Tuesday, June 30, 2009

King Kong Escapes (1967)

A small but evil Asian nation has hired the mad scientist Doctor Who (Eisei Amamoto) - finally driven mad through the syphilis all that making out with centuries younger women has brought upon him, I suppose - to recover a gigantic deposit of Element X. The problem is that the radioactive isotope is buried under quite a bit of ice and stone. Obviously, what the Doctor needs is to build himself a Mechanikong, a giant robot copy of everyone's favorite giant ape King Kong who is known for his proficiency in tunnel digging. At first, Mechanikong's digging is mighty impressive to Who and Madame Piranha (Mie Hama) the cute international spy the country of evil has dispatched to supervise the rather unstable scientist's work, but the robot isn't able to withstand the radiation Element X gives off.

Madame Piranha is mightily annoyed, but gives Who another chance for his plan B to come into action.

Coincidentally, a UN research submarine (with a neat flying hovercraft dinghy) commanded by Carl Nelson (Rhodes Reason), an old acquaintance of Who's as well as a giant ape expert who has never seen a giant ape, has landed on the island where the original King Kong lives. The pervy ape takes a shine to the ship's doctor Susan (Linda Miller, her only other acting credit bizarrely being the Evangelical anti-Communist propaganda nightmare If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do), one supposes on account of her being the traditional blonde, and fights a dinosaur and a sea serpent for her, only to find her slink away to the UN with his heart in tow.

Thanks to the following press conference Doctor Who now knows where and when to find the original digger he needs for his nefarious digging plans.

The big ape is easy to catch, but the Doctor's plan to control Kong through electronically induced hypnosis backfires when Element X's radiation (and I'm sure this comes as a total surprise to everyone) wreaks havoc on the hypno gadget. Kong is easily caught again, but how to control him? Who's solution is as logical as it is obvious: kidnap the blonde woman!

What follows is a nice digression into light 60s spy movie shenanigans (including ineffective seduction attempts and torture like Dick Cheney loves it) with a climactic ape versus robot battle on the Tokyo Tower.

King Kong Escapes is one of the few films Toho got out of their licensing of King Kong from RKO for $200,000. Why they didn't use the giant lug much more extensively is quite beyond me. It is a mystery, as is the reason why this film is mostly based on an American children's cartoon show I have never seen - but this way I can at least blame the American co-producers for most of the flaws of the film.

And flaws there are aplenty. The film's problems start with some of the more dreadful monster suits in Eiji Tsuburaya's career. Our monstrous hero Kong just looks like a ratty carpet with an expressive but goofy face, while Mechanikong has a certain whiff of aluminum foil about it.

The film's pacing is also troubling with too many stretches following Rhodes, Miller and an underused Akira Takarada, which is to say long stretches full of insanely boring people, interlaced with at times underwhelming monster fights but also sudden spikes of goofy coolness.

Having said that, I also have to say that I at times enjoyed myself immensely while watching the film. Basically, every scene with Kong or the mangaesque villains of the piece is fine, even fun. It's all very childish (yes, even when it comes to the torture and seduction), but also quite loveable when you approach it with a little childlike openness of mind and just smile at the goofiness.

It's all well and good to lament that everyone involved (well, except for Miller and Reason) was able to do so much more, but it's also the easy way out for the grown-up confronted with the sort of film he would have just loved as a child.


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Monday, June 29, 2009

Music Monday: Topical Edition

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

In short: Session 9 (2001)

Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan), the owner of a small company specialized in asbestos removal, has seen better times. On the surface, his life his fine - his marriage is happy, he has just become a father for the first time, he is good at his job. But a closer look reveals that he is barely holding it together. He and his his wife and are stressed out from their new baby and Gordon's company is close to folding.

The last chance to prevent the latter lies with a removal job in the decrepit Danvers State Hospital. Gordon is only able secure the contract by accepting an insane time frame for the work and doing what his foreman Phil (David Caruso) estimates to take three weeks in one.

As if this wouldn't be enough to ensure tension between the men, there's also bad blood between Phil and Hank (Josh Lucas). Both men hate each other's guts since Hank hooked up with Phil's now ex-girlfriend. The other workers - Mike, the intellectual of the group (co-author Stephen Gevedon) and Gordon's teenage mulleted nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) - try to keep out of it, but it doesn't exactly make for a friendly working environment.

Then there is the Danvers Asylum itself, a place that seems to have a mind of its own and whose atmosphere seems to influence the men's mood towards the worst. On the first day, the building leads Mike to the recordings of the therapy sessions of Mary, a young girl suffering from multiple personality disorder. Somehow, Mary's sessions hold the key to the things the men are experiencing.

Session 9 is the film Brad Anderson (a man with a strange career trajectory if I ever have seen one) made before his Academy Award winning The Machinist and is the stronger of the two films for me. There are obvious parallels in the way both films are constructed, with the movie version of an untrustworthy narrator and a resulting narrative twist that works, but Session 9 does it just a little bit better than the later movie by keeping its narrative a little more diffuse and trusting its viewers to do much of the decoding work herself.

But what makes Session 9 so great is something more. It is the way really every part of the film comes together just right. An excellent acting ensemble, an intelligent script, the absolutely disturbing location of Danvers State Hospital, direction and (also done by Anderson) editing as well as brilliant sound design slowly build a lingering atmosphere of dread until everything culminates in a short and silent burst of violence.

Session 9 is in fact one of my favorite horror films of the last ten years, built with just the right measures of psychology, creepiness and sadness, eschewing the usual technique of sending its viewers home with simple explanations or a joke, preferring to keep you off-balance even after the final scene is over.


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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Los Sin Nombre (1999)

aka The Nameless

Claudia's (Emma Vilarasau) little daughter Angela has been kidnapped by a person or persons unknown. The girl must have been gone for quite some time already when the film starts, so the responsible police inspector Massera (Karra Elejalde) does not seem to hold out much hope for her survival. The parents' worst fears are confirmed when the police find the mutilated corpse of a child at about Angela's age. It's difficult to identify her precisely, though, because her killers have made some efforts to destroy anything that would make her easily identifiable by crushing the child's teeth and dissolving her body in acid. Still, what is left of the girl has the same shortened leg as Angela did, and there is a bracelet that belongs to her found close by, so Massera is reasonably sure that it is in fact the poor child he was looking for in the first place.

Five years later, Claudia still hasn't recovered from the loss. Her husband has left her long since and she is mostly keeping a sane face by popping copious amounts of pills. Around the fifth anniversary of her daughter's when her depression is at its worst, Claudia gets a strange phone call - a girl pretending to be Angela tells her that she is in fact still alive, held all this time by the people who kidnapped her. Angela wants Claudia to come and get her. She is at an old beach sanatorium her mother should remember well.

Claudia does in fact remember the sanatorium as a place close to a beach she and her husband took Angela to quite often. This, and her desperate wish for her daughter to be alive, is enough to make her believe the voice on the phone.

When Claudia arrives at the deserted sanatorium, she finds nothing except for a few mattresses, and books and brochures about pain. This is enough for her to go to Massera for help.

The inspector has just quit his job at the police after a prolonged leave of absence caused by (I suppose) the depressive meltdown he had when his wife and newborn child died in childbed. Massera is in his own way just as broken as Claudia is and agrees to look into the old case again out of a mixture of guilt and identification with the woman's grief.

He starts his investigation doing what he should have done five years ago and looks for other children besides Angela with a slight deformity of the leg who could have been the dead child the police found. He quickly finds a fitting candidate, and from there, it is not a long way until he uncovers the tracks of the Nameless, a hidden cult set on "synthesizing pure evil" through pain and suffering.

Jaume Balaguero is a hit and miss director for me, with a body of work that reaches from terribly flawed films like Darkness to minor masterpieces like [Rec], yet even his bad films are at least interesting and don't fail through incompetence or cowardice but because their director is willing to experiment a little. And by nature, experiments do sometimes turn out wrong.

Los Sin Nombre is definitely one of his good films. Or it is one of his good films for me, I should say. It is hardly easy to stay objective when talking about a film for which one is something like the ideal viewer. It's really quite surprising how many of my personal fictional obsessions are in the film.

Let's see, the film is based on a book by one of my favorite horror authors, Liverpool's Ramsey Campbell. It's about an occult conspiracy reaching back into World War II, busy with a goal that does make a certain amount of sense in light of real occult theories (and foreshadows elements of Martyrs), yet also have a wonderful pulp energy. It is rather slow and ponderous and has as many scenes of people doing research as a Call of Cthulhu scenario. It is a bleak and pessimistic film, with damaged middle-aged protagonists dragging themselves forward towards some inevitable and terrible truth. So it is pretty much the kind of horror film (or occult conspiracy thriller) I myself would want to make. Under these circumstances, Balaguero would have to have done something really stupid to not end up with a film I find completely brilliant.

It helps of course that the film is excellently directed, with a sparseness and a - surprising when you look at the parts of the story that concern torture and dead children - reluctance to get all that explicit some people will probably find boring or off-putting, but Los Sin Nombre really needs its deliberate rhythm to be effective. You probably could tell a story like this as a fast action adventure, but you would lose most of the film's emotional resonance if you did and at best end up at the sentimental tosh level of Spielberg.

Balaguero's use of colour is also quite interesting. The picture is filmed in the cold greys and browns too many films like to use, and I'd usually be the first to protest about them as being monochrome, bleak and rather boring, but in this case browns and greys are exactly the colours the story needs to mirror the internal life of its protagonists; the bleakness is what defines the film.

Said protagonists are the kind of persons you usually won't find in horror films. They are middle-aged, unglamorous and beaten by life and so excellently played by their actors that any doubt I could have had about the construction of the plot just dissolved.

So, for once, I don't have anything negative to say about a film. I just hope it doesn't take too long until another director uses his telepathic powers to make exactly the film I would like to see.


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Friday, June 26, 2009

In short: Lurkers (1988)

Cathy (Dana Nardelli) has a fucked-up childhood in a brownstone somewhere in New York. When she is not enduring nightly visits by a bunch of ugly ghost or is abused by her mother with an iron, she's followed by a weird child (Lauren Ruane) who uses mind control hoodoo to bring people to kill her. Sometimes, an equally weird woman (Eva Baumann) gets into a staring contest with the ghost child and saves Cathy from the dangers of skipping rope strangulation. The poor girl's problems end with her mother murdering her father and then trying to kill her. Somehow, the nasty woman ends up with the knife in her chest herself.

Fifteen years later things seem to have turned around for the now grown-up Cathy (Christine Moore). She works as an enthusiastic if not successful cellist and is eloped to the photographer Don (Gary Warner). It all looks perfect, so why have the bad dreams about her childhood started again? And what exactly are the strange things Don is doing behind Cathy's back about? Is he "just" sleeping around as is his duty as a sleazebag photographer or is something more sinister going on?

These questions will actually be answered when Don drags Cathy to a party his business partner Monica (Marina Taylor) is giving in a building that turns out to be the same brownstone our heroine grew up in.

You can read a lot about how bad the horror films with which exploitation and sex film specialist Roberta Findlay ended her directing career are supposed to be, but Lurkers at least isn't half bad. The film does have some of the hallmarks of on the cheap filmmaking - especially a sloppy script in need of tightening up, a terrible synthie soundtrack and rather broad acting, but the film's crudeness of affect actually works to its advantage.

I found some scenes like Cathy's strange short odyssey through an artificial nightmare New York of Westside Story remnants and sledgehammer killers effectively disturbing in a way the memory of old childhood fears are disturbing. You know it's all bullshit, yet you still have a small, discomforting feeling somewhere in your stomach. While much of it consists of ideas cobbled together from more accomplished movies (Sergio Martino's All The Colours Of The Dark for example), Lurkers uses these ideas with workable blunt force by giving them a frisson of urban paranoia. The film's themes aren't all that well thought through, but they are potent nonetheless, and they possibly feel a little more dangerous because they aren't calculated too well.

What also bears mention is that Roberta Findlay was a hell of a photographer and editor, obviously hampered by low budgets and bad production conditions, yet still doing the best with the things she had, arriving at a nearly documentary feel, a naturalistic look on New York that can suddenly dissolve into a backyard version of surrealism.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Wicksboro Incident (2003)

Two documentary filmers (Dan Brinkle, Kyle Nudo) are making a documentary about the rather preposterous sounding theories of Lloyd (Bobby Harwell). The old man claims that he was working on a secret government project hidden away in the small Texan town of Wicksboro. As he only realized later, the device they were building would have allowed the easy identification of the alien visitors/invaders who have secretly been visiting Earth for decades. At first, the aliens seem to have been peaceful enough, willing to share knowledge with the US government for a mere promise of secrecy, but after a while the relationship with the strangers deteriorated and a secret war broke out, with large parts of government and business infiltrated and controlled by the aliens, and both sides of the war willing to do anything to keep their secrets hidden from the public.

One day, while Lloyd was working in his project's underground laboratory, some sort of attack took place, leaving the whole of Wicksboro empty, its population (and Lloyd's colleagues) gone as if they had never been there at all.

The scientist went into hiding, collecting evidence of the sudden disappearance or death of anyone related to Wicksboro in any way, until he was the only one left to tell the tale.

After decades, he finally dares to talk about the things he knows, and goes on a road trip with the documentarists. The two don't really believe the strange old coot with the drinking problem and the electrical gadget with which he claims to be able to tell alien from human, and they aren't getting any less skeptic when they realize that Wicksboro doesn't exist on any public record, or when they drive to the place where the town should be according to Lloyd's tales but only find desert there.

Still, the old man convinces them to search for his underground lab (with the help of a divining rod, no less). And yes, it does in fact exist. It just wasn't the best idea to look for the lab in the first place. Now, the shadowy conspiracy has reason enough to hunt the unprepared men through Texas.

The Wicksboro Incident is another one of the belated children of Blair Witch Project, and while it isn't as effective as its conceptual model, it is still a nice movie with a handful of tense scenes among the mere competent ones. Mixing the found footage sub-genre with alien conspiracy myths seems so obvious that I'm rather surprised that it took so long until someone used the idea.

I had some problems with the night time scenes of the movie being too dark even for something filmed without artificial lights on digital(?) video (no infrared here), but the squinting at blurred images is part of the peculiar charms of films like this. For me, these technical flaws which aren't really flaws in the rulebook director Richard Lowry follows here have always heightened my love for films like Wicksboro Incident, making the events in them more unreal and somewhat eerie by their supposed hyper-realism; which is an effect you can only achieve in cinema, I believe.

I was positively surprised by the acting. It's usually (the mighty BW excepted) the weakest point in affairs like this, but Bobby Harwell is so perfect in his role that it is very easy to ignore the less spirited yet decent performances his colleagues give.

Now would of course be the time for the usual "oh, but why don't they stop filming" tirade. Alas, I know why the characters don't stop filming. A few people might be surprised to hear that, but: there wouldn't be much of a film if they did!

I honestly think if you are able to suspend your disbelief regarding the existence of vampires, zombies, ghosts and aliens, you shouldn't have too much trouble to extend the same courtesy in the direction of people with videocameras who record what they see, but oh well.

Here's the thing about The Wicksboro Incident. It's an archetypal, very low-budget POV horror film that's a fine way to spend seventy minutes of your life on - if you are able to accept the Law of POV horror ("Thou shalt film!") and have a certain affinity for alien conspiracy theories. I am happily guilty of both charges.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Son of Three Films Make A Post

Ong bak 2 (2008): Despite a troubled production history and a certain stubborn resistance of the film against involving its viewers emotionally, Tony Jaa's & Panna Rittikrai's nominal sequel to the film that brought Thai martial arts cinema into the view of a Western mainstream audience delivers an infectious flow of truly awesome action sequences. People fearful of abrupt, open endings which ask the viewer to pray for a film's protagonist should probably beware, though. But if you like your martial arts films as physical experiences, this is not to be missed.


Rider of Revenge (1971): Quite a few people - among them house favorite Polly (Shan) Kuan as morally upright swordswoman and always dependable Tien Peng - are after the rather fearful murderer Ting after he has been broken out of jail. Some of them want his hidden loot to pay for their hundreds of henchmen, some of them to finance disaster relief (no, really), while Polly of course only seeks justice and Tien Peng is on a ma-related mission Bollywood would approve of. While all of this probably won't rock your world, fine acting and solid fighting still make for an entertaining Taiwanese wuxia.


Zinda Laash (1967): A Pakistani version of Horror of Dracula, with some striking black and white photography that reminds me of expressionist silent movies. Interestingly, the film is set in contemporary Pakistan, quite unlike most of its Western brethren's fixation on the Victorian era. It even culminates in a car chase. Only the needle-dropped soundtrack lets the film down sometimes: a jazz version of "La Cucaracha" does not for an ominous mood make. The musical numbers are fine, though.


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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bloody Parrot (1981)

Well, let's explain this "bloody parrot" business first, shall we? You see, when the demon king has his birthday (presumably on Friday the 13th), his chief minion demons gift him their blood. The blood takes on the form of a (bloody) parrot and grants everyone it meets three wishes.

Back here on earth, the Prince of Dian somehow loses the treasure he was supposed to send as tribute to the emperor, and his servants have to start a hasty search. While traipsing through the woods at night, one patrol is suddenly bathed in blinding red light. It's that bloody parrot!

After laser parrot has randomly killed a few people, the bad-tempered bird grants the leader of the Prince's men, Guo Fan (Kwan Fung) his three wishes. Guo Fan obviously wishes the treasure back, but hasn't read The Monkey's Paw and does therefore look quite surprised when he not only gets the treasure back, but also finds that his son has been killed. The next logical step is to wish his son back, of course. His wife, gifted with a greater amount of intelligence than her husband, can't hinder him from making this ill-advised second wish, and has to kill hubby before their son can climb out of his urn when he refuses to use his third wish to undo the potential zombie apocalypse. Logically, she then commits suicide. At the same moment as Guo Fan dies, the treasure suddenly disappears again. In the following weeks, hordes of martial artists descend upon the area, all in search of the parrot and/or the treasure, yet also very eager to just kill each other for no good reason.

Also on the lookout for the bloody bird is Tie Hen the Merciless (Lau Wing), who seems to be some sort of cop. Being a cop (and merciless) doesn't safe him from parrot attacks, though, and very soon he is also quite dead, dying in the arms of the swordsman Ye Ting Feng (Jason Pai Piao) who might or might not be an old acquaintance and promises him to take his dead body back to the border. Which Ye Ting Feng probably plans on doing right after he has dragged Tie Hen (in his coffin, don't fret) through half of China in search of parrot and treasure. The film has finally settled on a protagonist! So, granted certain death exemptions by the divine right of the protag, the swordsman starts his investigation following a nonsensical clue into the Parrot Brothel - fortunately not a place where men pay to sleep with parrots. From there, his new prostitute love Xue Nu (Jenny Leung) and he start a series of bizarre adventures, full of people who want to kill Ye Ting Feng and abduct Xue Nu, bizarre poisons, demonic possession, cannibalism, worm boy, a "doll face killer needle lady" (her embroidery needle is deadly), vampires, naked fu, underground mirror labyrinths, the works, until it all finally ends in a perfectly natural explanation for all the nonsense that has been going on. Of course, this "explanation" makes even less sense than most of what happened before, but oh well.

Hua Shan might not have directed many films for the Shaw Brothers, or any film that made much sense, but I find it difficult to call the man who directed this thing here as well as the immortal Super Inframan anything else but a demented genius of hysterical enthusiasm.

Bloody Parrot is part of the effort of the late period Shaw Brothers studio to win back its audience from the younger, sexier Cantonese speaking studios by making wild genre mixtures of dubious sanity. In this case, it's a wuxia in Chor Yuen's style, just much less carefully filmed, but with more gore, worms, vomit, breasts and other exploitative elements,mostly playing out like a horror film with lots of fighting.

The script by good old (N)i Kuang (if you don't know, that's the man who wrote about eighty percent of the Shaw Brothers' output) does not make a lick of sense, but Hua Shan's direction is so giddy, and the pace in which one damn thing after another happens (and then another, and another - it truly doesn't ever stop) so relentless that it's impossible not to just jump with it from a naked kung fu fight with a demon-possessed Xue Nu to the next half a dozen bizarros who want to kill Ye Ting Feng while he's gone out to buy some paint (don't ask) to an improbable (but bava-coloured) underground cave. Resistance to a film that even uses a mirror labyrinth as a reason to undress its female lead is futile in any case.

The rest of the film is mostly an amphetamine driven version of Shaw standards, with acting performances as solid as possible in a film where the viewer mostly never learns who these damn guys are, or what motives they have, and fighting that could probably have been choreographed a little more creatively, but hardly more enthusiastic. The well-known sets used in this completely stage-bound affair have seen better days, though.

And while other films in the Shaw catalogue like Buddha's Palm might be even more bonkers, a film that has dialogue lines like "The skin from the seven of you is just enough to make me a skirt" should be weird enough to make anyone happy.


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  • 19:44 "This tea is the product of both a great tea instructor and a great teapot."
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Monday, June 22, 2009

Music Monday: Look Edition


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Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Short Declaration of Inability

My plan was to put up some review-shaped text containing a deep analysis of the theological content of Alucarda (directed by Juan Lopez Moctezuma 1978 AD), but said content makes no frigging sense at all. The film is ideologically so self-contradictory that it negates any attempt at interpretation like the anti-matter of sense.

Now that I think of it, the whole movie perfectly embodies the Platonic Ideal of making no sense at all - I dare say it makes even less sense than Black Magic Rites, if you can believe that is possible. Anyway, if you want a deeper exploration of this very special piece of nunsploitation cinema from Mexico (or Outer Space) let me just point you to 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, whose owner also can't make heads nor tails of it.

It is indeed a great experience for every lover of things unfathomable, of screaming women, and of giant crosses made from a dead nun.


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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976)

On a rainy night, a lowly pastry cook (Yutaka Hayashi) lets himself get talked into driving a waitress imbued with a certain sukeban charm (Tamaki Katsura) who works at the same cafe as he does  home. On the road, they pick up a strange woman dressed in something that looks like a hospital gown. Sitting on the backseat, she soon starts to cut herself with a knife and razorblades. Our nameless protagonists throw her out, accidentally killing her in the process.

Sukeban Gal convinces Cook - not that it does take much convincing, mind you - that it would be best to hide the body on a deserted junkyard instead of going to the police. Afterwards, they feel inspired to an enthusiastic bit of sex.

While he tries to avoid her the next day, she thinks that their shared experience is the perfect basis for a relationship. It's just too bad that he has performance problems if he has not been freshly aroused by a murder. What to do? Oh, yes, let's kill another woman. And then another, and another.

She thinks they are a perfect couple, and starts to act out her view of a perfect relationship, just with added murders, with him. What the poor girl doesn't comprehend is that her beloved (and it is love on her side, not much doubt about it) killer doesn't really need her anymore, now that she has provided his trigger. The act of killing has fast become much more important than the sex afterwards for him, it is in fact sex for him, and soon he starts to go out and kill on his own, getting more reckless with each murder.

Yasuharu Hasebe was one of the handful of Nikkatsu Studio's directors who stayed on after the Nikkatsu action phase had run its course and the studio invented the Roman Porn(o) film. His contributions to the latter genre like Assault! are all not very interested in being erotic, instead portraying emotionless psychopaths without much explanation of their backgrounds or histories.

This does not mean that Hasebe is completely disinterested in his protagonists' psychology - he just prefers to show us the last phase of a sexual psychopath's development, the motive behind his actions not exposited, but acted out, explained by the way he stabs his victims with a knife he likes to keep close to his crotch.

Hasebe shows the murders and the sex in such a clinical way that you'll probably have to be a sexual psychopath yourself to find much excitement or enjoyment here. Often, the film feels like a documentary gone horribly wrong, filmed by someone whose lack of compassion is equal to that of his protagonist.

It's all decidedly unpleasant to watch - as well it should be - yet Assault! is also something of a very black, very deadpan comedy, taking cynical shots at concepts like "the normal relationship" or a "healthy sex-life" in a way I found at once rather endearing and discomfiting.

What differentiates this from comparable American movies of the same era and unfriendly disposition is (apart from the lack of backstory that trusts the film's viewer to understand without being told) a budget and a technical professionalism most American indies could only dream of. This does of course lead to a certain lack of rawness in Hasebe's film, but the Japanese uses the contrast between the things he shows and the way they look to ironic effect. There's really not much that compares to a lovingly framed shot of a man stabbing a woman in the (carefully kept hidden by objects in the foreground) abdomen while 70s porno "da-ba-da-ba-da" music plays. Sure, a modern film would show us the whole act in loving close-ups, but that's not something I feel much of a need to see.

As accomplished and clever as it is, I still find it hard to actually recommend Assault!. It does what it sets out to do (leave the viewer squirming) excellently, but you have to be in a very special mood to appreciate it.


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Friday, June 19, 2009

In short: Nightbeast (1982)

When a drunk (or so I suppose) alien's UFO hits a meteorite, it crashes down in the woods of Maryland, as we know an area all too often plagued by alien invaders. The beastie doesn't want to stay in the shadow of the heroes of The Alien Factor and starts to kill the rural population left and right with its raygun, often vaporizing its victims in a shower of glitter. Well, what would you expect from a creature dressed in a silvery outfit that late period Elvis would have called tasteless?

But even after the intrepid defenders of Maryland under awesome white guy afro owner Sheriff Cinder (Tom Griffith) and bra-hating lady deputy (not my phrase) Lisa (Karin Kardian) manage to disarm the rude visitor, it still insists on killing, if now somewhat more gorily.

Besides a rampaging alien, the poor Sheriff also has to cope with Bertie-the-alcoholic-mayor's (yes, I'm pretty sure that's his name, and he's played by Richard Dyszel) unwillingness to ask for outside help or cancel the party for the state governor he is holding during the alien attack and the lone evil biker (Don Leifert) of the area. It's enough to make one want to have a romantic sub-plot with one's (still bra-less) deputy.

Not much new in Don Dohler's Baltimore here, although our dear old-fashioned director was aiming for a little more of that timely (alas, as of 1970) exploitation feeling. This means the addition of a certain amount of rubbery gore Herschell Gordon Lewis would probably have derided as too crudely done and even (gasp!) the appearance of naked lady deputy breasts in one of the funnier sex scenes ever shot in Maryland (including some mean mustache rubbed all over female face moves), as well as what probably went for depravity in Dohler's circles (alcohol! leather jackets!).

The rest of the film is very much like everything else Dohler has done - the acting is atrocious but funny (I dare you to find many other films in which not a single line of dialogue sounds natural), the fashion makes one want to gouge one's eyes out, and Dohler's direction is stiff but oddly charming in its stubborn insistence on copying each and every fault of the classic monster movies as filtered through a strictly provincial lens. The hairless space ape looks quite great though, or rather its head does - the rest of it is mostly hidden beneath the space disco outfit that fits Sheriff Cinder's haircut perfectly.

I don't want to sound too negative about Nightbeast. There's a certain - probably wrong-headed - enthusiasm about it, as if the people behind the cameras were shouting "Look Ma, we're making a movie!", and I for one find it difficult too argue with that.


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Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Spider Labyrinth (1988)

Professor Alan Whitmore (Roland Wybenga) is the American coordinator of a large international archaeological project with the goal of combining the international research efforts regarding an occult group of gods that were seemingly worshipped in otherwise culturally unrelated parts of the world.

All participiants of the project have already reported their findings to Whitmore, only Professor Ross in Budapest hasn't been heard from for some time. Whitmore's bosses send him to Budapest, all the while insinuating that their project might be much more important and dangerous than the Professor himself believes. This being an Italian movie, Whitmore more or less shrugs and packs his bags instead of asking what the hell they are talking about.

In Budapest he is greeted by Ross' assistant Genevieve (Paola Rinaldi), leaving the viewer puzzled about how incommunicado Ross really is, a question Whitmore seems too distracted by staring at the poor woman's legs to ask. At least Ross is at home, even if his wife (Margareta von Krauss, I believe) explains to Whitmore that her husband isn't in a state to do much work.

Ross acts quite paranoid. He seems convinced that someone (or something) is after him and doesn't even trust his wife. In an unobserved moment, the older man slips Whitmore a notebook and two fotos of a strange tablet, only to just disappear into thin air after someone throws a brown orb through a window. Whitmore decides to return later in the evening.

Genevieve already awaits him outside, eager to show him his hotel, and even more eager to tell him that its directly opposite of the house she lives in. Why, he could even be able to see through her window! The hotel is a weird place. It's run by Mrs. Kuhn (Stephane Audran), a middle-aged woman just a little too interested in Whitmore. Everyone else there can't stop staring at the scientist, too, although our hero seems quite oblivious to it.

After a little notebook studying and a look at Genevieve flashing her breasts through her window at him, the Professor decides to return to Ross' places, only to be apprehended by a mysterious man (William Berger). As is the duty of mysterious men prowling dark streets, he warns Whitmore of some undefined, yet terrible danger that awaits him, and urges the American to get away quickly. Whitmore doesn't listen, of course, and finds Ross' abode surrounded by police.

Ross has been murdered and is now hanging from the ceiling of his room bound with something that looks very much like cobweb. It's all made even more mysterious by the fact that the woman Whitmore believed to be Ross' wife is nowhere to be found. Worse, Genevieve doesn't know of anyone living with the old man. The inspector in charge doesn't really suspect Whitmore, but still takes his passport away and "asks" him to stay in the country a little longer.

This is just the beginning of the strangeness the scientist has stumbled into. Soon everyone who is trying to help him or warn him is murdered by an Italian horror film witch (heavy metal edition) with arachnid tendencies and Whitmore finds himself in the possession of a tablet containing the names of the Gods of a hidden cult of people who have become something not completely human. This cult is still very active today and its members will do anything in their not inconsiderable power to prevent these names from being known.

For Whitmore himself, they have worse plans.

1988 wasn't a great year for the type of occult horror The Spider Labyrinth deals in. In fact, the end of the 80s wasn't a good period for Italian horror at all, so finding a solid film like this, made by an unknown like Gianfranco Giagni, is a minor sensation for the fan of Italian genre films.

And an Italian genre film it is, probably very much inspired by Argento's supernatural films, and full of the things that drive the detractors of this part of the horror genre just nuts. For example, there's the typically cool, slightly artificial acting, the even more artificial sounding dub and the film's disinterest in being part of the kingdom of linear logic. The latter I do see as a strength in a film that is very much about someone leaving the rational world and discovering that the universe is mad, dark and chaotic. The film is even subtly Lovecraftian, with its insinuation of dark gods who are worshipped by hidden cults all over the world, and Mrs. Kuhn's explanation to Whitmore that there is no light to worship, but only darkness (and spiders and their webs).

The film also has some genuinely original ideas, especially in the way the cult members are changed.

If a viewer is willing to go with it, Giagni's film is really quite something, starting out slowly and innocently, but building up to one of Silvio Stivaletti's most freakish monster designs when Whitmore finally meets one of the gods. On the way, Giagni makes extremely good use of the cobweb and labyrinth metaphors, driving Whitmore in circles towards a center he probably would prefer not to find.

More problematic than the film's pace or its inclination towards the nonsensical are some problems you should probably blame on the director's inexperience. Giagni has obviously decided to use some of the stylistic elements typical for Argento or Mario Bava, but his use of colour and his lighting technique look rather heavy-handed compared to the work of his models or even of someone like Michele Soavi. The heavy metal witch also looks a little too silly to be shown this often and is rather bad for the dark mood the film strives for.

Of course, not being as good as the best films of Dario Argento or Mario Bava is more a luxury than a true problem for a film to have, and The Spider Labyrinth still is a very fine piece of cinema, as good a film as Italian directors were able to produce at the time.


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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In short: 4bia (2008)

consists of four, not meaningfully interconnected stories.

"Happiness" by Youngyooth Thongkonthun depicts the misadventures of a young woman sitting lonely at home with a broken leg. A chance text message by a seemingly nice stranger raises her hopes of an end to her loneliness, but after a while the young man's texting takes on a rather disquieting note. Is it possible that she is talking to a ghost?

"Tit for Tat" by Paween Purikitpanya sees a gang of weed-smoking hoodlums taken directly from Reefer Madness cursed by one of their victims and killed in Final Destination light-like accidents.

"In the Middle" by Shutter & Alone directors Parkpoom Wongpoom and Banjong Pisanthanakun follows a quartet of young men with a tendency to wink-wink, nudge-nudge towards Shutter out on a rafting tour in the jungle. Thanks to the added IQs of everyone involved still staying in the double-digits area, one of them drowns, only to come back the following night to haunt his friends. Or is it all a little more complicated?

"Last Fright" - as far as I can make out directed by Wongpoom alone - portraits the fun a flight attendant gets into when she has to accompany the transport of the body of a foreign royal for whose death she is at least partially responsible and whose husband is her lover. The dead person is not amused.

4bia keeps strictly to the idea of the horror movie as a carnival spookshow, its episodes inspired by urban legends and decidedly lacking in depth or subtext. Only wanting your audience to have fun isn't one of the cardinal sins of film making, of course, as long as you are able to actually make your film entertaining.

Apart from "Tit for Tat", the anthology's stories deliver the entertainment they are promising through concentrated simplicity and directness. The segments are expertly kept at an ideal length to not overstay their welcome.

Unfortunately, Purikitpanya's episode drags the experience down a little through the hallmarks of everything that is annoying in modern horror Asian or American - irritating jump cuts, a camera operator with the shakes and a piss-based colour scheme - but that's why DVDs have chapters, I suppose.

Three good segments out of four is a good enough quota for an anthology movie in any case and while 4bia is not a masterpiece, I still had enough fun watching it.


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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Conquest (1983)

"Any reference to persons or events is purely coincidental!" (taken from the closing credits, and oh so very true).

Somewhere on a relatively civilized island in Heavy Metal magazine stoneage fantasy land, a young guy named Ilias (Andrea Occhipinti) says goodbye to his elders. He's going into the outside world to do various undefined heroic deeds, a plan that has the elder's full encouragemant (probably because they want to get rid of Ilias and his single facial expression). They even give him a potentially magic bow that will not do anything magical for much of the movie, until it starts to shoot blue laserbeams after he has proven his heroism by running away and returning.

After he has crossed the ocean, Ilias soon crosses paths with the minions of the witch Ocron (Sabrina Siani). Ocron rules her part of stoneage land with an iron hand, or however the hands of someone who is naked except for a golden mask and some crotch cloth and who masturbates with snakes when she is not eating the brains of virgins are called.

Be it as it may, the witch dreams of being killed by a faceless man with a bow, and so orders her henchmen to hunt down the one who possesses this technological wonder.

So Ilias has to do his best fighting against Ocron's henchcreatures - the shaggy people, the dudes with helmets and the evil Wookies. His best isn't much, though, and he wouldn't make it more than twenty minutes into the plot (I use the word loosely) if not for the help of a certain Mace (Jorge Rivero), supposedly the enemy of every man, yet still nice and helpful to Ilias and with a part-time family tucked away in some cave. He's so nice, he's even willing to share his woman with Ilias! It is so romantic.

Together, Mace and Ilias are going to stroll through stoneage fantasy land, fight a little against zombies and cobweb people and minions and do character stuff that doesn't make sense, until they'll finally decide to face up to Ocron's naked breasts.

Conquest, Lucio Fulci's trip into sword and sorcery land, isn't one of his best films. Its main problem lies in the fact that Fulci's strengths as a director were never in delivering the kind of excitement or action that would be helpful when making a sword and sorcery film. Our Lucio was always the man for slow, slow pacing, dream-like moods, gore and completely weird shit. He provides these four things in copious amounts here, but hides much of it behind layers and layers of fog that make watching the movie something of a chore. The dry ice machines were certainly working overtime when Fulci made Conquest, so much so that a re-titling into The Fog, Part 2 would be all too well deserved.

Fulci fans like me won't avoid a film just because it's boring, slow and so foggily shot that the viewer will have difficulty making out much of what's going on of course, and you could argue that Conquest is quite a fun time - if you are able to adapt your expectations and don't watch it as a fantasy adventure but as a part of Fulci's body of work that's only nominally in a different genre than his best films and in truth part of the genre known as "the Fulci film".

If you manage to do this, you'll be confronted with some wonderously freakish monsters like the cobweb people and a merry amount of gore, including a woman being ripped apart and many loving close-up shots of oozing bumps, all set to a partially recycled Claudio Simonetti soundtrack.

One could also argue that the script - in its own elliptical and illogical way - does some rather clever and ironic things with the dreaded "Hero's Journey" formula (against which I'll surely write a rant filled with excessive cursing and violent fantasies about George Lucas in the future), especially with regards to the (closeted gay if I've ever seen one) relationship of Ilias and Mace and the identity of the hero who finally slays the witch. On the other hand, you could use the same ideas and moments to call the script lazy and stupid.

It's just a very peculiar film, bound to leave most viewers unsatisfied through its dubious pacing and foggy visuals, but fascinating enough for lovers of weird Italian shit and/or Lucio Fulci.


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Monday, June 15, 2009

Music Monday: More Scots Edition

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

In short: The Video Dead (1987)

The accidental delivery of a cursed TV set shortens the life span of a writer (Michael St. Michaels) considerably, when a bunch of zombies crawls out of the thing and kills him.

Three months later - during which time the zombies just stood around in the woods enjoying the scenic view - Jeff (Rocky Duvall) and Zoe Blair (Roxanna Augesen) move into the house to prepare it for the arrival of their business tripping parents. All too soon the two teenagers played by twens experience the awesome power of the evil TV machine and its zombie minions. Fortunately, a Texan expert (Sam David McClelland, wearing a very Texan cowboy hat and sometimes putting on an accent, well, kinda) comes to help the aerobic student(!?) and her brother.

This is 80s horror filmmaking from the bottom of the barrel, and therefore quite fun to watch, if one either has a high tolerance for boredom and stupidity or fast forwards through the slow and unexciting two thirds of the film that consist of people doing nothing of interest and just watches the awesomely stupid parts, like the scene in which bridal gown zombie kills a woman by putting her into the washing machine she herself just jumped out of. It goes round and round, you know.

There's also quite a bit of new zombie lore to enjoy: zombies are dead people who think they are alive, and they kill the living because the damn breathers remind the poor things of the fact that they are indeed dead. They also don't approve of mirrors (remind them of being dead and ugly), and only kill people who show fear of them (unless the "script" demands something else). The video dead can only be killed in two ways - you can either treat them as sims and lock them in somewhere they can't escape from until their bladders pop until they eat each other, or you can just kill them like you would do with any normal person (not that I recommend murder). The latter won't really kill them, of course, but since these here zombies think they are alive, they'll think that you've killed them and will some day just rot away - but only if you don't bury them and make sure (chainsaws are your friend!) they can't run away. Unless another zombie wakes them up again. And if you can laugh about that one, you'll probably have a decent amount of fun with The Video Dead.

If not, you'd better stay as far away as possible or you just might end up like poor Zoe, giggling in your comfy room in the Arkham Asylum.


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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Woods Are Wet (1973)

Japan, some time in the 1920s or 30s. Young Sachiko (Hiroko Isayama) wanders the countryside. She has been wrongly accused of the murder of her mistress and is now on the run. Her luck seems to take a turn for the better when an obviously well off woman (Rie Nakagawa) gives her a lift and invites Sachiko into her home. She tells the girl that she is in dire need of female company to distract her from her brute of a husband (Hatsuo Yamaya) and that she would be delighted to take Sachiko in as a friend.

In the pair's strange house in the woods, things turn out to be quite a bit different. Husband and wife threaten to call the police on Sachiko if the girl doesn't help them with the little games they so like to play. The pair runs an inn in their house, not for money, mind you, but for the pleasure they derive from torturing, raping and killing their guests. Of course they wouldn't presume that Sachiko is going to help them with this, instead, she'll just have to run along and warn their newest guests of the danger they are in. If those guests manage to escape, her hosts won't bother Sachiko anymore.

Woods Are Wet is a Nikkatsu film loosely based on elements of de Sade's Justine (fortunately not on the lists and the repetition) and functions, depending on one's inclinations, either as a Sadean fairytale or as a darkly comic nightmare. It is a very beautiful film in any case. Even the bleached VHS prints that are the only way to see it in the West right now can't hide director Tatsumi Kumashiro's incredible use of candle light and shadows completely.

Kumashiro's gaze on the rather unpleasant things that are inflicted upon his innocent heroine (played by Hiroko Isayama with the shell-shocked look of a survivor) is cool and clinical. While the film doesn't show much compassion towards anyone, it also isn't complicit with the sadists, unless you take its refusal to judge as complicity. After sucking us in - as Sachiko is sucked into the world of the homicidal sadist philosophers - the camera is just there to show us things, leaving the viewer in the position of a cold and distanced voyeur.

A further degree of abstraction is provided by copious black boxes which cruelly (and isn't that Sadean?) break up Kumashiro's meticulous framing of the sex scenes. The director, or so the film's titles inform us, wasn't too pleased with the usual fogging of not unimportant parts of the human body the censor demanded, and used the big black blocks in protest of the custom. The way these blocks are used is often very funny, and I dare you not to giggle (quite nervously, but still) during the climactic orgy/male rape/torture/necrophilia sequence.

This is a film in dire need of a subtitled DVD by a company like Mondo Macabro. I'm pretty sure it would be even more fascinating if one could actually see more of what's happening on screen or even make out people's facial expressions.


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Friday, June 12, 2009

Help a writer out!

Catherynne M. Valente of The Orphan's Tales and Palimpsest fame has been hit hard by the economic crisis and bad luck.

If you have a little money to spare, take a look here and see how you can help to keep one of our great living fantasy writers with a roof over her head. And/or post about it!



In short: (Hollywood) Meatcleaver Massacre (1977)

Christopher Lee has been kidnapped! His abductors keep him in a hut, probably hidden away deep in some Bigfoot-infested woods and guarded by inbred cannibals, and force him to hold a long, mysterious and mysteriously long monologue into the camera. We'd better listen closely - this won't be important for the rest of the movie at all. When his majesty finally stops droning, the film's actual story begins (without him, of course).

A Professor Cantrell (James Habiff) and his family are assaulted in their own home by four inexplicably disgruntled drugged-out students of his, finally allowed to get their Manson on. The Professor's wife and children, and Poopser, their dog, don't survive the encounter, while the Professor himself only lives on in a vegetative state. He is a Professor of "that spooky stuff", though, and his spirit conjures up an old Gaelic god (Brak? Mobrak? Morrack?) to take vengeance on the murderers. The killers die one by one in rather peculiar ways (death by film projector, anyone?). From time to time, a cop (J. Arthur Craig) waddles through a scene, mumbling hypnotically. We end on the bad guys' leader Mason (Larry Justin), giggling away in his fine new padded cell, staring at an hallucinatory eyeball. Then Christopher Lee - now obviously barely able to hold back his laughter - appears again to tell us another unrelated story about shenanigans at a shaman congress. I hope he'll escape from his hut soon.

What begins as an exercise in boredom (hello, Christopher Lee at his droniest), soon transforms into a prime piece of hilarity, only to take its final form as a creature made in equal parts of the hilarious (basically whenever someone opens his mouth), the baffling (the sudden visit in porno land, the film's mere existence, Christopher Lee), and the weirdly disturbing. Meatcleaver Massacre is an exciting case of filmmaking at its most psychotically deranged, there's no sense, no plot, but moments of utterly beautiful nonsense one usually only encounters in dreams, sometimes building up to a fittingly nightmarish feeling of dread that is soon replaced by fits of laughter or helpless attempts to parse the dialogue.

How this film came to be, or why it does not contain a single meatcleaver, is a mystery to me, and honestly, I wouldn't want it to be any other way. It's enough to know of its existence. Watching it more than ten or twelve times a year would probably be bad for one's mind.


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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bored Hatamoto - Acrobats of Death (1959)

It's 1690, the period of Japan's Tokugawa Shogunate, and trouble is brewing in Edo. The successful completion of the Yushima shrine calls for celebration, and has even attracted a troupe of Chinese acrobats. During the celebrations, a close advisor of the Shogun is mysteriously assassinated. The magistrate Sakai is very fast in blaming the deed on the secret Christian sect of Edo.

Soon, a series of arsons, robberies, abductions and further murders perpetrated by masked men who leave crosses in the houses they plunder and loudly declare themselves to be Christian crusaders seems to prove the magistrate right. But there is another, more subtle string of murders that does not fit Sakai's theory at all - some of the hidden Christians of Edo are killed in the same ways as the Shogun's advisor, pointing to a conspiracy against the Shogunate itself that uses the Christians as its scapegoat.

Fortunately for the Tokugawa, Saotome Mondonosuke (Utaemon Ichikawa), a direct retainer of the Shogun who has been declared "to stand above the law", takes an interest in the situation, and uses a combination of his skills as a detective, his masterful swordsmanship, and his sympathy with the less fortunate tiers of Japanese society to save the day.

Acrobats of Death is chambara in a style that would very soon start to look quite old-fashioned compared to the wonders and atrocities the genre would reach for in the 60s. This doesn't make it a bad movie, quite the opposite, it's excellent fun when you keep in mind that this provides what samurai films of its style and time were supposed to provide - a rollicking good time for a matinee audience, comparable to a fine Hollywood swashbuckler.

Sure, the film is sometimes a little stiff, a wee bit too melodramatic, Yashushi Sasaki's direction isn't all that inspired, but the plot moves along at an excellent pace and the film has a highly likeable and charismatic hero in Ichikawa's Saotome. The latter shouldn't come as a surprise, since the "Bored Hatamoto" was Ichikawa's signature role, much like Zatoichi would become Shintaro Katsu's or Nemuri Kyoshiro Raizo Ichikawa's (no relation with Utaemon, by the way). Unfortunately, there's not much information about actor/producer Ichikawa or the Bored Hatamoto films to be found online in any language I speak, so I can't even say how many films the series had or what place Acrobats of Death has in it.

While the film's plot is quite obvious, the script has some surprising flourishes one wouldn't necessarily expect. The Chinese acrobats at first look and act like the sort of racist stereotypes that wouldn't be out of place next to Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu, but the film provides a perfectly natural and ironic explanation for this that I can't bring myself to reveal.

Then there's a strangely democratic subtext for a film about a man who stands above the law and defends the Tokugawa Shogunate. The film (and its hero) very firmly believe in the rule of law and in the right of the poor and disenfranchised of a society to be treated fairly. It's not very subtly done, and not unproblematic in its context, but still commendable.

So, Acrobats of Death seems to me invaluable as a look into the chambara before the genre got all mad and weird and bloodthirsty. Even better - it's a fun and clever film.


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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The best thing about videogames?

Is that people can play them somewhat against the grain. Look at what this gentleman is doing with The Sims 3! The rather sad adventures of a homeless girl and her mad father, at once funny and really more than a little poignant.


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Revenge of Three Films Make A Post

Django Shoots First (1966): One of the dozens of Djangos who roam the Italian West (played by Glenn Saxson) takes vengeance for his murdered and double-crossed father and gets rich in the process. The film is a bit too lighthearted for my tastes in Spaghetti Western and lacks emotional resonance even in the moments when it should have it. None of the actors are all that memorable (especially not the zero sum of a Django) apart from Evelyn Stewart in the sort of femme fatale role she could probably do in her sleep. But director Alberto De Martino does have enough of a knack for action scenes to make for a passably diverting little movie. Unless you dislike bar brawls, that is.


Devil Species (2004): A scientist turns into a snake monster thanks to the combination of the poison of the Devil Snake and a new experimental serum. He of course goes on a very cost-conscious rampage, while some (okay, one) of his victims turn into snake person zombies. This mildly entertaining Thai monster movie (directed by someone with the most excellent name of Poom Opium) would feel right at home on the SciFi Channel, if it didn't eschew crappy CGI for not completely ineffective practical effects and if not for the American mainstream's fear of non-white people playing the lead roles in a movie.


Three On A Meathook (1972): William "Grizzly" Girdler's debut film meanders between proto-slasher and 70s independent psycho killer movie. Too bad that it's so boring in every aspect. Girdler's static and unimaginative direction can't even milk shots of the less savory parts of Louisville or terrible crimes of interior decoration properly for mood or life. The title's great, though.


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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Postman Strikes Back (1982)

In the early phase of the Chinese republic, when most of the country is controlled by warlords, a certain Mister Hu (Eddy Ko, who will not turn out to be an evil Japanese ninja, oh no) hires a small group of men to transport four chests containing something of utmost importance secretly to the warlord who controls the strategically valuable Laome Pass.

These men are the courier Ma (Leung Kar-Yan) whose profession is slowly becoming obsolete with the growing availability of the railroad, a young thief named Yao Jin (Yuen Yat-Choh), Ma's good friend, the alcoholic and slightly mad explosives expert Bu (Fan Mei-Sheng - and is this how you'd want your explosives expert?) and the professional gambler and cool scarf-wearer Fu Jun (a young and skinny Chow Yun-Fat - count those rips!).

As it goes in films like this, the men soon get some female company in the form of Guifa (Cherie Chung before she was too annoying), who has a crush on Ma, but nominally just wants his help to get to Shanghai and a Miss Li (Guk Ching-Suk), whom they save from bandits.

The small party will have to brave many dangers in the form of bandits, revolutionaries (which in this case means democrats), nature, and a violent past that will come to haunt Yao Jin and Fu Jun with even more people out to kill them. Would you believe there will be small buds of love growing? That the men will become friends despite all their differences? That there will be betrayal, blood, and tears?

Yes, it's one of those films, but it's a good one of its type, with a script that doesn't shy away from cruel, sometimes unfair consequences for characters' actions unlike a comparable Hollywood script would do.

Stylistically, Postman is quite different from the better known, frenetically paced supernatural wuxia that would come later in director Ronny Yu's career (or the films he has made in Hollywood, for that matter), mostly utilizing actual locations instead of beautifully artificial sets and running along at a leisurely pace instead of jumping screaming in your face. I think the film is influenced by the more historically minded Spaghetti Western of Leone and Corbucci, sharing some plot points I'm not going to spoil, certain parts of their visual style as well as a similar outlook on history, although it never gets as explicit about Yu's own politics as some of Corbucci's works do about their director.

The action is mock realistic and quite bloody, but fortunately not so realistic as not to throw things like pick-a-back fu, shawl fu, a magnetic ninja or rat grenades at the viewer when it is deemed necessary and most certainly not willing to give up on a spectacular set piece for stupid things like the laws of physics.

The actors are all game, with a young Chow Yun-Fat doing some neat cigarette acting and Eddy Ko being his typical evil and untrustworthy self, and the rest of the cast acquitting themselves with the dignified professionalism of people who simply know how to do their jobs.

Despite its stupid title, The Postman Strikes Back is a very fine film, not as spectacular and complex an historically minded martial arts adventure as Once Upon A Time In China perhaps, but still worth it.


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Monday, June 8, 2009

Music Monday: Ghosts of Old Leftists Edition

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

In short: Mark of the Witch (1970)

More regional American filmmaking goodness, if your definition of goodness includes the early exploits of future TV show director Tom Moore in an exploitation film that doesn't dare to be all that exploitative - after all, it's made in Dallas.

You might have heard this plot before: Margery, a powerful witch (Marie Santell) is hanged (oh! historical accuracy!) for her wicked ways, thanks to the treachery of her co-witch and former lover (Robert Elston). Of course she's laying a wordy yet unspecific curse on him and his descendents.

300 years later, Mac Stuart, one of those descendents (also played by Robert Elston, of course), works as a college professor teaching his students the most interesting things about that groovy thing known as The Occult. When he and his students hold a séance, the young, naive and headburstingly innocent Jill (Anitra Walsh) is possessed by the spirit of the witch.

After proving the truthfulness of her possession by exploding Mac's budgie, the girl ropes Mac and her boyfriend Alan (Darryl Wells) into helping her attain some not clearly defined goal.

While Alan and Mac search behind her back for a way to exorcise her, witch girl does the usual stuff - some suggestive dancing, seducing people (don't fear, there are no breasts for you to see here), hypnotizing them into selling their souls to Satan and then killing them. But will she survive the psychedelic cross light show Alan and Mac have prepared for her?

Mark of the Witch is your typical, generic, cheap early 70s witchcraft film, filmed in the sort of colour that lets even brown look like a primary colour, with competent but not interesting direction and amateur actors.

Seeing that not much happens, the whole affair stands and falls with Anitra Walsh's Jill. I really wouldn't call her a good or effective actress, her "innocent" pre-possession Jill is so dreadful as to make the witch automatically incredibly sympathetic just by virtue of not being Jill, but as soon as she gets possessed she goes for a stupidly enthusiastic version of evil I couldn't help but like. It's just too bad that the film is so timid that she isn't allowed to do much, with all the seduction, murder and satanic rituals played out as harmless as possible.

The early 70s atmosphere is quite interesting here - the characters aren't hippies (I repeat, it's made in Dallas), but young and hip enough to have taken on all the worst characteristics of hippiedom, especially an incredible amount of sexism that leads to pearls of period dialogue like "I like my chicks dumb, but you baby are something else" to which the "chick" in question not answers with a kick to the groin but a giggle.

Yeah, you're bound to applaud when Jill kills 'em.