Saturday, April 30, 2011

In short: Outlaw Star (1998)

The future! Smart-ass ray-gunslinger Gene Starwind and his kid side-kick Jim are operating a combined bounty-hunting/mechanic company on a planet on the backend of the universe. One day, a simple bodyguard-job for the outlaw "Hot Ice" Hilda turns into a of life-changing event that leaves our two buddies with a dead Hilda, a stolen experimental spacecraft navigated by amnesiac bio-android girl Melfina, rumours of a treasure hidden at something called the Galactic Leyline, and quite a lot of enemies. Among the latter are the man who murdered Gene's father (and his bishounen brother) and a large group of Taoist magic using space pirates.

In theory, Gene and Jim are planning to use their new ship to find the Galactic Leyline and the treasure, as well as helping Melfina get her memory back, but in practice, they spent most of the show with various insane and dangerous projects to earn enough money to pay for the ship's upkeep. At least, our heroes are the sort of guys who can turn enemies into friends, so their crew eventually also features an intensely annoying cat-girl and the female wooden-sword-swinging assassin Suzuka, both initially out to kill our heroes. They will probably come in handy once the show remembers it has a main plot.

Yes, Outlaw Star is most certainly one of those anime shows that randomly sticks every idea one of the scriptwriters once had while visiting the toilet as well as every fashionable anime cliché of 1998 into one of its episodes, without a care of any of it fitting together in any way or form.

Fortunately, this scatter-shot approach works out quite nicely for the show for most of the time. There's a sense of glee and delight running through most of the episodes, as if the team producing it just had a lot of fun throwing Taoist magic, spaceships that fight each other with grapple hands, Old West mythology and chambara action - to only take a few of the show's more awesome bits and pieces - into one large, episodic semi-comedic space opera. The same sense of fun runs through the character and object design, a love for the colourful, the larger-than-life and the just plain weird that excuses a certain lack of originality.

This lack of originality and ambition is the show's biggest weakness on the writing side - if you know the character types and the show's basic plotline, you can guess what will happen throughout the series with frightening precision; the writing is keeping on the safe side so much that the show might be infuriating to anyone obsessed with the idea of "The New" in SF. The show's other weakness is the slavish way in which it fulfils certain otaku expectations, and basically writes its own fan-fiction - see the sleazy and pubescent hot springs episode, annoying cat girl, the highly uncomfortable way the show's gay character is treated, or little things like the fact that Melfina needs to step naked into a tank of blue liquid to navigate the space ship. It's by far not as bad as it could be - this is no Neon Genesis Evangelion undermining its own virtues every five minutes - but if you're allergic against this specific part of anime culture, you might find your fun suddenly interrupted by writers with the emotional development of twelve-year-olds.

For my tastes, the show's speed and enthusiasm, its tendency to nearly shout "awesome!" at every new bit of space opera weirdness it can come up with and the small fact that these bits often are as awesome as the show thinks they are, more than make up for these flaws.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: That's not the victim screaming - it's you!

The Fountain (2006): Take one part pretty good melodrama, one part utter, brain-curdling weirdness and one part horrible 70s airbrush poster art, and you pretty much have The Fountain. It's a film where earnest artistic ambition dances with kitsch so closely that nobody involved - surely not director/writer Darren Aronofsky and certainly not this writer - seems to be able to tell where one begins and the other ends anymore. It's certainly a film worth experiencing, but it's also a film to which the often misused description of "pretentious" fits perfectly, in that it just isn't as clever and profound as it pretends to be.

Can you really watch naked, bald, lotus-seated Hugh Jackman float through golden-ish space in a bubble and not giggle?


Death Journey (1976): I'd be glad if there were much of anything to giggle about in this Fred Williamson-directed part of the Jesse Crowder series of films (it might be the first one or the second - the Internet is divided, and I'm not going to watch the additional material about the production, because this thing has already stolen enough of my life), starring Williamson, and nobody else of consequence. A private eye carting a mafia bookkeeper willing to sing from LA to Chicago while the man's former bosses are doing their best to kill them may sound like the perfect set-up for a low budget action movie, especially with a guy like Williamson who always seems to have fun when doing anything physical in the lead role. Williamson the director, however, has no idea how to stage an action sequence interestingly or even just effectively, leading to a film so bland it would probably still be boring if half of it didn't consist of filler and scenes that go on much longer than they should. Even the soundtrack gives the impression of being a collection of outtakes from a a handful of other blaxploitation soundtracks.

On the positive side, there's only a sex scene realized so hilariously wrong-headed that Williamson and his partner seem to possess two or three heads each.


Ricco The Mean Machine (1973): Christopher Mitchum takes his dear time to take vengeance on the mafia boss who murdered his mafia boss father while Barbara Bouchet undresses or under-dresses to distract the parts of the audience receptive to her charms from the utter vacuum that is Chris. The sleaze for a good Italian crime movie is certainly there, sometimes in hilarious and embarrassing ways (turns out the best way to steal mafia money in a film that isn't supposed to be a comedy is to let Barbara Bouchet dance naked in front and on top of a car). From time to time, Tulio Demicheli's film breaks into fits of pretty nasty violence, but even then, Mitchum's complete lack of personality in his role as Hamlet's more boring brother undermines much of the emotional punch of those scenes. Not to speak of the scenes where the script wants him to act.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Night Child (1975)

Original title: Il medaglione insanguinato

Little Emily Williams (Italian horror's favourite red-headed child Nicoletta Elmi) hasn't been quite alright since her mother died in a mysterious burning incident. Although Emily's father, BBC documentarian Michael (Richard Johnson), and her nanny Jill Perkins (Evelyn Stewart) are doing their best to keep her safe and sane, the girl is still plagued by horrible nightmares and suffers from fits the family doctor diagnoses as "mental breakdowns". Emily has another one of those just before her Dad is supposed to travel to Italy for a documentary about paintings of the devil. Following a recommendation of said genius doctor, Michael takes Emily and Jill with him to Italy.

There, very strange things begin to happen. Emily's nightmares turn into daytime visions of herself - or a girl looking like herself - fleeing from badly made-up medieval peasants in full-on angry mob mode. It's a scene right out of a mysterious painting also containing a burning woman falling to her death just like Emily's mum did that her father has become fascinated with. The girl sometimes acts as if she were not herself, suddenly playing piano much better than she should be able to, or doing some of that "devil child" shtick. An amulet that belonged to the Emily's mother seems to have a strange influence on her, as if someone else would take possession of the girl's body sometimes. Might the amulet and the painting have something to do with each other?

The owner of the painting, Contessa Cappelli (Lila Kedrova), who fancies herself as something of a medium, utters dire warnings, at least.

Emily's mental health surely doesn't improve when Daddy falls for his local production assistant, Joanna Morgan (Joanna Cassidy), and it seems only to be a question of time until something violent will happen. When it does, it doesn't exactly hit the first person you'd have expected.

Massimo Dallamano's The Night Child is a bit of a problem child itself. While about half of the film shows Dallamano's great abilities at putting thematic weight behind the pictures of his film and making them beautiful at the same time, the film's other half is visually peculiarly bland and generic, even insecure, as if half the film had been directed by someone on the level of, well, Sergio Martino at his best, but the other half by Sergio Bland. For every brilliantly composed scene that uses real locations to conjure up a sense of the unreal and shows the film's setting in Italy as a place where the irrational and the supernatural seem perfectly natural, there's another scene done in the blandest of point and shoot styles to drag the film's elevated mood down again. The Night Child permanently wavers between a highly stylized aesthetic and the careless shrugging of a directing hack-job, never settling down into a mood or tone, therefore never becoming as immersive and dream-like as it would need to be to actually work. Then there are special effects so miserably bad even I am not able and willing to look beyond them.

The same puzzling schizophrenia also is at work in the film's script. There are some highly clever touches in the way Dallamano presents the past and the present mirroring each other, some moments of psychology that ring absolutely true, but there's also just as much useless back and forth - especially between Johnson and Cassidy - that does not have much of a function besides making the film longer. I'm quite used to European horror films of this era having pacing problems, or being uneven in tone, but The Night Child suffers much more from these problems than its peers, because it not only lacks focus, but also seems unsure what it wants to be about. There's a fantastic film about a very ill girl unable to cope with reality in there, and about a past that resonates so strongly with the present that the present can't help but take on its form, but watching The Night Child, I'm unsure if Dallamano wanted to make that film.

I'm pretty sure he didn't tell his actors either way: Johnson and Cassidy come over as just terribly bland (yes, that word again), unable to carry their part of the movie. This is especially problematic in Johnson's case because it would have been his job to help make Nicoletta Elmi's performance look better. Visually, the girl is quite right for her role, but her acting is as mawkish and fake as you'd expect from a child actor who's mostly left to cope for herself by her co-actors; although it has to be said that the scenes between Stewart and her are generally a bit better. Stewart and Lila Kedrova are the only two actors on screen (and I don't blame Elmi, she was after all only ten years old) who really seem interested in what they're doing.

Of course, given the parts of it that are beautiful and clever, The Night Child is far from being a bad film; it just feels like a failed effort at achieving something.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

In short: The Suckling (1990)

Brooklyn in the early 70s. Her boyfriend convinces a pregnant high school students to accompany him to the local combination illegal abortion hole/bordello. She isn't too sure about the whole abortion thing, so the visit is supposed to be more about checking the place out than anything else, but in truth, dearest boyfriend has everything arranged to knock her out and end the pregnancy right now. The foetus lands in the toilet and the poor girl crying on a couch.

This being Brooklyn, the sewers are somewhat toxic, it seems. Obviously, toxic waste can only turn a potentially dead foetus into a hungry little monster. Newly reborn, the little one's first off crawling up the toilet again and munching off a prostitute head, then baby closes down the building's exits with an unpleasantly fleshy looking mass that's as good as cement. Then the munching can really begin - one needs carbs to grow into a larger (and awfully cute) rubber monster, right?

Baby's victims squabble, have break downs and are incompetent until only Mummy is still alive. Then it's back to the womb for Baby, and off to the asylum for Mummy. You can probably imagine the kicker ending.

I'm probably throwing away the last bit of respect any regular reader of this blog might still have for me when I admit that I found The Suckling pretty entertaining in its slightly malformed and mightily misguided form. I can't help but see Francis Teri's only film as something of a swan song to local independent horror film.

At least, the film carries more of the trademarks of that type of film than your typical direct-to-video production of the time. There's the semi-professional acting, ranging from wooden to pretty effective in its completely unnatural way to who the hell put this guy in front of a camera; Teri's sometimes imaginative, sometimes horrible, always personal direction style that loves nothing as much as showing scenes from ill-advised yet often strangely effective angles; a script that tries its hardest to treat a ridiculous set-up and papier-mâché characters seriously, as if they were as dramatic and important as any canonical stage play you'd care to mention, only to take a break from this earnestness from time to time to put in ill-fitting horror fan homages to films like Alien and the obvious Night of the Living Dead (too bad The Suckling does not go through with the competent black hero it promises for a few minutes), humour of the most annoying kind, or the plain nastiness the basic monster concept would suggest for the whole film.

All these elements together sure don't make for a "good" or "worthy" or "intelligent" film, but they show an enthusiasm - and even a bit of talent - for making a horror movie, even if the money and the experience's not there, that makes it impossible for me to dislike the strange abomination this film is. There's an earnestness about The Suckling that makes it much more endearing than any winking at the audience could ever do. This film about a murderous foetus has heart, and isn't afraid to show it.


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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Jagir (1984)

This is part of "Bob's Your Uncle", a multi-blog-extravaganza celebrating the memory of Bollywood's great Bob Christo, who died earlier this year, initiated by the fabulous Beth of Beth Loves Bollywood. Follow this link to find out what others have to say about the wonders of Bob.

The Maharajah of Anjangarh (Kamal Kapoor) and his forefathers have amassed an incredibly shiny treasure of jewellery and gold in their times. Because the Maharajah is incredibly virtuous and devout, he's hiding the treasure away in a cave quite out of reach of everyone to praise the gods with it, instead of, say, doing something for the people he's lording over with it. Only a map hidden away in an amulet shows the way to the treasure.

But the forces of evil in form of bandit leader Lakhan Singh (Amrish Puri, of course, though for some reason not quite as often doing his goggle eyes as usual) and the Maharajah's drunken brother think there are better things to do with treasure than nothing, and assault the Maharajah's palace. As this is a masala through and through, things don't end up as anyone had planned: the Maharajah and his brother don't survive the assault, the Maharajah's loyal friend and companion Mangal Singh (Pran) loses a hand to Lakhan's anger, the Maharajah's young son (of course carrying the treasure map amulet) disappears with the help of the family falcon, as does Mangal Singh's son - the latter believed dead after having been sacrificed by his father (whose "loyalty" to the Maharajah we are supposed to admire because of this; personally, I thought he deserved every punishment he got throughout the movie for it) to distract from the flight of the heir and the amulet, but in truth saved by "gypsies".

An amount of time the film calls twenty years, but that somehow has enabled the Maharajah's son - now called Shankar - to turn into fat middle-aged Dharmendra and Amrish Puri to age not at all, later, Lakhan Singh has become a beloved pillar of the community by day and evil-doer dressing up like a Catholic missionary also by day, while Shankar has gone into the whole Robin Hood business.

Because it's that kind of movie, Shankar meets Mangal Singh's son Sanga (Mithun Chakraborty) on a treasure hunt, and both hit it off after playing around with each other's hats in a spontaneous outburst of Freudian metaphors. They also meet and learn to love a certain Danny (Danny Denzongpa, looking like he has the time of his life), who just happens to be an enemy of Lankhar's too, though he doesn't know that at this time (let's just say it has something to do with Lankhar's foster son Ranjeet - played by Ranjeet, obviously - a dead wife, and a psychosomatically mute son). This still being that kind of movie, the three will soon enough cross paths with Lakhan again, and though nobody recognizes the other, there are still enough reasons for Lakhan for trying to kill our heroes in various ways. Namely, Sanga is in love with Lakhan's daughter Asha (Shoma Anand), and the bad guy does take that whole "overprotective father" role a wee bit too seriously, while Shankar is always trying to steal the same things as Lakhan.

Obviously, Shankar also has a right to a love interest, so the lucky bastard gets to romance Seema (Zeenat Aman, as often quite underutilized, but at least allowed to kick one or two asses and shoot a few people in the finale), who is of course also slightly connected with the whole family affair. Don't worry, please, this isn't a Japanese movie, so there's not too much risk of an incest plot. Anyway, lots of other stuff happens, until old secrets are revealed, families reunited, evil doers punished and Bob Christo kicked in the face.

Honestly, when I say that "lots of stuff happens", I really mean it. Pramod Chakravorty's Jagir is one of those masalas that pack so many minor plotlines, diversions, action scenes, and moments of random awesomeness in that a running time of 170 minutes actually feel a bit short for everything the director wants to show us. There's not just always something happening, but there's always something fun happening, as if Chakravorty and writer Sachin Bhowmick had taken a long hard look at the genre they were working in and decided that there's nothing wrong with its traditions and its structures that couldn't be fixed by replacing two thirds of the regular slots for comedy scenes and one third of the regular slots for melodrama with action sequences of the patented Bollywood style. Since the film is as long as it is (and 170 minutes are quite long even in Bollywood), there are still more than enough dramatic scenes and jokes (sometimes even funny ones) to give Jagir the expectedly baroque plot.

And, because it is also that sort of movie, Jagir includes so much ridiculously awesome stuff that I'd still be quite excited about it if it had no plot at all. To wit, apart from the things already described (padre Puri!) you will see: a Bollywood super animal in form of a falcon (often stunt-doubled by a stuffed falcon, making him doubly wonderful) who not only repeatedly saves Dharmendra's enormous behind, but also knows how to shoot a gun; a guy with steel teeth - obviously not at all inspired by a certain Bond character - having a car part throwing duel with our heroic trio; Pran doing one-armed Hindi kung fu like Wang Yu's long lost brother; Mithun in red cowboy boots that I suspect were initially part of Zeenat Aman's wardrobe; people calling Dharmendra a young man; one of the best death trap rooms with magnetic shackles and a spiky cross under a Christian graveyard in India ever; religious symbols and their use as lock picks; pneumatic jumping from everyone except Amrish Puri; and of course golden oldies like the obligatory scene where our heroes and their girlfriends (poor Danny's status as a widower alas means he doesn't have one) dress up as a "gypsie" dance troupe and sneak into a bad guy's base - well, tent camp. What's not to love?

But what, you might ask, does all this have to do with Bob Christo, the supposed target of today's ramblings? Well, in his career, Mister Christo might have been in every Bollywood movie made between 1980 and 1995, but because of this astonishing workload he was in many of them only for five or ten minutes, as is the case in Jagir. As you know, Bob was usually the actor a Bollywood director used when he needed a physically impressive white guy specialised in being evil to play the main henchman of the evil mastermind's main henchman, a position where his face made contact with all the great feet in Bollywood - like in this particular case those of Mithun and Danny (I suspect only Mac Mohan - also in Jagir of course - has been kicked or hit more). There is an obvious historical fairness (and a show of a re-growing self-confidence in a former colonized country) in having a white serial bad guy in post-colonial Hindi pop cinema getting punished by the hero of the hour. Watching Christo, I can't help but imagine (though I know it's probably not true) he knew that whenever Amitabh punched him in the groin in a movie, Amitabh was actually punching the British colonial reign (see also Mard). I imagine Christo accepting that, polishing his bald head, smiling about taking on a role that has to be taken by someone, so it might as well be him, and going on to the next movie.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

In short: Timesweep (1987)

A rather large group of people - members of the local historical society, some college people, a local news lady and her cameraman - goes off to explore a long-closed movie studio before it will be torn down. That's not as good an idea as you'd think. Our protagonists have barely entered when they are already attacked, and their numbers decimated, by someone who is quite a good spear-thrower.

After the first panic has worn off, the group realizes that they can't leave the studio anymore. Every door and window has been barricaded so successfully it just won't open at all. Even when our heroes manage to find a window they can open, they are harassed by an acidic fog that seems to surround the whole building and makes it impossible for them to leave. But the unnatural fog isn't the worst problem they encounter: there are also three-clawed creatures living in mirrors, what looks like space zombies to me, dinosaurs, a mad man in rags and particularly large cockroaches living in the building, and all of them are quite hungry for tasty human flesh.

Obviously, there will also be bickering and shouting and the sudden cooing of love birds. The only chance for the group's survival are the old subway tunnels below the building, but reaching them won't be easy.

As some of you will have already realized, Timesweep, directed by the wonderfully named Dan Diefenderfer, is a prime example of the "people running through a badly lit warehouse and/or corridors"-horror-subgenre. Unlike lesser examples of the species, Timesweep takes place exclusively in a warehouse/empty industrial building/improbably characterless set, with nary a glimpse of sunlight or even pretend-studio-sunlight. The quota of running around in the dark and screaming is filled with true panache, giving a middling cast that is much too large to be good for anything else at least something to do.

Still, I kinda approve of Diefenderfer's work here. Sure, there's not much of a plot, what there is of one is told in a way so roundabout as to be nearly impenetrable, and the explanation for everything that's happening is some complete nonsense about time shifts that makes Erich von Däniken sound rational. However, Diefenderfer is not a friend of filler. Quite the opposite, the director uses every second of his film to show us not only people running and screaming, but has imagined some entertaining things for them to run away from, effectively creating the illusion of a movie in which a lot is happening even though there in fact is not through the awesome power of dinosaurs, space zombies, and other fan favourites. The film has an air of innocent enthusiasm for these probably (I wouldn't know for sure, obviously) very childish elements that makes it impossible for me to dislike it.

As a bonus, Timesweep even includes a funny bit of bad gore now and then, and has a little running gag about the lost London After Midnight that actually made me smile.

I suppose quite a few people will think Timesweep to be irredeemable crap - and they might even be right about it - but it's irredeemable crap whose heart is in the right place (that is, where space zombies and dinosaurs dwell).


Friday, April 22, 2011

On WTF: 357 Magnum (1979)

If there's one thing the world needs more of, it's middle-aged-car-salesman-look-alike-action films. It was 1979, and director Rubén Galindo agreed completely with that sentiment, so he grabbed exploitation veteran actor duo the Almada Brothers, and made a vigilante cop movie with them.

If that sounds like your cup of tea, take a look at my weekly write-up on WTF-Film.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: The Cyclonic Cavalcade of Electrifying Sensations That Makes Your Eyes Pop Out And Your Heart Skip A Beat!

Black Jack (1968): If ever there was a perfectly mediocre Spaghetti Western without any remarkable elements, then it must be this film directed by Gianfranco Baldanello. Baldanello's filmography as a director is full of boring competence, and Black Jack fits snugly among his other films. I'd love to, you know, actually say something about the film, but there isn't anything there to talk about, except for mentioning my annoyance at the intensely racist way it portraits its Indian character (it's the old rape and scalp thing), and the silliness of the faces lead actor Robert Woods makes when he's getting tortured. Black Jack's certainly watchable, just don't expect to remember anything about it the day after you've seen it.


The Swordmates (1969): As if to demonstrate how to make an ultra-generic movie but keep it entertaining, this Shaw Brothers wuxia directed by Cheung Ying and Poon Faan comes along right after the less pleasant example of Black Jack.

Evildoers are planning to topple the Ming Dynasty and have laid their plans down on a practical little scroll that's transported in a jade statue of the goddess of mercy. Do-gooders - as is their wont - do their best to thwart these plans; fighting ensues, long-lost relatives are reunited in an incredibly perfunctory manner and backstory is more ignored than explained. But that the film doesn't seem to care about its own plot isn't much of a problem: it is sprightly paced, the fights are dynamically staged, and an uncommonly high number of handheld camera shots for a Shaw production as well as an at times pretty creative use of environmental objects during the fights are enough to keep even the twelfth fight in twenty minutes fun. Lead actress Chin Ping has at this point in her career gotten so good at the wuxia heroine business (and is of course cute as a button) that not having an actual character to play doesn't hinder her from being impressive, and the older cast members are doing more of the physical action than usual. That might not sound like too much, it is however more than enough to keep me entertained for the eighty minutes the film lasts.


Zombie 5: Killing Birds (1988): When its American distributors saddled this film about a group of very old college students looking for an obscure bird but finding…well, not much, honestly and Robert Vaughn financing his new swimming pool, with the Zombie moniker, they were honest in a skewed way. While Killing Birds doesn't contain too many zombies (or killing birds), its snail-like pacing is as zombie-like as anything you'd care to imagine. If you want to suck enjoyment out of this movie where nothing ever happens - but very slowly, you need an unhealthy love for watching people walking through an empty, brightly-lit house for what feels like hours; a lot of alcohol might help, too. In case you need your movies to have any sort of pay-off, or want them to include anything enjoyable, you'll be better off watching a fireplace DVD.

I usually have a high tolerance for this sort of thing, but Killing Birds has me beat: there's nothing at all on screen for me to recommend it to anyone I don't hate for the horrible things he, she or it has done to my loved ones. The best I have is the comforting fact that director Claudio Lattanzi did never direct a film again.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Cauldron: Baptism of Blood (2004)

A circle of female demon worshippers serving the demon Vessago (Scott Blacksher) - usually seen in form of a giant see-through floating head that dissolves into green digital stars when he's had enough of this shit - does demon-worship-y things in Las Vegas. Nope, not slaughtering Elvis impersonators - these girls prefer to dance around in circles in skimpy outfits as well as a good old regular human sacrifice. Just don't ask them why they put the heads of their victims in an aquarium.

The cult's leader, a certain Demonia (Mary Selby), also works as an occult adviser and magical professional killer from time to time (whenever there's need for a scene not including any dancing, to be precise), but who cares? The film sure doesn't.

Anyway, poor innocent Stacy (Kellie Karl), winner of something called "America's Top Talent" - the talent here's so top the finale of the whole affair even includes a ventriloquist who just happens to be Stacy's girlfriend - is gifted an amulet by a random cult member and says something about "doing anything for fame". Obviously, when next she's alone with her boyfriend's ventriloquist doll in her bedroom, Vessago's head appears and wants to make a deal. That Stacy isn't in the soul-selling trade does not interest him too much, so when she doesn't want to make a deal, he sends out some teleporting women he made out of manikins (don't ask me) to kidnap her. Now, Stacy will either have to become a member of the cult or their sacrifice. My, how exciting.

If you are asking yourself whatever happened to prodigious director/writer/producer/all-around-occultism-loving-madman-with-a-castle-full-of-women Ted V. Mikels, I can now assure you that nothing at all happened to him. While the great frightening man didn't work his cinematic magic much in the 80s and 90s, the 21st century and its cornucopia of cheap digital cameras, free digital editing suites and mildly attractive women willing to "star in a movie", even when it's not a movie as most people understand the word and they can't act, have caused an explosion of new creativity from him. Even better, in all those years, Mikels has seemingly not learned a single thing about filmmaking, so this re-make/re-imagining/sequel/rip-off of the director's own classic Blood Orgy of the She-Devils is just as horrible as one could have hoped for, without the need for Mikels to unlearn anything.

The Cauldron's improbable, mythical horribleness is not a bad thing, mind you. For the weak of spirit, Mikels' very personal cinematic vision of films consisting as exclusively of scenes of Satanist bikini-clad women writhing in what I only describe as "dances" because language has no words that would really fit the action on screen as possible while still being long and boring, will be hard to get into or even survive. However, once you've gotten into the spirit of Mikels' films, strange vistas of wonder and horror open up before you, until you can't tell good from bad, and boredom and entertainment become the same thing.

Once that has happened, strange sources of entertainment will open up: there is, of course, the dancing, then more of the dancing, and then even more of the dancing, until even the most hardened viewer's eyes will begin to glaze over; that's of course the moment when Mikels will hit you with even more dancing - after that, you just might get a glimpse at the dweller in the centre of the universe itself. To reach that dancing core of Mikels' art, the courageous viewer - mirroring the Campbellian Hero himself - has to fight through valleys of acting so bad, line deliveries so ill-advised even a high school theatre teacher would flinch; after that, said viewer will dive into the depths of Mikels' home-made talent show - only taking up about a quarter of the screen, while the rest belongs to video editing suite "effects" - containing no talent but that which will destroy your mind; and when that's over, there are still the mandatory Boring Cop Sequences and a home-made talk show about the paranormal featuring Ted V. Mikels himself trying to keep our Hero away from the dancing. Eventually, there's only more dancing and a scene of a floating demon head first shooting cartoon lighting and then very digital cartoon flames (of course accompanied by the sound of insect spray) at his own worshippers for no reason whatsoever.

Then, the film is over, and enlightenment and transcendence through boredom and bad dancing has been achieved. Well, that, or the sort of madness that can only be described with vocabulary stolen from Lovecraft. In any case, it's an experience.


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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

In short: Somos Lo Que Hay (2010)

aka We Are What We Are

The family unit is in crisis! Admittedly, the specific family unit in crisis in Somos Lo Que Hay is a family of ritual cannibals quickly breaking down after the father of the family dies (bad food, I suppose), but a family's a family, right? As is par for the course in film's about families breaking down, we also meet or old friends Repressed Homosexuality and Undercurrent of Incest again, strutting their stuff as they are wont to do.

The film's director Jorge Michel Grau sure has an eye for urban squalor (alas, also for the usual yellow and green colour filters that make everything look slightly vomit- and urine-coloured, as if being poor and pissing up one's own walls were the same thing), as well as for getting pretty impressive performances out of very young actors, but he keeps an emotional distance from his characters that makes it difficult to care about them or what happens to them, however impressive their acting abilities. I'm just not feeling much about the film beyond respect for its technical achievements, that are admittedly high. The lack in relatable emotional grounding on display makes Takahisa Zeze look like the warmest director alive.

Sure, it wouldn't be easy to make cannibals into figures worthy of emotional involvement, but I honestly think it's part of a film's job to make me care about its characters or their problems in a non-clinical way, especially when (apart from the - of course metaphorically loaded, but unexciting - cannibalism) its basic ideas and concepts are as unoriginal as those of Somos Lo Que Hay are; if I had a dollar for every movie about families breaking down that isn't too friendly towards the concept of family, I'd be filthy rich and much happier.

My opinion of the movie surely isn't improved by my own antipathies towards its themes: there's not much that interests me less than a story looking at a dysfunctional family as if they were bugs pinned under glass, apart from a story about the hard life of middle-aged rich white male academics trying to get into the pants of girls half their age.

Oh well, that's what happens when a film meets its least fitting viewer.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dragon Princess (1976)

It's 1966, and New York City has a major crime problem. The City goes for the obvious solution - hire a Japanese karate instructor to teach the cops martial arts. But there are two different instructors vying for the honour of teaching police men how to cripple their victims without guns. On one side is the intensely honourable Okinawan Kazuma Higaki (Sonny Chiba! in one of his patented cameo roles), but on the other glares evil bastard from Tokyo Hironobu Nikaido (Bin Amatsu). Higaki would be perfectly willing for the police to make a decision and just get on with things, but his enemy isn't so laid-back. When Nikaido loses a duel Higaki never even wanted, he lets his three pet assassins loose, crippling and nearly killing Higaki in front of his little daughter Yumi.

For some reason, Nikaido decides to allow Higaki to live, at least if he leaves town. Thinking about the future of his daughter, Higaki agrees and moves to LA. A bit bitter and broken, Higaki raises his daughter (soon enough to be played by house favourite Etsuko Shihomi) the martial arts training way, so that she will be able to avenge the family honour and "the purity of karate" on Nikaido. It's about as happy and satisfying a childhood for the girl as you'd expect. When Yumi punches her father too hard during training and he dies, it's time for her to go to Tokyo - to where Nikaido has returned years ago to become the Big Man of karate culture - and set her vengeance in motion.

Obviously, Yumi's enemy still uses the same trio of assassins, and just as obviously, it won't be easy for our heroine to kill them. At least there's another nice young man (Yasuaki Kurata) infiltrating Nikaido's dojo who's also quite angry at her enemies to help her out when need be.

Dragon Princess might not be the best martial arts film produced by Toei featuring Etsuko Shihomi and/or Sonny Chiba, but given how many great (or at least greatly entertaining) films these two made in the 70s and 80s, that shouldn't be much of a deterrent to anybody.

This one is still much too entertaining to be mediocre, but the mandatory madness of Toei's films in this particular genre is very subdued; in fact, if not for the sputtering mad New Yorker beginning, there wouldn't be enough madness in the movie to even use the word. Even the assassin trio is rather quotidian for a martial arts movie - I mean, honestly, if the worst you got is a blind (thanks, Sonny!) assassin who can be driven mad by a bunch of little bells, you're the straight man in this genre.

Fortunately, madness is not all I like about Toei's martial arts movies of the period, and Dragon Princess' director Yutaka Kohira fulfils all other stylistic wishes to the best of his abilities. So yes, there are scenes of Chiba, Shihomi and Kurata being 70s cool while Toei funk plays on the soundtrack, there are sudden spurts of psychedelic directing flourishes in form of anti-naturalist (but pretty) colour choices in the sets, bizarre framing decisions and some really dubious uses of tinting. The film also shows the mild distractibility (why not put a fight scene in here? what do you mean, there's no plot reason for it to be here?) I've grown to love in its kind.

It's a bit disappointing that the movie doesn't do much with Yumi's early reluctance to do karate, but on the other hand, films about reluctant fighters often tend to make their protagonists look not so much like people in true doubt about their way in life, but like lazy douches who wouldn't help an old woman who collapses right in front of them back on her feet again. And who would want to see that in a movie that ends with Etsuko Shihomi punching a guy's lungs in although she has a broken arm?


Saturday, April 16, 2011

In short: Terror In The Midnight Sun (1959)

Original title: Rymdinvasion i Lappland

The Swedish cut and the US cut of this Swedish/US co-production are completely different. Since the US-version has been touched by the appendages of Jerry Warren, I opted for the Swedish one that is (and I do believe the Internet in this case) supposed to be superior in every way.

A meteorite has crashed down on the ices of (the Swedish) Lapland, but there's something rather strange about it. The object seems to have landed rather than crashed, really, getting the Swedish Royal Academy of Science all a-tizzy. They send American scientist Dr. Frederick Wilson (Robert Burton) and Swedish geologist and professional lady killer Erik Engström (Sten Gester) up there on a little expedition.

Turns out that Wilson's niece, Olympic figure skater Diane (figure skater Barbara Wilson), is also in the skiing resort that will be the base camp for the whole investigation. She's also very much interested in becoming part of the expedition and of Erik's harem. That's a happy coincidence, because we'll need a woman to run away and scream soon enough, because a big, hairy monster in need of American women to threaten has stepped out of the meteor. I see squashed Lap tents and minor avalanches in the future.

I have certainly seen worse examples of the 50s monster movie genre than Terror in the Midnight Sun, but I've enjoyed many of these quite a bit more than the film at hand. Yes, we are in the realm of boring competence again (though some of the film's editing might stretch the definition of "competence" to a problematic degree), where no goal is achieved beyond ticking off checkmarks on a list of features every other film of a given time and genre includes too. If you've seen any of this film's brethren - and everyone should have, there are birds as big as battleships to find - you know all there is to know about its characters, their relations, their icky romances and about the film's ideas about women.

What features Terror has beyond that are mostly not of the kind gladly mentioned, because they consist of an overabundance of filler, especially during its first two thirds. So there are ten minutes of a documentary about radar (I wish I were kidding), a figure skating scene, a musical number, horrible "flirting" and lots and lots of skiing - none of it needed for or relevant to the film's actual plot, such as it is. The furry monster's somewhat cute, at least, and one can't blame director Virgil W. Vogel for having tried to make it look more impressively large than it actually is through forced perspective and low-angled camera shots; for my tastes, he does at least beat Bert I. Gordon here.

The film's other positive is the Swedish landscape, that at times (when it is not misused for more skiing) promises a much bleaker and more interesting film than Vogel is able to deliver.

Now, an okay monster and a lot of snow are probably not enough for most people to wade through the rest of Terror in the Midnight Sun, but I do appreciate that everyone (except writer Arthur C. Pierce) were honestly trying to make a decent monster movie.


Friday, April 15, 2011

Space Adventure Cobra - The Movie (1982)

Space pirate, all-around tough guy and semi-professional heart-throb Cobra has retired from the pirating biz, changed his appearance and now spends his time smirking and smoking cigars on some backwoods planet. Things - though not the smirking and the smoking - change when he meets space bounty hunter Jane Flower. Because he's a bit of a carefree guy, and Jane's pretty cute, Cobra tries to impress her by revealing his true identity to her.

At first, the young woman doesn't believe a single word he says, but when the couple is attacked by stormtroops of the highly influential space pirate guild, and Cobra transforms his arm into his trademark psycho gun (powered by his mental badassitude, obviously) to fend them off, Jane's scepticism quickly disappears. Instead of doing the obvious thing for a bounty hunter, Jane asks for Cobra's services as a body guard and his help in freeing her twin sister Catherine from a floating prison on a far-away planet. Because Jane's still pretty cute, her kisses induce some pretty spectacular hallucinations, and our pirate hero is already quite in love with her (at least as much as his type of macho persona can be), he agrees.

Alas, Catherine has been imprisoned by the regional boss of the Guild, a certain Crystal Boy, an old enemy of Cobra's and one of the few guys in known space who can shrug off laser beams as if they were nothing, so the hero couple's future brings quite a few clashes with him and his men, as well as triple tragedy, betrayal, more space sex, an example of how to use the Power of Love™ gambit in a story while still keeping one's male hero quite promiscuous, and as many goofily fun space opera shenanigans as one can pack into 99 minutes of anime.

I couldn't leave the decidedly crap Golgo-13 adventure Queen Bee as the only entry for an anime directed by Osamu Dezaki on this blog for long. After all, the man is the inventor of many filmic techniques that have become common in his chosen medium, plus he has worked quite a bit in those areas of anime that are the most compatible with my interests.

Space Adventure Cobra - based on the endless magnum opus of mangaka Buichi Terasawa - is the sort of space opera that really isn't done anymore today. Design-wise as well as philosophically highly influenced by the SF of the second half of the 60s, it's mostly the (mild) sex and the (enthusiastic, yet not too crass) violence that distinguish it as a product of the early 80s. At its heart, though, Cobra is the kind of SF that logically follows things like Moonbase Alpha or the pop Science Fiction of Italians like Antonio Margheriti or Alfredo Brescia, where attractive men and women in boots and very tight, colourful clothes fly through space sipping cocktails and having awesome space adventures and equally awesome space sex.

The big difference between Space Adventure and its spiritual predecessors is that the anime form gives Dezaki and Terasawa visual possibilities for throw-away awesomeness live action movies couldn't - and even in the age of CG - still can't afford. The film is packed full with reams and reams of ridiculous and awesome throw-away stuff, as if it were a novel by Iain Banks without the politics and the characterization. Expect flying prisons, a female snowboarding bandit resistance group named "Snow Gorilla", lots of things with the pre-fixes "space" or "cosmos", a space ship made of glass, embryos floating in space, a little green Buddha-like professor floating through space, very weird theories about love, even weirder ideas about queenship, a psychic planet, a naked woman riding on a horse made of energy and more impractical but great technological design than anyone could wish for.

This being a very Japanese piece of space opera, there's also the already mentioned talk about the Power of Love™, which, incidentally, seems to be quite useful if you need to punch through walls. This kind of space hippie kitsch is often not very popular with Western SF fans, but I think it keeps the potentially insufferably macho character of Cobra in check by giving him at least a second dimension. Sure, depth lives elsewhere, but what makes a space opera as cracking a bit of fun as Space Adventure Cobra is, isn't depth, but breadth, the willingness to throw an insane amount of visually and conceptually cool ideas on screen, regardless of concepts like realism. While this breadth of ideas leaves the film no time to properly explore any single one of them, it sure gets the imagination running, resulting in the sense of wonder I hope for in my space opera.


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Thursday, April 14, 2011

In short: Phantom Raiders (1988)

OMG! Some ex-marine Colonel (Mike Monty) is training evil commie terrorists in the jungles of the PhilippinesVietnam! The end of the Western World is nigh! What to do? Get badass commando ninja Python Lang (Miles O'Keeffe) on the job! And give him the Colonel's son - also a badass commando ninja - as a helper! Python (hiss) grabs three random beardy Vietnam veterans selling heroin from the street and puts them through half an hour of commando ninja training (throwing shuriken! rappelling away from the explosion! jumping around!) until they deserve the honour to wear silly camo hats, while Miles puts his favourite sock on his face.

Then it's off into the jungle to shoot Filipino extrasevil commie terrorists! Shuriken are thrown! Assault rifles are shot! Guys run through the jungle! Huts explode!

Who knew that a film so full of shooting, jumping and explosions could be so dull? Turns out even the most basic of action films needs at least a little bit of dialogue, probably even scenes without action, to work. Alas, directors Don Harvey and Sonny Sanders (whoever they might be) didn't believe in that boring talking stuff, and decided to make a film containing much less dialogue than your typical silent movie. On a certain level, I can even understand their reluctance regarding letting Miles O'Keeffe talk, for the square-jawed one uses his superpower of…putting pauses…at the most…inappropriate parts of every…sentence…he…says whenever he opens…his…mouth, sounding for all the world as if he were reciting really bad poetry - the sort of poetry that has sentences like "don't be a dumbshit" in it.

The internet rumour mill says Phantom Raiders' script only had thirty pages (as we all know, as a rule of thumb, one script page makes one minute of movie), and for once, I absolutely believe what it says. Two thirds of those pages were probably filled with the words "shooty shooty shoot!" and "run run run run", too.

It's not that I expect much of a plot from my shot-in-the-Philippines jingoistic action crap, but there's a point where the same handful of guys running and shooting through the same few square feet of jungle stops to provide even the scant entertainment values I expect from a movie of this particularly sad genre. Italian jungle action crap usually makes up for this kind of deficit by providing oodles of ridiculous dialogue and creative cursing and letting some grizzled veteran actor drunkenly stumble around the screen for five minutes or so, but all this one has is a hatred of the human voice and Mike Monty.

Well, at least the huts explode instead of just burning down.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Siren (2010)

Not to be confused with all those other Sirens.

Rachel (Anna Skellern), her rather jerky boyfriend Ken (Eoin Macken) and Rachel's old college flame Marco (Anthony Jabre) are going on a yachting trip around some islands off the coast of Tunisia (I think). There's a certain amount of tension in the air, because Rachel and Ken don't really seem of one mind about the direction their relationship is heading in, while Marco still has a major crush on Rachel.

While cruising (or whatever it is that boats do) around an island, Marco spots a man in obvious need of help. Trying to get him on board, the not-that-intrepid sailor also manages to damage the yacht enough to ensure he and his friends will be stuck for at least a day or two. That's only a minor problem for now anyway: the new guest is of much greater immediate import, bleeding from his ears and ranting and raving in French as he does. He falls down dead soon enough, though.

Ken has the bright idea to not take the dead body back to the authorities for fear that he and his friends will be held responsible for the death. So, obviously, it's off to the island to bury the body. It's absolutely reasonable, honestly.

On the island, the trio meets a girl calling herself Silka (Tereza Srbova). She doesn't talk much, and says she doesn't remember a thing about what happened to her or if she even knew the dead guy, but everyone fastly takes a shine on her, which ratchets the sexual tension up another notch. A night of drinking and some rather uncanny singing (did you know the Siren's Song is in English?) ends in off-screen sex between Silka and Rachel, and some unpleasant waking dreams for the boys.

Silka is quite obviously the siren of myth, and she really hasn't much use for men except as murder victims, but she has better plans for Rachel.

Andrew Hull's Siren is a surprisingly decent movie. It's not the most intellectually demanding horror film I've seen, but it's really trying its best to ground its supernatural threat in the psychology of its characters, and though that psychology isn't all that original or surprising, the film still beats your basic hack and slash by miles. Given how many of the film's psychological underpinnings are based on the characters' unspoken and un-acted on sexual desires, I found it a bit surprising Hull didn't decide to go into a more sleazy direction. There's a bit of very tame sex, lots of tense staring and a bit of snogging on screen, but for a film that is about a supernatural creature using and abusing sexuality, it's all very low-key. Perhaps that's an attempt to stay classy. After all, it is really not difficult to imagine how including a lot of sex scenes done in the wrong style could easily drag the film in the direction of the unintentionally funny. However, the film's coyness seems like a bit of a cop-out to me. Now, Siren avoids the ridiculous, but through this avoidance also keeps itself from the potential of becoming actually erotic horror.

Still, Hull manages to create some moments of erotic tension - therefore many more than many other horror films trying to be erotic do - and is also pretty good at staging the fast deterioration of his characters' ability to tell what's real from that what's imagined while still keeping the plot coherent. The latter is so often the point where contemporary supernatural horror fails that this alone makes the film commendable; Siren's air of assured, though not spectacular, professionalism in its basic filmmaking skills is a nice bonus.

The acting's on the level too, never spectacular, but convincing enough even in those moments where truly bad performances would drag the film down. Although it's quite beyond me why you'd want to cast the less able of your two lead actresses as the siren character. The siren, after all, should just burst with charisma or an air of the otherworldly. It's probably a Slavic cheekbone thing I wouldn't understand.

However, all the film's minor flaws do not detract from a simple fact: Siren is pretty good at being the small, unassuming horror film that it is, and - while it's never going to be called a classic - it's a bit closer to the concept of the uncanny than many of its peers.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: It's Alive With Thrills!

Devil's Den (2006): Remember the second half of From Dusk Till Dawn? Well, so did the people responsible for this one, and decided to remake it, only with half the humour and one third of the cleverness of the original, and without Robert Rodriguez' mad enthusiasm or Tarantino's knowledge of where and how to quote and still make a film that's more than a mere series of quotes; my old enemy competence makes an appearance instead. As far as rip-offs of post-modern horror action movies go, though, this is actually is one of the more watchable ones: at least as long as Ken Foree's on screen and the film doesn't try and do characterization.


The Meateater (1979): A US local independent production about a mad, rat-eating, Jean-Harlow-loving cannibal killer creeping through a newly reopened provincial cinema. Awkward acting between "Oh my GAWD, there's a camera" and "I'm so sleepy", bizarre framing and a fat, beef-jerky eating cop named Wombat attack and awaken the highest expectations in the lover of this very particular type of movie. Alas, after an hour or so, the film's misshapen yet adorable creativity disappears, never to return again, leaving me bored and a bit disappointed.


Yo El Ejecutor (1987): Keeping with movies that start out wrong yet strong only to get bogged down in things of no particular interest, this Mexican action movie about a tough guy killing bad guys for the US government by, about and with action trash maestro Valentin Trujillo begins with fantastic twenty minutes of every cheap-skate 80s action film action scene cliché in existence, but soon enough loses every bit of momentum and silly excitement to bad, drawn-out melodrama. There is still a bit of entertainingly stupid violence later on, as well as some hilariously wrong-headed moments of 80s macho man romancing (okay, "romancing"), however, the lost sense of witnessing a perfect encapsulation of what the 80s nearly-no-budget action movie was all about never returns. We'll always have the beginning.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bonnie And Clyde vs. Dracula (2008)

The USA during the Great Depression. Bank robbers and psychotic doers of violence Bonnie (Tiffany Shepis) and Clyde (Trent Haaga) have hit a low point in their careers. With no money in their pockets, they're making their way across the Midwest being as psychotic and violent as their job description promises, but their relationship is straining under the yoke of financial deprivation. Business is bad. Fortunately, the couple's old partner Henry (F. Martin Glynn) has a sure-fire plan to steal some moonshine.

At the same time, mad scientist Dr. Loveless (Allen Lowman) has enough of wearing that darn sack over his head and is trying to cure his disfiguring illness in the most obvious way: by reviving the remains of famous party animal/vampire Dracula (Russell Friend), in the hope of a little transfusion of blood of the great man for himself. In his work, Dr. Sackhead, pardon, Loveless is assisted by his mentally six-year-old sister Annabel (Jennifer Friend). Annabel really isn't interested in helping her rather horrible brother, but one of those fine electro-shock collars you can buy in Mad-Science-Mart around her neck doesn't leave her much of a choice.

Once Dracula is revived enough to talk, he shows himself to be quite displeased by Annabel's presence. Turns out she is a "pure innocent", and that vampires are pretty allergic to them.

Given the film's title, it's obvious that Bonnie and Clyde's new money-making attempt will fail and lead them to the territory of Loveless and Dracula. But will all these evil guys and girls truly fight each other?

If there are two things I usually try to avoid in my horror film consumption, then it's contemporary US independent horror and consciously camp movies. The former too often leave me with an unpleasant feeling of hatred for people joyfully trying their best to make movies for no money, because "their best" usually is very, very bad in a very very non-entertaining way, while the latter can't avoid the truth that creating conscious camp is about as possible as being alive and dead at the same time.

Naturally, given these basic facts of my taste and temper, I went into Bonnie And Clyde vs. Dracula less than optimistic, with only the hope of seeing Bonnie and Clyde fight Dracula to keep me upright. (Actually, I went in mumbling stuff like "Why am I doing this to me again? Isn't life too short?"). That hope of the film being true to its title was crushed soon enough. BCvD takes two thirds of its running time until the two plot lines finally meet, and when they do, there's not much exciting happening. Dracula himself isn't even dispatched by our mass-murderin' heroes, but through the sort of accidental death that makes other undignified Dracula deaths like accidentally running into a thorn bush look very dramatic and dignified in comparison. I do realize that the film's writer/director Timothy Friend staged Dracula's death the way he did on purpose to stay true to his theme of innocence versus evil - and Bonnie and Clyde sure aren't innocent - but making the ending of one's film dramatically sound seems just as (possibly even more) important as making it thematically sound.

While the ending, as well as the film's - typical for a production like this - exceedingly slow pacing, are less than satisfying, I still found myself surprisingly entertained by the whole affair. Though the movie's larger structure frankly just does not work, there is much to enjoy if you take many of its scenes as tiny, campy sketches and just ignore the larger ambitions.

If you can do that, you might be as positively surprised as I was. Most of the acting hits the sweet spot where not much of what anyone says or does is meant to be taken too seriously, but where the least serious lines are delivered with only as much overacting as they can carry. The actors - especially Shepis and Haaga - are obviously having a lot of fun with their roles, putting just the right amount of lunacy in. Shepis - veteran of more crap movies than I'd care to see - even manages the feat of playing a blackly humorous crazy character who is still threatening.

Furthermore, many of the movie's jokes were actually pretty funny, particularly when many of them show Friend to be a lover of the telling, ridiculous detail more than of the obvious spoken punch line. It's difficult not to like a film that lets its head-sack-wearing bad guy change from the potato head-sack model to a red satin one for a party. For me, it's moments like this that are a sure sign a lot of love went in Bonnie and Clyde vs. Dracula.


Saturday, April 9, 2011

In short: Baoh (1989)

aka Baoh Rihousha

aka Baoh the Visitor

The evil government organization Doress is specialized in insane experimental weaponry, so it comes as not much of a surprise when they inject the larva of a parasitic worm - Baoh - into the brain of a (probably mild-mannered) Japanese teenager called Ikurou to turn him into the ultimate - but also quite uncontrollable - weapon.

While transporting the experimental subject to their main labs/headquarters/who knows, another victim of the organization, precognitive and telepathic girl child Sumire, accidentally frees our hero. The two manage to escape (not without Ikurou ripping someone's hand off). Of course, Doress isn't very happy with having a teenager who's turning into a killing machine (cleverly also called Baoh) whenever he's in trouble running around the country, and so they send a few of freakish operatives after the pair to kill Ikurou.

That's easier said than done, seeing how Baoh's destructive power grows exponentially, and he's soon able to melt faces off, project electricity, or shoot energy spikes out of his hair when he's getting bored of just punching people until their eyeballs pop out or cut them to pieces with his elbow claws like an awkward, candy-colour-haired Wolverine.

After a few attempts, Doress at least manages to kidnap Sumire and take her to the organization's island HQ/main lab/whatever. Our mass murdering hero doesn't like this one bit and decides to pay the place a visit.

The short OVA Baoh (directed by Hiroyuki Yokoyama) is based on an early work by mangaka Hirohiko Araki, the man who'd later go on to create the awe-inspiring insanity known to humanity (and various species of burnt-for-live aliens) as JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. Unfortunately, neither Baoh the manga (well, at least what's been translated of it) nor Baoh the OVA are as crazy as their authorship would make one hope for.

The OVA's very much a standard gory fight anime of the sort Japanese filmmakers churned out by the thousands during the 80s, without much to let it stand out among its peers, apart from dialogue that's slightly more flavourful than that of OVA not based on anything written by Araki. A bit of the man's love for colourfully absurd smack-talk is in here.

Fortunately, the basic standards of gory fight anime of the time were really pretty high, so Baoh does provide when a short and entertaining burst of hyper-violence between bizarre characters is what you're looking for. After all, faces melt, large numbers of eyeballs pop and a psychokinetic native American gets really angry and big once he has lost his psychic-ability-damping headband (don't ask). What's not to like?


Thursday, April 7, 2011

In short: Santau (2009)

Successful architect Halim (Esma Daniel), his wife Nina (Putri Mardiana) and their little daughter live a happy life, until one day someone decides to smash their happiness. After they ingest some cursed food, horrible things start happening to the family. Halim just gets a bit sick and becomes more jumpy than he usually is, and his daughter sees terrifying dead old women where her mother should be and has minor episodes of possession. Nina takes the brunt of the black magic attack, though. At first, the mild-mannered woman just becomes as rude and angry as a normal person, but soon enough, she's beginning to mistreat her daughter, and feeds her husband worms in his noodles. The next step is obviously a full-grown possession, and true enough, eventually Nina licks wormy masses from the floor, gibbers and develops a tendency to levitate.

Fortunately, religious neighbours can be a whole lot of help when demons attack.

I still don't know enough about the state and history of horror films - or even cinema - in Malaysia to be able to contextualize Azhari Mohd Zain's Santau as a part of the nation's cinematic output. I suspect that the film's religious slant is quite typical for the country, but going around with the hammer of religion is of course also an important part of the whole exorcism movie sub-genre. Like with any old earnest Catholic exorcism movie, this Muslim version also leaves little old atheist me somewhat emotionally disconnected from the whole affair. Watching scenes after scene of people praying and seeing the main character vowing his love for god after his family has been through the wringer isn't exactly what I find entertaining, nor something I find horrifying in the sense the film's maker would probably prefer.

But fortunately Santau takes its identity as a horror film (and therefore a piece of entertainment through fear) as seriously as it does its religious convictions and so goes through all those things I (and other heathens) love dearly about Southeast-Asian horror films: there are more than enough scenes of creepy old women, the eating of frightfully icky stuff, harm done to women and children, etc. and so on, to make one quite happy, or - as the case might be - quite nauseous. Putri Mardiana's possession performance is pretty riveting too. Not only does the actress shout, and howl, and writhe with the best, she also has a frightful willingness to throw herself into the least pleasant physical aspects of her role; I certainly wouldn't want to touch the things she puts her face in.

The exorcisms (making up the movie's final third) are done pretty dramatically, too, staged by Zain with enough theatrical oomph to let me forget that I'm basically watching a woman shout and various men pray for half an hour. It sure helps that every exorcist here has his very own style (probably with religious connotations I don't even begin to understand).

So, while Santau is most certainly not a film made for me (that, by the way is not a critique), and not one that affects me much on an emotional level, it still is a very fun ride, made with one eye on religious righteousness and the other on righteous horror.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Road Train (2010)

aka Road Kill

The usual quartet of late teens - usefully building two couples with problems - goes for a camping trip in the Outback. Not everything is alright between them, but unless you're a hardcore jealousy nut, you probably won't care about that.

Our heroes meet and greet an especially big truck whose driver seems out for blood more than usual in his line of work. There's a crash, our heroes' trusty jeep is totalled, one of their number hurt, and it looks like their trip will end in a total disaster. In a seeming stroke of luck, at least the truck that hit them has parked a little ways off.

Curiously, the vehicle is empty. After some faffing about, the gang decide to just take the truck and go, a decision that turns out to be quite sound when the former owner of the the vehicle appears and begins to shoot at them.

That's just the beginning of the friends' problems, though. Soon enough, they are stranded in the middle of nowhere without water or food, the mad man's still after them, and the truck begins to have a malevolent influence on everyone. Hallucinations of wolves are had, scenery is chewed. Which is quite typical for a film with trucks running on dead bodies instead of petrol, I suppose.

At the point of my movie-watching career I have reached now, a film needs to deliver quite a bit of nonsense to still register as nonsensical to me, but Road Train jumps over that hurdle fast and with an enthusiasm seldom shown by films not made in Italy in the last century. Characters that make no sense do things that make no sense that might or might not be influenced by a supernatural evil that does neither make sense nor is explained nor even speculated about; in fact, none of the characters ever asks the obvious question: "What the fuck's going on here?". Everyone seems too preoccupied with shouting for that.

Instead of being allowed to do anything sensible, the film's beleaguered actors are roped into scene after scene of screaming and grimacing, with a bit of bickering and grunting thrown in for good measure. These poor people are doing their jobs well enough, with all the hysterical enthusiasm one could hope for in an actor, reminding me of pretty muppets on speed. That's a compliment, mind you, because it's hardly the actors' fault that the film's script was written on a napkin and does not include luxury like character motivation. A thespian must do what a thespian must do in cases like this: SHOUT AND JUMP AND ROLL HER EYES MADLY!

On a certain level, I'm really pretty impressed by Road Train. It isn't every day I find a movie that is so prettily filmed, and seems so professionally done on the surface as it does, yet has a script completely devoid of even the most basic knowledge of characterisation (Who are these people? Why are they doing what they are doing? Do they have any psychological traits to keep them apart?), plotting (Why? Who? What the hell?), or really, anything else you'd expect from a script. Random teleportation and hallucinated wolves add further depth to the script's confusion.

Being as obtuse as this one is is no mean feat, and if you're like me and love films whose mere existence spits into the face of order and propriety, you just might have a fine time with Road Train, or even start a full-grown revolution during which you stuff dead bodies in the body mill in the back of your truck like they did in your new favourite film.

If, on the other hand, you expect your films to be at least vaguely coherent, you might just want to give Road Train a miss.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

In short: Haunted School (1995)

aka School for Ghosts

Original title: Gakko no kaidan

There's trouble in the elementary school of a Japanese small town. On the last school day before the beginning of summer holidays, a small girl wanders into the theoretically closed-down old school building, and doesn't come back out. Her brother goes looking for her, but soon enough he and a handful of other kids who wandered inside looking for adventure find themselves lost and locked in the school. Being locked turns out to be their smallest problem, though - a ball game accident has shattered one of the clay figures holding the local evil spirits and ghosts at bay, and now quite a few of them want to spend some quality with the kids.

Even when grown-ups in the form of a nerdy teacher and the motorcycle mechanic sister of one of the kids appear the day isn't easily saved.

Hideyuki Hirayama's Haunted School is quite obviously a film for kids, and therefore would not usually fall into my area of expertise or interest. However, Haunted School is a Japanese film for kids full of rubber monsters and a bit of the crazy, which is pretty much what I'm all about, so I felt forced (forced! I tell you!) to watch it in the interest of rubber monster science.

I wasn't disappointed, at least not much. The film starts out a bit slow, with not much more than a flying watermelon with a carved face and a levitating ball to ease the adult viewer through the introduction of the (not very interesting) kids and their (sorry, not very interesting, either) problems, but once everyone has been kidnapped by ghosts and spirits a fine time for the friend of all kind of monsters begins. There are rather large feet to gawk at, the digital yokai brother of Ghostbusters' Slimer makes an appearance, an anatomical model grows rather lively innards and a bad temper, and a bearded janitor first grows excellent spider appendages and then transforms fully into a rubber spider monster. Said innards and the spider transformations are the kind of stuff only a Japanese movie (or perhaps, looking at Doctor Who, a British one) would dare present as kids' entertainment, in the certain knowledge that kids can and will cope with this sort of thing and will probably even love it, because monsters are cool however old you are, and slightly freakish monsters are always the best.

Haunted School also has one or two valuable lessons to teach (one even about death being something natural), but it's fortunately not the sort of film that feels any need for loud preaching. I didn't like films preaching at me when I was a kid, and I certainly don't like them doing it now, so this avoidance sound like a sound artistic decision to me, especially when the preaching time can be spent much more fruitfully by showing some kids running away screaming from a lump of flesh that once looked like a human being.

If there's anything more enjoyable to watch than the archetypal confrontation between human and rubber, then I don't know what, and - frankly - don't want to hear about it. Instead, why not watch Haunted School again?