Thursday, March 28, 2013

Short Film: I, pet goat II (Canada, 2012)

So, this month we've decided to jump on the bandwagon and share this wonderfully surreal and beautifully nightmarish short film from the Northern regions of the Americas.  Directed and written by Louis Lefebvre, I, pet goat II is the product of Heliofant. To simply quote their website: "Based in the beautiful Laurentian mountains just north of Montreal, Canada, Heliofant is a nascent independent computer animation studio focused on creating experimental and challenging content. Bringing together artists from the fields of dance, music, computer animation and visual arts, the company is very interested in exploring the common ground that underlies many spiritual and philosophical traditions in a lyrical form." And they do exactly that in this short here, entitled I, pet goat II, which has been rather a viral success.
Personally, we're not too concerned with trying to figure out the myriad of symbolic and cultural references that gush from every frame of this short, particularly when other people have already done it in excess (see here  and here). We take a more philistine approach and simply say screw the meaning: ain't it just a visual and aural delight? Trance-like, disturbing, funny, beautiful, nightmarish, technically excellent — the movie is simply an amazing visual treat, as is the excellent music that scores it. I, pet goat II is simply a hypnotic film; it induces a state of transfixion and  makes us wanna go outside and blow up buildings... 
Not really, but it does make us think we could use a joint. Or should join the Masons. Or sacrifice a Christian child to Satan. Our draw a picture of Mohammed. Or vote Republican, all of which are about the same....
Leave it to those evil Masons and Illuminati of Canada to brainwash us with something as visually astounding and purty as this film here. As rabid atheists, we do find the film a bit too heavy in its Christian references, but we've never let god or Jesus stand in the way of enjoying something, and you shouldn't either. 
Watch I, pet goat II now — and be amazed.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

R.I.P.: Harry Reems – Part I

August 27, 1947 March 19, 2013
Born Herbert Streicher, the legendary former (heterosexual) porn star of the Golden Age has gone to the porn shoot in the sky.

A biography will follow one day... but till then, follow the links to Part II (1969-1972) or Part III (1973-1974) or Part IV (1975-1979) or Part V (1980-84) of his career review.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Demonia (Italy, 1990)

Gory nunspliotation horror — and, despite what should be a great mixture (gore + nuns + horror, with a dash of boobage in one scene), a dull and scatter-shot movie that is less scary or dreamy and surreal than simply disjointed and oddly lacklustre in direction, narrative and acting. The strongest aspect of the film is the acting of Brett Halsey (of The Cry Baby Killer [1958 / trailer], Return of the Fly [1959 / trailer], Twice-Told Tales [1963 / trailer], When Alice Broke the Looking Glass [1988 / trailer], The Black Cat [1990 / trailer] and much, much more) as Professor Paul Evans, whose main duty seems to express concern or anxiety, though in all truth his facial expressions tend to convey extreme hemorrhoidal pain more than anything else.
Demonia is the third-to-last directorial effort of Lucio Fulci, made at a time when his health was as shaky as his career. Co-written with Pietro Regnoli (the scriptwriter of Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City [1980]) and based on a story Fulci fleshed out with Antonio Tentori (who scripted Bruno Mattei's Island of the Living Dead [2006]), the film is a return to the more gothic narratives of Fulci's better films, this time set under the sun of Sicily, Italy, where a group of archeologists go on an archeological dig and release the revengeful spirit of a demonic nun. Regrettably, much like the movie as a whole reveals a lack of budget or any true thespian talent, the script is both shoddy and episodic and thus comes across as underdeveloped and weak. And while an occasional gore scene does pop up to offer some visual excitement, the film never manages to come close to the quality of Fulci's best or even second-best films.
Not that the first scene would indicate the failure to come, as the movie opens with a well-shot opening sequence showing the crucifixion and killing of five murderous, demon-worshipping nuns. This scene, however, segues into a séance scene that is as obvious a nod to the similar scene in Fulci's film City of the Living Dead (1980) as it is relatively unnecessary, and from there the movie pretty much gets stuck in a rut of mediocrity or ill-conceived narrative decisions. Hell, even the connection between Liza Harris (a beautiful but vacuous and untalented Meg Register, who later appeared in the abysmal Boxing Helena [1993 / trailer]) and the nuns that the séance scene introduces could well have been integrated into the story much more effectively later in Sicily, as could her supposed involvement in archeology. "Supposed," we say, because throughout the film, despite the importance of the premise of archeology — they are all in Sicily, after all, on an archeological dig — we never actually see her or anyone else take part in any archeological activities after the singular stake is hammered into the ground. 
Indeed, the rest of the crew seem to drink and sing more than they do excavate, while Liza, when wandering through the ruins of a nunnery that loom above the archaeological site and confronted by an ancient fresco of a nun in white, does the archaeologically logical thing of destroying the fresco with a pick-axe. (OK, perhaps her action can be written off as a symptom of her mysterious connection with the dead demonic nuns, as her destructive fit uncovers the passageway to the entombed bodies of the crucified nuns.) From then on, even as she tries to undercover the mystery behind the nun's death, we know she is becoming possessed because she's silent and grumpy and wanders around with a (beautiful) face as expressive as a slate and covers her ears and rolls back and forth when her drunken colleagues sing crappy songs around the campfire. Scary! — about as much so as a legless kitten in heat.
In itself, the plot line is a good one and could well have made an engrossing film. Particularly the flashback scenes to the activities of the nuns are disquieting and effective, and they give a slight indication of what the film could have been had the script only been tighter, the acting better and the budget bigger. The contemporary scenes, however, are executed with a less sure hand, and as brutal and bloody as the gore sequences are, they are also often sloppy: when the butcher Turi DeSimone (Lino Salemme of Demons [1985]) gets his tongue hammered to the butcher block, for example, it looks less like he has a tongue long enough to tickle a woman's G-spot than as if he's sucking on a lamb tongue, and when John (Ettore Comi) gets pulled apart, you can literally see the bags containing the guts and gore under the shirt of the dummy being ripped in two.
And speaking of John, his death is a perfect example of the strangely incoherent editing of the film: one minute he's running through the forest searching for his son (Francesco Cusimano), and the next he's tied upside down between two trees. And, actually, up until he ran off looking for his son, it was hardly made clear that the kid was his son at all. The who and the why of most characters presented in Demonia are sorely lacking, thus most characters remain sketchy and flat and never register as a figure of identification; they are two-dimensional fodder and little more. 
And as fodder, they are chosen indiscriminately: the first to go, an archaeological colleague on a boat (Al Cliver of The Beyond [1981 / trailer] and Zombie [1979 / trailer]), has no real connection to the nuns or archaeological site, while the body count in the village — the actual descendants of those who killed the nuns — runs a low two, one of whom,  Lilla (Carla Cassola of La setta [1991 / Italo trailer] and Albert Pyun's Captain America [1990 / trailer]), is an outsider who risks local ostracism by giving Liza the information she wants. Other than the two drunkards that get spiked (effective effects) and the butcher (half-effective effects), the choice of victims seem less based on the decision of the demonic nuns than on a scriptwriter desperately wanting to finally interject another gore scene to enliven the dull events.
But even with the occasional gore highpoints, Demonia not only has somnambulant pacing but is also truly handicapped by its beautiful but untalented lead female who, by being such a walking personification of a Quaalude, thoroughly fails in engaging the viewer. One not only never really gives a flying fuck about what will happen to her, one even starts wishing something terrible finally would. Had she at least gotten naked on occasion she might have won over the male audience — going by the picture to the left from some other unknown film of hers, she's built, she's stacked, she's a brick house — but on the basis of her (blank) character alone, she wins the concern and sympathy of nary a viewer.
In short, Demonia is a meandering flick with an occasional highpoint that lacks élan of execution, is hampered by the notable lack of thespian skills of its lead, and is oddly sloppy technically. The aspects that should be plus points of the film — gore, the nun bits, a groovy dream sequence, a funny scene involving a blood-covered youth, an occasionally creepy atmosphere — do little to make it bearable or worth watching. Demonia remains an exasperating experience because it introduces so much that could be used and developed into something good, and then under-bakes everything. It is, in the end, a third-rate film worth watching only if you're a Fulci completist or, maybe, if you have nothing else around.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Zu Warriors / Shu shan zheng zhuan (Hong Kong, 2001)

Possibly driven by the unique international success of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000 / trailer), famed Hong Kong director and producer Hark Tsui followed up his pyrokinetic gangster drama Time and Tide (2000 / trailer) by returning to the field of supernatural fantasy with Zu Warriors, a remake of his 1983 supernatural fantasy film Xin shu shan jian ke / Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountains (trailer). After its successful home release and along with the fabulous veiled ode to communist China Hero (2002 / trailer), Miramax picked this film up for US distribution and then sat on it for years. Unlike Hero, however, which was finally theatrically released uncut in 2004, Miramax trimmed Zu Warriors by a full 25 of its 104 minutes before sending it straight to DVD in 2005 — an ignoble treatment to what is definitely an intriguing and effective film.
Most of what landed on the cutting room floor was plot and character development (and possibly bloody effects), so the DVD version is definitely action and spectacle heavy but light on continuity and characterization. The result is a film in which a lot seems missing, but that rips you along on a visually exciting and thrilling adventure that makes virtually no sense but is still enjoyable. Zu Warriors is perhaps one of the first Hong Kong action flicks to replace all the old school special effects and matte shots and sets with state-of-the-art computer effects and animation, and as a result it does miss the enjoyable innocence and earthiness of both the original version from 1983 and other earlier masterpieces like A Chinese Ghost Story I (1987 / trailer) and II (1990 / trailer), but as obvious (and sometimes as dated) as the computer animation now is, it still packs a punch.
On a certain level Zu Warriors reminded us of our favorite Ray Harryhausen films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958 / trailer), Jason and the Argonauts (1963 / trailer), or The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973 / trailer), but whereas Harryhausen used stop-motion animation in his bloodless fantasy films to wow us, Hark Tsui uses the computer. In other words the same intention is there — to cast a cinematic but magical spell — but the technology has changed. And like in many of the Harryhausen films, the motivations and actions of the characters in Zu Warriors are not always 100% understandable and the plot evidences a few holes, but also like many of Harryhausen's films, the cinematic magic makes it easy to overlook and ignore such lackings. Also, cut as Zu Warriors is, for all its fight scenes it features very little physical blood (let's ignore the blood cave, which is really not that gory in any event) and thus often feels very much like a kiddy film — which is what those occidental fantasy classics of yesterday mentioned above very much were and still are.
And also like those films, Zu Warriors is a fantasy set in a time long, long, long, long ago at a place far, far, far, far away — in this case here, a magical realm between the heavens and earth above the Zu Mountains inhabited by a race of immortals (that seem to die a lot) called the Omei. As in real life, it takes but one bad seed to ruin everything, and in this case it is the evil immortal named Amnesia (sometimes seen in the form of Kelly Lin, of Sparrow [2008 / trailer]), who wants to destroy both her/his fellow immortals as well as all mortals and rule the wreckage. This threat of total annihilation is met by the brave warriors King Sky (Ekin Cheng of The Vampire Effect [2003] and Tokyo Raiders [2000]), who still suffers emotionally from the death of his master and lover Enigma (Cecilia Cheung), and White Eyebrows (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo) and his disciples, all of whom have magical weapons of which they have differing levels of mastery...
The plot of Zu Warriors, like most Asian fantasies, is typically all over the place and intricate and full of characters of varying importance, some of whom you hardly register, but the excessiveness of the scattered plot and underdeveloped characters are for a change perhaps more the work of Miramax cuts than Tsui Hark. An example of just how extreme the editing is can perhaps be best seen in the character Joy, played by the beautiful Ziyi Zhang (of House of Flying Daggers [2004 / trailer]). She plays a human, a mortal, who gets drawn into the war between the immortals and is ostensibly the narrator of the film — but her role is cut down to such a minimum of scenes that her presence is literally unnecessary. Whenever she shows up, it looks as if she is coming from somewhere or just did something important (at one point she is even obviously a leader of an army of humans) but the viewer never knows what. And what about her inferred relationship with one of the immortals, who also agitates in the background to such an extent that it almost shocks whenever he suddenly reappears and frowns? She, like many characters, remains both a cipher and underused; but worse, she also comes across as unneeded — an odd predicament for a character that is supposed to function as a narrator (which she does all of three minutes). Had Miramax cut the film a bit more, they probably could've presented a viable version totally without any mortal characters... which might have made more sense.
Be as it may, the cut version is the one generally available in the West and is the one at hand here — and for all the flaws added by Miramax and any possible flaws that were there in the original version, the film we saw had us mesmerized as much as the Harryhausen films mesmerized us as kids. The mythic battle is full of thrilling visuals and the pace is often breathtaking — the film is anything but boring. And if the motivations and actions sometimes appear strange, write it off to the fact that the characters all move on a higher plane that we can't understand, a fact mirrored in all the inane and pseudo-philosophical exchanges that are sprouted by all characters at any given time. 
But in the end, who really needs to understand more than good vs. evil when the events fly by so fast and the color and images are such a resplendent excess? On a visual level, Zu Warriors amazes and entertains the viewer to such an extent that eventually the story hardly really seems to matter any more. Evil is evil and good is good, so if nothing else you know who the good guys are, and all the cinematic eye candy dished on top only makes the film all the more killer cool. 
Final verdict: Cut to shreds but gorgeous, inane and borderline incoherent but excellently made, Zu Warriors is a highly entertaining film and still worth watching in its butchered form — but if an uncut English-language version ever comes out, we would definitely give it a gander, too.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Wasp Woman (USA, 1959)

One thing you gotta say, Roger Corman always knew a good title when he saw one. So if a title as harmless as The Fly (1958 / trailer) brought in the crowds, surely something so much more monstrous like The Wasp Woman should do so, too. We're too young to know how The Wasp Woman did at the theatres when it first came out — though we do know it was at one point on a double bill with The Fly — but the title has proven itself unforgettable. Likewise, long before the film was honored with countless cheap public domain releases it was a regular on the Creature Feature shows of many a local broadcaster: we ourselves are sure we caught it as a child in both Massachusetts and Virginia, and like everything we saw back then, we loved it. Recently, we caught it again as an adult — regretfully, we must say that we were not quite as amused.
As is occasionally pointed out, the basic plot of The Wasp Woman can be seen on one level as a critique of the pressure society places upon women to remain eternally young. But on the other hand, it can also just be seen as a horror film of the science-goes-wrong kind that — rare in films before the 1980s — has a woman in the main role. Still, the horror of the events that occur do so only due to the pressure she feels as a woman and businessperson to regain her youthful appearance. Thus, the smidgeon of social critique remains present no matter how one views the film. However one chooses to interpret the film, we would still assume that it is doubtful that when Corman made the movie, he himself had any intention of anything other than making some cheap drive-in fodder. But for a film as obviously cheap as this one, Corman takes a much too dry and serious approach, if not much too lackadaisical one as well.
Though Susan Cabot (seen in a cheesecake photo left), in her last film, gives a lot and does well — far more so than most of her co-stars, in any event, with the possible exception of the sassy, hard-bitten secretary Maureen Reardon (Lynn Cartwright, seen below left, looking like a poor man's Jane Russell), who is less memorable as a character than for the oddly intriguing actress playing the relatively unimportant role — Roger Corman was obviously feeling lazy the couple of weeks he spent making this film, for his direction is unusually lethargic. Like the film as a whole, if you get down to it. Which isn't to say the film is a complete bore (it isn't, as it has both the patina of over 50 years and a lot of cheese factor to help make it passable) but the film, like this review, is a bit slow and drawn out. And then, once Cabot's character starts going all waspy, the body count remains low and the end quick.
But despite the quick end, more than the first half of The Wasp Woman is a turgid thing, and that even without the totally unnecessary opening scenes added later by Jack Hill (the director of many a later trash classic, including Coffy [1973]) when the film was sold to television: five interminable and unnecessary minutes of beekeepers during which Dr. Eric Zinthrop (Michael Mark, a forgotten character actor once seen in the background of films such as House of Frankenstein [1944] or Background to Danger [1943]) is introduced. But in regards to laughs, the opening sequence is one that beekeepers obviously find funny: the night when we watched The Wasp Woman, we happened to have two beekeepers in the crowd (urban bee keeping is rather popular in Berlin at the moment) and they laughed through most it, even if no one else did.
Based on a story by Kinta Zertuche, the screenplay to The Wasp Woman was written by Leo Gordon, the husband of the above-mentioned intriguing actress Lynn Cartwright, who also wrote the screenplay to the equally cheap Corman production of the same year, Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), and two years later had a meaty part in one of Corman's best projects, his rare message movie entitled The Intruder (1961). This film here is less noble, however, and tells of one Janice Starlin — played by the tragic Susan Cabot, whose dwarf son Timothy Scott Roman killed her with a weight-lifting bar while she slept on 10 December 1986 (he got a three-year suspended sentence) — the founder and CEO of Starlin Cosmetics, the sales of which are drastically dropping since she stopped being the face in the adverts. The problem is, now that Starlin is at the haggard side of her 40s, her face is no longer one that can sell youth and beauty. Her managing board is of little help, fit only to tell her that the blame in the drop of sales is her fault 'cause she's getting old. (For a CEO, she is shown a remarkably low amount of respect by her employees — but then, she also seems to have a remarkably unmotivated staff.) Then Dr. Eric Zinthrop (Michael Mark) shows up and tells her that he has found a way to reverse aging through an enzyme found in wasp royal jelly; to prove his point, he turns an old guinea pig into a young rat, which for some odd reason Starlin sees as truly promising so she gives him a lab and budget to experiment further. And following a few more promising results, she demands that the next test of the product be on herself. Dr. Zinthrop, remarkable ethical for someone usually referred to as the film's mad scientist, is not hot to do so, but employer's orders are employer's orders. Needless to say, as to be expected from a 1950 science-gone-wrong horror film, the science goes wrong in a big way...
Of all the characters in the movie, Starlin and Zinthrop are the most human. True, Starlin is stiff and dislikable as her older self, but one does feel that she has been made so by the world that she moves in: a cut-throat business world in which even her own employees patronizingly treat her like a second-rate cog. As her younger self, she is convincingly lively and happy again, as if decades of weight have been taken from her shoulders — and, oddly enough, a the epitome of youth, she is both treated better and shown more respect by her staff than before. As for Dr. Zinthrop, none of his demands are strange or excessive; he is driven by science and not only sees in Starlin a trustworthy employer but is less than pleased to jump ahead to human testing so quickly. At most, he may cave in too quickly to Starlin's demands for being a human guinea pig, but one must remember that back in the days that The Wasp Woman was made, clinical testing was a bit more lais a fair and far less regulated and thorough than now (the Thalidomide scandal, for example, only broke two years later in 1961 — after the drug had already been on the open international market for five years). And once Zinthrop discovers the side effects — thanks to be what looks to be a stuffed rabid cat — he is so perturbed and out of himself that he promptly walks in front of a car, the perfect plot device to get him out of the story and give Starlin the means and reason to do some desperate, late-night testing...
Aside from Starlin and Zinthrop, however, The Wasp Woman is populated with objectionable characters of questionable motivations. The two main male characters, self-important ad man Bill Lane (Anthony Eisley of Dracula vs. Frankenstein [1971], credited as Fred Eisley) and Starlin's annoyingly dislikable head of research Arthur Cooper (William Roerick of God Told Me To [1976 / trailer]), hide their seditious actions behind the claim that Starlin has obviously fallen victim to a conman (Dr. Zinthrop), but their claims sound hollow. Indeed, it is much easier to see Arthur's interventions as being driven by his fear of possibly losing his job as head of research to Zinthrop — a view that is strengthened by his actions just before he meets his just fate: he is busy stealing the notes and serum of Dr. Zinthrop. What drives Bill Lane is open to conjecture — perhaps he is annoyed by Starlin's independence — but Mary Dennison (Barboura Morris of The Dunwich Horror [1970 / trailer]), Starlin's secretary, literally betrays her boss by stealing from and spying on her just to make Bill happy and keep his attention. By the time it is her turn to be in danger, one can't help but hope that she meets her just end, but just as there is no true justice in real life there is no justice in The Wasp Woman...
The Wasp Woman suffers dreadfully from its obvious low budget and underdeveloped script. The creature itself is good for a laugh, but little else in the film is, and the lethargic pacing is hardly mitigated by Corman's dull direction and the generally dreary and galling characters. The years have been kind to the movie, in any event, by intensifying its cheese factor, but there are many other cheesy films out there that are quicker and far more entertaining. (In fact, at least one of the two later remakes of the film is a definite improvement: Brian Thomas Jones's trashy début film, for example, the splatterfest Rejuvenatrix [1988 / final scene] is definitely a quicker, bloodier, cheesier, sleazier and much more fun ride.)
The Wasp Woman — famous title, barely passable film: best enjoyed when there are no other options left lying on the DVD shelf.
Full film: