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, October 31, 2011

Halloween Havoc: Dueling HALLOWEEN porn parodies

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Like millions of Americans in the ‘70s and ‘80s, my family spent precious hours of our lives every year watching the most inane tripe American television had to offer. They were called “Holiday Specials”. I’m sure it sounded like a good idea when they were invented. “Hey, let’s have some one-shot seasonal programming with some of our biggest stars telling jokes, singing, dancing, and participating in lethal blood-sports!” Ok, so that last one was mine. I can't tell you how desperately I wanted to see Bob Hope slam a steel sphere in Shari Lewis’ face ala-ROLLERBALL. But I digress.

For some reason holiday specials managed to draw in millions of viewers with no-budget productions of hastily-written, cringe-inducing scripts, usually shot on a soundstage in Burbank, frequently live in order to pull in the cynical crowd (me), who were hoping that someone will flub their lines. As if that would make the agony of canned scripts and shameless mugging worthwhile.

In 1989 the two-bit upstart Fox decided they were going to produce their own Halloween special! Rebelling against the status quo, they decided they would (wisely) ditch the song and dance stuff and (unwisely) take their cue from WGN’s notorious “Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault” (1986). I can hear the discussion: “A two hour special shot live in Transylvania, hosted by… hmmmm… Bela Logosi! No, wait, he’s dead. Klaus Kinski! No, too much insurance. We need someone who is linked to the character, easy to manage and is a total man-whore. George Hamilton!” Seriously, I cannot imagine how he could have read the script without blushing? Of course, he may have and we just don’t know because of his perpetual bronze glow. Even Geraldo Rivera would have turned his shrub-adorned nostrils up at this.

Boldly announced with more gravitas than a Presidential inauguration, the first ten minutes shows that the script is thinner than Kate Moss on a hunger strike. Says the announcer:
“We will… Walk where the real Dracula walked! Meet men and women who have followed in his blood-sucking footsteps! Open coffins closed for centuries… LIVE!”
Wait, Dracula’s feet sucked blood?

Cut to a stage director who looks and sounds exactly like a female version of Latka from “Taxi”, George Hamilton is nowhere to be found! George has apparently gotten very lost on his way from the make-up trailer to Solomon’s Tower and ended up in the local pub. Was this written for Oliver Reed? Of course, the locals ice over as soon as Hamilton mentions his destination and warn him not to go there, while Geoge makes awkward references to his (at that point) 10 year-old success in LOVE AT FIRST BITE. After taking a coach to the set and pretending to flub his lines and be nervous about the fact that they are live, the announcer comes back to let us know that he wasn’t finished telling us what we would see tonight!

“We will… Meet Vlad the Impaler – the real life Dracula. Torturer, sadist and murderer of over 100,000 men, women and children, but to many people he is still a national hero. We’ll walk the original English cobblestones where Bram Stoker brought Dracula to life and discover one of the most valuble manuscripts in all of literature, hidden for years in an ordinary Pennsylvania barn! We’ll go back in time, 500 years and hear the chilling tale of Elizabeth Bathory, the fiendish countess who sacrificed 650 virgins for the sole purpose of bathing in their blood!” And the announcer doesn’t stop there. “Noreen Dresser is an American folklorist with a mission; to find out why Dracula has become a national obsession.” Plus we get to learn about a modern vampire sighting in an English cemetery with “scores of witnesses” who “authorities believe… were telling the truth!”

To be fair, the narrator doesn’t lie, they do cover all of that, uhhhh… “fascinating” ground. Much of it is Hamilton camping it up while talking to alleged “experts”, one of whom, Romanian scholar and diplomat Radu Florescu, claims to be a direct descendant of Vlad Tepes. A sample of the insightful exchange about Vlad Tepes while walking up a flight of stairs:
Florescu: “Many artists came to paint him. They painted him here.”
Hamilton: “They painted his body?”
Florescu: “No. They painted him fully clothed.”
After Florescu rambles on about the beauty of the Carpathians, Hamilton looks straight in the camera and says “frankly, when I’m planning my next vacation, I doubt Transylvania will the be at the top of my list.” It definitely won’t be by the end of this special because I’m pretty sure after another hour of grossly insulting Romania, you might end up in a reenactment of Vlad’s favorite pastime.

As you would expect from Fox Television, ol’ Gorge does his best to shed his glamorous image and be the ugliest American possible. During one segment he is invited to dinner, which he demurs sneering “I’ve never been a fan of stewed goat”. George, if you only had a fucking clue in that pretty little head of yours. Stewed goat is delicious. Like lamb, except without the gaminess. During a staged “Point / Counterpoint” style discussion of whether Vlad was a Romanian hero or a bloodthirsty dictator, Hamilton sits down to a meal based on Harker’s Hungarian meals in Stoker’s novel. When I was a teenager reading the novel, all of the descriptions of the exotic food really stuck with me and to this day Chicken Paprikash is one of my favorite things to make at home. Of course George looks at the table with distain and after a forkful of Robber Steak, makes disgusted faces and is on the verge of spitting out his food and when told that it was Jonathan Harker’s last meal, Hamilton quips “I can see why now”. Can someone from craft services please get Mr. Hamilton some real food, like a Big Mac?

Weird Al?
Another wonderful bit of gruel is a taped segment with Noreen Dresser, an author who is alleged to be on a “mission: to find out why Daracula has become a national obsession”. Oh, this should be good. According to Ms. Dresser, 27% of those polled believe vampires are real! What a shocking statistic! Unbelievable, in this day and age. Yeah, but if you pay attention, you’ll discover that the pollees were a small group of students from her local highschool! Well at least there is some credible research behind her theories. Noreen also goes on to blame vampire TV shows like “The Munsters” (yes, you read that right) and states that the vampire is “almost a classic Halloween figure”. Uhhh, Noreen, can you explain to me how it is not a classic Halloween icon? My favorite bit of insight is her discussion of why women like Dracula. According to statistics, women complain of a lack of foreplay in their lives and vampires “are all foreplay”. She goes on to say “vampires take women with elegance and style… it’s never a violent act.” Presumably aside from the whole laceration of the main artery and subsequent death from the resulting bloodloss. No, not violent at all.

We also get to meet Bernard Davies, the chairman of The Dracula Society and the stiffest cue-card reader in TV history. Davies blathers on, mostly feeding Hamilton set-ups for his badly written and badly delivered one liners.
Davies: “for it’s time, ‘Dracula’ was the ultimate in horror.”
Hamilton: “except he wore a cape, not a hockey mask.”
Oh jeeeeeezus, make it stop! Davies also provides voice-over narration for a taped reenactment of Bram Stoker’s manuscript for “The Un-Dead” being discovered by some Amish in a barn. Still more lifeless segments include a voice-over talking about Elizabeth Bathory while showing clips from Hammer’s COUNTESS DRACULA (1971). Better still we start getting some allegedy true incidents, such as one at London’s Highgate Cemetery, where a vampire was said to be found. Basically the story is that an investigator of rumors found a fresher than expected corpse in an unaccounted for coffin in a tomb and wrote a hyperbole filled account of it. The investigators embellishments included the corpses eyes glowing red, that it had blood on it’s teeth and that the tomb was walled up with cement mixed with garlic. To which Hamilton quips “cement mixed with garlic? Sounds like the pizza I had last night! Ha!” Even worse, when it is revealed that it is believed that the vampire still walks the cemetery because the investigator didn’t drive a stake through the corpse’s heart, Davies says “no stake, you see.” To which Hamilton comes back with “mis-stake!!” Are you feeling my pain yet? I know you are.

As if all that wasn’t enough, we get more of Noreen who claims to have investigated and infiltrated and discovered that vampires live amongst us! Yes, the people we meet every day could be vampires! Apparently Noreen has something against airline hostesses, as she singles them out as prime suspects. This goes against the grain of popular mythology, as I always thought they were supposed to be lawyers. Anyway, Noreen not only claims to have befriended some real life vampires, but interviews these losers who claim (under anonymity) to be a vampire and a “donor”. The girl, Pam, likes to stab people’s fingers with needles and suck the blood off of them. What? Seriously? That’s it? Apparently it’s enough to send ol’ George into a tizzy, running off to get stakes and garlic and call his agent to get him out.

When he’s not patronizing the educated and stroking the crack-pots, George runs around crying about the lousy job: “Easy gig, my agent said. Be over before you know it, he said, I wonder what he’s got lined up for me next? …Live from Cherenobyl, is the reactor really cooled off? George Hamilton finds out live!”

As gruelingly painful as it is to watch, there is one interesting thing. The producers lend an air of respectability to laughable, half-baked theories passed off as fact, and portray Romanians as simpletons and peasants and mocking their beliefs, country and food with sniggering arrogance. This foreshadows the same brand of xenophobia and disinformation that Fox has now made their trademark on their “news” shows. Other than that, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything funny, interesting or cool.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Halloween Havoc: THE LAST FRANKENSTEIN (1991)

The Japanese have always had a sort of disconnect with western mythology. It’s understandable, but for the most part the classic monsters of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Jewel of the Seven Stars and European legends of lycanthropes, are treated as amusing fodder for children and icons of comedy. On occasion they are handled with grave seriousness with great results (Michio Yamamoto’s excellent DRACULA series from the ‘70s). More often than not, it’s a goofy, cheesy mess that appeals strictly to the Japanese and uber-nerdy J-Fans.

Suicide has always been a popular Japanese pastime and, since they were never invaded by the Spanish and forced to worship Christ at sword-point, they consider it nothing to be ashamed of. Matter of fact, it’s a noble way to go. In present day a new theology has sprung up called Shino-Kiyo and the white-faced leader professes that suicide is the way to take control of your life and everyone must embrace the right to kill themselves. During a demonstration, an over excited TV reporter asks passersby what they think about suicide. A teenage girl responds, “it seems really popular, but I don’t want to try it”.

Caught up in this is an anatomy professor, Sarusawa (Akira Emoto) whose wife committed suicide five years earlier and whose teenage daughter, Mai (Aya Otabe), developed psychic powers soon after. During a meeting (in which one professor smacks himself on the head with a paddle while laughing uproariously), the university professors decide that this suicide epidemic is actually a virus that attacks the brain and takes 3-5 years to incubate. During the discussion of the virus, Sarusawa speaks up:
Sarusawa: “It is possible that I am already infected with this disease.”
(pregnant pause while other professors stare)
Angry professor: “Don’t bring personal problems to this meeting!”
Sarusawa: “Sorry.”

The dean of the university (who keeps live chickens on his desk) enlists Sarusawa to go seek out rogue scientist Dr. Aleo (Yoshio Harada), who is supposed to be looking into the problem. As it turns out, Aleo could care less about the virus and in fact wants the human race to die off so that his “supermen” can re-populate the planet. His new race is going to be created from two re-animated corpses. How is he going to re-animate them? Lightning and electrodes? Too old fashioned! A glowing green serum injected into the brainstem? It’s been done! Nope, his master stroke to rule the world depends on kidnapping Mai to have her use her psychic powers to bring them back to life. So, wait… this self-acclaimed genius isn’t actually going to do anything? He’s just going to use someone else’s psychic power? Not really all that much of a scientist, is he?

Once the superman and his bride are up and re-animated, Aleo demands that they have sex, immediately! This, of course, doesn’t work and leads to the next hour of the movie, in which Aleo tries to get the two to have sex (one way is to force them to watch porn), Sarusawa preaches the need to teach them love, everyone is sexually frustrated, eventually goes mad and... well, you can see where this is heading. There are other diversions as well. For some reason the cultists are locked in a room of Aleo's house. There's a wacky, cartoon-style boxing match between Sarusawa and Aleo's hunchbacked assistant Harou (Naomasa Musaka). There's the preserved baby that Aleo is so fond of. The superman is obsessed with the sea and in long, long, sequences contemplates the sea and howls at it. One of the episodes (chapters?) is an interview with the superman in which he gives slow, cryptic answers to the cryptic questions of an off screen interviewer. One of the better moments has the bride reading an anatomy book and being sexually aroused by the illustrated cross-section of the male intestinal tract and genitalia.

Based on the play of the same name, writer-director Takeshi Kawamura tells the already disjointed story in multiple segments, each headed by a title card, giving the film a more episodic feel that it would have already had. There are fragments of bizarre inspiration, such as a bit where Mai goes into a comatose state and the doctor informs Sarusawa that it is because she forgot how to use her brain. In this state she levitates a cream-colored coffee cup out of a window and drops it to the ground, shattering it. This coincides with a woman in a cream-colored suit plummeting to her death, drawing a visual metaphor to the smashed cup and the smashed corpse. There is one other sequence that alludes to Mai being the cause of the suicides, but nothing else comes of this and the idea is simply dropped like so many others. Another interesting sequence has Aleo and Harou going into the city to kidnap Mai out of the hospital. Everyone in the city is frozen in time while Aleo and Harou walk through the streets and the hospital. This shows how effective Kawamura can be at creating a surreal atmosphere when he wants to, but unfortunately he chooses to diffuse that cool dream-like state with intentional camp by having Harou ham it up, pulling faces and badly trying to disguise himself as a nurse.

I like to think I am pretty open to experimental filmmaking. I really enjoy and seek out films that are desperately bizarre and surreal. Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION (1981) is a mind-liquefyingly strange movie that manages to be a work of genius using the same techniques. Characters display extremes of emotion, a deliberate absence of music to heighten the unnerving scenes, long takes with minimal dialogue, out of the ordinary events go unexplained, picturesque visual imagery is held a little too long, etc. Here the problem is probably due more to my culture than anything else. The strangeness in THE LAST FRANKENSTEIN is quintessentially Japanese, which is fine until you send in the clowns. The Japanese, due to centuries of cultural demands for appropriate public behavior, embrace comedy that involves extreme reactions, extreme facial expressions, social faux pas and lots and lots of screaming. Oh, and slapstick comedy is always popular. Is there anything funnier than hunchback getting kicked in the nuts? Oh and yes, for the record, I do realize the Italians famously beat them to the…erm… punch (kick?) in Umberto Lenzi’s ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH (1976), but that was just one ill-advised moment out of a solid film and this is one lame gag out of a movie filled with as many lame gags as interesting concepts. For instance, Aleo’s wife is a mentally retarded cripple who loudly slurps soup at the dinner table (yes, this is played for laughs). More hilarity ensues when a fly lands on her forehead and Aleo swats it with a riding crop, causing her to pull a face and scream loudly for what is seconds, but seems like minutes. Funny stuff right? Or how about the hunchback (with a two foot-tall hump) who cackles maniacally screams things like “buenos noches” and gets into a pro-wrestling style fight with the “superman”?

The wacky comedy is pretty much the nail in the coffin for this one, for me anyway. Someone like Kiyoshi Kurosawa could have taken that same script, stripped the comedy out of it and turned it into a brilliant piece of hauntingly surreal cinema. Instead we have a scatter-gun approach that throws out a mess of sophisticated ideas, interspersed with unsophisticated comedy that sort of rambles along until it hits a wall. This is the first, last and only (so far) film from Takeshi Kawamura and while I can’t say I’d be interested in watching the film again, if he made something else, I’d probably have to check it out. In spite of the folks you see ranting about this being the second coming, that, I'm afraid, is about as much of a recommendation as it is going to get out of me.