Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Kibakichi: Bakko-yokaiden 2/Werewolf Warrior 2 (2004)

The continuing saga of Kibakichi, the itinerant Yokai werewolf swordsman with matted hair and ragged clothes! The first film of this series is undoubtedly a highpoint of trash cinema, a film so hilariously true to its z-level aesthetic, narrative and cinematic aims that it demands to be liked. Part 2, most likely made in tandem to the film it follows, continues down the same path of enjoyable cinematic ineptitude, but it would seem that the special effects budget was blown on the first film for in comparison to the initial masterpiece of Japanese dilettantism, Kibakichi: Bakko-yokaiden 2 is spectacularly low on cheesy monsters, explosions and spurting blood. Indeed, it is obvious in more than one scene (by the long pauses of the victims and the piddling spray of the blood) that the budget definitely did not allow for retakes when the effects fubbed.
But although director Tomoo Haraguchi wasn’t able to pour blood this time around, he and scriptwriter Baku Kamio were able to pour a lot of inanely misplaced and laughable philosophizing and love interest — and some truly cheap looking arty visuals — into a plot that at best can be described as incomprehensible. Indeed, Kibakichi: Bakko-yokaiden 2
often comes across as if its on-occasion-fast-moving 80-odd minutes were edited down from a year’s worth of weekly hour-long television episodes — but in all truth, understanding the plot is in itself not essential to the enjoyment of this movie. This movie, like the film it follows, is a must for those types of cinophiles that like dead bodies that obviously still breathe, transformations that happen totally off-screen, monster costumes that the Salvation Army wouldn't even bother to try selling at Halloween, fifth-rate special effects, werewolf mating dances and long ineptly filmed samurai fight scenes. (Sounds promising, doesn't it?)
After wandering away at the end of Kibakichi: Bakko-yokaiden 1, Kibakichi (Ryuuji Harada) wanders back in part two and is promptly confronted by samurai-wielding bad guy named Sakuramaru who first decimates a ton of fellow humans (most of whom, as was mentioned before, continue breathing even as they lie dead on the ground) and then gravely injures our unwashed hero. Quickly turning tail, Kibakichi stumbles onwards into a nearby half-disseminated and fear-stricken village where he pauses long enough to save a young blind woman from a wild dog. Blind as she is, she alone can see the goodness in Kibakichi's heart and, despite his reproof and continual demands to left alone, attempts both to befriend him and nurse him to good health. She also fills him in on the crazed swordsman, who can also claim her father as among his numerous victims. (If Part 1 has the thesis that humans are evil, Part 2 briefly posits the suggestion that westerners are worse – before, later in the film, positing that Yokai can be evil dips, too.) Deciding to rid the village of the slash-happy madman, Kibakichi returns for a duel to the end, a duel that is interrupted by the appearance of the razor-edged-boomerang-wielding itinerant Yokai werewoman named Anju (Miki Tanaka) — a character briefly introduced in Part 1 and whose only goal in life is to first kill Kibakichi and then herself. Now outnumbered, Kibakichi retreats and leaves Sakuramaru to fall madly in love with Anju; she in turn lets him follow her around like a lovesick puppy, initially because she doesn't seem to know how to get rid of him and later because she's seemingly gone soft for him. On top of all this, three other nasties with their own indecipherable agenda suddenly appear from nowhere (in truth, only one of the three is truly bad: it is later revealed that the one that looks like an overweight Marlon Brando in bad mime make-up is actually a cheesy-looking and evil Yokai that has the power to control the thoughts and actions of others). Because Bad Fatty wants to kill all humans to make the world a safe place for a new Yokai kingdom that he alone should rule, they logically decide that Kibakichi and Anju must die. Equally logical, to do so they torture and kill the blind girl and make it look as if Sakuramaru did it and then takeover Sakuramaru’s mind to make him kill Kibakichi. All this leads up to a big showdown that is half as bloody and extreme as the big showdown in Part 1 but that is nonetheless equally as silly and enjoyable. Indeed, the final werewolf mating dance is undoubtedly a new highpoint in cinematic history and is a must for any and all fans of bad film.
Although officially a "sequel," Kibakichi: Bakko-yokaiden 2 can stand alone as an independent film in that Part 1 is not necessarily required viewing to understand the events of Part 2. Nonetheless, both films are worth viewing as prime example of sublimely ridiculous cinema. If you like trash, then both Kibakichi: Bakko-yokaiden 1 and Kibakichi: Bakko-yokaiden 2 are worthy DVD fodder; if you have a smidgeon of distaste for that which is surreally lousy, then neither film is an option. Happily enough, Part 2 ends much like Part 1 in that it leaves open a great breadth for a possible Part 3 – were we ever so lucky!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

House of 1000 Corpses (USA, 2003)

It is a mistake to come to House of 1000 Corpses by way of The Devil's Rejects, Rob Zombie’s 2005 sequel to this, his debut horror film (which was shot in 2000 but released in 2003). The Devil's Rejects is a mean, lean slab of Americana horror: a morally indefensible and nasty road movie that wallows in its torture-porn predilections as much as it does in its often arty visuals, pop aesthetic, and nihilism. A gaudy, graphically and unrelenting violent film with a sly sense of humor and streamlined narrative, The Devil’s Rejects is a well-made film of no socially redeeming value that easily whets the viewer’s appetite for the director's initial cinematic forayfor surely, if the sequel is that good, then the first film to feature this family band of psychotic, murdering hicks has to be just as good or better, doesn't it?
Well, no, it doesn't. And, in fact, it isn't. A good twenty minutes shorter than its sequel, House of 1000 Corpses nonetheless seems twice as long. And why? Well, although Zombie's talent with actors and the camera is also very much evident in his first film, what is missing is the narrative proficiency of the sequel. Like The Devil's Rejects, House of 1000 Corpses is mean, but unlike Zombie's second film from 2005, it isn't at all lean. It's an incomprehensible and meandering mess that loses its way in a cascade of citations and film homages, and which, in the end, can't seem to decide if it's a hick-horror film ala the numerous The Texas Chainsaw Massacres (to which it owes much of its plot) or a supernatural-killers-in-the-basement movie. In this sense, it fails on the same level as Mike Mendez's first film The Killers (1996 / trailer) does: too many ingredients. And though the ingredients might be good on their own or when mixed more selectively, thrown in all together and in excess they never manage to harmonize. As a result, unlike in The Devil's Rejects, all the interesting visual tricks of the trade that Zombie picked up as a music video director—slow motion, stock footage, split screen, solarization, filters, etc.—seem less like an added attraction than a smokescreen meant to hide the film's narrative flaws.
After an inanely entertaining but out-of-place robbery-gone-wrong scene, two couples in a car stop at a cheesy roadside attraction run by an obviously wacko man named Captain Spalding (cult fave Sid Haig) who regales them with the tale of the nearby location of the tree upon which the legendary Dr Satan was hung to death. Like the idiots that they are, the four victims-to-be follow the map scribbled by Spaulding and drive out into the dark and stormy night to find the tree—and even pick up a hot blonde hitchhiker along the way (the delectable Sheri Moon Zombie as Baby Firefly). A shot-out tire later, the four teens get to meet the entire crazed Firefly clan, a family that turns out to be as sadistic as they are murderous. Needless to say, no idiot gets out alive—but before the four teens (and a few other secondary characters) all meet their maker, two get treated to an underground hell full of mutilated nutcases, an oversized half-naked and axe-wielding killer, and the mutated Dr. Satan himself.
In the end, although House of 1000 Corpses shares many of the traits that work so well in The Devil's Rejects, in Zombie’s first film they never properly congeal at any level. Despite the skin and blood and violence and nihilism and aesthetics and the obvious good hand with actors, the film not only gets lost in its overly referential and scattered story butworst of allactually begins to bore. But to give credit where credit is due, although House of 1000 Corpses may be a failure on the whole, it does nonetheless offer evidence that the director himself is indeed talented and is probably capable of doing something much betterwhich is exactly what he did with The Devil's Rejects.

Fast Food, Fast Women (USA, 2000)

A pleasant, slow moving romantic comedy with a definite "feel good" bent that, had it been made with a big budget and big names, would have sucked. Much of its charm lies in the film's low-budget, almost underground film style, which helps make the at times rather trite story easier to deal with. Director Amos Kollek has cultivated a grainy, raw style for a couple of films now, though this could be the first time he applies it to a light comedy. His previous "alternative" critical successes here in Europe, Sue (1997) and Fiona (1998), also featured this raw, Cinéma Vérité style, but they were both the type of depressing film that such a style is common to.
Fast Food, Fast Woman, were it but a bit smoother and cleaner, could easily be mistaken as a Hal Hartley film. It even has scenes obviously improvised that have little to do with advancing the plot, as is so common to Hartley's projects. The short scene in which the young (Afro-American? Afro-Polish? Afro-Polish-American?) son of a Polish hooker dances briefly with Bella cannot help but bring to mind the much cleaner, "spontaneous" group dance in Hartley's excellent film Simple Men (1992).
It is often these little asides, these scenes which have nothing at all to do with the story per say and would never find their way in a mainstream film, which help add that quirky edge that makes these types of movies so enjoyable. Actually, Kollek is probably the only director to come to my mind that has gone from "established" to alternative films...
Kollek's first real film of note in the USA was Goodbye, New York (1985), starring Julie Hagerty at a time when people still knew who she was. A flop, his next two films were still relatively mainstream, even if his casts now tended to include more big names going down and little names going up: Forever, Lulu (1987) featured Hanna Schygulla, Debbie Harry, Alec Baldwin and an appearance from Dr. Ruth Westheimer, while High Stakes (1989) had Sally Kirkland, Kathy Bates and a very young Sarah Michelle Geller. Moving ever further away from mainstream cinema, Kollek next film of note was Whore II (aka Bad Girls) in 1994. Sold as a sequel to Kurt Russell's misfired Whore (1991), Kollek's film was realistic and effective in a way Russell's never came close to. But then, unlike Russell, Kollek let real whores do some talking in his film.
Although a director who tends to wallow in the gritty side of New York life, who likes so to focus on those marginal types that eventually fall through the cracks, in Fast Women, Fast Food Kollek has a rather dry, whimsical outlook that can find wry humor in as simple things as old men bullshitting about women, hookers who stutter when they get nervous, or suicide attempts as a way to add excitement to the day. The film is far from a laugh a minute, in fact, the laughs are seldom loud and mostly chuckles, but the accumulative effect is noticeable. The only truly over-the-top aspect of the story is its highly improbable and completely unexpected out of the left field ending. An obvious ironic comment on the concept of "happy ends," it is comparable to the equally laughable fairytale ending of the spry English comedy Saving Grace (2000) or, going even further back in film history, the happy ending F. W. Murnau was forced to add to his silent masterpiece The Last Laugh (1924).
The performances in Fast Food Fast Women are solid and the characterization strong, but one has to admit that this time around Anna Thompson, a critical favorite in Europe and star of both Sue and Fiona, is the weakest link in the whole film. Too old to play the character she does, her stretched facial skin prevents much acting and her arms and legs are so out of proportionally thin to the rest of her that the viewer can only assume that she has a junk habit that is as bad as her silicon job is good. That aside, for a quirky film about the human, generation-spanning need and search for love and happiness, Fast Food Fast Women is pleasant piece of low-budget fluff. Hardly crucial but completely enjoyable.

Museum of the Dead/Zombie Attack (2004)

One of the hardest things to believe about this "movie" from 2004 is that "director" James Glenn Dudelson has supposedly "directed" some seven other films, for at best Museum of the Dead comes across as a freshman film project of a talentless student whose rich parents bought his way into a fifth-rate film school – and even in the most undemanding of film schools, the project would have gotten an F-. Seldom does a film get made that is as bereft of any likeable quality as is this one – one can only wonder why it was ever even made in the first place. No story, no characterization, crappy acting, crappy music, crappy CGI, crappy make-up, crappy sets, lousy dubbing... but, worst of all, as shitty as the film is, it isn't even enjoyable as a bad film. In comparison to the talent displayed by James Glenn Dudelson in this film, Jim Wynorski displays the talent of a Stanley Kubrick in any given movie of his entire oeuvre (Vampirella included).
The minimal plot concerns two girls – one blond and ditzy, one brunette and serious (Tanya Vidal – obviously so ashamed of the flick that, at the time this review is being written, she doesn't even list it her IMDB filmography) – who decide to go to a once-a-year special opening of the Museum of the Dead on Halloween. Once inside, they wander around a maze of corridors (actually only one corridor filmed from different angles) and cheap sets until zombies start attacking. In-between, some ghostly cannibal savage keeps popping up to attack and kill people, and two spear-carrying Egyptian female warriors also make a guest appearance for no logical reason. Other museum guests show up for a few seconds at a time only to promptly get attacked and turned into zombies. Among the few guests that are given a little extra time are a fat buddy of the two babes, a “good” thief out to steal a certain museum piece so as to return it to its rightful owners and some cops answering the serious girl’s mobile phone call for help (of course, after that first call, she drops and loses the phone). The twist ending is ridiculous.
To talk about what makes Museum of the Dead a crappy film is easy. What is impossible, however, is to find one redeemable quality in the film – and that says a lot, considering some of the positive words that other bad films on this website get. Avoid this direct-to-DVD filmic abortion at all costs, for Museum of the Dead is truly one of those rare films that has no redeemable qualities at all – even as a project based on the concept of keeping starving actors off of welfare, this film remains an unforgivable insult to the world as a whole. Forget about buying this piece of shit – and if anyone ever gives you this movie, you should slap their face!

La Peau Blanche/White Skin (Canada, 2004)

(Spoilers everywhere.) At one point in White Skin (also briefly known as Cannibal), first-time director Daniel Roby alludes to an obvious role model by showing some of his characters watching David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977/Trailer) on TV. Rabid is, of course, a Canadian venereal horror classic and both the film and its director are fine paragons to emulate or honor, but as adroit as Roby's direction is, White Skin comes nowhere close to Croneberg’s classic in any way. Rabid was and is a highly interesting and truly depressing shocker that inter-mingles sex and horror and proudly stood to its exploitation roots by casting a then-famous porno star (Marylyn Chambers) in the lead; White Skin might also mix sex with horror and be a slight downer, but in its endeavor to be more arthouse than grindhouse it never becomes either. Neither truly shocking nor as interesting as Cronenberg’s second feature length film, in the end White Skin — or rather, La Peau Blanche (the original French-language title) — remains dissatisfying and almost annoying. Slow enough to be a television movie of the week, White Skin might look good but it crawls leadenly to an in-parts predictable and in-parts unbelievable ending that seems much more a whimper than a punch... and a variety of incompletely though-out aspects, half-baked social commentary on race, and uninteresting characterization don’t help any. Once again, a film’s trailer is indefinitely much more alluring and interesting than the film itself.
Based on the novel by Joël Champetier, La Peau Blanche begins on the birthday of Thierry Richard (Marc Paquet), a young country boy who has come to the big city of Montreal on a scholarship. To celebrate, his Afro-Canadian bud and roommate Henri Dieudonné (Frédéric Pierre) invites him to a hooker. Later at the hotel the two youths take their respective ladies of the night into separate rooms, but before Thierry can get past his performance problems he hears his friend’s desperate shouts for help coming from the room next door. Rushing to Henri's room, he finds his pal with a half-slit neck struggling with the knife-wielding whore who then breaks away and escapes through the window into the night. Later, to hide the fact that they had been with hookers, Henri explains his throat injury to a skinhead knife attack, which instigates an impromptu reunion of his extended and enraged circle of family and friends. (Where are all these people at the end of the film after both he and his Aunt Marie-Pierre (Joujou Turenne) die? In fact, how does the apartment he and Thierry share get cleaned after the bloodbath that occurs there? Three bodies and a lot of blood and brains obviously simply dissolve into thin air.) Soon thereafter Thierry — who at one point explains why he finds redheads repulsive — falls obsessively in love with a redhead music student named Claire Lefrançois (Marianne Farley) with whom he has wild sex but who claims not to want to have a relationship because she’s deathly ill with “cancer.” Henri eventually sees her licking out a condom and figures out with the help of the Internet that she is a succubus, but of course Thierry refuses to believe him. (Why she just doesn’t blow Henri when she’s hungry is a mystery. Aside from the fact that no man says no to a woman that swallows, the liquid protein wouldn’t have that funny rubber taste either. In regard to what a succubus actually is, the filmmakers seem rather confused: a succubus is a female demon or specter which, like its male counterpart the incubus, drains the life forces of its victims through sex, not by drinking its victim’s blood or eating its flesh – or ejaculate, for that matter.) In truth, however, Claire is not dying of cancer, but of malnutrition: she and her ilk need the blood and flesh of human males to survive, but as she no longer wants to actively partake in her required food chain and is thus not eating as she should, she is pining slowly away. (One can thus assume that Claire’s racist dislike of black people has less to do with simple racism than that they are a greater temptation because, as it is revealed at one point, they are the most “undiluted” of the races. But then, if she and her siblings are indeed the next step up on the evolutionary ladder — as one of her sisters eventually claims — perhaps she simply dislikes those at the bottom. The race aspect of the film, for all the lauds given, often seems oddly half-baked.) The shit starts hitting the fan when Thierry visits Claire in hospital, meets the rest of her family and realizes that one of her sisters is the very lady-of-the-night that tried to kill Henri. Not only that, but she makes it plain to him that she plans to finish the job. Feeling the heat, Henri buys himself a gun for protection, but it doesn’t help much: he soon follows Claire’s doctor into her mother’s deep freezer. (Odd how when Henri buys the gun he pointedly puts on gloves so as not to leave fingerprints, but the rest of the time he simply has it in his bare hands.) And Claire, for some inexplicable reason, gets pissed at her sister for killing him and blows her brains out. (Feel free to say “Huh?” here, ‘cause me and my buds sure did when we were watching the film... although two out four of us did predict the final “surprise” ending that closes the film correctly.)
That the film is well shot and edited is without a doubt, but all the good press it gets is nonetheless not very understandable. Illogical, slow and dull, White Skin meanders from horror to social commentary to teenager-in-love to suspense and to the corner and back without ever feeling like it really knows whither it wants to go to. In the end, all the good press and word-of-mouth gives one the feeling that one should like the film, but the film itself gives one the feeling that there ain’t much there to like.
One should really re-watch Rabid instead.

Fantastic Planet (1973)

An interesting French-Czechoslovakian animation co-production written by Roland Topor
(the man behind The Tenant (1976) and Marquis (1989)), directed by Rene Laloux and brought to the USA by Roger Corman and his New World Pictures after it won a Grand Prix at Cannes. Following its short release, the film pretty much fell off the face of the earth and got forgotten, though it is was available on DVD for a time in the mid-90s. How much the dubbed English adds to or changes the original French version is unknown to this reviewer, as he has yet to watch a subtitled version. (The French title is La Planète sauvage, which actually translates into "The Savage Planet," so some deviation is likely.) Currently (June 2008) rumor has it that Fantastic Planet is due either to be remade or rereleased soon.
On a planet that obviously is earth long after some major catastrophe, human beings, called Oms, have been reduced to an existence comparable to intelligent mice, the planet now being dominated by the Drogs, huge humanoids of advanced intelligence. The film narrates the story of an Om taken in as a pet by a child Drog after his mother is killed by other Drog children playing with her as one does with a bug. (If the Om's voice sounds familiar, it's because it's supplied by Barry Bostwick, a good three years before he donned black stockings for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.) Accidentally gaining Drog knowledge by (initially) unintentionally connecting himself to the Drog child’s education headband which transfers all knowledge directly and permanently to the brain, the diminutive Rhodes Scholar eventually runs away. Taking the headband with him, he joins up with the wild Oms living in the city park. There he fights for and gains acceptance, only to be driven from the park with other survivors of both his and another enemy tribe when the Drogs decide to exterminate the little "pests." Taking refuge in a deserted Drog rocket factory, the now super-intelligent Oms build spaceships to fly to the moon, where they hope to set up a new life free of the deadly shadow of extermination by the Drogs. Succeeding their goal, the airborne Oms reach the moon only to discover that the satellite is the mystical fuck-pad of the Drogs, the location where the Master Race unite sexually for their reproduction and survival...
An anomalous, dreamlike curiosity, the movie's static animation serves only to emphasize its overall peculiarity. The scriptwriters let their imagination run wild, and more often than not the events extraneous to the story amaze as much as the film itself, despite the fact that the story is too full of holes and lapses in logic to really hold water. Probably a bit too slow and artsy for most people, Fantastic Planet is nonetheless a highly enjoyable curio indefinitely more interesting than the animated crap found on television that actually deserves both rediscovery and reappraisal. Look for it.

Scanners II: The New Order (Canada, 1991)

(Spoilers) Ten years after David Cronenberg released his infamous splatter-classic Scanners (1981) the first of numerous follow-ups finally reached the big screen. In his first theatrical release, Christian Duguay does a passable job with Scanners II: The New Order (Trailer), though the film shows relatively little of the craftsmanship he was to demonstrate later in Live Wire (1992) or the indefinitely better Screamers (1995). For a cheap B-film, Scanners II is competently made, tight in both style and narrative structure. And, as unobtrusive and lacking-in-personality as the hero David Kellum (David Hewlett) is, he is still much more interesting and likeable than the talentless Stephan Lack, who almost ruined Cronenberg's film with his lackluster portrayal of the Good Scanner.
In no way an essential movie, Duguay's film is a low-budget coming of age film spiced up with exploding heads, flying bodies and a few deformed faces, perfectly okay for some winter Sunday afternoon when nothing better is available.
The basic idea remains the same as in Scanners – in fact, the basic plot (good scanner vs. bad scanner and a nasty bigwig pulling strings in the background) is almost identical. Due to some medication taken by pregnant mothers to calm their nerves (but obviously not Distaval or Talimol or Nibrol or Sedimide or Quietoplex or Contergan or Neurosedyn or Softenon or Whateveritwascalledinyourhomecountry), their children (and the children of their children, in David's case) are gifted with special psychokinetic powers. We learn in the opening scenes of the movie, after the police come and sedate Drak (Raoul Trujillo), a scanner gone bonkers in a pinball arcade, that the government is keeping known scanners under control in a secret compound by getting them addicted to some heroin-like drug. Nice guy David Kellum gets unmasked as a scanner when he is caught on video wiping out two would-be robbers after they bruise his non-scanner girlfriend Julie (Deborah Raffin). Commander John Forrester (Yvon Ponton), a Machiavellian megalomaniac out to form a "New Order" in government convinces David to assist him. Once David becomes a Doubting Thomas, Forrester frames the lad for the murder of the governor and then has the farmer boy's adoptive parents shot. Learning that he has a sister, David hooks up with her and, by "possessing" the mind of one of the bad guys, they learn of the basement full of scabby scanner hop-heads. For the big showdown they break into the compound to free their fellow scanners before David, with the help of all the scanner junkies, finally defeats Drak. Then the press arrives and Forrester's dastardly plot is revealed and ruined, and after he tries one last time to kill David, the scanners get pissed off and deform his head. The End.
At least until the following year, when Duguay directed Scanners III: The Takeover.
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