Madwomen Across The Water: Two Horror Movies From The Early 70s

I’m a lifelong Texan. This is due to a lot of factors, not the least of which is my tendency toward inertia. Financial, business, all my friends are here, all my family is here… it ain’t the climate that keeps me around. I hate being hot. I hate being hot in a steambath, which is a fair description of summers around here. I would have split for parts with a more temperate-to-frigid tradition, except for… you know. Then again, I’d have to admit I’d be spending my time bitching about shoveling the sidewalk.

So we had an Arctic Event here last Friday , by which I mean No One Cares. At All. There were icicles on my mailbox. There was ice on my car, and more importantly, there was some ice on roadways. Nothing compared to what our Northern friends were experiencing, but when you live in a swamp, you do not build an igloo; we simply do not have the infrastructure for such weather. It was uncommon for these parts, but I still sort of feel there was a general overreaction. School districts and colleges shut down, which was my work day shot right there (in fact, the next day, when all this stuff had melted and it was sweater weather at best, I went to the campus and it was still locked down). My regular Friday night show was cancelled too, and when I stopped counting the money this enforced day off was costing me, I decided to have a little mini-film-festival, so I could pretend I was up in Chicago, at B-Fest, without all the shouting and slowly growing body funk.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

messiah_evil_1973_image-25Before the Frost Giants came to visit, I made use of a night off to watch Messiah of Evil, an oddity from 1973 . In it, a young lady named Arletty (Marianna Hill) goes to an insular seaside California town to find her missing artist father (who will turn out, eventually, to be Royal Dano). The townspeople are spectacularly unhelpful, if not downright hostile. She finds her father’s journal, which chronicles his apparent descent into madness – apparent except for the fact that Arletty’s experience begins to mirror his. She is joined by peripatetic curiosity seeker Thom (Michael Greer, better known as a comedian) and his two female (and somewhat mysterious) traveling companions (Anitra Ford and Joy Bang).

Messiah of Evil 2There is some mythology hanging around in the background about a Dark Preacher who passed through the community 100 years before, and walked into the ocean with a promise to return in, yes, a hundred years. Packs of townspeople spend the night on the beach, keeping warm with bonfires, doing nothing but staring out to the ocean, waiting. And when the moon turns red, the whole town turns into Night of the Living Dead. Well, we’re told that it’s when the moon turns red, but we see anti-social flesh-eating behavior from the townsfolk on regular nights, too.

Eventually our Scooby Gang is whittled down to just Thom and Arletty – and Arletty has already confronted her supposedly dead father, and is pretty far down the same path he was on – bleeding from the eyes (a sure sign of trouble in the town), inability to feel pain, general insanity. They try to escape hordes of violent townsfolk apparently come to eat them, but then…

…the movie runs out of money.

muralIn the extras of Code Red DVD‘s superb presentation of Messiah of Evil, co-writers and co-directors Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck talk about schlepping the mostly completed movie around LA, trying to get the money to finish it, and meeting with general disdain. Finally the legal squabbles between investors were settled, and they surrendered the work print, which was hurriedly completed, probably with existing footage, and released. The story gets, shall we say, rather rushed there at the end. A common enough story in Hollywoodland.

And that, oddly enough, works in favor of the movie. There’s already a Lovecraftian air to the proceedings, and what Huyck and Katz didn’t get to shoot – the rest of the backstory, explaining the Dark Preacher and what nefarious outcome he hoped to accomplish with all this flesh-eating and Blood Moon stuff – that goes unexplained. And inexplicable circumstances is the tentpole of Lovecraft-style horror.

messiah marketHere in the hyper-cynical ‘teens of a new century, it’s easier to appreciate the general tone of Messiah of Evil. My first reaction was that it was Lovecraft by way of Lynch through Argento’s sensibilities. Arletty’s encounters with the townspeople, and Thom and his mini-harem, the father’s beach house with its disorienting murals, all feel distinctly Lynchian; witness Arletty’s first encounter with Thom & Co., when a motel door opens to reveal none other than a disheveled Elisha Cook, Jr. relating a horror story of local events, apparently directly to her (it’s to Thom and his tape recorder).

hallwayThe way in which the plot unfolds, the camerawork, the reliance on narration, the dreamlike interactions between people, the lighting… it all feels positively European, and given the supernatural events, my mind drifts to Argento’s Suspiria, except without such a saturated color pallet. Hearing Huyck and Katz talk about their admiration for French film and their attempts to emulate it in the disc’s extras made me feel better – at least I got the continent right.

The cast they assembled is also surprisingly solid for the limited budget, and has plenty of genre clout. Royal Dano and Elisha Cook, Jr. require no introduction, and were probably there for a day each, at most. Marianna Hill has a varied resume, reaching from The Traveling Executioner, Blood Beach  and Schizoid all the way to Godfather Part II. Anitra Ford’s career is pretty much centered in the 70s, where she was mainly known as a model on The Price is Right, but pervert that I am, I mainly know her from The Big Bird Cage. Joy Bang – who always looked 14, no matter how old she really was (and she’s about 26 or 27 here) is probably best known for Night of the Cobra Woman, and she called it quits on her acting career soon after this movie.

Messiah theater(Another odd note is… oh, ahem, SPOILER ALERT …when Joy’s character buys it, she’s in a movie theater that slowly fills up with zombified townspeople, a chillingly effective scene. Though the movie she’s watching is supposed to be Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, it’s actually Gone With the West, also known as Little Moon and Jud McGraw, which stars Sammy Davis Jr., James Caan and Stefanie Powers. That couldn’t have been cheap to license. It also has a release year of 1975, so I have no earthly idea of what the hell is going on here, appropriately enough.)

(Future me jumps in to mention that is probably a trailer for Gone With the West, as trailers do not have such complex licensing  problems. But man, Messiah would have you believe it’s an amazingly long trailer!)

Messiah of Evil was a genuine surprise to me. Incomplete, but fairly unique in its approach and subject matter. The sequences involving Ford and Bang’s fatal encounters with the townspeople are very good, especially for a low-budget movie from a first-time director. You start wondering what Willard Huyck did afterwards. Unfortunately, the answer to that is Howard the Duck.

(That was cheap and mean and the easy way out. Huyck and Katz also wrote American Graffiti and wrote and directed French Postcards, which I thought was a pretty good movie.)

lets_scare_jessica_to_death_poster_01So then, what am I to think when the first of our Arctic Events hits (I’m typing this during the second one) and I start my little mini-fest with Let’s Scare Jessica to Death?

This movie wasn’t what I expected; that title gives you the impression a plot is afoot, and it is not (oh, yeah, spoiler alert again). Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has only recently been released from a mental institution. Her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman), a concert cellist, has sunk all his money into an old house with an attached apple orchard, intending to become a gentleman farmer and using this idyllic life to help his wife recuperate. Their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) comes along for the ride. They find Emily (Mariclare Costello) a red-headed hippie chick squatting in the house, and seeing how attracted Woody is to her, they wind up asking her to stay.

If you’re thinking that the townspeople are going to be stand-offish if not downright hostile, you’re right. They all seem to be wearing bandages or nursing woundsof some sort. Duncan and Jessica find a fellow transplant, an antique dealer originally from New York, (Alan Manson), who’s willing to tell them about their new home and its unfortunate history, how one of the girls drowned in the lake and now haunts the woods as “a vampire or something”. There’s some spooky girl haunting the woods alright, and Jessica keeps seeing something in the lake, beckoning to her under the surface. Then she notices that in an old photo of the previous occupants found in the attic (that was sold to the antique dealer but somehow crops back up) one of the daughters looks a lot like Emily…

lets-scare-jessica-to-death-jessicaOne of the best things about Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is that the movie keeps the viewer just as off-kilter as the title character, often unsure of what is actually happening or even what just happened. The actual reality of events is always in question, and the fact that almost all of the events happen during broad daylight, a direct violation of everything that is held dear and traditional in a horror movie, just makes everything that much more disorienting. This is also another movie where the sound design is an uncredited cast member, adding to the viewer’s growing unease.

Lampert is phenomenal as Jessica, walking a razor’s edge of panic and brittle bravery in the face of her recent “sickness” and resultant unreliability. Mariclare Costello, as the vampire-or-something Emily, also walks a tightrope of intentions; we’re never quite sure what she’s all about until the third act. Both women went on to lengthy acting careers deservedly so. The men, unfortunately, are just there to be manipulated, which is another reason this movie stands out in the horror field: the women do all the heavy lifting.  The men are there mainly to be culled.

(I should also indulge in another of my annoying asides to mention that the main actors deserve extra props just for getting into that lake over and over again, especially with all the nice pans over that gorgeous Connecticut fall foliage, all bright red and yellow… it’s late Fall, and that water must be freezing.)

lets-scare-jessica-to-death-watery-ghostWriter/Director John D. Hancock has an enormous set of brass gonads for even attempting to make a horror movie that unspools in the daylight, and he earns them by largely succeeding. When most people discuss him, they point to his later movie Prancer, but for my money his best movie is Weeds (which he also wrote), starring Nick Nolte.

The juxtaposition of these two movies so close together in my experience was so jarring because in many ways they are so similar: both open and close in a circular fashion, with the main character in isolation, narrating. This snippet of prose is repeated at the end, and of course, the second instance has a much heavier meaning due to what has transpired in the previous 90 minutes. Both women are insane. Both have to deal with bizarre, cultish townspeople. And both are bedeviled by things lurking in a nearby body of water.

Lets_scare_Jessica_to_death_Trailer_1971__154728 (1)Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, when it was re-released by Warner Archive, was touted as a Lovecraftian tale, which I don’t see at all: it is Lovecraftian only in that the events are never fully explained, outside of Emily being “a vampire or something”. Messiah is the more genuinely Lovecraftian of the two, with its unknown and unknowable mythology lurking around the periphery in the land of unshot footage. Jessica is more a ghost story with teeth (perhaps literally), if not a sheer examination of the horror of a decaying mind, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Messiah is like Shadow Over Innsmouth re-imagined after a viewing of Night of the Living Dead.

Jessica precedes Messiah by a good two years, minus whatever time it took for Messiah’s finances to get ironed out and the movie released in its unfortunately incomplete form. Did one inspire the other? I can’t say; the common elements are such sturdy pieces of storytelling boilerplate that I can’t really judge. Sometimes the disparate pieces of a tale, floating around in the collective ether, fly together on their own, and two or more similar stories are crafted. Witness Dredd and The Raid: Redemption for a more recent example.

messiah_of_evilBut there is one thing for sure: they are both good, if odd, horror stories, well worth watching. Though I should also mention that both are going to be pretty much dismissed by the modern horror fan, with their deliberate pacing and lack of gouts of blood – Jessica moreso than Messiah.

That’s something else they have in common.

The Zatoichi Box, Part Five

$150-$200? Really?

$150-$200? Really? That’s fifty bucks an episode.

I’ve been watching the movies contained in the Criterion Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman box for over a month now; it’s odd to consider that I’m nearing the end of them – only seven to go. Then, of course, I have managed to track down five of the six collections of the TV series put out by Tokyo Shock around 2008 – and does anybody have any earthly idea why the second volume of that now commands upward of $150? Also saving my pennies for the out-of-print disc TS put out of Zatoichi: Darkness is His Ally, Shintaro Katsu’s 1989 swan song to the character. So I will continue to be Ichi-fied for some time.

Meanwhile, still moving through the 60s pictures:

Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)

62.jpg?w=584For someone who could give Daredevil a run for his money, Ichi really does have some of the worst timing ever. To pay for his hospitality, a disagreeable yakuza Boss sends Ichi along with a party of six thugs to force a ne’er-do-well to cough up the thirty ryo he owes. When the target douses the lantern in his hovel and sends the sighted yakuza bleeding out into the night, Ichi has to step in – after all, darkness makes no difference to him – and though Ichi explains matters to him, the guy still insists on attacking, with the usual fatal result. This occurs just as the man’s sister appears with the money to pay his debt.

That’s bad enough, but then the Boss’ regulars announce they’re also taking the woman prisoner as interest on the debt, which is when Ichi steps in. Turns out the entire thing was an elaborate scheme to press the woman into service to the local corrupt magistrate, so the Boss would get a lucrative concession at a new palace, or something. Ichi tells the Boss that ain’t happening, kills a thug who called him a “blind bastard” once too often, and then takes it upon himself to get the girl, Osode (Yoshiko Mita) safely to her aunt in a nearby town. osodeOsode is, shall we say, conflicted about receiving help from the man who killed her brother, but the Boss’ men are still following her, and there is a troublesome ronin (Makoto Sato, a popular action star in his own right), who has eyes on Osode, and also on a huge bounty on Ichi’s head. Osode keeps sneaking off from Ichi’s care, only to find herself captured once more, and at one point Ichi, desperate to catch up with her, basically steals a horse to cover ground more quickly – then realizes he has absolutely no idea how to stop a horse.

Comic actor Takuya Fujioka, a friend of Katsu’s, plays Shinsuke, another peripatetic yakuza who is something of a bungler, but in whom Ichi still finds a staunch ally. Once more Kenji Misumi directs a splendid action picture, full of gorgeous natural vistas and nicely choreographed sword fights. I’m a bit dismayed at Ichi actually cheating at dice, and at least one instance of questionable physics, but overall Misumi once again delivers a fine Zatoichi movie, and if the traditionally complex plot is absent, at least this time Ichi isn’t bleeding to death as he walks off into the sunset. I worry about him, you know.zatoichi-19-samaritan-zatoichi

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO JPAnd here we are, the first Zatoichi movie I ever watched, some 25 years ago or so. It was fairly available back in the days of the first VHS wave, largely due to the name recognition factor of Toshiro Mifune and Yojimbo. I frequented a video store back then that had an amazing catalog of foreign movies. (Also cheapass straight-to-video horror movies, but that is a story for another time.)

This was a collaboration between Katsu Productions and Toho. The previous movie, Samaritan Zatoichi, had been released almost two years before, a telling gap when previously, Daiei had been releasing three a year for some time. It is also the longest of the Zatoichi movies at nearly two hours, when others had run just short of 90 minutes. All these factors serve to make this a rather novel entry in the series; but the major component setting this movie apart remains the presence of Toshiro Mifune, and the concurrent doubling of star power, for better or worse.

The movie opens with a nightmarish scene, a marsh during a rainstorm, where everybody out in the storm is preying upon everybody else. Ichi breaks his sword dealing with one attacker, and becomes overcome with homesickness. He returns to his home village for the first time in three years; he delights in the familiar sound of a stream, not seeing the dead bodies rotting in its waters. He bypasses a bizarre improvised graveyard unaware of the rough carvings of monks serving as tombstones. zatoichi_meets_yojimboThings have changed in the last three years. The village has been taken over by the rich merchant Eboshiya (Osamu Takizawa), and a rival gang formed by his son, the hyperactive Masagoro (Masakane Yonekura), who relies, both for muscle and for strategy, on his bodyguard, Sassa (Mifune). When Sassa isn’t drunk or making time with local prostitute Umeno (Ayako Wakao), he’s egging Masagoro on about a bar of gold the Boss is certain his father is hiding somewhere. There is some skullduggery afoot regarding gold there, but it’s not what one would suspect.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention Ichi in that last paragraph. He is there, but seems almost a guest star in his own movie. The necessity of devoting screen time to Mifune and developing his character is what adds the extra time to the movie. Despite what many people insist, although Mifune is playing a yojimbo, a bodyguard, he is not playing Sanjuro, the subject of two Kurosawa movies. Really, Sanjuro was far too similar to Zatoichi to be used in this story – a rough and tumble traveler who altruistically did the right thing and protected the weak against the worst elements of a corrupt world. The character of Sassa is not quite so complex, but has his secrets – and some of those secrets run counter to Sanjuro’s character.

image31355Eboshiya eventually brings in another bodyguard, Kuzuryu (a properly cadaverous Shin Akida), who turns out to be the sort of villain Sassa pretends to be, while still having a surprising connection to the yojimbo. As with all other Zatoichi flicks, the threads come together in the end, but unlike most of them, the loose ends just sort of flail together in a mass instead of the usual tidy bundle.

Both Katsu and Mifune could be legendary troublemakers on the set, and a legend about the two disagreeing about who would win the final duel persists, but seems wildly unlikely. Would Mifune really think he would be allowed to end a successful series, 20 entries long? I kind of doubt that, but I could also see Katsu and Mifune pranking the world with the idea. Good publicity, too. Zatoichi-Meets-Yojimbo-1965The revisiting of Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo at this remove did give me one insight, into why I never bothered before to seriously look into the series, even when Animeigo released the series domestically back in the early part of the century. Again, it’s due to the presence of Mifune and the necessary focus put on his character. I find I don’t care much for Ichi’s character in this outing, outside of a few outstanding comedic bits, and that is the impression I carried with me for the next twenty-five years or so.

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)

zatoichi-goes-to-the-fire-festival (1)This is the first film in the series where star Shintaro Katsu has a co-writing credit, and I wish I were clever enough to ascertain exactly where his contributions lie. I’m tempted to say it’s some of the more outrageous comedy bits, but that’s just guesswork on my part.

Ichi rescues a woman from a “mistress auction” (earlier translations called it a “geisha auction”), who had been “wife to a retainer of the Shogun”. That night, she steals Ichi’s wallet, and runs into a moody samurai who she recognizes – and says not a word as he kills her. Turns out this ronin (played by Tatsuya Nakadai, sixteen times more intense and crazy than his role in Sword of Doom) was the lady’s husband, and he’s determined to kill everybody she ever slept with – and that includes Ichi, although he’s innocent.

ichi_twentyoneBut that, my friends, is mere subplot. Ichi’s real problem is the yakuza Superboss Yamikubo (Masayuki Mori), who has united all the gangs in the region under his control – and is, himself, blind. Yamikubo is aware of what a nuisance this Zatoichi chap can be, and when an ambush in a bathhouse fails (probably nerve-wracking to shoot, even with blunt swords and all that exposed man-flesh), the Superboss reveals why he holds that high position. He rightly feels that throwing more knives at Ichi isn’t going to work, and takes the opposite tack: he sends the daughter of his right hand man, the lovely Okiyo (Reiko Ohara) to get close enough to kill our favorite masseur. z21_3Though Ichi is charmed by the young lady, Okiyo (of course) falls in love with Ichi, his lack of guile and his decency. This will lead up to Yamikubo’s ultimate death trap (of which the title is an ironic clue) and the final showdown between two blind adversaries – not to mention that troublesome and now completely insane ronin, who shows up when Ichi is about to drown in yakuza, announces “No one kills this man but me,” and proceeds to turn into a combination of Lone Wolf and a threshing machine.

Kenji Misumi is back in the director’s chair for this one, and though the movie betrays its 1970 origins with a number of Eurocine snap-zooms and close-ups through telephoto lenses, Misumi’s visual flair and penchant for truly lovely natural vistas to set his scenes against is stronger than ever. z21_1Outstanding in the comedy department is a really odd scene with a man and a woman running a roadside tea stand who bicker more than the Kramdens, but with the added appeal of flying kicks. I wanted to see more of them, but it’s probably best that Katsu obeys the laws of showbiz, and leaves me wanting more. There is another, stranger character in wannabe yakuza and amateur pimp Umeji (played by transgender actor Peter, likely best known to American audiences for his role in Ran), an androgynous youth who looks like an anime character. At one point, he attempts to seduce Ichi and assassinate him. It’s played for laughs, but I’m still trying to parse if my discomfort with that scene is due to my sexual orientation or that it’s played for laughs. I may never figure that out.

So here I am, four movies out – not counting TV series and swan song – and I’m feeling more and more of a need to take a break from Ichi. This may only be a matter of a week or so. Maybe a little longer. But we’ll come back to this glorious box and finish it out, sooner rather than later.

Chapter 9: Some Blithering

I’m in the bizarre, unenviable position of having too much to do, yet not being able to do any of it. I’m waiting on too many phone calls or e-mails to be returned, I have a teleconference coming up in two hours, which would be an okay space to pop in a movie but I’d feel like I was cramming it into that space, like a book slapped on top of other books on a shelf just to get it out of the way. That’s a bulky, cumbersome analogy, but I’m also operating on short sleep rations, so that’s all I’ve got.

So I might as well just ramble on here.

netflixageddon0413At the end of the year there was another “streamageddon” panic when a bunch of movies got cleared off Netflix Instant. Cooler heads attempted to prevail, some pointing out that licensing arrangements usually began or ended at the, yes, beginning or end of the month, and we seem to go through this at least twice a year when a bunch of licenses expire. A lot of the movies come back, some don’t.

Link that to something I see at least once a day on Twitter: “What? Why isn’t (Caddyshack/1941/insert name of movie) on Netflix?”

Then tell me again how physical media is dying.

Well, I’m going to admit that you have a point there, at least, but I think it’s largely because certain people want it to die, not because of any need or essential evolution of entertainment.

Up to roughly a hundred years ago, if you wanted to hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, you had to go to a concert hall where it was being performed. If you didn’t live within easy traveling distance of one, or they were playing Mozart that evening, well, tough. No glorious Ludwig Van for you. The invention of the gramophone mitigated that somewhat, though admittedly the scratchy wax cylinder was a poor substitute for a symphony orchestra in the same room as the listener. New technology would work toward closing that gap in experience and quality.

Then again, sometimes you don't want any Ludwig Van.

Then again, sometimes you don’t want any Ludwig Van.

I was struck at one point last year by a critic talking about seeing The Seventh Seal at an art house in the late 50s, then having to wait years for the opportunity to see it a second time. To a modern film buff, that sort of experience is almost unthinkable. My copy of Seventh Seal is not ten feet from my desk. I can watch it again any time I want.

Yet, this is the same experience one gets from streaming media services. Am I somehow to believe this is better?

Ooooh dear.

Ooooh dear.

Netflix cannot provide access to every movie everyone might like to see at any imaginable point at any time; that is simply impossible, so they of necessity attempt to maintain the most commercially viable mix they can. I’ve seen my fair share of odd, non-commercial movies on Netflix, so I can’t complain too loudly – but it still can’t beat a large collection curated by myself, for myself.

Where streaming does beat that, I will admit, is in the realm of clutter. I sit here typing this, surrounded by stacks of books and movies. If they ever, like in some EC comic book or episode of Twilight Zone decided to turn on me, I’m doomed, hopelessly outnumbered. The huge stacks of Marvel Essentials and DC Showcase Presents have already tried to end me twice. This, however, is the choice I made: movies I want to watch, books I want to read. There is some point I am going to require a viewing of Evil Roy Slade, some point where discovering the exact issue of Teen Titans the Mad Mod first appeared will be paramount. This is how I shape my world, and move about in it.

kindle-largeThe general move toward streaming and that intellectual construct they call “The Cloud” is a move toward licensing content rather than selling it. I have somewhere around twenty books on my Kindle, and Amazon has proven they can rescind my access to any of these books at any time. I didn’t buy them, I only rented them, apparently. There is no such muddiness of ownership with a physical book. I have exchanged money for an item, which I can now deal with as I see fit; I can keep it, resell it, give it away, use it to level out an uneven table, or – heaven forbid – burn it.

Physical media is not, I think, truly going away, at least not in my lifetime. I’ve been hearing the death knell tolled for DVDs for quite some time, and the only real evidence I’ve seen there is the vanishing of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video stores. But that’s been the death of a mode of business, not the medium – they could not keep up with the one-two blow of streaming and Redbox kiosks, which offer, once more, convenience at the cost of choice.

If you’re a film buff, if you’re a collector, the realm of physical media is still quite robust. The last year or two has seen enormous growth in boutique labels catering to those markets. Warner Archive and its highly successful Made on Demand discs of vault movies, largely ignored in any realm except Turner Classic Movies (until they launched their own streaming service). Outfits like Vinegar Syndrome, Grindhouse Releasing, Code Red, Severin, Scream Factory and old friends like Blue Underground and Synapse, all producing niche product of outstanding quality.

So basically: streaming has a place on my buffet, but until A) their inventories truly proliferate, and B) I no longer have to pay an arm and a leg for broadband internet so I can enjoy such services at the same consistent level of quality as physical media – it’s going to stay at that subsidiary steam table with the egg rolls and the fried bread, while I’m concentrate on the entrees of the main table.

Dammit, now I want Chinese food.

We Who Are Not Zatoichi

I know it may not seem like it, but I actually did watch some movies in the last month which did not feature a blind guy with a cane sword. Allow me to demonstrate:

220px-The_Unholy_Three_(1930_film)It took me far too long to get around to the talkie version of The Unholy Three (1930). Jack Conway directs the sound version of the Tod Browning silent thriller from 1925 featuring three denizens from a circus sideshow, on the run from the law, who embellish their life of crime with secret identities. Echo the ventriloquist (Lon Chaney) masquerades as a sweet old woman who runs a pet store. Hercules the strong man (Ivan Linow) is her “son-in-law”, and a psychotic midget (Harry Earles, later much more sympathetic in Freaks) his infant son. The pickpocket Rosie (Lila Lee) is along for the ride as Echo’s granddaughter, but she’s falling for the pet store’s clerk, the square Hector (Elliott Nugent).

Their scam is pretty elaborate: Rich people come in to buy talking birds from Granny, but it’s Echo’s skills that give them voice (in the silent, this was cleverly presented with onscreen word balloons!). when the birds turn mute in their new homes, Granny pays a visit to examine them, with Earles along in a baby carriage. Left alone, the fake baby can case the joint for later burglary.

unholy-threeThings go south when Earles and Hercules rob a place on their own (while Echo as Granny tries to bust up the Rosie/Hector romance) and the two bunglers wind up murdering their victim. They quickly frame Hector for the crime, then take it on the lam to a remote cabin while Hector faces the music. This doesn’t go over too well with Rosie, though, who convinces Echo to go to the trial as Granny to clear Hector, leaving Earles and Hercules on their own to plot against the absent Echo.

There are at least two crackerjack sequences of extreme suspense in this version worthy of Hitchcock. The major emotion you’re left with, though, is an understandable yearning to see Lon Chaney’s Dracula. This is his only talkie, and he gets to show off every conceivable emotion; being alternately menacing and comical, even sympathetic at the end. It’s a good swan song, but serves to prove exactly what we lost with his untimely death, at a mere 47 years of age. Man, fuck cancer.

rewind_this_posterJust before the Christmas holidays, a direct download of Josh Johnson’s VHS documentary Rewind This! was made available for like 8 bucks, so I went hey, sure, and made with the Paypalling. Johnson casts a broad net, starting with collectors, then flashing back to the origins of the format, the format wars with Betamax, the rise of video stores, the role of pornography and the medium’s eventual downfall. But it always returns to collectors, who are the only reason, really, that we are even talking about VHS anymore. There are a few areas where I wish he had spent a bit more time, and some where I think he spent too much time (the section on video auteur Dave “The Rock” Stevens seems to go on indefinitely – but then, I also have to admit that he is the most animated of the interviewees). On the other hand, finding out that Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson is truly One Of Us is gratifying, and the guy with a Screams of a Winter Night poster on his wall made me smile. Warm nostalgia just flows over the whole endeavor. Well worth a watch.

solomon_kaneI wish I could give as unhesitating a recommendation to Solomon Kane, based on the character of the same name created by Robert E. Howard, whom most of you will recognize as Conan the Barbarian’s daddy. Kane is usually described as “a dour Puritan” by Howard, and is a sword slinger literally worlds away from the Cimmerian. What Michael J. Barrett has done here is provide an origin story for the character that Howard never bothered to provide. It’s exciting enough, it’s undeniably well-made, but it’s also about a half-hour too long, and emotionally unengaging. James Purefoy as Kane requires some warming up to, but sadly, never quite manages that warming. It’s always good to see Pete Postelthwaite and Alice Krige, even if they are written out of the story pretty swiftly. And oh, look, it’s Max von Sydow, for whom ditto. Still, it’s good enough to hazard a glance if you’re interested. I didn’t hate it.

TestamentOfDrMabuse-PosterWorthy of far more than a mere glance is Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). I admit I cheated on this one – I really should have started with the earlier, silent Dr. Mabuse The Gambler (1922), but I picked the movie pretty late, and The Gambler is close to four hours long, and Testament is a mere two hours. Lang wasn’t interested in making short movies. In fact, the Criterion DVD has an interesting supplement tracing the differences between the original German version, and the French and eventual dubbed American versions, what was cut out and the likely reasons for same.

Testament has a marvelous opening as a man skulks around the supply room of a counterfeiting operation so massive the printing presses shake the walls. This guy will attempt to alert Police Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) of the operation, but the stress of constant attempts on his life drive him mad. Equally mad is our old pal Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who has been catatonic for years since the events of The Gambler, but has recently taken to silently, sedulously scribbling in notebook after notebook intricately plotted plans for an Empire of Crime based on terroristic acts.

schreibende-mabuse-clearSome shadowy somebody is using these notes to carry out Mabuse’s plans utilizing a highly organized network of criminal cells. A member of the counterfeiting cell, Kent (Gustav Diessl) balks at the shadowy figure’s insistence on murder, and along with His love Lilli (Wera Liessem), he finds himself in a deathtrap with a hidden timebomb when he tries to go to the police. The ultimate identity of the faux Mabuse is never in doubt, but at least half the fun is in watching the characters get there.

The best thing for a film fan is the realization that the grouchy Inspector Lohmann is a carryover from Lang’s earlier M (1931), which means that M and the Mabuse movies happen in the same universe. Lang’s rich portrayal of the various denizens of Mabuse’s underworld bears this out. Someone on the IMDb pointed out that any director would be proud to point to Testament as their crowning achievement, but for Lang, it was basically Tuesday night. It was also his last movie in his native Germany, as the Nazi party was coming to power, and apparently saw things in Mabuse’s Empire of Crime that looked too familiar…

street wars posterNext up was Jamaa Fanaka’s final movie, Street Wars, which proved to be a very entertaining puzzle. I watched it for the Daily Grindhouse podcast, which should be dropping at about the same time I finish this column up, so go to that link and be stunned by my inarticulateness.

I had put off seeing Street Wars for ten years or so… long story… so the best way to follow it up was to watch another movie with an insane title that I had been putting off (but only for a year), and there it was on Netflix: Kill ‘Em All.

kill-em-all-dvdBasically, there are eight assassins (though only four are deemed vital enough to give Bond-style introductory vignettes), who are drugged and abducted by a Cabal of Assassins and placed in a locked room deemed The Killing Chamber. There, they are supposed to take each other on in a series of one-on-one fights to the death, until only one remains standing.

If you are thinking, “That sounds like a rickety device to make a movie that is simply fight after fight,” congratulations, you too have seen way too many of these movies. If you like martial arts fights, though, this movie is pure catnip, and it is smart enough to stage an escape from the Killing Chamber midway through so our remaining assassins can get some payback. The one unfortunate note is when our filmmakers cannot resist making one character say, “This sounds like a video game,” because that is basically what Kill ‘Em All is: the best video game movie ever made that was never a video game.

It also gives us a pre-stroke Gordon Liu as the head of the Cabal, still able to kick a generous quantity of ass at 58 years of age. Kill ‘Em All is definitely not for all markets, but chances are you already knew that, and you already knew if you were interested or not the moment you saw the title.

actofkillingIt was with little or no conscious irony that I followed that up with the acclaimed 2012 documentary The Act of Killing. After a military coup in Indonesia in 1965, there was a genocidal spree of around a million executions of “Communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals”. The death squads were recruited from the ranks of criminals and paramilitary outfits; the difference here, from other countries where such atrocities have taken place, is that these people were never even accused of war crimes – they are successful and even revered today.

Director Josh Oppenheimer focuses largely on one of these men – Anwar Congo, the most prolific executioner of his city, with somewhere around a thousand deaths to his personal credit, and several of his former associates. They were “Movie ticket gangsters”, selling cinema tickets on the black market, before their promotion to masters of life and death.

At first The Act of Killing seems to be a treatise on the banality of evil, with Congo nonchalantly describing how he developed a speedy way to kill his charges with a wire noose. Chilling, but I’ve seen several such documentaries over the last few years. Oppenheimer realizes this, and instead gives these former movie ticket gangsters – twisted film fans, who saw themselves as the characters of American gangster movies – carte blanche to make their own movie versions of their careers, in whatever genre they please. And they leap at the chance.

The bizarre nature of their choices builds fascination for the film’s second act. There is the expected film noir interrogation scenes (with some stunningly unexpected method acting from a victim), but there are truly bizarre scenes of gory horror and even surreal musical numbers.

TAOK makeupIt is during the restaging of one brutal massacre and burning of a village that we begin to see the awakenings of conscience in the formerly unrepentant Congo: “I didn’t realize it would look so horrible.” This carries through to one of the interrogation and execution scenes with Congo playing the victim, and finding that “I can’t do this a second time.” Watching the final, edited version of that scene, he finally breaks down in tears.

The emotional devastation in The Act of Killing thus comes from an entirely unexpected direction, from a man who spends most of the movie informing people that the name “gangster” means “free man”, and who feels his greatest achievement is a musical number where a man removes a wire noose from his neck and then hangs a medal on Congo, saying, “Thank you for executing me and sending me to heaven.”

The Act of Killing is already been hailed as an important movie. I realize not everyone is going to seek it out, but honestly, they should. There is a great deal of honesty here, and a major lesson in how history is, indeed, written by the winners, even if the winners are in drag.TAOK_HermanOnStage

The Zatoichi Box, Part Four

The New Year has begun, work is ramping up again. The Criterion Zatoichi box set is designed to facilitate binge watching, but I know myself too well: familiarity can breed contempt, so I started leavening my Zatoichi-watching with other movies. We’ll get to those later; for now, here’s my latest Zatoichi watches:

Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967)

Zatoichi_16_Zatoichi_the_OutlawRight at the front, there it is, an announcement that this is the first movie by “Katsu Productions”. Star Shintaro Katsu had so much success with this series that he formed his own production company, which would continue on after the failure of Daiei, even producing two other popular series, Hanzo the Razor and Lone Wolf and Cub.

Outlaw is a pretty definite attempt to establish there’s been a change in management. As ever, Ichi manages to stumble into a conflict between two yakuza gangs. One, led once more by veteran heavy Tatsuo Endo, is using crooked dice games to bilk drought-stricken farmers of their money and, eventually, their land. The other, led by Boss Asagoro (Rentaro Mikuni), is more in line with what Ichi considers classic yakuza philosophy: live on the shadowy side of life, but look after the common man where you can. Endo is in league with the corrupt Inspector General Suga (Ko Nishimura), and continues to attempt to draw Asagoro into a war. To circumvent this, Ichi assassinates Endo, then goes on the lam for a year to escape the wrath of Suga.

This is unusual enough; usually the death of the bad Boss is at the end of the movie, and Ichi walks off into a gorgeous sunset, the entire story taking up maybe a week of subjective time. This time, though, we find Ichi keeping a low profile, falling in with a massage service filled with louts and fools, until word reaches the service that he is a wanted criminal, and Ichi hits the road once again, only to find out that in the interim, Sugo has made Asagoro the local constable, and the once-noble yakuza chief has fully gone over to the Dark Side.

zato16_03An intriguing character throughout this is Shusui Ohara (Mizuho Suzuki), a fallen samurai who refuses to carry a sword. He is teaching the farmers about things like crop rotation and organizing into communes – let’s face it, he’s a socialist, and non-violent, to boot; another person who lays a guilt trip on Ichi for his swordplay. Fearing the growing popularity of this community organizer, Suga and Asagoro arrest him and accuse him of being an Imperialist, which is an executable crime under the shogunate.

So after his final showdown with the traitorous Asagoro (and it is thanks to Rentaro Mikuni’s talent and this new production regime’s sensibilities that we’re kept guessing as to Asagoro’s true intentions until the bitter, bloody end), Ichi must still rescue Ohara, giving the movie its most indelible image: the organized farmers carrying the wounded Ichi on a wooden panel in an enforced march through the countryside to intercept the transport carrying him to his death. Because the villagers, at least, realize that only Ichi has the skills to save their savior. True to form, after he is released, Ohara says, “So, you spilled blood on the land after all.” To which Ichi replies, “Yeah, but the land needs you,” and then, probably tired of this hippie bullshit, limps off, the farmers yelling their thanks but not offering him as much as a band-aid.z16

The Outlaw is the most political Zatoichi movie yet, and that lends it a philosophical complexity that oddly, I find I almost resent. It also shows Ichi at his most fallible, and there is only so much of the harm he causes in this story that can undone by more harm. I am apparently a simple, brutish lout who likes his stories black and white; more likely, Katsu had been thinking for some time that it was time for his franchise to grow up and deal with some of the ramifications of the avenging angel act. He’d tried to do this with Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, but was outvoted by the studio heads at Daiei. Now his own boss, he could plumb the additional depths the series required to continue successfully.

Zatoichi Challenged (1967)

275389-zatoichi_challenged_chikemurikaido_largeOnce again, Ichi finds himself saddled with a child, and is determined to return him to his distant father. This time, though, the boy is six years old, and something of a brat.

With his usual impeccable timing, Ichi shares a room at a crowded inn with a dying woman, and promises to take her son to his father, an artist who lives in another village. First the two fall in with a traveling troupe of actors, an odd interlude that serves mainly, it seems, to spotlight the vocals of one of the actresses. This light diversion serves, at the very least, to introduce the fact that a local yakuza Boss named Gonzo (quiet, Thompson fans) is forcibly taking over the territory of the nicer Boss who’s been hosting the actors for years. The troupe’s troubles with Gonzo also serve to reintroduce a mysterious samurai from the prelude of the movie, Akazuka (Jushiro Konoe), whose wanderings will intersect Ichi’s with greater frequency.

Ichi tracks the artist, Shokichi, to a potter, where he was serving as an apprentice until he vanished a year before. The potter mutters about him hanging around Gonzo’s gambling dens before his disappearance, and thus detective Ichi goes to work, with a surprising amount of that work accomplished thanks to an impromptu massage appointment.

Z17-4smIchi finds out what we’ve known for a while: Shokichi is a prisoner at Gonzo’s compound, and is being forced to design pornographic images for dishes and pottery that will be fired with gold and silver and sold to wealthy lords – a practice which was punishable under shogunate law by death. Akazuka is working as a government agent, and his orders are to kill everyone involved with this scheme, including the unfortunate artist. When Akazuka refuses to yield to Ichi’s pleas for mercy on the artist’s part, the two engage in one of the best fights in the series thus far. Superbly choreographed in  a gentle snowfall, Akazuka proves himself a worthy opponent by lasting against Ichi longer than anybody else. In fact, at one point, Akazuka has won… but realizes that Ichi was willing to die for the artist, puts away his sword, and walks away into the snow, leaving a trail of his own blood.

This is the movie that the Rutger Hauer movie Blind Fury was based upon, with, of course, the pornographic crockery replaced by designer drugs. The presence of the child is probably what caused to the filmmakers to think this could be a commercially viable concept. In truth, the child is more a plot device than anything, and is so annoying we wonder why Ichi gets so attached to him. I don’t even recall Blind Fury getting a theatrical release (apparently it did, but not a wide one). It was largely shot in Houston, and my pal, the late Red Mitchell, had a small role as a Neo-Nazi thug who got zatoichied by Hauer, but he was cut from the final version. All I got out of the production was Tex Cobb threatening my life because I couldn’t roll a joint for him fast enough.

Z17-2smBut back to Zatoichi. My man Kenji Misumi is at the helm again, and it shows in slow, purposeful unveiling of the plot. His skills kind of fail, though, to make that brat likable. Maybe that’s just me.

Zatoichi and the Fugitives (1968)

Zatoichi and the Fugitives.lgThe Zatoichi theme song, introduced midway through Zatoichi the Outlaw, with vocals by Katsu himself, is now fully-formed – as does seem to be the new production regime’s mission statement, which is to take the title character and put him through seven kinds of hell. See how much damage he can take, and still kill everybody in the end.

The fugitives of the title are a band of sociopathic thieves who are murdering their way across the countryside, one step ahead of the law. Two of their number make the mistake of trying to take advantage of a blind man eating rice balls by the side of the road. Since that man is Ichi, they’re both going to die quickly once their swords come out (one with a hypertensive geyser of blood that presages Shogun Assassin). This is witnessed by Oaki (the devastatingly cute Yumiko Nogawa), the female hanger-on of the bandits, ensuring that the rest of the gang will be gunning for a blind man. One of them literally – his specialty is a pistol.

Ichi is going to cross paths with these fugitives several times, and pass up the opportunity to cut them to pieces several times. This speaks to his growing distaste for using his deadlier skills – he prefers to use his reputation to scare the local Boss into releasing an ailing girl from her indentured servitude – but he will pay dearly for that charity, as will several others. The Boss-turned-corrupt-official will use the gang to slaughter the village headman and his family, then Ichi will be severely wounded by the gun-packing bandit.

zat18Ichi has, meantime, taken up with the local doctor (the always welcome Takashi Shimura), a genuinely good man with a surprising link to the band of fugitives. The Boss takes the doctor and his daughter prisoner, hoping to force them to reveal where the wounded Ichi is recuperating. He might as well have signed his own death warrant, as the half-dead blind man is limping his way to the compound in a driving rainstorm to rescue his friends, resulting in one of the greatest reveals in action cinema: a bloody, soaked Ichi stepping out of the darkness and telling the Boss in a sepulchral tone, “I have returned from Hell for you.”

This is one of the darkest Ichi stories yet; it’s a general darkness that seems to have flowed through world cinema in that troubled time. By the final scene, Ichi has done precisely what he had to in order to survive, but he senses that this very act has rendered him an outcast from the very people he has been trying to save. Bleeding, exhausted, he limps into the night, and that melancholy theme song plays again. It’s a surprisingly downbeat denouement, the bitter fruits of this harvest. A similar ending was attempted in Zatoichi the Outlaw, but it is far more successful here. It resonates perfectly with Ichi’s growing discomfort with his role as avenging angel, and just feels remarkably complete, if that makes any sense. zato18_01

If the series had to end anywhere, this would have made a perfect stopping point. Fortunately, I don’t get to make that call, and still have seven movies in the set to watch.