Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Short Film: Frankenstein (USA, 1910)

Last month we took a look at a short that is considered by many as the first "horror" film ever made, Georges Méliès's The House of the Devil (France, 1896). This month we take a look at another Goldie Oldie in the history of horror, namely the first film version ever made of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's proto-science fiction novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). The movie was considered lost for decades, only for a copy to show up in Wisconsin in the mid-1970s amidst the collection of the reclusive silent-film collector Alois F. Dettlaff, Sr, who, when he died in July 2005, lay dead and decomposing in his house for about a month.
Mary Shelley's book has been filmed and remade and reinterpreted innumerable times by now, and it is doubtful that even the most novice horror film fan has not seen some version or the other. (Our personal favorites are the two standard works, James Whale's Frankenstein [1931 / trailer] and Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein [1957 / trailer], but we do also have a soft spot for the loose TV adaptation, Frankenstein: The True Story [1973 / trailer].) But before all the feature-length films, there was this early and somewhat primitive short which, well, doesn't win any awards in direction or acting or narrative, but does have a pretty groovy creature with bad hair. The early special effects are a creative hoot, too.
Directed and scripted by James Searle Dawley (4 Oct 1877 – 30 Mar 1949), a former actor, the movie was shot over three days in the Bronx. A production of Thomas Edison's Edison Studios, Frankenstein is a typically loose adaptation of Shelley's novel. When originally released, the small cast of the "photoplay" was not even credited, but by now the names behind the main characters of the small cast are general knowledge: Augustus Phillips (1 Aug 1874 – 29 Sept 1944) is Dr. Frankenstein, Charles Ogle (5 June 1865 – 11 Oct 1940) is the Creature, and Mary Fuller (5 Oct 1888 – 9 Dec 1973), pictured above, is the Elizabeth, the doctor's fiancée. Though none are familiar names today, all three were actors of varying success. Mary Fuller's popularity, for example even supposedly rivaled that of Mary Pickford at one point, but the loss of her career and other personal tragedies saw her spend the last 26 years of her life in, St. Elizabeths Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C. 
As can be imagined due to the short length of Frankenstein, the narrative is somewhat choppy and incoherent. The music, by the way, is new: it was composed by Donald Sosin. 
Frankenstein (1910):

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Cadaver (Norway, 2020)

(Spoilers) The plot? In a post-nuclear future, a starving family attends an immersive theatre performance with meal at a mountain hotel that is far less altruistic than it appears to be. Cue-in a lot of confusing corridors and rooms and secret passages and non-stop running around — oh, yeah: and occasional red dresses floating down the atrium-space of the majestic hotel stairwell…
Trailer to
Really, could they not have chosen another name for this flick? Its title is about as blatant as an "Idiot" sign stuck to the back of a MAGA-cap wearer, trumpeting the big reveal before the film even starts. Not that a single, specific cadaver actually has any major role in the movie, but it pretty much makes it obvious from the start what direction the evening's entertainment is going to go (both within the film itself and at the hotel that is the central setting of the narrative.) Really, it wouldn't have taken any great level of creativity to come up with a better title. Obvious choices like Performance, Theatre of Death, Theatre of Blood or Horror Hotel might already all be taken by better films — (1970 / trailer), (1965 / trailer), (1965 / trailer)  and (1960 / trailer) respectively — but even something as mundane as Dinner Theatre or Meal Included would have been a better, if not far more subtle, choice.
But then, for all the initial promise of the excellently envisioned, almost steam-punk, retro-dystopian, post-nuclear setting and the corresponding mise-en-scene of the film's narrative world, once the narrative moves to the grand hotel on the hill, Cadaver never truly rises above the level of an artily shot big-three* television movie, so the trite unoriginality and obviousness of its title is pretty much reflective of what the beautifully shot movie delivers on the whole.
* As a compound adjective, "big-three" may have outlived its usefulness and/or clarity. In the early days of pay TV in the USA, it was a reference to the three traditional commercial stations in the US of A, ABC, CBS and NBC. Nowadays, long after the advent of Pay TV and channels like FOX, they would seem hardly the biggest of available channels.
The sophomore feature film of writer-director Jarand Herdal (his first: 2013's Everywhen [trailer]), the dank and depressing cobblestone streets of the post-nuclear world of the unnamed European city seen in Cadaver proffer a visually intriguing setting for any number of stories, and while the narrative that ends up getting served might fit the situation (to an extent, at least), its overall development and execution are predictable, drawn-out and ultimately both uninvolving and yawn-inducing. Worse, one too many narrative turn taken (often at the expense of logic, believability and/or continuity) is on the level of a low-rent mainstream TV series or, worstest of all, any given Walking Dead spin-off. (Which, as you may know, are generally even more idiotic than what The Walking Dead has become.) Characters do amazingly stupid things considering that they live in post-nuclear times, the most obvious being how the daughter, Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman), keeps wandering away and how the parents keep getting distracted, not to mention how easily they trust anyone that crosses their path.
And then there are the "twists": the developments that come from nowhere that are meant to pull the rug out from under the viewer, not to mention a given character. Perhaps the biggest "twist" of the film is the one that ensures that the movie's core female figure of identification, Leonora (Gitte Witt of The Sleepwalker [2014 / trailer]) doesn't end up getting slaughtered like a kosher pig. Unluckily, it is both the most bird-brained and the most expected — indeed, when her husband, Jacob (Thomas Gullestad of The 12th Man [2017 / trailer]), starts wrestling with big guy in a butcher's apron and yells something like "Run, Leonora! Run!" and she escapes so easily, we for one already thought, "Oh, no, the film's not going to go that way, is it?" It did.
And speaking of guys in butcher's aprons, alone the massive number of them running around in the tunnels, not to mention one minor character's sudden re-appearance with knives and apron or even the opening scene in which a little girl in front of a pile of clothes — a strong visual definitely reminiscent of the piles of worldly goods of the concentration camps of WWII — tosses away a shirt because of blood stains, would all indicate that the later proclamations of semi-ignorance* of all the angry dinner-theatre actors are less than truthful. (If two can keep a secret only if one is dead, pray tell how can a secret be kept when dozens and dozens of people obviously know it?) 
* Semi-ignorance in that they were obviously okay with people being killed and robbed, but not with being killed, robbed and [guess]. That, too, of course, is oddly reminiscent of the proclamations of "We didn't know" exclaimed so loudly by so many in the aftermath of WWII and the liberation of the concentration camps. Besides, as evident in the scene where our heroine, Leonora, almost becomes kosher meat: in Cadaver, the people involved know everything.
But then, the resolution of the narrative is perhaps one of the weakest aspects of the movie. Not what Mommy Leonora does to save the day, per say, as that is actually rather resourceful, but rather the way that everything just peters out: after a moment or two of pandemonium, a knifing and the total loss of everything are undermined and undone by an unexpected "happy" twist, and then suddenly everyone is gone and the hotel is empty. Excuse me? The place is a treasure chest of worldly goods, not to mention electricity and heating, things one and all that a starving society would surely pick clean or linger in once the danger is gone. And it's not like the guys in butcher aprons had any reason to run away, either.
At least the final scene of Cadaver (which once again leans towards the director's appealing penchant for arty visuals), with the sun-lit hotel in the distance, does add an ambiguous "what-is-worse?" tone to the resolution. That final scene on the street is easily one of the best and most affecting moments of the entire movie (next to Leonora's unexpected, life-saving brainstorm that leads to the collapse of the bad guys' best laid plans). But neither a decent mise-en-scene nor one or the other nice visual or well-shot scene can save a predictable, third-rate story, and that is all that Cadaver delivers.
And the lesson(s) learned from today's movie? The old chestnut(s): if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is… not to mention, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Film Fun: Music from Movies – Zatoichi (Japan, 2003)

"Even with my eyes wide open I can't see a thing."
Zatôichi (Takeshi Kitano)
The seemingly now defunct website 10K Bullets [R.I.P.] once had the plot to Takeshi Kitano's 11th directorial effort: "Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano) is a blind swordsman who lives off the land. He sometimes works a masseur to help pay for his gambling habit. Zatoichi arrives in a remote village that is at the mercy of two rival gangs. Along the way he meets two geishas who use their beauty to trap and kill those who murdered of their parents. [One of the geishas is actually transgender.] Ginzo (Ittoku Kishibe) hires Hattori (Tadanobu Asano of Tokyo Zombie [2005 / trailer]), a samurai for hire, to take care of his rival gang. Zatoichi soon crosses Ginzo, which leads to a bloody showdown between Zatoichi and Hattori."
The fictional character Zatoichi is arguably as through-and-through Japanese as Superman or Batman is American, and while the latter two have been around longer and have a greater international cultural presence, in the Land of the Rising Sun Zatoichi cannot be sneezed at: since he was created by the novelist Kan Shimozawa, Zatoichi, a blind masseur and kenjutsu master, has been featured in more than 26 films, a Japanese TV show of 100 episodes (1974-79), innumerable comic books and graphic novels, a theater production (directed by Takashi Miike), and of course the original books. In 1990, he was even Americanized when Phillip Noyce very loosely remade the 17th Zatoichi film, Zatoichi Challenged (1967), as Blind Fury (1989 / trailer), starring the late & great Rutger Hauer (23 Jan 1944 – 19 July 2019 of The Hitcher [1986] and Hobo with a Shotgun [2011]) as the blind, Vietnamese-trained (?) swordsman Nick Parker.
Trailer to
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi
In Japan, the Adam West (19 Sept 1928 – 9 June 2017) of Zatoichis is probably Shintaro Katsu (29 Nov 1931 – 21 June 1997). He played the role of blind masseur in 25 Zatoichi films released between 1962 and 1973, in the 100 episodes of the four-season Zatoichi TV series that ran in Japan in 1974 to 1979, and in the 26th Zatoichi film released in 1989, which he also directed. (Trivia: "Stunt actor Yukio Kato was killed on the set of Zatoichi 26 by Katsu's son, who was co-starring, when an actual sword was mistaken for a prop, fatally wounding Kato. [Wikipedia]" To the eternal thanks of trash film fanatics, Katsu also produced the series of six films starring his brother Tomisaburo Wakayama (1 Sept 1929 – 2 Apr 1992) that were later edited together to make the grindhouse classic, Shogun Assassin (1980). 
Trailer to
Shogun Assassin (1980):
As the advertisement above reveals, the fifth of the 27 Katsu Zatoichi films was once paired, in typically incongruent grindhouse fashion, with Ted V. Mikels' The Black Klansman (1966 / trailer), the title track of which we took a meandering look some months ago here at Film Fun: Music from Movies – The Black Klansman (USA, 1966). And 14 years after the 26th Zatoichi (a.k.a. Zatoichi: Darkness Is His Ally [trailer]) hit the screens in 1989, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi was made.
We caught the award-winning The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi in a cinema in Berlin and, despite some truly questionable CGI-generated blood, loved it enough to have watched it a couple of times since on DVD and late-night TV. (Give it a go if you ever have the chance; you'll probably enjoy it.) Supposedly the questionable-looking blood was an artistic decision on part of the director and lead star Takeshi "Beat" Kitano to soften the effect on the viewing audience — an odd decision from an auteur who is found in movies like Violent Cop (1989 / trailer) and Battle Royal (2000 / trailer).
But to be honest, while the music is as good as one might expect in a good movie, there is little about the soundtrack that truly bowls us over. But there is a totally unexpected and (to us) left-field, music-related interlude in the film at the very end that we always find absolutely fabulous — and that is what we want to look at here. It is the closing dance number, prior to the freeze-frame last scene of Zatoichi tripping to the voice-over line, "Even with my eyes wide open I can't see a thing." Basically, all the good guys of the movie get together on stage and do a dance: first, a more traditional one with but four dancers, and then a modern tap dance number involving all the good guys of the cast. (Zatoichi isn't doing the twist with everyone else because he is a bad guy of sorts, or at least morally questionable.) According to the trivia section on the film at imdb, "The end dance sequence is a tribute to many of the popular Japanese films, in which the Hollywood-style happy ending was followed by a sudden 'burst into song'. Kitano wanted to attempt this, but in a different type of way. Kitano combined traditional Kabuki theatre clog-dancing with 'the latest African-American tap style." Enjoy.
Final dance scene of 
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Huet sing Friday / Bloody Friday (Hong Kong, 1996)

Not to be confused with Bloody Friday a.k.a. The Single Girls a.k.a. Private School (1974 / trailer) or Bloody Friday a.k.a. Blutiger Friday (1972 / trailer). The trailer to this Hong Kong flick here in question is not currently available online, but for that the film itself is easy to find at YouTube.
(Spoilers.) Friday Killer, the German title of this obscure Asian police "thriller", is actually more appropriate than the common English-language title, Bloody Friday, as the flick is not about some Friday that turns out to be exceptionally bloody but, rather, tells the tale of a motorcycle-riding serial killer who strikes every Friday night. The killer starts off by doing away with working women of the night, but after killing an undercover policewoman the motorcyclist graduates to women in general, including (the only victim the viewer never sees) the female director of a Catholic girls school where some of the virtuous young girls might actually earn their pocket money by working the streets after school hours. (A mostly extraneous point suggested but never followed up in the movie.)
Opening with a lone woman terrorized and chased through the narrow streets of deserted Hong Kong — are the streets of Hong Kong ever truly as empty as those in this film? On a Friday? — before she gets knocked upside the head with a pole and left for dead. (Which she is.) Then we meet the free-spirited Maggie (Loletta Lee a.k.a. Rachel Lee, pictured above from a different film, of Heiße Katzen in der grünen Hölle / Angels with Golden Guns (1981/ trailer], Hoi sam gwai / The Happy Ghost [1984 / trailer], Geung see suk suk / Mr Vampire IV [1988 / trailer], Yin yue jiang shi / The Musical Vampire [1992/ trailer]  and  Chat ho chai goon / Nightmares in Precinct 7 [2001/ trailer]), who comes across less as free-spirited hooker than simply bat-shit crazy. Subtlety of characterization does not raise its head in Ms. Lee's thespian endeavors in this movie; indeed, if the acting in Hong Kong films in general tends towards the theatrical, her performance tends towards terribly theatrical (emphasis on terribly).
The fellow hooker who she briefly terrorizes soon also ends up dead, so her possibly gay pimp and she get pulled in for questioning — she definitely does not like hardworking cop Ken (Stephen Au Kam-tong of Moh ging / The Demon Within [2014 / trailer], Gau geung ching dou foo / Vampire Cleanup Department [2017 / trailer] and Sei yan mou ho yi / Legally Declared Dead [2019 / trailer]), but takes a shine to the smooth-looking, tanned and leanly muscular alpha-man Inspector Ko (former model and Hong Kong star Simon Yam of  Naked Killer [1992 / trailer], Sparrow [2008 / trailer – a good film with a great soundtrack],  Sang yan mat kan: Che fa / Horoscope II: The Woman from Hell [2000 / film],  Wu ye xin tiao / Midnight Beating [2010 / trailer], and so much more). The next important plot point that follows is how the major stakeout that Ko sets up the next Friday goes completely south and results in the death of hardworking cop Ken's cop girlfriend, which sets up a rivalry between the two that results in Ken's temporary suspension. Worse, it also seemingly makes the motorcyclist murderer take notice of Ko in that typically movie way: a electrically modified voice informs Ko that he's going to kill five more people and then Ko's wife and child…

The motorcyclist killer — Oh! Spoiler! – killers have nerves of steel and an ability for gravity-defying motorcycle driving that puts even Tom Cruise (see: Mission Impossible II [2000 / trailer]) to shame – as does Ko, actually, but he's just less-skilled enough that it makes a difference. The person on the bike also has an amazing ability to see all things in advance: he escapes Ko in the first big chase because of all sorts of hilarious traps clearly set up in advance to stop anyone from chasing him. Also, the killer obviously sits and waits far in advance of his killings, as proven by scenes like when the cyclist suddenly pops out from behind a wall of boxes inside a truck or sets up a trap in the middle of the street to trick Ko and Maggie. (Which leads up to a fight in a warehouse full of empty boxes that, in turn, resolves in such a way that one suddenly realizes that the film might not end to the advantage of the vain and cocky lead.)
The cops in Friday Killer are pretty much all idiots. Mostly hotheaded or incompetent, they are always surprised and overwhelmed when the killer shows up, sort of like Asian Keystone Cops with guns and kung-fu fighting skills. None of them ever seem to follow basic police procedure or conduct any real investigative work, as almost no clue is logically pursued. And while it seems easy enough to organize stuff like 100 plainclothes on the street and 80 sharpshooters on the roofs up above, none of them ever calls for backup when they should, even if they still have their cell phone in their hand. Invariably, they also always wait way too long to draw guns — indeed, Ken waits so long to draw his that it could be argued that he is more responsible for the death of his girlfriend than Ko.
As insinuated earlier, the resolution of Bloody Friday is startlingly bleak, enough so that it almost redeems the movie. Up until a few minutes before the final showdown, one really has a hard time digesting that the film is obviously indeed going for a downer ending. And what a downer, indeed.
Nevertheless, on the whole the movie remains what it is: a mildly interesting and intermittently enthralling ridiculously plotted slice of Hong Kong product with mostly well-staged but barely plausible set pieces, a typically outdated view of manliness and women, an unlikable and inflated hero that is hard to find much sympathy for (at least until the final scenes), and some truly bad acting — really, Lee's live-for-the-day turn as Maggie is beyond annoying, although one does begin to like her as a person towards the end when she ratchets down her performance and shows some believable characterization.
The final revealed motivation(s) of the killer(s) are, of course, the stuff of movies and defy any and all believability. Indeed, one motive involves a revenge-seeking, previously law-abiding person to suddenly do a 180% turn and resort to multiple murders (including an innocent coworker) just to get revenge, while the other motive, well, we're still trying to figure that one out.
Verdict: better than nothing, but don't bother to search this one out. You might be better off and have more fun with a Drunken Friday… Or a Stoned Friday… Or a Hallucinogen Friday….

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