Hunting Halloween, Part 1

While things moved around and clicked and cackled over the last week or so, I would find myself with some time, but not a lot of time, or if it was a lot of time, it was at the waning end of a long day, So what to do with that time? Watch movies, but not have time to write about them. That’s the cartoon snowball rolling down a mountain and growing into a giant all-devouring globe of hungry ice that is my life.

I’m staring down the barrel of beginning of a new writing project in the next week or so – in fact, the first step of that was what rolled over my Sunday. So pretty soon, my time for staring at a blank piece of virtual paper is going to be spent in the service of another master. Sorry. But this one will be paying me money.

So I better write about that growing list while I still can.

First there was the run-up to Halloween.

In any book or article about Hong Kong movies in general, or Asian horror movies in particular, you’re going to run into Black Magic (1975) a lot. This was an attempt to catch the wave of Western horror that was sweeping the markets in the wake of The Exorcist, a movie that moved HK cinema beyond ghost stories and into the land of the extreme. Black Magic kicks off a cinematic trend that would eventually lead to outrageous stuff like Centipede Horror and Seeding of a Ghost. As I started exploring Asian cinema in the early 90s, I had to take what I could get, so Seeding was one of my first experiences; it’s no wonder that Black Magic seems tame by comparison.

It starts strongly enough, with our Black Magician slicing off pieces of a corpse (handily stored in his hut) and burning them in a ritual to send a death spell at a philandering husband and his lover. Our White Magician shows up at the murder scene, immediately deduces who did this horrible thing, and starts a spell that sends horrible things back at Black Magician, who manages to escape while his hut collapses and burns.

Well, enough of that, though. In the big city, a youthful Ti Lung plays an architect who is being stalked by an incredibly horny (but rich) widow played by Lily Li. Ti wants nothing to do with her though, planning to marry his sweetheart. When a spurned gigolo (played by Lo Lieh, no less) hires the Black Magician to put a love spell on Lilly so he can get his hands on her money, Black accurately sizes up the Gigolo’s character and only applies a one-night spell. Lilly forces the Gigolo to tell her about the Black Magician, and visits him to place the Architect under her spell for a year. The love spell is applied on his wedding day, and Ti leaves his bride at the reception.

When the spurned bride and Ti’s friends try to find out what the hell is going on, Lilly pays the Black Magician to put the Death Hoodoo on the bride; Her landing in the hospital, her body riddled with parasitic worms leads an old retainer to remember the White Magician of his youth. White cures her by ramming a bamboo straw in her back so the worms crawl out (ew), and the battle for Ti Lung begins in earnest.

The trappings of the various spells are intriguing: pieces of corpses, human breast milk, centipedes (White has the best line when Ti Lung is recovering from his first bout of bewitchment: “Feed him these centipedes in the morning. He’ll come to his senses for a while.”). The structure is a bit repetitive, though, with Ti under the spell, then rescued, then put under the spell again, to pad out the running time. The climactic battle between the Black and White Magicians is supposed to wow you, of course, with Black pulling out all sorts of skull mirrors and a rotting head that shoots green laser beams, but all it really does is convince you that William Girdler saw it while working out the ending for The Manitou all cartoon ray blasts and lightning. As the first of its kind, it commands some respect, but make sure you see it before any of its weirder and grosser and more insane progeny.

Next up was Ravenous (1999) yet another movie on my list of Stuff I Hadn’t Seen But It Was High Time I Did. In its heyday, it had lots of Internet buzz, many of my friends positively love it, I’ve had this copy forever. So. Time to watch it.

Ravenous is a deuced odd movie.

Disturbed Mexican-American War veteran Boyd (Guy Pearce) is exiled to Fort Spencer, a remote, ramshackle frontier outpost populated by damaged individuals. He arrives just in time for a horror story from a bedraggled refugee  (Robert Carlyle) whose wagon train, trapped in winter storms, turned to cannibalism. The commanding officer (Jeffrey Jones) states, rightly enough, “This is what we’re here for,” and leads most of the fort – five men – to investigate. Things go rather downhill for everyone from there, and half the fun of Ravenous is watching these berserk circumstances develop.

I had a general idea of the subject matter and how the story would develop (and as two of the characters at the Fort are Native Americans, you just know the Wendigo legend is going to pop up); but what I wasn’t prepared for was how it developed. The Wendigo legend states that whenever a man turns to eating the flesh of another man, this is all he ever wants, forever. Another thread of cannibal legend – that by eating another person, you gain their strength and vitality – is also laden all through the movie, and presented as absolutely true – characters are saved from mortal wounds by the rapid healing engendered by a diet of long pig. That kind of caught me unawares.

It was like watching that episode of Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos that presents voodoo black magic, including voodoo dolls and zombies, to be absolutely real, which is not the sort of thing you expect in a children’s cartoon. That sort of disconnect.

(Where else can you find a discussion about cannibalism, Chuck Norris, and cartoons? The Internet, ladies and gentlemen!)

It is amazing Ravenous exists at all, given the oddness of the story, and its troubled history. The original director was sacked two weeks into production and replaced by Antonia Bird, largely a TV director, who rises to the challenge magnificently. I daresay having a woman at the helm helped to punch up the black comedy quotient quite a bit, because this is truly what this is: jet black comedy wrapped in a horror movie masquerading as a Western. I can’t say I love it as much as my friends, but it is a unique movie, well worth seeing.

Saturday morning belonged to Drive Angry (2011), another movie that had gotten good buzz. As I recall, I bought this Blu-Ray at a Black Friday sale last year for $5.00.

And finally, here is a movie I can be enthusiastic about.

Nicolas Cage plays the appropriately named John Milton, a hardass felon who breaks out of Hell because the Satanic cult who murdered his daughter is now planning to sacrifice his infant granddaughter during the next full moon. Milton teams up with Piper (Amber Heard). a similarly hardass ex-waitress who’s not afraid to throw a punch or shoot a gun. Besides the apparently limitless number of murderous cult members standing in his way, there’s also the small matter of a demon named The Accountant (William Fichtner, who is having a grand time) sent to bring Milton back to Hell. Fortunately, Milton also stole an arcane weapon called The Godkiller…

It has been a long time since I’ve seen a movie like this deliver on all its promises. Action-packed, dripping with sardonic humor, gory, loud, profane. Why in the hell this movie was not a bigger hit is beyond me, but then I also have to admit that my tastes are somewhat more rarefied than that of the rest of the movie-going public. The fact that its smart enough to give Tom Atkins an extended cameo only enhances it in my eyes.

If I have two cavils about Drive Angry, it’s these: the movie seems to owe a debt to author Richard Kadrey’s punk-occult-neo-noir Sandman Slim novels; and the sex-during-a-gun-fight scene was done in one of my other favorite stupid over-the-top action movies, Shoot ‘Em Up. Then, Hollywood has always rather been like Ravenous, anyway: constantly eating its dead. So why I should be surprised to find DNA from other movies is a measure of my naiveté, I suppose.

Anyway, yeah, I dug Drive Angry. Much better Ghost Rider movie than either of the flicks bearing that name.

I haven’t even hit Halloween yet, and we’re already over 1500 words. We’ll leave on a high note, and pick this up later.

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