this peaceful American small town has been infiltrated by the scouts of an alien invasion force. Their goal: make lots of little alien babies with Earth women.

Despite the rampant silliness of its plot  and a bit of a melodramatic streak, Gene Fowler Jr.'s I Married A Monster From Outer Space isn't half bad, at least when you like the more paranoid parts of 50s SF/horror as much as I do. Sure, the film is lacking the comparative subtlety of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I imagine that it's nearly impossible for a film to be subtle when it isn't only just tapping into the zeitgeist of fear of communist infiltration and/or fear of the loss of individuality, but also adds an extra helping of the type of marital alienation that belongs into a time when women didn't know the men they were going to marry as well as they generally do today into that mix of emotionally loaded issues.

What's most interesting about I Married is how close to the surface these fears of white, "middle-class" (read: rich) US Americans lie here. Most genre films of the 50s at least have a thin surface veneer that tries to paint them as films not being about any particular fears (and many of them are certainly only subconsciously taking on the problems of their time), but I Married's script by Louis Vittes doesn't even try to pretend being harmless. It's as if Vittes and Fowler had decided they might as well use their cheap little b-movie as a window into the things 50s WASPS feared the most; as long as they used aliens for their experiment, nobody would care. Which turned out to be quite true. The film is even allowing itself to use ironic reversals like showing a woman whose troubles reveal themselves through her man not going out with the boys for a drink, among other things.

When it comes to the more textual than subtextual pleasures - though I Married's subtext tends to overwhelm its text - the film is not as fascinating. For every dense scene of paranoia - usually overacted in a good way by Talbott and Tryon - the film features another one that is just plain silly. The silliness of oxygen-allergic aliens invading Earth, or of the astonishingly bizarre scene in which the town doctor has the brilliant idea of finding a fighting force of men who aren't aliens by grabbing them out of the maternity ward, are undermining that sense of paranoia enough to bring the film out of balance, so that what could be classic of 50s paranoia becomes half a classic of 50s paranoia and half a masterpiece of unintentional comedy.

Still, a film that's half great and half unintentionally funny should make for fine 70 minutes of entertainment for anyone who has a heart and an interest in 50s alien invasion films.