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.

vlcsnap-2017-03-01-00h21m55s344

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.

vlcsnap-2017-02-18-00h35m42s710

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)

 

The Kung Fu Movies Will Continue Until Morale Improves

As I said earlier, I’ve been binging on my spiritual celluloid comfort food, martial arts movies. Last time I went in-depth on one of the more… um, remarkable ones (boy howdy did I make remarks), now let’s see how many I can sort-of-briefly talk about until I once again get sick of my own voice.

825_dvd_box_348x490_originalThis all started with Criterion’s blu-ray release of King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, which I had seen perhaps twenty years ago, when I was actually starting to take my education on Asian action films seriously. In those olden days, online information was sparse (and really, so was “online”), and you had to make do with what you could find, and all I had to go on was some passing references to Zen as an important movie. I slapped it on my Netflix queue (remember those?) and did, in fact, get pretty impressed. It was split over two sides of a flipper disc, so yeah, it’s a long movie – but it’s also deservedly considered a masterpiece.

Hsu Feng is Yang, a scholar who is content eking out a living with his paintings and calligraphy in a small trading village built around an abandoned fort. A young lady, Sheng-zhai (Shih Chun) moves in to the fort, but resists the attempts of Yang’s mother to matchmake between the two. There have also been an odd assortment of people wandering through the village, inordinately interested in the young lady, and some other merchants…

criterion-touch-of-zen-2We’ll eventually find out that she’s the daughter of a lord who was disgraced, tortured and killed several years before by an evil eunuch running The Eastern Chamber (reliable villains in wuxia films). She and her general have spent the last couple of years training in martial arts at a nearby monastery, and are hoping to use them to achieve their vengeance. Yang may not be a warrior, but he has spent his life studying military strategy, and is delighted that he can help his newfound love with his knowledge. He accurately predicts what the various movements of the enemy mean, and constructs an intricate trap at the fort, building on its reputation for being haunted, allowing the outnumbered forces of good to successfully take on a small army.

Hsu FengKing Hu’s visual storytelling game is obviously strong from the beginning; it is almost five minutes before we see a human being (he always made fruitful use of the varying landscape of Taiwan), and there are perhaps two dozen lines of dialogue in the first thirty minutes. Everything else is shown – almost pure cinema. The literal centerpiece of the movie is a fight scene in a bamboo forest (inspiration for countless battles in years to come), which must have been an absolute bear to film, but the camera moves – with stalks of bamboo in the foreground providing an exhilarating sense of dimensionality and movement – make that trouble worth it.

toz_1At three hours, timorous studio executives (of course) felt it too long and at first split it up into two movies, with that fight scene ending the first and reprised at the beginning of the second. Small wonder, as our two good guys – Sheng-zhai and her retainer, General Shi (Bai Ying) are over-matched by their two adversaries, and must pull off a desperate measure that would become rather expected in later movies but leaves Yang and the other non-combatant (and the audience) gawping in amazement.

Based on Lu Song-ping’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, the movie somewhat bizarrely – to Western viewers, anyway – comes to a successful, bittersweet conclusion, only to switch protagonists and continue for another half-hour, with a new, even more powerful villain, a development that always surprises me. It’s practically another mini-movie in itself.

Two years in production, most of which was building that fort and letting the grass grow to a realistic height. Now restored and beautiful, A Touch of Zen is highly recommended. This trailer for the UK Masters of Cinema edition:

Dammit Criterion, just take my money.

Dammit Criterion, just take my money.

Watching this reminded me that I still hadn’t seen the previous King Hu movie, Dragon Inn, though I’ve seen practically every other movie playing off it’s pedigree, like New Dragon Gate Inn and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn in 3-D. I note that Letterboxd has a poster similar in style to Criterion’s Touch of Zen, which hopefully means a blu-ray from them at some point. Right now I just have to deal with this plain old primitive DVD.

This is going to sound familiar, but a decent lord is persecuted, prosecuted and executed by an evil eunuch of the Eastern Chamber, and his family is exiled to Dragon Gate, on the outskirts of civilization. Attempts are made to murder them on the way, thwarted by folks still aligned with the dead lord. The isolated Dragon Inn is run by a former retainer, and it becomes the central point for both factions as the family gets closer and closer.

Watching Dragon Inn after A Touch of Zen is instructive in many ways, especially in the casting. Shih Chun is once again the badass swordwoman, though this time dressed like a man so that, in the way of Shakespeare and wuxia films, it is automatically assumed she is a man. Hsu Feng this time is playing the kung fu hero who is so damned good he usually only carries his umbrella into battle. Ray Chiao, who played the near-invincible monk in Zen is also against that type as Shih’s brother, a decent enough fighter, but a hothead.

dragon-gate-innThe fights are plentiful, varied and interesting. King’s combat aesthetic was heavily influenced by Peking Opera, so the swordplay remains pretty realistic, except for the fact that there seem to be plentiful mini-trampolines scattered about for some unrealistic jumps. Dragon Inn is just short of two hours, and it does seem a little stretched out in the final act, but it does have a more solid throughline than Zen. If you’re a wuxia fan, you’ve probably already seen it. If not, you should.

Deep ThrustAll this means that I need to go back and re-watch the movie that made King’s career take off, Come Drink With Me, which is a movie I had given up on ever seeing until Celestial started putting out remastered movies from the Shaw Brothers vault in the early part of the century. It was one of their very first DVDs, and my first overseas purchase.

Though not yet. After a conversation about the brevity and relative sedateness of Polly Kwan’s fights (not her fault) in Kung Fu Halloween, I felt the need for a more fearsome female fighter, so helloooo Angela Mao Ying in Lady Whirlwind, which was re-titled – rather risibly, to capitalize on a certain porn movie that was making waves at the time – Deep Thrust.

The first thing you’re going to notice about that trailer is that there is not enough Angela in it. When you watch the movie, you will see that is a complaint that can also be applied to the movie itself. Angela plays Miss Tien, who is looking for the guy who’s the centerpiece in the other fight scenes, Ling (Chang Yi). He opens the movie by being beaten up and left for dead, which will be a continuing motif for the next hour. Tien is looking for him because he abandoned her pregnant sister, who then committed suicide. There is some intimation that the Chief Bad Guy having his thugs leave him for dead was the cause of this abandonment, but the story moves forward rather too quickly to ever elucidate on this – Ling, who’s been practicing his kung fu, begs Tien to leave off killing him until after he has his vengeance.

lady-whirlwind-1972-movie-pic5Thing is, the bad guy has a new henchman who’s a 6th degree red belt in karate, and he makes short work of Ling. Tien rescues him from being buried alive, and while Ling is wandering around dazed after that, he helps a old Korean herbalist, who in gratitude teaches him the Tai Chi Palm, which will finally allow him to win a fight. Meanwhile, that karate creep everybody is afraid of? Tien finishes him off without much of a sweat.

Oh, Fatty, you are about to enter the Kingdom of Hurt.

Oh, Fatty, you are about to enter the Kingdom of Hurt.

Exactly why the hell Mao Ying isn’t the actual main character of a movie called Lady Whirlwind  will be puzzling scholars into the next few centuries. She easily dominates every scene she’s in, and she’s never onscreen for any length of time before some scumbag is flying through the air and screaming ai-yaaaah. She was an actual black belt in Hapkido, and her sureness of motion and controlled energy demonstrates that. I am never going to stop believing her talents were criminally wasted in Enter the Dragon, but then I also have to admit that is likely the only one of her movies most Western moviegoers have seen.

The quality of this rip is not great, but you can at least tell that the guy in brown is a very young Sammo Hung, at this point in his career basically just a villainous punching bag for Angela, a role which he assayed often and very well:

Though it’s never going to be considered an art film like King Hu’s entries, Lady Whirlwind is very entertaining, even if you spend several fight scenes drumming your fingers, waiting for Ling to get beaten down again so Angela can take center stage once more.

riseofthelegend_teaserposter_01I had thought that three movies would be my limit this week, but now that I’ve brought up Sammo, I have to go on to a movie from the other end of his career, the 2015 Rise of the Legend. This may mean this gets posted a day later than planned – my apologies.

Rise of the Legend is another attempt to restart the Wong Fei-hung franchise, and this is going to confuse people like myself who mainly know the character from the Once Upon a Time in China movies or Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master flicks, because this is apparently the Zack Snyder version of Master Wong. Through the opening and into the first, say, ten minutes I wasn’t sure if the character I was watching was actually Wong Fei-hung, not because he is taking on all comers in a massive alley fight, but because he’s pretty matter-of-factly killing thugs. Jet Li and Jackie didn’t hesitate to put the hurt on people who were asking for it, but we are definitely dealing with a meaner version here. Dare I say… “grittier”.

rise-of-the-legend-2014-chinese-movieFei-hung (Eddie Peng), we will find out in subsequent flashbacks, was orphaned when his father (Hi, Tony Leung!) roughed up a scumbag slaver who kidnapped and sold one of the orphans kind-hearted dad had been taking care of. His clinic was torched by the scumbag’s gang, and Dad died getting the kids out. The adolescent Fei-hung and his close friend Fiery (Jing Boran) sought revenge, only to find the gang was killed by another gang. They are carried away by a monk who teaches them kung fu and does his best to quell their bloodthirsty fires of vengeance.

The plan they hatch in a calmer maturity involves Fiery organizing a gang called the Orphan Gang (including some of the kids Dad Wong was caring for) while Fei-hung works his way up the hierarchy of the Black Tiger Gang, which is consolidating its hold over the docks, opium dens, and crime in general. That’s where we start in media res: Fei-hung literally fetching the head of a rival gang, ingratiating himself to the leader of the Black Tigers, who is the reason we’re doing one more movie… Sammo Hung.

rise1-625x416Sammo has come full circle in a long and excellent career. These days I only see him in villain roles, but he’s nobody’s punching bag anymore. Fei-hung becomes the fourth of the sub-bosses under Sammo, and then his and Fiery’s plan kicks into gear.

I’ve seen a lot of reviews trash this movie, but I have to admit it kept me interested for a little over two hours. I doubt its validity as a Wong Fei-hung story, but as a Yojimbo-esque crime drama, it’s pretty good. As we head into the third act, the story stumbles a bit – there’s one sacrifice too many for cheap emotion, one turncoat that’s a little too easy, but I did appreciate the way the overall plot was teased out.

punch!A lot of rancor goes toward the fight scenes, which I also find unfair – Corey Yuen is the fight coordinator, and I had no complaints except for (you were waiting for the “except for”, weren’t you?) the final showdown between Sammo and Peng, which is technically pretty, but emotionally vacant, and accordingly unsatisfying.

The rest of the movie I have no complaints about – it’s quite handsomely mounted, with a soundtrack that at several point evokes Morricone, and that’s a good thing. But let’s just pretend that the main character’s name is just a coincidence, okay, and go watch Once Upon a Time in China again.

Buy A Touch of Zen on Amazon

Buy Lady Whirlwind on Amazon

Buy Rise of the Legend on Amazon

Kung Fu Halloween (1977)

At some point in the last horrific couple of weeks writer Jessica Ritchey asked what sort of media made you feel safe, what was your head’s comfort food. That was during one of my very brief returns to the turbulent waters of social media, and I didn’t respond. Well, now I am: kung fu movies.

That is a gross generalization: what I truly love is wuxia films, tales of righteous men and women taking up the fight against evil, often in the defense of the weak and helpless. Righting wrongs. That’s a message I need to see right now.

I watched two in the days before the Election, unknowingly preparing myself, I suppose. Then came the dark days, when I couldn’t get up the gumption to watch a movie until I forcibly broke my two-week fast with another – and then I watched Doctor Strange, and found myself watching a Marvel wuxia movie, complete with training scenes. I’ve since watched at least two Chinese fantasy adventure films, maybe more by the time this finally posts.

kung_fu_halloween_poster_01As usual, we’ll take these things on in a sort of backwards, piecemeal manner, with the movie that broke my fast, Kung Fu Halloween. This showed up several years ago in one of those “Weird Movies You’ve Never Seen” lists, which I usually read for sneering purposes, but by golly, I had to admit I hadn’t seen it, or even heard of it. The poster that accompanied the list looked pretty interesting, too.  Let us gaze now upon that image, and realize, as is the way with many exploitation posters on these fair shores, that it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie, and this scene will never occur, so stop waiting for it.

As you know, we just came off the annual Hubrisween challenge, an A-Z movie review event. Because some of us are unbridled masochists (and probably sporting a certain amount of brain damage), the dust hadn’t even settled before we started working on our lists for 2017. From the depths of my memory – oh, all right, my ever-freaking-growing Letterboxd Watch List – I pulled out Kung Fu Halloween for the difficult letter K, and took the rest of the day off.

Unlike most of these re-titlings, Wu Dang is actually at least mentioned once.

Unlike most of these re-titlings, Wu Dang is actually at least mentioned at one point.

Which is where things get interesting, if you’re interested in trivia. Like any Hong Kong flick of that era (and any other, really) that is not its original title, which would be Shi da zhang men chuang Shao Lin. Finding a copy of it would prove somewhat difficult, unless you were looking for the correct alternate title. Probably the most recent release was as Lady Wu Tang, back when Xenon was being breathtakingly barefaced in their greed to cash in on the success of kung fu-suffused hip hop group Wu Tang Clan (Kung Fu Cult Master became Lord of the Wu Tang, Taoism Drunkard changed to Drunken Wu Tang, you get the idea). Another popular title was apparently Don’t Bleed on Me. But if you go back far enough, the English title is the more generic Fight for Survival, which is how I finally found it (a tale which echoes my fractured search for Terry Jones’ The Wind in the Willows only to find out – years later – Disney had re-titled it Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride).

“But what about the movie, you long-winded buffoon?”

So the ten best, most famous fighters in the World of Martial Arts converge on the Shaolin Temple, saying they’ve heard a rumor that the famous Tammo martial arts manual has been stolen. As it is a great treasure of the temple, the Abbot is disturbed, and brings out the manual to prove it’s safe. At which point the leader of the fighters sucker punches the Abbot – mortally wounding him – and grabs the book, which is apparently like those books that contain multiple volumes on the sales tables at Barnes and Noble, because it flies into pieces and each of the fighters grab a piece and run away. Now that they each have one manual for each of the techniques in the Tammo book, they pull off Mission Impossible masks to reveal they were not the fighters they appeared to be.

Why, you're not the fighters we thought you were at all!

Why, you’re not the fighters you appeared to be!

And that right there is the justification for the Halloween portion of the title, over in the first five minutes, and to my mind, disqualifying it for Hubrisween. I mean, the rest of the movie gets fairly weird, but we’ve left the October Country behind.

This is where we meet Shi Fu Chun (Polly Shang Kwan), a girl who steadfastly kneels before the gates of Shaolin, hoping to gain admittance for training, even though the Shaolin He-Man Woman Haters Club does not admit girls or their cooties. Two lazy acolytes fool her into carrying water for them for a year in exchange for eventual training. That works against them when the current Abbot finds out (they now have to carry water for three more years before they can train) and Shi still can’t gain admittance. This doesn’t sit well with the old hermit Shi met and has been caring for along with the water carrying (Chan Lai Wau), who it turns out was a former Abbot who left because he was fed up with Shaolin rules.

“Non-Stop Streetfighting Action!”

He’s also shocked that the Tammo book was stolen a year before and no one’s managed to get it back. Just to show everyone, he trains Shi in every one of the techniques in the Tammo book so she can retrieve it and restore Shaolin’s prestige. He estimates this will take three years (this movie is pretty serious about its time compression). One problem: learning Positive kung fu causes her to grow a moustache, which the Old Man says is natural, and can remedied by studying Negative kung fu… but he’s forgotten how. To escape Shi’s temper tantrums, he fakes his own death.

These are the jokes, folks.

So after the Old Man is installed in the hall of golden former abbots, Shi does the pick-up-the-hot-brazier-and-get-dragons-burned-into-your-arms bit and leaves the temple with the two rapscallions from earlier (because we need not one, but two Odious Comic Reliefs) to reclaim the Tammo books.

Yes, sir, that's some vicious streetfighting right there.

Yes, sir, that’s some vicious streetfighting right there.

Shi and her two fifth wheels make fairly short work of tracking down the various pieces of the book, and we get to see the “magic kung fu” styles we saw briefly during her training montage, some of which involve growing arms and legs to extraordinary lengths, as seen in the previous year’s Master of the Flying Guillotine and subsequent Street Fighter games. (“They look strange because they’re very evil,” Shi explains to the OCRs) The fight scenes are unusual and exciting, but feel a bit short if you’re used to a diet of Chang Cheh blood and thunder flicks, or the more modern action movies.

Aaaaaa! Creepy!

Aaaaaa! Creepy!

Mixed in with this is the fact that the guy who snagged the Negative kung fu manual has, of course, turned into a woman and has been smitten with the Positive kung fu gender-swapped Shi (a character that presages Swordsman 2‘s Invincible Asia by nearly 15 years). The remaining band of thieves reunite to try to take down Shi, but are undone by Negative’s unrequited love and the fact that the Poison guy can’t resist poisoning everybody. Shi eventually triumphs – with the aid of the two Odious Comic Reliefs, even – and takes the Tammo book and the captured thieves back to Shaolin.

Wait a minute… there’s still 25 minutes of movie left?

Everybody conga!

Everybody conga!

Well, those ten famous fighters show up at the Shaolin temple again – economical filmmaking right there – but this time they’re the real deal. Turns out the thieves were all various disciples of theirs, and they want them released. Not for any ethical reasons, you understand, but because having their followers imprisoned affects their prestige in the world of martial arts. So they have to fight their way through the temple – represented by three of the fighters taking on masters in Monkey, Tiger, and Crane kung fu – and eventually reaching Shi in the central courtyard. She’s more than a match for any of them – even two or three of them – so they form the Shantung Battle Line, a sort of Kung Fu Conga Line that spells mutually assured destruction for both sides. With appropriate locomotive sounds, the Line takes to the air.

vlcsnap-2016-11-25-11h47m20s011Luckily, one of the two Odious Comic Reliefs knows the Old Man faked his death and he takes the hit of the Shantung Battle Line. Everyone learns a lesson, the thieves have been magically reformed by the teachings of Shaolin, the Old Man has earned his gold plating, the end.

Kung Fu Halloween/Fight for Survival isn’t the weirdest martial arts movie I’ve ever seen, except perhaps in tone. The plot is pretty standard stuff, save for the gender twist on the protagonist, and its pursuant lighter, often comedic touch. Polly Shang Kwan (real name Lengfeng Shangguan) was a versatile actress who manages the change from girl hiding behind the master (and going ee! ooh!) while he routs upstart monks to kung fu badass very well. Chan Wai Lau is a gifted physical actor who appears in what seems like thousands of  kung fu flicks.

fight-for-survival-1977-bThat, in fact, covers a lot of the actors in this – it’s full of familiar faces, and only the breadth of my ignorance prevents me from naming them all. Most only get one brief fight scene, if that – Polly’s the only woman who gets to show off her stances – but that original poster has the line of head shots along the bottom to prove it.

So I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t get to do a kung fu flick for Hubrisween – but I wasn’t disappointed in the movie itself. It was a whole lot of ridiculous fun – and isn’t that what Halloween is all about, anyway?

It’s Thanksgiving. Buddha and YouTube are merciful:

(But Man is not, as somebody took the movie down. Sorry)

Z: Zeder (1983)

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OH WHAT A LIE

OH WHAT A LIE

Zeder has an odd, somewhat fractured reputation. It was released during the great VHS boom under the title Revenge of the Dead, which is a pretty accurate description, I suppose – but it was being sold as another gory Italian zombie flick – and it ain’t that.

You think it might be, with the opening – an elderly woman getting mangled by a shadowy figure outside an old mansion, “The third in two years!”, and a mysterious Dr. Meyer (Cesare Barbetti) forcing an obviously disturbed teenage psychic, Gabriella (Veronica Moriconi) to seek out a body buried in the cellar while all sorts of Amityville shit is going on upstairs. While Meyer brings the authorities downstairs, another shadowy figure mangles Gabriella’s leg. The body is dug up, a moldering skeleton – with Gabriella’s slipper in its bony hands.

Going over the few effects found with the bones, Meyers finds the skeleton’s wallet, with an ID card, revealing the corpse was once Dr. Paul Zeder. Meyer is astounded. “He found a K Zone!” he exclaims.

Enough about that, let’s go to the present day of 1983. (There aren’t a bunch of visual cues – at least to these American eyes – that reveal the opening was twenty or so years in the past, but we are also going to find that Zeder is that rare creature, a movie that expects its viewer to be smart enough to keep up with it) A young writer, Stefano (Gabriele Lavia) is given an anniversary present by his wife Alessandra (Anne Canovas): a dinosaur of an electric typewriter she bought at an auction. Stefano sets to writing, but the ribbon runs out quickly, and upon trying to change it, he notices he can read what was written before, by the previous owner. Something about “K Zones”.

roftd4Sensing a story, Stefano begins to trace the previous owner, and find out exactly what a K Zone might be; he visits his old college where his former professor (John Stacy) reveals that it was the theory of a Dr. Paul Zeder, who mysteriously disappeared years before. He felt that there are certain areas of the Earth where time periodically comes unglued, as it were. opening up the possibility that the dead could be communicated with at these times, and even come back to life. Absurd, obviously! Oddly, the professor’s copy of the articles laying that out seem to have vanished…

And thus, Stefano becomes more and more obsessed with solving this mystery, and overcoming the many obstacles thrown in his path. The prior owner of the typewriter was a priest who left the order when he discovered he had terminal lung cancer. The priest’s crypt is empty… because he has been buried in the grounds of that mansion, in a coffin wired with television cameras and motion sensors by a group headed up by the now grey-haired Dr. Meyers and an adult Gabriella (Paola Tanziani). The K Zone, as it turns out, is quite real, and the dead do come back – though not quite the way you’d want.

zeder-1So, as mentioned before, what we have here is not truly a zombie movie (except that the dead have a tendency to tear off throats and enough body parts for video boxes to make false claims), but a mystery more in tune with a giallo than an actual horror movie. You have an amateur sleuth, his lovely wife involved against her better judgement, and at least one remorseless killer – all that’s missing is the black leather gloves. One piece of oddness I have difficulty overcoming is why the group investigating the K Zones feel that information is worth killing to conceal. A little more information or motivation would have been nice, but perhaps that’s meant to be just one more enigma to hash over after viewing.

zeder4Pupi Avati directed somewhere around 50 movies and TV shows, but his fame in these parts rests mainly on this movie and another, The House of Laughing Windows, giving him a reputation for thoughtful horror. Zeder, as I said, is arranged as a mystery, where we know more than Stefano, but we aren’t sure of the why of things. Stefano’s gradual peeling back of the layers around the K Zone mystery keeps the viewer engaged, until the final act when the K Zone busts out The Weirdness in all its glory. A lot of low-budget horror movies do this, saving all the money for the close (appropriately so), but in the case of Zeder, it actually feels like that is earned.

It’s hard to find, but if you’re in the mood for a giallo-inflected movie with more than a bit of the supernatural in the mix, Zeder/Revenge of the Dead is worth the effort.

Buy Zeder/Revenge of the Dead on Amazon