Thursday, June 30, 2011

In short: Captain Clegg (1962)

aka Night Creatures

1792. The impressively rude Navy Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) and a small boatful of his men enter the small British village of Dymchurch following information that has lead Collier to suspect the village of harbouring a rather effective smuggling operation.

Collier is quite right in his assumption too. Many of the village's upstanding citizens, including the jolly coffin maker (Michael Ripper confusingly not playing an innkeeper), the shady innkeeper (Martin Benson) and even the son of the local squire (Oliver Reed), are part of the smuggling operation, and given the way the representatives of royal authorities are presented throughout film, it's difficult not to sympathize with them. To top it all off, the local parson, a certain Dr Blyss (Peter Cushing) is the smuggler's ringleader.

A large part of the smugglers' success is certainly thanks to Blyss's organisational talents. Blyss uses people dressed as scarecrows and children as lookouts, and also lets the local legend about skeleton riders roaming the marshes come alive as a means of protection.

At first, Collier seems quite helpless against the wily villagers, but eventually, his combination of brutality, stubbornness and sheer good luck does pay off, especially once the innkeeper Rash, who is a rather nasty character, slowly starts to unravel. Things for Blyss are certainly not made easier by the strange fixation on killing him the navy men's nameless mascot and slave (Milton Reid), a mulatto (alas, here comes the racism fairy) who belonged to Captain Clegg's crew until he caused the death of the Captain's wife and lost his tongue and nearly his life for it, shows.

By 1962, the Hammer Studios were mostly known for their impressive series of gothic horror movies, but the Studios did still produce films in other genre, even though many of those films were and still are much less seen and talked about. It's a pretty unfair state of affairs when you look at the pure quality of a film like Captain Clegg.

Directed by Peter Graham Scott (who worked as a producer and director on many BBC TV shows we nerds and geeks love), featuring an ensemble of Hammer's stable actors lead by Peter Cushing in a very good mood, and showing off the lush and detailed look typical of Hammer films of this era (as usual, realized on a much lower budget than you'd expect), the film's pretty impossible for me to dislike.

Once you look closely at the movie, you'll realize how peculiar a film this actually is. Not only is Captain Clegg a pirate movie taking place predominantly on land, it also mixes its adventure movie tropes and techniques with elements of the whydunnit mystery and a few tasty moments of Hammer horror as during the night scenes in the marshes and in the character of "the mulatto". What's most surprising about this genre mix is how organically it actually feels when you are watching the film; Anthony Hinds's script makes the integration of disparate elements in a well-paced plot look easy.

The film's other peculiarity is its politics. Now, I'm quite used to the fact that any form of nobility does hide corruption and evil in a Hammer movie, but the sentiments towards the British crown Captain Clegg shows seem to go a step further. One can't help but see the parallels between a village of smugglers robbing a brutal government (the government here is represented by brutal thugs, a fat squire who does not seem to do anything but eat, and a king who doesn't hold to his promises) of tax revenues and a certain revolution in a certain former British colony. Who knew Hammer was that republican?


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Darah (2009)

aka Macabre

Adjie (Ario Bayu), his very pregnant wife Astrid (Sigi Wimala), his estranged sister Ladya (Indonesian horror mainstay Julie Estelle), and a handful of their friends are on their way to Jakarta. On a country road, they find a girl named Maya (Imelda Therinne) just standing around alone in the dark. Maya explains she has been robbed and asks for a ride home. After some hesitation, the group decides to help the girl out, for Astrid is a rather kind-hearted woman and Eko (Dendy Subangil), one of the friends, rather fancies Maya.

Once the party has arrived at Maya's place, a rather large house right in the middle of nowhere, the girl suggests everyone come in and meet her mother, who will surely be thankful to the strangers.

The group agrees. After all, they've already gone that far, and hearing a "thank you" is always appreciated. Little do they know that Maya's mother Dara (Shareefa Daanish) is the head of a little family of slowly aging (human meat has powers, as you'll remember from various other movies like Ravenous) cannibal butchers. Dara, her other two sons - Adam (Arifin Putra) and an overweight guy specialized in the arts of the butcher whose name I didn't get - and Maya don't just slaughter humans for themselves, but are also the meat providers for other cannibals (rich and evil, obviously) around Indonesia, so a carload of young people is excellent news to them, and rather bad news for said young people, who will soon have to fight for their lives and bacon.

Darah, a Indonesian/Singaporean co-production, was made by a pair of Indonesian directors (and writers and producers) calling themselves The Mo Brothers and features an Indonesian cast. It is based on motives and a character from the directors' short film "Dara" that was part of another international co-production, the US-co-produced omnibus film Takut, so I think I can safely assume that 1) The Mo Brothers really liked the character of Dara(h) and Shareefa Daanish's performance in the role and 2) unlike many other Indonesian directors and studios, these guys are interested in selling their films overseas, too.

Another indication for the truth of the second theory (I don't think the first one can be in any doubt at all) is how different Darah is to the endless masses of films brought up by the Indonesian horror boom of the 2000s. Mainly, this is not much of a supernatural horror film, but is rather oriented on the more Western horror sub-genre of backwoods horror/torture porn (two once distinct sub-genres that seem to have become one thanks to Hostel and its followers), so there are - unfortunately - no traditional Indonesian ghosts going around, nor - fortunately - is there much of the extremely low-brow humour on display that has ruined more than one Indonesian horror film.

The Mo Brothers don't go too far with their film's internationalisation, though. The pair is insightful enough to realize that local colour can only distinguish their film from the mass of other films populating their chosen sub-genre, so they have made a film that is a visibly Indonesian interpretation of torture porn, containing the local colour that evokes the kind of sense of place that can (and does) produce a more effective mood of threat and desolation than more generic surroundings ever could.

As should be obvious, Darah is still not a very original movie. I've seen its content (a bit of creepiness fastly turning into grotesque, slightly humorous violence) and plot a hundred times before, yet the Mo Brothers' film is executed so well I don't mind its lack of originality much. After all, the violence is creative, the pacing tight, the Brothers' direction technically pretty great without being distractingly flashy, the acting - from the more traditionally realist style of the victims to the non-blinking scenery-chewing staring of the cannibals - is good, and there's even a bit of characterisation for the victims that does not make them look like the douchebags and idiots that are traditionally the victims in this sort of film.

So Darah might be generic, but it sure is fun.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

In short: The Violent Kind (2010)

After a family birthday party, a few members (most importantly those played by Cory Knauf, Taylor Cole and Bret Roberts, and the associated "little sister who done good" Megan, played by Christina Prousalis) of a multi-generational gang of bikers with a hand in quite a few illegal pots stay behind in the traditional dark house in the woods for the night. Things get interesting when Michelle (Tiffany Shepis), Megan's big sister who had already left for greener pastures, reappears in front of their door covered in blood, and collapses.

Strangely, Michelle's appearance coincides with a sudden unwillingness of the gang's car to start. Of course, that's only the beginning of everyone's trouble, for soon enough, Michelle turns out to be quite possessed (she even does the popular ceiling crawl). A bit later, the dead come back to life - only to pointlessly explode after ten minutes or so, and finally, five badly made-up, incredibly annoying 50s greasers appear to have a bit of fun with the old ultra-violence and open a dimensional gate for their queen from the Outer Dark.

Ever since I saw their The Hamiltons, I've been thinking the Butcher Brothers (Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores) have at least one very fine horror movie in their future. At least, the project of mixing parts of the sensibilities of US indie drama of the post-Sundance variation with US indie horror that seems to be theirs is one that looks pretty promising to me.

Unfortunately, The Violent Kind still isn't the movie I've been looking for from the duo. What begins decent enough as an Evil Dead variant with more characterization that pretends to have to say something about the violence inside of its characters soon turns into a succession of weird (which is always good) and would-be weird (which is never good) scenes that never come together to form a whole as a movie - it's more a grab-bag of ideas taken from other movies (beside The Evil Dead there's an especially heavy David Lynch influence, something that has never worked for anyone apart from Lynch) that wildly swings from one mood to the next in too distractible a manner to be successful.

I wouldn't complain too loudly if all - or even most - of the film's distractions would actually work, but elements like the undead 50s greasers/outer-dimensional horror cultists - who are probably meant to be bizarrely creepy, but only end up annoying and trying way too hard to be creepy - are built to test even the patience of the more tolerant viewer through the sheer power of bad overacting and conceptual vapidity.

On the positive side, all non-50s greaser acting is pretty good, and the Butcher Brothers belong to a part of the indie horror community that not only knows about the finer points of using a camera and editing, but is also willing and able to apply that knowledge.

That's not enough for a real recommendation (even though the film does have its moments), yet still leaves me with hope for the directors' future films.


Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Squeeze (1978)

There will be spoilers later on.

After a few years in the slammer former expert safe cracker Chris Gretchko (Lee Van Cleef) has retired from the crime world, and lives in Mexico as a cattle rancher. Still, when Jeff OIafsen (Edward Albert), the son of an old friend, seeks Chris out to ask him for help, the old gangster doesn't make the young man beg all that much. Jeff is in big trouble with a gang of Germans under the leadership of a certain Van Stratten (Peter Carsten), but if Chris would be willing to come to New York and open a safe full of diamonds for the Germans, all would be forgiven for the young man, and Chris would make a nice amount of money. At least that's what Jeff says.

In truth, once Chris has arrived in the US and contacted his old friend, the fence Sam Steinfeld (Lionel Stander), it becomes quite clear why the Germans have to import a retiree like him for the job instead of digging into New York's native talent pool: people doing business for or with the group tend to disappear or turn up dead, which makes these Germans somewhat unpopular partners. Chris enjoys challenges, it seems, for he decides to stay in the city, do the job, and take the diamonds for himself and Jeff - whom he plans to keep safe by talking him into letting himself getting arrested before the heist starts - instead.

Things go nearly as the old gangster has planned, except for the fact that his escape from his murderous partners entails dead people and explosions and leaves himself hurt badly enough to need to lay low in an empty apartment quite close to the place where he got rid of his escape car. That sort of trace is eminently followable for the police, the former owners of the diamonds, and the rest of Chris's former partners. Jeff's true loyalties seem dubious at best, too. On the positive side, Chris's empty apartment has a very friendly - and impossibly ditzy - neighbour (Karen Black), only too willing to help him out for no obvious reason.

As much as I adore Italian director Antonio Margheriti, Lee Van Cleef's natural coolness, Edward Albert's easy sociopathy and Karen Black's full-blown looniness, I can't call The Squeeze a fully successful film. The first half of the movie is strong enough, with Margheriti seemingly just turning on his camera, being happy to film in New York, and giving his actors possibilities to shine in an authentic and laid-back way that doesn't produce much of the tension you'd usually expect from a crime movie, but establishes the characters and the city they are living in quite wonderfully.

Unfortunately, once the in a Margheriti movie mandatory mediocre but beautiful model effects sequence has passed and Van Cleef's character is laying low and not doing much anymore, the film's looseness turns into a liability. The focus shifts from Van Cleef to Albert to Stander to the former owners to Black overacting hilariously and back again nervously, with half of the scenes of no use to further develop the film's characters or plot, and the other half being pretty fine looked at as single scenes, but not as parts of a whole that's supposed to be a movie. The actors are doing some fine work with what they are given, but the script becomes just too disjointed for them to truly salvage anything.

It sure doesn't help The Squeeze's case that it has two absolutely horrible plot twists that don't make sense even if you're trying very hard not to think about them - and believe me, I was trying. Twist number one (please be advised I'm getting spoiler-y now) might explain why Black's Clarisse is so damn helpful, but could only have worked if Jeff had known beforehand where Chris would be hiding out, which he doesn't, while twist number two needs the audience to believe that Chris is either always carrying dummy ammunition around with him or can somehow pull some out of his ass.

And still, having said all that, I don't regret having watched The Squeeze. There's enough good, relaxed acting in it, and it evokes enough of a sense of place and time for me to put it down on the "basically enjoyable" side of the equation. Everyone concerned has certainly made or been in better movies, but they've also wasted their (and my) time on worse.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

In short: Nightmares (1980)

aka Stage Fright

Don't be confused by the generic titles, it's the Australian one!

After some traumatic experiences during her childhood that include a dead mother for whose death she carried a certain degree of responsibility, and a guy's slashed face, now grown-up Helen Selleck's (Jenny Neumann) life seems to be going into a more pleasant direction. A pretentious and rudely sarcastic (what a surprising combination!) theatre director hires the budding actress for his new play, "a comedy about death", so future stardom might well await her.

Even better, her partner in the play, pretty soap opera actor Terry Besanko (Gary Sweet), and Helen fall in love. The relationship is becoming a bit strained pretty fast, though, for unfortunately, Helen doesn't seem to be completely well mentally. She seems to have problems with her sexuality, and at times shows behaviour that's well beyond merely eccentric, which is nothing a guy like Terry can understand very well.

One might even begin to think Helen has something to do with the black-gloved, high-heeled killer who's first going around killing people who have sex, and then puts his or her interest in offing people Helen just might have a grudge against.

When it comes to slasher movies, it is a curious yet by now obvious quirk of my tastes that I often prefer the completely shoddy or weird examples of the sub-genre to the tepidly competent ones - actually great films like the original Halloween are of course excluded from that rule. This particular example of a film about a "mysterious" killer slashing and stalking does unfortunately belong to that group of tepidly competent films. Competent, in that the photography is pretty nice to look at, the acting basically decent, the lighting often creatively moody, and the Brian May soundtrack loud. Tepid, because director John D. Lamond doesn't seem to have much of a clue how to utilize the talents of the people working with him beyond letting the director of photography zoom in on a pair of breasts from time to time, and pasting May's unsubtle music over nearly every second of the film, as if to make the obvious screamingly obvious.

Although the film seems to think its audience doesn't know (at least that's what its structure tells me), it is pretty obvious from the beginning who the killer is and why the killings are done, so that neither suspense nor surprise make much of an appearance. Instead, it's one lame "look how nasty those theatre people are" scene, followed by one "look how messed up Helen is" scene, followed by one "look, breasts and blood" scene in repetition until it all comes to an obvious and not very exciting end.

As other theatre themed slasher clearly demonstrate, you can take these elements and make a decent horror film out of them, but you need to know what you're doing. Nightmares doesn't.


Friday, June 17, 2011

In a shocking (or delightful) turn of events,

there will be no blogging from me here until Saturday 25th of June. Insert the appropriate joke about tentacles needing rest and eldritch evil needing sleep from aeon to aeon here, please.

Until my return, I'll still be present to answer comments, and be annoyed and annoying on Twitter.



Unknown Island (1948)

During World War II, then-Airforce-pilot Ted Osborne (Phillip Reed) observed what looked like living, breathing dinosaurs on an island in the South Pacific. Now that the war is over, Osborne has convinced his fiancée Carole Lane (Virginia Grey) to finance an expedition to that island so that Osborne can film and photograph the dinosaurs - for science (and, one suspects, fame that'll let Osborne step out of Carole's financial shadow).

The whole expedition is a bit of a low budget affair, though. Osborne and Carole bring in no personnel of their own, and instead hire the shady alcoholic Captain Tarnowski (Barton MacLane) and his ship and crew to help them do the job. That just might be a decision the couple will regret later on.

On the other hand, one can't say this particular business relationship is starting off too badly. Turns out Tarnowski knows a guy who visited Osborne's island, too, but barely escaped with his life and sanity intact. John Fairbanks (Richard Denning), as he is called, now spends his time penniless and drunk and thought mad in a corner in the same bar where Tarnowski does business. Somehow - I suspect the involvement of a lot of alcohol - Tarnowski is able to convince Fairbanks to take part in the expedition too.

Once everyone's at sea, the problems begin. Tarnowski shows a rather unpleasant interest in Carole that'll only get more unpleasant the longer the trip takes, while Tarnowski's "Lascar" crew doesn't particularly enjoy the thought of visiting this particular island, and starts a dramatic, yet easily quelled mutiny.

Things don't improve once the group finally arrives at the island. Not only are the surviving crewmen still pretty mutinous, and their Captain still a pig, the dinosaurs population is pretty aggressive too. And that's before Crash Corrigan and his giant sloth costume attack.

Will anyone survive the expedition?

Despite its somewhat ironic (and today, highly google-unfriendly) moniker, Film Classics was one of the better distributors of Poverty Row films. At least, the films wearing the "Film Classics" logo are usually on the more professional and less boring side of the extremely cheap persuasion.

Unknown Island was even shot in Cinecolor, whose emphasis on red and green tones and little else isn't exactly spectacular from a modern point of view, but must still have cost a bit of money this sort of production usually didn't have to throw around. It also suits Virginia Grey quite nicely, so there might be a reason for its use there. Or somebody was out to win the title of "first dinosaur movie in colour".

Be that as it may, the film was directed by Jack Bernhard (also responsible for at least two pretty entertaining b-noirs with Blond Ice and Decoy), whose direction does not show him as any sort of visionary, but as a guy trying to get through the problematic work of making an entertaining movie out of cardboard and wobbling dinosaur suits with professional dignity intact, which obviously puts him leagues above directors like William Beaudine. Bernhard does know how to keep an adventure movie like this going without filling it out with footage of people pointing at library footage of monkeys and hippos.

Instead, there's quite a bit of pointing at the film's back-projected special effects, but what's not too like about looking at T-rex costumes constructed so that the suit actors can only waddle in them as if they were giant penguins (teke-li-li)? Even if you ignore the monsters' (with Corrigan's sloth as the big exception) bad movability, the effects leave a lot to be desired. It's impossible to get a feel for how large any of the monsters are supposed to be. Especially the giant sloth seems to shrink and grow depending on the scene. On the other hand, the sloth is a good looking monster (of a reddish colour - not white as half the Internet says, by the way)that works well with the film's colour scheme.

Of course, the film is about as much of a stock adventure film as possible, with all the character types (though Carole is fortunately a bit more feisty than her movie's era seemed to like its women), the casual racism, and the lazy psychology you'd expect. Thing is, it's also snappily done, well-shot and pretty entertaining inside the borders of its place and time. Plus it features a giant sloth wrestling a dinosaur.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

In short: Trackman (2007)

Original title: Putevoy obkhodchik

After their bank robbery ends with a few dead cops, a group of robbers grabs two bank employees (Svetlana Metkina and Yuliya Mikhailova) and the surviving cop as hostages, and scamper off with their ill gotten gains into the deserted subway tunnels that are their official way of escape.

But there are tensions among the bank robbers. Good guy criminal Grom (Dmitriy Orlov) isn't too pleased with the dead cops or the psychopathic behaviour of his partner Kostya (Tomas Motskus), while Kostya and Splinter, the mastermind behind the robbery, are planning to get rid off their partners in the underground.

These plans become quite obsolete once the inhabitant of the tunnels makes his first appearance: a large man (Aleksey Dmitriev) running around with a rag around his face and dirty goggles over his eyes whose hobby (everybody needs one) is the collection of human eyes. Well, and poking people with his pick axe. The Trackman is no traditionalist when it comes to murder, though. If need be, he also grabs an automatic rifle or a flame thrower, which is pretty understandable given how well armed his victims here are. Hand grenades are still easily bought in Russia, it seems, but like any good slasher movie killer, the Trackman's not easily killed.

Since it seems to be a minor theme with me these days, let's get the largest criticism of Russian director/actor Igor Shavlak's (yes, the guy who starred in and possibly co-directed the pretty fine Semya Vurdalakov once) slasher movie Trackman out of the way first: it's that it is a slasher movie filled with the healthy lack of originality that sub-genre implies, and if you can't stand genre films working strictly inside the boundaries of their genre, you won't find much to enjoy here.

Stylistically and content-wise, Shavlak's film is a nice throwback to the earlier days of the slasher movie, when a movie's potential to be actually thrilling wasn't buried under badly digested ironic that makes it impossible to immerse oneself into a film, and when the rules of the genre were less heavily codified than they are today. This leads to the curious effect that an at heart ultra-generic movie like this still manages to surprise by doing some things a little bit differently than you would have expected from a slasher made in 2007; it is, for example, not obvious from the start in which order the characters will be killed off - doesn't sound like much, but once you've seen enough of these movies, you'll be thankful for every little change.

Trackman plays its slight but entertaining little story straight for most of its running time, betting on tight editing and the slightly monotonous yet atmospherically shot tunnels ninety percent of it take place in to get its audience excited.

For my tastes, that's enough to make the film turn out better than many other movies about people getting slaughtered in tunnels.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Argyle Secrets (1948)

Famous columnist Allen Pierce (George Anderson) is preparing to publish the contents of a stylishly bound collection of secret documents known as "The Argyle Secrets". Alas, before he is able to write more than the overture to what he thinks to be a pretty big journalistic coup, Pierce is struck down by illness and hospitalized. After a few days of the press besieging Pierce's hospital room, the columnist feels fit enough to talk.

First and foremost, Pierce wants to disclose the secrets of the Argyle Secrets to hard-nosed reporter Harry Mitchell (William Gargan) as a way to insure himself against attempts on his life, but while Pierce is still describing the book's cover to Mitchell, he dies without giving up too many helpful hints.

Mitchell's first thought when confronted with a dead man is obviously not to call a doctor to make sure he's really beyond help, but to hinder his colleagues from other newspapers from getting the scoop about Pierce's death before him. This sort of charming thing is quite typical for Mitchell, so it doesn't come as much of a surprise that long-suffering police detective Lt. Samson (Ralphy Byrd) is preparing to ask quite a few hard questions of him and does have little trouble imagining the dickish reporter a killer.

Our hero Mitchell isn't into that whole "answering police questions" thing, though, and goes on the lam to find the Argyle Secrets for himself. First step in his heroic quest is Pierce's secretary, who is easily knocked out by a punch to the face (Mitchell is something of a specialist in violence against women, we will learn) when she doesn't want to let the sociopathic reporter search her boss's belongings.

From here on out, Mitchell's search for the book brings him into contact with a bunch of other noir freaks with dubious accents: a big "Southerner" wearing a panama hat (Jack Reitzen), a certain Winter (John Banner) and his gangster buddies, and the mandatory femme fatale Marla (Marjorie Lord) who are all looking for the book, too.

Future black-list victim Cy Enfield's The Argyle Secrets (based on a radioplay that passed down some off-screen narration telling us exactly what we see to the film) seems pretty typical for a movie from one arm of the lowest budget part of what we now call film noir. Highly derivative of other films (in this case quite clearly The Maltese Falcon and its hunt of various shady characters for a McGuffin), graced with actors of mild talent (and no ear for accents) at best, and without the budget and time to realize more than three or four truly stylish scenes, the film has to keep itself interesting by just being the decisive bit loopier than its (slightly) more costly peers.

To achieve that, Enfield (who also wrote the script and the radioplay it's based on) begins by presenting his audience with a hero (and it's pretty clear he truly is supposed to be the hero and not just the protagonist; Fritz Lang, Enfield wasn't) who is just a bit more of a prick than your typical noir private eye or reporter - at least if you ignore films explicitly made to criticize the press. Mitchell isn't just a liar, he's a habitual liar; he's not only a guy who punches out women who haven't done a thing to him, he's also a guy whose encounters with the femme fatale can end with the most charming combination of strangulation and kissing. Honestly, it's only a question of time until the guy the audience is supposed to root for will start hacking up prostitutes.

Because one freak alone isn't enough for a good film (and because it's tradition to have more than one in your movie), Mitchell meets more people of his kind, all very peculiar types, rather overacted, and graced with fake accents too horrible to comprehend.

This being a noir - if a very cheap one - not everything what happens between these people makes much sense, and much of the film's plot could have been avoided if someone had just taken his time to wait for the postman. Said plot is mostly a case of throwing the freaks together, letting them interact violently and then going over to the next scene of loopy acting and slightly weird ideas. The characterisation swerves between noir standards slavishly reproduced because everyone does it, and moments of true strangeness like the already mentioned friendly strangling, leaving me with the impression of a film that very much likes to play with the elements it has been given, coherence be damned.To no one's surprise, this approach to plot and character turns out to be pretty much to my tastes; at least, there's seldom a boring second (for once, even the humour is a bit too strange to annoy me).

Last but not least, I have to mention the handful of scenes where time and budget allowed Enfield to do some rather interesting directing: there's a cheap but surreal dream/torture sequence that makes perfect use of floating upper bodies on a black background and a nicely done, and truly tense finale (well, finale dramatically speaking; there are still some pretty boring minutes of talky explanations to follow after it) in a darkened room with Mitchell using his brains and an iron grate to protect himself from sure death.

It's pretty difficult to disagree with a movie so obviously out to please me.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: See King Tyrant Lizards In Deadly Combat!

Okinawa Ten Year War (1978): Matsuo Akinori's jitsuroku-style yakuza movie is predominantly interesting as a demonstration of the theory that you can take all the surface elements of Kinji Fukasaku's directorial style for one of these films, and have the typically pretty great Toei stable of actors (including Sonny Chiba, with facial hair) to your disposal and still not get much of a film when your script (by Ichiro Otsu, also responsible for the equally disjointed Legend of Dinosaur and Monster Birds) is as unfocused and oblivious to the thematic potential of its own set-up (like for example the Okinawa/mainland Japan divide Fukasaku and other directors have explored in much better films ) as that at hand. Scenes seem to belong to about three different films - one of them as sentimental as the hoariest of ninkyo eiga - and though many of them are perfectly fine to look at independently, they never cohere into a whole.

Le Samourai (1967): I'm pretty sure nobody's burning to hear my verdict about a well-known classic of cinema like Jean-Pierre Melville's film, and since every film critic, amateur or professional, clever, dumb or pretentious has written about films like it, I usually just watch and shut up, because there's not much of a chance I have anything to say about them that hasn't been said before.

But (and you knew there was a but coming) Le Samourai fits so perfectly into the school of slow and theoretically boring movies that turn out to be exciting and hypnotic through their slowness and lack of action I tend to swoon over in the realm of the cheap and the shoddy, I can't help but at least mention that fact. The difference between these schools is just that where Le Samourai reaches the point of excitement through minimal action by conscious design, your typical US local indie horror of the past reached it through disinterest, lack of talent or sheer luck. The outcome is pretty much the same, though. And so there truly is not much difference between arthouse and grindhouse at all.

The Endurance (2000): This documentary about Ernest Shackleton's failed Antarctic expedition impressed me as much as it annoyed me. There's obviously an impressive amount of research behind the film. Photographs, the expedition's own film material, and newly shot footage combine into something that's often visually magical, but for my tastes, the film too often becomes a hagiography for Shackleton whose every flaw is excused as belonging to "a great man", while the flaws of the equally heroic men around him are treated without any benefit of the doubt. History's obviously still made by great men and the backs of those they were standing on.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Kill (2008)

Original title: Kiru

This Mamoru Oshii produced and financed omnibus movie contains four unconnected shorts by four directors.

The first one is called "Kilico" and directed by Takanori Tsujimoto (him of the pretty swell Hard Revenge Milly movies). Professional assassin Kilina (Miki Mizuno - Milly herself) has had some sort of falling out with her boss, who reacts by kidnapping her sailor suit school uniform wearing sister Kilico (Ayaka Morita). Kilina comes to the rescue, but both she and her sister end up horribly wounded and are left for dead by their enemies. Some friendly (or is he?) mad scientist makes the best out of a problematic situation and puts Kilina's brain in Kilico's body - probably to create the ultimate in sword-swinging schoolgirls.

Not surprisingly, the still quite lethal Kilina goes back to her boss to take her vengeance on him for the murder of her sister, but that's more difficult than you'd expect in a brain-swapping world.

I'm still quite impressed by director Tsujimoto's ability to get quite a bit of entertainment value out of some properly good fighting even though it takes place in the usual drab corridors, car parking lots and warehouse locations his generation of Japanese exploitation filmmakers has to work with. "Kilico" is no great shakes, but it has verve and a certain amount of style. Furthermore, Tsujimoto has obvious fun with the small amount of (very Japanese) freakishness his (even smaller) small budget allows, which is just the sort of thing to make me happy.

The second short film is called "Kodomo-Zamurai" and directed by Kinji Fukasaku's son Kenta, who is something of a hit-or-miss director with me. In this case, it's more of a hit. 6th grader Ryutaro is the earnest modern heir of a samurai clan but has - to the dismay of his family - sworn never to draw his sword. That's a promise no child can keep when an evil bully terrorizes his new school, his love interest, his comical sidekick and his little sister, so carnage ensues. The whole story is told in form of a silent movie, complete with a fake 1920s film look, and narrated (after all, that's how Japanese silent movies were shown in their time, being not all that silent) by Vanilla Yamazaki. Yamazaki is really pretty fantastic, with comical timing and an enthusiasm so great it's even obvious to a non-speaker of Japanese like me.

Fukasaku has quite a bit of fun playing with the form, using it to produce merry twenty minutes of children doing - on paper - terrible things to each other and make fun of films earnestly praising the samurai ethos.

After these fine efforts by Tsujimoto and Fukasaku, Kill gets dragged down by the last two parts.

In Minoru Tahara's (of whom I know nothing at all) "Zan-Gun", an evil sword possesses a soldier and merges with his gun into a sword-gun/gun-sword with which he becomes a successful serial killer. Another guy becomes possessed by the sword's arch enemy dagger, so they fight until one of them wins. The end. Yeah, well, this is basically one barely decent fight scene (in a drab corridor) that doesn't evoke any reaction beyond a shrug in me.

Last and possibly least is Mamoru Oshii's own entry, "Assault Girl 2". A nameless woman with a sword (Yoko Fujita) sits in a field, looks at the sky, and then looks at the sky some more. The camera stares at her face (understandable but not exciting) and shows some metaphorically loaded animals. Then our heroine stands up, slices a tank in two and fights another, SM chic-wearing woman (Rinko Kikuchi). Both grow wings and fly away. The end. As much as I love and admire Oshii's anime work (and I really do), all of his live action work I've ever encountered has rubbed me completely the wrong way.

The pacing drags, what is supposed to be beautiful and symbolic is mostly kitschy and Oshii's metaphors are about as subtle and ambiguous as sledgehammers. Especially the latter is always a bit of a surprise to me - Oshii's anime do after all show an artist quite capable of doing complex and ambiguous work instead of hollow pretentiousness. On the positive side, Oshii does at least include pretty women doing violence in everything he does.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

In short: Spawn Of The Slithis (1978)

Venice Beach is mildly disturbed by what begins as a series of pet mutilations, but soon enough turns into a series of murders of homeless and other people of little public interest. The police is hard on the case, though, and has decided the deeds are being committed by cult in sacrificial rites - the fact that there's nothing ritual about the killings at all notwithstanding.

Frustrated high school teacher and would-be journalist Wayne Connors (Alan Blanchard) has other ideas, and starts an investigation of his own. Eventually, Wayne finds evidence that points at quite a different cause for the killings: a leak in the local nuclear power plant has turned mud into a mutation-inducing substance called slithis, which in turn - or so Wayne and his scientist buddy Dr. John (alas, not Mac Rebennack, but a certain J.C. Claire) speculate - has mutated some animal or other into a big fat rubber suit monster that now goes around slaughtering whoever it meets.

After more running around and investigating, and a failed attempt at convincing the hysterical chief of police (Hy Pyke) of the monster's existence, Wayne, his more sceptical wife Jeff (Judy Motulsky), black boat owner Chris (Mello Alexandria) and Dr. John decide they must take care of the creature themselves.

Director/producer/writer Stephen Traxler's plan when making Spawn of the Slithis was obviously to make a movie just like a classic 50s rubber suit monster film, just with a bit of nudity and a bit more blood on screen. Some people might doubt the part of the plan that made Traxler copy only the worst aspects of the worst of the 50s monster movies and cross them with a lot of anti-tourism of Venice Beach, but what do these people of little faith know?

When Traxler's film is not actively trying to bore its audience to death with many and various scenes of Wayne (a protagonist more wooden and boring, yet also much less square-jawed and gruffly-voiced than his 50s colleagues) wandering around Venice Beach, poking around, trying to get information out of homeless people and alcoholics without paying them for it, or its utter inability to let scenes end, it delights the open-minded with various aspects of excellence.

I found myself especially enamoured with the following things of beauty: Hy Pyke's packing of an hour's worth of overacting into one single short scene of superhuman scenery-shredding of the most gob-smacking kind! A monster suit that makes the poor monster look fat! Bursts of dialogue that nearly reach the illogical heights of dialogue written by Ed Wood himself (and I'm not just saying that like one of those guys who knows no other "bad" films than Plan 9)! The film's tendency to drift off into peculiar and improbable directions at a moments notice, leading the unsuspecting viewer to witness unheard of wonders like a turtle race! A monster that seems to have something of a breast fixation!

All these wonderful things don't change the simple fact that much of Spawn of the Slithis can be painfully slow and boring and somewhat dull for people not interested in seeing the most horrible parts of Venice Beach, but these small matters have never interfered with my enjoyment of movies that mostly seem to exist to publicize their creators' quirks and interests and show us the place they lived as seen through the lens of a cheap and bad monster movie.


Friday, June 10, 2011

On WTF: The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

aka The Spiritualist

If you ask me, the phony psychic genre is the cause of some of the laziest writing, and some of the most annoying films ever produced. So it came as quite a surprise to me to find The Amazing Mr. X to be a pretty intelligently written and very well-made movie. It's as if everyone involved felt respect for their audience!

Of course, this being a Friday, I'm going to tell you more about the film on WTF-Film.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

In short: Prowl (2010)

Late teen Amber (Courtney Hope) is desperate to leave her dead-end small town, her alcoholic mother and her all-around shitty prospects behind. It's the last straw for her when her mother - of course mumbling in alcoholic stupor - confesses to her that she's been adopted.

Amber even has already found an apartment in Chicago. The problem is, she needs to give her security deposit to the guy renting her the apartment in person, because…um…there are no banks in the USA? Anyway, for various reasons, she has to ask every single one of her small-town friends for a ride. It takes some time to find someone to take her, but at that point, the whole affair has turned into a road trip - for some reason that, again, eludes me.

This being a horror movie, Amber has had quite a few foreshadowing nightmares and visions these last few days (which also make the third act twist glaringly obvious), so it comes as no surprise when the road trippers' van breaks down in the middle of a very empty Interstate. Fortunately, and after some begging, there's a friendly truck driver bound for Chicago willing to help them out. Alas, this still being a horror film, the friendly trucker is in truth the food delivery man of Chicago's vampire orphans, and unloads the teens in the obligatory empty warehouse. Empty, except for a horde of loud and fast vampires, that is. Fight for survival, and etc. and so on.

Despite plotting that takes two steps towards the painfully stupid, the difficult to believe and the clichéd, only to take one step back again, Prowl is a pretty entertaining little film. I just hope you missed our old standards of idiot plotting - the drunken truth or dare game that nearly leads to mock-lesbian shenanigans and the cell phone that doesn't function when it's used to call help, but works perfectly fine to betray a victim's hiding place to hungry vampires, because they, and a few of their friends, are out trying to bury the film in the same annoying crap that already didn't work in the last hundred films that used it.

It's actually a bit of a surprise how decidedly not terrible a film this full of badly digested dumbness can still be once its director - Norwegian Patrik Syversen gone Hollywood, in this case - lets loose with some very traditional, but also very tightly done, action-y horror scenes. It's surely no masterpiece, but Syversen manages to turn a miserable script into a watchable movie through a fine sense for pacing and a solid handling of old-fashioned suspense techniques colliding with wobbly camera and loud, loud noises.

Courtney Hope is pretty good too, acting with an easy-going charisma that helps the film over some very rough scripting patches (if having plot holes the size of cities and a horrible love for everything that's bad about horror can still be called "a rough patch"). In the film's better moments, Syversen and Hope could nearly convince me that Prowl (a film, by the way, not containing a single second of prowling) is actually sort of good.

Just imagine what would happen when someone would write Syversen a better script for his next outing.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Season of the Witch (2011)

Not to be confused with George A. Romero's Season of the Witch, but then, you wouldn't.

It's the 14th century. After having slaughtered the pope's infidel of the day for a few years, crusaders Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) have become a bit disillusioned by their work. Especially Behmen is quite nicely on his way to being a heretic, what with his doubting the Church's ability to speak for the will of their God.

Behmen is so disgusted by the state of affairs that he and Felson not just desert from the crusades (which, historically speaking, was their right after forty days of service, but, you know, Hollywood), but also manage to piss off the Pope himself before they do.

Obviously, the pair try to stay incognito once they've returned to Europe. Life at home hasn't improved during the crusaders' absence, for the plague has arrived and is killing off people left and right.

Worrying about dying from a horrible death might just be an academic question for our protagonists, though. They're recognized as deserters in the first city they enter, and could probably look forward to a nice execution, if the plague-sick cardinal of the place (self-important horror icon Christopher Lee) did not have need for their services. The Church, you see, is convinced the plague has been caused by a single witch (Claire Foy) they just caught and can be stopped through a ritual that can only be performed by monks living in a monastery about 300 miles away. Because the plague has somewhat reduced the numbers of able-bodied men, the cardinal would very much like Behmen and Felson to help transport the girl to where she belongs. Only after a night in jail and a meeting with the supposed witch that convinces Behmen she looks somewhat innocent to him, does he agree to do the Church's work again, yet only if the girl will be guaranteed a fair trial.

Now Behmen, Felson and a small band of man (first guy to die, priest, young man who wants to become a knight, and rogue-ish guide, you know the deal) will only have to survive travelling through places with charming names like "Wormwood". Surely, no additional trouble will await them at their destination.

Season of the Witch looks like a bit of a dubious candidate for the critical mauling it has received to me. Sure, the film's historical accuracy leaves a lot to be desired, but I somehow doubt that a film full of witches, demons and zombie monks is in any way or form meant to be historically truthful. In fact, it's the sort of historical pulp fantasy that treats all elements of medieval beliefs - or to be more precise, its own very contemporary interpretation of what these beliefs were - as if they were true, giving itself a fine grab bag of supernatural fun to work with. None of the film's ideas about the supernatural, nor the way it treats Behmen's crisis of faith, are in any way, shape or form original or even just a bit clever. They are, however, the perfect basis for an adventure movie full of decently done genre standard scenes (though I was disappointed by the lack of a bandit attack), and the usual clichéd character work any Hollywood writer can probably do in their sleep. This surely is not a film to set new intellectual standards, but compared to the Steven Somers school of dumbness in pulp adventure, Bragi Schut's script is perfectly fine - possibly even coherent.

The film's director Dominic Sena (remember when he had only made a few music videos and the decent Kalifornia, and still was a talent to watch?) does not exactly present his audience with visual brilliance. He's comparatively point-and-shoot-y for a contemporary mainstream director. This directorial style is, however, a pleasant reprieve from the world of bad slo-mo, whoosh-cutting, and obfuscating staging many of his colleagues inhabit. Only some of the CGI sequences could have used a bit of that kind of obfuscation for my tastes - the initial battle sequences are looking especially phony.

It's also nice to see Nicolas Cage slightly back on track again in that he doesn't overact every darn second of the film as if he had to use up Bela Lugosi's and Sharukh Khan's combined scenery-chewing reservoir in every single scene he does. I'd even suggest some of Cage's acting here has nuances. Obviously, I always love Ron Perlman.

Now, I'm pretty sure somebody like Neil Marshall could have taken the same basic ideas and made a much better, and more exciting film out of them, yet if there's one thing the still very small but growing movie genre of historical neo-pulp fantasy truly needs, then it's movies like Season of the Witch that are neither unwatchable shite nor awesome, but the entertaining middle-ground a genre needs to thrive.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Rise of M.O.S.S.


There might be some truth to the rumour I am a member of M.O.S.S., the Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit.

That band of charming rogues is a loose association of various beautiful and talented pop and anti-pop culture blogs and podcasts. Right now, you can find out about our adventures on Twitter and the place of eternal horrors known as The Book ov Faces.

Known co-members (and therefore highly recommended places to visit) are:

Beth Loves Bollywood
The Cultural Gutter
Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill!
Fist of B-List
The Greatest Movie Ever
Memsaab Story
Million Monkey Theater
Monster Island Resort
Permission to Kill
Tars Tarkas
Teleport City
WtF Film


In short: Ghost Eyes (1974)

When Hong Kong beauty salon employee Bao-Ling (Chan Si-Gaai) gets a pair of contact lenses from a seemingly friendly optometrist in a sharp suit (Si Wai), weird things begin to happen to her. Bao-Ling starts to see ghosts, but that's the least of her problems. The optometrist visits Bao-Ling quite regularly and uses mysterious mind-control powers that just might have something to do with the contact lenses to get her to sleep with him, leaving her behind in various haunted and unpleasant places afterwards. Our heroine becomes pale and drained, just as if the contact lens guy were sucking out her energies.

Which is exactly what is happening to her. Bao-Ling's enemy is a possessed corpse out to drink up as much of her life force as possible. Once he's had his fill of Bao-Ling, the mightily unpleasant ghost compels the young woman to provide him with some of her beauty salon colleagues for further life force sucking.

Bao-Ling's only help with her situation is her friend An-Pin (Lam Wai-Tiu), but it takes quite some time until he believes her stories about dead men walking around and magical contact lenses. And even then, the best of intentions and a Taoist priest might not be enough to save Bao-Ling.

Ghost Eyes is a Shaw Brothers production directed by exploitation and horror specialist Gwai Chi-Hung who would go on to make films like Killer Snakes and The Boxer's Omen for the studio. Defying the expectations one might have of a director like him, Gwai's film is neither very explicit in its sleaze (even the sex is mostly implied), nor does it make use of many gross-out effects, nor is it completely ridiculous. As if to make up for this decided lack in obvious thrills, Gwai provides his film with a visual surface that is glossy and intensely coloured like a comic (or a giallo), and a narrative tone as high-strung as a horror manga by Kazuo Umezu that permanently threatens to spill over into the outright hysteria of the films shock sequences.

Gwai quite admirably keeps control of this tone of a panic barely held in check for the movie's full 100 minute running time, making up for the film's weaknesses like the silliness of the whole contact lens thing or the less than ideal ghost make-up that looks a bit as if the wearer had tried to drown himself in pea soup.

Watching Ghost Eyes, I couldn't shake the idea its director was trying to explore the point where the - traditionally female coded (even if it's not true) - melodrama, and the - traditionally male coded (even if it's not true) - horror genre meet, interpreting both genres as closely related parts of a cinema of intensity that makes them much more similar to each other than many fans of the respective genre might care to admit. I hardly think it is an accident Ghost Eyes' basic plot is that of a melodrama: woman meets man, feels drawn to him, man ruins her life and social standing.

It's also pretty interesting to add how uncommon it is for a Chinese/Hong Kong movie to have the sexually life force sucking monster be a man. That's a role usually filled by women (add your own thoughts about this motive as expression of male fear of female sexuality here please), and therefore one a film like this can't help but bend.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Un Angelo Per Satana (1966)

Warning: I'm going to spoil the film's rather annoying ending, for that's what you deserve when your movie uses that particular trope.

Some time during the 19th century. Sculptor Roberto Merigi (Anthony Steffen) has been invited by the Conte Montebruno (Claudio Gora) to a small village by the side of a lake to restore a statue that had lain on the lake's ground for a few hundred years before the Conte decided to bring it back on land again. The villagers are not impressed by the idea, fearing a curse laying upon the statue, but, being the modern men they are, neither the Conte nor Roberto are afraid of magic.

The start of Merigi's work on the statue marks the beginning of interesting times for the village. At the same time, the Conte's niece Harriet (Barbara Steele) is returning from her education in England to take possession of the estate that her uncle has been managing for her until now. To Roberto's fascination, Harriet looks quite a lot like the woman who must have modelled for the statue. Intrigued, the young artist asks Harriet to now model for him to make the restoration easier, a proposal to which the young woman agrees. Of course, the two fall in swooning, melodramatic love.

But all is not well: a woman's voice calls Roberto into the attic one night, and there exposits the nature of the curse the villagers fear to him. The voice claims to belong to a certain Belinda, who was the ugly rival of Harriet's facial ancestor, and caused various fatal occurrences in the village as well as the death of that ancestor. Now, Belinda has returned to begin her work of evil again.

And soon enough, Harriet begins to act strange, as if she were possessed by Belinda. She sado-masochistically messes with the minds of various male villagers, confuses the easily confused Roberto and seems to be set on a path of destruction of all love and happiness around her.

But not all is as it seems.

And it's exactly here that the film's problem lies. Up until the final thirty minutes, Un Angelo Per Satana is a minor, yet interesting Gothic horror film, directed by Camillo Mastrocinque - a veteran quite at the end of his career as a director - not with the mastery of mood or the stylistic flourishes of a Mario Bava, but a clear, professional assuredness that knows what's best about the film - Barbara Steele and the various heatedly sexual over- and undertones - and milks it for all that it's worth. Steele is - as always in roles like this - utterly convincing as the innocent Harriet as well as the ruthless and dominant Belinda. In the latter case, the actress projects an astonishing amount of negatively loaded sexual energy, making the grotesque and melodramatic emotional carnage she causes in men look nearly believable. Given how overwritten the script in this respect is, that's even more of an achievement.

What the film's script lacks is subtlety. As much as I enjoy thickly laid on sadism and masochism in my gothic horror movies, and as convincing as Steele is, it's still a little too much to ask from me to believable that five minutes with her will turn a loving family father into a raving family killer, or the local harmless loon into a budding serial killer; emotionally, the film is all turned up to eleven where a nine or ten from time to time would have been more convincing.

For a time, it's easy enough to explain the extremity of Steele's effect on men with the supernatural agency of Belinda, but once the film decides to have a "natural explanation" for everything that's happening, this excuse falls through and leaves a film full of people emotionally so strained that it's hard to believe they'd be able to cook a meal without having some sort of violent fit or trying to have sex with their soup bowls. Our romantic lead Anthony Steffen is the exception here, because he's in his fullest "piece of wood" mode and doesn't seem to know a single feeling well enough to show it.

I might have mentioned my hatred for the "natural explanation" ending in horror movies ten or twelve times in the past, but here's the problem in a nutshell: once you have built up the supernatural in a movie so that it becomes believable for your audience, it has become the baseline reality of your movie's world for a viewer, and changing that baseline back again to some stuff about hypnotism and legacy-hunting after an hour of running time is admitting you lied to your audience for the whole film without signalling the presence of an unreliable narrator; it's a betrayal of audience trust for a cheap gimmick, and so hardly ever worth it.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

In short: Bride of Deimos - The Orchid Suite (1988)

Japanese teen Minako is the chosen bride of the demon Deimos, who either needs her, as the earthly incarnation of his sister/lover Venus, to host Venus' soul to help her escape from the underworld, or to just become Venus' replacement by his side. But it looks like Deimos can't just take Minako, and the girl's not that stupid to just go to the underworld with him even though he's the hottest demon alive, so he's hanging around her, being sinister and sarcastic.

Ever since Minako has met Deimos, she has developed a tendency to stumble into melodramatic horror stories. This time around, Minako follows the trace of a disappeared class mate to a brother and sister pair of orchid growers. Not surprisingly, the pair use a very special ingredient to let their orchids grow, and isn't too keen on snoops. Fortunately for her health, Minako has quite an effect on dramatic young men like the male half of the duo.

This short OVA by Rintaro is the only anime based on Etsuko Ikeda's popular (and pretty great, as far as the translations go) shoujo horror manga Bride of Deimos. Unfortunately Deimos belongs to that part of the OVA tradition that treats anime exclusively as a supplement to its respective manga original. So the movie does not feel the need to explain what's going on between Deimos and Minako apart from a vague introduction taking place in the underworld. It's just a random chapter from the manga made anime, and if you don't know the manga, you're just a bit out of luck.

At least Bride of Deimos (the manga) is a series with a highly episodic structure, so if you're just ignoring all the Deimos stuff, you end up with a pretty solid piece of melodramatic horror made by a guy who has as little problems going all-out with the shoujo-typical romanticism as he had with the ultra-macho antics of Space Pirate Cobra whose TV show he lead-directed.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: Monsters walk the Earth in a ravishing rampage of clawing fury!

Watchmen (Ultimate Cut) (2009): I know, as a good little nerd I'm bound by law to hate Zack Snyder and everything he has ever done with an intensity sane people reserve for guys who eat babies, or are Hitler, but I just don't. In fact, I think Snyder's highly artificial and operatic version of Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen ain't half bad. Often, the film nearly manages to reach the heights its aiming for with its choice of source, at other times, it gets bogged down in slight bloat or is trying to stay so close to surface elements of the comic that it's veering into the territory of the unintentionally comical, but the latter does come with a territory as inherently ridiculous as the superhero genre (that I love just as much as Snyder seems to do).

In other words, I think Watchmen is a perfectly fine film.


I.K.U. (2000): Taiwanese-American arthouse director Shu Lea Cheang made this hard softcore low budget movie in Japan with a predominantly Japanese cast and crew, and it's pretty much like an outsider's dream of what a Japanese cyber-porn movie would look like. There is some sort of story about a sex-data collecting android called Reiko in there, but Cheang seems more interested in burying it under every cheap visual trick you can afford when you're producing your movie digitally. The whole film works inside of the stylistic parameters of Japanese low-budget cyberpunk films like Tetsuo, just with sex taking the place of the violence, and gender- and sexual fluidity that of less precisely located bodily transformations. Like its predecessors, it'll either give you a headache from exposure to too much visual and audial information in too little time, or make you quite happy in its own psychedelic way.


Drive Angry (2011): Well, depending on your preferences, this charming little ditty about Nic Cage crawling from hell to save his baby granddaughter and driving, angry, is either the End of Western Civilization made film or an adorable attempt at making a movie that is exactly like an old grindhouse film without even a hint of the intelligence other lovers of the form like Rodriguez and Tarantino apply to it.

Being who I am, I'm obviously pretty alright with both interpretations. What's not to love about a film featuring Nicolas Cage grimacing and mumbling, Amber Heard perfectly emulating all the sexy good-naturedness of 70s exploitation heroines who deserved better than their filmic surroundings gave them, William Fichtner doing his best Christopher Walken impression, random nudity, horrible jokes, and a bit of the old ultra violence set to generic rock music?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ursus - The Terror of the Kirghiz (1964)

Original title: Ursus, il terrore dei kirghisi

aka Hercules, Prisoner of Evil

After the death of the great Khan (that must have been a few years ago, it seems) pressures rise in a city state and its surroundings. It's not too surprising that problems arise, for while the city itself is under the domain of the Kirghiz and their prince regent, the evil Zereteli (Furio Meniconi), at least until the Khan's daughter Amiko (Mireille Granelli) will come of age, the surrounding areas belong to the tribe of the heroic, shirt-despising Ursus (Reg Park).

The trouble between the two tribes intensifies when a human-sized, but very hairy monster that also despises shirts but loves capes, begins a nightly reign of terror, killing people wherever it can find them. For some strange reason, it never touches members of Ursus's tribe, though, and all of the hero's attempts at catching it - or even seeing it - come to naught.

Zereteli knows a useful political lever when he sees it, and so decides that the monster is a perfect excuse to start a little civil war and get rid of Ursus forever. After that, it's just a case of marrying Amiko, and he'll be set for life.

Alas, what our bad guy doesn't know is that Amiko and Ursus have had secret lovers' trysts in a hidden cave for months now, and their love just might become a problem for Zereteli's marriage plans.

Zereteli's not the only one not having the full picture of the situation, though, and only with the return of Ursus's much cleverer brother Ilo (Ettore Manni) will various lies and spoileriffic and/or obvious secrets like the identity and use of the monster be unravelled.

House favourite Antonio Margheriti's Ursus - Terror of the Kirghiz is quite an atypical entry into the wild, wild world of the peplum, beginning with the small yet surprising fact that its Ursus isn't exactly much of a hero beyond his awesome ability to not wear shirts and roll around a rock or two. It's not just that he isn't very clever - that's not too surprising for a hero in a peplum - but that he doesn't actually do much to resolve the problems at hand, and even spends about half of the movie unconscious. The main work of the film's protagonist falls to Ettore Mani's Ilo, who does all the thinking, planning, understanding, and problem solving while Ursus sleeps, is manipulated or does nothing of use. Even in the end, when most peplum heroes would be allowed to, you know, do something heroic, the nominal hero of this film doesn't know what was actually going on around him, and does little to resolve the situation. Ilo's not even going to tell him what the situation actually was, to help Ursus sleep at night in the future.

Alas, as great as this overturning of the usual rules of heroism in the peplum sounds on paper, the film's execution makes it more interesting than entertaining. Structurally, the film is set up more like a mystery than a normal peplum. Unfortunately, it is the sort of mystery in which the heroes are utterly confused by the obvious and only solve the central crime after the audience has understood what's going on for over an hour. This not only drags the film's pace down quite a bit, but it also makes it difficult not to lose one's patience with its heroes. It's a bit of a shame too, because the mystery's solution could have been quite riveting and touching on a philosophical darkness the peplum genre not usually bothers with, if it had been handled more succinctly and with a greater emphasis on how horrible the truth actually is. There is much of interest Margheriti could have explored here without departing much more from the genre rules of the peplum than he already did, but as it stands, he's not taking the less typical aspects of the movie far enough; with the consequent use of Ilo's role as that of the film's backdoor hero being the one exception.

On the more positive side, the film is decently acted, has a plot that's a bit more complex than typical, is really nice to look at, and has pretty okay action scenes. I don't think that's enough to make up for the film's wasted potential to make it more than just decent, it is however more than enough to make it worth watching at least once.