Saturday, March 31, 2012

Zombie vs. Ninja (1987? 1988? 1989?)

aka Gravedigger

aka Zombie Rival the Super Ninja Master

When people think of Godfrey Ho/Joseph Lai films of the 80s, they generally imagine Frankensteinian creatures stitched together from one or two films from South Korea or Taiwan Lai and/or Ho bought up cheap to have their way with, and a handful of Ho-directed scenes featuring frightfully talentless white guys doing nightmarish things to the viewers' brains. Often, people are right about that.

As I have learned through painful experience, not all Ho/Lai films are this way. Some, like the film at hand, are really just one martial arts movie slightly re-edited and "improved" through stupid to hysterical dubbing and about fifteen minutes of Ho's favourite white non-actors saying things like "The dragon's fire burns hot". Of course, these white guy non-actors are still dressed in garishly coloured ninja outfits made out of Halloween sheikh costumes, table cloths and garbage bags, and wear that eternal Godfrey Ho classic, headbands with the word "Ninja" written on them in big, cheerful letters, so there's that. All too fittingly, they have names like Burt, Billy and Ira.

If we can believe the Hong Kong Movie Database (and it's usually quite a bit more on the money than the IMDB), Zombie vs. Ninja's parts not featuring that sort of silliness belong to a South Korean film made in 1983 translated as "The Undertaker in Sohwa Province", and directed by Kim Jung-Yong.

In that film, a young man re-dubbed here into Ethan (Elton Chong/ Jeong Jin-Hwa) witnesses the murder of his peaceful herbalist father by a bad guy this version of the film redubs into Titus, and his two favourite cronies. Afterwards, Ethan falls in with a semi-comical Taoist gravedigger only called the Undertaker (Kim Yong-Wan) throughout the film. As in every other vengeance-based martial arts film, the Undertaker will turn out to be quite the fighter, and will teach the young man all the coffin carrying based martial arts he knows; mostly, by having Ethan fight hopping vampires (called "zombies" by the film) who often look as if they were doing the Robot until the young man is ready for his revenge.

To justify the inclusion of the white guys, there are scenes of a ninja (it says so on his headband, so it must be true) named Duncan (Pierre Kirby, the white guy ninja on duty in more than one Ho/Lai film) supposedly giving the Undertaker good advice of the "train that Ethan" kind by speaking into the camera, and taking on other white guy ninjas who work for the supposed boss of the killer of Ethan's father.

Despite this being a comparatively coherent and logical movie (as far as martial arts vengeance comedies are ever logical), you can already feel the true spirit of the makers of Zombie vs. Ninja before the film has really begun, for the first thing you are going to hear when you venture into the wonderful world of Godfrey Ho, Joseph Lai or whoever did truly make/re-cut/whatever the Frankenfilm at hand, is a bit of music by John Williams from one of those little known Star Wars movies. "IFD Films And Arts Limited Presents" - it's oh so true.

There's not quite as much improbable insanity on display afterwards as you'd wish for from an IFD production - this is after all as close to a "normal" movie as these things get - but the South Korean movie the whole affair is based on has its own moments of glorious bizarreness, not only thanks to the whole "train my martial arts pupil by conjuring up hopping vampires for him to fight" business, but also by virtue of random wrinkles like the hero appearing for the final fight in random pantomime doll make-up meant as some kind of disguise, the villain's seeming death by heart attack once he finds his favourite henchpeople dead, or a henchwoman who likes to sex people to death. It's all good, if perhaps not quite what one expects when one takes on a Lai/Ho/whoever movie.

As always with these movies, it's doubtful who is actually responsible for the re-write, the re-edit or the new scenes, but I'm not sure it is actually important if they were done by Ho, Lai, or a madman who broke into the IFD premises (which in my mind look like a broom closet full of film cans).

I like to imagine Lai and Ho not as actual persons with lives and identities of their own, but as different manifestations of a Lovecraftian godhood that tries to open the gates to the places where the Great Old Ones sleep through the power of brain-damaging movies. If you think about it, it's a much better explanation for the existence of something like Zombie vs. Ninja than the idea someone was actually able to make money with it. Plus, has anyone ever seen Lai and Ho together?


Friday, March 30, 2012

On WTF: Death Falls Lightly (1972)

Original title: La morte scende leggera

Leopoldo Savona does not feature very highly on my list of Italian genre directors of the past to watch out for. However, his giallo Death Falls Lightly turned out to be a much more successful effort than I would have expected. It's a film that begins rather slowly, but then…well, to learn what happens, you'll just have to click through to my column about the movie on WTF-Film.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: DEVILS IN FEMALE BODIES...whose embrace is the kiss of death for man or woman!

Tomie (1999): Before I re-watched this first Tomie movie, I was actually confused why Tomie of all manga has become such a long-lived (if increasingly low budgeted) series of horror films. Having re-watched it, it's pretty clear that the combination of thematic richness - everything from fear of women to fear of closeness to emotional and/or sexual obsession to meditations about the nature of submissiveness and domination can be fruitfully examined through Tomie, outright freakishness (it's based on very early Junji Ito, after all), and the possibility to cast the most attractive actresses one can find, is not something any maker of horror films could pass up. Ataru Oikawa's first film of the series has of course the distinction of being very well made in its own, slow and ambiguous way, of having two excellent lead actresses with Mami Nakamura and Miho Kanno, and of having the sort of sparse, grainy moodiness Japanese horror of that era did so well.

Tomie: Another Face (1999): As if someone was going for a new record in horror franchise degeneration, this second Tomie movie is already a direct to DVD omnibus movie telling three not very interesting stories about everyone's favourite demon girl (or whatever she is) in bland and unimaginative ways. Somehow, director Toshiro Inomata manages to not tap into the rich thematic vein I outlined above, which surely is some sort of achievement, if a negative one. There was obviously no money for effects in the budget, so there's also nothing grotesque to save the day, unless you want to call the horrible quality of the acting grotesque; I just call it low.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011): Now, I don't have much of an emotional connection to the Tintin comics (they're the sort of thing whose influence and art I can appreciate, but just don't resonate with me beyond that appreciation at all), so Spielberg's CG animated version does not provoke deep emotions of "OMG! Steven Spielberg urinated on my childhood!" from me. Having said that, I can't say I enjoyed the film all that much. Despite this being written by three of my favourite Brits in the movie business, Tintin is for long stretches a rather bland PG adventure movie that competently hits all the expected plot beats in the expected manner - in other words, long stretches of the film are pretty boring and lacking character. From time to time, actual wit and charm do make an appearance, but it's not often enough to get excited about.

Add to that a painfully overpowering John Williams score that can't stop telling the audience what to feel for a single second, and the rather charmless CG animation, and you get a film that's certainly not horrible, but does not get much of a reaction from me beyond a shrug. "Meh", as people on the Internet like to say.


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

In short: Zorro Contro Maciste (1963)

aka Samson and the Slave Queen

(This write-up is based on the Italian language version of the movie, so I have no idea what that "slave queen" business is all about.)

It's the 17th (or 18th?) Century in the kingdom of Norgara (also known as not-Spain). The king of Norgara dies of an illness while visiting an island that's part of his country, leaving two female cousins as hot candidates for his succession. In the white corner is the saintly blonde Isabella (Maria Grazia Spina), and in the grimdark one stands the evil-bad non-blonde Malva (Moira Orfei). Only the king's testament can decide who will succeed him, so the girls are understandably excited to get their hands on it while it makes its way home from said island. Am I the only one disturbed by the idea the king only made his testament when he was ready to croak and far from home when there's no actual line of succession? The queen can only be better than him.

Anyhow, Malva is convinced the king would never leave the kingdom to her, so she - and her lover, captain of the guard Garcia (Massimo Serato) - decide to get a hold of the document beforehand and change it; of course, they'll need a man who is at once a competent hero and a total idiot to get the will for them. Fortunately, Maciste (Sergio Ciani) has stepped out of the TARDIS (warning: movie may not contain TARDIS) without even a shirt to wear and is now - still shirtless, though at times at least wearing a leather vest to protect his nipples - working as a strongman in Norgara, without a clue about the actual political situation, but at once willing to help when he's asked to steal a document. Stealing the will is going to proof more difficult for the dumb slab of meat than he expected, for not only has a bandit named Rabek (Andrea Aureli) already taken possession of it, there's also the fact that Isabella has asked Zorro (Pierre Brice) for help protecting it from her evil cousin.

The heroes will clash repeatedly until Maciste finally gets a clue, and in the end team-up against the true villains of the piece. It's Marvel Team-Up, Italian style.

Leave it to the wonderful and awesome (in every sense of the word) Italian genre film industry at the height of its powers to come up with a crossover possibly more bizarre than Maciste's run-in with Genghis Khan. If you're like me, you will find it a bit unfortunate that the actual execution of the film (directed by Umberto Lenzi in one of his more entertaining moods) is not as bizarre as the title makes one hope for, for while Zorro and Maciste really do fight each other for large parts of the movie, a man of my tastes can't help but hope for some hot Zorro against mythological monster action, too.

That's not what Zorro contro Maciste offers at all, though, because Lenzi's film prefers to put Maciste into a more classic, monsterless (except for a crocodile) swashbuckler of the sort Zorro is usually more at home in, instead of creating a peplum that just happens to feature Zorro, too. Even though that's a bit of a disappointment, the film at hand makes up for it by being a darn entertaining swashbuckler full of swashing and buckling and the expected demonstrations of derring-do, filmed with more spirit than Lenzi's films usually show.

It's a movie that fulfils all the expectation one has for a film of its genre without actually doing much new or exciting with it, yet that is also so good-natured and well done it's impossible not to like it.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Message From Space (1978)

aka Return to Jelucia

Original title: Uchu kara messeji

Silver-faced, kabuki-inspired intergalactic villain Rockseia (Mikio Narita) and his black-clad troops have conquered Jelucia, a planet full of people who dress like space hippies (crappy robes, leaves on their heads and all), though their not non-violent but only really bad at fighting. The planet's last hope lies in sending out eight magical space walnuts to find eight heroes to rescue it. Two of the Jelucians, Esmeraldina (Etsuko Shihomi!, wearing what looks like a white silk bathrobe - and the leaves) and Urocco (Makoto Sato) are supposed to follow the leaves in a space ship that looks like a clipper and help bring the heroes in.

Turns out magical space walnuts have no taste at all when it comes to heroes, and choose a bunch of dumb space jocks (Hiroyuki Sanada, Philip Casnoff, Peggy Lee Brennan), a shady gambler type guy (Masazumi Okabe), a former space general played by Vic Morrow and his pet robot. Later - much too late - Hans (Sonny Chiba!), the true heir to the throne of Rockseia will join in too, but before that, it's mostly scenes of the crappy non-heroes selling Esmeraldina into sexual slavery (from which she is freed by the bad guys to be kidnapped), pouting a lot and being annoying. Well, and Vic Morrow talks a lot with his robot (turns out it was a good thing R2D2 didn't talk back).

Anyhow, after the audience has spent too much time with the film's crappy heroes, Rockseia falls in love with Earth and decides to conquer it too, so off he and his minions go by way of having Jelucia turned into a giant spaceship without any of the inhabitants having noticed. Will our intensely crappy heroes ever do anything about it?

By now, Kinji Fukasaku is actually better known for his great yakuza films and his general awesomeness than for the weird pieces of cracktastic nonsense he produced whenever he took on the job to be really commercial (for the uninitiated: you can usually recognize these films by featuring an "international" cast or being made during the 80s). If you only know Fukasaku from his more earnest-minded work, Message From Space will come as a bit of a shock, for not only is it nonsensical bordering on totally incomprehensible, it's also a film that barely seems to have been directed at all.

There's certainly little on display of Fuksasaku's usual dynamic (sometimes chaotic) visual style - much of the film seems done with a nailed-down camera, and concentrates on framing and staging everything in the least interesting way imaginable. The film's visual side is clearly not helped by sets that are the opposite of lavish. Jelucia and what we see of Earth are the sort of brown, sandy non-entities that make the rock quarries that so often tended to stand in for alien planets in SF movies look colourful and fanciful.

The script is no help at all, either: there's not much actual plot, nor dramatic tension. Nobody does much - and that slowly - until the film suddenly remembers that it's supposed to end soon after, and everything that might have been interesting had it been developed in the time that came before suddenly happens at once.

Despite these failings - and I haven't even mentioned the film's wasting of Sonny Chiba on a longer cameo and of Etsuko Shihomi on the classic princess role - there is something about it that makes Message eminently watchable, namely, its utter, ludicrous silliness that makes it a brother in spirit to the great Alfredo Brescia's Star Wars rip-offs. Kabuki traditions, truly bad space opera, moments of surprising violence and childish silliness collide in the most ridiculous ways. Space clipper ships meet horned helmets galore; an evil emperor is under the thumb of his mother, who is played by a guy (again the kabuki influence?). Tetsuro Tanba pops in for a minute as the new chairman of Earth; there are space fireflies. Earth is home to a wicked witch with her Plutonian son; Vic Morrow goes on a diplomatic mission dressed up as the camp version of an 18th century navy admiral. I'd say there's always something happening, but the film's tone (until the grand finale which by the way makes no sense at all) is so sedate it's more honest to say there's always something to look at.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution (1976)

His cocaine habit has finally caught up with Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson), and he begins to have rather intense paranoid delusions concerning his former maths tutor, a certain Professor Moriarty (Laurence Olivier). A desperate Watson (Robert Duvall) realizes the only one way to save his friend from madness and a junkie's death is the help of Viennese alienist Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). But how to get him there? Holmes's brother Mycroft (Charles Gray) has a plan. Clearly, he and Watson only need to convince Holmes that Moriarty is planning some evil in Vienna, and off he'll go after him.

That plan, as it turns out, is a sound one, and once Holmes meets Freud, it doesn't even take that much effort to convince the detective he needs treatment.

Once Holmes is at least half rid of his more acute problems, Freud follows a call to a former patient, the singer Lola Deveraux (Vanessa Redgrave) whom he also helped through a cocaine addiction. To the unschooled eye, it looks as if Deveraux has had a relapse, followed by a suicide attempt. Holmes, though, quickly notices that the singer must have been held and drugged against her will and has only escaped her captors with great risk and effort.

Clearly, it's a case the reconvalescent consulting detective, his friend and Freud just have to investigate.

Herbert Ross's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is one of the stranger examples of professional Sherlock Holmes fanfic in the movies. It's scripted by Nicholas Meyer based on his own - and much beloved - novel, but is hated by just about as many Holmes fans as love it. I think part of the loathing a certain part of Holmes fandom has for this particular film is based on the same lack of humour usually found in the more fanatical religious people  - a state of mind that is the absolute antithesis of a film that clearly loves Holmes as a character and a concept yet also is willing to make fun of him and treat him as a human being instead of a mere icon.

On the other hand, The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution really is just so very problematic as a film. For each clever nod to the Holmes canon, for each moment that wonderfully (and quite ironically) explains the mores of the time the film takes place in, for each intelligent and humane deconstruction of Holmesian basics, there's another element bound to annoy even the more mild-mannered viewer. Tonally, the film's just all over the place, jumping from comedy to adventure movie to deconstruction of a modern myth with little regard for thematic coherence; every scene's an only child, and Herbert Ross the last director in the world to be able to change that.

And I don't even need to start on the predictable and unimaginative "save the woman from the evil Austrian and the evil Muslim" mystery plot when there's also the film's curious decision to deconstruct parts of Holmes's heroism, but let the much more dubious Freud look flawless, or the script's tendency to pack every tired classic Holmes bon mot into its running time, or the horrible assortment of normally excellent actors speaking in bad accents. Robert Duvall is clearly the worst offender of them all in that respect. The combination of his ridiculously overdone stiffness and his comic opera accent not only make him a horrible caricature of a caricature of a Victorian gentlemen, but just don't work at all with Arkin's rather laid-back (but don't worry, badly accented) Freud and Nicol Williamson's intense Holmes.

On the third hand (yes, I use three hands in an argument - what of it?), this collection of flaws somehow can't keep the film from being enjoyable and entertaining, because the the film's many bad moments cannot outshine its good ones as completely as one would suspect. There's something just so right about Sherlock Holmes being treated by Sigmund Freud that it's impossible for me to actively dislike the movie.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Trapped Alive (1993)

It's Christmas all over the world. While lawyer John Adams (oh no, it's Cameron Mitchell!) is having a party, a trio of cons - the psychopaths Face (Alex Kubik) and Mongo (Michael Nash) and the misunderstood poor woobie Randolph "Randy" Carter (Mark Witsken) break out of prison.

Desperately in need of a car, they nap Adams's daughter Robin - actually named Lucy, for some reason - (Sullivan Hester) and his assistant Monica (Laura Kallison), who are on their way to a different party. Somehow - the physics of the scene are confusing and possibly damaging to the brain - the cons, the girls and the car fall down an old mineshaft, where they are stranded in the dark.

While the mine-shafted group is still getting their bearings, cop Billy Williams (Randy Powell) arrives at the scene, yet somehow misses car, big hole in the ground and mineshaft completely. Instead, he makes the acquaintance of a woman (Elizabeth Kent) living nearby with her permanently snoring husband. After a painful dialogue scene that ends with the woman babbling about her dead daddy, Billy and her take care of the necessary sex scene - with the snoring husband in the next room.

At the same time when Billy is having his fun, the rest of the cast realizes they're not alone in their new mineshaft home. A very hairy, elderly cannibal who likes drop down from the ceiling on a hook, roams the mine looking for a cheap meal. Cue ridiculous deaths and fight for survival.

Of course, Billy will land down there too once he notices the big damn hole in front of his new girlfriend's house, and of course, his new girlfriend will turn out to be the cannibal's daughter in the end. Oops, spoiler.

Well, even if you've become as used to watching horrible movies and somehow extracting some actual worth besides laughter from their useless bones as I have, a film like Trapped Alive still comes along and proves itself as pretty much unsalvageable beyond laughing at it, putting another point of data behind my theory that everything Cameron Mitchell guest stars or cameos in must scientifically suck. Here, the Mitch (brother in spirit and lack of talent to the Shat), is there to look moping at pictures, mumble complete nonsense, talk to himself melodramatically for one scene, nod off in a chair (finally, a full scene of hot Cameron Mitchell nappy time action), and hug the protagonist, all things he does in that trademarked Cameron Mitchell way, that is, looking bored and asleep even when he's supposed to be awake.

The most surprising thing about Trapped Alive is that Mitchell's scenes aren't the worst part of the movie. In fact, the film is so full of horrible, but at least somewhat hilarious, nonsense it's pretty difficult to tell what's its worst aspect. Is it the elderly cannibal with his big white wig? Is it the fact that every character here should be too stupid to be able to ever leave his or her bed and therefore shouldn't even be able to get into danger? Is it Leszek Burzynski's direction that repeatedly manages to change its mind about the position of characters, the form and size of rooms and the laws of physics during a single scene? Is it the script, with its non-plot happening to characters so clichéd as to become absurd (would you believe Robin falls in love with one of the guys who kidnapped her? or anything else happening in the movie?)?

Well, to be honest, I know what's the worst - and therefore also the best - part of Trapped Alive is. It's the long, long monologue Elizabeth Kent's (the IMDB's totally wrong about her role in the movie, by the way) character Rachel holds at the film's climax, where she explains the film's backstory, her relation to the cannibal, and how you make a tomb with pre-installed dynamite, while snot, badly faked tears and strange bubbling noises just stream from her face. It's a scene so great in its wrongness no description could ever do it justice.

If the rest of the film is worth giggling through to get there will probably depend on one's pain threshold.

Friday, March 23, 2012

On WTF: The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964)

By far not enough love is showered on Hammer's non-horror movies, for while really everyone must know by now how great Hammer's horror movies are, their contributions to other genres still don't get as much praise in the cult movie world as they deserve.

Case in point is the landlocked pirate movie The Devil-Ship Pirates by Don Sharp, a film good enough to inspire me to say nice things about Christopher Lee between the sarcasm. Click on through to my column on WTF-Film for more.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

In short: Der Grüne Bogenschütze (1961)

aka The Green Archer

While his boss is away, the secretary (Harry Wüstenhagen) of nasty rich guy Abel Bellamy (Gert Fröbe) is earning a bit of extra money by letting tourists have a tour of Bellamy's mansion. One of the guests, clearly up to no good, is shot by someone dressing up as the Green Archer whose legend is somehow connected with Bellamy's house. This being an Edgar Wallace adaptation, the Green Archer will go on to kill more people for mysterious reasons, but the larger part of the movie concerns the attempts of Bellamy's niece Valerie (Karin Dor) to find out what happened to her disappeared mother (spoiler: Bellamy has kidnapped her and hidden her in his house for years), while her uncle and his cronies - one of them going by the delightful name of Coldharbour Smith (Stanislav Ledinek) - try to get rid of her. Fortunately, disguise-mad Inspector Featherstone of Scotland Yard (Klausjürgen Wussow), his assistant, Sergeant Higgins (Wolfgang Völz), and comedic relief reporter Spike Holland (Eddi Arent), are there to save pretty young women. The Archer is really more of a guest in the movie named after him.

And there you already have my main problem with Der Grüne Bogenschütze. Although the film includes many of the sensational pulpy delights one has come to expect from any film that is part of Rialto's Edgar Wallace cycle, it does not seem to be all that interested in them. All the death traps, hidden passages, masked killers, metatextual humour and overly complicated evil plans are there and accounted for, yet the film spends just as much time on showing us scenes of cops searching various premises as on them, either not knowing what's so fun about the krimi, or wilfully ignoring it.

I blame director Jürgen Roland whose second and fortunately last Wallace film this is. At the time when Der Grüne Bogenschütze was made, Roland already had a few years of experience as a journalist and as director of German TV police procedurals - a career path he'd continue on for decades - and it's clear that his strengths lie in the sedate semi-realism of those pieces and not the excited and excitable thrill(or at least sight gag)-a-minute-joys and the glorious artificiality Alfred Vohrer and Harald Reinl brought to their Wallace films. Unfortunately, that rather static and sedate semi-realist style is of little use when adapting a Wallace plot, resulting in a movie that just doesn't feel at all secure in what it actually wants to be, a more conventional mystery or the pulp explosion all its single elements would promise it to be.

I could imagine Roland's rather bland style that works hard at making the awesome mundane and the Wallace-ness of the plot rubbing against each other and producing interesting sparks, some sort of grim and gritty version of Wallace reality. The film at hand, however, is as far from anything that interesting as possible. Instead, the film (or Roland) seems rather embarrassed by its own pulpier side yet has not much of an idea how to remove it, and so just circles around the silliness and the excitement the plot's set-up promises, ending up not showing much of interest at all.

If not for some rather entertaining acting, especially by Gert Fröbe and Karin Dor, there'd just be nothing much to keep one watching at all.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

In short: Fuller Report (1968)

Original title: Rapporto Fuller, base Stoccolma

Thanks to his galaxy-sized ego and his peanut-sized brain, testosterone-driven monstrosity/professional racing driver Dick Worth (Ken Clark) stumbles into an espionage conspiracy and becomes a murder suspect while he's visiting Stockholm with his manager.

Soon, Dick finds himself hounded by US agents, Soviet agents and people of undisclosed allegiance. All of them think Dick has something to do with what is known as the Fuller Report, so chasing him, kidnapping him and being involved in shoot-outs with him is the natural way to find out what that damn report actually is. Once the Americans have ascertained that Dick does in fact not have a clue about anything except driving cars and trying horrible pick-up lines on women, they decide to press him into service as their worthless, know-nothing professional bear bait, a position he is just too qualified to take, especially since he has somehow made a good impression on ballerina Svetlana Golyadkin (Beba Loncar), an escapee from the Soviet Union and the daughter of a former higher official there. Somehow, Svetlana is involved in the whole Fuller Report affair too, but how, nobody is really sure. Ironically, Dick just might be in a position to find out.

Sergio Grieco's Fuller Report is a fun little example of the Eurospy movie that does not partake in too much of the crack headed madness of large parts of its subgenre (its improbable hero and improbable plot are minor compared to what I'm used to from these films), and doesn't really feature much globe-trotting, yet still includes many of the other elements fun about the sub-genre.

The film makes itself at home in its audience's brains with many silly yet fun twists in its silly yet fun plot, clearly not giving a damn about plausibility when it can spend its time more profitably giving a damn about variety. There's also some lip service towards the concept of the spy game being dark and somewhat immoral, but the film is clearly more interested in involving its amateur spy jerk hero in outrageous yet budget-conscious adventures than in exploring anything more serious for long. That's of course an approach perfectly okay with me as long as a film does provide in the spy action department. Fuller Report certainly does that, for there's hardly a minute when its thematically appropriately named hero is not involved in one pretty exciting situation or the other: shoot-outs, car chases, kidnappings and a bit of torture are all there and provided for, and better, they're all filmed with verve and a sense of excitement.

Ken Clark, at that point already a veteran in Italian genre films, is not exactly a great thespian, but has enough screen presence to keep the frequently dickish Worth something of a charming jerk, and is certainly throwing himself into any and all action sequences with the sort of conviction that makes a cheap yet clever fight when a lackluster performance could have broken it.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Paid To Kill (1954)

aka Five Days

American James Nevill (Dane Clark) is the president of British Amalgamated Industries. He's running the company with a certain brutality and a flair for risky gambles that not everyone on the board approves of, but until now things have paid off well for everyone involved. Now, however, Nevill has miscalculated in a business project he thought important enough to not only put the company's money but also his own into, a failure that will cost the company and himself everything. Nevill realizes he has gambled and lost, and decides to cut his losses in a rather radical manner. Nevill's planning to hire his old buddy, the shady Paul Kirby (Paul Carpenter) to kill him. That way, not only will Nevill's beloved wife Andrea (Thea Gregory) be spared the shame of his failure, but she'll also be set for life with the insurance money.

Kirby isn't too willing to murder his old buddy - there's morals and risks to think of, after all - but Nevill has a way to be convincing that involves blackmail for a murder Kirby actually might have committed and a lot of punches to the face.

Once the appointed day for the murder has arrived, though, the man responsible for failure or success of Nevill's business venture changes his mind, suddenly turning Nevill's total loss into an incredible success. Triumphant, Nevill attempts to call Kirby off again, but his would-be killer has seemingly disappeared from the face of the Earth. Worse, somebody is trying to kill the industrialist, and that somebody isn't willing to talk to him at all.

Together with his secretary Joan (Cecile Chevreau) - yes, of course she's in love with her boss for inexplicable reasons - Nevill tries to uncover what's really going on (have three guesses) before he's either murdered or having a mental break-down.

Paid to Kill (for once, I prefer the US title to the British one) is another one of the films the young Hammer Films made in association with US B-movie mogul Robert Lippert. Lippert generally provided money and one or two American actors in search for a pay check for these endeavours but does not seem to have had much influence over the actual production and content of the movies, which is all for the better, seeing as Hammer's filmmakers were generally a lot more artistically successful than the sort of people Lippert tended to associate with.

Now, Paid to Kill's director Montgomery Tully is not exactly the sort of director coming to mind when thinking the phrase "artistically successful". Tully is more the kind of guy you'd connect with something like "dependable workhorse", but as it turns out, he's a dependable workhorse very much capable of making a solid, often quite exciting, Brit noir. While the film's look isn't anything to get excited about, and quite far from the expressionistically influenced shadowplay of the first wave of American noir, Tully is more than capable of using some elements of that style to further his film's mood. It surely can be no accident that the film gets darker and more shadow-heavy the further Nevill's cocksureness - well, and his life - goes down the drain until everything ends in a glass house that's all grey shadows and not much light, even though Tully isn't all that obvious about this neat trick. Clearly, it's something the audience is supposed to be subtly influenced by, and less a technique to impress, to give the film the mood of a nightmare or to be symbolic.

Tully also shows a great sense for pacing, and for the escalation - of action, of melodrama, and of the situation Nevill finds himself in - so important for a thriller like this to work. There's not a single shot wasted on anything not relevant to plot, characters, or mood, everything is tight, well thought-through, and makes sense as long as the film is going on.

Sure, the basic idea of Paul Tabori's script wasn't new even in 1954, and what's actually going on should be clear to the audience much earlier than it is to Nevill, but Tabori's focus is so clearly on showing us Nevill breaking down in subtle and unsubtle ways, seeing him having to confront the lies his self-image is built on, that originality doesn't come into play; it's not so much about surprising the audience than it is about keeping it tense and interested, and interested and tense I was.

I can't end this without at least mentioning the quality of Dane Clark's performance. If you know your noir, you already know Clark as one of the genre actors often getting the short end of the stick when it comes to critical recognition, even though he starred in films like Whiplash and Moonrise. There's a believable intensity to the actor's performance in Paid to Kill, an ever increasing tenseness to his physical acting, and an ability to convey a sense of dread as if he were a character in a horror movie once he finds out on how many false assumptions his life is based on. Clark also manages to make a character who is a bit of a jerk (though a jerk out of thoughtlessness, not out of cruelty) sympathetic enough that old, hard-hearted me actually cared for what happens to him.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Parasite (1982)

The Future™. In one of the fascist-corporate cities of a post-apocalyptic USA, scientist (I don't dare speculate what kind) Paul Dean (Robert Glaudini, looking appropriately sweaty and tired for most of the film) is building a dangerous parasite for his government. Why? The government and the corporations are evil, silly!

In a peculiar (that is, one that doesn't make sense even after you've witnessed it) accident, Paul manages to infect himself with his own creation. The scientist destroys all but one of the other parasites, and flees the city for the country, where no government applies and people tend to mind their own business. After setting up his badassitude by waving around a toy laser gun and winning an awkward slow motion fight scene, Paul (and the parasite pal in his belly, as well as the other parasite pal he carries around in what looks a lot like a thermos) comes to a quiet little post-apocalyptic desert town, and decides to set up his lab in what I imagine to be the last motel left in the world.

However, people just won't let Paul cure his state in peace. Black suited government bad guy Wolf (James Davidson) - a man with a laser looking a lot like a pen I once owned he's not afraid to use - is on his trail, and he'll do anything to get Paul's parasite back. Yes, even mutilating coffee-hoarding old coots.

Even worse than Wolf is the parasite itself: during an altercation with the small town's local (very mild, as far as these things go) population of post-apocalyptic punks, the thermos-dwelling parasite really digs into one of the punks' chests, so soon enough, Paul will not just have to deal with Wolf but also fight and catch a murderous, hungry, and growing parasite. At least the latter has an adorable smile. Plus, there's also young, pre-op Demi Moore as Paul's love interest and woman who will shoot a gas tank until it explodes in her moment of being plot-relevant.

As people of style and taste all over the world know, before producer impresario/writer and sometimes - like here - director Charles Band became obsessed by the spirit of a murderous barbie doll and only ever made films about murderous dolls, or at least things and people as small as dolls, anymore, he not only produced some actual classics of great low budget filmmaking, but directed some pretty decent films - and of course a load of crap too - himself. One might have to stretch one's definition of what can be called a pretty decent film a little if one wants to describe Parasite (well, actually, Parasite 3D, but who cares about 3D?) as such, but if one adjusts her expectations accordingly, the film's perfectly watchable.

Parasite's script works by the checkmark model of scriptwriting, which is to say, it's more like a list of elements from better films (Alien, of course, the first Mad Max film, clearly - you know, the classics) worked through one after the other, and less like an actually story, but at least it's taking its ideas from the right movies. Now and again, the writers even manage to work in a scene or two, or even an idea, which works on its own merits, and not on those of better films. The motel owner (Vivian Blaine) who seems to have stumbled in from Sunset Boulevard and her demise, for example, are perfectly clever little low budget movie ideas executed well. I also can't help but appreciate that film at least tries to turn the post-apocalyptic punks from one-note into two-note characters - their leader Ricus (Luca Bercovici) even has a backstory as a slave on a government farm.

On the negative side, the prospective viewer really needs to have some patience with the classical flaws of this sort of production (and let's be honest, especially of films Band didn't give to more talented directors). The pacing is erratic and drags more often than not, plot holes are large enough to fly a death star through, the "future" is represented by a small handful of 80s cheapo futurist gadgets and perspex on a gas pump, there are as few locations in use as a film could possibly get away with; and let's not even talk about the "dramatic" climax. But hey, at least the parasite looks good.

Me, I've been entertained by much worse films, and have ignored much larger flaws, so while I wouldn't exactly tell anyone to go out looking for Parasite, it's something I find perfectly alright to watch.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

In short: I Don't Want To Be Born (1975)

aka The Devil Within Her

aka Sharon's Baby

aka The Monster

aka The Baby

Winning the fight for the heavyweight championship for the worst movie about killer babies is clearly this British production directed by Peter Sasdy. The plot, such as it is, concerns Joan Collins as the most horrible burlesque dancer/stripper imaginable getting cursed by a spurned dwarf, and soon enough popping out The Devil Baby after getting together with Ralph Bates.

Hubby Ralph is so disturbed about his offspring that he's talking in an Italian accent so ridiculous it's difficult to imagine he's meaning it seriously (he does). Note to casting directors of the past: Ralph Bates is neither Italian nor able to pretend he is.

The dialogue may regularly inform the viewers that the baby, or rather The Baby, is abnormally large and strong for its age, but the hoped for effect is a bit ruined whenever Sasdy cuts to the actual baby - looking fat, satisfied, totally normal and so completely good-natured it's impossible not to laugh when the next character comments on its size or goes through a bad "oh my god! The devil baby scratched me!" rigmarole. Given how ridiculous baby's physical feats get during the course of the movie, I find it difficult to understand why the script doesn't just give it explicit telekinetic powers or something of that sort. That would have been silly enough, but slightly less ridiculous than a baby that's able hang Ralph Bates on a tree. Of course, it is hardly possible to watch I Don't Want To Be Born without developing doubts about the intellectual capacities, or at least the willingness to give a damn, of everyone involved behind the camera.

Because all this is not dumb enough, the film also sees fit to try to get at some of that sweet, sweet Exorcist money by adding a Catholic nun who works in the animal experimentation field (Eileen Atkins) and is related to Ralphie Bates, so that she can discuss the nature of evil babies with the family's doctor played by the great Donald Pleasence. The latter seems to have a lot of fun in his few scenes and brings some conscious irony and even class to a cast - there are John Steiner as sleazy script club owner and Caroline Munro as Collins's ditzy best friend, too - that should be able to do better, even when having to work with a script like this. Again, it all seems to be a case of nobody willing to give a damn.

I Don't Want To Be Born is a film you either stare at in disbelief and giggle continuously at, or give up on after fifteen minutes, depending on your tolerance for unbelievable nonsense.


Friday, March 16, 2012

On WTF: Die Farbe (2010)

The Colour out of Space is a Lovecraft story that is exceedingly popular with filmmakers, even though its central monster seems to be especially problematic to adapt. Consequently, adaptations of the story tend to be not very good at all (as - to be fair - do many other Lovecraft adaptations).

Until now, that is, for Huan Vu's Die Farbe manages not only to be a successful Lovecraft movie (a thing interesting to Lovecraftians like me, yet not necessarily the rest of the world), but also just a successful horror movie.

Click on through to my column on WTF-Film to learn more about the film.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Horror High (1974)

Nerdy high school kid Vernon Potts (Pat Cardi), is put down and downright abused by nearly everyone he meets during the course of the movie. Vernon's English teacher hates him unreasonably for his preference for biology and chemistry, the jocks hate him for having a brain, and his school's janitor hates him for defending his pet guinea pig Mister Potts against the janitor's free-roaming cat. Only Vernon's classmate Robin (Rosie Holotik, 28 at the time, and hilariously bad at pretending to be more than ten years younger in a way that can only bring to mind sexual roleplay) has quite a sweet spot for him; for some reason, however, the sugary sweet girl has Roger (Mike McHenry) the jockiest of jocks for her boyfriend.

Things change for Vernon when the janitor forces the boy to drink one of his own experimental concoctions as a punishment for a guinea pig related cat death. Or rather, Vernon changes into his more primitive, violent, and hairy pre-human self and sticks the mad janitor into a convenient barrel of acid, which arguably is the place where he belongs.

From then on, Vernon takes to his special drug whenever he is threatened by another bully, and so, seeing as this takes place in high school, a series of murders begins that attracts the attention of police Lieutenant Bozeman (Austin Stoker). Because Vernon is a rather terrible liar, the cop soon sticks to the boy like a funkier version of Columbo.

Sooner or later, Vernon's little killing spree will have to stop.

Texan local indie horror production Horror High is the archetype of the silly yet plucky little film made by people possessing a small degree of talent and little practical experience with filmmaking but enough enthusiasm to produce an entertaining, at times surprisingly nasty movie.

Director Larry N. Stouffer does a bit more than the bare minimum, mixing the expected scenes of semi-amateur actors - with Austin Stoker giving the only "normal", professional performance - standing around stiffly with many more scenes that are at least trying to do more than just the point and shoot dance. The murder scenes are even downright dynamic, with fast editing and shot hand-held.

In fact, the murders are generally one of the film's highpoints. Even though their basic set-ups are silly going towards ridiculous, their execution seems surprisingly enthusiastic, with a nasty undertone of what felt to me like real hatred, which turns what would be silly nonsense into something that's even slightly emotionally involving. I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone connected with the production were working through their own school traumas here. However, it's also just as possible the producers were quite conscious about what a potential nerdy, horror-loving teenager would like to see and hear, namely, the revenge of the oppressed, and the Girl turning from the Jock to the Nice Guy (without realizing that the Nice Guy's not all that nice anymore).

If not for the emotional unpleasantness of the murder scenes, and the oh so very 70s ending, I wouldn't have been quite sure what to make of the film. The extreme broadness of the characters (most of Vernon's enemies are so vile it's surprising they don't have moustaches that they twirl regularly, and that no marching band plays a merry song when they die), the absurd funky rock soundtrack, Stoker's black Columbo performance, and the off-handed dumbness of the plot (what is it with a high school kid re-inventing the serum of Doctor Jekyll?), all suggest some sort of comedy. At the very least, it's difficult to encounter them and think them to be meant completely seriously. On the other hand, the film sure as hell doesn't contain much one could interpret as a joke.

It is in fact the weird tonal shifts between the ridiculous, the earnest, the inept, and the rather unpleasant that make Horror High a bit of a special movie for me, because they - as well as of course the film's plot - do talk directly to the angsty little nerd I once was myself. And if the film wasn't made by someone like the past me, it sure was made for somebody like that past me.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In short: Ninja Scroll (1993)

Original title: Jubei Ninpucho

A group of freakish, evil ninja known as the Eight Demons of Kimon wipes out a village, letting the deaths look as if they were caused by the plague. When the local potentate of the minor Michuzaki clan sends a group of Kouga clan ninja to investigate, the Demons slaughter them all quite easily - or rather, nearly all of them. Ninja poison tester Kagerou survives, but makes a rather too close acquaintance with the rock-skinned Demon Tessai. Just when Tessai's about to rape Kagerou (which, as we later learn, wouldn't have turned out too well for him), the honourable wandering sword for hire Jubei appears and saves her with his superior fighting skills.

Afterwards, Kagerou disappears from Jubei's life what should be for forever, but the paths of the two will cross again soon enough, for the elderly shogunate agent Dakuan decides to use them both as pawns in his own investigation of what really happened to the village, and why. As sure as Kagerou's open dislike for Jubei will turn out to be…LOVE, Jubei will have to face an enemy from his past.

Brothers and sisters, let us now again praise the utter awesomeness bundled in the body and mind of anime director and writer Yoshiaki Kawajiri.

While the Ninja Scroll movie isn't my absolute favourite of the man's glorious output, it still features everything loveable about his work. So there's a design sense at play that knows that there's no difference between the freakish and the awesome, and so fills the movie with a freaks-per-second rate that's overwhelming, in the process providing us with - among many other things - another one of Kawajiri's beloved vagina dentata variations (this time it's the snake oriented female ninja who doesn't just control snakes, and her snake tattoos, and sheds her skin like a snake, but also carries a snake in her vagina - Freudian film theory would have a field day with Kawajiri), a guy who can become one with the shadows and can control peoples' bodies as if they were marionettes, another guy whose hunchback moonlights as a wasp hive, and the main bad guy whose fighting technique is "reincarnation", which in practice means he can put his dead body back together again even if it's been hacked to pieces.

All this beautiful weirdness takes place in between classic exploitation and men's adventure tropes, buckets of geysering blood, a bit of nudity, and gender politics of the rather dubious sort (though they are nothing compared to the sort of thing Kazuo Koike would have been up to given the same basic story). All this is held together really well by Kawajiri's relentless sense of pacing and even a bit of actual humanity, possibly even humanism, for even though the director loves his exploitation, Ninja Scroll, like most of his other projects, also has a heart and the sort of ethics you don't always get with your breasts and blood fantasy action adventures.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lake Mungo (2008)

Sixteen year old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) drowns while she and her family - father Russell (David Pledger), mother June (Rosie Traynor) and brother Mathew (Martin Sharpe) - are bathing in a local river. A short time later, peculiar things start to happen in the Palmer's home. There are strange noises coming from Alice's room, the house starts to just feel weird, and June begins to suffer from nightmares about her daughter, as well as a tendency to break into the houses of other people to spend some time there. The latter, of course, is not exactly a sign of the supernatural but rather of a very sad woman. Russell once even meets his dead daughter when he feels pressed to enter her room.

Things don't become any calmer for the family when Alice appears on a photo Mathew makes of the family's backyard, nor when a shape that looks very much like her makes an appearance on a video made by someone close to the place where she died.

Alice is now quite at the end of her tether, and decides to consult the comparatively down to earth psychic Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell) to help her and her family get closure. But before something like closure is possible, various secrets and lies will need to be uncovered; some of them sad, some horrifying.

The Australian low budget film Lake Mungo uses the form of one of these rather corny and often manipulatively constructed human interest documentaries to tell its story, and even though I am not a big admirer of that form, its narrative structures and conventions are ideal for the story the film's director and writer Joel Anderson has set out to tell. It's also a form just made to get around budgetary restrictions, for what is this sort of documentary other than a series of interviews, tapes, photographs and generally easy to realize narrative sequences? In other words, a perfect set-up for a ghost story.

Thanks to the set-up, there's no need for costly special effects either: some impressive and very natural landscapes help set the mood of dread and the slightly unreal, and everything supernatural that happens can be realized by having one actress stay very still and stare forlornly into the camera in the background of various low-res and out of focus shots.

What might sound a bit corny on paper turns out incredibly well in the film. In fact, I've been freaked out more by two particular scenes in the movie than I've been by whole series of torture porn movies. Anderson is particularly good at exploiting simple, archetypal figures (as seen in your last nightmare) and the strange power of conviction blurred and grainy photographs of (supposed) ghosts can have.

Ironically, given how disquieting the scary parts of the movie are, Anderson's film isn't mainly setting out to spook its viewers. The film is just as much interested in exploring emotional horrors not connected to the supernatural: loss, the inability to let go and the sudden realization that you didn't know your loved ones as well as you always assumed, among other, less easily explained things. The ghost is mainly there as a catalyst and a way to make the film's emotional punch even stronger. Much of that emotional effect is based on very convincing acting by a cast of actors who usually only get to play characters listed as "Suzie's boyfriend" or the like. Especially Rosie Traynor as the mother half on her way to serious mental harm is great.

My only problem with Anderson's film is the amount of twists its script contains. Some of them are needed thematically and on a plot level, but some others seem only to be there to make a film that doesn't need that sort of intervention more obviously dramatic. The last twist, or rather the revelation of why the film is called "Lake Mungo", on the other hand, is as strong and devastating as one could wish for, imbuing the story with a deep feeling of the unavoidable that is as fitting as it is sad.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Queen of Spades (1949)

St. Petersburg in the 19th Century. Captain of the Engineers Corps Herman Surovin (Anton Walbrook) is utterly dissatisfied with his station in life. Money is tight, he is looked down upon by his noble peers, and his career doesn't have a much of a chance for further improvement, for he lacks the necessary connections or (again) the money to buy his way up the chain of command. Given this state of mind, it comes as no surprise that Herman becomes obsessed when he hears the story of how young Countess Ranevskaya (Pauline Tennant) sold her soul to the devil via the Count of Saint Germain to learn "the Secret of the Cards".

As the rather ill-meaning fates will have it, a now very old and very frightened of death and what it may bring Countess Ranevskaya (Edith Evans) is still living in St. Petersburg. Herman won't have peace until he can somehow learn the Secret from her, but getting access to the very paranoid old woman won't be easy. Herman's best bet lies in slithering his way into the confidence of the Countess's long-suffering ward/slave Lizaveta Ivanova (Yvonne Mitchell), who is the perfect victim for badly faked love.

At first, Herman's plan seems to succeed, but as it goes with unpleasant plans, fate is quietly waiting to ruin them.

Thorold "Gaslight" Dickinson's British adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's story looks like a film coming from a parallel film tradition that took on as many of the visual trappings of expressionist silent movies as (for example) the noir and hard-boiled traditions, but used them in a way that feels slightly off to someone more used to the US film style of the 40s than the British one. Where the American tradition tends to the stark, Dickinson's variation of the non-naturalistic feels more lavish and softer, if that makes any sense.

There's also quite a difference in the acting styles. Sure, US acting of the 40s isn't exactly realistic looking to our Method-influenced contemporary eyes, but it is of a stylization that always seems based on quotidian human emotions, on heightening gestures and facial expressions people could relate to from their daily lives. In comparison, what I know of British movies of this period tended to something more stiffly theatrical, with gestures and emotions so over-sized it often becomes difficult to take the characters serious as human beings.

In The Queen of Spade's case, this melodramatic overloading of all gestures and speech - a bit as if a silent movie had learned to shout - is surprisingly effective, because it strengthens the artificial mood the film's visuals create. The film is not exactly dream-like as I'd use the word (the film's construction is too bitterly logical for that, and plot too tightly wound), but rather constructs its mythic St. Petersburg as a parallel universe that works on the same logic as our world does, only more so.

It's a bit difficult for me to grasp The Queen of Spades more precisely. I could call it old-fashioned even for its time, or complain about its love for melodramatics, but both critiques would be missing the point. This is the sort of film made to be old-fashioned (or in the view of its director perhaps "timeless") and melodramatic, and if one is willing to go with it, one will be rewarded with a film that is fully, admirably, of one aesthetic piece, completely following its own aesthetic and moral convictions.

The Queen of Spades is not the type of film I'm ever going to love, though. I'm temperamentally inclined to be more interested in slightly broken than in perfect things, more in questions than in answers, and more in ambiguity than in clarity, and none of these things seem to interest Dickinson much (if at all). It would, however, be churlish and dishonest for me not to respect the director for his achievement here; perfection is, or so I've heard, pretty difficult to achieve.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

In short: 13Hrs (2010)

Sarah Tyler (Isabella Calthorpe) returns for a rare visit to the British country home of her semi-estranged family. Because her mother isn't home, and her stepfather Duncan (Simon MacCorkindale) only has a cameo role, Sarah spends some quality time in the mansion's barn with her highly unsympathetic stepbrother who is just entertaining a bunch of her old friends with a bit of grass and a lot of alcohol. After some soap operatics that set the tone for the soon to follow bickering under stress, the whole gang returns to the mansion's main building to fill up on alcohol. There, they learn that Duncan has been killed by a werewolf with an embarrassing case of alopecia. The werewolf knows what to do with young people in a horror film, and so the expected series of scenes of said werewolf hunting annoying young adults, of course broken up by scenes of emotionally uninvolving bickering, ensues. Who will survive the night, and who will get bitten?

The British 13Hrs is another film testing my patience with what can only be described as aggressive mediocrity. On a technical level, there's not much wrong with the film, except for action scenes edited too fast - clearly done to hide the problems of the monster effects and/or director Jonathan Glendening's problems with staging action excitingly, the camera is in focus and moves, actors are present and okay, a script does exist, and there's a werewolf. However, there's also nothing much to recommend the movie to anyone. There's no careful building of mood, the characters are annoying little shits who act stupid even beyond the stupidity I'm willing to accept for people in an unexpected life or death situation, there are no interesting developments of any kind. There's nothing horrible about the film, yet nothing at all I could single out for praise.

The third act reveal - while inoffensive - is especially limp. I could try and praise the reveal for at least making sense in the context of what came before - which, as you know, Jim, is not a given in the plots of horror movies - but then I don't think a film is worth praising for not going out of its way to be actively bad.

And that is the core trouble with 13Hrs: it is by no means a bad movie, and I'm certain Glendening was working hard directing it, but it lacks anything that makes a film even slightly memorable.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

In short: Demonwarp (1988)

Deep inside the 80s, Jack (David Michael O'Neill) takes a bunch of his friends to the cabin of his uncle Clem located in the Deep Dark Woods for a bit of vacation time. Because he's afraid they won't accompany him, Jack fails to mention to them that Clem disappeared from the cabin one day, and Jack plans to find out what happened. Does the disappearance have something to do with the Bigfoot supposedly roaming the area?

Jack and friends find that out soon enough, for Bigfoot just leaves them enough time for a bit of gratuitous nudity and a bad practical joke before he attacks, and pretty effectively kills off half of the gang in short order. Fortunately, this is one of those lonely patches of wood that's as populated as a main street, so Biggie also has the opportunity to have his way with a random photographer, two city girls (also there to drive the boob quota up), and Bill Crafton (George Kennedy, slumming).

Bill has come to the woods to take revenge for the death of his daughter, who was killed and kidnapped by Biggie some time ago while she and Bill were playing Trivial Pursuit. Now, Bill has returned with bear traps, dynamite, and a big yellow hat he's wearing so that the monster can see him better.

But Bigfoot isn't the only thing roaming these woods. The living dead and a cultist preacher also make an appearance - and everyone's working for an alien that wants to phone home a bit more aggressively than is polite, misusing the lack of a zombie union and a preacher's love for human sacrifice for its nefarious plans.

Yes, Emmett Alston's Demonwarp is another one of those films trying to make up for a stupid script, low production values, and not very good acting with the holy trinity of crap horror movies: tits (four out of five actresses with speaking roles poke their breasts in the direction of the camera one time or another), gore (watch Biggie rip off a head, eviscerate a guy with a stick, and have other types of good clean fun for the whole family, if your family is like mine), and as many monsters as the budget can allow (there's Biggie, a bunch of zombies - some rubber-masked, some not, the alien). It may not be up to the standards of artistry and entertainment that give major film prizes to self-important exercises in nostalgia like The Artist, but Demonwarp sure is a film feeling at ease with what it is; and if that is only cheap exploitation, that doesn't matter.

What puts the film into the upper tier of its type of 80s horror - the unembarrassed type - is how strong and enthusiastic the power of awesome stupidity is in it. Just to take one example among many, Biggie the Bigfoot, it turns out, (SPOILER) isn't just any old ratty looking monster costume with a surprisingly expressive face, but in fact a were-bigfoot somehow created by the alien injecting (with the help of one of its scorpion stinger tentacle thingies, of course) alien goo into poor uncle Clem. This, brethren, is a film that isn't just gratuitous when it comes to female nudity.

One of the zombies is even wearing a Residents t-shirt, for Cthulhu's sake, and if that's not enough to recommend a movie, I don't know what is.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

In short: Angel of Destruction (1994)

Nudist pop singer Delilah (Jessica Mark) has acquired the attention of a rather unpleasant fan in the shape of former commando Robert Krell (Jimmy Broome). After some unpleasantness surrounding the rape and murder of his wife years ago, Krell has gone off the deep end, murdering prostitutes in mock marriage ceremonies and collecting their ring fingers.

One of these fingers Krell sends to Delilah. The singer is rather displeased by that sort of gift and hires hard-boiled private eye Brit Alwood (Charlie Spradling) to protect her from any further advances. Alas, five minutes after Brit gets on the case, Krell walks into her office and kills her. And that would be that, if not for the fact that Brit has a sister, hard-boiled undercover cop and hater of clothes covering her belly Jo (Maria Ford).

Jo does not take kindly to people walking around killing off her close relations, and decides to finish the job Brit didn't even manage to start. Protecting Delilah turns out to be quite difficult, for Krell's not the only one who wants to see the singer dead. Delilah's record label boss, the Mafioso Sonny Luso (Bob McFarland), has realized that Delilah's career has hit rock bottom (supposedly, on-stage nudity is no longer in fashion; as if the classics ever went away), and wants to cash in on her life insurance. Fortunately, Jo is experienced in all sorts of ass-kickery, even bare-breasted fighting.

You might remember Angel of Destruction's director and writer Charles Philip Moore as the (dubious) genius behind Demon Wind, a film that features so much more than gun fighting stage magicians. Angel is not quite as beholden to utter, personal madness, and instead successfully attempts to infuse the US "martial arts" direct to video action movie with as much sleazy exploitation values and bared breasts as possible. The film is also, brilliantly, a remake of Moore's own Blackbelt that replaces Don "The Dragon" Wilson with Maria Ford. That film must have been a rousing success, seeing as Angel was made a whopping two years later.

Ironically, soft core specialist Ford turns out to be a much more charismatic and professional actor than Wilson, and the only actor on screen with a line delivery that amounts to normal human speech. While being the best actress on screen in a film full of actors of truly epic inability may not sound like a great achievement, it's pretty clear that Ford (at least here) is one of those actresses in crap movies who gives her all in every form that may be required - spouting dumb yet funny action heroine one-liners, physically threatening people with twice her body mass, doing a hilariously over-enthusiastic sex scene with a living moustache, or having a bare-breasted fight scene. It's difficult to find fault with that kind of work ethos.

The rest of Angel isn't really remarkable: there's one mediocre (this is a US movie - actually a US-Filipino co-production - after all) martial arts fight, followed by a scene of people talking entertaining nonsense, followed by a scene of some actress or other shoving her silicone into the camera, followed by another martial arts scene with loads of broken furniture, and Jimmy Broome making bug eyes that would make Amrish Puri proud, and so on, until the film's finished. From time to time, the expected low production values are broken up by something especially silly, like Delilah's stage show of the prison fetish type or some excellently placed tied up manikins. It's what I like to call good, wholesome entertainment, the sort of film that makes up what it lacks in production values by providing as much as it can of the things it can afford.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Fear Is The Key (1973)

A man named John Talbot (Barry Newman) provokes a fight with some cops in a small town in Louisiana by violently insisting on drink on the Holy Sunday - the fiend. Turns out beating up a cop is a crime in Louisiana, too, and so Talbot finds himself in front of a judge. Not surprisingly, Talbot - a professional diver and man of violence, it seems - is being sought for some heavier crimes too. Alas/fortunately (depending on one's perspective), courtroom security is very lax, so Talbot manages to steal the gun of a guard, shoots another one, and takes a woman we will later learn is Sarah Ruthven (Suzy Kendall), the daughter of an oil millionaire, hostage.

This being an action thriller from the 70s, it's time for an epic car chase. Not that the chase'll do Talbot much good in the long run - he may manage to evade the cops, but soon enough finds himself and his hostage in the hands of the shady ex-cop Jablonsky (Dolph Sweet). Jablonsky is planning to sell the pair to Sarah's father.

His plan goes well enough. There is, however something strange going on in Ruthven's (Ray McAnally) place. Oil millionaire or not, he seems to be taking orders from two men he calls his "guests" - a guy named Vyland (John Vernon) and his partner/bodyguard Royale (Ben Kingsley in pre-Uwe-Boll days when he was still in the possession of a certain amount of hair). Vyland and Royale don't want to deliver Talbot to the police, but have plans of their own for the man. They'd be surprised if they knew what plans Talbot has for them.

Sometimes, I do understand the feeling of those frequently annoying "movies were better in the past, when the grass was greener and I had to climb Mount Everest on my way to school" people. At least, I have a hard time imagining a contemporary action-heavy thriller to not end in a wild shoot-out with about three dozen explosions, but instead a tight and claustrophobic scene of people talking under pressure, and that's a shame for contemporary cinema.

It's not as if Fear is the Key didn't already have more than its share of outward action before its tight talking finale. In fact, the film's series of car chases, fist fights and a bit of silent infiltration is as generous as it is varied, and I would not at all be surprised to hear that scriptwriter Robert Carrington (who didn't write many movies, but counts Wait Until Dark among the number he did write) was going into writing the script with the idea of packing in as much of the sort of action and excitement this kind of pot-boiler asks for, but never once to repeat the same kind of action scene, a technique that turns what could be a very formulaic film into one that feels inventive and sometimes even surprising, even though the actual plot is rather preposterously over-cooked and silly.

Fear's director Michael (J.) Tuchner is an interesting case: he began his career with a handful of very good to very interesting films in various genres during the first half of the 70s (Villain with Richard Burton being an especially remarkable one), only to fall into the TV directing hole, never to climb out of it again. In the film at hand, the Brit Tuchner shows himself as more than adept at the type of 70s action thriller with elements of the conspiracy thriller I've always seen as a particularly American genre, giving his film a relentless pace while still finding time and room to build up a sense of place and time, and let characterization happen through small gestures of his actors as well as (alas) one or two a bit too tellingly symbolic shots.

Barry Newman is a perfect choice for the lead role. The actor projects the appropriate mixture of everyman-like attitude and a tense energy that teeters on the edge of something very dark and violent; he also manages to project physical menace without having a physique that reads as physically menacing.

So it's a fine film all-around, and if you're in the market for a bit of 70s style action thriller without wanting to go the grindhouse way, Fear Is The Key should not disappoint.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Dom Sary (1984)

aka Sara's House

By chance, physician Dr. Wiktor Stefanski (Eugeniusz Kujawski) meets his friend Kamil (Miroslaw Krawczyk), who had gone missing while they were out hunting some time ago, in a club. The last few months have changed Kamil rapidly, for the once vital young man is now a pale wreck, barely able to walk.

Kamil tells Wiktor a wild story about his lover Sara Braga (later to be played by Hanna Balinska). He seems at once madly, obsessively in love with her and afraid of the power she has over him. Kamil even insinuates that it is her touch that is responsible for his state.

Wiktor believes Kamil's story to be the words of a man too ill to think clearly, but the doctor begins to change his beliefs once he has managed - not without some resistance by Sara's very sardonic factotum Julian (Zdislaw Kuzniar) and a wavering Kamil - to finesse his friend into a hospital for an examination. His colleagues can't make heads nor tails out of Kamil's state.The man's skeleton is atrophying, his organs dissolving, and the only thing they understand about Kamil's illness for sure is that he won't have to live much longer.

Kamil wants to spend the rest of his days with Sara. Wiktor, now even more fascinated and disturbed by the whole affair than before, uses the opportunity of bringing Kamil home after the examination to take a look at that strange Sara. Once he meets her, Wiktor falls for the woman as heavily as Kamil did, but his lust is soon balanced by a much clearer idea of what Sara truly is than Kamil ever had before it was too late for him. So Wiktor and Sara begin a peculiar dance of seduction and anti-seduction.

Zygmunt Lech's Dom Sary is the made-for-TV adaptation of a story by Poland's seldom translated master of the weird tale Stefan Grabinski, realized in a style that is quite typical of the dozen or so horror films I've now seen coming from behind the Iron Curtain when it still existed - slow, a bit talky, and clearly more minded towards the arthouse than the grindhouse, but never recoiling from a bit of cheap goo (goore?) and a bit of classy nudity when necessary. The existence of the latter hasn't been a problem in European (Eastern or Western) movies for some decades now anyhow; Hollywood's ever returning taboo against nudity has long been identified as the childish thing that it is (insert rant about European lawmakers' equally childish fear of pretend violence here).

The bit of nudity isn't very important to Dom Sary, though, because the film may be about someone who is more or less a variation of a succubus, but is not interested in titillation at all. Early on, Lech puts his emphasis on the ensuing duel of seduction and whatever you want to call seducing someone into not having sex though both partners crave it between Sara and Wiktor on a more philosophical level, and shows himself to be more interested in questions concerning the nature of love and its expression, the horrors and seductive beauty of the idea of giving oneself up completely, and the doubtful, ambiguous motives both Sara and Wiktor have for their actions.

Lech makes quite wonderful use of his small budget to create a very Gothic piece of cinema out of multi-coloured lights, an impressive landscape that is as emotionally ambiguous as the characters - played by the actors in a style at once abstractly stylized and heatedly intense - populating it, and a weirdly proper synthesizer and string ensemble soundtrack by Jerzy Matula.

As a whole, the movie's impression on a viewer like me willing and able to go with its slowness is that of witnessing a peculiar cross between a dream with nightmarish tendencies and a philosophical lecture that tends towards the abstract. Naturalism is clearly of no interest to Lech or his intended audience, which suits me just fine.