Friday, September 30, 2011

On WTF: The Dead Don't Die (1975) & A Small Announcement

Curtis Harrington had a hell of a strange career. Starting out as a peculiar and artful B-movie auteur, he somehow found his way to the feeding troughs of television where he first made just as peculiar and artful TV movies, and then went to waste directing routine TV shows in a routine fashion.

The Dead Don't Die is one of these artful and peculiar TV movies, though, and comes highly recommended to anyone with a place in her heart for Val Lewton's RKO productions, film noir and Douglas Sirk. Today being Friday, there's more about the film in my write-up on WTF-Film.

And because Monday's my birthday, and ancient evils party for strange aeons, this is the last you'll read from me until Wednesday.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

In short: Attack The Block (2011)

Distracted from their mugging of nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) by an alien falling from the sky, the group of friends around Moses (John Boyega) decide to slaughter the ugly little thing, and drag it into the council estate they - and, as will later turn out, Sam - live in, in hope for that elusive internet fame.

The thing the kids killed was only the first part of something of an invasion. Soon, there's a whole bunch of additional creatures falling from the skies, all black fur, glow-in-the-dark-teeth and gorilla-dog demeanour. The creatures seem to concentrate a bit on the kids' block.

During their attempts to fight and flee the aliens, the kids will also have to survive the tender mercies of the police, the ire of the block's drug kingpin Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), who does not understand the concept known as "a misunderstanding", and team up with the woman they mugged at the beginning of the evening. There might be time for blood, unexpected heroism, and changes of heart before the night's through and the minor alien incursion can be fought off.

Watching Joe Cornish's Attack The Block did once again drive home what's for my taste missing from a lot - though certainly not all - of contemporary low budget movies - a willingness to not only go through the motions of genre cinema but to mix the generic and therefore expected parts with a contemporary reality, possibly even that reality lying outside the experience of white rich Americans.

Consequently, Attack The Block wins major points with me by having a group of poor, mostly black teenage soon-to-be-real-full-time-criminals as its protagonists, and, while never pretending that mugging people and working up to worse stuff is harmless or loveable, still treating them like actual human beings with pasts and futures and hopes and reasons for doing what they do, but without going into the poverty porn direction of looking down at them mumbling "oh, the humanity!". That's called not looking away from complexities where I come from.

Of course, using actual social complexities as the background and thematic underpinning of your SF horror comedy (the latter part often oh so very dry, by the way) does not necessary make it good as a SF horror comedy.

Fortunately, Cornish's got his audience's back there, too, and does not walk into the traps I would have expected him to walk in. There's nothing of that "aliens as a metaphor" crap here - a black gorilla-like alien with green glow-in-the-dark teeth out to kill you in this movie isn't a metaphor for the police state or the characters' mothers but is primarily a black gorilla-like alien with green glow-in-the-dark teeth, and therefore something that makes an excellent basis for a surprisingly ruthless (I absolutely can't see this one being made in Hollywood without getting a major re-write in the direction of the dishonest and and the mawkish), well-paced and unassumingly clever film in the best low budget traditions like this.

To make a pretty great film even better, the film's handling of its "change of hearts/characters learn a valuable lesson" parts is highly effective and far away from the sentimentality these scenes could have devolved into. Especially in these (dangerous) scenes, the young actors do some very effective and economical work that fits Cornish's unsentimental yet sympathetic treatment of their characters perfectly.

Attack the Block could have been a gimmick film on the level of garbage like Leprechaun In Da Hood, but it turns out to be my favourite kind of film: a B-movie that's as clever as it is entertaining.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

In short: Head (2011)

(Not the one with the Monkees)

Original title: He-deu

World famous South Korean scientist Professor Kim (Oh Dal-soo) is dead. Someone with a quite peculiar sense of humour steals the poor guy's head while the corpse is transported to the funeral home and replaces it with a watermelon.

Kim's head reappears in a package bike courier Sin Hong-je (Ryoo Deok-hwan) is transporting. A near-collision with what will (ironically) later turn out to be the main instigator of the great head robbery of '11 - Professor Oh (also Oh Dal-Soo) - opens the package and leaves Hong-je in a panic. The young man makes his way back to his company office where he encounters his very dead looking boss and a murderous mortician (Baek Yoon-sik) who really really wants that head, and will do anything to get it, including murdering innocent bike couriers.

Hong-je escapes the mortician for long enough to hide the head. When the mortician eventually catches the courier, he takes it as his best bet to kidnap Hong-je and either torture the head's hiding place out of him or use him as a hostage against whoever has the ruddy thing now.

That "whoever" will eventually be Hong-je's sister, the disgraced TV journalist Hong Joo (Park Ye-jin). Hong Joo's not a woman to be trifled with and will snark, scream, shout, and cry her way through an astonishing assortment of freaks - a dangerous Christian cleric using his homes for the elderly as a repository for illegal organ trade and his elderly as useful shock troops, a corrupt cop, etc. - until she not only has her brother back but in the process broken a career making story. Hooray for the power of the free press.

Head is the directorial debut of South Korean Cho Un, and it sits smack dab in the middle of the peculiar mix of black comedy and thriller South Korean (and Japanese) cinema loves so well, where skewed characters with a bit more depth than one is used to from most Western comedies fight through slightly absurd situations that are presented with the straightest of faces.

There is one thing a comedy of this type needs to do right to be effective instead of just a random assortment of scenes of dry zaniness. If you ask me, that most important thing for a film like Head is to know when to stop making another joke. There's nothing worse than a black comedy that doesn't know when to stop with its diversions into random directions and sacrifices its comical flow to stuff more ideas in than it can carry. For the most part, Cho Un does know what he does in this respect. The film's beginning might jump around a bit too much - rather like a nervous race dog before the starting shot - but once it gets going, it's as tight as it is drily silly.

This tightness is particular important in a film that is not only a black comedy but also a chase thriller that may play its violence and action for laughs to a degree yet also wants to keep up an amount of excitement appropriate for the thriller genre.

So Head has the basics of what it's supposed to do down pat. Unfortunately it doesn't do much that's particularly original, emotionally involving, or plain bizarre with them, keeping with tried and true jokes about nerdy sociopaths, family loving killers that have been just the decisive bit funnier in other movies that came before, and the usual "aw, shucks, our heroine really loves her family" sentimentality. It all adds up to a movie that's technically very proficient and an all around solid good time, but not more.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Yog: Monster From Space (1970)

Original title: Gezora, Ganime, Kameba: Kessen! Nankai no daikaiju

aka Space Amoeba

A space probe that was supposed to travel to Jupiter is taken over by a blue glittery space creature. Yog, as the Japanese version of the film never calls it, turns the space probe right back to Earth, where it crashes into the ocean near a very idyllic tropical island. Somehow, nobody realizes that the probe returned to Earth (I blame budget cuts) except for the photographer Kudo (Akira Kubo), who just happened to look out of an airplane window at just the right moment. Because Kubo didn't make a photo, nobody at his newspaper believes his story.

While Kudo's angrily planning to return to the place where he witnessed the crash and make underwater photographs of the probe, he is approached by Ayako Hoshino (Atsuko Takahashi). Ayako works for a company that is trying to turn a tropical island - including a full set of authentic, Japanese-adoring "natives" who still love the Japanese from when they used the island as a military base during World War II(!) - into a tourist resort. For some reason, the company thinks Kubo would be just the right guy to go on a little photo expedition there for them. The photographer declines at first, but when it turns out that the island in question just happens to be situated right where he saw the probe crash down, and the expedition just happens to include the biologist Doctor Mida (Yoshio Tsuchiya) who just happens to be an old friend of Kudo's, the awesome power of ridiculously overused random chance in the script convinces him otherwise. Oh, and Mida has a vague theory about the island being the home of monsters.

For my tastes, the so-called "expedition" is a bit short on members, what with it consisting of Mida, Kudo and Ayako (whose job will be to scream when she sees a turtle, scream some more, cry, stumble at inopportune moments and cry while holding an emotional speech about the human spirit). The trio gets rather unpleasant reinforcement in form of the anthropologist Obata (Kenji Sahara) who is on his way to investigate the culture of the "natives" on that very same island. I'm sure his wearing of a white suit, a goatee and tinted glasses, as well as his propensity to smoke, do not hint at him being lying about a few things.

Once on the island, our heroes stumble into a dangerous situation. One of the two company men stationed there has been killed by a giant squid with the curious habit of walking on land. On its tentacles.

Of course, one monster attack is not enough, so the squid thing - Gezora for its friends - will continue its entertaining/horrible work, until the united expeditionary forces of three and the "natives" can do away with it. But even then the ordeal isn't over, for the strange blue glittery space creature turns out to be the responsible party for the monster rampage that's only the first stage in some sort of vague invasion plan and just takes over other innocent animals - first an adorable giant grab (aka Ganime), then an equally adorable turtle (Kameba, not Gamera, you hear). Only excellently ridiculous science, the power of rubber bats and the indomitable human spirit that rests even in the breasts of goatee-wearers can save humanity now!

Yog is another of the less loved movies of the great Ishiro Honda, which comes as not much of a surprise given how very, very silly it is. If you only like Honda when he's in full-on serious humanist mode - but with monsters, Yog will be like silver bullets unto a werewolf for you. That's not to say that Honda isn't - at least in general - walking the philosophical walk he always did in his career, it's just that he demonstrates his humanist ideals with the cartoony broadness that is the whole of Yog's tone. That broadness makes some of the usual problems with Honda's films more visible. The "natives", for example, are just as problematically drawn here as they were in other Honda films like Varan, and Ayako is the sort of female character that has been annoying friends of genre cinema since the 1920s. Of course, neither the treatment of the "natives" nor that of Ayako is in any way or form mean-spirited, and is generally more benign than that in many contemporary films from Japan or the world, but rather seems to show Honda or his scriptwriter Ei Ogawa falling back on secure genre tropes instead of thinking their philosophical ideals through to their logical end point.

I'm honestly not sure if this particular film could even have survived a more dignified treatment of women and racially undefined islanders, because it, quite unlike most other films made by Honda, does seem to be constructed to be a manga-like monster movie first, and anything else forty-second. Once I managed to recalibrate my expectations accordingly, I began to be able to enjoy the whole affair. There's an air of relaxed silliness hanging over much of the film that's impossible to resist for the likes of me, with Honda and his experienced crew for once just leaving their ambitions behind and making a movie that could - apart from a handful of timely elements - have been made any time between the 1930s and the 1980s, and having a bit of fun.

I, for one, am pretty helpless against a film that features a squid using its tentacles like legs, characters who discuss earnestly how there must be a way to defeat the squid because "it's only a monster", Kenji Sahara mugging and eye-rolling for all he is worth (that is, a lot), weaponized rubber bats, and monsters rampaging through grass huts instead of Tokyo. It's not Mothra (not to speak of Gojira), but it sure is fun.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Das Wirtshaus von Dartmoor (1964)

aka The Inn On Dartmoor

Scotland Yard is confused by a series of twelve well-organized break-outs from Dartmoor Prison. It's not as if the prison has been completely without incidents like these in the past, but these earlier escapees have always been found quickly, often even before they could find their way out of the moors surrounding the place. The only trace the last twelve escapees have left is a single postcard with the text "Arrived safely" for one family member by each and every single one of them.

Inspector Cromwell (Paul Klinger) has its own theory what this strange business means. The policeman thinks that the twelve men are all dead by now, killed by an organization supposedly out to rescue them. Cromwell even has an idea which organization that might be - "Butterfly", openly a kind of legal costs insurance for members of the underworld. Butterfly's boss, the lawyer Gray (Dieter Eppler), does at least seem to have more than just one secret.

Cromwell isn't the only one looking for the escaped men. Australian Tony Nash (Heinz Drache) has a very personal interest in the last of the twelve escapees, in that he wants to either kiss or kill him for past sins. Both men's investigations independently point at Gray and at the Inn of former Dartmoor super-guard Mr. Simmons (Friedrich Joloff), who just might have secrets of his own.

After some time of working at odds with each other, Cromwell and Nash decide to put their heads together. Still, this isn't an easy case to crack, for someone working through the inn's waitress, local femme fatale Evelyn (Ingmar Zeisberg), uses Gray's former chauffeur to kill anyone who could point the police at him, leaving Nash with the desperate idea of letting himself be thrown into Dartmoor and try to escape the prison with the help of "Butterfly".

Das Wirtshaus von Dartmoor is one of five Krimis director Rudolf Zehetgruber made in 1963 and 1964, at the height of the Edgar Wallace mania in German cinema. So it will hardly come as a surprise that these five films are part of the wave of films by various German production houses out to catch some of that sweet Wallace adaptation money without actually having the rights to adapt any Wallace novels, nor useful property like the rights to Doctor Mabuse.

Fortunately, the UK did provide these German filmmakers with a slew of other mystery writers like Francis Durbridge, or, in the case of Das Wirtshaus, Victor Gunn, whose novels one could adapt as loosely as possible - after all, the point was to have the name of a British sounding writer in the credits, and nothing else. Once you had taken care of that part of business, you only needed to put a few Wallace movie mainstays (like Heinz Drache and Dieter Eppler in this case) in front of the camera, and make good use of other Wallace movie mainstays (like writer Egon Eis and composer Peter Thomas in this case) behind the camera - not a problem given how small the German film industry of the time was - and you had your own Krimi to bring to market. It's something to bring a tear into the eye of every fan of greedy exploitation movie hucksterism.

Zehetgruber's films are certainly some of the better of non-Wallace Wallace movies. They generally aren't as good as the best films Rialto's Harald Reinl and Alfred Vohrer directed, but they do fit snugly into the solid middle ground of these films. While Zehetgruber's Krimis don't climb the pulpy heights of something like Der Frosch mit der Maske, nor develop the sheer lunacy of efforts like Die Blaue Hand, they can still be an all-around pleasant time for friends of the genre, among whom I have found myself again these last few months.

As a director, Zehetgruber seems to reach for the intersection of the styles of Reinl and Vohrer in a mad science-like attempt to fuse Reinl's snap and Vohrer's eccentricity, only on a budget that must have been much lower than what the Rialto directors had to work with. The vagaries of working with little money mostly show in an overuse of library footage to demonstrate that the film's really taking place in the UK and somewhat hopeless yet charming attempts to present archetypically German countryside as a part of Britain. It would be churlish not to admit that Zehetgruber gets some very moody shots out of foggy, autumnal German country roads, though. In fact, all scenes not taking place on obvious sets are shot especially well, composed with an eye for atmosphere and even, from time to time, a certain sense of beauty.

The rest of the film is exactly like one would expect: the script is needlessly byzantine, the characters pulp novel clichés, the action fake but enthusiastic, the music groovy, Heinz Drache about as cool as German actors in this sort of role get, the film's idea of the UK is overexcited and a bit weird - you probably know the deal by now. It's the Krimi as the movie equivalent of a comfy chair, and I for one, always liked to sit comfortably.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

In short: The Rift (1990)

aka Endless Descent

A new-fangled, experimental military sub, the "Siren", has disappeared in the depths of the ocean, all contact to it has been lost. The contractor company responsible for the sub brings its designer Wick Hayes (Jack Scalia), who had left them once it became clear his bosses were working for the military, back into the fold to take part in the rescue mission for the "Siren". They're quite convincing, too, for if Wick doesn't help the company they'll put all the blame for the submarine's accident on him, even though they changed the initial design so heavily the ship's not even using the same type of drive anymore. I suspect not even the patent office would buy that one, but then my name's not Wick.

Anyhow, to make the rescue mission as successful as possible, it is decided that the rescue submarine will be the "Siren II", of the exact same build and model as the disappeared ship (because why not take a gamble), commanded by tough Captain Phillips (R. Lee Ermey at his least shouty), and crewed by a random assortment of people of various nationalities (as you do when hunting top secret submarines), among them the obvious traitor (Ray Wise), the black "comic" relief character (John Toles-Bey), the Italian comic relief cook, and Hayes's ex-wife (Deborah Adair). Need I even mention that everybody on board has already been informed it's supposed to be Wick's fault that the "Siren I" disappeared?

Whatever can go wrong when the mission turns into a fight against a big underwater rubber monster, and later leads our heroes into a sub-oceanic cave full of a whole zoo of various other rubber monsters?

The Rift, a Spanish-US co-production, is veteran Spanish director of schlock Juan Piquer Simon's entry into the small late 80s/early 90s wave of kinda-sorta underwater Aliens-by-way-of-Abyss rip-offs. I suspect this specific sub-sub-genre came to pass when an exploitation film producer finally realized that there just wasn't room in space anymore for further Aliens-a-likes, and used all his power of creativity to think up the high concept of "Aliens under water".

Simon's film is actually one of the more entertaining entries into this not particularly awesome circle of films, mostly because it, while putting a check mark beside a lot of Aliens' plot points, has the feel of a type of slightly SF-nal horror movie that could have been made anytime between the 50s and the time of its own production. Sure, the 50s version would have been a bit less gory, and a few details would have been different (no evil government experiments in the 50s, but radiation problems), the basics however are still the same, and the audience still watches mostly to see some monsters.

Simon seems to realize this quite clearly, and does a nice, clean direction job of the pretty silly and flat script, without wasting much time on filler, characterization or any other stuff that doesn't have anything to do with showing us monsters doing monster stuff or charming submarine models.

The whole affair is a bit dumb, obviously, and scientifically dubious (there's even some reversing of polarity going on), but it's also unpretentious and fun, which is all I would ever ask of a film like it.


Friday, September 23, 2011

Demon Wind (1990)

(I'm going to spoil the identity of the Son of Satan here, but don't let that stop you from reading further).

The mysterious suicide of his estranged father convinces Cory (Eric Larson) that there is some nasty secret in his family's past connected to the death of his grandparents their farm burnt down years ago. Cory's damn right with this idea too, as he soon enough learns when he, his girlfriend Elaine (Francine Lapensee) and a whole bunch of his friends drive out to the ruins of the old place.

The owner of the gas station quite close to the family farm tries to warn Cory off, but when has that ever worked in a horror movie?

Once arrived at the farm, the friends stumble upon various skeletons, and witness some pretty peculiar phenomena. The farm is a burned out husk from the outside, but once someone crosses the door, it's as if there were still four walls and a roof. Much to my surprise, the TARDIS effect and a minor poltergeist attack are quite enough to convince everyone there's enough wrong with the place that it looks like a good idea to them to just leave and never return. Alas, the friends' cars are all uncooperative now, and attempts to leave the place on foot only lead into a strange mist that teleports everyone right back to where they came from.

Then three creepy children with deep voices appear and turn one of the group's girls into a doll before taking off again to wherever it is  creepy children come from. Looks like it's time to barricade the farm/not-farm up and try to weather the coming demon attacks. Fortunately, Cory's grandma was a white witch and left her spell book and two of the seven daggers made to kill the Son of Satan lying around, so there's a certain degree of hope for survival even when things start getting really strange.

Charles Philip Moore's Demon Wind might sound and look like your typical Evil Dead/Demoni-influenced spam in a cabin movie, but it beats much of the competition in its chosen sub-genre by virtue of its natural weirdness. There aren't many movies loopy enough to introduce two of their demon fodder characters by letting them drive up in a coupe while doing silly stage magic, not in an attempt to, well, introduce the characters in question as stage magicians (which would make some kind of sense) but only to forget all about it for the rest of the movie. At least the film doesn't forget one of the guys also does kung fu, so it can later take the opportunity to let him kick a demon's head off. And if you think what you've just read doesn't make any sense, you haven't seen the rest of Demon Wind.

There's also Cory's sudden magical transformation into what looks like a minor alien from Star Trek (something to do with his witch powers - I think), the re-appearance of the gas station attendant dressed up like a priest sucking in the film's other demons - because he is the Son of Satan (really not to be confused with the Marvel comics hero), a spell book shooting cartoon lightning, a human skeleton with a bull's head and a very large and hungry tongue, and a demon-possessed dying and then flashing backwards through his normal grown-up appearance, regressing into a child and then a baby until he turns into a pigeon (nope, he's not one of the stage magicians who aren't), which, as the film informs us, is the shape of his soul. In the world of what-the-fuckery, Demon Wind must be at least a prince.

Needless to say, the film also features dialogue of exquisite bizarreness ("We thought you were dead", one of the characters says to two of his demonized friends, to be confused by an answering "You can't kill what's already dead", which surely is an interesting hint - that will turn out to be quite untrue - but really isn't an answer to anything anyone's saying or doing), strained bad acting, a random pair of boobies, sudden homosexual undertones, characters acting like complete idiots, sexism of the most bizarre sort, some very late 80s fashion and hair styles and no relations to reality as it is generally understood on my planet whatsoever.

It's pretty brilliant, really, especially because Moore somehow manages to not only throw an impressive amount of really weird shit at his audience, but also does manage to achieve moments of actual creepiness in between the moments of "what the hell am I watching here?". It's the best of both worlds.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: A severed hand beckons from an open grave!

Thor (2011): I've been thinking long and hard about why I enjoyed this particular Marvel movie the least of all they've produced in the last couple of years, although it's probably objectively not a worse film than the second Iron Man, and I think there are two major problems I have with the film.

Firstly, it's a Marvel Thor movie without Don Blake as a character, which is a bit like a Spider-Man film without Peter Parker - lacking an actual human being to counterweigh the power fantasy aspects of the material; or, if you're so inclined, it's lacking a soul.

Secondly, I don't think Thor as a character is in any way or form suited for the redemption story arc the film is trying to tell, especially not one told as uncreatively as director Kenneth Branagh does here, leaving us with a main character who never gives the audience a reason to actually root for the redemption of this major prick until the movie's more than half over, and then only produces that reason through a sudden love-induced change of heart that doesn't convince even in a superhero blockbuster like Thor.

Cannibal Mercenary aka The Mercenary (1983): I've heard a bit of minor online buzz about this Thai jungle action movie being an especially pleasant kind of crazy, but I personally don't see it. For me, this is just another shoddily shot film about guys running and shooting through the jungles of "Vietnam", and the gore and the kinda-sorta cannibals just aren't enough to make it a particularly noteworthy example of its kind. It's certainly a watchable movie if you're into this sort of thing, but it's by far not crazy enough to warrant its reputation.

Black Magic M-66 (1987): Don't expect the man's usual density of ideas or obsessively detailed worldbuilding when you read the name of Masamune Shirow as this OVA's writer, storyboard artist and co-director (the latter with Hiroyuki Kitakubo). You could argue that it's usually not Shirow that provides the anime adaptations of his work with the spark of genius anyway, but the people (like Mamoru Oshii) doing the adapting. That's an idea for another time, though.

Black Magic's a mere trifle that takes the basic Terminator set-up, subtracts the time travel, adds a military unit and replaces Arnold with something that looks like an elf doll and Michael Biehn with a blue-haired freelance video journalist who looks like all girls in Shirow's work.

There's enough mild excitement and competent animation, as well as some very cyberpunk chic cityscapes, to make Black Magic quite watchable, just don't go in expecting it to provide anything more.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Der Würger vom Tower (1966)

(The title translates to something like "The Strangler of the Tower")

"London". Lady Wilkins is strangled by a creepy looking guy (Ady Berber, who specialized in that sort of role), and an incredibly valuable emerald belonging to her is stolen.

The Strangler is no stranger to Scotland Yard, whose Inspector Harvey (Hans Reiser) already didn't manage to catch the killer when he committed his last series of murders about a year ago. Nonetheless, the new Strangler case is his - and the case is getting more complicated by the minute. First, Lady Wilkins's daughter Jane tells the policeman that her mother probably didn't wear the original emerald when she was killed, and the real thing will probably just be lying around somewhere at home. Before Jane can bring the real deal to the Yard, though, she is kidnapped by the most darling secret society, a cult of white people dressing up like an inverted Ku Klux Klan and praying to Kali calling themselves the Brotherhood of Poetic Justice(!). They enjoy giving whippings, silly evil monkish singing and really, really want Lady Wilkins's emerald, as well as a handful of sister stones that are all in the hands of various shady rich people with whom Inspector Harvey will come into contact soon enough, too.

Obviously, a lot of the shady rich people will eventually turn up as strangled shady rich people before Harvey stumbles on the solution of the case.

The success of Rialto's Edgar Wallace Krimis resulted in a lot of minor German language production houses jumping on the band wagon and - while the Wallaces Edgar and Bryan were tied up with Rialto and Constantin Film - produced films who wanted to be Edgar Wallace Krimis pretty badly.

One of these production houses belonged to the Swiss Erwin C. Dietrich, who'd of course later go on to finance some of the sleaziest films not made in Italy or Japan, among them an astonishing number of Women in Prison movies.

Der Würger vom Tower (directed by a certain Hans Mehringer) did not already contain much of Dietrich's trademark sleaze. The sexual innuendo here is represented by two striptease scenes of a sort so tame they would have looked too harmless for a film of the 50s, and makes the type of coy sexiness I like to criticize about the Rialto Wallace films look downright daring.

Der Würger clearly demonstrates how classy and well done the Rialto movies were by giving a good example of what a real low budget production house would do with the same sort of material. In place of Harald Reinl's and Alfred Vohrer's artful compositions, Mehringer puts a point and shoot style that might from time to time hit atmospheric moments, but mostly just avoids anything that might look too interesting. In place of Rialto Film's lovingly crafted sets of their dream-London, Mehringer puts library footage and cardboard. In place of Peter Thomas's great and stiffly funky music, Mehringer puts some guy noodling around on an organ, with sting cues that tend to emphasize dialogue lines that don't need emphasis. The list goes on and on, really.

Still, if you can stomach that Der Würger tries to do everything what the Rialto Films did, but does it worse, and if your expectations of are adjusted accordingly, you might very well have your fun with the film. It is after all full of silly nonsense that's difficult to hate. From the secret society, to the idiocy of the police, to the awkwardness of its sleaze and its violence, Der Würger vom Tower is full of little bursts of pulpy joy that - at least in my case - produce a pavlovian reaction of enjoyment, even if the film producing them isn't any good looked at objectively.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Siete Minutos Para Morir (1971)

Working in Hong Kong, US agent Al Monks is instructed to pick up a list containing all members of the "Nationalist Resistance" and transport it to the US embassy. Alas, the list never arrives where it should be, and Monk's car explodes, leaving behind a corpse that might very well be the agent.

The CIA (or whichever of the States' gazillion of secret services is at work here - I only know it isn't Delta Green) learns that the list has not reached Chinese hands yet, but seems on its way into the hands of a sub-set of the mafia and so disturbs the vacation plans of one of their best men, Bill Howard (Paolo Gozlino, who looks good in a suit and in action scenes), who also just happens to be an old Korean War buddy of Monks. Howard should be just the right man to get the list back.

Of course, Howard has hardly been told his mission when the first attacks on his life begin. Turns out neither Gamma (the mafia-like organization), nor the Chinese, nor the very much not dead Monks want Howard to stick his nose in their affairs. But the American turns out to be very difficult to kill.

He isn't half stupid either, and soon cops to the fact of Monks survival. It's not too difficult to find Monk, really. Howard just has to follow his old friend's girlfriend Karin Foster (Susan Scott in one of the few films where she's working under her real name Nieves Navarro) to Milan. There, Monk has taken the place of his own twin brother, whom he murdered to have a convincing corpse in Hong Kong, and is still trying to sell off the list.

Howard will have to use all of his powers of wearing a suit, shooting, punching guys in the face and charming ladies - like Monk's secretary Virna (Betsy Bell), for example - in improbable ways to solve the case. Oh, and there might be treachery from a cameoing George Hilton afoot, too.

Spanish director Ramon Fernandez' Siete Minutos Para Morir is a film finding itself quite in the middle ground of the Eurospy genre. It's neither one of the truly, ravingly insane films, nor one of the dark and earnest ones of the genre. There's a certain amount of silliness afoot - Monk has an awesome hand guillotine in his safe, the Gamma leader likes to work his magic from a cardboard computer room, there's a silver death trap room of the old fashioned squeezing sort, and George Hilton gets a wonderfully ridiculous fake helicopter cockpit to shake in - but it's all in service of basic pulp thrills and not of camp.

One could argue that the film wastes a perfectly good set-up for a tale about two former friends who find themselves on different sides of the spy game. Siete Minutos isn't, however, a film that ever even suggests it might go in that more subtle (or melodramatic) direction. Instead, Fernandez uses his (pretty miniscule) budget to deliver a series of action scenes taking place in sometimes rather cramped, and always un-exotic locales, while archetypal spy movie music plays. Well, and to catch a few looks at the film's various pretty ladies, some of whom will even be competent except for their inexplicable love for our chauvinist hero.

Though this might not sound all that exciting, in practice, Siete Minutos turns out to be perfectly fine spy fodder thanks to Fernandez' tight and dynamic direction. The man didn't have much money to realize his action scenes, but by the movie gods, he'd use every single cent he got, producing a film that never slows down, racing from one bit of cheap excitement to the next, very much in the spirit of the old serials. Which is clearly preferable to a ponderous film full of filler.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Evil Cat (1987)

For four-hundred years, the male members of the Cheung family have battled the same evil cat spirit every fifty years, reducing it to the last of its nine lives by virtue of their special males only magic and kung fu.

It's good that the cat is on its last life, too, for there's only one male descendent of the Cheung's still alive. Master Cheung (Liu Chia-Liang) has only been able to produce a daughter (boo! hiss!), TV reporter Siu-Chuen (Joann Tang Lai-Ying) before his wife died, and will now have to face the evil cat all by himself, unless he finds a pupil and adherent to teach his technique too. No, I don't understand why a random pupil would be enough when the film's always going on about descendants, but then, this was written by Wong Jing.

When evil Kitty re-awakens, it kills a few people and possesses the body of Hong Kong entrepreneur Mr. Fan (Stuart Ong), making Cheung's job all the more difficult. After all, who will believe an older gentleman of doubtful sanity that a local rich guy is possessed by a murderous cat spirit? Fortunately, Kitty itself isn't much for secrecy, and shows its demonic nature to Fan's chauffeur Long (Mark Cheng Ho-Nam) by jumping into Fan's private fountain and eating a fish while making cat noises. Afterwards, Kitty tries to kill Long and his mother, but only manages to drive Long into the arms of Cheung (who had already met Long in a moment of Wong Jingian random chance).

Cheung's pretty happy with that part of the situation, because now he has a willing pupil and a potential husband for his daughter all in one person. Now there's only the problem of destroying the cat spirit forever while trying not to get arrested by the cop investigating the cat killings, Handsome Wu (hide your daughters! It's Wong Jing in person!).

With Evil Cat, horror and exploitation specialist director Dennis Yu joins forces with the horror known as Wong Jing, and somehow manages to squeeze a watchable film out of the anti-master's script.

Yu is helped by the surprising state of Wong's script, namely that it's not quite as terrible as the man's usual written output. That's not to say that Wong produced something all that coherent or sensible, it rather means the film makes somewhat more sense than the writer/producer/director/actor's usual output. The relative (there is a bit more randomness and people acting like idiots than I like in the film) dearth of random, lazy short cuts in the film's plot might even hint at the unthinkable - Wong Jing may actually have been trying.

Of course, Wong Jing being Wong Jing, his mere presence on and off screen also means that Evil Cat contains a handful of scenes of perfectly humourless humour - in something that may be irony all including Wong Jing as an actor -, a bit of vomiting, some minor (again, for Wong Jing) misogyny and the completely inevitable rape scene when the evil cat has to seek a new host in form of Mister Fan's personal assistant. Well, at least this time around the rape is committed by a blue cartoon swirl, and not played for laughs, which lets it beat eighty percent of all Wong Jing rape scenes for tastefulness.

If I'm leaving the impression here that (to put it mildly) I still don't care for Wong Jing's work at all, that's absolutely true. But hey, unlike with ninety-nine percent of the guy's other films, I actually enjoyed watching Evil Cat, though most probably for the elements Dennis Yu and Liu-Chia Liang added.

Liu-Chia Liang's contribution is twofold. Firstly, he's upstaging his younger, mostly horribly bland acting colleagues, by the virtues of screen presence, charisma and dignity even when he's acting silly in each and every scene he's in, and makes these scenes magically three times better than they were without him. It's quite fortunate that he's in most of the film.

Secondly, the veteran is also responsible for the film's action direction, providing a bit of elegance and excitement and bringing out the true spirit of weird fu from time to time. I also have to say that Liu himself looks incredibly fit for a man aged 51 in his fights.

Dennis Yu's direction is mostly pretty inconspicuous here, not distractingly bad, not overtly exciting, but at least the director does provide his audience with some excellently ridiculous monster effects and cartoon swirls, and that's exactly what the film needs.

Say what you will about me, but never let it be said I'm not appreciating a director who has no compunction against repeatedly showing us actors acting possessed by crouching on all fours, baring their teeth, jumping around and making pathetic attempts at cat noises, or using something I'll just have to call cat fu.

And that's before the cat spirit's final transformation comes into play: hair metal cat, a creature so absurd that I found it utterly impossible to dislike the film it's appearing in, Wong Jing or not.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

In short: The Unnamable (1988)

Arkham, Massachusetts in Ye Olden Tymes as represented by costumes a high school play would be ashamed of and accents of particular ropy-ness. A man knowledgeable in magic - as evidenced by his large library of books about magic - is murdered by his rather inhuman looking daughter aka the Unnamable. The local officials decide to seal his house off forever.

But in the late 80s, interest in the old manse very suddenly rises again. Randolph Carter (Mark Kinsey Stephenson) and his student buddies have an intense discussion about the possibility of something being truly unnameable, a dispute that can only be solved by the sceptic of the team spending a night in the still sealed off house. Not surprisingly, the Unnamable is still alive and kicking and kills the poor guy dead.

The very next night, while Carter and his buddy Howard (Charles Klausmeyer) are still not thinking all that much about the disappearance of their friend, some other college kids - their relations to our heroes and each other too boring to explain - are also breaking into the old house and meet the Unnamable. A bit of killing and much running around and screaming ensues, until Randolph and Howard waddle in for the rescue. Let's just hope Randolph's library use roll succeeds before everyone else is dead.

Fans and admirers of Lovecraft aren't usually well served by what goes as movie adaptations of the author's work. Most of the adaptations don't have much to do with Lovecraft's world view (exceptions are just that), and even less with the works they are supposed to adapt, and those films that keep close to the master's work are usually pretty amateurish as films (again, there are exceptions, and you know them). It sure does not help filmmakers' case that Lovecraft's work with its de-emphasizing of action and it's unnameable and indescribable horrors generally isn't exactly ideal for adaptations at all.

The Unnamable manages the admirable feat of starting off pretty close to Lovecraft - well, at least the discussion about the unnameable is - but then runs out of material to adapt because the story it is based on is particularly short (and also a pretty minor part of Lovecraft's work). Instead of making up something interesting like Stuart Gordon would do, director Jean-Paul Ouellette decides to just go for that horror movie staple of non-characters running screaming through a derelict building for an hour or so. Except for Carter, who reads a book for most of the time until he conjures up the monster's father in form of a tree.

As this sort of films go, The Unnamable is neither particularly bad nor particularly entertaining, it's just kind of there. There are the usual flaws like the sometimes hilariously bad acting (especially Stephenson is big on the scenery chewing and the unfulfilled wish to be Vincent Price), and not much apart from running around happening - nothing I haven't experienced (or not experienced?) in dozens of other movies from the 80s on the same level of quality or anti-quality.

On the positive side, Ouellette does know how to light a scene moodily and is not an enemy of camera movement, the Unnamable's costume is rather neat (and even includes the hoofs from the original story, though in a less unnameable manner), and some of the dialogue is rather funny. It's difficult to say if consciously funny or un-, but I'll take what I can get.

I suspect neither the Lovecraft purists nor the fans of 80s low budget horror will be all that happy with the film, for there's just not enough Lovecraft or enough 80s cheese, yet I can't bring myself to hate the film, for I have seen so much worse.


Exciting, yet still very secret, developments

Thursday, September 15, 2011

In short: Hell Target (1987)

A spaceship is sent out to the totally subtly named planet Inferno (I imagine the screenwriter whistling innocently here) to find out what happened to another spaceship that disappeared there quite some time ago.

In a surprising twist, the rescue mission is coming much too late. Our heroes' predecessors have all died mysteriously. But of what? The crew of spaceship number two does not need to ask themselves that question for too long, for soon enough, they are attacked by various monsters - or one monster able to take on different forms; I'd tell you which, if the anime only told me. Some of the monsters are random, murky things, others seem to come directly out of their victims' subconscious, others belong in the world of airbrush art.

Whatever the monsters exactly are - and it's not as if our heroes think long and hard about it - they are quite effective at their astronaut killing job. Eventually, only one spaceman survives. Will he realize that he has visited Hell, or will he bring (dun-dun-DUN) Hell to Earth?

As you know, Jim, I have a high tolerance for combinations of Science Fiction and supernatural horror, so I'm pretty much built to enjoy Keito Nakamura's (whoever he is) little OVA Hell Target, even though the anime is pretty much the definition of "nothing special".

Actually, calling Hell Target "nothing special" might go a step too far in the direction of the positive. For many people's tastes, the script will just be too unclear, the plotting too disinterested, and the character design too generic mid-80s anime to let the film come over as anything but a chore to get through. You can't even point at it and call it the obscure anime Paul W.S. Anderson's Event Horizon stole ideas from, because that would suggest the anime does more than just mumble "hell in space" and let it end at that.

Still, I don't mind having spent fifty minutes of my life on Hell Target. Watched as mindless entertainment, it's as tolerable as it comes, and - though they don't look all that interesting - it does contain a melting zombie, an owl ghost, a big alien spider thingie, blood, red dust, shooting, explosions and what the script probably called a "romantic sex scene". Sometimes, that's quite enough for me.


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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In short: Castle of Evil (1966)

Dead, mean millionaire Kovic (William Thourlby) invites a group of people (among them Scott Brady and a very drunk Virginia Mayo) who have every reason to hate him onto his private island to take part in the reading of his will.

Kovic's enemies believe the dead man wants to make amends by giving them a part of his fortune, but in truth, Kovic built various nice electronic tricks and traps in his house before he died - well, before he was killed by his housekeeper Lupe (pronounced "loopy" and played by Shelley Morrison), actually - because he believed one of his guests responsible for his near death some time ago, and wanted revenge for that even after his actual death. Come to think of it, Kovic might have been a bit mad.

Oh, and Kovic also built a killer robot wearing his own face. Not surprisingly, said killer robot soon begins killing. Who will be the last people standing?

Yes, people were still making Dark Old House movies in 1966, and the sub-genre was even still able to produce rather entertaining films. At least, that's how a film like Castle of Evil looks to my eyes today. I suspect the film's contemporaries might have experienced it as a rather bland, horribly old-fashioned piece of filmmaking that couldn't hold a candle to Corman's gothics or the output of Hammer of the time, what with its cast of bland middle-aged people (and Virginia Mayo having fun) playing bland middle-aged characters on bland sets for a mediocre director.

Looked at with a bit of temporal distance, Castle of Evil does not become a more timely movie, but it turns out to be pretty alright if you like Dark Old House movies in general. A lot of the film consists of it just going through the sub-genre motions. Fortunately, these motions are perfectly fine when experienced by an audience in the appropriate mood - too lazy to think much, too tired to think, that sort of thing.

Castle of Evil's only major divergence from its genre roots is also its one major merit (and comes as quite a surprise in a film that otherwise shows so little ambition to be different or interesting). Where your typical Dark Old House movie explains its seemingly supernatural happenings away with ridiculously contrived "natural explanations" and a guy in a gorilla costume, Castle decides that it's much better to explain away its own seemingly supernatural happenings with mad science and an evil android that should by all rights be fought by a masked wrestler. I, for one, approve of this decision, as I do of the film's other big decision to let Scott Brady destroy the android with a stationary laser gun thingie. This surprising bit of creativity doesn't exactly make up for all those scenes of bland, middle-aged drama, but it's just the sort of thing to make me remember Lyon's film fondly in the future when I'll have forgotten all if its flaws.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Der Gorilla von Soho (1968)

aka Gorilla Gang

A guy in a ruddy gorilla costume wanders through nightly London, killing rich foreigners and leaving their bodies floating in the Thames. Scotland Yard's Sir Arthur (Hubert von Meyerinck), the higher-up in charge in case Siegfried Schürenberg's Sir John is too competent, puts unpleasantly rude Inspector Perkins (a pre-zombification Horst Tappert) and his assistant Sgt Pepper (Uwe Friedrichsen) - seriously - on the case. The policemen's only clue are little dolls with messages in some kind of African language written on them left with the dead bodies. Perkins and Pepper acquire the help of Susan McPherson (Uschi Glas) as a translator of these messages.

A true expert, Susan identifies the language used in the messages as "Tunisian" and translates them into some nonsense of dubious help about gorillas and murder. Still, it's enough to let the cops theorize that the gorilla gang (a gang known to - quite reasonably, I'm sure - dress up as gorillas for their murders and to only commit them during night and fog) has returned.

This being an Edgar Wallace adaptation, Susan will of course help the police out further and get into peril, there will be evil-doers disguised as benefactors running a home for criminal young women trying to get at an inheritance, and more shady characters than you can shake a stick at will try to blackmail and rob each other in a plot as complicated as it is absurd. The inspector's investigation will lead him to a foundation with the excellent name of "Peace and Love for People", and into one of the more peculiar nightclubs anyone will find outside of a Jess Franco movie.

With Der Gorilla von Soho, I again enter the decadent phase of Rialto's Edgar Wallace cycle. Quite unlike the earlier Der Bucklige von Soho, with whom the film at hand shares not only Soho (or rather "Soho") but more than just a few plot points, Der Gorilla is not collapsing under the weight of its own campiness, nor does it wink-wink, nudge-nudge at its audience so often said audience is bound to lose its patience. This time around, director Alfred Vohrer manages to find the right balance between the silly, the poppy, the ridiculous, and the sort of old-fashioned, pulpy thrills that belong into a film that not only features a killer in a gorilla costume, but a killer in a gorilla costume sticking his victims into a drown-o-mat.

The acting here is not quite as artificial and melodramatic as in some of Vohrer's other Wallace adaptations like Die Blaue Hand, but I suspect the director pushed for a slightly (and only slightly, this is still incredibly far from the Method and all it entails, for good and for ill) more naturalistic acting style than was his wont so that the not quite so artificial acting would contrast all the better with the particularly heavy artificiality of the film's sets. Especially the nightclub some of the films shadier characters (and Sir Arthur, of course) frequent is a thing to behold: stuffed with lots of mandatory red lights, and fashioned with a room where interested guests can photograph nude women and men (this time around, there's real  nudity - of both genders! - on screen) who are standing on pedestals "for artistic purposes". Obviously, this is not a club one could imagine to encounter anywhere outside of a movie, and therefore quite a perfect place to encounter inside of a movie.

The film's plot does of course work through the same elements and dramatic arcs as just about every other of the Wallace films. Der Gorilla, though, does its thing with what looks like real enthusiasm, even a willingness to provide as many cheap thrills as the basic conservatism of German filmmaking of its time and place allows, resulting in a film that not only duly presents these thrills, but actually dares to revel in them, as if Vohrer had gotten up one day and thought to himself "why not be earnest about all this silliness this time around". That's - and this will not come as a surprise to anyone reading this, I suspect - exactly the kind of attitude a film needs to show to win my heart. And who am I not to give my heart to a film working this hard for it?


Saturday, September 10, 2011

On WTF: Der Frosch mit der Maske (1959)

Finally, my expeditions into the wild and weird world of German Edgar Wallace adaptations lead me to the point where the Rialto cycle of adaptations began.

It's also the first time I talk about one of the films of Harald Reinl.

"But is it any good?", I hear you ask. Click on through to my column - soon to be renamed to The Edgar Wallace Mystery Hour - on WTF-Film and find my answer.

(This will be my only post for this weekend, by the way. Normal service will resume on Monday).


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: So Daring We Recommend A Babysitter!!

Fear in the Night (1972): One of only three movies directed by Hammer's veteran writer, the late great Jimmy Sangster. It's a variation on the old "driving the wife insane" number, enhanced by some clever, low-key twists, a bit of Peter Cushing being eccentric, Joan Collins being not very nice, and some fine shots of autumn countryside.

If there's a real problem with the film it is perhaps that it does not make as much use of the inherent strangeness and creepiness of parts of its backstory as it could have.

Highlander: The Search For Vengeance (2007): Regular visitors to this blog will know of my unhealthy love for the work of anime director Yoshiaki Kawajiri, but as much as it pains me to say it, his untimely addition to the Highlander universe is not a very good film, nor is it a very entertaining film. Part of the film's problem surely is that it was made for the US market first and Japan second, leading to Kawajiri having to scale down his usual excesses of violence, sex, weirdness and women with vaginae dentatae. There's still a bit of his strangeness hidden away in the mess, and what the film presents of sexual subtexts sure ain't healthy, but it's all a bit timid compared to Kawajiri's usual style.

Then there's a script that suffers from a boring and unsympathetic hero, and pacing that's again and again dragged down by unnecessary flashbacks that just don't add much to the film as a whole except running time.

It's all a bit naff, really.

Elevated (1997): Vincenzo Natali really likes films about a handful of people (rather inevitably including David Hewlett) trapped in some sort of enclosed space, surrounded by unexplained danger. Case in point is this short film about a handful of people (including David Hewlett) trapped in an elevator and slowly losing their grip on reality while unseen monsters just might threaten their lives.

It's a pretty neat little film, short, to the point, pleasantly acted, and gifted with a very fine ending.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

In short: Zibahkhana (2007)

aka Hell's Ground

A group of appropriately naughty young ones (read: victims) with near-saintly Ayesha (the very, very pretty Rooshanie Ejaz) as the obvious final girl, goes on a ride through the Pakistani countryside to a rock concert, media reports about a plague and contaminated water in the area they're crossing notwithstanding.

Even the dire warnings of a rather mad food seller (a cameo of Rehan, whom you should know from Zinda Laash) can't bring the group to turn back to the city, so it comes as no great surprise when first one of our heroes is bitten by a very hungry person, and then the group's bus is attacked by a band of roaming zombies (including that seldom-seen member of the zombie family, the Little Person zombie).

They manage to escape their attackers, but, this still being a horror film and all, don't find their way out of the country again. Now it is time for them to encounter that other hallmark of country life besides zombies - the backwoods cannibal family. This does not bode well for a long life for anyone on screen.

On paper, Hell's Ground is just another (relatively gory) horror film made with a minor budget by amateurs, the sort of thing that seldom turns out well for anyone involved, least of all the audience. Fortunately, said amateurs are The Hot Spot Online's Omar Ali Khan and Mondo Macabro's Pete Tombs, the former working as director and writer, the latter as producer and writer. Both men bring quite a combined amount of knowledge about what's good and fun in cheap-skate horror movies to the project.

It has to be said that large parts of the movie tread pretty well-worn ground - certainly to pay homage to the usual classics and "classics" and not so much because Tombs and Khan don't have any ideas of their own - and one's enjoyment of the film will probably depend on one's tolerance for the most standard tropes of backwoods horror and zombie films delivered with enthusiasm, quotes, and a lot of film posters in the background of various scenes.

Dramaturgically, the film's a bit wonky with its change of monsters that makes the narrative feel a bit disjointed, but at least - unlike too many other microbudget films - Hell's Ground is not a film that spends much of its time dithering until it gives its audience a monster to look at.

Hell's Ground's main achievement isn't to be just another another cheap and decent horror movie, though, it's that it is another cheap and decent horror movie going out of its way to be at once skewed pop (just listen to Stephen Thrower's - yes, that Thrower - soundtrack), and a decidedly contemporary Pakistani film that can afford to avoid certain of the conservatisms of contemporary Pakistani cinema (at least as far as I understand it, which, given my tastes, may not be as well as I should). I can't imagine the main backwoods killer wearing a burqa would go over too well in Pakistan's mainstream cinema, for example.

I know I've gone on repeatedly about the importance of low budget cinema's embrace of the local, but I think it's a point worth re-iterating: if you're making a movie on the cheap, then you have to make use of the only things big budget cinema can't compete with you on - the local, the specific, and the peculiar.

Hell's Ground does make excellent use of all three of these elements, and so, although I was only mildly amused by the film as a horror movie, I was pretty impressed by it as a pop film from and about the side of Pakistan you usually don't see.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Devil's Vindata (1991)

(yes, I know how to spell that)

aka Devil's Vendetta (and oh look, whoever's not responsible for the film's actual titles does so, too)

So, there's this demon called Twiggy (Mondi Yau Yuet-Ching) who has some sort of violent difference of opinion with a bunch of monks, until the Buddha himself (in form of a talking golden statue) has to step in.

Some time (years? decades?) later, Twiggy has a new plan for evil: wait until a starchild (right now being born in what might be a plum or on egg) reaches the age of consent and then cooperate with the girl to achieve an eternal kingdom of evil (no, I don't know either). Fortunately, a magic Taoist nun knows of Twiggy's post-model career plans and steals the child away to first let it grow up with her and teach her magic and then, once she'll be old enough, marry the girl off to a very special man whose sperm will be able to cleanse her of the potential evil and make her quite useless for Twiggy.

Once the girl, named Tracy, has grown up into young womanhood in form of Vivian Chow Wai-Man, the master is marrying her off to Liu Chun (Ngai Jan), the young man with the magic libido (if he only knew). Alas, Liu Chun really, really wants to learn Taoist magic instead of getting into an arranged marriage and runs off, leaving poor Tracy alone and pissed, and Tracy's adoptive sister Mandy (Sharla Cheung Man) with the job to kill Tracy if she doesn't get laid by Liu Chun before an exactly appointed date and time. The nun would do the killing herself, but she's doing the Obi Wan Kenobi, just with more cartoon lights, of course.

The rest of the film follows the vague adventures of the trio, who obviously will meet cute, and meet a bunch of other freaks until the film remembers again that it's supposed to have a plot.

I imagine Devil's Vindata came to pass when the God of Hong Kong filmmaking decided it had quite enough of Taiwan having the reputation of being the capital of the weird fu movie and commissioned director/producer/writer (of not many movies before or after) Cheung Hoi-Ching to out-weird the movie output of the complete 70s and 80s output of Taiwan in one single movie.

I'm not sure the good man succeeded completely at his mission, though I am positive he gave it a more than respectable try, turning in a movie that's not even warming up with an intro scene that contains a cartoon magic battle that ends with a demon named after a Western model of dubious fame drinking the blood right out of a monk's heart until the Buddha himself has to appear in form of a statue to set things right. And really, he's only getting a grudging "Oh, alright" out of the girl/thing/whatever.

The rest of the movie delights with charms like more cartoon battles, flying women who leave sparkly residue behind, a guy with cleansing sperm, a giant demon cockroach that can turn into a lovely demon woman, and then continues on through hopping vampires, animated origami towels, a guy who possesses a piece of soap to be able to watch women take a shower, a bunny loving ghost with very big teeth, gender-bending transformations, a dead sifu who still talks to her students in form of a giant head with glowing stuff swirling all around her, and a hero who repeatedly utters the sentence - oh thank you, subtitles - "I want to become a fairy" until you'll begin to feel quite numb - and at that point, the film isn't even half over.

On the negative side, Devil's Vindata is so relentlessly crazy, so full of desperately unfunny humour, and so permanently distracted from what is supposed to be its plot, that you'll have to be in the mood for the out and out, relentless, jump in your face and puke pea soup into it crazy that is its only mode and tone. The film's so utterly relentless when it comes to being crazy that I found myself exhausted and in the mood to watch a bit of Ingmar Bergman next.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Der Bucklige von Soho (1966)

aka The Hunchback of Soho

A mysterious hunchback (Richard Haller) haunts Soho, strangling young women. All of the victims have curiously rough hands, but that's not a hint that leads Scotland Yard's leading puffed-up idiot Sir John (Siegfried Schürenberg), nor the notoriously crap at keeping people alive Inspector Hopkins (Günther Stoll) anywhere, probably because they don't actually seem to be looking. Hopkins repeatedly prefers to do his washing to investigation.

At the same time, young Wanda Merville (Monika Peitsch) arrives in London to accept the inheritance of her rich, estranged father. This being an Edgar Wallace adaptation, Wanda is promptly kidnapped by the shady Alan Davis (Pinkas Braun), who doesn't hide her away like a normal gangster would, but inters the girl in the home for young women who have come into contact with the wrong side of the law he's managing for the elderly Lady Perkins (Agnes Windeck). Lady Perkins also just happens to be Wanda's aunt, which may or may not be mere chance.

Davis (and one or more mysterious partners) has quite an operation going on: he uses the girls in his home as slave workers in the dry cleaning business (of course only using the cheapest detergents - yes, that's a plot point), and the best they can hope for (apart from getting killed by the strangler who of course works for Davis, too) is to become prostitutes in a friendly bordello.

How will Hopkins solve this difficult case?

Der Bucklige von Soho is the first film in Rialto Film's cycle of Edgar Wallace adaptations that was shot in colour, so of course it is often the film that is pointed out as the one beginning point of the series' downward spiral. I'd agree with that particular theory a lot more if the films following Der Bucklige had all been worse than those that came before, or if all Wallace films that came before it had been better. In truth, the Wallace films don't really lend themselves very well to that sort of narrative, because to me, their biggest weakness was their unwillingness to change their style very much over time, a handful of outliers notwithstanding.

Sure, the later films in the cycle were somewhat more convoluted than the early ones, and they did take themselves even less seriously than the early ones, but this isn't so much the case of a series of films changing for the worse over time than a series of films concentrating even more on their main characteristics. Even the change from black and white to colour as exemplified in Der Bucklige is not quite as extreme a change in visual style as it could have been - it's not as if the Wallace films were suddenly turned on their heads by the sensational new technology they found.

Having said that, I'll have to agree with general consensus that Alfred Vohrer's Der Bucklige von Soho just isn't a very entertaining movie. It's an example of a particular weakness in German genre filmmaking (something that has - generally - made German movies not produced for the arthouse rather crap), a weakness I can best describe as cowardice. Der Bucklige, like so many other films made in my native country, is a movie that seems to really, truly want to be a real, true exploitation film, seeing as it contains potentially lurid elements of women in prison cinema, sexploitation, horror, what was already the Eurospy movie, and so on, and so forth. However, also like so many other films made in my native country, it is also a film that does not dare take the final step into the lurid, that always promises to become sleazy, but always stops itself before it actually commits and never is anything more than a bit naughty.

It's this unwillingness to not just promise exploitational values, but to actually deliver them that can make some of the Wallace films (and most other German genre films) so very frustrating - they're always teasing, but never take themselves seriously enough to let their teasing lead anywhere.

The Wallace films didn't suffer from this problem quite as much as the rest of German cinema, and often seemed feeling just fine with being low-brow/trashy/what-have-you. Other films of the series somewhat manage to overcome this flaw by virtue of creative direction, a sense of weirdness that comes from their overexcited and confused plotting, and the general feel that everyone involved had a hell of a time making them. Der Bucklige, however, mostly feels tired and distracted, with Vohrer only managing to provide two or three scenes that actually feel as strange or as fun as the whole film should. There's some fine "look, Ma! I'm evil" acting by (usually playing "comic" relief parts in these films, so there's some creativity there) Eddi Arent, at least, and some of Vohrer's mandatory zoom lens mangling (I suspect in a different life, Vohrer would have loved to go the Jess Franco way and zoom in on female pubic hair a lot, instead of ending up directing Die Schwarzwaldklinik), but that's not really enough to make Der Bucklige von Soho one of the Rialto Wallaces I'd recommend to anyone but completists.


Saturday, September 3, 2011

In short: Hanna (2011)

(I'm keeping the plot pretty vague today to avoid unnecessary spoilers.)

In a house in the snowy woods somewhere far away from civilisation live Erik (Eric Bana) and his seventeen year old daughter Hanna (Saoirse Roman, who will turn out to be able to project wonder and frightening coldness in equal measure). Apart from the rules of survival in the wilderness, Erik has taught his little girl an astonishing number of ways to kill someone quite dead, all in preparation for the day when Hanna will have to come out of hiding and tangle with the world of spies.

Hanna - without question also driven by the sort of youthful unrest one develops when one has never met anyone beside one's father and knows large parts of the human experience only from an encyclopaedia - decides that the time is now, and begins an odyssey that'll take her some decisive steps on the way to growing up.

Hanna will have to survive the unhealthy interest of CIA agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) in her, learn a few things about her family's and her own past, and will do a bit of violence to quite a few people in the process.

Joe Wright's Hanna is a pretty darn odd entry into the books of the modern spy film. At first, it has all the hallmarks of being a movie deeply indebted to the semi-realist school of the genre that culminated in the Bourne trilogy, as if somebody had planned to milk the idea of "Jason Bourne as a strange teenage girl". But the further the film goes along, the clearer it becomes that any form of realism, be it semi or complete, is not at all what the film's aiming at. Sure, the film's action sequences stay inspired by Bourne's ways, everything else, however soon mutates into an often dream-like mix of quite unexpected elements. Allusions to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm abound, and Hanna's travels (or is it a quest?) lead the film into places where the spy movie, the fairy tale, and the free-form strange mix into one of the more unexpected films about a teenager growing up.

Somehow, Wright still manages to keep what could be a mess of metaphors being a highly satisfying movie. Usually, I'm not the biggest fan of films this obviously in love with their own - often quite obvious (Cate Blanchett stepping out of the mouth of the big bad wolf, etc) - metaphorical systems. Hanna, however, manages something pretty special. It takes its metaphors and not just presents them to its audience with a shout of "look how clever I am!", but really makes them dance and live as parts of a world its audience watches on screen. This is the sort of film where it feels natural and not unnecessarily artificial when one of the characters begins whistling a motive from the Chemical Brothers' (surprisingly excellent) soundtrack.

There's something special about a film that manages to flow as beautifully as this one, that can picture a brutal action sequence, the silent sense of wonder Hanna shows for the outside world, the panic she feels from the information overload, and the strangeness of Morocco and Berlin (like any place, strange in their own ways) as part of the same continuum of movement and rhythm.

As should be obvious by now, I'm pretty much in love with Wright's film, seeing as it does mix various of my favourite cinematic things (spies! movement! music! fairy tales! irreality! female ass-kickery!) in a perfect way, but really, it's the sort of film that is so heavily in need of being experienced first, and talked about second, that all I can say about it seems insufficient.


Friday, September 2, 2011

On WTF: Garo: Red Requiem (2010)

Remember Garo? The (probably) best Tokusatsu show of the last two decades or so was honoured with its own (3D) feature film last year, at least in Japan.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of the fansubbing community, we poor Western fans can finally watch and understand the thing, too. So I did. I report about my findings over at WTF-Film.