The Daimajin Trilogy

There was a period in my youthful life when my family moved to Del Rio, Texas, so my father could be closer to his major construction job and still have a family. Moving around at that age is tough, but there was one good thing about it: TV from San Antonio, and the local CBS affiliate, who had a regular horror movie every Friday night in a slot called Project: Terror. I got a fair amount of early tutelage on that show, and I really, really miss the days when TV station regularly had such niche programming on late night weekends.

I offer that bit of biographical data by way of introducing today’s subject, which is an unusual series of daikaiju (giant monster) movies from 1966, known as The Daimajin Trilogy. The first movie, Daimajin was unfolded before my fourth grade eyes under the title, Majin, Monster of Terror, under the (likely true) assumption that no American would watch something called Daimajin. At least not in 1968.

Let me try to briefly explain what makes the Daimajin movies so unusual: they take place not in the modern day, but possibly during the Sengoku historical period between the late 15th and early 16th century, judging from the backdrop of clashing feudal lords and presence of matchlock rifles. It’s the marriage of jidaigeki  period drama and giant monster movies that make them so alluring – that and the monster in question is a rampaging, wrathful god.

This was also one of the things that 10 year-old me did not care for in the first movie – you had to sit through 90 minutes of samurai movie (in Project: Terror‘s two hour slot) to get to 15 minutes of stone god rampage. I’m (quite) a bit older now, and can appreciate things for what they are. If I do things like forgive the Rambo movies for 70 minutes of bad guys proving why they need to be Rambo-ized before I get 20 minutes of Rambo making bad-guy soup out of them, then I can’t very well criticize the Daimajin movies for doing the same thing.

Starting off with Daimajin (you can add the “Monster of Terror” part if you like), a series of earthquakes causes villagers to hold an impromptu festival/dance/ritual to appease the “Majin of the Mountain”. Under the cover of this festival, an evil Chamberlain stages a coup of the nice local lord. The Lord’s son and daughter escape, eventually settling in near the statue of Majin, an area superstitiously forbidden.

Ten years pass for the New Evil Lord to be evil and generally grind the faces of the poor. The son, now 18, tries to go back to the castle, gets captured, and is scheduled for execution. Having had enough of this Majin nonsense, Lord Evil sends some men to break up the stone statue. They get as far as hammering a big spike into its forehead before they stop, because blood is pouring from the statue’s forehead. The fearful men try to escape, but the earth literally opens up and swallows them.

The former lord’s daughter, who had been captured by the doomed demolition crew, sees this as proof of the Majin’s role as an active god, and offers her life to it if Majin will only save her brother. The stone statue comes to life, and there begins one of the better giant monster sequences of the period.

Waaaaay back in the days when we used a medium called “videotape” to enjoy our movies, ADV Films put out a widescreen VHS of this movie, and good gravy, what a difference that made (I am, incidentally, basing this on the recent Mill Creek Blu-Ray of the Trilogy, which is astounding in quality)! I think Daimajin is one of the first Daiei Studio movies made in the Vista Vision format, and that widescreen is used beautifully throughout. The forced perspective and occasional back projection are flawless, and often breathtaking; this is really some stunning stuff. I could babble all day about it,  but basically:  it has to be seen.

The second movie, Return of Daimajin (there was a weird mix-up in the names of the movies at some point, so I’m using the title Mill Creek employed), follows the usual sequel route by doing everything bigger: the Evil Lord takes over not one, but two peaceful castles, there are two male heirs in play, and Majin – this time on an island in the middle of a lake – is blown up with black powder. Once again, when the chips are down, and the daughter of one of the deceased Lords is about to be burnt at the stake, she offers her life to Majin, who literally parts the lake like the Red Sea to tromp out and proceed to smish all the bad guys.

The third, Daimajin Strikes Back (which I’ve always known as Wrath of Daimajin, but now my head hurts), shakes up the formula. Majin, apparently tired of being rousted by idiot Evil Lords, has taken to the top of a mountain. An Evil General is kidnapping men from surrounding villages and using them as slave labor to build his fortress and munitions factory near a sulfur lake. This time, our heroes are four boys from a village who trek over Majin’s mountain in an effort to save their fathers and brothers. Also, Majin has an “avatar”, a hawk that flies around and observes everything.

Saddling four child actors with the hero role could have been disastrous, but the result isn’t totally terrible (thankfully). They have some fairly good kid’s adventure stuff going on, escaping from three Evil Samurai over and over again. Our lead kid is a fairly decent actor, which is good, because lacking a Lord’s Daughter character, he’s the one who offers to sacrifice himself to Majin if the god will just save all the others.

Majin has his most extended rampage in this outing, and it is one of the most visually arresting, taking place during a snow storm. The General has cannons at his disposal, which turn out to be predictably useless. And we find out that the sword that Majin has been carrying throughout the trilogy is practical and has a steel blade.

As a whole, the Daimajin trilogy is a nice change of pace for giant monster fans. Though the daikaiju formula here is even more heavily-weighted toward the Big Finish than is usual in most of the giant monster movies, the change in venue is intriguing enough to offset that. The special effects are consistently better than other Daiei monster offerings (sorry, I was never a Gamera fan), and, perhaps harkening back to my upbringing as a Southern Baptist, I can really get into the concept of a god who actually does something… like grinding bad guys to a pulp. Reactionary of me, I know, but I do have my fantasies.

And Maybe Learn A Little Something

I can tell that the School Year has truly begun, because my wife and child have started bringing home all the latest plagues. Outside of dousing them with boiling water and bleach when they come home, there’s not much I can do except avoid them as much as possible, and hope my wife doesn’t cough on me too much at night.

I know what I like to watch when I’m sick: kung fu movies are my comfort food. But I’m not there yet, so I’m assuaging the tickle in my throat and my occasional dizziness with documentaries.

Documentaries aren’t my usual cup of tea, you know. Oh, I can watch pretty Blu-Rays of wilderness all day long, but I seem rarely interested in pushing the button on real life adventures. In my current state of health limbo I don’t want to get riled up by life injustices or embarrassed by eccentrics being brought up short by the real world.

So, Stop Number One on my Netflix Instant queue: Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. The basis for this is one of those pieces of true-life high weirdness I enjoy: there are a series of tiles embedded into roadways in the American Northeast that read: “Toynbee Idea/in movie 2001/resurrect dead/on Planet Jupiter” or variations thereof. There are often side panels that dangle tantalizing clues. These things have also cropped up in South America.

The primary character of Jon Foy’s movie is Justin Duerr, an artist who first noticed the tiles in the early 90s while working as a foot courier. In those early days of the Internet, he eventually finds a small community of people trying to figure out just what the hell is going on, and finally winds up with his own little Mystery Inc. of three guys who are equally obsessed with what the tiles mean, and who’s been making and placing them.

This tale of amateur sleuthery is engaging, and it all seems to point in the direction of one individual, a virtual hermit in a Philadelphia neighborhood. All attempts to contact him are ignored, and eventually Duerr, convinced that he has shared a transit bus with the perpetrator, still decides to let the man walk away unbothered. “Let him go his way in peace, and let me go in mine,” says Duerr, who closes this chapter of his life and goes on to the next. The other two, we are told, are still investigating the phenomenon, especially the many copycats who have surfaced in recent years.

Resurrect Dead remains interesting and focused for most of its runtime; an occasional digression keeps it from being too Lone Gunmen in tenor, and seeing the guys’ detective work actually bear fruit is satisfying.

Next up was a recommendation by my friend Rick: Into Great Silence, which is about the monks of the Grande Chartreuse, a monastery deep in the French Alps. These monks have sworn a Vow of Silence, theoretically using their voices only in prayer or song; this proves to be pretty flexible, as they are also apparently allowed to converse during their weekly recreational hikes. Being monks, they talk about monk stuff – you know, religion, ritual.

One of the conceits of Into Great Silence is that there is no narration, no commentary, no incidental music. Your experience is going to be just as silent as that of the monks. It is worth noting that this has the effect of making prayer and ecumenical chants that much more moving.

It also means that there are many times the viewer is left wondering just what the heck is going on at several points; simple tasks take on an aura of mystery. Never introduced to any of the monks, we are left to our own devices to sort out who they are, and what their duties in the monastery may be. My personal favorite is the bearded monk, shoulder stooped in old age, out in the winter, shoveling snow off his vegetable plots… and, while limping away from his work, still able to direct a friendly smile at the camera. Truthfully, it is the day-to-day life, the background work that keeps the monastery running, that I find fascinating. Especially the monk going over the monastery’s accounts, using a laptop.

In the final titles of the movie, director Philip Groning tells that he first approached the Grande Chartreuse in 1984, and the response was basically, “Not right now, give us a chance to get ready”. Sixteen years later, he got a second letter, “Okay, we’re ready.” That sort of deliberate pace carries over into the movie; be aware that once you hit play you are in for a two hour and forty minute stint with the monks.

The running time has a purpose, I think. The other continuing motif is a series of intertitles with excerpts from prayers. I didn’t keep count, but there seems to be six or seven, and they repeat themselves throughout the running time. The length of the movie and the repetition serve to bring home the extent of the commitment of the monks; we’re going home to TVs and the Internet after almost three hours, but this is how the monks will spend a lifetime.

Even after spending six months with the monks, Groning apparently still has the ability to experience boredom, as several times he chooses to switch to a lower resolution, and process a shot in a grainier fashion. I’m going to shrug at that. It’s not really necessary – but then, it could be argued that two hours and forty minutes isn’t truly necessary either. Although that slow build-up makes seeing normally silent monks shouting “Whee!” as they sled down a snowy slope all the sweeter.

Fury & Vengeance with Ric & Nic

So, my busy week got a little less busy when one of the city meetings was cancelled. I made some snap decisions about movie watching.

First I checked out Films of Fury on Netflix Instant. It’s based on Ric Meyer’s book of the same name, which is about martial arts movies. I will give the movie props for pointing out that Buster Keaton and Gene Kelly were superb athletes, doing their utmost for their craft; not really sure if what they did could truly be called kung fu, but hey, it was a fair point. The movie also manages to work in the fight scene in From Russia With Love before getting to the meat of the matter, the Chinese martial arts movie.

The only real problem with documentaries like this crops up if you’re already a fan of the material. Fists of Fury does a really good job of hitting the high points and avoiding the low in its accelerated history, highlighting the major players, directors and plot points (I would have liked to have had a dollar for every time the world “revenge” is used). I spent most of the running time thinking “Damn, but I want to see that movie again!” The Flash animation interstitials are amusing but disposable.

If, however, you’re curious about the genre and haven’t had that much experience, it will provide you with an excellent list of where to start.

I picked the next movie almost at random. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. My kid is a big Ghost Rider fan, so its purchase was necessary. Especially when I found the Blu-Ray for cheap.

The great thing about second movies in these superhero franchises is that the origin story can be dealt with in three sentences and we can get on with the rest of the movie. (Hell, The Incredible Hulk did it under the opening credits, which was a smooth economic move). Staring 50 in the face, Nic Cage may be getting a bit old to pull off Johnny Blaze, but he can still break off major pieces of the scenery with his teeth and chew them up like few other actors will even attempt, and directors Mark Nevaldine and Brian Taylor – also responsible for the frenetic Crank movies – probably had script pages that were blank except for the words NIC GOES NUTS HERE.

The plot’s not going to dazzle you with originality: the same Devil whom Blaze made his original deal with has sired a son, and the kid is necessary for a ritual that will cement Old Scratch’s power on Earth. A radical sect offers Blaze a counter-deal: if he can find the boy and bring him safely to their Sanctuary, they will undo his satanic pact and separate him from the Rider.

Nevaldine and Taylor have a dizzying visual style they perfected in those Crank movies and is put to dazzling use here; their best addition to the Rider mythos is that any mechanical device the Rider controls is imbued with Hellfire, so we not only get to see the stock flaming motorcycle, but at one point, a flaming strip miner. The cast they put together is pretty fine, too; we find ourselves rooting for Idris Elba very early in the movie, then we get surprised by Anthony Head and Christopher Lambert.

Not stellar entertainment, but satisfying. Worth the rental for fans of frantic action, over-the-top performances, and pyrotechnics.

The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! (1972)

My greatest weakness as a writer, I have found, is that I’m just not very good at titles. I take cold comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one. How many movies are there titled Boiling PointManiacIsland of (fill in the blank)? So I get really excited – far too excited, really – when I know I absolutely must see a movie based on the title alone. Such a title – and I’ve been meaning to watch it for years – is The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!

There is no way I can not watch a movie titled that. It has, admittedly, taken me forty years to do so. I remember back in the dawn of the VHS boom, I saw a copy of it for rent, but I grabbed something else entirely. Maybe The Fantastic Animation Festival. Never regretted that. And now I know why.

Because, of course, the entertainment value of the movie is in inverse proportion to that incredible name.

That title is credited to producer William Mishkin, while the movie is the work of Andy Milligan. Milligan had a strange, troubled life; he entered the world of low-budget movies through his involvement in the off-off Broadway theatrical scene. His first movie was Vapors, a 30 minute gay movie set in a bathhouse. This got Mishkin’s attention, and Milligan was soon making low-budget sexploitation movies for Mishkin’s 42nd street theater connections. He knew where to find actors who’d work cheap and, thanks to his theater experience, knew how to build sets and make costumes.

So, really, I kind of sigh when I consider Milligan; His movies cannot be considered good, but it’s easy to see the aspirations at work. Given more than a few thousand bucks to work with and some support personnel, he might have been pretty good. But even his best work – something like The Body Beneath, say – still bears all the telling shortfalls of a creator wearing too many hats with too few tools at his disposal. Single mike recordings of dialogue, limited lighting, needle-drop music cues that cut off suddenly at scene changes…

But dammit, you see him trying. You see the actors trying. Milligan actually has some pretty good actors working for him… but they are betrayed by their material – almost always, written by Milligan. It is almost always stuff that would be ripe but tolerable on a stage, but on a movie screen, too often the kiss of ennui.

The Rats Are Comingconcerns itself with the Mooney family, in what we are eventually told is 1899 England. The period is a bit slippery here – Milligan’s costumes are serviceable for the period (if not entirely accurate – I’m particularly

Quick now – 1899? or 1972?

skeptical of one of Monica’s hats), but two of his younger actresses are quite obviously wearing 1972 hairstyles and make-up. Not that I mind. 1972 was a good year for me.

The Mooneys are a dreadfully dysfunctional family, something with which Milligan, sadly, had a lot of experience. The aged father of the clan is given to “attacks” whenever his temper is roused, and must be given increasingly frequent injections. The eldest daughter, Phoebe, is running family matters as best she can, aided by eldest brother, Mortimer. Next oldest daughter is Monica, psychotically jealous (or just plain psychotic), and another brother, Malcolm, is best described as “animal-like”. The youngest daughter, Diana, returns to the Mooney estate with a new husband in tow, much to the disdain of Pa. He sent Diana off to medical school so she could help him with his “experiments”. Dian’s husband, Gerald, starts noticing odd things, like dismembered chickens showing up in the halls and Monica jumping out of wardrobes with a knife.

Oh screw it, they’re werewolves, okay? The Mooneys are a bunch of freaking werewolves! It’s right there in the title, for God’s sake. Pa isn’t trying to cure the lycanthropy, though, he’s working on life extension – he, himself is 199 years old! Then everything goes to hell in the last ten minutes due to really bad timing, and the estate becomes werewolf central.

Now, this was the basis for Milligan’s original movie, which was called The Curse of the Full Moon, and ran only 72 minutes. “Not long enough!” yelled Mishkin, and to pad the movie out, they have a subplot where Monica goes into town to buy a new pet from Mr. McHarbor (that’s actually a pretty clever name), who sells her some rats that ate off his left arm and half his face one night when he had too much to drink. Why is there this subplot? Willard was making money at the time. And Mishkin came up with that delicious title.

The title still gets it wrong anyway, because the rats last maybe five minutes at the Mooney household, until Monica is bitten by a rubber rat (what part of “flesh-eating” didn’t you get?) and she returns them to McHarbor, demands her money back, and then sets him on fire. At least I think that’s what happens. The scene is badly lit, and Milligan’s handheld camera tends to go into Swirl-A-Vision during murder scenes. But The Rats Have Come And Gone! The Werewolves Will Be Here Eventually! just doesn’t have the same panache.

And this is what happens when you rely on “ends” for your film stock.

It turns out Monica has a friend, another girl-woman named Rebecca, who is basically a Cockney Monica. Introduced at roughly the one hour mark, the only reason Rebecca exists, besides to give the tooth-grindingly annoying Monica more screen time, is to mention that she’s seen things at the estate that ensure that Monica will hack her up bloodily.

Except. I have the Video Kart DVD of this, paired with Bloodthirsty Butchers, and the scene is scissored into incomprehension, apparently for TV. Good grief, this sort of thing drives me mad. I’ve run into this twice – while writing reviews for Shriek of the Mutilated and I Drink Your Blood – where the available tapes/discs were TV edits. Those movies – and Milligan’s horror movies – are infamous for their gore. This renders judging them on any sort of reasonable basis moot. How am I supposed to judge such an incomplete product? It’s like trying to review a G-rated version of Deep Throat. Uncut versions of the two linked movies above have surfaced on DVD, but I somehow doubt an uncut version of The Rats Are Coming is ever going to appear.

Then again, I should probably count my blessings – according to Wikipedia, the DVD currently resting on my desk does not exist.

At one point in the movie, Diana goes into town to buy a pistol. This leads to a very long scene with a comical old gunsmith who sells her a suspiciously modern-looking automatic pistol and is sweet-talked into melting down a silver crucifix for bullets. Even as you wonder why the hell this scene is taking so long (outside of padding the running time) you find yourself liking the gunsmith, he’s one of the better actors. Then you later find out the gunsmith was Andy Milligan.

Milligan the writer has a problem with circular scripts; in Rats it’s characters that keep almost saying something significant, then saying, “I’ll tell you when the time is right.” But I’ve got to say the one thread running through the movie, and whereby we finally find out what the hell is going on with the Mooneys is very well handled, if somewhat drawn out over a lot of territory; but then, I’ve never run across a truly gothic piece of fiction that I didn’t feel the same about.

At any rate, there’s a reason, I re-discover, that I measure the time between Milligan movies in years, rather than months. I find them interesting to hash out afterwards, but the actual watching… ho, boy, that can be a chore. But why take my word for it? You can download it from The Internet Archive! Not that I necessarily feel you should.

(And dear God, I love that the comments all think this is a British movie, not something shot down the street from the Staten Island Ferry! Good on you, Andy!)

And hey, here’s a trailer that gives away what is supposed to be the final Twilight Zone twist! Now you don’t have to see it!

V/H/S (2012)

As we’ve seen recently, I’m fascinated by the found footage format.  I was burbling about a horror anthology called V/H/S which was going to be nothing but found footage as interpreted by six directors (more really, there’s at least four operating under the pseudonym Radio Silence). Well, it finally became available on a number of Video On Demand venues, so I didn’t have to wait for its October theatrical debut… and I don’t like watching found footage movies in a cinema, anyway. It’s just not right.

Horror anthologies always have a framing device, and this one is fitting: a gang of hooligans who videotapes their illegal activities (like vandalism, burglaries and grabbing women to expose their breasts) get hired to pull a job that seems up their alley: breaking into a remote house and stealing a particular videocassette. Once there, they find the house’s sole occupant dead, and a lot of tapes. While the others search the house, various members of the gang check out tapes one by one…and these contain our stories.

The first story, “Amateur Night”, starts the proceedings off fairly strongly, and has one of the better devices for combating the “Why do they keep filming?” skepticism: a pair of “video glasses” with a built-in camera and microphone. Two frat boy-types pop these glasses on their nerdier friend, rent a hotel room, then start cruising the local bars. There is one woman who seems attracted to our walking camera, an odd, seemingly feral girl who only seems to know one phrase, “I like you.” Back at the hotel room, when the only other pick-up passes out, the other two men start concentrating on the Spooky Girl, with predictably (yet still somewhat surprisingly) gory results.

I should mention that Spooky Girl is effectively played by Hannah Fierman, an actress whose face I swear is 1/3 eyes. Very striking, very good performance. I’m going to say all the performances in “Amatuer Night” are pretty good, to the point of making me extremely uncomfortable. This segment seems to take a little long to get to its payoff, which is the only real criticism I can make.

You’re going to wind up in the same fix with “Second Honeymoon”, written and directed by Ti West. West has been getting some very good press with this movies House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, but I was dreadfully let down by this sequence. Very long setup, very sudden and unsatisfying payoff.

The third sequence, “Tuesday the 17th” starts yet again with a group of young people heading out into the country while some guy annoys everyone with his video camera – that’s pretty endemic to the format – but at least it’s dispensed with pretty quickly. The girl taking everyone out to her folks’ “cabin by the lake” has an agenda of her own, involving some murders at that location several years before.  The main interesting point to this story seems cribbed, however unwittingly, from the Marble Hornets web series, with a killer that screws up video signals, which at the very least leads to some interesting visuals.

No spoilers here, nope, nuh uh.

Story #4, “The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger” breaks with established form magnificently by presenting the story as series of Skype calls, instead of camcorder footage. It also has some of the most effective scares and the best twist of the movie.

The last story, “10/31/98” is about yet another group of young men who are headed out to a Halloween party on the titular date. One of the guys has built a handycam into the head of his bear costume, so there you go. Nobody is really sure where this party is located, and there’s some driving around to fill time. Once they think they’ve finally found it… well, needless to say, it’s the wrong house. It is a very wrong house, and this story has some of the best frights in the whole flick.

The build on V/H/S is very good, starting out solidly, if a bit slowly, then upping the ante through the last three tales. Sadly, I think the Ti West story could have been easily excised and produced a tighter, shorter movie. The framing story does stand on its own pretty well, with a few shocks of its own. The acting is never less than professional (though the character work in “Tuesday the 17th” is pretty cliché, which I think was the point), and even very, very good in places.

So I’m going to say, yeah, very worth the rental. If you don’t like found footage, this isn’t going to change your mind. But in a pretty tepid year for horror stories, it’s nice to find one that goes for the gusto without resorting to the simple meanness of torture, or by remaking another, more successful movie from 20 years before.

Keeping that in mind: definitely worth the rental, especially if you’re a horror fan suffering through a drought of decent material.

How to Waste A Labor Day Weekend

Ah, Labor Day. You are a welcome surcease, a chance to sleep in a bit, to attend an impromptu lunch honoring a returning comrade, a chance to catch up on this blog. You are also a cancellation of The Show, which I may find tedious, but is a vital part of my patchwork economy in these troubled times. I could moan about that, or I could drown my sorrows in crap cinema, which I did. Rick was the only one of the Four Horsemen brave enough (or, alternately, in town enough – curse you, Final Weekend of Summer!) to attend. I was determined to make a dent on The List of movies I had required myself to see this year, which left us a whoooooooole bunch of leeway in our viewing, as I still had 33 movies to go, 24 on the B-Movie List, 9 on the Quality List. How’d we do? Well, the list is now down to 30, thanks to our valiant efforts. First, though, I put on a DVD-R I had gotten from Something Weird Video. To be precise, I got it for Adventures in Balloonland, but I am saving that in retribution for Strange Beings, which was inflicted on me at the last official Crapfest. No, I went for something Rick had once expressed interest in, even though he will deny it: the unaired pilot for a children’s TV show, Polly Pockets.

The King and Queen of Gloom. There goes the budget.

As the box copy points out, Polly Pockets has nothing to do with the toy line of pocket-size dolls; Polly Pockets is an effervescent brunette with a skirt composed of nothing but pockets, and theoretically anything can be pulled from them. Her accomplice is a Royal Dano-type named Dandy Andy, who is notable for failing at everything in a komedic fashion. At one point, Polly pulls something – an onion? – out of a pocket, reminding her of her trip to the Castle of Gloom, at which point the entire thing turns into a community theater production of Marat/Sade complete with songs. We were especially appreciative of the King and Queen of Gloom, whose crowns were so-very-obviously made of construction paper. The King’s was decorated with Magic Marker, but the Queen’s had some fancy glue-and-glitter detailing. Rick pointed out that the box copy also promised “A Visit to Santa”, and we figured what the hell, we’re here, and proceeded to suffer through the worst damned Christmas themed thing we had endured since The Magic Christmas Tree. Two kids write and ask Santa if they can visit him at the North Pole, and Santa – I’ve seen worse Santa beards, but not many – thinks, “Well, it’s Christmas Eve, my busiest night of the year… but what the hell,” and sends an elf to pick them up and bring them to his split-level ranch living room so they can tour some shopping center Christmas displays. Just when it starts to get really stultifying, apparently Something Weird thought, “Christ, this is boring,” and slapped in a puppet show.

But this is not just any puppet show. No, this is Labor Day weekend, after all, so this is a Union puppet show. I am duty-bound to inform you that I Cannot Make Shit Like This Up. That title card just sort of passed us by, but then we find ourselves confronted by the happy worker puppet, telling us the sammich his wife made was so good, it practically had a beer on top. He is then bedeviled by some sort of boxer with a glass bottle for a body, who claims he is “the champion”, only to be set straight by the Worker, who informs him that the AFL-CIO is the true champion. The scene then changes to a kitchen, where another glass-bottle homunculus tells us how safe he is because he’s sterilized, which gets reallllllllly creepy when the Mom puppet shows up to be told how she needs more sterile men like himself in her life (for instance, she had been buying milk in those horrible opaque paper cartons and last evening, when she discovered it was actually empty, her husband almost left her!) . The camera keeps cutting to an audience of children who must actually be at a Howdy Doody taping or something, because they are not banging at the doors begging to be released. Then it ends, threatening us with “50 TV stations”. I don’t know what that was about, and I sure as hell ain’t going back to find out. Until I spring this on the next Crapfest, anyway, because the workers control the means of production.

Well, enough of our civic duties, it was movie time, We started off with Big Bad Mama, something I had been trying to work into a Crapfest for ages. Pity I never did get it in, because the first bare breast shot is about two minutes into the movie, and the boys of Crapfest dearly love their gratuitous nudity.

Roger Corman had a nice little cottage industry remixing Bonnie and Clyde throughout the early 70s. This time the gang is all-female, Mama (Angie Dickinson) and her two nubile daughters (Susan Sennett and Robbie Lee), trying to make it in 1932 East Texas. If you actually live in East Texas, this will amuse you, as mountainous Southern California is not really a good match. Anyway, the girls wind up helping hapless bank robber Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt) whose heist is going terribly wrong, and thus begin their lives as felons. Mom sleeps with Diller while the girls fume over the unfairness of it all, until Mom runs into William Baxter, a smooth con man who takes Diller’s place in bed, while the two girls share the discarded Diller.

The plot structure owes a lot to Corman’s own Bloody Mama, with stress in the gang finally leading up to a kidnapping that goes wrong. Throughout, you can sense the presence of Corman, doubtless wearing a green visor and holding an open accounting ledger, nudging director Steve Carver and saying, “Excuse me, but we haven’t had a bare boob in almost four minutes.”

Yes, once again we find ourselves ogling Angie Dickinson’s unclad charms, and viewers of a certain age can get a bit of a pleasurable thrill by realizing that this hit the drive-ins just as Police Woman was gearing up on TV. Now a word about Shatner: I have always liked Shatner, even – perhaps especially – when he goes way over the top. There’s not a lot of it here, but I will say this: he doesn’t cheat in his nude scenes. America being what it is, the little Shatner isn’t going to hove into view, but it comes close. By God, if Angie was going to be in the altogether, so was he.

In a less salacious light: there is one scene where, in the foreground, Dickinson and Skerritt are having a yelling, screaming argument. In the background is Shatner, who, with no lines, no blocking, still manages to steal the scene. I have to respect that.

Then came the Blu-Ray (!) of The Exterminator, starring Robert “Paper Chase” Ginty, embarking on his 80s career as an action hero. Exterminator  spends a lot of money in its pre-credit sequence, showing Steve James saving Ginty’s life in Vietnam. Then we go to New York, where Steve James again saves Ginty’s ass from a gang called the Ghetto Ghouls. You might think be thinking “Hey, I hope this movie is about Steve James,” but stop thinking like that, because the Ghouls mug James the next day, breaking his neck and paralyzing him for life. Ginty starts thinking positively, tracks down the people responsible, and lets them get eaten by rats.

Hey, good movie, you might say, but no, we are only 20 minutes in. Ginty then goes about stealing money from the local head of the Beef Mafia (the cops refer to them as “meat mobsters”) to take care of James’ family. The meat mobster doesn’t tell Ginty about the trained attack dog at his house, so once Ginty dispatches the dog with an electric carving knife, he feeds the mafioso through an industrial grinding machine.

We still got tons of movie left, so Ginty just sort of starts wandering around, looking for lowlifes who need exterminating. He finds them in great plenitude in 1980 New York. There is also, needless to say, a cop on his trail: no less than Christopher George, who, like Ginty, is going to be going back and forth between USA and Italian sound stages a lot in those years. George’s story is teased out over most of the movie – very slowly teased out because we spend a lot of time on his romance with a doctor played by Samantha Eggar, which slows the plot down to a crawl.

The most interesting bit is when Ginty pulls out what we referred to as his “Vietnam Box”, a case holding a ton of weapons, including grenades, that he supposedly stole from the Army. Later, when he has a solid lead on The Exterminator, George reaches into his locker and pulls out his own Vietnam Box, with a .45 auto and a tactical shotgun.

We also get some political intrigue, which feels rather half-cooked and shoe-horned in. There’s CIA agent demanding information from George because “The Exterminator… is making the incumbent look bad.” Man! Politics! Can’t even get away from it in a crap movie!

I have to say, The Exterminator  does deliver on what it promises. If you want a gritty Death Wish type rip-off, you could do a lot worse (I know I have). And that Synapse Blu-Ray is gorgeous.

Next up: a movie my pal Dave has been pestering me to see forever: The Cell.

In The Cell, there is an experimental procedure that allows a child therapist (Jennifer Lopez) to journey into the mindscape of a catatonic boy. The procedure is suddenly, urgently pressed into use to send Lopez into the mind of a comatose serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio), to attempt to find his latest victim before she is killed in an automated death trap.

This is Tarsem Singh’s first movie, and his penchant for manipulated images serves the trips into mental spaces quite well. Rick tells me this is a pre-nose job Lopez, and I’ll trust him on that. If there were any misgivings about Lopez as an actress, The Cell should have put them away; she does very well. D’Onofrio is, as usual, fantastic, though I think there are a few times that Singh either let him, or directed him to, go too far. Vince Vaughn is the federal agent tracking down D’Onofrio, and it was shocking to see how thin the 2000 Vaughn was.

If I have one problem with the script, it’s that when Vaughn figures out how to find the death box (after he himself has a traumatic trip into D’Onofrio’s mind), the clue that he’s sussed out is so obvious, it could only have been missed by sloppy detective work. Given the number of men working on the scene, it’s pretty unlikely.

If I have two problems with the movie, it’s that it bears some resemblance to a script I wrote back in college. My tragic mistake? I didn’t think to put a serial killer in the plot. What was I thinking?

A good enough movie. I don’t think I would have been more impressed with the visuals in 2000, though. There is just some level that it doesn’t engage me like I feel it should. I don’t delight in the process of discovery, so it fails as mystery (I’ve already bitched about that final clue). It’s not intense enough to qualify as horror, but it does come close a couple of times. It is even too busy trying to tell a touching story as Lopez struggles to save the little boy version of D’Onofrio trapped in his head to qualify as a thriller or a science fiction story. It’s an odd creature, not fish, not fowl, and I can’t find its own terms to meet it on.

But enough of that flighty stuff. We ended the evening with Women in Cages, classy fare if there ever was.

I think this may be at the start of Corman’s Filipino Women In Prison cycle; it’s directed by Gerardo de Leon, an old pro in the Philippine film market – you can thank him, at the very least,  for two of the Blood Island movies and Terror Is A Man, a surprisingly effective Island of Dr. Moreau rip-off. So Women in Cages is a well-made, efficient WIP movie, with the usual demeaning work in the sugar cane fields, showers, and catfights.

One of the very few things that sets it apart from its kin is the casting of Pam Grier as a bad guy, the Chief Matron, Alabama, a lesbian who picks her lovers from the convict pool and has a torture chamber stocked with bizarre instruments called “The Playpen”.  Alabama – who’s from Harlem, go figure – has issues, to be sure, not the least of which is the immediate assumption that the three Americans under her charge are “racist bitches”.

Alabama gets taken hostage when our heroines, such as they are, escape, and finds herself on the receiving end for a change, then in deep trouble as the savage hunters – whose job it is to bring escapees back dead or alive, usually dead – assume she is also an escapee.

There is hell of backstory here – our main prisoner is only guilty of trusting the wrong man, who is trying to have her killed in prison, and after a while you lose track of who’s double-crossing who, and then we’re back where the movie started, on a floating whorehouse where the same topless dancer has apparently been dancing for the past three months without a break. Some guy who I didn’t know was a cop for most of the movie rescues our heroine, leaving her junkie cellmate (who was the one trying to kill her) to her floating whorehouse duties in a pretty disquieting ending. Serves her right, I guess.

Women in Cages isn’t quite up to the follow-ups, Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, both directed by Jack Hill, which had a lot of subversive humor buried in them. Also missing is Vic Diaz. I demand Vic Diaz in all my Filipino movies, because whenever he’s around, I’m sure to be delighted with the results. Diaz retired in 2001, but he’s apparently still alive. If that is indeed so, I hope he’s well, and continues to have a long, happy life.

Vic Diaz! Praise his usefulness! (ululate)

This may be the only place on the Web where you can start out talking about the quantity and quality of boob shots in movies and wind up with a love letter to Vic Diaz. (Actually, I can think of several other places where that could be the case, but never mind that) That is the world of crap cinema in a nutshell, my friends: you often start in one place, then the journey takes you to another, surprising place. The trick is often finding a way to enjoy that journey.