The Worst

So here I am near the Texas coast, waiting to drown. Or at least that is what the media is telling me. So what better time to poke my head in, as I promised last time? Anyway, there’s something I’ve been working on over at Letterboxd, off and on, for a while now.

It’s a list called The Worst. If you’re not interested in clicking over, its basic reason for living has to do with people complaining that something relatively innocuous is “The worst movie ever made” which is usually followed by my “Eh, I’ve seen worse” which, in turn, is followed by “Then what is the worst movie you’ve ever seen?”

That is a more complicated question than you might think.

Y’see, I’ve been purposely watching “bad” movies for decades, and truthfully I almost always find something to enjoy in each one, even if it’s just grist for the sarcasm mill. But there are some movies that do not even offer that, and watching those is like a season in hell.

Again, if you’re interested in clicking over and seeing pretty pictures, here’s the list. There’s a lot of low-budget and even shot-on-video stuff, which may make some cry foul, those should not be held to such lofty expectations, but once more I say bullshit. At the risk of repeating myself, the covenant between myself and a movie, any movie, is that The Movie agrees to entertain me, and  agree to be entertained. I’m an easy mark, but even the big budget players on the list couldn’t manage it. The little blue titles mean you can buy them on Amazon, if you don’t believe me. Some you will just have to take my word.

  1. The Avengers – the 1998 version. On paper, a sure thing. An update of one of my favorite shows with Uma Thurman replacing my first crush, Diana Rigg, and Ralph Fiennes doing his best Patrick Macnee. On celluloid, sheer misery.
  2. Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever – How do you manage to take a movie with Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu and somehow make it terrible?
  3. Blackenstein – now we’re getting into the low-budget strata. I wrote about this back at the turn of the century, and some took it as a challenge.  They regretted that. And now its available on blu-ray.
  4. Doctor Gore – some of the low-budget exercises in gore are amusing if you’re a gorehound (yeah, guilty), but some are simply dreadful. Which brings us to:
  5. Blood Cult – shot on video, presumably the very first made-specifically-for-the-video-market horror movie, but not the last. Overlong even at 89 minutes and unengaging.
  6. Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?– No. There, I just saved you and hour and 47 minutes of vanity musical and odd celebrity cameos. I tried to warn you about this one, too. As Victor Spinetti says, “I blame Fellini for this.”
  7. Dondi – The Medveds tried to warn us about this.
  8. Escape from Galaxy 3 – bought all the special effects scenes from Starcrash and got marketed as Starcrash 2.
  9. Intercessor – Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare is a fun waste of time with good music. Its sequel – 18 years after the original – is not.
  10. The Magic Christmas Tree – some low-budget kiddie fare is so demented in their cheapness that thy’re adorable. this one isn’t.
  11. Monster A-Go-Go – an unfinished movie finished by H.G. Lewis that, even in its theatrical form, is still unfinished. I think the MST3K guys considered it even worse than Manos.
  12. The Mummy – the Tom Cruise one. Don’t get me started because I’m probably doing this one for Hubrisween.
  13. Nukie – one of my war crimes is helping a visiting Chris Stomp Tokyo Holland find a copy of this at my favorite used movie store. For my sins, David Harlan dropped it on me at a Crapfest.
  14. The Ripper – another video-to-video thriller from the people who brought you Blood Cult, proving they learned nothing. Except how to blackmail Tom Savini into an extended cameo so they (of course) could give him top billing and move more units.
  15. The Roller Blade Seven – God, the wounds are still fresh from this one.
  16. Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny – if you want to have fun, run a betting pool as to exactly when in the movie the Ice Cream Bunny shows up. There are also two versions of this, which is, in itself, another war crime.
  17. Science Crazed – the return of video, and Doug Tilley’s favorite movie. This is a dangerous individual.
  18. Sex Kittens Go to College – Albert Zugsmith strikes again! (he also directed Dondi) There is nothing worse than an unfunny comedy. This was the 2am soul crusher at the last B-Fest I attended, due to it being the more explicit version where strippers dance for a robot. How can this be bad, you might ask. Have you ever seen Orgy of the Dead?
  19. H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come – has nothing to do with Wells’ book and everything to do with a rush to cash in on that sweet sweet Star Wars money.
  20. Sorority House Vampires – see unfunny comedies, above, and add even more boobage.
  21. Spine – shot on video slasher flick made by people who I’m pretty sure made bondage porn previously.  Keep your murder cash-ins out of my kink, please.
  22. Star Odyssey – another Italian attempt to cash in on Star Wars with a cast of characters that should have led to better results.
  23. The Star Wars Holiday Special – oh, you knew this was coming.
  24. The Tuxedo – Hollywood seemed to have an absolute passion for wasting Jackie Chan’s talents, and this one is the worst.
  25. Wild Wild West – Hollywood also can’t make a decent steampunk movie. I saw it at a dollar cinema and still felt cheated.

There. Now I feel no need to answer that question for at least another year or so. See you after the disaster.

Some Sci-Fi Junk Food

Let’s see if I can ignore the Doomsday Clock for a few minutes and actually get something written.

In the odd evenings that I’ve managed to put aside for movie-watching, I’ve definitely gone the escapist route this year. So on a vacant Friday evening I decided to finally watch two of the biggest flops of the last year, just to go someplace else for a while, even if that place might not be worth the visit.

First up was Independence Day: Resurgence, which was one of many dull thuds in the Summer 2016 box office. It’s 20 years after the first movie (appropriately enough), and the aliens return for a rematch, except this time they’re serious. Stage center is largely occupied by the children of the main characters of the first movie, though Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Brent Spiner, Vivica Fox and Bill Pullman all return.

And overall… I liked it. Hey, Mikey!

We are told that in the intervening 20 years, mankind is still united, and we’ve reverse-engineered alien tech to a degree that put me in mind of Macross. There’s a thriving military moonbase and, at the very least, an observation post near Saturn. Another alien race attempts to contact us, and given our last experience, we immediately shoot them out of the sky. Too bad they were offering to help, huh? When the new bad guy mothership arrives, it is over 3000 miles across, has its own gravity field, and parks across the Atlantic ocean. The whole ocean.

Guys, that is some cool mind-blowing science-fiction right there, and it’s only damaged a little by Roland Emmerich’s fetish for out-doing Irwin Allen in the disaster department. (“How will we get a speeding vehicle dodging stuff falling from the sky this time?” I wondered. “Ah! Here we go!”) People deride it for being basically the same movie as the first, just bigger – my question is: is this the first sequel you’ve ever seen?

My other question is why with all this alien tech at our disposal are people still driving cars that require gasoline, but let’s not get too far down that rabbit hole, or we’ll be wondering why it takes the aliens three-quarters of the movie to toast the communications satellite network aw crap.

I wanted big and stupid, I got big and fairly stupid. I enjoyed it, which surprised me, as I’m not a big fan of the first movie. I liked it alright, but I wanted to love it, and I didn’t.

So I might as well tarnish that experience by immediately following it up with Ghost in the Shell, which for some reason I felt compelled to watch. I guess there’s a nerd punch card somewhere I needed to fill?

Briefly: Scarlett Johannson is Major, a human brain in a robot body. Major has no memory of her former existence, though she is told her body may have died by drowning. She is employed as an intelligent tactical weapon by an elite peacekeeping force overseen by Takeshi Kitano. As she works to root out a rogue cyborg who is hacking into the data centers of other cyborgs, she begins to find out unpleasant truths about her own existence, not the least of which is her true identity and origin.

Ghost in the Shell is a competently made, if relatively (and ironically) soulless. When I found out this was made by Rupert Sanders, a whole lot of things suddenly made sense. Like Snow White and the Huntsman, this movie uses its technology fairly well, but an essential feeling of reality is missing. In Snow White‘s fantasy world, this wasn’t a big deal, but in cyberpunk, it is. The frequent loving vistas of a futuristic city overwhelmed by gigantic advertising holograms look like they came out of a Mind’s Eye laserdisc in the early 90s, not a big budget CGI extravaganza from 2017.

Sanders seems to rely almost solely upon the talents of his stars to give his movies life and energy; before it was Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth, this time it’s Johannson and Takeshi, and the movie isn’t willing to meet them halfway in that effort. They’re a talented bunch, but they need a script that did more than read the definition of anomie in a word-a-day calendar. I’m going to be honest and admit I haven’t seen the original since it came out in the mid-90s, but golly it sure seems like Major is rendered helpless a lot for an unstoppable killing machine, just so exposition can be delivered. The most damning thing about Ghost in the Shell is that it’s a great comic book and a perfectly fine anime – why was it felt necessary to make a big budget live version? (Truthfully, I can think of more than one movie that needs to have that question asked, but we’re trying to be brief here)

So. Independence Day: Resurgence, thumbs up, Ghost in the Shell thumbs down.

Now I’m going to become scarce around here for a while. Yes, yes, I know, scarce-er. The October Hubrisween event is coming, and I need to get way more done on that than I have at this point. I’ll try to poke my head in, I really will.

(Ron Howard voice: “He didn’t poke his head in.”)

Buy Independence Day: Resurgence on Amazon

Buy Ghost in the Shell on Amazon

Better yet, buy the original Ghost in the Shell on Amazon

Crapfest: The Mutining

It’s a familiar story by now, so let’s skip it. Sudden loss of paying gig, instead embrace life by making each other suffer with a Crapfest. It just turns out that mission statement was a little too literal this time.

Prepping for the evening’s entertainment

In attendance: Myself, Host David, Rick, Paul, Alan and Erik. I also brought my son, Max, who as we know, is establishing his own bona fides in the world of Crap. The beginning of these things is always a fluid matter, as inevitably we wait for one person or another to show up. The filler for this period was episodes of Jason of Star Command, one of Filmation’s wholesomely boring Saturday morning sci-fi offerings after parent groups scoured the mornings of violently entertaining fare like The Herculoids and Space Ghost.

Jason occupies the sweet (?) spot between Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Spun off from the previous year’s Space Academy, it thriftily used that series’ models; the most salient features are Jimmy Doohan as the Commander, and Sid Haig as the cyborg villain Dragos. Jason dresses like a Walmart Han Solo, and has a windup toy robot which has a handy deus ex machina function. There is really not enough Sid Haig, but each episode, sans commercials, was only about 10 minutes, so we kept going on until everybody got there, about four episodes worth.

Before we started in earnest, Dave demanded the flash drives of myself and Erik so he could examine the contents for (harrumph) quality. Of the several flicks on Erik’s drive, he singled out one, and I held that I had never seen it, so that is what we started with. And it would set the sad, horrible tone for the rest of the evening.

Because that movie was The Roller Blade Seven.

There are, in all, five – count them, five – Roller Blade movies. Six, if you count a making-of. They are all (except for the making-of) directed by Donald C. Jackson, likely best known for The Demon Lover or Hell Comes to Frogtown. The first two Roller Blade movies (I am told) are generally fun, cheap, sleazy trash full of gratuitous nudity. With this third one, though, Jackson began a long partnership with Hollywood martial artist Scott Shaw. This was an instance of “zen filmmaking”, which translates into “we make it up as we go along”. Also, gratuitous nudity does not seem to be very zen. In effect, I was somehow tricked into watching the Public Access Cable offering of some early 80s wannabe electro pop band.

In a vaguely post-apocalyptic world, Shaw is Hawk, a guy who roller blades around with a sword. He’s supposed to rescue, um… let’s check the Quotes section in IMDb:

Hawk: You have sent for me, Father Donaldo?

Reverend Donaldo: Hawk, sister Sparrow has been adapted (sic) and taken into our worst nightmare.

Hawk: You mean my sister that has become your sister?

Reverend Donaldo: Yes, our sister sister. You must go now to rescue her!

“Hey, I got this cool armor I made in shop class” “And I got this mail-order camo ninja outfit” “You’re BOTH in the picture!”

Donaldo, incidentally, is played by Jackson himself. Hawk’s rescue mission will somehow involve Frank Stallone, Joe Estevez, William Smith, and Don Stroud, each of whom will get a credit just before their entrance, no matter how far into the story. That’s something I’ve previously only seen in some Hong Kong movies, and it’s not the only strange appropriation, either.

Karen Black shows up as a character named Tarot, who keeps stuffing mushrooms in Hawk’s mouth until he begins tripping balls, and I guarantee that Ms. Black was having some Easy Rider flashbacks of her own while shooting this stuff. There are portions of Roller Blade Seven that feel like Jackson and Shaw had really wished they had made Easy Rider, Performance, Circle of Iron  or any given Jodorowsky flick, and those sections actually approach a sort of brilliance. Then again, that is probably the sheer amount of painkillers I was taking to get through this experience talking.

So now the rollerblade is on the other foot, eh, Rhonda?

Another of the celebrities somehow rooked into appearing in this is Rhonda Shear, late of USA weekend movies. “Ha!” I said. “I have a VHS somewhere of Rhonda dissing Forever Evil.” “And look what you’re doing now,” said Dave behind me. He leaned closer, pointing at my phone. “Do it. Find Rhonda Shear on Twitter and tell her what you’re doing. Do it now.”

Alas, I was already too inebriated to pursue such a complex series of actions for the cold comfort of revenge, and in the sober light of day, I’m probably better off for it. But it was sorely tempting. (As a slight digression, I experimented with a keyboard case for my Kindle Fire to livetweet the Crapfest, but it was too dark in the Mancave to type on an unfamilar device. I returned to the phone, but toward the end it was taking me what felt like five minutes to tap out a coherent message and I gave up)

Supposedly there were over 24 hours of footage shot for this and its direct sequel, Return of the Roller Blade Seven, but that doesn’t stop them from repeating every action shot and every shot leading up to an action shot three or four times.

Why weren’t five movies made about THIS guy?

My favorite character was a bizarre Nash the Slash lookalike who rollerbladed around playing the banjo. Everybody else hated him, which only made it better. Of course, he gets killed by a Utility Ninja (who gets his own credit). Dave uses the VLC Media Player to project most of our stuff, and would jostle the mouse every now and then to display the progress bar at the bottom. The official running time is 96 minutes, but the first time he did that – when we were pretty sure we’d sat through about an hour – it was less than 30 minutes in. Many and varied were the amounts of invective hurled toward Erik by Dave, who felt that Erik should have warned him better, louder, and more colorfully.

If there was one good thing about this, it allowed me to find the next night’s Episode 12 of the new Twin Peaks, which pissed everybody else off, hilarious. The one bad thing was it gave Dave the excuse he needed to throw in something he had been saving for ages.

First he had to go to his computer to set the movie up. “This is open matte!” he proclaimed, and then pointed to me. “Explain to them what open matte means!” he said, and departed. The surprising thing is, as out of it as I was, I actually managed a concise and clear explanation. Then the thing started.

It was Showgirls. Well, I thought, I still haven’t seen it, I guess this is the time, though I was puzzled by the corner super about “Celebrating 25 years of great American cinema” and the network bug in the corner, which at least explained the open matte, 4×3 picture. Then the pure horror of what Dave had perpetrated became obvious.

This was the basic cable TV version with superimposed digital underwear.

The digital underwear is certainly something to see. It looks like those lobby cards from the more salacious flicks of the 70s that have really obvious underthings painted on, except here the outlines of the fake bras are subtly writhing as the actresses move. Alan, who, like me, had never seen Showgirls, left the room and refused to return, not willing to see a literally bowdlerized version. Paul kept us informed as to what was cut out, until he, too, joined the general exodus from the room a half hour in, and the only occupants were myself, my son, and Dave. I decided it was time to take one for the team.

“Okay, I’m calling it.”

“What?”

“You’ve made your point. Let’s end this and move on.”

“Does this mean I’ve won?”

“Sure. You’ve won.”

“Mark this day down!”

“Okay.”

“I want the full details of this in your write-up!”

“Fine, fine.”

“Omit NOTHING!

This was also the point I stopped live-tweeting, an event Dave later likened to radio contact being cut off from the reporter at Grover’s Mill.

Yet things did actually get worse from there, and it was my fault. An earlier discussion of late night televangelists caused me to realize that I had Werner Herzog’s God’s Angry Man, a marvelous short documentary about the deranged Reverend Gene Scott, on my flash drive. In my impaired state, this seemed like kismet, guidance from above. It turns out Herzog is not a good antidote for denied boobie fans, however, and there was another general exodus. Severe misjudgment on my part. I relented and put on a classic cartoon about everybody’s favorite serial killer, The Pincushion Man.

And then Dave proceeded to soothe a whole lot of hurt feelings with Au Pair Girls (1972).

In the name of laziness, I will simply place the IMDb’s summary here:

Four sexy young foreign girls come to England as au pairs and quickly become quite intimate with their employers, host families, and just about everyone else they encounter.

Yep, that’s pretty much it. That is the very loose framework employed to get four very pretty young women to take their clothes off as often as possible. One of them is Me Me Lai, and it is pretty refreshing to see her get naked and then not get eaten by cannibals. Another of them is Gabrielle Drake, which means if, like me, you only watched the TV series UFO for the Moonbase girls, this is the luckiest day of your life. All these nude misadventures find them jobless and back at their agency, but fortunately our young faux Scandinavian has caught the eye of a rich Sheikh and apparently they all go off to Araby for a happy life of sex slavery.

The most remarkable thing is that it’s directed by Val Guest, just one more stop in a long and varied career. Here, enjoy the theme music that would haunt us for the rest of the evening:

I finally hit a better stride with Bloody Parrot, a completely bizarre Shaw Brothers movie from 1981. The Bloody Parrot is some sort of supernatural thingie that, if you see it, will grant you three wishes. The first guy who sees it is looking for 13 treasures that were stolen from his lord, and his first wish is to find them – they mysteriously appear, but in some Monkey’s Paw shit, his son is killed. Of course, he wishes for his son back, the coffin starts shaking, everybody panics and starts stabbing each other, and the 13 treasures disappear.

This is the first five minutes of the movie.

For the rest of the running time, our hero Yeh Tin-feng (Jason Paio Pai, looking a lot like Kuan Tai Chen) is looking for the treasures because everybody seems to think he has them for some reason. He keeps running across the Bloody Parrot, though no wishes are offered – people just die mysteriously. He follows the most tenuous of clues to the Parrot Brothel, where he falls in with the remarkable courtesan Xue Nu (Jenny Liang), who’s the movie’s major selling point, I’m sure, as evidenced by the opening credits:

Ms. Liang is certainly fetching, and is introduced in a costume that renders her literally half-naked. That she does the following lengthy scene – including a strenuous bit where she is apparently possessed by the devil – in that outfit is pretty amazing and much appreciated by the male audience. The plot goes fourteen different directions at once, involving witches, vampires, cannibals, strange conspiracies, hunchbacks, acid (the burning kind) and then we get introduced to this lady:

Who likes to use the skin of her victims to make clothes. Her weapon is embroidery needles. She is also on the side of the good guys, which surprised some, since you aren’t usually introduced to good guys with somebody’s face in an embroidery hoop..

This was the third time I had seen Bloody Parrot, and this was the time I almost understood the plot. (Maybe I should try that with Roller Blade Seven, but then again naaaaaah, fuck that noise.) Finally Yeh and Xue are separated in the villains’ hall of mirrors, and Xue hits upon the strategy of marking her trail with the only thing on her, her clothing. Which is either the stupidest plan ever or the most phenomenal stroke of genius, depending on your gender.

Villains are finally revealed, and the explanation for what’s going on is so blazingly simple, you wonder why it was necessary to swim through such murky chaos to get to it, but then Liang shows up in that half-dress again, and everything’s okay.

Nothing short on the Internets, you can’t buy it on Amazon, so here:

Mind you, that was me being nice. Then it was time to be not-nice, as I broke out the last of my Andy Milligan blu-rays, Torture Dungeon. Milligan had not yet appeared at Crapfest, which, if not a miscarriage of justice, is at least a bit of a surprise. We are no strangers to Milligan here at Yes, I Know, so let me see if I can be as succinct and informative as I was about open matte abominations.

Milligan is credited with 29 motion pictures, but is probably most famous for ten horror movies made between 1969 and 1973 for the grindhouse market, infamous for their gore. The gore would be considered pretty tame these days, but these flicks are (for me) most notable for the fact that parsimonious producer William Mishkin would give him only $10,000 to make each movie, and they are almost all period piecesTorture Dungeon, in fact is a medieval movie, and attempting to do such a thing on that budget without a renaissance festival nearby is insane.

And check out that authentic period set dressing!

Milligan is self-taught, and his background is largely theatrical; this is always made particularly obvious by his love for lengthy monologues with no cuts. There are at least five of them in Torture Dungeon, but there is damn little of the title character. Two scenes, enough to justify the expense of dressing the basement and larding the makeup on a couple of guys.

There is some sort of plot here about a villainous Duke (Gerald Jacuzzo) plotting to kill all the heirs in line for the crown of England, and for some brain-damaged reason this involves marrying the pretty peasant Heather (Susan Cassidy) to his half-wit brother (after killing her equally-peasant lover), and then immediately murdering the half-wit. There is a surprising amount of nudity from Ms. Cassidy, which was at least a welcome distraction. In fact, she body doubles for another actress (Patricia Garvey, I believe) whose nude scene we were actively rooting for. As Dave pointed out, “It’s the freckles that give it away.” Well, that and the ham-fisted editing.

There is so much more. The Milligan Spin, after every blood scene. That the storytelling is so haphazard that we didn’t even know the Duke only had one arm until halfway through the picture. Milligan did his own costumes, so the “Upholstery or Tablecloth?” game.  The cheap library music that is obviously, jarringly from 60s industrial films, which simply cut off at the end of a scene. I used to say I could watch only one Andy Milligan movie a year, and now I can’t get enough of him. He’s like crap movie crack. True outsider art.

Thus bludgeoned by the evening, we packed up and left, sadder but no wiser. And on the way home, my son asked if I could track down a copy of Roller Blade Seven for him. The horror. The horror.

I don’t want to leave you on such a hopeless note. Here is a Charley Bowers short I screened earlier in the evening, in happier times. Though it is predictably racist in its portrayal of superstitious butlers, it is even more racist against Scotsmen.

Though We Cannot Possibly Recommend It:

Buy The Roller Blade Seven on Amazon

Buy The Un-Bowdlerized Showgirls on Amazon

Buy Au Pair Girls on Amazon

Buy Torture Dungeon on Amazon

Hey, That’s MY Mythology!

Well, here it is. The post that was giving me problems. The post that gave me writer’s block for over a month. Let’s see if I can actually finish the sucker. Perhaps being quick and brutal will work?

I honestly do keep intending to get back to the edifying side of cinema, but I still find myself being self-indulgent about my viewing choices, if only to maintain my sanity. The return of the Daily Grindhouse Podcast is partially responsible for that, but I’d be lying if I said escapism wasn’t a major contributing factor. What I am finding is that I really enjoy the latest crop of overblown spectacle movies made possible by advances in CGI technology, and I am eating them like candy. Sweet, sweet over-produced candy. What this says about me as a cinephile, I am not sure. Am I a problem, rather than a solution?

Who cares, I’m enjoying myself.

I’m thinking this started with the two Monkey King movies and was cemented by League of Gods (and bolstered by my previous love affair with Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons). What I am finding is that the Chinese are very good at making this sort of thing, and making them entertaining, but the American movie industry… not so much. There are exceptions, of course, like the Wachowskis and James Gunn, but the important difference there is they are essentially dealing with their own mythologies (Marvel’s, in the case of Gunn), while the two movies setting this column off indulged in cultural appropriation for their mythologies, and bungled it.

From that last sentence, you might assume that we’re starting with the 2013 47 Ronin, and you would be right.

The story of The Loyal 47 Ronin is one of the great tentpoles of Japanese culture; the intro to this movie assures us that “the story of the 47 ronin is the story of Japan,” and to a point, that is correct, if overly general. The trouble is that the movie then proceeds to take that story and alter it so unmercifully and cavalierly that it’s kind of amazing that it didn’t spark off an international incident.

The actual tale of the 47 ronin concerns a clan of samurai whose lord, Asano Naganori, is driven by a venal court official to assault him, and is compelled to commit seppuku for that offense. His clan is dissolved, and those 47 retainers lie in wait for a year to visit their vengeance upon the man responsible for their lord’s downfall. It’s a great story, and there are many, many book, play and movie versions of it – the one I’ve seen is the 1962 Chushingura, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki.

And now, with this version, after that Japan-centric intro, we meet Keanu Reeve’s character as a child, leading into the adult Keanu aiding his adoptive father Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) in a hunt for a strange beast straight out of Princess Mononoke. These beginning segments in what we are told is “the story of Japan” seems to me similar to being told that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was “the most faithful adaption of the novel” ever and then sitting through a lengthy pre-credit sequence that occurs nowhere in that novel.

Keanu is Kai, a half-Japanese orphan raised by the Tengu bird demons in a cursed forest. Lord Asano will still be duped into attacking another lord, but this time it’s due to the evil Lord Kira (Tananobu Ason)’s consort, who is a witch (and Rinko Kikuchi, to boot). Lord Asano’s eldest son, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), is thrown into a pit for a year, then released and exiled a week before his sister, Mika (Ko Shibasaki) will be wed to Kira. So that year-long plot to avenge the fallen lord is replaced with a rushed, artificial deadline, and Oishi must find the despised Kai, who was sold to a coastal fight arena before Oishi was thrown into the pit. Because he knows Kai loves Mika and will do anything for her.

Apparently this version of 47 Ronin started as a straight historical drama like, say, Gladiator. But somewhere in the pre-production process, the suits decided they wanted a magical fantasy adventure for some of that sweet, sweet Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings money. And so the torturing of the storyline to accommodate mythical monsters and magic and Keanu Reeves began.

Now, I was a Keanu fan even back when everybody was still making fun of him for Johnny Mnemonic. It is probably his presence that got the project the greenlight. His inclusion as a half-breed alone wouldn’t have derailed the movie too badly. But past that, 47 Ronin stands as a monument to wrong-headed studio interference, with an increasingly chaotic storyline and least one obvious snipping out of a subplot and character (Yorick von Wageningen’s Kapitan, the pirate with the full-body skeleton tattoo who is on the poster for God’s sake) for the sake of more weirdness and at least one battle scene that changes nothing going forward.

In trying to put myself in the place of someone Japanese seeing this Hollywood mangling of my history, the best I could come up with (as a lifelong Texan) is a movie stating that Santa Anna and Sam Houston grew up together and the Battle of the Alamo was all due to a witch’s interference and Davy Crockett was a werewolf. Also for some reason the history books don’t mention the samurai warrior with power armor fighting alongside Jim Bowie. (Hollywood, you still haven’t returned my calls)

There were a few things I liked about 47 Ronin. The Tengu were neat. It was nice to see so many Asian actors in a Hollywood movie. They did not Hollywood-up the ending too much, everybody still had to commit ritual suicide. Those few things are still not enough to warrant a recommendation to any but Keanu completists. I am legendarily forgiving toward movies, but this one is just not very good.

This experience did not exactly make me look forward to seeing Gods of Egypt, even though I found it a superior movie in almost every way. In it, we told the Gods of the title are alien beings with certain powers, golden blood and who are half again as tall as humans. Osiris (Bryan Brown) is handing over the kingly crown to Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), only to be murdered and usurped by Set (Gerard Butler). Set takes Horus’ eyes, the focus of his power, and banishes the blinded god. It is going to take a human thief, Bek (Brenton Thwaites), egged on by his girlfriend Zaya (Courtney Eaton), still faithful to Horus, to get the god back his eyes and overthrow Set, whose main purpose (besides the usual grinding of the faces of the poor) is to assassinate their father, Ra (Geoffrey Rush) and bring eternal darkness to Earth.

Looking at that synopsis and that cast, there is one thing that is going to jump out at you, and that is the major criticism of the movie: its very whiteness. The overwhelmingly Caucasian population of this Cradle of Civilization feels like something out of the 1950s Biblical Epic era.  Ridley Scott, defending the casting in Exodus:God and Kings, rather (in)famously pointed out that the movie would not be financially viable without white actors. There’s a good deal of actual controversy on the actual skin tones of the ancient Egyptians, but the truth of Scott’s statement, though ugly, is inescapable.

The story of Gods of Egypt, past your standard action adventure boilerplate, is strange and exotic enough that I think I could have enjoyed it as much if not more if posited as a tale of some strange fantasy lands, like League of Gods, without the hijacking of another culture’s history and mythology.

Nice job turning humans into hobbits, though.

But if we’re going to talk about hijacking another culture’s history and mythology, though, we’re going to have to continue on to The Great Wall, which I had actually been looking forward to seeing.

Matt Damon plays William, a medieval mercenary who journeys to China, chasing rumors of an explosive black powder that would make his work much easier. What he finds is that titular Wall, and it turns out that the reason it was built is a meteor crash-landed in the nearby mountains, and every few years the inimical life forms that it brought swarm, attack and eat anything in their path. William will immediately throw in his lot with the elite troops trying to turn back this alien horde, and maybe even defeat it for all time.

After the last two movies in this post, one might be forgiven for looking askance at Damon’s role in this movie, but he provides a time-honored device: the audience surrogate, the outsider to whom things must be explained, so the audience gains necessary information somewhat painlessly. William does provide an interesting clue to fighting the monster, correctly interpreted by the Chief Strategist Wang (the always welcome Andy Lau), leading to a master plan that, according to the rules of fiction, requires one last desperate shot at the very last moment, the climax of Star Wars if it involved lots of gunpowder and an alien queen.

It’s the predictability of that plot that is the only thing that truly works against The Great Wall. It’s a well-built story, the characters are interesting, the monsters are pretty unique and well-designed. I love the fact that there is a strong female leading the troops (Jing Tian, looking so beautiful and perfect that whenever she has a close-up, I find myself waiting for the cut scene to end so I can get back to playing Final Fantasy). But the only thing that can be truly called unique in its setup is that the Chinese apparently invented weaponized bungee-jumping.

There are six writers credited overall for The Great Wall, and none of those names are remotely Asian. I suppose that puts us back at my earlier, blasphemous re-telling of the Alamo, with a very important exception: the director is Zhang Yimou, one of best and most prestigious of Chinese directors. Damon isn’t a white savior, he is one cog in a group that comes together to defeat the enemy. There is heart in this movie, and that heart is not overwhelmingly Caucasian.

Though I really would have liked to know Zhang’s thoughts on the movie’s central concept.

In the midst of all this the movie version of Ghost in the Shell came and went, and with it the subsequent furor over the practice of “whitewashing” which was more or less the basis of this column (and one of the Daily Grindhouse podcasts. If you listen, you can hear me grunt a lot, because it was recorded at Jesus o’clock on a Sunday morning). I still haven’t seen it, but I’m told the ghost in Scarlett Johnnson’s shell is actually Asian, but even with that we’re still in Ridley Scott territory. I’ve been too busy with personal drama and my country’s imploding structure to actually keep up with any finger-pointing at the failure of that film at the box office, but my money’s on “action movies with females don’t sell” more than the whitewashing controversy or the very idea that people might not  want to see an Americanized, live-action version of anime. There is a very strong fanbase for anime here in the States, that is undeniable – but that doesn’t mean that fanbase actually wants to see their stories in another medium, or that any other demographic can be bothered to go see it, no matter how many anime-adjacent movies like Pacific Rim are actually successful.

At least this might finally put paid to that Americanized version of Akira. Though, really, I wouldn’t put any money on that. We white folk love our little cultural thieveries.

Buy 47 Ronin on Amazon

Buy Gods of Egypt on Amazon

Buy The Great Wall on Amazon

Buy Ghost in the Shell on Amazon

Crapfest: Flashbacks, Floyd, & Frankenheimer

Hi there. Long time, no see.

April was an especially intense month for me. It tried to sneak in one last blow by not letting me make any money in the last weekend, but I instead flipped Destiny the bird and managed to get everyone to agree to a Crapfest.

All the faithful were there: Host Dave, myself, Alan, Paul, Rick and Erik. Erik had honed his burrito bowl game down to a science, getting everything set up with the alacrity of an 80s action hero strapping weapons to himself. Just as good as last time, if not better; I grazed that buffet all evening and think I somehow still lost weight.

First for some backstory, a flashback, if you will (appropriate, given the “entertainment” on display that evening): in the weeks running up to the fest, a YouTube video gained sudden currency on Facebook:

Rick does not do Facebook, but I made sure this crossed his radar, as he is likely the biggest KISS fan I know. This video led to a lively discussion in our e-mail group, mainly about how much we loved Lynda Carter and yet found this excerpt from her second TV special largely disastrous. Rick found a site that had three of her specials on DVD, and he openly pondered purchasing it.

This led Dave to employ his Satan-spawned abilities to track down a copy of a Lynda Carter variety special and open Crapfest with it. Initially, there was joy and laughter at this development, while Dave and I giggled like the Riddler. Paul opined that even if the music was dreadful, he could get through this simply by looking at her.

Now, if you look up hubris in the dictionary, you will see this picture illustrating it:

Paul opined that even if the music was dreadful, he could get through this simply by looking at her.

This was proved demonstrably false by the special’s halfway mark, when cries of “No, not the blues! You leave the blues alone!!!” echoed through the mancave. As the entire special was sponsored by the Texise Corporation, the endlessly repeated commercials for various sprays and unguents only added to the misery. This was, incidentally, the last of Ms. Carter’s specials, 1984’s Body and Soul, and – the IMDb  informs me – the only one “made without the help of her ex-husband ‘Ron Samuels’.” Afterwards, I showed this clip from an earlier Carter special, where she sucks all the soul out of “Rubberband Man” and replaces it with sweet vanilla syrup:

This was judged to be “100% better” than Body and Soul, and I don’t think that was because of the song – it’s because she’s showing 100% more leg than she did in the entirety of the later special. We are a vulgar and base lot, after all. And we still love you, Ms. Carter, especially if you leave The Blues alone.

I had thought that our gathering could not be any more depressed after my statement that “If this were a Cheri Caffaro movie, this torch song would end with a strip tease,” but Dave would prove me wrong:

This was, once again, for the benefit of Facebook-less Rick – Dave had inflicted it on the world in the previous week. It is definitely the 12″ single version. But the pain of Disco Floyd is alleviated by the fact that at the three minute mark it somehow switches to Soul Train. Since this did not produce the expected agony – more like some bewildered groans – Dave pulled out a trump card, a trump card I had nixed several times before, but now it was time. Mainly, it had been enough years since I had last seen Mesa of Lost Women, and I could finally tolerate watching it again.

Mesa is so packed full of inept B-movie weirdness that for years it was suspected of being a lost Ed Wood movie, but it’s not – it’s an unfinished movie by a madman named Herbert Tevos, finished by Ron Ormond, who is himself no stranger to Crapfest (Please Don’t Touch Me! and If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do). Jackie Coogan is Dr. Aranya (“Aranya! That’s Spanish for spider!”), who is up on the titular Mesa creating indestructible spider women and leering dwarves. And you only wish that was what the movie was actually about.

It all starts with our two “stars” (Oh, all right, Richard Travis and Paula Hill) wandering in from the Muerto Desert (“Muerto! That’s Spanish for Death!”) while Lyle Talbot does his best Orson Welles in a confounding voiceover. Rescued and recovering, Travis will start his story, but then Lyle will inform us that instead we are going have a flashback courtesy of a background character, Pepe (“Pepe! That’s Spanish for Pepe!”). This confoundingly tortured story structure will continue for some time, leading to many debates as to exactly whose flashback we were witnessing at any given moment. AY!There were, in fact, many times throughout the evening that no matter which movie we were watching, we were pretty sure we were still stuck in Pepe’s flashback.

But the real reason Dave wanted to play it was the infernal, maddening guitar soundtrack (which was also employed in Ed Wood’s Jailbait, further inflaming that theory), which he knew would drive Rick insane. Which it did. He can visited most mornings from 9am-11am. Do not bring any sharp objects.

Dave was emboldened to inflict Tarantella and her phantom guitar upon us because Erik was currently involved in moving, and his movies were all packed up, so the entire program was up to us. So Dave pulls out fake Ed Wood, while I, on the other hand, pass out 3-D glasses and play The Three Stooges’ Spooks, because I am the Nice Guy. I can’t hand you some cheap Chinese cardboard glasses, so here, have the one good joke without the red and blue overlay:

It’s surprising how uncomfortable Moe’s slapstick abuse makes me these days. I had found something else for the audience, who, I remind you, is base and vulgar – something called Nude 66. Once again, red-blue anaglyph, a “Playboy digital pictorial” without any connection to that magazine (although Paul, our local Expert On Such Things, did identify one of the ladies as an actual Playmate). In fact all the credited personnel at the end seem to be Japanese, and I have not been able to find out any other information whatsoever about it. It’s 25 minutes of rock-n-roll cover tunes and somewhat artful nudity. That and the 15 minutes of Spooks were about all the 3-D my aged eyes could take, anyway.

Quick, boy! Where are those damned 3-D glasses?

So, having had enough of Being Nice, I slapped in Dangerous Men.

Man, Stan Lee is in EVERYTHING.

Ideally, all you need to know about Dangerous Men is it is produced and directed by John S. Rad. It is also written by John S. Rad, who also wrote the music, edited the movie, and did the sound design. Also, John S. Rad’s real name is Jahangir Salehi, if that matters at all. He started shooting this sometime in the 70s and didn’t finish it until the mid-90s. He finally rented four LA cinemas to play the movie for a week, resulting in total ticket sales of around $2000.

It’s hard to know where exactly to start with Dangerous Men. The first part of the movie is basically a distaff Death Wish, with Melody Wiggins playing a woman whose fiancé is murdered by a biker, causing her to launch a career as an avenger killing such DANGEROUS MEN. There is one attempted rapist she does not kill, but only takes all his clothes and leaves him in the middle of the desert, so we spend the next seven minutes or so with a naked Englishman wandering the desert, endlessly monologing about how humiliated he is. This tells me that during one of the lulls in filming when he ran out of money. John S. Rad saw a Jodorowsky film.

“Who the hell puts an enormous potted plant in a narrow hallway?”

Wiggins’ character suddenly gets arrested at about the halfway mark, and her dead fiancé’s cop brother takes up the reins of the story, tracking down the man responsible for the bikers’ reign of terror, the kingpin Black Pepper, who is about the crappiest Moriarty one could hope for. To accomplish this, he has to knock out a Biker on two separate occasions with the same attack. In the resulting raid on Black Pepper’s stronghold, Black Pepper nearly beats the cop brother to death (in a fight scene that uses the same sound effect over and over, no matter who’s getting hit) and it’s up to The Chief, a character introduced only a half hour before, to wind up the movie, quite suddenly, and at the 90 minute mark. The movie doesn’t end so much as stop.

“Why do I keep hearing men screaming ‘what the fuck’?”

There are all the usual technical bobbles of a one-man operation that either can’t afford or doesn’t want someone else to handle the technical aspects (thankfully, Rad had someone else shoot the movie, it’s at least in focus). The sudden departure of Wiggins’ character was due to her breaking a leg during the shoot and Rad refusing to pay her medical bills; further investigation by the guys at Drafthouse Films alleges that she was paid something like a dollar a day and some MacDonalds for her work. Exactly why the cop brother had to be written out is lost to the ages, but overall, Dangerous Men plays out like Robert Altman had decided to do a gritty crime drama but had also suffered a traumatic head injury.

Ergo, it is highly recommended.

(We almost had Samurai Cop and Dangerous Men back-to-back at the last Crapfest, which would have caused seizures and/or riots, I am sure)

So, back over to Dave, who trots out Claws, a 1977 killer bear movie that manages to rip off two other Jaws rip-offs, Grizzly and Orca. Some hunters shoot and wound a Grizzly, and when he runs off, proceed to kill the female who stayed behind. The wounded bear proceeds to terrorize the forest for the next several years, becoming known as “The Devil Bear” and finally causing some folks to track him seriously, with varying degrees of failure and death. Given that we referred to the beast as “The Stock Footage Bear” for most of the running time and the general tedium as the story unfolded, I was willing to bet that this was a TV movie, but apparently I was wrong (really, my first clue should have been that the damned thing runs an hour and forty minutes). Apparently it ran in some theaters under the rather desperate title Grizzly 2.

I would liked it much more had they gone with the whole Devil Bear concept, and we had found the betrayed bruin had struck up a deal with Old Clootie to get revenge for his murdered mate. Hollywood, call me, you bastards.

The ideal cap to the whole experience was when the movie was over, Dave blinked at the screen and wondered where the scene where the bear attacked the helicopter went. “That’s Grizzly,” I said.

So. Dave made us watch the wrong killer bear movie, and now you just know he is going to make us watch another fucking killer bear movie.

(Then, he might not, when he discovers that Grizzly features his archenemy, Richard Jaeckel)

There don’t seem to be any trailers online, so let’s all go Token noble Indian character, nooooooo!

Back to me, I guess, because the movie was one Rick and Alan had requested, Frankenheimer’s version of The Island of Dr. Moreau. This had happened mainly because Rick and I had watched the fascinating Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, a documentary that pretty much lays it all out in it’s title. A movie with a modest budget suddenly signs on two major but difficult names – Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer – budget balloons, stars act up, director gets suddenly replaced.

John Frankenheimer is similarly no stranger to Crapfest, as we had earlier watched his killer bear movie, Prophecy. He took the job only as part of a multi-picture deal, so at least we got Ronin and Reindeer Games, two decent action flicks, out of it. Likely the only scene that remains from Stanley’s concept is when David Thewlis witnesses the birth of one of Moreau’s hybrids – that one still packs a punch. But the rest, bowing to the whims and eccentricities of Brando and Kilmer, settles into typical, bland, expected tropes. Moreau isn’t really a bad movie, it’s just a terribly unnecessary one. The only reason to watch it is Brando’s strange portrayal of Moreau, and once that character is killed – oh yeah, spoiler alert for a twenty year-old movie – there is simply no reason to watch anymore.

(Well, yes, there is the typically excellent makeup effects of Stan Winston, but…)

It was midnight at this point. We had lost Paul at the beginning of Moreau, and Alan left, but we, the hardcore, were not beaten. Into the magic lightning box went The Devil’s Express. 

Devil’s Express is a delicious gumbo of trash film tropes from the 70s. Good old bad old New York, Blaxploitation, stickin’ it to The Man, kung fu and monsters. I’m kind of surprised I hadn’t sneaked this in earlier.

As if all this were not enough, it stars Warhawk Tanzania (who knew that the breakout star of Force Four would be Warhawk Tanzania? My money was on Malachi Lee!) (Also, Crapfest attendees, you are really going to have to piss me off to make me show you Force Four) (Where was I? Are we still in Pepe’s flashback?).

ANYWAY. Warhawk and his student Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan, also in Force Four, but never mind that now) travel to Brooklyn Hong Kong to perfect Warhawk’s kung fu, but the shady Rodan steals an amulet he finds in a pit. Those of us who saw the prelude know that something evil was being kept in check by that amulet, and now it stows away on board a freighter to New York to find the amulet and destroy it.

It does this by possessing some guy and making him wander around with eyes painted on his eyelids. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, but it does (mainly because the dude with the painted eyelids, Aki Aleong, really sells it) (Tim Lehnerer at Checkpoint Telstar informs me that Aleong also wrote “Shombalor“, so he’s ten times more awesome than I originally suspected). Said monster proceeds to chow down on unwary people on the subway, making this a weird New York underground version of Blood Beach. Meanwhile, Rodan’s drug dealing leads to a minor gang war with a Chinese gang, which allowed the distributors to re-title and re-release this under the title Gang War when The Warriors hit it big.

Your typical wise Chinese gentleman (who is wearing the worst fake Asian makeup ever applied or shot on film, squandering any goodwill from that painted eyelid job), tells Warhawk what’s up, so he can don his gold lame demon-fightin’ overalls and descend into the subway to kill the demon while Brother Theodore distracts the cops.

Oh yeah, that just one more reason to watch The Devil’s Express. Brother Theodore plays a priest who is there to deliver last rites to murder victims (I guess) and who is apparently driven mad by the horror he witnesses, as he starts shouting to the crowd outside a barricaded subway station about “Rrrrrrrrats! PESTILENTIAL rats!” Well, maybe he wasn’t driven mad, maybe he was driven to become Brother Theodore. Maybe this is all a complicated origin story.

ANYWAY. Good times, good times.

At this point, we decided, it was likely best to pack it up. It had been a long day, a day of multiple horrors attacking from all directions, and somehow we had managed to survive it, through dint of good companionship, good humor, and burrito bowls.

We’ve been doing this for ten years, and we’ve still barely scratched the surface.

Sleep well.

(Creaking door slams shut)

Buy Mesa of Lost Women on Amazon

Buy Spooks! on Amazon

Buy Dangerous Men on Amazon

Buy Claws on Amazon

Buy The Island of Dr. Moreau on Amazon

Buy The Devil’s Express on Amazon

Crapfest: Plot? Who Needs a Plot?

How long has it been since we had a Crapfest? I’ll tell you how got-dang long it was: it was last June. It was a different world back then.

So the chivvying and bullying began, and we finally lighted on the same Sunday as the Academy Awards. I can only speak personally, but I haven’t watched the Oscars this century anyway, and saw no reason to change that practice. So, Warren Beatty, your reputation is still spotless with me.

In attendance: myself, Host Dave, Erik, Rick and Paul. Alan was closing a show and arrive late, hoping that he would miss the worst. This, however, is an event known as Crapfest, so we can all sit in judgement of that strategy.

gizmo_Dave put on an old favorite of his, 1977’s Gizmo! for noise purposes, not intending it to be the first movie of the day, so of course – it became the first movie of the day. Gizmo! was a big favorite back in the early days of HBO, and for some reason only ever had a VHS release. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it might be because of music rights, because there’s a lot of songs tying together an hour and fifteen minutes worth of newsreel footage. Supposedly a documentary about invention and innovation, Gizmo! is better described, as one writer put it, as “steampunk Jackass“. All sorts of people climb into all sorts of newfangled flying and driving machines and proceed to get chewed up by same. This is mixed in with footage of people playing music by making fart sounds with their hands and folks blowing themselves up with dynamite. And squeezing themselves through tennis rackets. And…

…it’s interesting how much of this stuff wound up in Arise! The SubGenius Video.

Truly fascinating are the bits of prototype technology that are actually being used today, for instance: dye packs to mark money stolen in a robbery. The guys flapping around with leather wings attached to their arms are the precursors of daredevils in wing suits, after all – is it really their fault they are also prototypes for Wile E. Coyote? Also fascinating was the idea that you could improve anything by attaching a propeller to it, eventually resulting in a device that was nothing but propellers… which went nowhere.

help-meHoward Smith’s only other director credit is for the documentary Marjoe, which is a great movie, never mind that we showed it at an earlier Crapfest (Marjoe Gortner is, after all, the patron saint of Crapfest). And every now and then you will be reminded that Smith is rather gleefully fucking with you. The best example is right at the beginning of this YouTube post – watch it quick, who knows how long it will last. Just watch the first 30 seconds. Then try not to get sucked into the madness. It’s not the whole movie – it runs fifteen minutes short – so I’m willing to bet there are several songs missing.

And this is where things began going south. Erik had a plan – a good plan – for our dinner that night. Two words: burrito bowls. Which I guess is best defined as the stuff usually in a burrito, except in a bowl? He had a bunch of the fixins already prepped in baggies, but the other things – most notably the beef and chicken fajitas – took unexpectedly long to cook. This left myself and Paul in the Mancave to our own devices. I had brought some cartoons, which we watched, intermittently journeying into the kitchen to check on progress, which seemed glacial. Then we would go back. We watched a Swedish art film which was 17 minutes of naked women doing odd things in the woods with a variety of headdresses and masks. Don’t ask me why, it was art.  One of the standards of Crapfest is gratuitous nudity (which was, I believe, actually the event’s genesis), so I had been saving it for a treat, but I was bored.

When things drug on, I put on my copy of Harvey Sid Fisher’s Astrology Songs, which I had sneaked into an earlier ‘fest, and was a big hit with everyone but Dave. It did manage to get some of our Galloping Gourmet cosplayers into the Cave to relive a few minute of former celestial glory, but then they would return to making artisanal guacamole.

Harvey ran through the entire Zodiac, and still no Crapfest. I decided to play with fire.

I put on The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Now, Alan had occasionally requested this blight on the cherished memory of our youth, only to be gently told by Dave and myself, “Fuck you, no.” So this was the extremity to which I was driven.

It had the desired effect of getting people into the Cave to gaze in awe at the Forbidden Fruit. Who could resist meeting Chewbacca’s family?

His wife, Mala! His father, Itchy!

vlcsnap-2017-03-02-13h42m20s357His son, Lumpy!

vlcsnap-2017-03-02-13h42m40s687And TV funnyman Harvey Korman!

vlcsnap-2017-02-27-22h43m21s481We got as far as Harvey before Dave turned it off, commanding me to sit in the corner and “think about what you’ve done.” At least the chair in the corner was comfier than the folding chair I had been occupying.

Well, we finally had our burrito bowls – they were extraordinarily tasty, and moreover actually GOOD for us. I was still full the next morning, I pounded down so much goodness. And, with a vodka martini mixed by Dave (my bartender of choice), we finally settled down to the Crapfest proper, which was a mistake.

warriors-of-the-wastelandDave led off with The New Barbarians. So apparently I was still being punished.

Also known as Warriors of the Wasteland, it’s yet another Italian Road Warrior rip-off – any doubts you may have about that will be dispelled in the first five – no, make that three – minutes. It’s the far-flung future of 2019, nuclear war has devastated the Earth, and tiny pockets of survivors are trying to find the promised land. Unfortunately, a bunch known as the Templars are dedicated to finishing what the war started, and are killing everybody they can find.

Yep, there’s no scavenging for oil in this wasteland (often one of the greenest wastelands we have ever seen) because these guys are running around in their tricked-out dune buggies 24/7. In a holdover from Gizmo, one guy has added a side mounted propeller to his buggy, so he can chase people until they obligingly fall to their knees to be decapitated. Pretty near all the money went to their vehicles, one feels, because the Templars have to make do with armor made of pool flotation devices.

Enter into all this Scorpion (Giancarlo Prete), who is apparently a former Templar now dedicated to messing with them as much as possible. My occupying the Seat of Exile had its drawbacks: the soundtrack alternated between quiet dialogue and EXTREMELY LOUD MACHINE SOUNDS and back to possibly significant but quietly delivered details AND THEN THE ROARING OF A THOUSAND ENGINES and back, but I’m also pretty confident that it all boils down to some ancient conflict between Scorpion and the Templar Leader with the singular name of One (Italian standard George Eastman).

By the time the art department got around to tricking out Scorpion’s ride, they had run out of aluminum panels and propellers, and had to make do with some dryer hose, a plastic skull, and a huge plastic dome left over from the Star Wars rip-off craze of a few years earlier. I think they were going for a sort of Batmobile look, but it just reminds me of the Alert Squad car from Darktown Strutters:

dat-carvlcsnap-2017-03-02-00h09m04s927And that is likely the most obscure reference I will make all day. No promises, though.

There was, at least, wild applause when Fred Williamson finally showed up with the inappropriate name of Nadir, though who the hell is ever going to tell Fred Williamson that he has a lousy name? Nadir drives a much more badass-mobile than Scorpion (naturally) and takes an extraordinarily long and dramatic time to aim his explosive arrows.

"I make this blow-up shit look good."

“I make this blow-up shit look good.”

The New Barbarians‘ major claim to infamy occurs when Scorpion is inevitably captured by the Templars and it is announced that it is time to “finish his initiation”. What this involves is a long, fairly fetishistically-drawn out scene of Buggery on the High Seas, if you substituted the Wasteland for the High Seas. Dave – who I will remind you chose this movie – skittered out of the room faster than a Congressman at a town hall meeting at the very start of the scene, ignoring my shouts for him to get back here and take his medicine. Wuss.

Anyway, Nadir rescues him – eventually – and finally they both take on the Templars just in time to rescue the last survivors, and Scorpion gets his revenge in a wholly appropriate and mechanically improbable manner, the end.

Honestly, the most amazing thing about The New Barbarians is that director Enzo G. Castellari still cares enough to pull off the occasional impressively arty shot. This will not be the case with our next movie.

Paul exercised his wuss clause and left early – in all fairness, he had warned us he would – and I moved up to his seat in the big couch, also known as the Front Row. Now I could at least keep track of the plot, I thought.

Wrong, because the movie was Erik’s choice – Samurai Cop.

What a time to be alive.

What a time to be alive.

There’s an Asian gang called The Katanas trying to take over the drug trade in L.A., so a cop is imported from San Diego (what?): Joe Marshall, nicknamed “Samurai”, because he was trained in the martial arts in Asia and speaks fluent Japanese. Or so the IMDb entry tells me, because I wasn’t getting much of that from the movie itself. Star Mathew Karedas sort of looks like a Sylvester Stallone muppet from the right angle, with Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon hair. Mark Frazer is Frank Washington, sassy black cop who specializes in reaction shots, and who is not old enough to be too old for this shit, so he doesn’t say it, but we say it for him anyway. And Robert Z’Dar (with impressive beard on that impressive chin) is the enforcer for the Katanas… Yamashita. Yamashita.

I think it is important that I simply let the movie speak for itself at this point.

Samurai Cop is a movie that is magnificent in its incompetence. Director Amir Shervan has 30 credits on the IMDb, and you couldn’t prove it by what you see on the screen. It all takes place during the day, because lights were too expensive. No attempt is made to control the color temperature of the film, so a lot of scenes are either way too blue or way too yellow (lens filters also cost too much, I guess). And the best part is that six months after he thought filming was finished, Karedas cut his hair. Shervan wasn’t finished, though, and you can frequently see him switch between his natural hair and a remarkably fake woman’s wig in the same scene.

ACTIIIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNGGGGGrrrrr

ACTIIIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNGGGGGrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

The action is pretty plentiful and fairly decent for the price – really everything else in the movie just elevates those scenes – and I hope a lot of guys got their stunt card out of it. Dave spent most of the movie complaining that the Samurai Cop wasn’t doing any samurai stuff (he did cut off one guy’s arm with a sword, which I referred to as the movie’s tribute to LucasFilms), while the rest of us spent our time wondering, “Will the redhead get naked again?” She did, a point in the movie’s favor, but this movie also has way too many men in speedos. If you ever wanted to see Gerald Okamura in a speedo, Samurai Cop has you covered, as it were.

I do kind of admire that Shervan the writer tried to give every character a little scene of their own – not that I think this movie wound up on a whole lot of demo reels.

Yeah, this needs to be seen to be believed. As the bug in the trailer points out, it’s free on Amazon Prime. Good choice, Erik.

At this point Dave tried to rush in his mandatory Edwige Fenech movie, but I was having none of it. It was my turn, and first things first:

Now, I consider myself the Nice Guy. I mean, sure, I’ve inflicted Things and Raw Force on the Fest, but I’ve also brought The Raid: Redemption. I refuse to show bad kung fu movies. I almost always watch what I bring to insure its (harrumph) quality.

league-of-gods_poster_goldposter_com_2So what I brought was League of Gods, a Chinese CGI-infused comic book that I had fallen in love with, and that it was likely no attendee had ever heard of, or would see under normal circumstances. League of Gods has more plot in its first five minutes than in the entirety of the first two movies (or even if you add in the last movie of the evening, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves). I did my best to boil it down for everyone who had consumed too much liquor to get through the anal rape and blue-tinted men in speedos, so let me try to do the same here:

There are two warring cities. One, we’ll call it Eviltown, is ruled over by a King (Tony Leung) who has joined physically with the evil Black Dragon to rule the world, and his consort, the demoness Nine-Tailed Fox (Fan Bingbing). The other city, Niceville, is trying to stop him from totally incarnating and bringing 18,000 years of darkness upon the world, and for that they need the Sword of Light.

This tale is told through the filter of constant CGI madness and action; as Rick said afterwards, “Well, that certainly wasn’t boring.” Rick had, in fact, read my earlier write-up on the movie and was really looking forward to “the talking baby”. This scene in particular; his favorite move is “Divine Thunder”.

Of course I had the right crowd for this flick: they immediately glommed onto the video game nature of the unfolding story, and easily spotted, “Ah, this is the platforming level”

“Man, I hate those”

“Oh, not a puzzle level! I hate those!”

Great fun, and I got to see it projected big and loud.

Okay, one last time for the trailer:

Now it was time for Dave to play his Edwige Fenech movie, and it was also time for me to go. With all the time spent on that amazing dinner, it was now after 11:00pm, and like Paul, I was expected to be productive early the next day. So yes, I exercised my own personal wuss clause, which in a way was okay, because that movie was Strip Nude for Your Killer, and as I left I saw the credit that let me know I was making the right decision:

FFFFFFFffffffffffff-

FFFFFFFffffffffffff-

I also knew that it was a bad idea because it meant I was going to have to watch it by myself later, in order to write about it. My main experience with Bianchi is through two movies – Burial Ground (urp) and a not-very-good version of Treasure Island, starring Orson Welles as Long John Silver.  And I hate giallo anyway. Mike Vanderbilt at Daily Grindhouse tells me that gialli are meant to be social occasions, with everybody laughing talking and drinking during the lengthy exposition scenes and presumably shutting up during the murder scenes. So I had left the ideal circumstances for seeing Strip Nude for Your Killer to instead watch it where I could grumble endlessly to myself in private.

strip-nude-for-your-killer-posterDid you get tired of all that plot during League of Gods? That’s fine, because here a fashion model dies during an abortion, and then somebody starts killing all the people at the fashion agency where she worked. There. That’s the plot.

Where to start, where to start. Well, it’s a giallo, so everybody is a different shade of loathsome, except possibly Edwige Fenech, who plays Magda, a plucky photographer’s assistant whose only dubious quality is she’s in love with our supposed hero and uberjerk Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo).  Police are never allowed to be competent in gialli, and Strip Nude certainly doesn’t break the mold in that respect. Suspects just keep getting killed until only Magda, Carlo and the killer are left, and the killer’s identity provokes a “Hah? Who?” reaction. I refuse to watch it again to find what scene that background character showed up in. If they even do.

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STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER, FATTY

Dave tells me that Erik turned to glare at him every time a male character acted like a total cad, which must mean he didn’t get to watch 3/4 of the movie. As I entered my viewing of Strip Nude for Your Killer into Letterboxd, I finally gave it one and half stars – that one star is due only to Ms. Fenech, at the height of her weapons-grade cuteness, and certainly not shy about displaying her beauty in toto.

Edwige, no, you're better than this

Edwige, no, you’re better than this

I suppose, if nothing else, Strip Nude for Your Killer, like The Dude’s rug, tied the evening together; not only does it start with far too many men in speedos (Carlo included), but it ends with the promise of anal rape. (“Still more tastefully done than Kingsman!” Dave offers)

And I totally forgot about the abuse of the musical saw until I saw this trailer:

Buy The New Barbarians on Amazon

Buy Samurai Cop on Amazon

Buy Strip Nude for Your Killer on Amazon, you perv

The Haunted Italians, Part Two

Well, life got a little away from me for a bit there. Here I am on the other side, trying, somewhat dazedly, to finish what I started.

hercules-in-the-haunted-world-movie-poster-1964-1020422688Last time, we dealt with Italian cinema’s flirtations with Dante Alighieri’s Inferno – understandable, given the poet’s importance to Italian culture – and, as mentioned, I had intended to cover three movies, until I realized I was going to have to expand it to four.  We’ll get into why in a bit, but for right now we had better get started before events jerk the rug out from under me again.

The next logical movie after L’Inferno and Maciste in Hell, I thought, would be Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World, or as this particular copy would have it, Hercules in the Center of the Earth.

Hercules (Reg Park) is, as usual traveling back after some adventures to the love of his life – this time it’s the princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo). He and his traveling companion, the womanizing Theseus (George Ardisson) are set upon by some thugs, who would normally be chased away by Hercules employing his party trick, hurling styrofoam boulders at them, but as this is a special Bond-style opening, he instead throws a whole damn wagon. We will eventually find that the thugs were sent by Deianira’s guardian, the regent Lico (Christopher Lee), who neglected to tell his bully boys that the target was Hercules. This seems like mission critical information to me, but what do I know, I’m not an evil regent.

Don't trust him, Hercules - that's Christopher Lee!

Don’t trust him, Hercules – that’s Christopher Lee!

Hercules is shocked to find that Deianira is now somewhat insane, supposedly driven to distraction by the belief that her absent lover has died at sea (no extra points will be awarded for guessing that Lico and his magic are at the root of this problem). Hercules consults the Oracle (a masked Gaia Germani), who cannot reveal too much, due to the “forces of darkness”, but when Hercules sacrifices his immortality to Zeus, the Big Guy allows her to tell Herc that the Stone of Forgetfulness will cure his love. The main problem there is the Stone is deep in the realm of Hades.

Hercules gathers up Theseus and gets saddled with an Odious Comic Relief who is so unfunny I was pretty sure his name was Odioso, but it turns out to be Telemachus (Franco Giacobini). This is a terrible use of the name of Odysseus’s son – Telemachus here is the supposed fiance of the woman Theseus is always snogging (Marisa Bellia), but now hangs around Theseus as, I suppose, the Ultimate Cuck, to use the current idiot jargon.

Can you spot the Odious Comic Relief in this shot?

Can you spot the Odious Comic Relief in this shot?

hercules-in-the-haunted-world-heroism-cult-movies-downloadThese three journey to the island of the Hesperides – usually some nymphs who tend a garden, but here a bunch of ladies under a curse. Herc needs their Golden Apple, which will insure that he can come back from Hades, but it’s at the top of a tree with more deathtraps than a cave leading to the Holy Grail. Hercules, naturally, throws a styrofoam boulder at the apple, knocking it down, and freeing the Hesperides from their curse.

Theseus and Odioso, meantime, have been offered to the rock monster Procrustes (whom Theseus actually fought and vanquished, according to mythology, but here merely breaks his sword on the monster). Hercules arrives in the proverbial nick, throwing Procrustes into a wall, which conveniently enough, was covering the entrance to Hades.

hercules-haunted-world-procrustes-rock-monsterThis sequence is where Bava works his usual magic with a very limited budget, starting with a lovely siren chained to a pillar, an obvious trap for horndog Theseus. They walk through a forest in which is trapped the souls of the damned (thanks Dante!), as they find when Theseus attempts to hack through with his magically restored sword, and the branches bleed while the trees wail. Herc still whacks off enough vines to make a rope that he stretches over a lake of lava (by attaching it to a hurled styrofoam boulder) to get to the Stone. Theseus will try to follow Herc on the rope, but fail, as he is not a demigod, and falls into the lava (another pretty good effect).

ooerJust when we’re trying to figure out how to get Odioso down there to also fall in Hell’s soup bowl, we find that Theseus has somehow miraculously gone through the lake of fire unharmed, and he is being mooned over by some honey (Ida Galli) and, being Theseus, he decides to sneak the girl out of Hell without telling Hercules.

Hercules is glad to see his friend alive, the sap, and the unknown babe hiding in the ship’s hold tells Theseus the only way to get out of the sudden storm buffeting the ship is to toss the Golden Apple overboard.  How does she know about stuff like this? It’s because she’s actually Persephone – in Maciste in Hell, “Pluto’s Second Wife”. In this Americanized version, “Pluto’s favorite daughter”. Did the Italian version thus whitewash the whole abduction of Persephone fable, or was it just for us prudish Yanks? Anyway, Pluto ain’t happy, and now there’s a curse upon the land, which kind of harshes Hercules’ buzz when Deianira is cured by the Stone. Lico is equally put out until his pals with the Forces of Darkness assure him all he has to do is drink Deianira’s blood during the upcoming eclipse and he can be evil for eternity.

hercules-haunted-world-christopher-leeSo Herc has to convince Theseus to give up Persephone and rescue Deianira yet again when Lico abducts her to a nearby hill with a handy sacrificial altar, leaving a bunch of zombies behind to slow Hercules’ roll. Hercules finally catches up, and though you might think he would drop a styrofoam boulder on Lico, he figures nope, I’m not taking chances with Christopher Lee and drops a whole damned standing stone from the surrounding pseudo-Stonehenge on him instead. Fortunately, there are many more Styrofoam stones around for Herc to throw on the approaching herds of zombies until the eclipse is over.

Still not quite the end, as Persephone used the power of the Stone of Forgetfulness to erase her memory from Theseus’ mind, so he goes back to snogging Odioso’s girlfriend, and Odioso throws himself into the ocean to drown, to the cheers of the audience, and the laughter of Hercules and Deianira, the jerks.

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DO IT, ODIOSO! DO IT!!!!!!!

Mario Bava had worked as lighting and cinematographer in the two movies that started the peplum boom, Hercules and Hercules Unchained, so he was working in familiar territory here, but it still has to be granted that the movie profits magnificently from the addition of Bava’s visual sense and overall fascination with gothic imagery. The scene of the zombies rising from stone sarcophagi is so horror movie effective you might think you accidentally switched to another movie. There’s a reason it features so prominently in the trailer below.

You expect Bava’s usual vibrant use of color, but few directors ever got so much variety of use from plain old fogHaunted World‘s low budget is often achingly obvious – Reg Park probably experienced some deja vu when Bava recycled sets from Park’s previous Hercules flick, Captive Women – but the results are rarely less than gorgeous to look at. The vibrant colors even make some iffy miniatures look good.

hercules-haunted-world-mario-bava

When you saw that scene cropped for 4×3 TVs, you never realized that Bava perfectly set up the hill with the standing stones and altar, over to the left.

Speaking of Reg Park, he makes for a terrific Hercules. At the peak of his bodybuilding form, he’s handsome, affable, certainly looks the part, and is a good enough actor to look like he’s putting real effort into hurling those styrofoam boulders. Lico is the sort of role Christopher Lee could have done in his sleep, but as ever, he is completely serious and gives the role more than its due. Now, I know that the studios at Cinecittà were so noisy that all the movies were shot without sound and dubbed later, but I still really resent it when Lee is dubbed by another actor, one without his presence or gravitas, and who was likely being rushed by the ADR director to get it done in one morning, because Godzilla vs the Thing had the studio that afternoon.

Maciste in Hell. Again.That would have wrapped up my original article, but there was something bothering me. I had thought I had seen various parts of Haunted World in my youth (as I said, my mother watched these religiously on the afternoon movie in those pre-Dr. Phil days), and expected a much lengthier trip to the Underworld. When that didn’t materialize, I realized I had seen pieces of a different movie entirely, and there was only one real candidate for that, and it was, ironically enough, Riccardo Freda’s 1962 remake of Maciste in Hell, re-titled, for Maciste-deprived Americans, The Witch’s Curse.

With uncharacteristic swiftness, we get right down to the title fulfillment, as a witch is burned in 1555 Scotland. Marta Gant claims that the Justice condemning her is doing so simply because she turned him down when she was young, and curses the entire village. One hundred years later, the curse is in full effect, women going mad and attempting to commit suicide, usually at a huge dead tree that only flowers when someone succumbs to the curse.

I’m sure The Doctor will set these superstitious villagers straight in a jiffy.

Now, let’s meet a couple of newlyweds, Charlie (Angelo Zanolli) and Marta (Vira Silenti). Marta is a direct descendant of the witch from the first scene – she even has the same name – and as a wedding present, Charlie has bought the old family castle for her. This proves that one should always do one’s due diligence when buying real estate, because the superstitious villagers immediately storm the castle and attempt to lynch Marta while yelling about burning her. Stupid villagers.

Enter – twenty minutes into his own movie – Maciste (Kirk Morris) – who, despite being in 17th century Scotland, is clad in his taditional loincloth and sandals, and probably freezing his nipples off. He saves Marta from the mob, who are probably more cowed by this half-naked madman who can bend iron bars than anything else.

Marta’s ancestor is a real witch-with-a-b because she makes a bible burst into flames when Marta touches it at a trial, guaranteeing she’ll be burned at the stake. The more rational town doctor (Charles Fawcett) shows Maciste the cursed tree, and the muscleman naturally pushes it over and climbs down the well-lit hole into Hell to seek out the witch and save Marta’s life.

The credits helpfully inform you that Hell is being played by the caves of Castellana in Italy, and they are beautiful and quite spacious; after playing tourist for a while and observing a small army of extras being tormented by the occasional day player in a mask (with the required homages to Gustav Doré), Maciste sets to his task of finding the witch. He will be aided in this by Fania (Hélène Chanel), a beautiful woman who, to the surprise of nobody, is actually the witch she is looking for. No getting turned into a demonic sex toy for this Maciste, he is instead hit with a spell of forgetfulness while Fania gets kidnapped by Goliath so Maciste can throw styrofoam boulders at him.

Oh no! A lion puppet!

It seems Maciste was never given an origin to explain his great strength, and this portrayal seems to weigh against any sort of divine descent like Hercules, as Morris has to really strain during his feats of strength, like bending bars or picking up boulders to protect him from sparks falling from above. Normally, I’d say this is for tension, for reinforcing Maciste’s heroism and determination to aid the helpless and overcome all obstacles that rise in his way. Actually, it’s just to pad the running time of the movie, which becomes tediously obvious as we go along.

maciste-in-hell-3Luckily for Marta – whose execution date is fast approaching, Maciste eventually stumbles upon Prometheus, who in accordance with legend, is chained to a rock so a vulture can eat his liver for all eternity (this was because Prometheus gave fire to mankind, in case you had forgotten that the gods are dicks). Prometheus tells Maciste to look into a nearby pool where he sees scenes from his last two movies (Il Trionfo de Maciste and Maciste in the Valley of Woe) and then the beginning of this movie, fer gawd’s sake, to restore his memory.  told you the padding got obvious.

(It was, incidentally, the scene with Prometheus that I remembered from my youth and was hoping to see in Hercules in the Haunted World. I would have liked it better in Bava’s movie, where it likely wouldn’t have been thrown in to reach the 90 minute mark)

Oh no! A vulture puppet!

Well, Fania of course falls in love with Maciste’s innate goodness and lifts the curse, Marta is saved, the whole village praises Maciste and asks him to stay, but he must move on the to the next improbable time period and locale to fight evil. You know, like Caine in Kung Fu. You’d think the villagers would have at least bought him a shirt or something, though.

Now, any peplum movie is going to suffer by being seen after something shot by one of the premier genre directors of the period, but I suspect Witch’s Curse would seemed pretty sub-par even as a stand-alone. I’m willing to embrace the concept of Maciste as a sort of cosmic Lone Ranger, journeying from what appears to be Ancient Egypt to Khanate Mongolia to Puritan Scotland, but give me some attempt to reconcile the appearance of a half-dressed madman in the middle of a Mayflower pageant!

Get thee to an ATM, toad!We’re really here to see Hell, aren’t we?  The scenes in Castellana are wonderful to look at, and feature some truly fantastic pyro work. But past the time-wasting grunting scenes, there is also a surprisingly diverse cross-section of wildlife in Hell, and all of them want to wrestle with Maciste. A lion(ess with a bad wig), a couple of snakes, Prometheus’ vulture, a herd of bulls for crying out loud. Most of the times the puppets are pretty well-matched in the close shots, but the snake scene has some of the most egregious grab-the-animal-and-pull-it-to-you attacks I’d seen since Deadly Eyes. This is all underlined by the ancient witch and her similarly damned would-be lover Parris are always looking on, talking about how no one can defeat the Devil, but then the Devil just opens another cage from Hell’s Petting Zoo.

Oh no! Cow puppets!

Kirk Morris was about the only actually Italian bodybuilders in the peplum boom (real name Adriano Bellini), and reportedly Freda didn’t think much of him as an actor – Maciste doesn’t get a single line until he descends into Hell – but he does pretty well, even when asked to really streeeeeeeeeetch out those lifting scenes. He made a bunch of Maciste movies, and even played Hercules several times, including one of my favorites, Hercules, Samson and Ulysses. Here he’s still got a fair amount of youthful charm – think Fabian as a muscleman – and I would probably would have liked him more if the driector hadn’t disliked him. Or he was in a better movie.

Now to put this to bed because a fifth movie is reaaaally tempting me.

Buy Hercules in the Haunted World on Amazon

Buy The Witch’s Curse on Amazon (good luck, it’s Alpha Video)