Friday, March 31, 2017

Kuroneko (1968)

Directed by: Kaneto Shindo
Screenplay by: Kaneto Shindo
Starring: Kichiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Tochi, Kei Sato
Running Time: 99 minutes

10th century, Japan’s warring states period. A group of filthy, ragged samurai, fleeing a battle, descend upon a secluded farmhouse like a pack of starving wolves. Inside are only two women, Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi). The only man of the house, Hachi, (Kichiemon Nakamura), Yone’s son and Shige’s husband, was forcibly conscripted to fight against barbarians in the east months ago. The samurai greedily take any food and water they can get their hands on before attacking the women and gang-raping them, then set the farmhouse on fire to cover their crime. Curiously, despite the farmhouse going up in a fairly impressive blaze, Yone and Shige’s corpses are left completely unharmed by the fire. The only witness to this is their pet black cat, who proceeds to lick the two women’s wounds. Three years later, samurai traveling through the grove behind Rajomon Gate start turning up dead, their throats torn out and their blood drained. Under pressure from the shogun, boorish governer Raiko Minomoto (Kei Sato) dispatches his newest retainer Yabu-no-Gintoki to find out who or whatever is leaving dead samurai on his doorstep. Needless to say, it becomes readily apparent that Yone and Shige, reborn as shapeshifting feline specters, are behind this rash of murders, swearing vengeance not just against the men who murdered them but all samurai, and it falls to Gintoki to kill these wraiths. There’s but one minor little detail that just might complicate matters, though, because you see, Gintoki didn’t always go by Gintoki; that name was bestowed upon the samurai by Raiko as reward for slaying a fearsome warrior in battle. Before then, he was known as Hachi…

KURONEKO is a spiritual sibling to Kaneto Shindo’s more famous film ONIBABA, which also dealt with a mother and daughter duo who turn into monsters after they become victims of war. (Unlike KURONEKO’s pair, ONIBABA’s women needed no supernatural assistance to do so.) Drawing on numerous folktales about vengeful ghosts and trickster cat spirits, Shindo crafts an eerie revenge-from-beyond-the-grave story that slowly develops into something far more complicated, haunting, and tragic. It’s an anti-war film; in one early scene, a samurai comments on how the land itself seems to come unhinged in times of war, suggesting that war is a crime against nature itself. It’s also a proto-feminist reaction against a world where men are allowed to take whatever they want regardless of whom they destroy. More specifically KURONEKO is taking aim at one of Shindo’s favorite targets: the samurai class.

Don’t come into Shindo’s films expecting something like Kurosawa’s mythic paladins searching for purpose or even Hideo Gosha’s broken anti-heroes. To put it bluntly, the samurai in KURONEKO are a bunch of utter cretins, arrogant braggarts who view themselves above the commonfolk and boast about how great it is their position allows them to rob and abuse to their hearts content. This is something best exemplified by the film’s depiction of Raiko Minomoto, who was an actual historical figure refashioned into a demon-slaying mythological hero. Here Shindo’s lets all the air out of that particular image of the man. His Raiko is a hypocrite, – he trashes the nobles he serves for doing nothing but dallying around with women, but he himself isn’t seen doing much else besides fooling around with his harem of concubines – a fraud who reveals that his famous battle with the oni Shuten Doji was a complete fabrication (because there’s nothing particularly glorious about killing a simple bandit) and clueless as to why the ghosts of a couple peasants would hold a grudge against samurai right after he monologues about how peasants are worthless and exists only to serve them. It’s no wonder then that Yone and Shige’s vengeance goes beyond a simple I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE vendetta against their killers; their rape and deaths at the hands of those samurai were the end result of an inhumane system that thrives on men becoming victimizers.

At the core of KURONEKO is the bittersweet story of a doomed family caught between their heart’s desire and damnation. Yone, Shige, and Hachi want nothing more than to be reunited and for things to go back to the way they were but realize that it’s too late. If Hachi doesn’t slay his mother and wife, Raiko will have him executed; if Yone and Shige don’t kill Hachi, than the demonic forces that restored them to life will drag them back to hell. It’s a dire situation where no one can do anything but lose and our central trio will try to put off the inevitable as long as possible and from there things will begin to spiral further and further downward until…well, Japanese horror films don’t have a reputation for ending happily, do they?

Of course, much of KURONEKO’s strength comes from just how beautiful a film it is. Compared to something like the lush imagery of Kobayashi’s KWAIDAN, KURONEKO is fairly stripped down, often to the point that much of the film’s sets resembles a stage in a Noh theater play. But don’t look at this as a limitation as Shindo creates a marvelously hushed, dream-like ambience through the use of minimalist sets, light and shadow. Shige’s first post-resurrection appearance is that of a woman dressed in white emerging from the darkness, the contrast of the brightness of her outfit against the backdrop giving her a rather unnerving phantasmal glow. Shindo also shows a deft hand at being able to switch between the more dream-like scenes and moments of grounded realism and keeping his audience off-balance by changing up the film’s pace and tone in unpredictable ways. Within the first half hour or so, we go from a completely wordless opening to a hallucinatory meeting between a samurai and the two women that comes to a grisly end. Just as we’ve settled into watching that scene play out over and over with the two women’s other victims, we’re suddenly dropped into a corpse-strewn battle field with Hachi trying his best not end up rust on the club of the only other survivor of this gruesome skirmish. Then it’s not too long before the film goes through a touching and genuinely erotic interlude as Hachi and Shige spend their last days together before everything concludes with a chillingly surreal face off between Hachi and his mother’s demonic self in a temple. This is all ably supported by the film’s talented cast. Nakamura and Sato are, of course, fantastic as the conflicted Hachi and oafish Raiko, but it’s Otawa and Taichi who really shine here. Taichi’s Shige manages to give off an air of serene beauty and vulnerability even as she’s tearing some poor goon’s throat out and Otawa is just a fierce, dominating presence all around. Otawa – a frequent collaborator with Shindo who would eventually marry him – got her start as member of a famous all-woman theater troupe and even gets to show off some of the skills she learned from it, performing theatrical dances as Shige goes to work on seducing and killing their latest victim.

KURONEKO is actually one of Shindo’s lesser known films; which I’ll admit doesn’t quite compute with me because it’s the first of his that I’ve heard of and the first film of his that I’ve seen. Upon release it was viewed as something of a throwback, having more in common with earlier, more understated period films and never made much of an impact outside of its home country, as inter-committee struggles kept it from being shown as Cannes and it saw only a brief release in the U.S. Thankfully, time has seemed to turn things in its favor and the film is getting more of the recognition it deserves. Simply put, if you’re looking for a movie that succeed as both a pointed social commentary and as a campfire story, you’d be wrong to pass up this one.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What's this? A sign of life!

It sure has been a while since anything's happened here, hasn't it?

Well, don’t worry, I haven’t given up on Psychoplasmics, though I will admit there was a strong temptation to do so for a while. After all, with all that’s going on the world and things going on in my personal life, I found myself wondering what the point of devoting time and energy to yet another blog about some dork goofing on whatever screwball movie he’s seen lately was. And as time passed it became easier to let time pass rather than devote effort to what felt like an empty and pointless thing. Then I fortunately realized that this is no way to be. After pouring so much into it so far, the only truly empty and pointless thing would be to let this blog gather dust. So, I picked myself up and got back to work on a review that I’ve wanted to write for a while.  

This then, of course, got delayed just a tad more when I got an itch to replay DARK SOULS again. What can I say, folks? When you find yourself staring at a blank page, trying, possibly too hard, to come up with something unique to say, the temptation to just screw off and go backstab monsters in Lordran is mighty indeed.
But Lord Gwyn has been put to rest and the fire linked, so I don't really have an excuse to keep putting this off, which is part of why I'm making this post right here: to light a fire under my lazy behind so that I have to get the damn written now, instead of putting it off.
Keep your eyes peeled over the next few days!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Mist (2007)

Directed by: Frank Darabont
Screenplay by: Frank Darabont, based on the novella “The Mist” by Stephen King
Starring: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Andrew Braugher, Toby Jones, William Sadler, Jeffery DeMunn
Running Time: 126 minutes
Tagline: “Fear Changes Everything.”

This is what happened.

Artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) isn’t happy when he emerges from the cellar of his home with his family the morning after the small town of Bridgton, Maine (played by Shreveport, Louisiana, I say with some pride) is hit by what has got to be the most savage thunderstorm in recent memory. There’s a gigantic tree parked on top of the extension that he used for a studio, not only wrecking his work space but completely ruining his latest project, -- a poster for a movie adaptation of THE DARK TOWER, no less -- and if that wasn’t bad enough, the Drayton’s boathouse has been completely flattened by another tree, an old dead one that belonged to his next door neighbor, New Jersey lawyer Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), and has been a bone of contention between the two men, whose relationship can be described as adversarial at best. So you can imagine Drayton’s relief when, due to yet another tree getting dropped on Norton’s vintage Mercedes, his normally bull-headed neighbor is willing to call a truce and even asks to join Drayton and his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) when they make a supply run into town. It seems that the whole town had the same idea that Drayton and company did, though, because when they arrive at the local supermarket, the place is packed. Unfortunately, the power is out and with the market’s generators only there to keep the freezers running, everyone’s going to have to be rung up the old fashioned way. That little supply run is going to take a lot longer than anyone expected.

With more immediate problems on their mind, you can’t really blame Drayton, Norton, or anyone else around town for not giving too much thought to some rather strange goings on. All radio, cell phone, and land line communication seems to be inoperable, for one. Not too alarming, I suppose, considering the storm last night, but then there’s the unusually large number of military vehicles heading en masse to the army base located on the other side of the lake. That base would home to the enigmatically named Arrowhead Project, the exact purpose of which has been the topic of gleeful speculation for the more conspiracy minded of Bridgton residents. Stranger still is this weird fogbank that’s been hanging around since the storm. It seems to originate from the same direction as the Arrowhead Project, and while fog obviously isn’t unusual for a lakeside town, this particular one doesn’t seem to be behaving like any natural phenomena anyone’s seen before. It’s moving against the wind for one and as it slowly makes it way further and further into town, we get more and more signs that something’s wrong. Emergency vehicles come roaring down the road outside the store with their sirens blaring; the firehouse warning horn goes off; then, as the mist begins to envelope the store itself, local man Dan Miller (Jeffery DeMunn) stumbles in covered with blood and screaming his head off about monsters in the mist killing his friend…

“The Mist” was written in 1976 and first saw publication in 1980 as part of Kirby McCauley’s famous “Dark Forces” anthology and you can tell with a glance at the cover of the old hardcover edition that it was meant to be the main attraction; the words “A Short Novel by Stephen King” are printed in noticeably bigger letters than any other name on there. And you should note that the other names listed on that cover includes heavyweights like Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon Joyce Carol Oates, Ramsey Campbell, and Robert Bloch, in case you need a reminder of just how big a deal Stephen King was at the height of his popularity. (I actually had a chance to get my hands on a copy of “Dark Forces” while browsing my favorite used book store once and I don’t think I could tell you why exactly I passed it up even if you put a gun to my head.)  As the story goes in the afterward of “Skeleton Crew,” inspiration came when King found himself in much the same situation that Drayton finds himself at the start, stuck in line with his son at a crowded grocery store after a storm had wreaked havoc, when he was suddenly struck with the image of a prehistoric monster flying around in the store with them. Loving that image, he took to writing as soon as he got home, resulting in a story he described as “THE ALAMO as directed by Bert I. Gordon.”

I definitely think “The Mist” is one of King’s best pieces of short fiction, exciting and fast moving despite clocking in at a hefty-for-a-novella one hundred and thirty plus pages. It’s certainly the story by the man that I’ve read the most over the years. You also don’t have to look far to see the story’s tangible influence on horror and science fiction. The popular video game franchise SILENT HILL begins with a father searching for his child in a town enshrouded by an otherworldly fog that hides pterodon-like creatures and other monstrosities. One of the streets in the town is named after King. HALF-LIFE, which also deals with an intrusion by an alien reality, was originally called QUIVER, a tip of the hat to The Arrowhead Project. Brian Keene’s novel THE DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN simply swapped out the mist for some all consuming Lovecraftian darkness and well, word of advice to all writers: namechecking the work you’re pretty much lifting wholesale from is not the best of ideas. Heck, there was even an episode of ULTRAMAN TIGA that lifted its threat from King’s story and they even titled it “The Mist.” So, with all this in mind, one could wonder why it took until 2007 for a movie based on this story to happen, when even stories like “Graveyard Shift” and “The Mangler” had gotten film adaptations – seriously not very good adaptations -- in the interim. Well, that would have something to do what King would come to refer to as “The Dollar Babies.”

The term “Dollar Baby” is used interchangeably to describe both creators and creations. In 1977, King, after receiving letters from college students seeking permission to make films and plays based off of his work, decided to set up a policy that someone could have the one time right to adapt any of his short stories (and only the short stories, mind) in exchange for a single dollar. These works could not be exhibited commercially without approval from King first and he was to receive a video taped copy of the short film once completed. The Dollar Babies were generally not seen outside of film festival circuits and school presentations, and the general impression is that a lot of them weren’t very good, but three of them were considered quality enough to be packaged together and sold as an anthology movie titled STEPHEN KING’S THE NIGHT SHIFT COLLECTION, which was released by Granite Entertainment Group. This trio would include adaptations of “The Boogeyman,” “Disciples of the Crow,” and most importantly, “The Women in the Room” by a then twenty year old aspiring filmmaker by the name of Frank Darabont.

Born in a French refugee camp in 1959 to parents fleeing the Hungarian Revolution, Darabont came to the United States while still an infant, his family eventually settling in Los Angeles right around the time Frank was the age of five. Inspired to pursue a film career after a chance meeting with George Lucas during the filming of THX-1138, Darabont got his start as a production assistant on movies like HELL NIGHT and the original TRANCERS, before taking his first crack at filmmaking with “The Woman in the Room.” By all accounts, Darabont wasn’t particularly happy with how “The Woman In The Room” turned out, but King apparently saw something in it that impressed him and got in touch with Darabont. (The short would also wind up on a semi-finalist list for an Academy Award.) This meeting would be the beginning of a long standing association and friendship between the two men and after Darabont expressed interest in directing another of King’s works as a feature film, the prison drama “Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption,” King famously gave the rights to that story to Darabont for a handshake.

If you only know Darabont’s work from the likes THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE GREEN MILE, and THE MAJESTIC, films with painterly visuals and a tonal sensibility influenced by Frank Capra, he might sound like an odd choice for “The Mist.” A quick look at the man’s career between “The Woman In The Room” and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION would dispel this notion. Darabont would spend much of his career during that period as a screenwriter, his first big successes coming via collaboration with Chuck Russell, and he had a hand in writing the screenplays for a number of genre movies that were better than they probably had any right to be: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: THE DREAM WARRIORS, the 1988 remake of THE BLOB -- where else can you see one of the most spectacularly gruesome deaths in b-movies and Shawnee Smith, dressed as cheerleader, spewing profanity and machine gun fire at the titular beastie? – and THE FLY II. His credits also include episodes of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, a regular writing stint on THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES, unaccredited work on the screenplay for THE ROCKETEER and the recent American GODZILLA film, and probably most tantalizingly an unproduced screenplay for a sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscles-and-machine-guns opus COMMANDO. One can only speculate on what that was like.

-- “I didn’t think much of John Matrix when he first arrived at Shawshank…” And clearly Red would be played by Carl Weathers in this version. --

Heck, the man was about ready to accept an offer to direct CHILD’S PLAY 3 before the opportunity to make SHAWSHANK finally came up, if you want another What Could Have Been to dwell on. And an adaptation of “The Mist” was always in the cards for Darabont, weighing it as a possible choice for his first crack at directing a film, and he had King’s full support. Over the years, whenever someone would come around making offers for the film rights to “The Mist” King would inform them that he had already given the rights to Darabont.

It seems that even Darabont understood that he seemed like an unusual choice for this project and intended to make something wildly different from what he had done before. Though the budget is substantially higher than most, he intended to shoot the film in the same manner as a low budget horror movie. To help get a handle on shooting things quick and dirty on limited resources, Darabont took to directing episodes of FX’s gritty cop drama THE SHIELD and would hire on the same director of photography, camera crew and editor for this project. THE MIST’s camera work possesses an almost documentary like feel and I think that approach goes a long way in instilling it with a genuine intensity, even outside of its more chaotic scenes. Though it is a nice little touch that those brief moments of calm before and during the monstrous siege are shot more traditionally.

“The Mist” contains what has to be one of the largest and most varied monster menageries you’re likely to find in one of King’s stories, which would probably go a long way to explain why its one of my favorites. There are swarms of man-eating tentacles (“What were those things attached to?”), dog sized spiders, skyscraper dwarfing behemoths, winged insects the size of your head, that “ptero-buzzard” that started it all and gigantic lobster-like monstrosities. So, it’s a little disappointing that the creature effects are something of a mixed bag. Due to the short shooting schedule and prep time, they’re primarily realized through CGI and while there are a number of shots that are absolutely fantastic looking, such as the enormous tentacle that reaches inside the loading dock during the first monster attack or the enjoyably Ray Harryhausen feeling bird creatures, others, such the insects once they’re in the store, stick out too much. (Darabont originally wanted to shoot THE MIST in black and white and this version is included with the DVD release of the film. It does go a long way to covering up some of the rough edges.) On the upside, the monster designs, handled by KNB EFX and artist Bernie Wrightson, are aces, my personal favorite being the “Grey Widower” spiders and their distressingly human like faces. (A nod of the head to a classic OUTER LIMITS episode, it seems) I was also very pleased to see that they completely nailed the scene with the behemoth creature. When word that an adaptation of “The Mist” was being developed, me and probably everyone else who was a fan of that story was hoping they got it right and boy did they ever. Seeing that big sumbitch looming over our characters as it strides on by, blocking out what little of the sun there is has got to be one of my favorite visual spectacles to come out of the past decade and change.

Right about now, you may be asking yourself, “Bill, this is Political Science Fiction review round table. Just what the hell does THE MIST have to do with either of those things?” Well, the science fiction part is easy enough, since we’re on the topic of the film’s monsters. At its heart, THE MIST is an alien invasion story. Or to pit more aptly, an alien intrusion story, the accidental collision between otherworldly life and our own. As unbelievable as these creatures are, they aren’t the Great Old Ones coming forth to overthrow man but animals from a wholly different ecosystem that’s so very not compatible with our own. The spiders only attack because people intruded on their nest, the insects were drawn to a light source like any other bug and the birds were there because they wanted to eat the insects and found something else tasty to gnaw on. This is part of the reason why the actions of Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), your standard King small-town-religious-looney who comes to believe that this mist is some kind of harbinger of the apocalypse and only a “The Lottery”-style blood sacrifice from their number can save them, are so dangerous: predators don’t abandon a convenient food source.

It’s the threat that Mrs. Carmody and her mad beliefs represent to the people inside where the political aspect of the film comes in. For that, we must look from Stephen King to another horror icon whose work holds just as much influence over THE MIST as he does: George Romero. As much as it is an adaptation of King’s work, THE MIST is in many ways a spiritual successor to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Like Romero’s film, THE MIST is an examination of how easily systems can fall apart and groups can cease to function together in times of crisis and you can see traces of NIGHT’s legacy throughout. The film adds in a romance between a local army officer (Sam Witwer) and a cashier (Alexa Davalos) and much like Tom and his girlfriend in NIGHT, being Beautiful Young People In Love does absolutely jack squat to protect them from their eventual grisly ends. Then there’s the character of David Drayton. Now, in King’s novella Drayton is the protagonist but his role in events isn’t nearly as proactive as his movie counterpart. He’s more of a supporting character, in a way, to the story’s version of Dan Miller, and the two men seemed to have switched roles in the transition from source to screen. (Interesting to note that it’s with the death of Miller and another more proactive character in the novella that things really go to hell for people in the store.) Here it’s Drayton that people look to as a leader because he offers a solution considerably more sane than Norton’s willfully oblivious insistence that the mist is nothing to worry about or Mrs. Carmody’s More-Old-Testament-Than-Old-Testament blood and guts approach. Trouble is that David Drayton’s as confused, out of his depth and grasping for solutions as anyone, and much like Ben in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, his role exists to pull the rug out from under the idea of The Hero That Saves The Day…but I’ll get to that in a minute.

What separates the two is the angle they approach this from. NIGHT is all about how Ben and Cooper’s clashing personalities and their need to be the one in charge played a major factor in dooming the people trapped in that farm house. THE MIST comes at it from the idea that if you scare people bad enough, they’ll come running to anyone who offers a solution, whether or not the person offering that solution actually understands what they are dealing with or even if the solution that person offers could potentially be worse than threat. Furthermore, both the story and film are about how mishandling that fear can bring out an ugly side in people who you thought you knew. Mishandling fear is what causes the people in the store to split into factions in the first places. It causes Brent to refuse blatant evidence that there’s more going on than a simple fogbank and his suicidal decision to lead a group out into it early on. We are left to only guess at what their fates are. It's people's fear that empowers Mrs. Carmody and as more and more tragedies occurs, she uses that fear to whip them into a frenzy, leading to the death of an unfortunate convenient scapegoat.
I will agree that things escalate rather quickly in this movie but well, it's a movie. You have only a certain amount of time to get your point across. Fortunately, despite the expediency in which thing go full-on "Lord of the Flies,"  THE MIST never quite devolves into becoming a cartoon. The documentary feel and Darabont's writing plays a part in that but a lot of it comes from the fact that the movie is blessed with an incredibly good cast, including Jane, Jones and Braugher, as well a number of regular players in Darabont's movies. We've got Jeff DeMunn, Laurie Holden, Brian Libby and William Sadler, who funnily enough played David Drayton in an earlier audiobook adaptation of "The Mist." Special consideration must go to Marcia Gay Harden, looking very much like Karen Black, as Mrs. Carmody. Such an extreme character is difficult to pull off and one could easily see the character being too much. She almost is in the story, with her bright yellow pantsuit, crone like appearance, and King's tendency to remind us of her existence by having her cry out "Death!" in the background of certain scenes, which reminds me a little too much of Grandpa Simpson. But Harden pulls it off, giving a performance not all that far removed from Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING; a dangerously unhinged person letting a fevered nastiness to come out and play. The result is one of the most utterly hissable villains to show up in a Stephen King adaptation. I was lucky enough to be one of the few people to see this movie in theaters and when Carmody bought it, the audience cheered.

Audiences were a little more divided in their reactions to the ending which brings us to what becomes of David Drayton and the world at large in THE MIST's closing moments. Spoilers ahoy, obviously. Like I said, Drayton isn't quite as successful a hero that his role in the films usually is and his attempt in the film's ending to spare his loved ones a horrible death ends up backfiring in the worst possible way. This isn't the ending of King's story, which more or less stopped at a good enough point, leaving the characters fates ambiguous. Darabont wanted something more concrete for the conclusion to this film, however, and it's not quite the ass-pull that many of its critics claimed it was. Rather it was Darabont taking one of the more chilling thoughts David has while he and others make his escape in the story and carrying it on through to the worst possible result. I can understand why people hated it. Rewatching the film for Halloween, I came away from it feeling like David Drayton's fate, when piled on top of all the other horrors that occured in the movie was simply too much. It comes dangerously close to simply wallowing in misery, something that THE WALKING DEAD, which Darabont served as a showrunner on for the first two season, is regularly criticized for. But I can't deny that I find it be an effectively done scene, some wonderful bits of acting done almost completely with glances and moments of silence and no matter how many times I've watched this movie, and believe me, I watched it a lot the year it came out, I still flinch when that first gunshot goes off.

But for all the attention the meaningless of Drayton's actions have received, there's something else horrifying about the ending, I find, which gets things back to the political part of the review. There seems to be a curse of sorts for horror films that are allegories of their time to become only more prescient as the years pass. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was never about "THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE COULD, LIKE, TOTALLY HAPPEN BRUH!" but about underlying tensions in the country and a growing distrust with the powers that be. Watch it today and not only has not much changed but one can't help but bring to mind Tamir Rice and others when Ben, a black man, is shot down by law enforcement officers who don't even bother to confirm whether he's a threat or not before they open fire. Likewise, one can easily see THE MIST as playing on tensions of the post 9/11 / Bush-era, with a group of people splitting apart and turning against each other in reaction to a sudden and destructive event. Well, it's unfortunate to say that just under a decade from the film's release, a lot of those tensions and fears are still here and strong as ever. Wouldn't you know, this election year we happen to have a Mrs. Carmody of our own, a candidate who rose to prominence by playing on those fears, by pandering to and whipping the worst parts of the country's psyche into a frenzy, regardless of whether he actually believes or plans to follow to through with any of it. It's unearthed something genuinely ugly. THE MIST ends with the threat banished but the people who survived it will never be able to go back to normal. David Drayton, the others at the supermarket, they'll have to live with what they've done for the rest of their lives. Regardless whether or not that idiot is elected today, the damage he's and his ardent supports have done with this campaign's fearmongering won't go away when the polls close tonight. I doesn't matter if we settle back into our routines, that ugly thing they unearthed is still going to be there, hungry and snapping at our doors. Hell, I can at least empathize with the people in that supermarket. They feared for their lives. What are the hardcore Trumpers afraid of? Being forced to admit that there are different kinds of people in the world? That it's not all aboout them? Is that why they stirred all this crap up, something that we'll have to deal with the ramifications of further down? That doesn't make me want to empathize with them. That just makes me angry.

This review was part of the Celluloid Zeroes Political Science Fiction Roundtable, because we had to do something besides lose our dang minds in anticipation of whatever happens. Hop on over Checkpoint-Telstar to read his take on THE PARALLAX VIEW, Microbrew Reviews for INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and The Terrible Claw Reviews for SHIN GODZILLA before stopping off at Web of the Big Damn Spider for A REPORT ON THE PARTY AND GUESTS.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Galaxy of Terror (1981)

Directed by: Bruce Clark
Screenplay by: Marc Siegler and Bruce Clark
Starring: Eddie Albert Jr., Ray Walston, Erin Moran, Sid Haig, Grace Zabriskie, Robert Englund,Taaffe O’Connell
Running Time: 81 min.
Tagline: “Hell Has Just Been Relocated.”

On the desolate planet of Morganthus, the last surviving member of the starship Remus attempts to escape some unseen threat by sealing himself away in the ship’s morgue but whatever it is chasing after him, the crew member’s barricade does nothing to stop it and the man is violently killed by the seemingly invisible assailant. Back on the Remus’s homeworld of Xeres, the strange, god-like Planet Master, a robed figure whose face is obscured by an orange glow, is taking part in a strange game with an old crone named Mitiri (Mary Ellen O’Neil) when he receives word of the disappearance of the Remus on Morganthus. Surprisingly, Planet Master seems pleased by this news and is prompted by it to make a particularly daring move in whatever this game they’re playing is. Mitri is taken aback by his boldness but he sees what has happened on Morganthus as a sign to put a long gestating plan into motion and will not be deterred. A rescue mission by the starship Quest is quickly arranged, to be headed up by Commander Ilvar (Bernard Beherns) – a puzzling request since Ilvar seems to have been retired from active duty for a number of years – and manned by a crew personally selected by Planet Master himself. 

And what a crew it is! Captain Trantor (Grace Zabriskie) is an absolute lunatic suffering from severe PTSD as the result of being the lone survivor of something called The Hesperus Massacre, the mere mention of which triggers traumatic flashbacks in the woman. Officer Baelon (Zalman King) is, to not put too fine a point on it, a complete asshole, who is particularly hostile to fellow crew member Cabren (Eddie Albert Jr.), very likely due to Cabren’s relationship with Alluma (Erin Moran), who also joins the crew. Alluma is a psychic and you’ll be happy to know that in the grand tradition of movie psychics, her abilities end up being completely useless. Rounding out the crew are cook Kore (Ray Waltson!), Quuhod (Sid Haig!), a monastic warrior who eschews firearms for a pair of crystal throwing weapons and barely speaks (Haig agreed to do the movie on the condition that he could play character as a mute to get out of having to say some apparently horrendous dialogue.), rookie Cos (Jack Blessing) who’s so nervous about his first mission out he’s barely holding it together from the looks of things, and tech officers Dameia (Taaffe O’Connell) and Ranger. (Robert Englund!) To call the Planet Master’s choice of personnel a tad questionable is a bit of an understatement. 

Things go wrong as soon as The Quest reaches Morganthus. While in orbit, the ship is seized by some unknown force and pulled down to the planet’s surface, a rather inhospitable looking graveyard of wrecked ships, and while the crew comes out unscathed, the rough landing did the Quest no favors. Not that the ship being fully functional would be much help at the moment, as whatever snatched the Quest out of orbit won’t let go of it unless they can find its power source and shut it down. Fortunately, the Quest was put down in relatively close proximity to the wreck of the Remus and Ilvar dispatches a team to look for survivors. All they end up finding is corpses, which for reasons never remotely explained, Baelon immediately incinerates upon discovery. However, a thorough search of ship reveals there’s still several crew members unaccounted for and so it’s possible that some remnant of the Remus’s crew is still alive somewhere. Strangely enough, Alluma’s psychic radar does detect a lifeform of some sort, though it’s identifiably not human. Even more confusing, the presence she’s detecting seems to originate with Cos, who spent the better part of the search through the Remus jumping at shadows. Well, turns out that Cos had a very good reason to be afraid, because as soon as everyone else is off the Remus, he gets attacked and killed by a dog-sized creature that seems to be a mixture of insect and reptile. 

Dameia and Ranger, who are apparently also the ships surgical team as well as tech crew, perform an autopsy on Cos and the one corpse found in the Remus that Baelon didn’t reduce to charcoal briquettes but are unable to determine what killed them. That mystery will have to wait, because Commander Ilvar’s scans of the nearby area have turned up something interesting. Something nearby is putting out enough energy to scramble the Quest’s scanners and that’s enough to convince Ilvar that the source of whatever is trapping the Quest on Morganthus may lay in that direction. Another team is dispatched to investigate and this time Ilvar will join them. What they discover is a massive pyramid, which immediately spooks out Alluma, as she says she’s never encountered anything in her life that feels so empty when scanned by her psychic abilities. Despite her protests, heading inside that pyramid may be the only way for them to find answers to what is going on.  

It goes without saying that the discovery of the pyramid is the cue for whatever is behind all this to start picking off our cast in earnest. Ilvar is killed by another alien life form as he rappels down into a shaft on the side of the pyramid. Quuhod gets attacked by his own weapons before bizarrely being finished off by his own severed arm! Trantor, believing that they’re under attack by the same alien force responsible for the Hesperus Massacre, ends up burned alive and in the most infamous scene in all of GALAXY OF TERROR, Dameia is overwhelmed by a giant maggot that tears her clothing off and um, has its way with her before she dies. Ew. As their numbers are whittled down, the remaining survivors realize that something within the pyramid is tapping into their subconscious fears and siccing their own personalized id monster on each of them. They’ll also discover that their walking into this deathtrap was very much part of that mysterious plan of the Planet Master’s alluded to in the early scenes and if they want to get out this alive, they’ll have to figure out what his game is. 

In 1970, after spending the previous decade and change directing several dozen films for American International Pictures, Roger Corman parted ways with A.I.P. and with his brother Gene, founded New World Pictures Ltd. Corman’s intent was to take a brief sabbatical and work primarily on the production side of things for about a year or so before he hopped back into the director’s chair. Well, as it turns out, New World Pictures would keep Corman so busy on that end of things that he would never direct another movie but since production and supervisory roles were where Corman’s real talent lay, I think we can all agree that things worked out for the best there, right? Anyway, much like A.I.P. before it, the independent New World’s focus was to be on the creation and distribution of small scale, low budget exploitation films made to cater to popular tastes that could be made fast and recuperate their budgets quickly, while also bolstering their library by picking up the distribution rights for foreign films by the likes of Kurosawa, Fellini, and Bergman. And also STARCRASH, for which we are eternally greatful. Think of them as the 70’s and early 80’s counterpart to Cannon Films and hey, guess who Menaham Golan got his start with?

As I mentioned, where Corman’s excelled was on the production side of things, in particular his knack for spotting potential great talents and motivating them to learn and grow as filmmakers by doing. You were given an idea to develop into a script and you had so many days to shoot the movie for so much money. If you’re capable of working under those restrictions, then you can pretty much do whatever the hell you wanted on the movie. Corman would be relatively hands off most of the time but wasn’t afraid to pop in and suggest (often insistently so) changes or ideas that he felt would make the film more appealing to the markets he would be selling the films too. It was an approach that worked and if you need evidence thereof just look at the numerous heavyweight directors, writers, and others who inform so much of modern day filmmaking that got their start and proved themselves working for the man, a list that includes the likes of Joe Dante, Paul Bartel, John Sayles, James Horner, William Stout, Ron Howard, Jonathon Demme and Gale Anne Hurd, not to mention special effects experts who would work on everything from NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET to AVATAR.

However, this was also the time period where the arrival and massive success of films like JAWS and STAR WARS initiated a major shift in Hollywood filmmaking for better or worse. “What is JAWS,” Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote, “but a big budget Roger Corman picture?” The Hollywood studio machine was now catering to the exact same audiences that Corman was but were able to throw a ton more money into it. If he wanted to compete, the famously pennywise producer was going to have to risk opening up his pocket book a teensy bit more. Therefore, he needed to be certain that people would come out to see the movies he produced, and so got into the practice of making movies that mimicked whatever film was popular at the time just enough to grab the attention of fans looking for a something familiar. The difference between the best of these and say, the “mockbusters” shoveled out by the Asylum a couple of decades later is that for the most part they aimed for something different than simply recreating a more successful movie for (a whole lot) less money. Instead, they would look at the most basic, core concepts behind these movies as a jumping off point for something unique. Yes, Dante’s PIRANHA is about a resort town getting chewed up and spit out by an aquatic menace but the movie itself is a gleefully self-aware mixture of ‘50’s “science run amok” and black comedy. BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS pared down STAR WARS to “Kurosawa jideki film meets WWII dog fight movie” and gave us SEVEN SAMURAI in space, even bringing in Robert Vaughn to play a riff on his character from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

GALAXY OF TERROR – submitted as PLANET OF HORRORS, produced under the title QUEST, and initially released under the truly god-awful title of MINDWARP: AN INFINITY OF TERROR to tepid response until, in true Corman fashion, they slapped a new title on it and re-released it -- is an ALIEN cash-in and isn’t afraid to admit it. But despite the repeated swipes from Ridley Scott’s film and of H.R. Giger’s design sensibility, I wouldn’t say that it’s wholly accurate to describe GALAXY OF TERROR as a complete ALIEN knock-off. Certainly, the film plants itself firmly in much of the same territory as its inspiration for a good chunk of its first act, what with a crew setting down on a hostile alien world to explore the wreckage of a derelict spacecraft. It even cribs the ominous alien pyramid structure from the original script of ALIEN. (Coincidently, back when ALIEN was known as STARBEAST, O’Bannon and Shusett had intended to sell the script to Corman to help pave the way for their dream project, an adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”) But as GALAXY OF TERROR moves along, it reveals a movie that shares as much if not more in common with the likes of FORBIDDEN PLANET or Mario Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES as it does Scott’s film. Furthermore, the fictional universe its set it couldn’t be further removed from ALIEN and is more like something you’d run across in the pages of HEAVY METAL or 2000 A.D. magazine. Certainly, off the top of my head, I couldn’t name any other ALIEN-like which featured a psychic as standard part of a spaceship crew, a warrior order that wields crystal shuriken, a ruling body led by an alien demigod who governs by playing what amounts to a gussied up Atari game with a freakin’ witch or a nebulous psychic threat that unleashes a whole menagerie of different beasties to dispatch our cast of characters. The result is something that feels like a grindhouse STAR TREK episode.

That sort of off-kilter, throw it at all wall strangeness grants GALAXY OF TERROR a considerable amount of charm and part of the allure of the movie is watching to see just how bizarre it’ll get. That’s certainly helped by the film’s cast, as you’d be hard pressed to find a movie of this type with such an eccentric mix of recognizable faces. We’ve got Freddie Krueger, Captain Spaulding, Laura Palmer’s mom, the guy from THE RED SHOE DIARIES, Joanie from HAPPY DAYS, and the star of MY FAVORITE MARTIAN all in one package. (And it could have been even screwier. Mark Hamill was apparently game for a role in this.) But if GALAXY does have one major stumbling block though, it all has to do with this cast of characters. If there’s one aspect of ALIEN that GALAXY OF TERROR could have benefited more from following, it’s the way in which ALIEN takes time establish the personalities, relationships and tensions of the Nostromo’s crew members before their nasty little stowaway shows up. GALAXY OF TERROR has an even larger cast and the fact that so much of what befalls the Quest’s crew hinges on their psychological make-up makes getting to know these people even more vital. As it stands, the characters are more memorable because of the disparate actors in the roles and their outlandishly gruesome death scenes and more often then not, you’ll be left scratching your head trying to figure out how exactly each person’s death translates to their “greatest fear.” Trantor’s PTSD, Alluma’s claustrophobia, and Cos’s paranoia aren’t too hard to figure out but how exactly does one character fearing that he’s too old and out of touch to be a competent leader lead to him getting killed by blood sucking worms? Or Quuhod’s weapons and eventually his own body turning against him? Sure, seeing Freddy Kruger getting menaced by his own evil doppelganger is fun, but why is he the only one that gets a human manifestation? And for the love of God, how does Dameia’s disgust at worms translate into her getting raped to death by what looks like friggin’ Mothra’s larval form!?

Well, I can actually answer that one: it was all Corman’s idea.  Corman had sold GALAXY OF TERROR to distributors due to the promise of a certain degree of sexual content, most of it involving Taaffe O’Connell. Apparently he even promised a sex scene between her and Eddie Albert without telling anyone involved in the actual making of the movie. So, to add in the sleaze he had sold the film on, Corman decided at the last minute to change what was originally supposed to be a straight forward monster attack scene into not only a monster rape scene but one where the victim seems to actually enjoy the experience! (Corman’s explanation would be that what Dameia truly feared was her own sexual desires. Sure thing, Rog.) The film’s director, screenwriters, and Taaffe O’Connell, who had taken the job because she was drawn the idea of getting to play a rare non-sexualized role, were not amused. According to the commentary on Shout Factory’s Corman Classics release, O’Connell even had to talk with her priest before she agreed to do it -- would I have liked have been a fly on the wall during that conversation -- while Clark refused to do it, forcing Corman to come in and handle it himself. Shooting the scene itself was also a trial, with O’Connell just narrowly avoiding getting crushed by the immense hydraulic puppet at one point, and it was subjected to numerous edits and cuts to keep the film from getting slapped with an X-rating. Thing is, Corman was right. This moment is so completely out of left field and thoroughly “what the hell?” that it sticks with you more than any other scene in the film. Being “that movie where a lady gets screwed to death by a giant slimy maggot” gave GALAXY OF TERROR the kind of sleazy infamy that translates to ticket sales, video rentals, and cult fascination years later.

Fortunately, the other major reason why GALAXY OF TERROR managed the longevity its had is considerably more pleasant than That Scene. Reports vary on how much GALAXY OF TERROR cost to make exactly – one apocryphal story has it that Corman was able to recoup the film’s budget by simply renting a couple sets out for an Italian watch commercial one weekend – but it couldn’t have been much. Therefore one can’t help but be impressed at what the film’s production team was able to accomplish on such a limited budget. You wouldn't believe that much of movie's sets a props were built out of spray-painted cardboard and discarded scraps as the production design on the ship and pyramid interiors, the effects of the ship’s take off, the matte paintings of Morganthus’s storm wracked surface, and the creature work are all of a surprisingly high standard. Of course, that means when the production design does slip up, such as how it doesn’t try to hide the fact the restraints used by the Quest’s crew to strap themselves down during hyper space jumps are just car seatbelts, complete with visible logos, it sticks out all that much more. But we really shouldn’t be too surprised that they were able to accomplish this much, as the teams in charge of these aspects of the movie were headed up by a hungry young filmmaker by the name of James Cameron, who Corman had hired on as a production assistant and effects technician for BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, wherein he was responsible for designing a number of the spaceships featured in that film.
GALAXY OF TERROR would be his second feature for Corman, (between the two films Cameron and his crew would also work on a little film called ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) and you could make a fairly strong argument that GALAXY was more the James Cameron Show than it was Bruce Clark’s. The future TERMINATOR director not only had a hand in painting the concept art,  designed most of the creatures -- an exception would be the one that settles Baelon’s hash. That had been donated to the production by a former Corman  EFX artist and written into the movie at the last minute – acted as a second unit director, and by all accounts, served as Roger Corman's representative there on the set. It shows and with Cameron's fingerprints all over this movie, it wouldn't be too hard to view GALAXY OF TERROR as a warm-up for what he would eventually do with ALIENS. Some scenes even presage the later movie: try not to think of the Space Marine's initial sweep of Hadley's Hope when the Quest's crew investigate the wreckage of the Remus or how the alien pyramid paved the way for the xenomorph's hive. And Cameron wasn't the only GALAXY OF TERROR alumni to work on ALIENS either, the two films also share visual effects supervisor Robert Skotak and Hudson himself, Bill Paxton, worked on GALAXY as a carpenter.

By the way, if you ever get your hands on Shout Factory's disc, I recommend watching the behind-the-scenes documentary on it. There's a whole segment of it devoted to anecdotes  about what it was like working with the famously confrontational filmmaker and not all of them are positive ones.

Would I recommend GALAXY OF TERROR to just anyone? Probably not. The lack of characterization, sometimes odd performances from its eclectic cast, and moments of gratuitous sleaze and extreme gore would likely turn a quite a few people off to it. But, if you have a love for a bygone era of B-movie filmmaking, are interested in seeing a small if notable step in the career of one of the most influential popular filmmakers of the past thirty years, or are just hankering for something incredibly strange, give it a try.

Return of the Living Dead (1985)


Directed by: Dan O’Bannon
Screenplay by:  Dan O’Bannon
Starring: Clu Gulgar, James Karen, Don Calfa, Linnea Quigley, Thom Matthews, Beverly Randolph, Miguel Nunez
Running Time: 91 minutes
Tagline: “They’re back from the grave and ready to party!”

“The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations.”

Back in 1968, an independent film production out of Pittsburgh made a low-budget fright flick that delivered such a wallop to popular culture that its fingerprints can still be found on popular media decades later and the director’s very name was transformed into descriptive shorthand. You might’ve heard of it; it was this stark, mean little bugaboo of a film called NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. To go into the exact whys and hows of what a shock to the system NIGHT was deserves a post all of its own, so we won’t go into that, but you can’t really discuss RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD without mentioning NIGHT because of how much the former film hangs over the latter. After all, RETURN was originally conceived as a direct sequel to NIGHT, based on a novel by NIGHT’s co-writer John Russo, who had won the legal right to create his own follow ups separate from Romero’s sequels. Russo had intended for the film adaptation of RETURN to kick off a franchise all of its own and well, that is what happened, it just did so without Russo.

This came about when ALIEN screenwriter Dan O’Bannon became attached to the project as both writer and eventually director, taking over from Tobe Hooper, and he was uncomfortable with how much the source material lifted wholesale from Romero. So, rather than proceed with what he perceived as a pale imitation he through out almost all of Russo’s material and refashioned the project into something of tongue-in-rotting-check tribute to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF DEAD . Now, when you hear the title RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, you don’t think of people caught between a crazed religious cult and a gang of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT-esque thugs with the dead rising to inconvenience everybody, do you? Heck no, what comes to mind is that poster up with the corpses sporting chains and mohawks, “The Surfin’ Dead” by the Cramps, and Linnea Quigley doing a striptease on top of a crypt. Much to Russo’s chagrin, I imagine, it would be O’Bannon’s version that would leave its mark – hungering for brains as a generally accepted Thing That Zombies Do originates here –and much like THE HOWLING, reduce the novel to little more than a footnote. (Amusingly enough, Russo would write the film’s novelization, which means there are two different books titled RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD by the same guy.) Give the film a watch and it’s easy to see why that is. Not only is it just a damn fine horror-comedy in its own right, like all good parodies, as much as it subverts and thumbs its nose at Romero’s blueprint, it understands the through line of his zombie fiction far better than any of his imitators.

We’re not even a few minutes in and RETURN is playing with our expectations. Yes, this is a sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, just not the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD we know. You see, Romero’s film was loosely based on actual events, where the test of a new chemical compound, 245-Trioxin, went awry, returning a morgue full of dead bodies to some semblance of life. The military hushed things up, threatening Romero with a lawsuit if he told what actually occurred, and sealed the reanimated corpses up tight in airtight tanks to be shipped off some undisclosed location. At least, that’s the story Uneeda medical supply warehouse manager Frank (James Karen) spins for Freddy (Thom Matthews), the new stockroom clerk, while closing up shop. How is it that Frank knows all this? Simple; due to what he describes as a “typical army fuck-up,” the tanks containing the corpses were shipped to the wrong address and for the past fourteen years have been sitting off in a corner in the basement of Uneeda Medical Supply. While Frank is showing off the tanks and their grisly contents to the rookie, Freddy asks if there’s any danger of the tanks leaking. Nothing to worry about, Frank assures him, these were made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and gives the tank a good solid swat on the side. Cue leak.

Both Frank and Freddy get hit with a face full of 245-Trioxin and from there the gas makes its way into the ventilation system and out into the warehouse proper, where it reanimates anything dead it touches. This includes the butterflies pinned to boards, the split dog corpses used for veterinary schools, and of course, the human cadaver currently locked in the freezer. Realizing that things have going completely south on them, Freddy and Frank decide to call in their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager) for help. After reading Frank the profanity laden riot act for even going near those tanks, Burt decides the best course of action is to dispose everything and everyone keeps their mouths shut. Of course, to do that means letting that cadaver out of the freezer so they can kill it. That shouldn’t be too hard to do. Destroying the zombies’ brains worked in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, right? Well, as Freddy will astutely point out, the movie lied: the first attempt to kill the thing by bashing its skull in doesn’t take; the next results in the three of them having to chase a headless corpse around the warehouse. Whatever 245-Trioxin is, it creates a ghoul that is substantially more durable than anything that came after Ben and company in that farmhouse. Fortunately, Burt remembers that his friend Ernie Kaltenbrunner (Don Calfa) works in the mortuary at the nearby funeral parlor and has access to a crematorium, which, needless to say, is looking like it would come in pretty handy right about now.

As all of this hilarity is going on, Freddy’s friends find themselves faced with a Friday night with nothing to do. This little group includes punk rockers Spider (Miguel Nunez), Scuzz (Brian Peck), Casey (Jewel Shepard), death-obsessed Trash (Linnea Quigley), and “one spooky motherfucker” Suicide (Mark Venturini), as well as hanger-on Chuck (John Philbin), and Freddy’s girlfriend Tina, who is such a Wholesome Girl Next Door, the type that says “oh fudge!” when frustrated, that I can only assume that she and Freddy have a VALLEY GIRL thing going. Eventually, the group comes to agreement that if anybody knows where the good times are to be had, it’s Freddy. Thing is Freddy doesn’t get off work for a couple of hours and nobody is happy with the idea of sitting outside Uneeda Medical Supply in the summer heat for that long. Scuzz makes the suggestion that they could kill time by fooling around in the nearby cemetery, which unbeknownst to them, happens to be at the back of the same funeral parlor where Freddy, Burt, and Frank are smuggling in the cadaver, now hacked into convenient pieces and stuffed into garbage bags. Burt’s cover story about being saddled with a bunch of rabid weasels that he needs to dispose of doesn’t go over so well, so he has to show Ernie what really is in those bags. Well, nearly getting your foot wrenched off by a still moving severed arm makes a fairly convincing argument. Into the furnace the cadaver goes and for a moment, it looks like the problem is solved. Except Freddy and Frank have been getting progressively more ill since their exposure to the gas and not to spoil things, there’s a reason that when they let that cadaver out of the freezer, it ignored them and went straight for Burt. Second, Tina has wandered over to Uneeda so she can meet up with Freddy when he gets off work and is attacked by a zombie that escaped from the drum that started this whole mess, a particularly nasty revenant that looks like a walking pile of bones and sludge. Finally, yeah, they burned up the cadaver but that smoke, saturated with 245-Trioxin, had to go somewhere. Somewhere, like say, into those passing storm clouds, where it triggers a sudden thunderstorm and torrential downpour, dumping several gallons of instant zombie juice right on the graveyard. Whoops.

With apologies to Uncle George, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD may be my single favorite zombie movie. It’s just so much thoroughly twisted fun, filled to the brim with wonderfully sick jokes and sight gags, a fantastic punk rock soundtrack, and top-notch make up and effects. For my money, you’d have to look to something like AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON to find a movie that comes as close to working as effectively as both a comedy and a straight horror movie. And credit for much of what makes it work so magnificently has to go to Dan O’Bannon. Watching this film, you’d have a hard time believing that this was O’Bannon’s first rodeo as a director because he pulls it off with the skill and self-assurance that one expects from a seasoned professional. With help from William Stout’s excellent EC Comics influenced production design, O’Bannon manages the fairly difficult trick of giving the movie a visual look unique from other horror films being made at the time without actually calling attention to that. Furthermore, by giving his cast, a mix of veterans and talented newcomers, a longer than normal rehearsal period, the characters genuinely do come off as people who’ve known each other for years and are as much fun to watching simply hanging out together as they are being pursued by zombies. But as fantastic as his direction is – and it’s a crying shame that he would go on to only direct one more movie in his life: THE RESURRECTED, a fairly decent low budget adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s THE STRANGE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD – it’s his screenplay where he really shines. Not only is it quotable as all get out (“Ain’t you never been to a funeral?” “I never knew nobody that died!”) but it has all these great moments of the sort of bleak absurdity, horror, and humanity that comes from being trapped together in a situation where you are well and truly screwed. Sometimes all at once: take the scene where a zombified Freddy has Tina and Ernie trapped in an attic. A teenage girl hiding from her boyfriend who is calling to her to let him eat her brains is utterly ridiculous but you can’t deny that both Tina’s sheer terror and Ernie trying to work up the courage to deliver a mercy shot to the hysterical girl before Freddy breaks in comes across as completely believable.
It’s no wonder that O’Bannon “gets” Romero so well; the two men have such a similar world view. Like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD before it, being an alpha male type or having the best intentions behind your actions doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make it to RETURN’s final reel and sacrifice and attempts to fix things can easily make things worse. There’s also the fact that while wildly different in execution – RETURN’s ghouls can be every bit as agile, strong and intelligent as a human being, as opposed to Romero’s shambling hordes --  both  NIGHT and RETURN understand that what really makes the undead so terrifying is how pathetic they are. With Romero they’re recognizably human society slowly decaying into an identity-less mass while O’Bannon’s are amped up junkies – we learn from a captured one that ingesting brain endorphins is the only relief from the constant pain that comes with their existence as a rotting corpse – whose need for a fix is so all consuming it reduces them to animalistic savages. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Romero influenced zombie film if the whole notion of The Proper Authorities Are Not Your Friend didn’t rear its head at some point, as the military decides to let God sort ‘em out when finally implementing its contingency plan for dealing with a borderline indestructible zombie outbreak, a truly spectacular escalation of NIGHT’s own subversive ending. I mentioned Russo’s novelization of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD earlier and one of the truly baffling additions he made for the novelization was a framing story that casts the whole incident as the result of a conspiracy by Communist sympathizers to destabilize the United States. (!!)  Obviously, it’s generally agreed by anyone aware of this of what a wrongheaded decision that was because not only does it no damn sense from any logical standpoint – why exactly don’t these fifth columnists just unleash the gas themselves instead of leaving the tanks there in hopes that a couple of knuckleheads will one day accidentally do so – but also illustrates how Russo didn’t get what Romero was trying to say and O’Bannon did. In Romero’s movies, the reason that the system fails so badly in fixing the problem is because systems are inherently broken by design because people created them, people run them, and people can be some seriously dumb and narrow minded sumbitches when they put their mind to it. That’s part of the reason why leaving the domino that started it all a “typical army fuck up” works better; a horrible tragedy caused by the authorities’ incompetence and exacerbated by their willingness to implement blunt solutions while showing casual disregard to collateral damage and long term consequences to cover up their mistake is something I find a load more believable and terrifying than some elaborate conspiracy waiting in the shadows.
A Little Something Extra:
Oh come on...what else did you think I was going to throw in at the end of this review? This flick has got one of the best soundtracks in 80's horror and arguably, of all time:

Friday, October 7, 2016

Blood and Black Lace (1964)


Directed by: Mario Bava
Screenplay by: Mario Bava, Giuseppe Barilla, and Marcello Fondato
Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Ariani Gorini, Luciano Pigozzi, Mary Arden, Calude Dantes
Running Time: 89 minutes

A masked killer in black clothing, fever dream colors run riot, brutal and elaborately staged murder set pieces, ineffective police detectives, and a mystery that isn’t actually solved so much as the movie just comes out and tells you whodunit. Yep, it sounds like Psychoplasmics is paying another visit  to our good friend the giallo this Halloween. The first time we did so, we dug into a movie that diverged rather dramatically from what we'd come to expect when we hear the term "giallo." Here we're shifting in reverse and taking a look at the movie that codified many of those elements in the first place and still manages to pack one hell of a punch despite decades of imitators ramping up the shocks. I give you Mario Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE.

The backdrop for BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is the glamorous Christian Haute Couture fashion house in Rome, run by the widowed countess Christiana Como (Eva Bartok) and her current paramour Massimo. (Cameron Mitchell) It's the kind of place where every single one of its occupants has some dirty secret that they'd like very much to keep hidden, so when one of the models turns up strangled to death on the fashion house grounds, the police have their work cut out for them in narrowing down the possible suspects. Thing is, this is but the first in a series of murders, because our first victim, unknown to the police, kept a diary which detailed a lot of the shady goings on at Haute Couture and several people there would do anything to keep it out of their hands. As the diary ends up passed from person to person, our killer -- a figure in black wearing a featureless gauze mask -- hunts them down and dispatches each one of them in spectacularly brutal fashion. That the victims are all beautiful women and the vicious nature of each of the murders have the police mistakenly convinced that they're after a deranged sex maniac, which ends up indirectly giving the killer a perfect alibi to throw them off their trail. Now all they're going to need to get away scott free is someone to pin the blame on.

While discussing briefly the origins behind the term giallo in my post about Fulci's DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, I neglected to go into the importance of the German krimi film on the genre's development. Krimis or "Kriminalfilms" were a series of crime movies (produced mainly by Rialto Films) that primarily adapted the works of 20's pulp crime writer Edgar Wallace, beginning with 1959's THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG and ending with 1972's PUZZLE OF THE SILVER HALF MOONS. Krimis had plots that were straight out of old fashioned murder mysteries, usually revolving around individuals or group thereof hiding a dark secret being menaced by a masked villain, stylishly shot and with added touches of more graphic violence and sexuality than one would come to expect. If that sounds familiar, it should. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was a German-Italian co-production, intended to be a crime thriller in the Edgar Wallace tradition. (According to Tim Lucas's commentary on the Arrow Video release of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, the film seems to have lifted rather liberally from a Wallace story titled WHITEFACE, to the point that apparently it ended up being more faithful to it than that story's actual adaptation.) You can find traces of the krimi throughout BLOOD AND BLACK LACE; the collection of suspects and their entangled sins, the bizarrely dressed killer (who looks a lot like comic book superhero The Question), the bossa nova theme music by Carlo Rustichelli, and police detective hero. (Thomas Reiner) Or, well, about as close as you're going to find in this movie.

However, for all their flourishes, krimi films were police procedurals at heart and Bava, bored with the cliches of whodunits, aimed for something a little different. So, the role of the police in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is pared down considerably. Their investigation plays no role in the reveal of the killer's identity except in how it pays off a visual clue for the audience and they are not involved in the mystery's resolution. In fact, their one big move to capture the killer ultimately ends up giving that killer an opportunity to escape justice. You also won't be seeing any of the film's remaining cast members becoming amateur sleuths and taking it upon themselves to solve the mystery themselves. If anybody ends up being proactive in any fashion, it's usually to work up an alibi to cover their own ass than help anyone else. No one uncovers the killer’s identity; the movie just comes out and tells you. Instead, it’s the actions of our mysterious killer and the stalk-and-murder scenes become the real focus of our film. Therefore, by diverging from the krimis that formed its foundation and moving towards something much darker and harsher. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE becomes a missing link between film noir’s nihilism and horror’s viciousness. Obviously, our bizarre killer and the brutal methods he uses to dispatch his victims – strangulation, drowning, shoving them face first into a furnace, and stabbing them in the face with a barbed gauntlet – paved the way for the Michael Myers’ and Jason Voorhees’ to follow but when its revealed that the killings are driven by greed and the last act follows our killer as they try to clean up loose ends, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE doesn’t feel too far removed from the likes of DIABOLIQUE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Almost joyously misanthropic, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE presents a world that, underneath all the riches and glamour, is more corrupt, cynical and savage than anything else.

Of course, it wasn't just the shift in content that helped BLOOD AND BLACK LACE kick off a sub-genre of its own but also the presentation of it. It's important to note that early in life, Mario Bava had aspirations to be a painter. When that career went nowhere, Bava moved on to work with his father in the Italian film industry but that inclination stayed with him. After a number of years working as a cameraman and co-directing whatever movies Riccardo Freda didn't feel like finishing, Bava would graduate to helming films all by his lonesome, starting with his More-Hammer-Than-Hammer gothic BLACK SUNDAY. He would direct his first color feature with 1961's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, which would be the first to feature the hallucinatory color cinematography that would become synonymous with the phrase "a Mario Bava film." See, as a director, Bava was concerned more with the staging and lighting of a scene than whether or not it made complete logical sense. To him, the script was generally little more than a vague outline to follow, which considering the quality of the scripts that the man usually worked with, maybe was for the best. While this does lead us to wonder what he could have pulled off if he had an actual decent script to build on, it ultimately isn't as big of the drawback as it sounds because in Bava's films, it's the pictures that do the talking. While the writing in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE never manages to rise above adequate enough to not be intrusive, the images contained within the film are potent enough to pick up the slack.

It was Bava’s intent to make this film look like one of the lurid covers to an old Mondadori paperback brought to life and it goes without saying that he succeeded. Through the use of wildly varied and vivid color schemes and lighting and strange camera angles, Bava makes normal spaces take on surreal dimensions. A simple cellar gets warped into a gothic dungeon. An antique store becomes a phantasmagorical nightmare world that our killer, seeming to merge with the shadows, stalks his victims through. A furnace glows red with an unnatural intensity. Red is a very important color in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. (Hey, considering the title it better be.) The film opens and closes with lingering shots on an object of that color and it reappears time and time again, most notably via a strange mannequin that is shown posing with some of the cast during the film’s marvelous opening credits and pops up again and again like some sort of impartial observer to the decadence on display. Most interestingly, though, is when Bava restrains himself from using his strange color schemes. Scenery that’s so delirious at night is rendered almost unrecognizable when shown in the light of day. It’s in these scenes that much of the police investigation takes place and well, no wonder they can’t solve it. It feels like they’re in a completely different world. This visual mastery is made even more impressive by the fact that Bava was working with a limited budget and could only get the shots he wanted by resorting to such methods as dragging the camera around in a child’s wagon or rigging up a see-saw-esque device in place of a crane.

The year previous to BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, Bava directed another film that’s often credited as the first giallo: THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH / THE EVIL EYE, starring John Saxon and Leticia Roman. There’s no argument that it created the template for much of what we westerners know as giallo – the outsider protagonist turning amateur sleuth after witnessing a murder, the travelogue like depictions of its European setting, and even a touch of supernatural weirdness that other giallos would run with – but it’s not quite there yet. It’s still nestled comfortably within the boundaries of your Hitchcockian thriller – in fact, it was originally intended as a comedic send-up of Hitch’s films, as the title suggests, until Bava concluded that the film’s absurdity would work better played completely straight. So, more of an evolutionary step then. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, on the other hand, can’t be mistaken for anything else, not just for its cynicism and candy-colored visuals but simply just for how horrifically brutal it is. Even with the on-screen gore kept to a minimum and years of the likes of Argento, Sollima, and Fulci amping up the shocks, the violence in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE remains effective because Bava knows how to make the audience feel it in a way that many of his imitators never grasped. Stabbing someone in the face with spikes is bad enough but throw in a lingering shot from the victim’s point of view showing those barbs are at eye level before they plunge in? Yikes. While subsequent giallos and especially their bastard offspring, the slasher, would victimize scantily clad women for cheap titillation, the sexualization of the victims here just serves to make the violence against them all more disturbing. Thanks to Bava’s whole filmmakers-as-painter approach, shots like a pair of corpses posed as for a magazine spread or that of a drowned women, the briefest lingering on blood spreading over the water’s surface, come across like macabre art pieces about the destruction of something beautiful.

It’s strong stuff, to say the least, and so it should come as little surprise that audiences weren’t quite ready for it when it hit theaters. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE flopped in its native Italy and was dismissed by critics. AIP, who had distributed Bava’s films stateside in the past, deemed the film’s content too disturbing for the teen and drive-in audience they marketed to and passed on it, the film eventually getting released over here thanks to the Woolner brothers. A bit amusing that the movies that Bava is best known for are among his least successful. West Germany loved the movie though and you can see BLOOD AND BLACK LACE’s influence all over the krimis that followed in its wake, eventually leading to German-Italian co-productions that combined krimis with giallos even further. It would be years before it kicked off a similar trend in its home land though, brought about when Bava’s disciple Dario Argento would basically Brundefly THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE into THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and thereby open the floodgates.

But BLOOD AND BLACK LACE did it first and in my opinion, did it best. It’s a truly exceptional piece of filmmaking art and one of my all time favorite movies. If you haven’t seen it yet and are interested, may I recommend the recent release by Arrow Films, now available for us knuckleheads in the U.S.? Not only is the new picture transfer absolutely gorgeous but it comes with an absolute bounty of supplemental features. Included are an article / interview with Joe Dante about his love for Bava, a commentary by Tim Lucas – the man who literally wrote the book on Bava -- , a feature length documentary interviewing Italian screenwriters, directors, and critics about the history and influence of the giallo, YELLOW, a short film created as a tribute to the giallo, a fascinating video essay about distinct portrayals of gender throughout the genre, and an episode of The Sinister Image guest starring BLACK LACE star Cameron Mitchell. It’s probably my favorite feature of the bunch, as Mitchell discusses his entire career with a mix of good humor and professionalism. Mitchell regarded Bava as his favorite director to work with (and this is man who got his start under John Ford, remember) and you can hear the genuine affection he has for the man whenever he’s brought up. Seek it out, it’s worth the price.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Super Inframan (1975)

Directed by:  Hua Shan
Screenplay by: Ni Kuang
Starring: Danny Lee, Wang Hsieh, Terry Liu, Bruce Le, Yuan Man-Tzu
Running Time: 90 min.
Tagline: “The Man Beyond Bionics!”

There must be something in the water because lo and behold, as soon as I decided that I’d be reviewing THE SUPER INFRAMAN for Psychoplasmics to mark its first year anniversary, both Teleport-City and 1000 Misspent Hours tossed up pieces of their own about Shaw Bros. Studios thoroughly loopy attempt to cash-in on Japan’s tokusatsu craze. Thankfully, rather than getting discouraged over somebody beating me to the punch, I took this as a pretty clear sign to do as the Romans instead. THE SUPER INFRAMAN is an infectiously joyous bit of B-movie obscura that deserves as much attention laid on it as it can get and my only slight regret in discussing it is that I don’t have an anecdote of my own to contribute along with the two aforementioned reviews of how they discovered this doozy of a movie when they were kids. Me? I just rented it off of Netflix a couple years back, give or take but I was fortunate enough to revisit the movie this year as the closer to the B-Fest film festival in Chicago this past January. It’s as much of a comment on how great it was to see this in a packed auditorium with a crowd of super-enthusiastic nerds as it is, unfortunately, a comment on the rather anemic offerings we’re having at the theater this year that I can say that nothing is going to top that as a movie going experience in 2016.

To swipe that line from Tim Lehnerer yet again because it’s too good not to, the first fifteen seconds of THE SUPER INFRAMAN are kind of slow but then a pterodactyl monster bellyflops onto a highway in front of a school bus full of children, an earthquake happens and Hong Kong explodes. Then things start to get weird. If nothing else, you have to admire this movie for not wasting time screwing around. This string of disasters – which dialogue indicates also includes monster attacks that they clearly didn’t have the budget to show but hey, take their word for it – culminates in the eruption of the long-dormant Mt. Devil, revealing a massive fortress topped off with a gigantic stone dragon head. Naturally, the Chinese government takes note of a supervillain lair popping up in their backyard, and enlists the help of Professor Liu Ying-de (Wang Hsieh), head of the Scientific Headquarters (of Somewhat Ambiguous Science) to figure out just what the blazing blue hell is going on. While scanning Mt. Devil, Professor Liu and his team intercept a transmission from the pterodactyl monster from before, who transforms into a blonde Chinese woman dressed up as some sort of draconic Brunhilda.

This would be Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu) – or Princess Elzebub if you’re going with the subtitles – which I can only assume was meant to be Princess Dragon Ma until somebody involved in INFRAMAN’s dubbing fell asleep at the wheel. She rattles off the usual evil overlord spiel about how she has come to conquer the Earth and it would be in all of our best interests to surrender to her and her forces right now. While I myself am completely okay with being ruled over by an evil sexpot who’s part dinosaur, the rest of the world isn’t so keen on that idea and therefore the authorities gather together for an intelligence briefing to determine what is to be done about this situation, which I quote, “is so serious it’s the worst in all of human history!” Profession Liu is present at this meeting and informs all assembled that he has determined that Prince Dragon Mom is a member of some prehistoric race which once ruled the Earth but was driven beneath the planet’s surface by the Ice Age and has spent the past few million years in suspended animation. Now revived, she’s declared war on the human race and has an army of mutants breed from prehistoric monsters to back her up. Seeing as Professor Liu has the best grasp of the situation, the Chinese government puts him and Science Headquarters in charge of the effort to combat this menace.

Now the name Science Headquarters seems to be something of a misnomer because as far as I can tell from the many times I’ve watched this movie, Professor Liu seems to be the only actual scientist employed at the place. (They do, however, have the requisite of every B-movie science lab: huge computer banks covered in blinking light that don’t seem to actually do anything.) The rest of Science Headquarters’ staff seems to be some sort of paramilitary disaster response team made up entirely of motorcycle riding martial artists, led by the heroic Lieutenant Rei Ma. (Danny Lee) Professor Liu realizes it’s going to take more than a bunch of guys in matching silver and blue jumpsuits to put a stop to the Princess’s evil schemes but fortunately, he has something up his. Taking Rei Ma to his personal laboratory, Professor Liu reveals his plans to transform a volunteer into The Inframan, an invincible, atomic powered cyborg superhero that can be more than a match for whatever Dragon Mom throws at them. Despite the very real risk of the operation killing him, Rei Ma agrees to undergo the transformation, which mostly involves him lying on a cruciform slab while Professor Liu glues computer parts to him.

Princess Dragon Mom, however, has no intention of waiting around for whatever Science Headquarters is cooking up. She recognizes what a threat the organization poses and assembles her legions of mutants to launch a pre-emptive strike and oh, what a collection of monstrosities it is. We’ve got her army of cannon fodder mooks, the explosive spear wielding Skeleton Ghosts. (Skeletons can have ghosts?) We’ve got her right hand henchwoman She-Demon (Dana Tsen Shu-Yi), a lady in silver booty-shorts who has eyes in the palms of her hands that can shoot lasers. There’s a pair of robots that seem to act as the princess’s elite guards and can extended and retract their heads and weaponized limbs  via wire coils. Then there are the mutants themselves: a lumpy toad man with a drill and shovel for hands, a tentacled plant monster, a humanoid dragon man, an onibaba-style demon with long hair, and a frankly adorable looking red bug monster. Toad Man and Plant Monster are dispatched first. Toady ambushes and kidnaps a member of Science Headquarters named Chu Ming (Lin Wen-Wei) – who, while every one else gets a cool motorcycle, is struck driving a beat-up Volkswagen – and takes him back to Mt. Devil to get brainwashed while Plant Monster attacks Science Headquarters’ um…headquarters itself by transforming into a cluster of massive vines and tearing the building apart. The damaged caused cuts off the power to the professor’s lab and nearly kills Rei Ma until somebody manages to switch on the back up generator. Being subjected to an invasive full body surgery and nearly dying does nothing to slow down Rei Ma, who promptly transforms into Inframan and gets to try out his new abilities by flipping around the professor’s lab and smashing some of his equipment. Professor Liu doesn’t seem to mind that much though, likely because that’s totally coming out of Rei Ma’s next paycheck.

Despite the Inframan being a top secret project not five minutes ago, everyone excitedly exclaims “It’s Inframan!” immediately upon seeing him spring into action. The plant monster puts up a good fight but in the end is no match for the super-powered Rei Ma. Good thing for Princess Dragon Mom that she already had a back up plan in place, as that poor sap that Toady captured, Chu Ming, has been brainwashed into turning traitor and is sent back to Science Headquarters to swipe Inframan’s blueprints so she can scan them for an exploitable weakness. Chu Ming gets caught in act but intervention from Toady, Red Bug and Onibaba help him get away, though not without the latter two monsters getting destroyed in the process. With the plans for Inframan in Dragon Mom’s hands, Professor Liu decides to upgrade Rei Ma with a number of new weapons to counter act whatever traps she may throw at him, leading to a favorite and off-quoted exchange among friends of mine: “To have success, it is necessary for you to have Thunderball Fists!” “I can have such a thing?” “That’s right. Thunderball Fists!” Well, those Thunderball Fists are going to come in really handy real soon because Princess Dragon Mom has Chu Ming and Toady kidnap Professor Liu’s daughter in order to force the Professor into building her an Inframan of her own. This leads to Rei Ma heading up an all-out assault on Mt. Devil with the other members of Science Headquarters and a massive battle royal as Inframan fights his way through a gauntlet of mooks, mutants, and deadly booby traps on his way to a final confrontation with Princess Dragon Mom.

Much like the term giallo, tokusatsu started as a general catch-all before transforming into a specific genre all of its own. Meaning “special filming,” it was coined in regards to the original GODZILLA, the first Japanese film to utilize special effects such as actors in suits and miniature sets on the scale that it did, and would later be used to refer to science fiction films in general. That shifted with the popularity of serialized television such as MOONLIGHT MASK, AMBASSADOR MAGMA, SUPER SENTAI, METAL HERO and the ULTRAMAN and KAMEN RIDER franchises, which resulted in the term becoming more associated with Japan’s equivalent of costumed superheroes. They never fully abandoned their roots in the kaiju genre, however, as many episodes of these shows would climax with the rubber monster of the week growing to gigantic size and wrecking havoc in a model city before being stopped by hero / heroes who themselves can undergo such a transformation or summon a gigantic robot that they can pilot into battle. In fitting bit of cross pop cultural pollination, the American superhero of the time, The Amazing Spider-Man, would get his own tokusatsu series, complete with big dang robot, and United Artists would pick up the popular ULTRAMAN for American audiences.

As is expected, something achieving that degree of international success means other studios out there start looking for ways to cash in and one studio in particular would be the Hong Kong based Shaw Bros. Studio. Founded in 1925 as the Tianyi Film Company by brothers Runje, Runme, Runde and Runrun Shaw, the Shaw Bros. Studio is known today mostly for their martial arts output, with movies like THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN and THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS needing no introduction, but released films in a number of genres, including horror, spy thrillers, and exploitation flicks and would even collaborate with western studios for international co-productions. (Did you know Shaw Bros. had a hand in making BLADE RUNNER? Well, you do now!) By the 1970’s, though, the studio had never done a science fiction film and Run Run Shaw, a long admirer of the Japanese film industry, figured doing their own spin on tokusatsu shows was the way to go.

THE SUPER INFRAMAN isn't exactly shy about the fact that it is, in fact, a literal made-in-Hong-Kong knock off of ULTRAMAN and KAMEN RIDER. Not only does INFRAMAN'S "Science Headquarters" scream "ULTRAMAN'S Science Patrol but with the serial numbers filed off" but INFRAMAN rather gleefully cribs a number of Ultraman's signature moves and abilities for its titular hero --  including the ability to spontaneous grow several stories tall, something that is neither eluded to beforehand or ever mentioned again afterward -- but it's no accident that Inframan's bug eyed helmet and biker jumpsuit get up invokes Kamen Rider's hero; Michio Makami, INFRAMAN's special effects director, created a number of monster suits for Toei's tokusatsu shows at Ekisu Productions. On top of that, the film's musical score mixed in a number of cues from ULTRA SEVEN and MIRROR MAN with Yung Yu-Chen's own contributions.

To direct the film Shaw enlisted Hua Shan, a cinematographer who had got his start as an assistant on COME DRINK WITH ME and lensed a number of films for the studio. Screenplay duties would be handed to Shaw Bros. regular Ni Kuang, who’s an interesting character. A former public security official for the CCP, Ni Kuang left China due to fears for his own life and set up shop Hong Kong where he found success as a writer / co-writer of serialized novels, including the Wisley series, Dr. Yuen, and the wuxia series Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. He would also contribute a staggering number of screenplays for Shaw Bros. including THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER, THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, and my personal favorite of the Venom Mob movies, CRIPPLED AVENGERS, as well as Bruce Lee’s international hit FIST OF FURY. A number of contract players would be tapped for key roles in the film, two of the most notable being Huang Jian Long and Danny Lee. Long, better known as Bruce Le, would be one of the myriad actors who would make a career in the seventies and eighties out of the fact that if he combed his hair just right and you squinted hard enough he could sort of pass for Bruce Lee, appearing in faux-sequels to The Little Dragon's films and truly weird Brucesploitation entries like THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE. Here he plays Xiao-Long, Rei Ma's right hand man at Science Headquarters, and even gets to show off some of his martial arts skills during a couple of big battle scenes. Danny Lee is probably the most recognizable actor in the film, thanks to the international success of John Woo's bullets and male bonding epic THE KILLER, where he played the cop determined to capture Chow Yun Fat's reluctant assassin, and has definitely had one of the most bonkers careers of anyone I've heard of. Lee (born Li Hsiu-hsien) turned to acting after his original plan of becoming a police officer flamed out due to difficulty completing the training exams and spent a number of years primarily as a "hey, it's that guy" supporting actor in a number of Shaw's films until he landed the lead role in INFRAMAN, which seemed to cement his status as Shaw Bros. go to guy for the studios battier productions. His later credits with Shaw would include BRUCE LEE AND I, a softcore film based around Bruce Lee's final days and relationship with Betty Ting Pei; the King Kong rip-off THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN; the nutso kung fu fantasy film BATTLE WIZARD; and something called THE OILY MANIAC, which, according to the IMDB, is about a "cripple taking revenge on criminals by using a magic spell that transforms him into an oily monster/superhero." Co-starring his INFRAMAN cast mates Terry Liu and Wang Hsieh, by the way. Lee would eventually cut ties with Shaw Bros. and form his own production company where he would regularly cast himself in the same "tough but honorable" cop role he would eventually play in THE KILLER and in the nineties release a number of rather infamous CAT III films. (Short for "Category III" a designation comparable to the American NC-17 rating.) The most successful of these would be the rather innocuous sounding THE UNTOLD STORY, which featured Anthony Wong as a criminal who takes a Sweeney Todd approach to the disposal of his victims. As Tim put it when he introduced INFRAMAN at B-Fest, "that's one hell of a resume!"

Unfortunately, despite the major marketing push, which apparently included a hot air balloon being used to promote the film -- and let me tell you how disappointed I was that wasn't able to dig up a picture of that -- INFRAMAN underperformed at the Hong Kong box office, forever denying us any further adventures of Lieutenant Rei Ma and Science Headquarters. Of course, the fact that I found myself sitting in a crowded college auditorium full of like-minded nerds whooping it up as THE SUPER INFRAMAN played across the screen makes it pretty clear that the film developed something of a cult following in the -- holy crap -- forty years since its initial release. Believe it or not, we very likely have Rogert Ebert to thank for that, as not only did the famous critic give the film a glowing review upon it's initial American release, not only did he feature it on Siskel and Ebert's "Guilty Pleasures" episode -- which is likely how a number of people first heard of it -- but when reviewing the video release of THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN, he announced that as much as he enjoyed that movie, he couldn't with good conscience give it a higher score than INFRAMAN and went back and added an additional star to the earlier film's score. That's just beautiful.

It's easy to see why one could come to champion this movie. THE SUPER INFRAMAN is a thoroughly delightful film, one that aims at being a frenetic adventure through a bizarre comic book world and succeeds at doing so with considerable flair. It's very episodic feeling, almost as if someone took three or four episodes of a television series and spliced them together, trimming all but the minimum necessary scenes that didn't revolve around punching monsters. As a result, there's hardly a moment in this movie that makes one lick of sense but thanks to the film's enjoyably crazed sense of pacing, you won't care as the film throws yet another bit of pure insanity your way before you can question just what happened in the scene previous. The highlight of this would have to be the climatic confrontation between Inframan and Princess Dragon Mom's monstrous true form, where Inframan blasts her head off with one of his many laser weapons, only to discover that she can regenerate. At which point, Inframan just blasts her head off again. And again. And again and again, creating a modest sized pile of severed dragon heads, until Rei Ma finally remembers he brought Thunderball Fists to this fight and lets her have it. The film's budget doesn't always back up its ambitions -- a number of its monster suits have visible seams and zippers and more than one suit actor is clearly wearing shoes -- but it's creatures are just cheap looking enough to be charming and the rest of the production more than makes up for it with inventive sets and action set pieces that are on a much bigger scale than your standard Shaw Bros. martial arts film. (In fact, the action scenes were so elaborate and expensive, INFRAMAN became the first Shaw production to use pre-production storyboarding.) There's motorcycle stunts, a miniature power plant destroyed in a battle between a giant Inframan and the Red Bug, a final showdown in a lair fitted out with everything from volcanic pit traps and death rays, and so many explosions, all supported by the quality martial arts choreography and stunt work that were Shaw Bros. standards. And let's not forget the film's wonderfully absurd English dubbing which just ads to the entertainment value.

As I said, it's a movie that wants nothing more than for its audience to have a good time and that earnestness is another factor that makes this movie so appealing, especially in this day and age when superhero comics and superhero comic films have maybe become too serious for their own good. Even friggin' Superman is in the hands of people who balk at the idea of a hero who smiles and wears bright colors, Batman is grimmer and grittier than ever and every superhero film seems required to be a two and half hour plus epic. So it's refreshing then to be able to kick back and enjoy a fleet-footed movie clocking in at just under ninety minutes and starring a colorful hero who doesn't have time for things like existential angst about what his transformation means for his humanity because he's just too dang excited about being able to beat down alien invaders with his shiny new Thunderball Fists.

A Little Something Extra:

"Monster Man" by Devo, which also features an off-brand Ultraman.