Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Thing (1982)

The first time I saw John Carpenter's The Thing I would have been around 13 or 14 years old and staying overnight at my cousin's house. We rented a bunch of horror movies and decided to stay up all night watching them, and things were going well up until three in the morning or so. That's when we popped in this horror classic. We were repulsed by the gory effects and tense atmosphere of the first half, but then comes the blood test scene.

Hoo boy. The blood test scene.

I'm not going to give too much away, but the film features an alien creature that can copy the appearance of any living thing it encounters, and at one point in the film the main character discovers that each cell of the creature works as a living organism (horrifically demonstrated in a scene where the head of the creature pulls away from the body of a person it is copying, sprouts spider legs and attempts to walk away).. He postulates that if this is the case then the blood of someone who is "infected" would move away from a hot needle.

Tying the paranoid crew to chairs, the character tests them one at a time. A hot wire being laid into a petri dish of each character's blood. After several tests revealing nothing (and exonerating characters that the audience may have suspected) there comes the single biggest fright i've ever gotten from a horror film. I already knew at this point that the film was something special, but this moment pushed it over the line as one of my very favorite films.

When released in 1982, The Thing was a very modest financial success, and got only mixed critical reviews. It came out the same summer as Steven Spielberg's E.T., and it's theorized in the special features that audiences were not prepared to watch such a nihilistic science fiction film after seeing Spielberg's cutesy classic. The years since have found an increasing number of people discovering the greatness of the film, with it joining a number of John Carpenter's films that took some time to find an audience (such as They Live, Big Trouble In Little China and even In The Mouth Of Madness).

The film centers on a group of scientists in a remote base in Antarctica. One day they are startled to see a helicopter circling their base, apparently attempting to attack a dog that is racing through the snow towards them. After landing, one of the helicopter's inhabitants chase the dog towards the men, firing blindly in an attempt to kill it. After accidentally blowing up the helicopter, the inhabitant shouts Norwegian before wounding one of the scientists in the leg, and is subsequently shot and killed. Startled and confused, the men take the dog into the base before helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady decides to head to the Norwegian camp to see what caused all of this. On arrival they find the base demolished, and the grisly remains of something that appears half human. An autopsy reveals that the remains are at least partly human, and it is soon discovered that the parts are actually pieces of the title creature, who can copy organisms exactly if given a short amount of time. Soon, the men are in a fight for their lives as the paranoia of who has and hasn't been taken over starts to breed mistrust. The film comes to an explosive conclusion as the remaining men desperately try to stop the creature from escaping and eventually reaching populated civilization.

Setting a horror film in the barren arctic is something that strongly appeals to me. The starkness and remoteness of the situation, along with the extreme conditions that push people close together, seems to be a wonderful recipe for tension. While recent films like 30 Days Of Night have had a difficult time building appropriate fear, Carpenter was already well seasoned in terror by the time he made this film, already having made Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980).

Aside from the setting, however, the reason the film works relies on the efforts of the entire cast and crew. The score by the amazing Ennio Morricone (which sounds strangely like one of Carpenter's own scores) builds dread effectively, and the Cinematography by Dean Cundey squeezes the tension out of every corner. But the real MVP of the film (aside from the cast, and Carpenter himself) are the horrific creations of Rob Bottin (The Howling, Robocop). Bringing the twisted nightmare of a creature that can copy other creatures to life, Bottin's work remains unparalleled in terms of special make-up effects, and may be the peak of pre-computer age make-up in horror films. Each horrific set-piece is like a demented work of art, and it's not difficult to see why he was hospitalized for exhaustion from the amount he put into the film.

The film wouldn't exist without Carpenter's vision to guide it, and he was at the height of his powers here. Working with an all male ensemble, he squeezes his grip around the audience's neck slowly, bringing things to a fever pitch several times before giving a few moments of relief. Carpenter seems to enjoy visions of apocalypse, and explored this theme again in Prince Of Darkness and In The Mouth Of Madness, but the hopelessness of the situation presented (as well as the parallels to blood diseases like AIDS) rises The Thing above much of his other work. Personally, I think this is the best work he's ever done. In both the included documentary, as well as the commentary, much mention is made of the difficulty of shooting dialogue scenes of a small room filled with actors. Onlookers seem amazed at the way that Carpenter deftly approaches such moments, and it takes a close look to appreciate the skill that Carpenter brings to a production.

The acting is spot on, with Russell being the stand out as the reluctantly heroic Macready. With a full beard hiding his movie star appearance Russell is totally believable as a desperate man trying to retain trust while the situation around him slowly begins to collapse. The rest of the cast acquit themselves very well, with Wilfred Brimley as Dr. Blair (who is the first to discover the danger they have found themselves in) showing impressive manic energy as he attempts to prevent the creature from reaching humanity.

This is not a pleasant movie. It's gory to the point of disgust in certain scenes (particularly when the men dissect the burned corpses), and while the ending is appropriate to the film, it doesn't provide anything close to happy conclusion. But this is a thinking mans horror film. An amazing piece of entertainment that survives because of the questions it raises. Created as a tribute to the original The Thing From Another World, as well as a more accurate adaptation of the source story Who Goes There by Joseph Campbell, the film betters on the original materials in almost every way.

The DVD of The Thing I own is the 1998 Collectors Edition, which was later released with a different cover in 2004. The major difference between the two is that the newer version's print has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and Carpenter once again proves himself a master of getting as much possible out of the frame. This film is sometimes shown in a heavily edited form on television, but I strongly suggest only ever seeing the film in its original presentation. The image quality is sharp, and the scenes of the icy glacier on which they filmed are impressive.

The DVD comes packed with special features, the most impressive being the documentary Terror Takes Shape, documenting the making, and release, of the film. Running 84 minutes, the documentary provides a candid, fascinating look at the difficulties of shooting the film. Including almost all of the major players involved with its creation, it's highly recommended to fans of the film or fans of film documentaries.

We're also treated to a feature length commentary from Carpenter and Kurt Russell. The men obviously have a lot of fondness for the film, and a close friendship, and their memories are both genial and often hilarious. I've heard a number of commentaries from the two at this point, and they never disappoint. Also included are a production background archive, cast production photographs, production art/storyboards, location design, production archives, small sections on the designing of the alien's flying saucer, the design of the Blair monster, several outtakes, production notes, and the original trailer for the film (which I quite like). All together a wonderful package that treats the film with deserved respect.

A horror classic that has amassed a cult audience in the decades since its release, The Thing remains a high point of 80s horror.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Erik the Viking: The Director’s Son’s Cut (1989/2007)


When I was but a lad, I was lucky enough to get a copy of Terry Jones’ Erik the Viking (1989) by taping it off of Super Channel when they were running a free preview month. The video quality was sketchy, and the beginning and ending were missing, but I watched that damn tape until it nearly disintegrated. Erik the Viking had everything, as a kid, that I wanted in a film--swords, violence, magic, and humour. Turns out, upon viewing Erik the Viking: The Director’s Son’s Cut (2007), that this is almost exactly what I want in a film as an adult. A journey of magic and wonder, Erik the Viking is like Monty Python doing The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor (OK, I know, wrong country, wrong period--but still, I maintain, the description fits!).

It starts with an unlikely situation for a comedy: Erik’s (Tim Robbins) attempted rape of Helga (Samantha Bond). Erik is unable to complete this routine Viking task, since he’d prefer that the two develop a loving relationship before proceeding any further. He’s not, it would seem, a very good Viking. In the following moments, Helga is accidentally killed, and Erik, in turn, decides that he will enlist his fellow Vikings in a journey to Valhalla, where he will end Ragnarök, make Fenrir the wolf cough up the sun, and hopefully bring Helga back to life in the process. His Viking friends--chief among them the fearless warrior Thorfinn Skullsplitter (Richard Ridings) and Sven the Berserk (Tim McInnerny)--agree to follow Erik, if only because to refuse might be seen as a sign of weakness.

“You don’t go through all the hardships of an ocean voyage to make friends!” Thorfinn Skullsplitter tells our hero, Erik, with a large degree of contempt, and in doing so illustrates the major differences between Erik and his Viking brethren--Erik is, for the most part, a nice guy. With his belief in love and selfless action, he sticks out like a sore thumb amid his brutal kinsmen, and former Python member Terry Jones knows how to play this intrinsically comedic situation for some hearty laughs. In fact, on close inspection, it turns out that Erik the Viking is set up like a series of sketches: it’s Sven’s argument with his dad over what it means to be a berserk, followed by Erik’s pitifully bad goodbye speech, followed by the chaotic tussle with the Dragon of the North Sea… Each comedic set-piece fits perfectly into the overall story, so that the narrative never seems herky-jerky, and most of these scenarios provide a good laugh.

Much of the film’s strength comes from Erik’s shipmates. My favourites among them are Sven and Sven’s Dad; the latter of which is constantly lecturing his son on how to properly be a berserk (“You must only let the red rage take hold of you in the thick of battle!”), which inevitably leads to Sven loosing his cool and, in doing so, disappointing his father. Freddie Jones is suitably hilarious as the hapless Christian missionary, John Gordon Sinclair lightens up all the scenes he’s in as the cowardly drummer, Ivar the Boneless. Jones’ old Python compatriot, John Cleese, is cast as the villain of the piece, Halfdan the Black. Much like the character of Erik is made funny by contrasting his personality (kind and caring) with his occupation (marauding Viking), Cleese’s Halfdan turns out to be, rather humorously, a fairly well-mannered despot.
It’s hard to imagine a movie like Erik the Viking being made by anyone else--save, of course, another Python alum, Terry Gilliam. Jones, who has a degree in Modern History from Oxford, had already cut his teeth as a director in the Python vehicles Holy Grail and Life of Brian. In those films, as in Erik the Viking, you can see that Jones is every bit as interest in depicting the gritty, stinky details of the historical period, as he is in revelling in its absurdities. Certainly he does not attempt a faithful recreation of the period, but his historian’s eye for detail helps him craft a world that feels suitably authentic--and that makes it all the more funny.

Unfortunately, the only version of Erik the Viking available on DVD is The Director’s Son’s Cut. This new cut reorders a scene or two, but most of the editing involves “trimming” each scene. Most noticeable, however, is some audio editing, which involves some audio close-ups of special effects sounds which end up being really distracting (the “roaring” during the battle with Halfdan the Black is the most obvious--and painful). The ending suffers the most, with the last few scenes racing along, and the cutting from scene-to-scene becoming disjointed. This anemic cut of Erik the Viking comes with a reasonable amount of extras, including a behind-the-scenes look at the making of The Director’s Son’s Cut, which leaves the viewer with the (probably correct) impression that the director’s son has no idea what he’s doing.
The changes made in The Director’s Son’s Cut are not all bad--it speeds up the middle of the film nicely (even though humour sometimes needs those extra few seconds to really pay off)--but on the whole I think they’re probably detrimental to the film. That being said, it’s the only version available on DVD, so you’d be foolish to pass it up just because of the editing. Erik the Viking: The Director’s Son’s Cut is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys Pythonesque humour, or fans of Vikings.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Eastern Condors (1986)

Eastern Condors is a Vietnam film pastiche that serves as a springboard for some eye popping stunts (and a few short kung-fu fights), but never gels as something more significant. Drawing inspiration from films like The Dirty Dozen and The Deer Hunter, it hits all the war-film buttons, but never transcends being merely a kung fu-laced series of homages.

The Dirty Dozen is obviously the central influence here, as the plot follows a collection of Chinese convicts dropped into Vietnam in the Mid-70s with the promise of freedom (and a hunk of cash) if they survive. Their mission is to destroy a hidden weapons depot that was accidentally left behind by the Americans before it can fall into the wrong hands. The rag tag bunch is led by Lieutenant Lam (the late Ching-Ying Lam, filling out the Lee Marvin role), and the convict Tung, played by martial arts legend Sammo Hung. Joining him is another action superstar, Yuen Baio as Weasel, a black market dealer and Academy Award winner Haing S. Ngor (The Killing Fields) as Weasel's possibly insane uncle.

The film climaxes with some quality fights taking place in the weapons depot, with the surviving members battling the lanky, fem Vietnamese colonel (played by
Yuen Wah) and his elite soliders (including the great Billy Chow from Fist Of Legend). Up until this point the film had focused mainly on gunplay, but the martial arts demonstrations in the final twenty minutes are amazing. Yuen Baio, particularly, seems to be trying to find the most elaborate way to land on his own head. The supporting cast feature some familiar names for kung-fu fans, including the great Yuen Woo Ping (choreographer for The Matrix, Kill Bill, Fist Of Legend, etc.) and director Corey Yuen (The Transporter) in unfortunately minor roles.

Directed by Sammo Hung (who slimmed down significantly for the lead role), Eastern Condors is obviously trying really hard to break away from the mold of Mid-80s Hong Kong action films. While moments of humor squeak through, this is a grim and surprisingly violent story. While it borrows wholesale from The Dirty Dozen, that film spent a great deal of its time showing its collection of reprobates coming together as they went through their often grueling training. Eastern Condors throws the group right into the mission with only hints about their background. This lack of substance to the characters hurts the film when they start dying off and the audience is expected to care about their fates. There are simply too many faces and not enough time spent developing them.

Particularly wasted is Haing S. Ngor, who is shoehorned into the film in a role that doesn't really make any sense. His presence was obviously meant to give the film some weight, but instead is just confusing. Also, while the kung-fu sprinkled throughout the film is certainly impressive, it sometimes makes things feel a bit cartoonish. While I appreciate the restraint that Hung is showing as director, it's quite obviously pandering to the Kung Fu audience that are familiar with the talents of the main cast. Still overall it's quite a technical achievement, if a bit empty, and has some incredible stunt work leading up to the impressive final sequences.

The 20th Century Fox DVD is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the print is clear, if a little grainy at times. The Mid-80s were a time that the budgets and production values for Hong Kong action films were on the rise and the film doesn't hold back with explosions or gunfire, all of which look impressive here. The film is available both dubbed and subtitled, though the subtitles seem to not be a direct translation (with, at the very least, characters being renamed).

Included are American and International trailers for Eastern Condors, as well as trailers for Magnificent Warriors, City Hunter, Naked Killer, Magnificent Butcher, Heart Of Dragon, Hong Kong 1941, In The Line Of Duty 4 and Duel To The Death.

Somewhat disappointing considering the talent involved, Eastern Condors contains enough bloody shootouts and acrobatic action to keep fans satiated, but never is quite able to achieve the greatness of some of its influences. Still a worthwhile film in the genre, however, and features some wonderful talent in small roles.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight (1973)

Remember back, if you will, to the days before Wikipedia, before the internet had so thoroughly saturated every part of our lives. Back then, we were blissfully unaware of furries, of slash fiction, and of things like “pinky violence,” a sleazy and popular Japanese genre, whose basic ingredients are graphic nudity, graphic sex, and graphic death. O, we were almost virginal in our ignorance then…

Teruo Ishii was (apparently) a virtuoso of pinky violence--or, more specifically, the ero guro ("erotic-grotesque") subgenre (trust me, I had to look this up). One of his films, Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight, based on a comic by Kazuo Koike (Hanzo the Razor), has just found itself released in North America, packed with extras and some easy-to-read subtitles, thus making pinky violence accessible to all.

So, here’s the deal: Shino Ashita (Tetsuro Tamba) is your standard Super Samurai. In the film’s opening moments, he takes on a plethora of armed guards, and kills them all in gruesome fashion, without even breaking a sweat. He declares “To die is hell, but to live, is also hell.” Dude has issues.

Shino is taken in by the Bohachi clan, a group of lowlifes and scumbags who run the prostitution biz in Yoshiwara. In order to become a member of the Bohachi, you have to abandon the “eight human virtues.” What are these virtues, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you:

1. Godliness
2. Obedience and fidelity towards elders
3. Loyalty towards friends
4. Trusting your allies
5. Modesty
6. Justice
7. Conscience
8. Shame

…all of this explained by a voice-over, accompanied by a montage of naked women be tortured, for the purpose of turning them into Bohachi women.

Here’s the thing: Shino, as low and deplorable as he is, seems incapable of banishing all eight of the human virtues, and so is kicked out of the clan. Luckily, though, a clan elder recognizes his unmatched capacity for violence, and keeps him on as a guest. Shino takes up a new occupation--to safeguard the Bohachi’s monopoly on drugs and prostitution, he becomes a hitman, killing every john who sleeps with a whore outside of Yoshiwara.

In this way, Bohachi Bushido tries to have its cake and eat it too. Officially divorced from the Bohachi, the viewer doesn’t have to feel bad cheering for Shino, who now viciously kills the scum of the land. The Bohachi women also turn out, remarkably, to be just as evil as their pimps, and so the viewer isn’t supposed to feel bad for seeing them victimized. Plus, you just know that Shino will eventually turn on the Bohachi, making their evil somehow more acceptable for the duration. The extent to which the film succeeds with this moral switcheroo depends on how willing the viewer is to let it get away with it; and, certainly, if you’ve come to see sex and violence, the film delivers in spades, and so perhaps you’re willing to give it some leeway with its extremely flawed morals.

Bohachi Bushido is at its best when its at its most comical. Prostitutes don fireproof kimonos and roll in flames to put out a grease-fire; when those same prostitutes encounter a ninja some moments later, they inevitably engage in a naked wrestling match with their stealthy assailant. Shino continually gets into bloody swordfights, where limbs fly through the air and his opponents are reduced to blood-filled piñatas. Ishii makes no claims towards realism, and uses coloured spotlights and strange filters to exaggerate the comic book quality of the action. He’s like a poor man’s Kenji Misumi. Tetsuro Tamba (who you may recognize from his role as Tiger Tanaka in James Bond’s You Only Live Twice) plays his standard role: stoic, weather-beaten samurai guy, the same one he plays in countless samurai films.

The Discotek DVD sports a fair amount of extras, including an interview with the female lead Yuriko Hishima and a discussion with pinky violence “expert” J-Taro Sugisaku (who explains that the women in pinky violence films “use their sexy violence to entice the hero to win the battle.”) You also get a few pages from the original manga and a couple of write-ups about the film. All in all, it’s more than you would expect for a film of this, er, genre.

There’s really no point in recommending this film or not. If the idea of unrelenting violence and nudity appeals to you--and hey, who could blame you for that?--then Bohachi Bushido is the movie for you. If you find the entire concept of the film deplorable--and hey, who could blame you for that?--then it’d be best to steer clear.

2001 Maniacs (2005)

In 1963, Herschell Gordon Lewis created the splatter film genre with the outrageously violent Blood Feast. It delivered plenty of on screen gore, but as an actual film it was a little rough around the edges (to put it mildly). After Blood Feast's amazing success, Lewis returned to the genre a year later with Two Thousand Maniacs! and the minds of a millions young horror fans were permanently warped. With its rather bizarre blend of comedy and extreme violence, Two Thousand Maniacs! was a big step up in entertainment value from the static limp style of Blood Feast. Lewis' films went on to influence a whole generation of filmmakers, who gave him the nickname of The Godfather Of Gore.

Tim Sullivan began his career as a production assistant on Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn, and has worked peripherally in the horror field since. After finding some success writing the Kiss-centric comedy Detroit Rock City, he decided to make his directing debut a love-letter to H.G. Lewis and the genre of films he enjoys most. 2001 Maniacs is less a sequel to Lewis' film and more a re-imagining of the concept, with a few modern elements thrown in for good measure.

Heading to Florida for spring break, three friends take a detour and find themselves (along with another trio of spring-breakers, and a biker and his girlfriend) in the Georgia town of Southern Valley. Initially welcomed by the town as guests of honor, and particularly by the eye-patch wearing Mayor Buckman (Robert Englund), things soon turn sour when the friends are dispatched in inventively gory ways by the citizens. It turns out that the people are actually ghostly remnants of a town wiped out during the Civil War, and each year they rise up to take revenge during their cannibalistic guts and glory festival.

It's difficult to be critical of a film that so obviously loves its subject matter. In the two commentaries included on the DVD, Sullivan speaks at length of the difficulties of getting the film off the ground, and while his comments sometimes slip into self-importance, it's rather inspiring to see his vision come to life after such difficulty (with the help of producers Eli Roth (Cabin Fever), Scott Spiegel (Intruder) and Boaz Yakin (Remember The Titans). However, your enjoyment of the film will probably be based somewhat on your appreciation (and affection) for the genre. You're getting a film that is technically far superior to Lewis' original film, but its spirit remains very similar.

Sullivan is a capable director, and is helped immensely by the cast playing the citizens of Pleasant Valley, who obviously got into the spirit of things. While Robert Englund may be best known for the role of Freddy Krueger, he has legitimate acting chops and he plays Mayor George W. Buckman appropriately over the top. On his commentary track with Sullivan, Englund shows himself to be astute and aware of the appropriate tone, and while some might criticize his broad choice, it fits very well. Attention should also be paid to Giuseppe Andrews as Harper Alexander and Ryan Fleming as Hucklebilly, both of whom do very well with their own variation on the demented redneck.

Unfortunately, as interesting as the maniacs are the spring breakers are equally bland. Jay Gillespie (as Anderson Lee, the lead) has a young Val Kilmer-thing going on, but does nothing to make the audience want him to survive to the final reel. Nobody stands out as particularly sympathetic, and while they are definitely attractive (and given the opportunity to show off some skin), they are totally disposable. Mushond Lee (as the black biker Malcolm) shows a bit more personality, but seems to be there just as the target of some groan-worthy racial jokes (including his death at the hands of a cotton press).

The violence is appropriately gooey, with many of the deaths being a variation on the ones from the original film. It's a shame that the most famous murder (consisting of an unfortunate victim being rolled down a hill in a barrel which has had nails hammered into it) has been left out, but what is here, ranging from acid moonshine to a crushing by a giant bell, is a lot of gory fun.

The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 ratio, and looks wonderful. The location (using actual historic buildings) is shown off to great effect, and the bright colors of the film's first half contrast nicely with the darker (in color and tone) second half. The soundtrack doesn't stand out greatly, aside from the song "The South is Gonna Rise Again" composed by Herschell Gordon Lewis for the original film. It's repeated throughout the film in different incarnations, and picks up a certain amount of menace along the way. The town's minstrels (played by Johnny Legend and producer Scott Spiegel) also serve as a wandering Greek chorus and have a few clever moments along the way.

Lions Gate has done a really good job with the extras on the film, starting with the two commentaries; the first being with director Tim Sullivan and star Robert Englund, and the second with Sullivan, co-writer Chris Kobin and producer Chris Tuffin. The Sullivan/Englund commentary is very entertaining, focusing on a lot of the film's influences and the difficulties of bringing it to fruition. Both men show off their horror movie chops, and cover a lot of ground with very few gaps of silence. The second commentary is a bit more relaxed, with Sullivan having to reign in his two partners from making some rather hilariously off-color statements. There's a lot of repeated information, but both tracks are definitely worthwhile for fans of horror films.

Also included is the "Inside the Asylum" 45 minute documentary focusing on the making of the film. It's a fun piece, with some interesting examinations on how some of the effects were created, and a few funny moment with the hilariously unwilling Giuseppe Andrews. It covers a lot of the details not mentioned in the commentaries, though skips over some of the unpleasant details hinted at in the second commentary.

We're also treated to 30(!) deleted and alternate scenes, including an alternate opening scene with John Landis (director of An American Werewolf In London and Animal House) and David Friedman (producer of numerous films, including Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs!). While it's interesting to see the two film legends attempt to act, it's a really rough scene and was rightfully excised. The version in the film (starring the wonderful Peter Stormare) is far superior. Some of the other cut scenes have entertaining moments (and some smatterings of blood and nudity), but none stand out as unfairly removed.

Finally, we have audition tapes of the cast, and trailers for Heebie Jeebies, The Mangler Reborn, Green River Killer, Streets Of Legend, and 2001 Maniacs. The Maniacs trailer looks terribly low-budget, and includes some significant spoilers for the film.

A gore-soaked tribute to a horror classic, 2001 Maniacs provides a good time for fans of splatter. It's not going to convert anyone, but some fun performances and strong direction help push it above similar low-budget efforts.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Q - The Winged Serpent (1982)

As a director, Larry Cohen is a heck of a writer. That isn't to discount the quality of the films he's made throughout his career. In fact, from his early blaxploitation efforts (Black Caesar, Hell Up In Harlem) to his eccentric horror films like The Stuff and God Told Me To Cohen has continued to take interesting ideas and churn out some very solid films. Q - The Winged Serpent came at a high point of Cohen's creativity (and was Roger Corman-like in its ability to come together quickly and overcome a low budget), and some shaky direction and special effects doesn't take away from the film's charm.

After a series of strange rooftop deaths, a police detective (David Carradine) starts to suspect a giant flying creature (brought to life by odd ritual murders) might be responsible. While first scoffed at (particularly by Sergeant Powell, played by Richard Roundtree), evidence of the creature begins to increase, as does it's number of victims. Scummy ex-con Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) is the only one in the city who knows the location of the serpent's nest, and he tries to use this knowledge to his benefit before the film climaxes with a shootout atop the Chrysler Building.

While the film succeeds because of its snappy script, it also has another secret weapon: Michael Moriarty. Moriarty is absolutely amazing in the film, giving one of the best performances of his distinguished (and sometimes erratic) career as Quinn. He owns the screen whenever he's on it, and his performance gives the film a quirky, fun centre. The scene where Quinn makes his demands to the police commissioner, including a request for a "nixon-like" pardon, is incredible fun and likely the best scene of the film.

The film could use a few more scenes like that, since the side story of the cult skinning willing victims to resurrect the creature drags during the film's second half. David Carradine and Richard Roundtree are fine, but a little bland as combative police officers. Candy Clark has a nice role as Quinn's girlfriend, but this is Moriarty's film through and through.

The special effects are definitely weak, and Cohen admits in the commentary that they were done nearly completely in post production, but they add to the fun nature of the film as a whole. The late stop motion animator Dave Allen (The Howling, Ghostbusters II) worked on the creature's look, and the look is charmingly dated. The gore in the film (which is surprisingly plentiful) looks decent, with a few nasty scenes where a body is skinned being the highlight.

The Blue Underground DVD presents the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the image quality is certainly a lot better than the muddy VHS I watched as a teenager. This is obviously a low budget film, but the aerial scenes of New York still look wonderful. The score for the film is awesomely melodramatic, with the main theme (which plays on the DVD's main menu) certainly standing out.

The most significant special feature is a feature length commentary from Larry Cohen, moderated by Maniac director William Lustig. The commentary is a treat, with Cohen charmingly recollecting being fired off of the film I, The Jury and moving right into Q with almost no pre-production. His maverick film making style, shooting on the streets of New York without permits, is fascinating and inspiring, and he remembers a lot of detail about the production as a whole. Here's hoping for more Cohen commentaries in the future. Also included are a very fun teaser trailer for the film (Q! IS COMING!), a Larry Cohen bio, and a still/poster gallery. There are also some worthy DVD-ROM features for those interested.

A worthwhile monster film with an amazing central performance, Q is certainly worth a watch to anyone who would consider watching a film called Q - The Winged Serpent in the first place. Some choppy editing and weak special effects can't hold back what is some tremendous entertainment.

The President's Last Bang (2005)

On October 26th, 1979, South Korea's President, Park Chung-hee, was assassinated by the Director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), Kim Jaegyu. The President's Last Bang by Im Sang-Soo focuses on the immediate lead-up to the assassination, and the chaotic hours that directly followed.

Park Chung-hee had come to power in 1961 through a military coup. Despite these dubious beginnings, Park managed to strengthen South Korea's flagging economy, by implementing five year plans and normalizing relations with Japan. Unfortunately, the longer he stayed in office, the more despotic his rule was. Park became withdrawn, and his government more repressive. Apparently (or, at least, according to Wikipedia), when on trial for Park's assassination, Kim Jaegyu stated "I did that for democracy of this country. Nothing more, nothing less."

The President's Last Bang doesn't make Kim's motivations so clear. Im portrays Kim (played by Suk-kyu Han) as a burned out and frazzled bureaucrat, suffering from constipation and chronic halitosis. His decision to murder Park seems almost spur-of-the-moment, and primarily inspired by his dislike for Park's bodyguard, Cha Ji-cheol. During a dinner engagement with the President and Chief Secretary Yang (Park's toadying drinking buddy), Kim is forced to endure Cha's boorish manners and draconian political advice. After becoming angered with Cha, Kim steps outside to tell two of his friends from the KCIA that he's going to kill Cha and Park, and that they'd better be ready to back him up. Clearly this is something they've contemplated before, but his friends' reactions betray the fact that they had no idea it was coming that night.

What follows is an extended spat of graphic violence, during which Kim shoots Cha and Park, only to have his gun jam, so that he has to leave the room, find another weapon, and return to finish them off. As soon as the gunshots are heard, the two other KCIA men ambush Park's guards, gunning them down before they have a chance to react.

Im shows us the immediate consequences of the assassination as a comedy of errors: the President's bodyguards carry empty guns; there's no communication between the various arms of South Korea's government; when the Cabinet Council meets to discuss what's to be done, they discover that none of them really know; and a soldier guarding the army headquarters even refuses to let one of the characters in, failing to recognize him as the army Chief of Staff. While Kim never declares himself the assassin, he acts, in the aftermath of the killing, without fear, as though he thinks that the South Korean government is too obtuse or impotent to do anything about it.

The President's Last Bang is intended for a Korean audience, one that is acquainted with the historical event. As such, a Western viewer is left to find his or her own footing--which, admittedly, took me upwards of twenty or thirty minutes, as I tried to map out in my mind the characters and how they were all related. Luckily, there is some background information given at the start of the film, in the form of subtitles that I can only assume were added by KINO, since there is no accompanying Korean text on the screen.

The KINO DVD provides a few extras, and the subtitles seem accurate and easy to read. The transfer isn't perfect--there's some combing evident, but that only really showed up when I paused the film (or took some screen captures). Im has a real sense of visual flair, making The President's Last Bang an eye-catching film. Most impressive is Im's capacity to combine styles, so that this historical biopic features gritty, gangster-style violence and satirical laughs in equal measure. Basically, it's pretty fucking cool. Recommended for fans of foreign features, who'd like to see something a little different on their TV screen.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (1978)

Standard wisdom states that the stories in most kung-fu films are simply bridges to bring you to the next fight. During the late 70s/early 80s it was common for filmmakers to come up with the script as they filmed, leading to some baffling story-lines in between what could sometimes be amazing physical demonstrations. It was the Shaw Brothers films of the 70s that not only introduced higher production values and epic stories to Kung Fu, but also used a stock group of incredibly talented individuals to deliver classic kung fu stories at a furious frequency.

Aside from Chang Cheh (Five Deadly Venoms, Chinese Super Ninjas), Liu Chia-Liang was probably the most accomplished director working out of the Shaw Brother studios. Starting as a fight choreographer for Cheh's films, he soon graduated to directing and began casting his adopted brother Gordon Liu in his films. While he certainly impressed in Executioners From Shaolin (1977), it was The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (aka Master Killer) which gained both the director and star international prominence.

I remember my first time watching The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (aka Master Killer) very well. I had recently began to track down the older films of Jackie Chan, and was therefore digging through the kung-fu sections of various video stores. Picking up Master Killer (and, at the same time, Shogun Assassin) must have been divine providence. I (along with my brother) was transfixed from the opening credits, stylized to show Gordon Liu practicing various martial arts styles. It was dubbed, full screen, and jaw-droppingly awesome. It expanded my scope of what a martial arts movie should be, and made me hungry to go outside the Golden Harvest films I had been devouring and open my mind to other Shaw Brothers films.

Gordon Liu plays a young student in Canton who joins, along with some fellow students, a local resistance against the brutal invading Tartars. After being discovered, the resistance are brutalized and slaughtered before the injured student escapes to Shaolin to learn kung-fu. The hot headed young man plans to use what he learns to teach the ordinary people of Canton, so they can defend themselves against the invaders. While initially rejected for sneaking into the temple, he is eventually rechristened San Te and allowed to attempt to conquer the 35 chambers of Shaolin. Each represents a physical challenge that opens up San Te's mind while training his body. After a period of many years, he makes his way through each challenge and attempts to create his own chamber, bringing the Shaolin Kung-Fu to the people. He travels back to Canton where he takes on the evil General Tien (Lieh Lo) and shows off his now extraordinary abilities.

The film is most recognized for its trademark training sequences, which went on to influence films from The Karate Kid to The Matrix. In fact, a large portion of the film relies on almost no kung-fu battles, focusing instead on the slow progress that San Te makes through the chambers and the skills he develops. The most famous of these chambers involves the students having to carry water buckets up a narrow ridge, knives strapped beneath their arms to force them to hold their arms straight outwards. Another has San Te holding his head straight between two burning sticks of incense, his eyes focused on a tilting candle to train the young monk to move his eyes rather than his head when fighting an opponent.

Gordon Liu brings youthful arrogance to the role, often failing at a chamber multiple times before he is able to complete it and move on. The film doesn't labor on these tasks, but gives enough time that we see that there is a slow build to his abilities. When he shows off his kung-fu skills at the end of the film, using a number of techniques we have seen him develop, it's not difficult to believe that he's progressed as far as he has, and he handles the fights very capably, particularly his work with the three-sectioned staff.

Liu Chia-Liang is at the top of his game, bringing a sense of legitimacy to the training and a respect for the trials of San Te. He deftly employs slow motion in key scenes, and employs some memorable tracking shots during the film's fights. Few kung-fu directors could have gotten away with making a two hour film with so few major fight scenes, but the film never slows down and the training sequences are continually fascinating.

The DVD from the Weinstein's slightly offensive Dragon Dynasty series is a revelation. There was some intense criticism from fans for the amount of time this release took (and many, including myself, purchased import versions of the remastered prints being released in China), but the film has simply never looked better. The 2.35:1 is crisp and shows wonderful detail, and while there has been some criticism of the re-mixed sound, it's certainly never distracting.

It should be noted that, unlike the import DVDs, this release includes both English subtitles as well as the original English dub track that I first encountered when watching it on video. While i'm a strong proponent of subtitles, the English dub brings back many memories and is a fairly accurate translation.

The disc contains some wonderful special features, including a short (subtitled) conversation with Gordon Liu. He seems in good spirits, and remarkably good shape, and recalls how he got the lead role in the film, as well as his new found fame afterwards. I think it's wonderful that a new generation has discovered Gordon from his parts in both Kill Bill films (as Johnny Mo from the Crazy 88s and Pai Mei) and he's obviously pleased that the film has endured.

We also get short interviews with film critics Andy Klein and David Chute, which gives a bit more insight into the film's place in history. They've also included a short chat with the RZA from the Wu-Tang clan who tells of his experiences watching kung-fu films at the 42nd Street theaters in New York.

Klein and the RZA return for a full length commentary for the film. It's an interesting mix, and the RZA shows off a surprising knowledge of kung-fu film history while Klein takes a more academic approach to things. RZA's enthusiasm balances Klein's dryness, making it a very worthwhile track.

We're also treated to a stills gallery, a wonderful trailer gallery (featuring trailers for 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, Disciples Of The 36th Chamber, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, Five Shaolin Masters, Legendary Weapons Of China, Return To The 36th Chamber, and Shaolin Mantis. As well as trailers for the Dragon Dynasty releases of Infernal Affairs 3, Born To Fight, and Seven Swords. Finally, they have included a 17 minute piece on the history of Shaolin entitled Shaolin: A Hero Birthplace.

Perhaps the greatest Kung Fu film ever made, and certainly one of the most influential, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin remains as vital and entertaining as when it was made. The DVD release gives it the respect and attention it deserves with a stunning transfer and some entertaining extras. For anyone interested in 70s martial arts films, this is your first stop.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Zombie Lake (1981)

Zombie Knife Fight.

Did I get your attention? Good, because this one is something else. Directed by the usually reliable Jean Rollin, Zombie Lake walks the line of so-bad-it's-good until luckily devolving to a glorious stew of smut and ineptitude. If you're one to scoff at bad make-up, awful dubbing, or absolutely gratuitous nudity, i'd probably suggest giving this one a pass. For everyone else, this should provide some seriously goofy entertainment.

A small French village starts to experience mysterious murders (mostly of women in various states of undress, including a full (frontal) female volleyball team(!)) that are being caused by some mostly-green fellows that have been rising from the nearby lake. Apparently during World War II some resistance fighters killed a group of Nazis and dumped their bodies in the water, and now they are rising from their graves to take a little revenge.

But that's not all! So, before getting shot-up by the townspeople, one of the Nazis slept with a female villager who ended up having his child before passing away. This zombie-Nazi pays a few visits to his now grown daughter, who doesn't seem to have any problems hanging out with a damp, green, dead guy. The mayor (played by the late Howard Vernon) cooks up a scheme where the young girl lures the lumbering squad into a local mill, where the rest of the town burns them up with a flamethrower. Huzzah.

It's difficult to focus on what aspect of the production is most incompetent. The dubbing is pitiful, with the actors seemingly making up dialogue on the spot as they constantly contradict each other or spew nonsense. The zombie make-up is laughable, and most of the zombies have large flesh colored patches where it has either washed off or was never applied. Most attacks in the film consist of a badly made-up actor nuzzling against an actresses neck, letting fake blood fall out of his mouth. Embarrassing stuff, particularly in one scene where a solider gets shot in the eye and a very visible pipe feeds blood through his sleeve.

But, my own favorite bits are whenever they show the zombies from beneath the water. While above the lake appears dirty and covered with various wildlife, from below it's incredibly clear. So clear, in fact, that you can see the tarp set up in the background to hide the fact that the whole thing was shot in a swimming pool. You can even see vents at the edges of the screen! This sort of egregious error (and it's consistent throughout the film) just adds to the fun.

Jean Rollin (Living Dead Girl, Lips Of Blood) is actually a very capable director and is obviously slumming it here in conjunction with the infamous Jess Franco (who wrote the script). Rollin uses a pseudonym as director (though he also acts, credited, in the film) which implies he knew the results were less than inspiring. There are a few moments (particularly in the WWII flashback scenes) where his talents show through, but this is definitely something to leave off the resume. He is able to keep the pace moving quite rapidly (the film doesn't even run 90 minutes), and is sure to fill the screen with plenty of nubile flesh when things slow down.

Image released the DVD of the film and present the film in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The image quality is quite amazing, with almost no significant damage to the print. The English dubbing as mentioned is particularly rough, though they did see fit to include the original French language track. A pity that they didn't also give the option of subtitles. They also included a few extras, including alternate versions of the nude scenes with the actresses wearing clothes (apparently for television broadcasts), an alternate English opening credits sequence, and the film's theatrical trailer.

A low point in the career of Jean Rollin, but a high point for connoisseurs of awful cinema, Zombie Lake provides entertainment for viewers who like their films quick, smutty and technically retarded. The wonders of DVD bring it to us in crystal clear quality. Thank goodness for technology!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Zebraman (2004)

As a director Takeshi Miike is many things, but predictable is not one of them. From the intense and disturbing gore of Audition and Ichi The Killer, to the frenetic insanity of Dead Or Alive and Fudoh: The Next Generation, to The Happiness of the Katakuris (which nearly defies description), Miike has remained prolific and difficult to categorize. Zebraman finds the director trying his hand at a tokusatsu production, but as always brings his own unique sensibilities to the project.

"Tokusatsu" translates literally as "Special Effects" and is used to refer to Japanese productions like Kamen Rider, Ultraman, or the Super Sentai series (known as Power Rangers in North America) which focus strongly on effects, but a familiarity with the genre isn't strictly necessary to appreciate Zebraman.

Sho Aikawa, a Miike regular who also starred in Dead Or Alive, plays Shinichi, a school teacher who is obsessed with a short lived television series from his youth starring the titular hero. He's even fashioned himself a costume of the character and spends his evenings practicing his fighting style, even as his family is rapidly falling apart, with his son the target of bullies, his daughter running off with older guys, and his wife possibly cheating on him. Even his job is miserable until Shinpei, a wheelchair-bound transfer student with a similar love of the character, transfers to his school and they strike up a friendship. However, strange events are occurring throughout the city with people committing violent acts almost randomly and alien creatures possibly being behind it. Shinichi finds that his suit gives him the power to fight these monsters as he unravels his connection to the original television series and develops some faith in himself.

Aikawa's performance deserves praise, particularly after seeing him as the hard-boiled cop in Dead Or Alive. Here he's a sad sack loser who slowly finds himself rising to the occasion when faced with the alien threat. He's wonderfully sympathetic, and shows a real gift for physical comedy as he attempts to master his new-found powers. There's a sequence where he's attempting to learn to fly which gives him some hilarious (though painful looking) moments. The rest of the cast are also quite good, particularly Kyoka Suzuki as Shinpei's mother. The relationship that develops between Shinichi and Suzuki's character remains sweet and light, and she's able to handle the more ridiculous scenes admirably among the mounting ridiculousness.

And the humour in this film really is a revelation after seeing some of Miike's more serious works. The film begins with an affectionate parody of The Ring, and some of the more meta references to tokusatsu productions come off really well. In particular, the advertisement for the 70s Zebraman television series (included in full in the extra features) is a whole lot of fun. It's nice to see Miike having a bit of fun with a genre he obviously has affection for, while still being able to reinvent it in a way that can appeal to those not as familiar with the source material.

Unfortunately, the film slows down painfully in the second half, and the nearly two hour running time makes the whole production feel a bit bloated. There's also some unimpressive computer effects on display, though they work well in the context of the film. The film also require that the viewer be content with a number of unanswered questions after watching, which may be frustrating for some. I certainly felt that the development of Zebraman's powers seemed to come out of nowhere, but the story requires more than your average sense of disbelief.

The DVD contains the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the image is clear and crisp, a necessity since quite a bit of the film takes place at night. There are a few fun extras, including the trailer for the original Zebraman television series (shown briefly in the film), an interview with the show's theme song composer, and a truly bizarre live action "hero show" where Zebraman shows some of his moves off in front of a theater crowd. Trailers and a photo gallery round things off.

Blessed with a playful sense of humor about itself, Zebraman manages to rise above its rather odd premise to become something that could appeal greatly to older children, though it shouldn't be confused with a kids film. While the violence on display is more gooey than bloody and the content is generally PG, there is also many of Miike's trademark surreal touches and a few moments where things threaten to fly off the rails. Luckily, the director's steady hand keeps things in check and we get a fun, though overlong, superhero movie with some unique touches.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Beware! The Blob (1972)

The Blob (1958) was a better than average monster movie that is most notable for launching the career of Steven McQueen, having an absolutely ludicrous theme song (partly composed by Burt Bacharach), and featuring a sentient ball of jell-o as its main antagonist. At the end of that film The Blob is shown to be susceptible to cold and, after being attacked by fire extinguishers, is dropped into the arctic. Not a bad idea.

Apparently attacking red jelly from outer space doesn't make national news back in the 50s, as the characters in Beware! The Blob have to battle the creature without any prior knowledge in this oddly bland sequel. Also known as Son Of Blob, the film was directed by a post-I Dream of Jeannie (and pre-Dallas) Larry Hagman in a flat, static style, but is fascinating for its semi-improvised atmosphere and slew of early 70s, um, celebrities like Dick Van Patten and Burgess Meredith. It also helped launch the career of John Carpenter's regular cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween, Back To The Future, Jurassic Park), though it's a shame that his work isn't a bit more evident in front of the camera.

The film starts with Chester, who digs up the titular monster while laying an oil pipeline in the arctic, drinking some beers while setting up a camping trip in the living room of his Los Angeles home. His wife (who babbles on nearly incoherently) leaves the canister containing the blob on the counter and the sucker soon escapes and begins devouring everything in site. Lisa (Gwynne Gilford) walks in on Chester being eaten (while watching the original version of The Blob on television) and soon retrieves her boyfriend Bobby (Robert Walker Jr.) who is hesitant to believe her until the goo attacks them in his car. The films climatic scene takes place in a bowling alley where the couple, along with the dickish alley owner, eventually freeze the creature using the ice machines at the skating rink.

Now, that is the plot. But, add in meandering, almost random scenes of Dick Van Dyke as a cheery boyscout leader, Shelley Berman as a hippy hating hairstylist, and Burgess Meredith as a bum and you have yourself a very odd film that seems to wander in and out of camp territory almost randomly. The lack of consistent tone and the slow pacing of the first hour really hurts the film, which is unfortunate since when the film focuses itself during the last half hour it's considerably more entertaining.

The creature itself is quite active throughout the film, and credit should be given to Tim Baar (The Time Machine, H.R. Pufnstuf) for bringing it to life convincingly. However, even while it's tearing through people in the bowling alley it doesn't feel particularly threatening, particularly with the strawberry-red coloring it's been given. Still, there are some impressive scenes of seemingly rivers of goop flowing towards characters, though violence is certainly kept to a minimum.

The film was shot 1.85:1 but is here presented in a full-screen 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image quality is rather rough with considerable grain evident and dark scenes seeming rather murky. Still very watchable, but Image usually puts a bit more effort into their picture quality. The audio is a little muddy, but tolerable throughout. There are no extras on the disc outside of a cute animated opening menu.

An amusing throwback monster film that takes a bit too long to get going, Beware! The Blob is certainly a product of the time it was made. Incrementally fun, it pales in comparison to the original film and the 1988 remake.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Shaolin Drunk Monkey (1985)

Godfrey Ho's wikipedia entry mentions that he has directed over 90 films, and approximately 40 have the word "ninja" in the title. The man loves ninjas. Or, more accurately, the world loved ninjas in the mid-1980s and Godfrey was happy to oblige with his cut and paste method of movie making. He would literally film bits and pieces of films and arrange them into separate (and often confusing) movies.

Of course before the ninja craze Godfrey's focus was on low budget kung fu films. Shaolin Drunk Monkey stars Elton Chong as Mo, a goofy chef who witnesses his shaolin temple destroyed by The Silver Eagle (Han Ying) who uses a reflective mirror on his chest to blind his opponents. Looking for his revenge, Mo finds a beggar (Mike Wong, obviously patterned after the Sam Seed character from Drunken Master) who trains him in kung-fu using various painful looking methods (including having Mo fill a water bucket by climbing on poles) before they (along with the beggar's daughter) confront Silver Eagle and finish him off.

Now. Take that plot and rearrange it randomly. Have characters die and then reappear. Have training sequences come after miraculous kung-fu transformations. Have reconciliations happen before the arguments that spawned them. Shaolin Drunk Monkey features neither monkey style kung-fu, nor drunken boxing, but what it does have is a completely nonsensical plot thanks to the director's patented cut and paste style.

It's actually quite a shame as the fights on display are worthy of a better film. Elton Chong makes for a charismatic lead, and shows a definite talent for acrobatics in his fight scenes. He may be a low-rent Jackie Chan, and his bumbling slapstick can get a bit tiring, but he delivers when he needs to. Unfortunately, the complete lack of narrative continuity (including some pitiful dubbing and confusing dialogue) masks any charm the film may have.

The film is presented in a full screen, dubbed transfer which contains plenty of film damage and grain. It also suffers from some hideous day for night shooting which makes the image muddy and sometimes incomprehensible. It's likely that at least the compositions would look better in the film's original ratio, but even a pristine print wouldn't be able to hide the consistent flaws throughout. Besides chapters, the DVD includes no special features.

The film's talent deserves better than this scatter-shot Frankenstein's monster of a film. Some decent choreography can't hide the glaring flaws that come from Godfrey Ho's style of making films.