Monday, October 29, 2007

Lizard Woman (Thailand, 2004)

When I first saw this title pop up on websites, the DVD-cover coupled with the flick’s name put this film at the top of my list of obscure films I just had see. I promptly took advantage of the first chance I had to get an affordable copy, despite my recent experience with another Thai horror film, Devil Species. Besides, word had it that Lizard Woman (in Thai: Tuk kae phi) had topped the box office in its home country for three weeks, so it couldn’t be all that bad, could it? I had the chance to check it out quick enough with some buds when we got together for a night of sleaze films; Lizard Woman was the first DVD to get fed to the player. An hour and a half later, after the film had ended, we all had to agree: we couldn’t figure out what the fuck had happened in the film.
Although only the third Thai horror film I have ever seen, Lizard Woman, coming so soon on the heels of Devil Species—with which it shares many common problems—leaves one with the feeling that either a lot gets lost in translation, or the Thai have a substantial inability to tell coherent stories. However, Nang-Nak/Return from the Dead, the Thai horror film that first turned me on to Thai horror, belays the latter concept, for it not only has a coherent narrative, but is really well made. But then, Nang-Nak, unlike Lizard Woman, is a big-budget film for Thailand and definitely has artistic pretentions that transcend its horror roots.
Lizard Woman, however, has no artistic pretensions: it is a horror film, plain and simple. Unluckily, though its basic concept is great and more than one scene or situation is actually rather (if not extremely) effective, the film as a whole is pretty lousy. Worse, it so obviously could have been a much better film that its failure is as highly aggravating as it is disappointing; likewise, as bad as it is, it never sinks to the level of pure incompetence that, in the end, makes Devil Species such an enjoyable fuck-up.
Like Devil Species, Lizard Woman is almost two different stories tied together with the slimmest of strings. At 20-plus minutes, the opening scene is so long that it seems like the rest of the film should continue it, but instead the film moves on to other characters and a different story, only returning to the original site for a showdown that may or may not have happened (that was one of the aspects me and me buds couldn’t agree upon).
The opening scene follows a mixed-sex group of six people spelunking; the Professor drops a wooden box with a wax gecko in it and later the group takes refuge in a deserted house when their car breaks down and the wind blows away their map. (The viewer who does not read the liner notes of the DVD will not know that the box was found in the cave and that by breaking it an evil gecko demon was released.) For what it’s worth, although the six do that normal thing that people only do in horror films—you know, separate for the most inane reasons and walk around alone and, yes, even bathe—the whole intro scene is pretty good: first we get a tastefully shot nude scene of an attractive Asian babe and then a white ghostly figure floating around before the geckos show up, people start dying, and the undead (not vampires but neither ghost nor zombie) increase. Regrettably, once the body count is over, the flick moves into its next segment and the narrative really gets lost.
Lizard Woman now turns to another character that inexplicitly appeared in the first segment once or twice in brief, totally out-of-context intercut scenes. The writer Kwanpilin (Roongrawee Borijindakul) has just finished her latest book and while on tour she buys (is given?) a small wooden box that looks suspiciously like the one the professor dropped. In no time short, gecko shit starts appearing in her apartment, close acquaintances start dying violent deaths and, finally, she gets possessed by a gecko demon and, as the titular lizard woman, is even seen eating flies from atop of a street light. Can her boyfriend Vitool (Pete Thongchua) and the photographer (Chatthapong Pantanaunkul) save her? The Lizard Woman runs off to the house from the beginning of the film—now populated by ghostly gals on swings—and the boyfriend and photographer follow close behind...
The script to Lizard Woman seems to have been written following the William Burroughs cut-up approach, for the narrative flies all over the place... in fact, just when you think the film is over, you suddenly find out it never happened—or did it? Who knows; who cares? Though the film is interspaced with some beautifully horrific scenes and surprises, everything else about the film—the pacing, script, editing and acting—can only be described as catastrophic. Don’t be tricked into getting this DVD by such seductively interesting film images as those included in this review: Lizard Woman is a total waste of time.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Bride with White Hair (1993, Hong Kong)

For those who care, the Cantonese title is Bai fa mo ru zhuan. Like most Hong Kong films, however, it can be found or rented under a multitude of titles, the most common one being The Bride with White Hair. Based on a Chinese novel by the world famous Yusheng Liang, the film is, on the simplest level, a period fantasy love story. Anyone who likes such Hong Kong classics as A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), A Chinese Ghost Story Part II (1990) (both which starred Leslie Cheung) or (the non-supernatural) Peking Opera Blues (1990) (which featured Brigitte Lin) will enjoy The Bride with White Hair. Actually, the names involved in The Bride with White Hair all stand for good product in general: Director Ronny Yu has made dozens of kick & chop ballets as well as the hilarious Bride of Chucky (1998), many with the help of his regular script collaborator David Wu; cinematographer Peter Pau has worked with most of Hong Kong's most visually exciting directors; Lin was a big star up until she retired to become a mommy and Leslie Cheung had actually gained some international respectability due to such projects as Chinese Ghost Story I and II, Farewell My Concubine (1990) and Happy (1997) before he decided to end it all with a high dive from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on April 1st, 2003.
For all intents and purposes, the film tells the tragic story of an all-around loser. Zhuo Yi-Hang (Leslie Cheung) is first seen brooding in misery due to all that he has lost—clan, love, happiness. He sits guarding a magic flower that can revive the dead, a flower he hopes to one day use on the woman he has lost. Yu starts the film off with a small bang by allowing Yi-Hang to decimate a group of warriors in less than a minute before the real story gets told in flashback, starting with Yi-Hang's childhood. An excellent if irresponsible child student of the martial arts and sword, he is saved from an untimely death by the intervention of a mysterious flute playing girl. This scene is followed by a lengthy, somewhat slow but playful section introducing all the important characters and filling the viewer in on all the important background information. Yi-Hang grows to be the popular if somewhat irresponsible heir to the Wu-Tang clan, which is at war with Ji Wushuang (Francis Ng and Elaine Lui) a pair of evil separate-sex Siamese twins out for revenge for being banished so many years before. The girl with the flute has grown to become Lian Nichang (Brigitte Lin) the unstoppable killer for the twins, and during a big slaughter, she and Yi-Hang meet again and fall in love in a big way. Disillusioned by war and his compatriots—especially by Ho Lu Hua (Kit Ying Lam), his semi-girlfriend and only equal in the mastery of fighting—Yi-Hang would like nothing more than to leave with his new love, whom he swears never to disbelieve. While she is off buying her freedom from the twins (with her body, amongst other degradations), Yi-Hang is found by his clan and convinced by them that Lian has merely fooled him so as to kill his master and destroy the clan. When the battered Lian shows up to leave with her love, he attacks instead, the breaking of his oath and his disbelief resulting in her "suicide" and conversion into a demon with killer white hair (similar to the killer tongue in A Chines Ghost Story). By the film's end, she may have saved his life and he may have saved hers, but everyone else is dead. She leaves a broken man behind, an all-around loser with nothing to live for but the faint hope that one day she might come back....
Which she seemingly does in the sequel The Bride with White Hair II, made the very same year. That film, however, holds a less respectable reputation than the first film.
The Bride with White Hair
is a triumph of style and story, an often breathtaking visual pleasure interspersed with some scenes of gore and blood, its excellent action scenes equalled by some truly boring narrative and humorous sections. A tad low budget looking at times, it is filmed with a lot of fog and strobe lights in the background, has a wonderfully mystical aura and a tragically romantic love story. True it drags sometimes, but overflows with creativity, energy, thrills and style; it never bores but often surprises. This is the perfect film for true fans of Hong Kong Bullet Ballets to show their Ang Lee worshipping significant others.

Three Strangers (1946, USA)

A strange film, but like virtually all films that teamed Peter Lorre with Sydney Greenstreet, a good one. Based on the short story Three Men and A Girl by John Huston, he had help writing the script from Howard Koch, the man behind the script to Orson Welles’ legendary radio broadcast The War of The Worlds. The project was originally developed for Humphrey Bogart and Jane Astor, and therefore is sometimes dissed as a Maltese Falcon (1941) rip-off. In truth, Three Strangers is a much different film that while sharing many of the creative features of Huston’s legendary first film is still very much its own. Much less a detective film than an oddly existential, almost depressingly pessimistic discourse on fate, the film features three protagonists whose individual stories having relatively little to do with each other, the only common bond between them being the winning horserace ticket that all three see as their savior in one way or another.
Three Strangers opens a dark and foggy night in London with Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald) cruising the busy streets, for all appearances a discreet (but most likely expensive) streetwalker. She catches the eye of the lawyer Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet, who had obviously added some weight to the 280 pounds he had already carried in his film debut in The Maltese Falcon), who follows her home. There Crystal introduces him to Johnny West (Peter Lorre), and it is revealed that she is the follower of some obscure goddess and that that very night is a special night, a night in which if three strangers meet and do some mumbo jumbo stuff, they will all have their biggest desire granted. They place all their luck on a horserace ticket that West happens to have and go their separate ways, bound by a ticket even as their lives spiral further downwards. Johnny is on the lamb for taking part in a robbery while drunk during which someone got killed, the murder which eventually he (unrightfully) takes the blame for. Arbutny faces total ruin for illegal use and mismanagement (embezzlement?) of ditzy Lady Rhea Beladon’s funds. Crystal's estranged husband David Shackleford (Alan Napier) wants nothing else from her than a divorce, but she wants him back and is willing to ruin him to do so. A trio of anti-heroes, none of them particularly likeable—if Johnny ends up the film’s nominal hero, it is only by default, his evils being more weaknesses than to anything else. By the end of the film, he might be the only one of the three to still have his life ahead of him—indeed, perhaps he even finally has found the hope needed to take advantage of the new chance he has—but his situation is still hardly good, the race ticket now being too dangerous to cash in, even if not due to his fault.
A bizarre film to say the least, heavily influenced by Albert Camus and hardly the stuff one would think would get such good treatment from a studio of the time. Romanian-born director Jean Negulesco has a better grasp on the material than one would expect from someone who went on to make such films as How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Despite whoever the movie’s script was originally meant for, Fitzgerald and Lorre more than make the film their own, the former excelling as a beautiful but egoistic, conniving bitch with a less than complete grasp upon reality, the latter believable as a detached, almost soulless alcoholic unable and unwilling to deal with life. As the third member of the party, Sidney Greenstreet excels (as always) as a calculating, less than honest and cold but polite lawyer who loses everything—including his sanity—at the end.

The Curse (1987, USA/Italy)

(Spoiler alert.) Sure it's a crappy film, but it's still a lot more fun than the average Charles Band regurgitation. Director Keith generally works in front of the camera, one of the plethora of regularly working but unknown actors that populate the world. Seen but not remembered in such films as Firestarter (1984), The Lords of Discipline (1983), The Two Jakes (1990), The Indian in the Cupboard (1995), Poodle Springs (1998) and Daredevil (2003). The Curse was his directorial debut, the first of three cheapies he has done to date. And for a low budget directorial debut, it ain't the worst of its kind.
Filmed mostly in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, where the good man lives, it is the second film to supposedly be inspired by H. P. Lovecraft's story The Color Out of Space. But much like the first film based on the story, Daniel Haller's Die, Monster, Die! (1965), little in The Curse reminds one of its source. Scriptwriter David Chaskin's other film script credits include the subliminally homophobic Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985) and the mildly interesting and lightly artsy I, Madman (1989). Despite the The Curse's dodgy reputation, the movie was obviously successful enough to warrant three supposed sequels: Curse II: The Bite (1988), Curse III: Blood Sacrifice (1991) and Curse III: Catacombs (1993). In truth, none of the three films were made as sequels or have anything to do with the first film; the name was merely tagged onto them so as to improve their drawing power on the video shelf.
At the time The Curse was made, Will Wheaton was still an annoying regular on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which might explain why he gets top credit despite his one-trick-pony performance. Claude Akins, a long-time character actor and familiar face to any couch potato of the 60s and 70s gives a far more convincing performance as the religious backwater farmer step-dad convinced the wrath of god has come down upon the family. Akins, who had parts in films as varied as Rio Bravo (1959), The Killers (1964) and strangely overrated Monster in the Closet (1986), died of cancer in 1994.
Also known as The Farm, the story also takes place on one. Though the first scenes shows the arrest of some wart-faced, gun-happy family man who goes bonkers in the suburbs and gets hauled off as he screams about something being in the water, the film quickly shifts to "6 months earlier." Zachary Hayes (Wheaton) has a less than a happy relationship to his stern, religious and hypocritically righteous stepdaddy Nathan Hayes (Akins) and the man's bullying lard-pot son Cyrus (Malcolm Danare). The type of folks that watch Hee-Haw for intellectual entertainment, Zack's repressed mom Frances (Kathleen Jordon Gregory) gets all hot and bothered over the naked hairy chest of the man digging their new well. At the moment she finally discovers what an orgasm is, a comet shoots down from the sky and crashes into the farms field. The local doctor Alan Forbes (Cooper Huckabee) and the local real estate agent Carl Willis (John Schneider) manage to halt any notification of governmental officials in fear that doing so might jeopardize the state's plan to convert the area into a reservoir, something from which they hope to make lots of money from. Then the comet suddenly just melts down and away into the earth—and into the farm's water supply as well. Mom soon gets warts and eventually sews socks into her hands, while apples and other vegetables grow huge and look healthy, only to be filled with ooze and worms. Dad and son also grow warts and slowly go violently bonkers, as do the farm animals. Zack and his sister Alice (Amy Wheaton, Wil’s real-life sister) remain normal only because they refuse to eat the produce or drink the water of the farm, something probably impossible to do in real life. The big showdown has all the morally questionable people die—one by be ripped apart by rabid dogs, another getting his throat ripped out by the mutated mommy, the last by a hammer to the head. Faced with a crazed wrench-wielding stepfather and an insane pork-bellied stepbrother, Zack and Amy fight for their lives as the house collapses around them. At the last minute and with the help of a deus ex machina, they escape.
Cheaply made, sleazy, continually inconsistent and with a story full of holes, The Curse is gross enough to qualify as perfectly acceptable trash-film fodder. How Zack can be downstairs fighting his wrench-wielding dad and then show upstairs with a baseball bat in time to save his sister is not the type of question that keeps me up at night. And if the ending makes no sense at all, the slow rot of the mom, stepdaddy and stepbrother is fun enough to watch—they sure do begin to look ugly and drool nicely. Actually, in this day and age of the Bush Jr. presidency, any film in which a bunch of overly religious hypocritical rednecks slowly rot from the inside out should be made mandatory viewing in American schools. This is your country, now pass the Holy Water, please.

The Tune (1992, USA)

Another wonderfully entertaining little jewel of an animated film from Bill Plimpton, this time clocking in at little over an hour in length. Plympton uses the thin storyline as an opportunity to dance off into a variety of weird directions, all of which are well complimented by his distinctive, relatively simplistic drawing style. The first five minutes almost lead one to believe that Plympton makes a big mistake in following the unwritten law (of Disney and virtually every other major studios that have ever made feature length animated films) that states all animated films require musical interludes, but by the second fully realized song, both he and Maureen McElheron—who wrote and scored all the songs—find the right stride and deliver some really fun stuff.
The hero of The Tune is the dorky Del, a relatively talentless songwriter who needs a hit to become rich so that he can marry his sweet gal, Didi, the secretary of his nasty big-music-business boss, Mr. Mega. Given 47 minutes by his boss-from-hell to deliver a smash hit or be fired, Del gets lost on the drive to his appointment with Mr. Mega and ends up in the magical land of Flooby Nooby, where everyone and everything sings, because they all have it in their hearts. In Flooby Nooby, during his quest to find the ability in his heart, Del meets, amongst others, such inane characters as lovelorn country music singing fast food, a deliriously dancing surfer couple, a noseless jiggaboo cab driver belting the blues about his fickle love—a big Caucasian nose—and a murderous bellhop in a (literally) killer hotel. Great Stuff!
The surrealism of many scenes echoes and outdoes that even found in the most extreme of the early Betty Boop shorts, and the violence is as extreme (and in the end harmless) as that of the best of the early Tom and Jerry massacres, but the flavor and touch is 100% Plympton Modern. Likewise, with the one exception being the tune Del creates, the songs are lively, finger snapping ditties that make you move your feet as you giggle. OK, you might not buy the soundtrack, but you can heartily and easily enjoy them where they are for what they are. A couple of the longer, non-musical sections are recognizable as shorts already shown on MTV (at least to you out there who are old enough to have seen them), and even if they don’t really fit smoothly into the overall flow of The Tune, they are still of such amusing originality that it remains a pleasure to see them in any context.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Berlin Wie Es War (1950, Germany)

(Once, long ago, I sent a lot of reviews to the magazine Cult Movies, who said that they would use some and then send me a copy of any issue where a review of mine appeared. A year or so later, I stumbled upon issue 36 and found this review printed in it. Well, despite e-mails back and forth and their promises to send me copies of any magazines in which my texts appear, they never sent me a copy of any issue, number 36 or any other number, in which a review of mine may have appeared. Haven't bought a copy of the magazine since, actually.)

Depending on the source, Leo de Laforgue filmed this documentary sometime between 1935 and 1943, but for a variety of reasons it wasn’t released until after the Second World War in 1950. Opening with the title Sinfonie Einer Weltstadt, which translates roughly to "Symphony of a Metropolis,“ it is clear that Laforgue was trying to link his film historically to Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 silent masterpiece Berlin, die Sinfonie einer Grossstadt (released in the US as The Symphony of a Great City). Actually, while de Laforgue’s film is interesting in its own way, it is nonetheless so extremely inferior to Ruttmann’s film that the pathetic attempt to link the two is nothing less than embarrassing. Ruttmann’s film is a masterpiece of early documentation and presentation that focuses on the pulsating rhythm of the city for one day, from dawn until late in the night. Very much influenced by the attitudes and theories of the Neue Sachlichkeit ("New Objectivity" or "New Realism") art movement of Germany during the Weimar Republic (which included such painters as Otto Dix and George Gross), Ruttmann’s visually exciting, brilliantly filmed and edited silent movie was as much of a celebration as it was a jaundiced criticism of Berlin and its inhabitants at the time. Laforgue’s film, on the other hand, lacks the jaded but critical eye of the earlier ode to Berlin, and draws most of its strength from the unintended position it gained after the war: that of being a visual documentation of what the city was like before the machinations of the National Socialists—that’s Nazis to people like you and me—led to its (and the Fatherland’s) destruction.
In fact, when Laforgue was making his film, he did so under the auspices of the government (as was any film made in Germany back then): Laforgue’s film was originally meant to be more or less a celebration of "Berlin, the Reichshauptstadt," extolling the city’s people, its buildings and streets, its cultural and entertainment possibilities, as well as almost every other aspect of the city’s general infrastructure one might think of. Ironically enough, once Laforgue finished the film, it was banned by Paul Josef Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s Minister of Culture. Between the creation of the film and its completion, World War Two was already in full swing, and Allied bombs had long begun to rain from the sky, flattening everything Laforgue’s film so venerated, and Goebbels had no desire to remind Berliners what their city had been like before the powers-that-be led their country down the ugly path into war and death.
After The Nation of Beer and Wurst had been pulverized, the controlling powers eventually allowed the film to be released, with the new, more up-to-date title Berlin Wie Es War, which literally translates to "Berlin As It Was." And indeed, that is what the film shows, complete with some of the most obnoxious background music ever made. (Supplied by Prof. Rudolf Katting, the good man tortures the viewer with 3 or 4 or 5 German standards—"Schlagers" as they are called by the natives—rendered in 5 or 6 or 7 different orchestral arrangements that do nothing less than present a damned powerful argument that Lawrence Welk was actually a very talented musician.) Probably in the hope that the experience of this film might function at some educational level, as late as the end of the 1980s Berlin Wie Es War still had an afternoon showing a couple of times a week in a (West) Berlin movie theatre. (It still has regular screenings here in Berlin, though no longer as often.)
The Berlin Wie Es War is interesting, as are all films that document a place and time that is forever gone. That aside, the music sucks and the editing is painful; numerous shots seem to last mere seconds, and while the technique of Montage Shot works well for pop videos and Schwarzennegger films, in this documentary it merely strains the eyes and annoys. (One can’t help but wonder whether the brutal editing was actually part of the original film, for it seem odd that a movie made initially to celebrate the Reichshauptstadt at a time when there wasn’t a single circumcised man left in the city completely lacks even one Nazi uniform, flag, decoration or any other sort of visual reference to the country’s fascist regime.) For all its numerous flaws, Berlin Wie Es War is still one of the few films around that documents one of Germany’s most important cities at a time in which it was still flourishing, and that alone makes it an interesting visual experience.

Siam Sunset (1999, Australia)

If Alex van Warmerdam had been born in Australia instead of the Netherlands, he might make films like this. For all the similarly surreal ideas and the bleak events pictured in John Polson’s film, however, Siam Sunset never reaches the depressing depths of the average van Warmerdam film, if only because Polson’s movie not only has an ever so slight underlying strain of hope but also ends on a positive, happy note. But still, much like how tragedy follows the dress in van Warmerdam’s bizarre, depressing but (often) blackly funny film De Jurk (1996), John Polson’s black comedy tells the tale of a man who is seemingly a magnet for bad luck.
Linus Roache, the star of the scandalous but uninteresting (and already forgotten) movie Priest (1999) is Perry, an extremely happily married man who works in a chemical firm developing colours. One sunny day when he and his wife are washing the car and horsing around like teenagers, a refrigerator falls from the sky and lands on top of her. From that day on, he slowly develops the impression that he is a human black cat and that bad luck and disaster befalls everyone that crosses his path. Falling deeper and deeper into a depression, he becomes obsessed with creating the colour he calls “Siam Sunset”—which is that of his (dead) wife’s hair. Vacationed by his boss, he wins a bus trip through the Australian outback
while playing bingo. In Australia, his bus trip proves to be one from hell. Stuck on a bus full of Australian rednecks and white trash his bad luck seems to slowly infect the entire bus, but try as he might to leave the tour early some act of nature (or simple bad luck) always stops him. Along the way, Grace (Danielle Cormack) a vivacious and attractive woman on the run from her violent, drug dealing boyfriend Martin (Ian Bliss) comes aboard when her car breaks down. Equally pissed that she has left him and taken the drug money with her, Grace’s ex tracks her down and eventually ends up on the bus, too. The bus soon crashes somewhere deep in the outback and everyone gets stuck at a wreck of a roadside rest stop where the situation reaches its pinnacle before (almost) everyone lives happily ever after, even as the sky rains kitchen appliances.
Siam Sunset is a blackly humorous, surreal road movie which is both light and entertaining; for all its scurrile situations and events it never becomes overbearingly depressing or upsetting. Much like Strictly Ballroom (1992), the movie relies heavily on one dimensional caricature, especially when it comes to the other people on the bus—but the fact of the matter is, true white trash is a caricature of itself in real life as well. Siam Sunset is hardly a film one must see but it is definitely a strange, funny and enjoyable little movie that is in no way half as bad as most reviewers seem to find it.

Nur Tote Zeugen Schweigen (1962, Spain/Germany)

A stage show hypnotist engaged to his heavily mascaraed female assistant Magda (Eleonra Rossi Drago) is murdered by his jealous partner who was Magda’s main squeeze until the hypnotist came along. A boxer with sticky fingers that moonlights as a flower deliverer (a young Götz George) is framed for the murder, but he manages to escape and sets out to prove his innocence. He doesn’t get far. The denouncement at the end of the film is unexpected primarily because what at first seems to be the most unbelievably idiotic and dated aspect of the film is actually the set up leading to the final twist. Wallace-film regular Heinz Drache is Inspector Kaufman, the good policeman who senses something isn’t kosher about the first murder; his part is a by-the-number repeat of the role he usually played in the Edgar Wallace films.
The film is an early product of Eugen Martin, the man behind such Euro-trash classics as Nightmare Inn (1970) and the eternally popular masterpiece Horror Express (1972). Entitled Ipnosi in Spain and Dummy of Death in English-speaking countries, the film is not really all that special but does pass by quickly enough. It is a typically European early 60s B&W crime film, heavily influenced by the Edgar Wallace films of the day. Although a quick and easy film to watch, Nur Tote Zeugen Schweigen hardly transcends the genre or manages to reach any such inane heights as some of the other Wallace-inspired movies of the time such as The White Spider (1963). Nonetheless, like many of its ilk, Nur Tote Zeugen Schweigen is better than the worst Wallace flicks but worse than the best—which basically means, if you like the early B&W German Wallace productions, which I do, you’ll probably like Nur Tote Zeugen Schweigen—like I did. To its advantage, the film has two violent murders, some misplaced but enjoyable arty cinematography and equally incongruent but fun supernatural overtones, but the story itself is improbably illogical and is riddled with unbelievable inconsistencies. (Hmm, sounds like a Wallace flick.)

Mr. Vampire (1985, Hong Kong)

Once upon a time flicks like this were incredibly hard to get hold of but now, at least here in Berlin, you can borrow them from your local library. And you know what? You should, too.
Director Ricky Lau started a whole franchise of Mr Vampire films with this baby, and while
I don't know how good the other ones are, this one is great! It is without a doubt one of my favorite Hong Kong (semi-) obscure, old-school costumer, right up there with Yuen Woo Ping’s Miracle Fighters from 1982; and just like Miracle Fighters, Mr. Vampireor Geung si sin sangas, as it is called in Chineseis almost too weird to accurately describe. Hong Kong horror comedies like this have so little relationship to western sensibilities, be it in regard to horror, comedy, acting or even logical progression of a plot, that to coherently describe the movie let alone just the plot would only make films like this one sound unwatchable—when they are actually anything but.
Starring a variety of familiar Hong Kong assembly-line faces, Mr. Vampire is a slightly infantile and weird but successfully entertaining combination of slapstick, horror, romance and suspense. Full of (virtually) unstoppable hopping vampires and
incompetent human heroes, though the story itself is full of inconsistencies and illogical plot twists the film leaves the viewer behind laughing on the floor as it chugs along full speed ahead.
In brief, the film is about a vampire granddad that comes back and tries to destroy his family. The local mortician/magician and his two idiot helpers (nephews?) set out to stop the steadily decaying vampire and, as might logically be expected when fighting hopping vampires, they have to face a variety of other problems along the way—including an undead uncle of the main babe, being arrested for murder, a horny ghost, the infection of one helper by (and gradual transformation into) a vampire, dishonest rice dealers and so forth. The big showdown at the end might be a bit too long, but altogether this film is fabulous video fodder and definitely deserves an even bigger reputation than it has finally begun to get. (Actually, a few years ago, it didn't even have one.)
Like most Hong Kong "horror films" of its time and ilk, the blood
and guts are remarkable low, but there are a few unobtrusive scenes of animal mutilation that might be slightly tasteless for most animal-loving westerners. The fight scenes, while well choreographed and thought out, are so slapstick in nature that it is obvious they are meant less to be serious than to keep the viewer laughing—which they do.
A true gem with few chills but many thrills, Mr. Vampire is good fun for the whole family. Get it now.

Mädchen Für Die Mambo Bar (1959, Germany)

Viennese-born Wolfgang Glück delivers a trashy film that commits an unforgivable sin: it bores. Released in the UK as Girls from the Mambo Bar and in the USA as $100 A Night, the film is dull under any title. A fucked-up hodgepodge of drugs, easy girls in atomic bras and tight sweaters, jealousy, international spying, attempted murder and music, the narrative itself is so skimpy that without the numerous second and third rate nightclub acts it would be a short film. But then, Mädchen Für Die Mambo Bar is a typical product of its time, when many a low budget (and bigger budgeted) German language film was little more than an excuse to string together a variety of Schlager. ("Schlager" = German for “Pop hit,” but the music it describes is less Pop music as we know it than a particularly atrocious music comparable, perhaps, to the crappy cocktails singers popular in the US during the 50s and early 60s.) Nowadays we have MTV and music videos; back then they had bad movies like this one. And in flicks like Mädchen Für Die Mambo Bar, the plot issecondary to the rest.
After the opening scene of the film’s lead druggie Olga (Kai Fischer, also found in perennial bad-film faves like Hard Times for Dracula (1959), Room 13 (1964) and Island of Death (1964)) getting attacked, the credit sequence of the horribly made-up woman cruising through the night underscored by Perez Prado’s infectious tune Mambo Jambo makes one think that the film might be fun in a bad way, this mistaken belief is quickly dispelled: as said before, the film may be in a bad way, but it ain’t fun.
But for one or two exterior scenes, the entire film is interior bound, the uninspired camera work seldom doing anything to liven up the dull proceedings. But for a few seriously presented trumpet playing scenes featuring the sleazy trumpet player Jimmy—who turns out to be the good guy (played by Jimmy Makuls, a Greek Schlager-singer who even had a successful spell in Las Vegas during the early 60s)—the musical numbers veer from being unbelievably horrible to inanely surreal. An all time low (high?) is reached with an odd ballet-inspired dance sequence to Mambo Jambo and a ridiculously laughable German-language presentation of Tom Dooley complete with twinkle-toed cowboys. (Actually, if cut from the film and strung together alone without sound, the dance numbers could be excellent back-wall projection decoration at some bar or disco.)
As might be expected from a film whose sole purpose is to present musical numbers, the inane plot is a confused mess which, when described, sounds far more exciting than it actually is. Olga is addicted to morphine, which she gets from the bar’s Italian owner named—of course—Martini (Rolf Kutschera). Martini gets his drugs by trading floor plans of buildings (embassies?) to some spy with diplomatic immunity. His daughter Eva (Gerlinde Locker), who doesn’t know that Martini is her father, comes to town to work for him, and falls for the trumpet player Jimmy, an undercover cop who had been bonking Olga. Eva has dreams of singing, and practices secretly with Jimmy, making Olga mad with jealousy. At Eva’s premiere, just as the police raid the bar in search of drugs and spies, a drugged-out Olga tries to kill Eva but is stopped by Martini, only to fall to her death. Then, while trying to escape, Martini is shot dead, leaving Eva and the trumpet player to walk off together into the night.
Mädchen Für Die Mambo Bar features legs, cleavage, make up over-kill and bad dancing, but nothing gels well enough to be any fun. Unlike the stills of the movie, which are oddly interesting to look at, the film itself is a painfully dull optical assault.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Marquis (1989, France)

A highly intriguing oddity from the land of the baguette directed by Henri Xhonneux, who co-wrote the undeniably unusual film with the late Roland Topor, a man known as the creative source behind such entertaining movies like The Fantastic Planet (1973) and the novel on which Roman Polanski based his fun film The Tenant (1976). Marquis is a surreal, not quite child-friendly presentation of the Marquis’ delightful experiences while imprisoned in Bastille. What makes the contents of the film more palatable than the good Marquis' rather repetitious and boring books is that all characters are played in animal masks, including that of, amongst others, a camel, goat, cow, horse, rooster and pig. Topor takes his unusual approach yet another step further by presenting recreations of the Marquis’ writings and dreams as clay animation segments, utilizing the technique in ways that The Aardvark Studios of England would probably never dream of doing. To all that is added the character of Colin, the Marquis’ own huge, talking prick, with whom the imprisoned and impoverished man/dog constantly bickers, discussing the various platitudes of love and sex. (In what is probably in a far cry from reality, the count is presented as a creative intellectual who prefers the platonic form of the former while his dick prefers the latter.) To the sexual debauchery and other fun stuff, Xhonneux & Topor add a story of political intrigue in which the Marquis should be made to take the responsibility for a pregnancy actually caused by the king. Marquis is, obviously enough, a parable, exploiting the machinations of the church and state of 18th century France—the revolution brewing darkly—as a forum for a decidedly odd discussion about creative, personal and sexual freedom. This visual discourse includes such memorable scenes as the Marquis screwing a wall, a man/rat being butt-fucked by a boiled lobster, a cow being tortured by the brutal manipulation of her udders until the milk she gives is mixed with blood and, not at all the last of many an extreme scene, a scene of the earth being raped by a coffin. The originality of the filmmakers' vision fits the story better than one would think, and the extreme brutality of the acts the Marquis and others experience, fantasize and narrate lose much of their inert repulsiveness due to the overall oddity and cuteness of the presentation. The film might be a bit too intellectual for the average lover of low grade video silage, but it is a pungently entertaining film nonetheless. And besides, who actually watches stuff like this for its intellectual content? In any event, Marquis is without a doubt required viewing for any fan of the wildly obscure and odd.

Blonde Heaven (1994, USA)

Among the untold number of pseudonyms used by David DeCoteau to spit out straight-to-video fodder is that of Ellen Cabot, the name that heads this pitiable atrocity. Could it be that the man who has hoisted upon the public such internationally acclaimed masterpieces and major box office hits like Sorority Succubus Sisters (1987), Retro Puppet Master (1999) and Beach Babes from Beyond (1993) actually shames himself too much to reveal to the world the real person behind video abortions like this one? I wish, but all truth be told, DeCoteau has never seemingly never felt ashamed about any of the offal he keeps regurgitating… but then, making crap like this is probably a lot more fun than the jobs you or I have.
That said, Blonde Heaven—no ands, ifs or buts about it—sucks, and not just because it’s (supposedly) a vampire film. Even at fast forward this piece of celluloid detritus is much too long; for all the silicone mountains featured onscreen, this flick is a visual torture that makes one beg to go blind. Populated with never-have-been, never-will-be and already have been silicon-pumped bimbos (like Julie Strain) and muscular workout-room junkies, no plot is anywhere to be found between the excessively long flesh parades. Sure, there is some mumbo jumbo about vampires running an escort agency, a brainless cowboy from Oklahoma out to save his "I want more from life than babies" ex-girlfriend and a vampire-hunting film projectionist, but any attempts at establishing a plot or the viewer’s interest are tossed aside and obliterated by the excruciatingly long, boring and un-erotic soft-core scenes.
Fact is, Blonde Heaven is basically a dickless porno film. Its entire structure is that of a Solitary Hand Job Assistant in that every three minutes of non-existent narrative is followed by a 10-minute sex scene, only the sex scenes feature no sex—just a lot of artificial, perfectly sculptured bodies moving back and forth, up and down, side to side and all around. Were Blonde Heaven a hardcore wank-fest video, it would at least have one redeemable feature. As it is, whether titled Blonde Heaven or Morgana, the flick is nothing more than a good argument for killing the director.

The Burglar (1957, USA)

(Spoiler alert.) It can be really surprising sometimes to discover what even the most hack director managed to deliver at the beginning of his career.
Director Paul Wendkos ended his career as a television hack in 1999, some 42 years after his debut feature film, the forgotten b-flick The Burglar. In the years between, aside from all the filmic refuse he did for television, he still did an occasional feature film—including Gidget (1959), Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), Gidgit Goes Rome (1963) and the mildly diverting Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969). But for the most part, after Wendkos carved himself a niche in the world of television in the early 60s, he dug his nails deeply into the realm of television movies for good, directing such unmemorable TV flicks like the Elizabeth Montgomery vehicles The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975) and An Act of Violence (1979), the "factual" The Ordeal of Patty Hearst (1979) and the dull remake of The Bad Seed (1985). Taking the quality of his extensive television output in review, one would be severely taxed to believe him capable of achieving the amount of energy and creativity to be found in The Burglar, a truly watchable and totally forgotten odd-ball crime film.
Could it be that Don Malkames, the cinematographer of The Burglar is the true creative eye behind the film? Malkames, who died at 82 in Yonkers, NY in November 1986, never really had that big of a career, but his low-budget roots probably gave him a lot of experience on how to get something for nothing. He started his career in the early forties doing camera in the lucrative genre of Yiddish films before moving into the equally respected genre of black films. By the fifties he had graduated to such classier products like the early girls-behind-bars film So Young So Bad (1950), but soon after The Burglar (1957) his name pretty much disappeared. One thing for sure, the best and strongest aspect of The Burglar is neither David Goodis' script (from his own novel of the same name) nor the acting, but rather the interesting and at times extremely artsy camera work—a sure sign that whoever was behind the camera knew what he was doing. (Sorry, Paul, but somehow it is hard to credit this film to you.)
Giving Orson Wells' Citizen Kane (1941) a direct nod, The Burglar opens with a newsreel narrating something about Red China, women on pogo sticks, and a longer in-depth piece about a very rich medium that can't resist showing off her very expensive bracelet. Sol Kaplan's bombastic music score blares out as we see Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea), the film's anti-hero leaving the movie theatre where he had been watching the newsreel and wander down the lonely, dark and alienating streets of Philadelphia as the credits slide in and out of the screen. He and his cohorts want to pull their big last hall before "retiring" and have their sight on the bracelet. With the help of the young and beautiful Gladdin (Jayne Mansfield), the daughter of the man who taught him his trade and who's death he accidentally caused, the heist is a success. (One of the film’s more delightful visual jokes has the camera looking out from the interior of the robbed wall safe as the medium walks back and forth brushing her teeth, oblivious to the theft.) Nat wants to hold onto the bracelet until the heat has died down, so the four sit around getting on each others nerves in a depressing gray house next to a busy railroad. (There is a wonderful scene that is almost too funny to believe of Baylock (Peter Capell) waxing endlessly about his dreams of finally retiring in South America as the background mambo music keeps getting louder.) Nat finally decides that Gladdin should leave the dank nest and sends her off to Atlantic City, where she quickly meets up and falls in love with a man whose face is never shown. After unexpectedly finding comfort and companionship with Dela (Martha Vickers), Nat learns that the lady not only has a past but is actually in on a plot to steal the bracelet from him—and that the man she is in cohorts is the man that has enraptured Gladdin. Nat rushes to Atlantic City, his partners in tow, but along the way Dohmer (Mickey Shaughnessy) buys the dust after blowing the face off a patrolman. Dumping the hot car, the surviving two set out on foot and finally take refuge in a deserted fisherman's shack. When Nat warns Gladdin that her new squeeze Charlie (Stewart Bradley) not out for love, she spurns him. Charlie then shows up at the shack and kills Baylock, leaving Della with a gun as he goes to get the bracelet from Gladdin. Della, now in love with Nat, lets Nat leave to call Gladdin, who meets up with him at the amusement park with a homicidally bent Charlie hot on her heels....
Of course, as fitting to the general hopeless and alienated tone of the film, the ending of The Burglar is pure depression and everyone either dies or loses everything.
As always, there are a few flaws to be found in The Burglar, but luckily they are relatively easy to overlook because the sum manages to be so much better than the parts. Nonetheless, it must be said that Duryea is badly cast as Nat. Aside from being too old for the part—an obvious twenty years older than the supposed 8 odd years that should separate him from Gladdin—he fails to give Nat's existentialist depression any depth. One-time orphan or not, responsible for the death of his "adopted" Dad or not, Nat never seems to be as much of a fatalist loaded down with weltschmerz and angst as he does simply seem to be a kill-joy. Also, there is no real reason that three men take part in the robbery, as two would have been enough. Likewise, there is no logical reason the three of them stick together all the time, especially since they all seem to trust each other implicitly (Nat is allowed regularly to walk off carrying the loot and neither of his partners even consider that he might simply disappear with it). Later, Nat's statement that Charlie knew of their robbery plans in advance are unconvincing as there is no logical way for him to have found out about them. Also, truth be told, as good as it is, Sol Kaplan music is often overly bombastic, its volume incongruent to the overall depressing nature of the film.
But those are mere quibbles to the simple fact that The Burglar is one damned fine piece of noir. Heavily imbued with a feeling of futility, the creative and oft bizarre camerawork lends The Burglar an additional eccentric appeal—as does some of the casting. If Dan Duryea—remembered from his untold number of appearances in junk as well as in numerous classics such as Winchester ’73 (1950), The Flight of the Phoenix (1966), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957) and the flawed but deft Fritz Land semi-classics Ministry of Fear (1944), The Woman in The Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945)—seems badly cast, the others do not. Mickey "I-know-that-face-from-somewhere" Shaughnessy is excellent as the sleazy Dohmer, who meets his end (with eyes wide open) in the back seat of a car and, likewise, the forgotten German character actor Peter Capell is perfect as the whining and desperate loser Baylock. But the true presence of the film is without a doubt the inimitable Jayne Mansfield at the start of her fame, long before she slid down the ladder and into cheap European productions (and, eventually, under the axis of a truck on a Louisiana highway). Not yet the cheap, easy and innately tragic joke she was eventually to become, Mansfield's measurements (like her eye brows) might be unbelievable, but her acting isn't: she is totally effective as she sashays across the screen in her costarring roll as Gladdin. Actually, although released between her more famous parts in The Girl Can't Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), The Burglar was filmed earlier two years earlier in 1955, the same year that she graced the pages of Playboy as the Playmate of February. Why the film was shelved so long is a bit hard to understand, for even if it is far from the best of its type, The Burglar is nonetheless a fine piece of low-budget noir that both fans and non-fans of the genre should find worth watching.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Flitterwochen In der Hölle/Isle of Sin (1960, Germany)

While filming Cross of Iron (1977) in Europe, Sam Peckinpah wrote to Pauline Kael from London in a letter dated December 14, 1976 that the film’s producer, Wolf C Hartwig, “is a good old asshole, a mini Nazi with delusions of being David Selznick, Sam Spiegel and Herman Goring wrapped up into 5 ft of pure stupidity.” Seeing that Peckinpah was hardly known for his ability to interact with other people—much less producers—his opinion is questionable at best, but seeing that the man he is talking about is no less than Wolfgang Hartwig, the producer of this film, the slanderously entertaining quote virtually begs for inclusion, especially considering the quality of most of Hartwig’s films as a producer. He is, without a doubt, one of the great unsung heroes of German sleaze, his flicks spanning from his initial "documentary” foray on Hitler Bis fünf nach zwölf - Adolf Hitler und das 3. Reich (1953) to his popular Hong Kong and St.Pauli flicks in the 60s to his numerous and legendary softcore clarification films in the 1970s.
Among the early Hartwig’s productions that can still be found (in the public domain in the USA, for example), Victor Trivas’ Die Nackte und der Satan/The Screaming Head from 1959 (about an undead head and a mad scientist) enjoys some popularity as an oddly entertaining Z-grade cult horror flick. In 1960, however, Hartwig pulled out all the stops and produced three grade-Z films, possibly simultaneously, often using some of the same actors: Otto Meyer’s Die Insel der Amazonen/Seven Daring Girls, a boring film about seven girls trapped on an island in the clutches of criminals looking for a treasure; Fritz Böttger’s infamous Ein Töter hing im Netz/Horrors of Spider Island, a horror film in the tradition of Ed Wood about a group of hot babes and their manager who crash land on a deserted island and are threatened by a mutant spider; and lastly, Johannes Kai’s Flitterwochen in der Hölle/Isle of Sin, a film about a group of people who crash land on an island and....well, you get the picture. Unbelievably enough, each film was supposedly scripted by a different person.
In the case of Flitterwochen in die Hölle, the script was written by the film’s director Johannes Kai, who went on to script a number of Edgar Wallace thrillers and 1962’s Ohne Krimi geht die Mimi nie ins Bett. The latter was a big hit in Germany that year, but it is the film’s title song of the same name that has achieved immortality, a hit song with the same title as the movie which still gets regular airplay on radio stations oriented to the geriatric set. Kai’s career seemingly ended by the mid-sixties, which isn’t very surprising considering the overall lack of quality his various projects display—on the other hand, perhaps he simply changed his name somewhere along the way, as did the blond Dorothee Glöcklin, who played a wanton woman in all three of Hartwig’s “island movies” before becoming Dorothee Parker to continue her career in other B & Z productions.
Flitterwochen in die Hölle, which actually translates into “Honeymoon In Hell,” follows a structure familiar to anyone who has ever watched any of this sort of formula based “adventure/drama,” be it Robert Aldrich’s Flight of the Phoenix (1966), Rob Cohen’s Daylight (1996) or Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972). Unlike those three films, Kai’s film lacks any and all the budget, competence, talent, adventure, drama or intentional humor. Basically, the film begins with the mandatory scenes before the plane takes off in which the various people on the flight are introduced—the criminal in transit, the cop, the lawyer, the aged milquetoast, the priest, the journalist (Erwin Strahl—who eventually ended his career as the director of the embarrassing alpine sex farce Gejoldet wird zu Hause (1970)), the goodtime girl (Glöcklin), the young woman of good morals (Christiane Nielsen), her rich, older husband and so forth.
In no time, the plane is down, the cop is dead and the criminal has the gun. Needless to say, he ain’t so hot to get off the island, so every attempt by the others to make the search planes see them gets squashed by the toy-pistol-waving con. Soon even the blond doesn’t feel like bopping to the bad music coming from her portable radio. Sparks begin to fly between the reporter and the newlywed (who the con also finds hot stuff), but when she finds out he’s out to write an exposé on her critically injured, drug addicted husband, she stops getting wet on him. Luckily for the reporter, the drug addicted husband conveniently dies just after it is revealed on the radio that he was the one responsible for financially ruining her father.
Sound exciting? It ain’t, but it sure does have its perverse entertainment level. It’s laughably and unbelievably bad—just the stuff to watch if you want to torture unwanted guests or have a cold and some good weed. Day-for-night shots that look like day-for-day, high-heeled women who remain perfectly made up and immaculately clean despite weeks of roughing it on the island, plot twists that twist less than they do fall flat and people who stand politely to the side so the bad guy can get a good shot (at the wrong person) before they overpower him. A true treat for lovers of unforgivably bad films, trash for anyone else. That Maltin was kind enough to give the film 1 ½ stars merely shows that even he—or at least some of his writers—is capable of appreciating bad films on a psycotronic level.... or that the reviewer on his staff never really even watched the flick in the first place.
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