Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Monday, May 10, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: The Chill of Cool Air, Part 1

To paraphrase Tony Anthony in BLINDMAN; being an H.P. Lovecraft fan ain’t easy. Being a Lovecraft fan and a movie fan? Well that’s a bitch!

Lovecraft adaptations have been around for a while, but tend to be pretty sparse. His work is essentially unfilmable, but if you are going to make the attempt the brevity of his stories are well suited to a short film medium. I think it’s safe to say that Hollywood doesn’t “get” Lovecraft. I bet the studio executives must have been driven as mad as Abdul Alhazred when he finished the last page of the Necronomicon, sitting in their meetings listening to someone pitch ideas that have vague words like “unseen” and “unknown” in it. Because of that it seems that Lovecraft has pretty much stayed in low-budget indy and student films. Not to sound cynical, but the thing of it is you don’t need much cash to have a movie about an unseen horror. The sticking point here is that you have to be able to tell a story and it has to wallow in atmosphere thicker than primordial ooze and it requires something in the way of decent acting. Aye there’s the rub.

Because of those limitations watching H.P. Lovecraft adaptations requires a different mindset. Like any book that is brought to screen, if you come into them expecting exact translations, you are just setting yourself up for disappointment. Even some of the most ballyhooed genre films, such as BLADE RUNNER (1982) and RE-ANIMATOR (1985), as much as I love them both, they really have very little to do with their source material. I’m not saying that running off into left field is always a good thing, so much as it isn’t always a bad thing and keeping an open mind is essential.

Everybody has their favorite Lovecraft stories and one of mine is “Cool Air”. I think it’s a story that, however brief, is not only creepy and atmospheric as it stands, but provides a great premise for a movie or short film. It’s a great idea, but it also doesn’t feature the “unfilmable” elements of many of his other stories. This one is about people, one of whom has a horrible secret. You can read the story in its entirety here.


The earliest adaptation I can find of “Cool Air” is the 18th episode of NIGHT GALLERY which aired on December 8th 1971. In this version Serling decides he wants to put a romantic spin on the tale and changes the lead character (the narrator in the original story) to an attractive female (Barbara Rush) who tells the story in flashback from Dr. Munoz's grave. Here she is not a writer looking for a room, but merely trying to track down Munoz, to give him the news that her father, his friend of many years with whom he has been exchanging letters for some time, has died. Expecting an older man around her father’s age she is surprised to find Munoz (Henry Darrow) to be fit and swarthy, complete with whiskers and smoking jacket (ahhh the ‘70s!). This leads to many dinner conversations, candle-light conversations and moon-eyed flirty conversations in which you'd almost expect a tuxedo-clad violinist to pop into the scenes serenading our lovebirds. While watching this you’ll think “this must be going somewhere” and it is. After filling up it’s time with TV-style romance that would be considered timid in a G-rated movie, the last minutes feature the breakdown of the air-conditioning, the revelation of Dr. Munoz’s pruney corpse and the letter explaining it all.

Sometimes I wonder what the hell Rod was thinking when he wrote some of the stuff for NIGHT GALLERY. I had a discussion with my brother about this and I staunchly defended the integrity of the show based on 25 year old recollections. So I set out to sit down and start plowing through them and damned if he wasn’t right! While THE TWILIGHT ZONE still holds up as one of the best anthology television shows ever made, NIGHT GALLERY does not. It’s interesting to note that the NIGHT GALLERY adaptation of Pickman’s Model also is given new female lead and a strong romantic bent. I’m guessing Serling was using NIGHT GALLERY as some sort of televised catharsis, but either way, I ain’t havin' none of it.


“Steve?” “Steve?” “Steve!” “Steve?”
“Bob?” “Bob?” “Bob!” “Bob?”

In 1981 Lucio Fulci finished off his quadrilogy of E.A. Poe and H.P. Lovecraft inspired films with THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY. Out of the four films that included THE BEYOND (1981) and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), Fulci wisely avoiding any direct adaptation of Poe or Lovecraft with the exception of THE BLACK CAT (1981) which is loosely based on the Poe story. If you do a direct adaptation, you open yourself up to a hail of negative criticism because it wasn’t done exactly the way each individual reader imagined it would when reading the story. Instead, if you do not point fingers at your literary sources, you gain praise for being influenced by great authors. Whether this was a conscious decision on Fulci’s part is debatable, but it made for some classic exploitation filmmaking. Seeming to start life as a modern reworking of Mary Shelly's “Frankenstein,” a plan perhaps scuttled by flaky backers, the finished film, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, is a gothic, very loose adaptation of “Cool Air”.

After a Boston scientist working on some secret project kills his family and commits suicide, another scientist, Dr. Boyle (Paolo Malco), is brought in to try to piece together the clues. For some reason Dr. Boyle and his family (Catriona MacColl and Giovanni Frezza as “Bob”) move into the house where the murder-suicide occurred. Known to the locals as The Freudstein house, the house is in a state of neglect to the point where some teen-ages are shown using it for a place to plow the beanfield before being slaughtered by an unseen assailant in the beginning of the film. Mrs. Boyle, who apparently has a mental condition, soon finds some weird shit going down; a sealed tomb in the middle of an entry hall, strange crying sounds, a cellar door that won’t open and her son Bob claiming to be getting warnings from a little girl that no one else can see. As it turns out the basement contains the subject of the previous doctor’s work, the long-dead corpse of Dr. Freudstein, a scientist who figured out how to keep himself alive in a state of undeath by killing everyone who sets foot in the house.

Obviously the screenwriters (including the genre icon Dardano Sacchetti) took the premise of  “Cool Air” and ran with it. The film throws weirdness and unanswered questions at you from every conceivable angle (why is coffee more important than all that blood all over the kitchen floor?) and drenches you in gothic atmosphere. In fact the atmosphere is so thick and story so strange that it’s easy to be completely oblivious to the movie’s budgetary shortcomings. Almost the entire movie takes place in the house with occasional, and perfectly placed, cutaways to very small scenes in one or two locations. This adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere and at the same time broadens the scope of the film just enough to keep the viewer from getting bored seeing the same interiors over and over.

In addition to the camera prowling behind cobwebs thicker than Cousin It's hair, you have a great cast of regulars including the striking Ania Pieroni (TENEBRAE, 1982), the prolific Dagmar Lassander (A HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, 1970), the frequently killed Daniela Doria (CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD), Gianpaolo Saccarola (THE BEYOND, 1981), and even Lucio Fulci himself, Dr. Boyle’s boss, who sets the plot in motion. For better or for worse, no discussion of a Fulci film is complete without mentioning the pretty extreme, even by modern standards, make-up effects. Here the brilliant Giannetto De Rossi provides the stunning carnage that turns disposing of a pesky bat into a grisly bloodbath of epic proportions. Surprisingly even the clarity of DVD doesn’t diminish the gory shocks as in many other films of the era, most notably THE BEYOND. It’s like listening to The Dead Boys or Black Flag on a digitally remastered CD instead of vinyl, somehow all that low fidelity noise made it so much more subversive. Of course I say that, but I don’t see myself going back to my old import VHS tapes any time soon!


Bryan Yuzna made his name by producing Stuart Gordon’s seminal onslaught of black humor and bloody carnage RE-ANIMATOR (1985), something that both of them have been trying to cash-in on ever since (RE-ANIMATOR the musical? Ummmm… yeah).

In a weird twist, writers Kazunori Ito and Brent V. Friedman (who is also credited with writing Dan O’Bannon’s superlative 1992 Lovecraft film THE RESURRECTED) decide to remake Rod Serling’s take on the story with a female protagonist who is romantically involved with Dr. Munoz (David Warner). It’s basically a NIGHT GALLERY remake with RE-ANIMATOR sensibility. Again told in flashback by the female lead, the story tells of a teenage girl, Emily, who has run away from her drunken mother and sexually abusive step-father, answering the ad for a room to rent in an old Victorian. Once there the landlady (who turns out to be Munoz’s assistant) tells Emily of the elusive Munoz and his strange condition.

All of the elements of the story are included, such as the fluid dripping from the ceiling, but most have been slightly altered. Instead of a heart-attack, Emily finds herself unconscious in front of Munoz’s door when her step-father manages to track her down and puts out her lights. Unbeknownst to Emily, Munoz disposes of the bum with a scalpel and a staircase. The relationship develops from there and becomes “complicated” in the middle of the greenhouse where Munoz shows Emily his serum that when injected into the stem re-animates a dried rose. What he doesn’t tell her, at least right away, is that the serums efficacy is dependent on fresh spinal fluid. Of course all good things must come to an end with Munoz melting down in spectacularly gruesome fashion. The final twist regarding Emily’s pregnancy is a wonderfully nasty little bit of business that feels like it has its roots in EC Comics.

Shusuke Kaneko does a nice job of balancing the characters and chilling atmosphere with the over-the-top gore effects. Following this he went on to reinvent the GAMERA films with state of the art technology, but after trying to suffer through DEATH NOTE (2006), I feel like we lost another one to the Corporate Film-making Machine.

I guess it should be noted that the other two stories and the wrap-around segment are not actually based on any Lovecraft stories at all. The final one, WHISPERS, about two police officers following a serial killer and discovering subterranean aliens, is actually a reasonable facsimile of Clive Barker's short story “The Midnight Meat Train”.

A Contrast in Cool... Next!


Sunday, May 9, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: The "Never Got Made" File #14 - SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH

Welcome to Video Junkie's second theme week. And by week we mean seven days and some change. We seem to slowly be working our way down the cinematic alphabet as we go from B for Blind to C for Cthulhu. Yep, our second week focuses on the cinematic adaptations of the literary works of one H.P. Lovecraft. One of the most descriptive, influential and respected writers in the horror genre, Lovecraft created a contained and detailed world that offered filmmakers plenty of fertile ground to work with. Like all heavily adapted authors, the quality varies. We won’t be talking about the stuff examined to death (the original THE DUNWICH HORROR, RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND), but instead will focus on the lesser known adaptations that run the gamut from good to bad to amphibian.

What better way to start off than to combine two of my favorite passions - horror and unmade films. Sure, there have been plenty of aborted Lovecraft projects over the years, but none so chronicled as Stuart Gordon's unsuccessful attempts to get an adaptation of Lovecraft's novella THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH off the ground. The first major exposure for the ill-fated project came in Fangoria #91 where they boldly deemed it “the greatest horror movie never made!” Hyperbole aside, writer Chas Balun does give a detailed chronology of the film’s history in his “The Unmaking of THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH” article.

Talk of an adaptation of SHADOW initially began after Gordon and Yuzna’s success with Lovecraft's RE-ANIMATOR (1985). Gordon has often cited the adaptation as his dream project as he told Fangoria, “It’s always been my favorite Lovecraft story.” With a script in place by frequent collaborator Dennis Paoli, Gordon initially lined this up as his second horror feature. But further commitments to Charles Band’s Empire Pictures (another Lovecraft adaptation in FROM BEYOND, DOLLS and ROBOT JOX) put the project on the back burner. Eventually Gordon and company were able to set up a production deal at another one of the 1980s most prolific B-movie producers. From the article:

“We set it up with Vestron,” Gordon recounts. “I had originally told them it would cost around $5 million. Vestron came back and said if we could do it for $4 million, we had a deal.”

Gordon quickly got to work on the project as he scouted locations and worked with renowned comic book artist Bernie Wrightson to create some storyboards. Wrightson delivered roughly 70 drawings and paintings to help flesh out the fishy folk inhabiting the town of Innsmouth. Below are just a sampling of the work he turned in as shown in Fangoria and the Lovecraft cinema book "The Lurker in the Lobby."

Also joining the production was FX legend Dick Smith (THE EXORCIST), who provided several head sculptures of the amphibious creatures to populate the piece. Below are two examples of his work for the project. Kind of creepy how his fish-women looks like every other actress in Hollywood nowadays, eh?

Despite a healthy amount of pre-production, Gordon and his team slowly began to realize they couldn’t do this film properly for the ascribed $4 million dollar budget Vestron was offering and the project eventually was put on hold. As Gordon told the magazine:
“The further we got into it, we realized it couldn’t be made for that. For less than $7 million, you would lose what made SHADOW so special in the first place.”
“It was a mutual realization,” Gordon sighs. “We all knew we just couldn’t do it right for $4 million.”
Eighteen months later, Fangoria revisited the subject in their “Special H.P. Lovecraft issue” (Fangoria #106). In “The Lurking Film Projects” article by Anthony C. Ferrante, the status of the INNSMOUTH adaptation is given an update. Vestron and their Vestron Pictures line had now bitten the dust and significant legal wrangling got the project back into Gordon and Yuzna’s hands where it found a new home at Charles Band’s bustling new Full Moon Entertainment outfit. Gordon and Paoli had just done an update of THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1991) for Band, so a it seemed a natural progression. Band was very high on the project as he mentioned it in VideoZones and delivered an updated version of Wrightson’s naked fish woman artwork (see Cinefantastique cover). Yet budget issues arose again and a promised late summer 1991 filming in Malta never materialized.
As Band told Cinefantastique:
“We were unable to get [SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH] made because the budget on it was too high. It didn’t fit into your horror movie niche, it was a bigger project and it was so strange. What people kept saying to us was that if it was about vampires or werewovles, you would have no problem here, but since this is about people turning into fish, this is a little bit too weird for us to be able to put this kind of money into the project. Well, to me, that’s what makes this interesting. You haven’t seen this before.”
Band and Gordon instead collaborated on the lower-budget CASTLE FREAK (1995), an adaptation of “The Outsider” short story by Lovecraft. They eventually parted ways as Band needed to make less odd films about killer bongs and deadly gingerbread men while Gordon focused on truckers in outer space and magical ice cream colored suits. And you thought fish people were weird?

All was not lost though as Gordon would eventually get his INNSMOUTH adaptation made…sorta. In the new millennium, producer Yuzna secured financing for co-productions for Spain’s Filmax and they started a production company called Fantastic Factory. The third film made under this banner was DAGON (2001), which saw Gordon directing and Paoli scripting. In a clever twist (possibly to circumvent legal ramifications), the film is indeed an adaptation of the 5-page Lovecraft short story “Dagon” but also adapts “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Lensed in Spain, the film effectively brings to life the town inhabited by fish folk and – despite a wooden lead performance by Ezra Godden – proves to be atmospheric and one of Gordon’s best films. Ironically, the film was made for an estimated budget of $4.8 million.

H.P. Lovecraft Week: Claymation FROM BEYOND

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Week of Blind Vengeance

As you may have noticed, time in the world of the Video Junkie is much like Ray Milland spending a weekend in the country. Our "Week of Blind Vengeance" has turned into "A Couple of Weeks of Blind Vengeance". Granted it's not quite as catchy, but hey, you get twice the Blind Vengeance for the same low price of... well, nothing.

You don't see any Pay Pal links or advertisements do ya? That's because when you are sightless and pissed off, you only take payments in blood!

Next week we will be starting a new theme week that promises to be a breath of cool air. In the meantime, send our link to your rotten, drunken friends and enjoy our continuation of the exploits of ocular and judgement impaired killers!


The Legacy of Zatoichi, Part 1: The BLIND OICHI Series

The Legacy of Zatoichi, Part 2: BLINDMAN (1971) & THE WARRIOR AND THE BLIND SWORDSMAN (1983)

The Legacy of Zatoichi, Part 3: BLIND FURY (1989) & ZATOICHI (2003)

The Legacy of Zatoichi, Part 4: ICHI (2008) and THE BOOK OF ELI (2010)

Blind Dead Bamboozlement: GRAVEYARD OF THE DEAD (2008) and DON'T WAKE THE DEAD (2008)


Friday, May 7, 2010

Blind Vengeance Week: The Legacy of Zatoichi, Part 4

More recently we’ve had ICHI (2008), a low-budget Japanese, direct to video, anime inspired effort that sports acting, writing and action that is suitable for a highschool play. A young blind female shamisen player (Haruka Ayase) is searching for her mentor, Zatoichi, by way of a crime boss who allegedly dueled with him and lived to tell the tale. Monumental willpower is required to both make it through the film’s pointlessly bloated 120 minute running time and to suspend your disbelief that a skinny young girl could actually lift a sword, much less kill anyone with it. Though we don’t have to worry about the latter too much as rarely does she bother to actually engage in such acts, preferring to let her craven admirer (Shido Nakamura) do the work. Or she would if he could actually pull out his sword which he is unable to do due to a traumatic event in which he accidentally killed someone. This character has been done many times before and far better, but wouldn’t be so bad if this lead to amazing fight scenes with Ichi. Hell, the blind swordswoman Oichi would have kicked this chick’s ass every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Unfortunately it appears this film was far too budget strapped to be able to afford a choreographer and fumbles through its brief fight scenes with less precision than a couple of teens at a renaissance fair. There’s no bloodletting to speak of, the few people that are killed, die with one sword stroke, no blood, their clothes intact. The acting is way over the top with lots of bulging eyes, shouting and amateur theatrics. If you are the type who is obsessed with live-action anime, no matter how cheap, this might be for you, otherwise keep moving, there’s nothing to see here.

Much to my surprise this year we discovered that the Hughes brothers were fans of Katsu’s blind swordsman, and “Fallout 3” as well. No point in dwelling on this movie as there is so many write-ups already on the web, but the basic premise of THE BOOK OF ELI (2010) is a lone wanderer Eli (Denzel Washington) is carrying a book through a post-apocalyptic America while fending off radiation-infected scavengers and a being doggedly pursued by a psychotic, power-monger (Gary Oldman, playing true to type) and who by hook or by crook is going to get that book with the help of his lackey (Ray Stevenson, somewhat wasted in this role, but nice to see anyway).

One of the odd things about the movie is there is a legthy, stunningly atmospheric opening sequence that is completely different from the rest of the film. While the body of the film apes the sepia wash from the PC game “Fallout 3”, the opening sequence is bathed in a greenish fog and is noticeably stylistically different. In fact it is so good, that it makes the rest of the film somewhat disappointing in as that it is much more straightforward and never returns to that claustrophobic, almost gothic horror, atmosphere.

While I did enjoy the film, there’s an awful lot of stuff that bugged me about it things that kept the film from being a true classic of the genre. Not the least of which is the fact that the film borrows bits and pieces of other media, if not it's entire visual style. You could make the argument that it is lifting visual cues from speghetti westerns (which is true), but more so, Eli is a homogenization of Shintaro Katsu and Tony Anthony on a Jesus trip. Katsu’s fighting style is on display early on when Eli reveals his preferred fighting implement, a custom sword, while neatly carving up some irradiated ambushers, and, arguably, Tony Anthony’s dogged determination, laconic attitude and casual quips. Also, honestly there is no arguing the clear inspiration for the American wasteland as it is lifted, nearly verbatim from the “Fallout” PC games, in particular “Fallout 3”.

I don't know who put these screen comparisons together, but they are actually only a small representation of the amazing similarities.

The landscapes are cribbed right out of the “Fallout” concept art and the ending sequence is undeniably fashioned after the Citadel HQ at the end of “Fallout 3”. The main difference here being where the “Fallout” games had kischy fictional ‘50s-style product placement and brand-names, here we have so much real product placement that it verges on being laughable. Everything from Busch Beer and KFC to Motorola and GMC are prominently displayed with as much subtlety as Johnny Carson hawking Virginia Slims in the middle of the “Tonight Show” back in the ‘70s. KFC is treated with almost as much reverence as The Holy Book, which is an amusing irony as the employees of Yum Brands privately refer to their three big brands (KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell) as “The Unholy Trinity”.

Speaking of religion, the “you people need churchin’ up” message of the film would have been served better if it wasn’t so heavy handed and preachy. Not ten minutes goes by without some sort of Big Christian Message. The last thing you see of Eli is so overt that it’ll take only the most devout to resist snickering out loud. Now I'm not one of those atheist activists who have nothing better to do than whip themselves into a frenzy because the word "God" appears on American currency, but at the same time there is nothing more annoying than some born-again Jesus freak getting in your face while you are trying to pump gas and telling you how you are going to hell and will be damned forever because you don't go around waving bibles in people's faces while they are pumping gas. There are a lot of great movies that have religious subtext and many science fiction stories are heavily allegorical. It's all about subtlety. Yes, even a movie loaded to the gills with paramilitary hardware can be subtle in the plot department. Add to that the final sequence that sets up Mila Kunis as the star of a sequel that with any luck will never see the light of day and you’ve got quite a mixed bag. Even so it is still one of the best reworkings of both the Zatoichi mythos and the Western genre in years. Then again, I guess that's not really saying much.

Now we have the impending Japanese and French co-production ZATOICHI: THE LAST (2010) which is being produced by Toho who has obtained the rights to the francise and has stated that no more Zatoichi films will be made after this one. Pretty sure we've heard that one before (*cough* GODZILLA VS. THE DESTROYER *cough*). Starring cheesy teen idol Shingo Katori of SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO (2007) and THE ADVENTURES OF SUPER MONKEY (2007), the trailer looks a million times better than the last two remakes, but if nobody’s going to even try to do these classic films justice any more, I sincerely hope it really is the last. And no, we won’t be talking about that Punkin’ Headed Freak and his Thugstein producers.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Blind Vengeance Week: The Legacy of Zatoichi, Part 3

In these days of remakes, it seems the movie corporations are dictating art and instead of reworking the remakes to be a film that derives plot points and ideas from the original and can stand on its own. The mantra seems to be to copy as much as possible while cynically updating the attitudes, messages and special effects. In the past decade ZATOICHI has had a resurgence of popularity in no small part due to the entirety of the series being made available on DVD worldwide. Unlike previous decades that saw inventive remakes, all this popularity has done is given rise to some of the clumsy and embarrassingly bad wannabes in the history of cinema.

The ‘80s has become a decade that is razzed by hipsters as a decade of “stoopid” cinema. While the decade was not without a wealth of misfires, I’ll gladly take Rutger Hauer’s turn as a modern-day Zatoichi in BLIND FURY (1989) than the wretchedly campy Takeshi Kitano remake ZATOICHI (2003).

While the genesis of the script for BLIND FURY, seems to be shrouded in mystery, we do know that it was one of, if not the, last script written by 50-year veteran Japanese screenwriter Ryozo Kasahara. Like 99% of the other information found on Wikipedia’s “Zatoichi” entry, their claim that it is a remake of ZATOICHI’S CANE-SWORD (1967) is wrong. Yes, Kasahara wrote both, but they are only connected by the fact that the lead character is blind and carries a cane-sword. In fact, BLIND FURY borrows some interesting elements from Kenji Misumi’s LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE (1973) and some of the basic plot set-up elements from FIRST BLOOD (1982).

After being blinded in the Vietnam war, Nick Parker (Rutger Hauer) was nursed back to health by villagers, apparently in the one village in Vietnam that weren’t going to sweat the small stuff like napalm and carpet-bombing. Of course any American being nursed back to health anywhere in Asia will automatically be taught the ways of the mystic martial arts and imbued with a sense of righteous purpose. It’s like a Buddhist law or something. Once back in the States, Nick sets out on the road to visit an old army buddy, Frank Devereaux (Terry O'Quinn). Nick arrives just in time to save Frank’s 12 year old son from hired killers, while his ex-wife (Meg Foster) is gunned down. Her dying wish is for Nick to (ahem) look after the boy. Frank, as it turns out, has been kidnapped by a Vegas crime boss (Noble Willingham, clearly enjoying himself) for a gambling debt and is being forced to create designer drugs as restitution. Ahhh the ‘80s! Nick then sets out on the path of rather mild-mannered vengeance, fending off all manner of assassins, with the help of his sword-cane and smart-ass kid in tow. Oh, and he also picks up Frank’s new girlfriend (Lisa Blount). Why? Because someone needs to drive!

In addition to sporting a pretty damn cool late ‘80s cast, the movie moves at a brisk pace and never lets anything get in the way of the action. Sure there are some cornball scenes where Nick and pouty kid learn to bond. Plus, said kid is most definitely a Hollywood cookie-cutter pre-teen type, but even so manages not to be too terribly irritating and even when he does wear out his welcome we have Nick Cassavetes, Rick Overton, Randall 'Tex' Cobb, and Sho Kosugi bust into the scene to make you forget about it. Dissapointingly Kosugi is pretty much wasted in a brief role as the ultimate adversary in the final "Sho-down," but it's still pretty cool to have him drop in anyway.

The fight scenes are splashy ‘80s action stuff, but are tightly choreographed and 20 years later are still plenty of fun. Hauer does a really nice job of actually thinking through what you would do if you were blind and armed with a sword (you’d probably use your hands a lot) leading to some more interesting physical acting that separates this from just about every other Zatoichi knock-off. So, does it rival old-school Japanese sword action? No, but then again I don’t expect it to. It does guns and explosions American style with some decent sword-work from Hauer (or rather his stunt double, who does the bulk of the showdown with Kosugi). Director Phillip Noyce gives the film a big visual style and if you can deal with a little bit of ‘80s cliché and some whiny kid stuff, it’s still a damned entertaining movie and holds up very well. It’s even better if you watch something recent before hand, maybe something like… ZATOICHI (2003).

Let’s get something straight, I like Kitano “Beat” Takeshi. Generally speaking, I like his movies. I was thrilled when he was cast in JOHNNY MNEMONIC (1995). After seeing this straight up 2003 re-make/re-envisioning of the blind swordsman series, I can’t say I have any interest in seeing him on screen again. Bizarrely sporting a bleach-white, product-filled, hair-style that is more at home perched on the inflated domes of swanning divas such as Halle Berry than a blind masseur of the Edo era, Takeshi tackles the project with the misguided enthusiasm that only outright senility can bring.

In addition to a plodding script that rolls out character and plot clichés like a bad ‘70s TV show, Ichi gets in fights here and there, but instead of the stunningly elaborate choreography of Shintaro Katsu, we get POV shots of a CGI sword chopping up and down while the worst rendering of CGI blood in the history of modern cinema squirts around like someone just attacked a plastic ketchup bottle. How about goofy humor that pushes this firmly into the realm of parody? Got that too! Pointless cross-dressing? Check! Long, dry scenes of gambling that mimic the many found in the original series, but serve no purpose here? Gotcha covered! Fans and apologists claim that “it’s supposed to be campy!” and “the violence is supposed to look fake!”, to which I say that yes, same can be said of ISHTAR (1987), “intention” does not equal “good”. You can suppose in one hand and crap in the other and see which gets full first. “But wait!” I hear you desperately cry, “BLIND FURY has lots of comedy! One-liners zing around faster than ricocheting bullets! Ha! Got you there smartguy!” Why yes, yes it does. However the delineating edge of this blade is that with BLIND FURY at no time do the filmmakers disrespect the source material or are pretentious enough to think that they are bettering it. It takes its story and characters seriously and there are no cop outs when it comes to the action. At no point is it so self-indulgent that it decides that a standard climactic action sequence is too bourgeois, and what it really needs to be elevated to high-art is a lavish Broadway-style musical number. Yes Takashi’s ZATOICHI ends not so much with the flourish of a blade but the clatter of dancing feet. To the schmuck on a certain website who said of the Edo-Era Stomp, “if you have a soul, the ending musical number is pure joy!!” I say, if you have a soul, I weep for it.

Zatoichi as Holy Roller… NEXT!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Blind Vengeance Week: THE BLIND WARRIOR (1987)

I guess enough folks in Indonesia went to see THE WARRIOR AND THE BLIND SWORDSMAN (aka SI BUTA LAWA JAKA SEMBUNG) that a take off on that take off was in order. So Rapi Films returned to the blind justice subgenre with...

THE BLIND WARRIOR (1987) aka NERAKA PERUT BUMI - Ruthless tyrant Raden Parna (which always sounds like characters are saying 'Rotten Panna') has enslaved a village and taken over their goldmine. To amuse himself, he has young ladies offered as sacrifices to his God represented by a huge statue with glowing red eyes. What folks don't know is this cad is actually just taking them to bed in a secret room under the statue with a pool filled with styrofoam pellets that look like Dippin' Dots. Enter Barta, blind warrior with monkey sidekick, who can't stand to, hear these injustices going on. Barta saves virgin Sirimbi (Enny Beatrice) from some of Parna's helpers and soon an all out war is going on with Barta inspiring the villagers to rise up.

This Indonesian flick is pretty damn entertaining. The first hour is routine normal stuff as we see Barta save folks and Parna scold them. I'm really kind of scared of Barta's fish scale looking outfit, which looks like a costume in a cheap-o water monster movie flick. Is he Barta the Blind Warrior or Slithis? The last half hour is where the film really shines and pours on the insane. I say pours because there is tons of blood flowing thanks to spearings, beheadings, slashings, and exploding bodies. I swear, something like 50 or so of Parna's henchmen are killed. It is like the director is thanking you for sticking it through.

Check out his gory highlight someone put on Youtube for a small taste:

What is also really funny about THE BLIND WARRIOR is that the filmmakers have basically remade John Carpenter's BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA from the previous year. The end confrontation - a small group bands together to stop a wedding, complete with an identical huge statue - is just like Carpenter's film. Hilarious!

Naturally, one of the best things about the film is villain Raden Parna, played by Advent Bangun. Bangun was the blind man in THE WARRIOR AND THE BLIND SWORDSMAN so now he gets to feel what it is like on the other end of the stick. His biggest skill - outside of his smooth moves in the Dippin' Dots (see photo) - is apparently his sharp tongue as he is constantly admonishing his underlings. The English dubbing for him offers some real zingers. For example, this is how he bumps his gums after his men fail to catch Barta:

"Goddamn idiot! Are you telling me you can't even catch a blind man? Maybe I should have all of you blinded? Huh!?! You bunch of idiots!"

"Perhaps I should just pluck your eyes out of your stupid head? Because they are of no use to you, are they?"
Meeeeow, fiesty! The guy who dubs Barta is also the guy who normally goes Jimmy Wang Yu in movies so that is fun too.

My other favorite thing about the film is when the villagers do the cliché bit and ask Barta to stay and help. He refuses and says, "No, I've got things to do" and splits. Then they are all slaughtered! Even in the end, he only disposes of the big guy. Granted, it is in amazing fashion and he sticks his pole in Parna's mouth (get your mind out of the gutter!), breaks it through the back of his neck and then rips off his head clean off. Yet everyone else has to do the ground work when it comes to taking out underlings. I guess Barta only had enough in him for one devastating death? Classic!

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Long Week of Vengeance

As you may have noticed, time in the world of the Video Junkie is much like Ray Milland spending a weekend in the country. Our "Week of Blind Vengeance" has turned into "A Couple of Weeks of Blind Vengeance". Granted it's not quite as catchy, but hey, you get twice the Blind Vengeance for the same low price of... well, nothing.

You don't see any Pay Pal links or advertisements do ya? That's because when you are sightless and pissed off, you only take payments in blood!

Next week we will be starting a new theme week that promises to be a breath of cool air. In the meantime, send our link to your rotten, drunken friends and enjoy our continuation of the exploits of ocular and judgement impaired killers!

Blind Vengeance Week: The Legacy of Zatoichi, Part 2

Doubtlessly inspired by the success of Sergio Leone’s landmark Western A FISTFULL OF DOLLARS (1964), a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s landmark samurai film YOJIMBO (1961) using “Western” sensibility and setting, so did Ferdinando Baldi set up his 1971 reworking of ZATOICHI.

In BLINDMAN (1971) Baldi manages to hit on everything that you could possibly want from an exploitation film, with the exception of a car chase. The screenplay was written by three people with Tony Anthony getting the lion’s share of the credit. This explains why the film slides back and forth between solid drama, rousing action and anachronistic humor, fortunately it does so without missing the beat. It provides a slick concept, great dialog, superlative cinematography, clever set-pieces and Tony Anthony’s best performance, all wrapped up in a package that moves like a freight train charging straight down to hell. In one of my favorite opening scenes in any movie, a scruffy blind man rides into a dirt-water town in the middle of the night. After a local yokel, sporting an award-winning farmer’s tan to die for, pokes his head out to see who’s running amok in the wee hours, the rider asks him a few pointed questions about the location of man named “Skunk”, whether the town has a church, and whether the priest is rich. This information leads to the discovery of Skunk and an exchange in which we find out that Skunk and the Blindman had a contract to deliver 50 women who are to be the brides of 50 miners in Lost Creek, Texas. Skunk, of course has double-crossed him and sold the women to a Mexican bandit leader named Domingo (Lloyd Battista). As this conversation takes place the Blindman is slowly planting dynamite around the building that Skunk is holed up in, to whom the Blindman says “Every night I kneel down and I say my prayers, and every night I ask the good lord ‘Lord? Who are my friends?’ And ya know something Skunk? Every night it’s the same thing… He don’t answer.” Skunk’s building erupts in a massive explosion of flame and the Blindman rides hell bent for Mexico.

Anthony’s blindman, with his big sad eyes and floppy hat is not the pitiable Zatoichi, but a scruffy hound dog with some big teeth. Keeping in contemporary early ‘70s fashion, he’s more of an anti-hero, if only because of his motivations in life. Here, he wants money. Nothing as righteous as saving farmers from an evil land baron, saving settlers from an evil railroad tycoon or saving the local god-fearing Christians from a gang of bloodthirsty banditos/injuns/outlaws. Nope, the Blindman is out to save himself from poverty, or as he puts it, “to have no eyes means to be half a man. To have no eyes and no money… well that’s a bitch.” Still that doesn’t make him any less heroic really as his desire for justice extends past himself.

While in search of Domingo, the Blindman meets a surprisingly Mediterranean-looking “gringo” farmer whose daughter Pilar (1975 Playboy playmate Agneta Eckemyr) is essentially passively kidnapped and raped repeatedly by Domingo’s brother Candy (Ringo Starr) who is obsessed with the girl. Candy cannot fathom why she doesn’t return his affections and in a scene that rivals anything by Antonioni, Bergman or Truffaut, Baldi uses a split focus lens to show Pilar undressing and Candy’s face voicing his torment “someday I’m going to build a fire under you… just to get a bit of warmth.”

Ringo Starr is one of those '70s musicians that dabbled in film and like many of his contemporaries, his choice of roles were suitably eccentric (this is the guy that wrote the goofy “Octopuses’ Garden” on an album full of bizarre progressive tunes after all). He actually made a couple of very noteworthy films in which it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. BLINDMAN ranks at the top of that list, followed by THE MAGIC CRISTIAN (1969) in which he played a homeless man who Peter Sellars adopts to be his son, and assist him in his elaborate stunts to expose greed and avarice. “But wait!”, I hear you cry, “you are forgetting about his turn as Merlin the Magician in SON OF DRACULA (1974)!” No… No, I’m not. Here Starr hits his notes perfectly as the younger brother living in the shadow of his older sibling, an infamous, powerful criminal boss. Starr manages to avoid the trap of overplaying his immaturity and obsessive “love” for a girl who he victimizes. When driven into a rage by the Blindman’s ploy of using Pilar as a pawn, his self-destructive anger is tightly controlled, allowing Domingo to explode uncontrollably when Candy gets his reward in hell.

After Pilar is taken Candy’s men start working over the father and the Blindman steps out of the shadows asking for “peace, brothers”. Of course they have a better idea. Since the Blindman can’t play the guitar, or sing, they make the Blindman “dance” to the tune of a Colt revolver. They all laugh making him look rather pathetic trying to avoid gunfire that he cannot see, and we find his breaking point as he drops to the ground and empties his Winchester into all of them in a hail of lead. Where Zatoichi had a cane-sword, the Blindman has his own ingenious weapon, a cane-gun. Actually what appears to my untrained eye to be a modified First Model 1873 carbine, but is probably some European equivalent, is his cane outfitted with a stiletto-style bayonet at the end allowing the Blindman to tap the ground to see where he’s going. And shoot the hell out of bastards that make him dance. Man, I am so with ya there on that one brother.

Anyway, more double-crosses ensue as the Blindman meets Domingo and his pretty, viper of a sister (Magda Konopka) and a Mexican general (the prolific Raf Baldassarre) who becomes a brief ally after he hands Domingo gold for the girls only to find his army torn to shreds by Domingo’s goons and a well placed Gatling gun (another item checked off of our list of “things every exploitation western film needs”). Baldassarre is probably the only low-point in the acting as he paints his character in strokes so broad they blot out the desert sun. Howling with maniacal laughter that would make hyenas cover their ears, after every line, the General's cries of "you goddamn craaaaaazy gringo!" start wearing out their welcome after a while. Fortunately it's not really all that much and his part in the film's climactic end-game makes up for it.

Speaking of things to check off of our list… Have you ever thought to yourself “I loved DJANGO, but what it needed was a good woman’s prison shower scene!” Then realized there were no showers in the old west, leaving you in a funk for the rest of the week? I have. These are the sort of things that keep me awake at night. Then Ferdinando Baldi comes along and problem solved! Though technically I’m willing to lay cash money down that it was Tony Anthony’s hand that brought that fantasy to life, when we have what I believe to be the first, biggest, and only, old west shower scene with a couple dozen nekkid girls being given bucket showers by some sour-pussed matrons. Honestly, after that, these guys could have coasted through the rest of the movie and still been given a passing grade.

Ultimately anachronistic in many ways that would be disastrous in a modern attempt at a western (see the ICP western BIG MONEY HUSTLAS for an example of why westerns aren’t successful anymore), Baldi makes out like a bandit here. What is really interesting about BLINDMAN is how all of the elements, sleazy exploitation, violent action, artistic composition, pathos, comedy, all play so nice together. Even more interesting is that this film has more going for it than any other Baldi film I’ve seen and while Anthony’s somewhat vaguely similar THE STRANGER series have their low-rent FISTFUL OF DOLLARS-inspired moments, this is clearly his shining moment as well, nothing else he has done comes close.

In 1983 Rapi films of Indonesia threw their hat into the ring with THE WARRIOR AND THE BLIND SWORDSMAN (aka SI BUTA LAWA JAKA SEMBUNG), the sequel to the 1981 Barry Prima classic THE WARRIOR (aka JAKA SEMBUNG). Telling the story of folk hero Jaka Sembung (Prima) and his resistance against the forces of the Dutch who occupied Indonesia for over 300 years and were finally routed after WWII. In this (and presumably many other versions of the story), Jaka is in possession of great martial arts skill and magical power. In one scene Jaka squares off against an evil sorcerer who after having his limbs and head neatly sliced off of his body, merely uses his mystic arts to levitate them though the air and reattach them to his body. While not the slickest movie ever, it was loaded with bloody action, martial arts, creative gore and plenty of the crazy cool myth and legend that you only see in Indonesian films. Coming off of that you’d expect something pretty amazing for the sequel. It sure sounds spectacular on paper anyway; Jaka Sembung meets up with a blind swordsman and squares off against an evil sorceress working with the evil Dutch army to get revenge against the do-gooders and buy some protection for her harem of scantily clad girls. Simple, right? How could you screw that up? Well, there is a way and director Worod Suma figured it out.

Picking up sort of where the first film left off, Jaka Sembung is whuppin’ the shorts off of the Dutch army and sucking up the love of the locals (portrayed by having the peasants essentially do jumping jacks in a mob around him). The leader of the Dutch army decides the best way to put a stop to Jaka is to hold a tournament in which the best fighter not only wins a purse of gold, but wins the right to hunt down Jaka for an entire chest of gold. Not the worst way to start a movie, but instead of a bunch of crazy, badass fighters each with their own gimmick as in the original, here we have an assortment of punters and a big fat guy in silver facepaint doing some seriously lame, seemingly improvised fighting in order to amplify the intensity of the final showdown between a Bruce Lee wannabe and the blind swordsman, Si Buta (Advent Bangun, who went on to appear as the evil Despot of Dippin’ Dots, Raden Parna, in the much better Zatoichi knock-off, THE BLIND WARRIOR, 1987). After winning the tournament and agreeing to hunt Jaka Sembung, Si Buta fights Jaka and takes his head to the Dutch. This, of course turns out to be a magic illusion, with the head actually belonging to a goat, and the plot continues to twist from there. The real villain of the movie is an evil sorceress named Maki who, with the help of her dark master (W.D. Mochtar) spends most of the time trying to settle a score with Si Buta, who it seems is her ex-lover who, for some inexplicable reason, dumped her after her soul was damned and she turned to evil. Geeze, we men are such fickle creatures!

The plot is all over the map with more twists, subplots and throw-away-action sequences than you can shake a sword-cane at, but unfortunately it just doesn’t deliver in most respects as interesting ideas are brought up out of left field and dropped just as quick. Some of the fighting is really poorly done, even by low-budget Rapi Films standards. I don’t mind that an all-powerful sorceress is easily defeated by having a blanket thrown over her head, or that the Dutch army's all-in gambit against Jaka and Si Buta is comprised of five guys and two cannons. I also can forgive the English title which does more than imply that there is a blind man in the picture and he actually wields a sword. Which he doesn't, it’s just a wooden cane with a pointy end that, apparently, he moves with such deadly force that it separates peeps into parts. What I do object to is the fact that Jaka Sembung is relegated off to the sidelines, almost all of the cheap gore is in the beginning of the film and the action scenes are so half-hearted that at times I felt like I was watching some sort of weekend civil war reenactment. The fight between Jaka and Si Buta in the first act of the film is pretty damned entertaining and unfortunately leaves everything that follows looking pretty lackluster. Even so, it’s definitely well worth the watch for Indonesian genre film fans, but Zatoichi fans looking to check out some of the imitators may be not so enthused.

Rapi Films returned to the blind bad-ass genre with THE BLIND WARRIOR in 1987, see separate review.

Zatoichi as Hipster… NEXT!