Sunday 26 April 2009

Mad Dog Morgan (1975)

Director: Philippe Mora
Star: Dennis Hopper

It's 1865 and Daniel Morgan is dead. We're told that at the beginning of the film by William Mainwaring of the Victorian Detective Police, this being the Australian state of Victoria. Morgan is an Irishman, one played by Dennis Hopper with a pretty decent accent, which seems surprising, given that we're talking about having an American play an Irishman in Australia, but then again, it's frickin' Dennis Hopper. He's in Oz to pan for gold, but seems to have about as much luck with that as he does with anything else, which is to say he has no luck at all.

After failing in the goldfields, he heads off to smoke opium in what passes for a Chinatown in rural Victoria, but the locals burn the place down. He tries his hand at highway robbery, but a severe judge hands him down a twelve year sentence. After all, as he points out to a friend, he gives out harsh sentences because he needs roads building. So Morgan ends up breaking rocks in prison, where he's raped and branded. He gets paroled but promptly shot as a horse thief. And then comes the first piece of luck he gets in the whole film: lying wounded he's taken in by an Aborigine called Billy who's a bit of an outcast himself.

Billy is something of a good luck charm for him, because with him as a companion and partner, he finds a talent as a highwayman in New South Wales, what the Aussies call a bush ranger. What's more, with Australians unhappy at the British colonial rule of the period, he finds himself in the right place at the right time, becoming something of a folk hero. The price on his head increases but so does the unwillingness of the locals to turn him in, so the cops flounder around. The more floundering, the more Morgan's reputation grows and the more he burns to head back across the Murray to settle scores in Victoria.

This is an interesting film because it plays far more for authenticity than stardom and it breathes Australia. Hopper does a great job as Morgan because he plays it as a character actor not a star. He isn't afraid to look bad in the slightest, and spends the whole film ragged and unkempt and with outrageous facial hair, just as if he'd been living in the bush for years. I wouldn't have put it past him to have done precisely that, especially at this point in his career when Hollywood didn't want much to do with him. He's also the only actor in the film who isn't a native Aussie, the rest of the cast being populated by actors who have very recognisable faces if not names: Bruce Spence, Jack Thompson and Frank Thring among them.

Most obvious is David Gulpilil, the first genuine Aboriginal actor on film and by far the most famous one. This was his first film in five years, following his debut, Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout. As the screen epitome of Aboriginal culture, he'd go on to The Right Stuff, Rabbit-Proof Fence and of course, Crocodile Dundee. What I hadn't realised until now is that his filmography includes a sequel to Blood Surf called Dark Age, which I'll have to track down now, knowing full well right now that it's going to be terrible. He will no doubt be the saving grace of the movie.

Another notable Aussie name is the director, Philippe Mora, who also wrote the screenplay, adapting Margaret Carnegie's book for the screen. He has an outstandingly varied list of films to his credit, but this was his first foray into fiction, though it was admittedly based on a real life character and follows his life far closer than most biopics. The biggest liberty would appear to be the title, being a name he never affected during his life and which interestingly is never mentioned during the film. It's an interesting choice of material for Mora, following a number of highly regarded documentaries, none of which I've seen. I've seen a number of his following films though and many of the actors in this one reappear in those. Obviously Mora was a good man to work for.

It's visually effective, alternating gorgeous long shots of the Australian countryside with closeups of the cast, often very close up. Daniel Morgan isn't the only character to utterly take over the screen, not just by force of personality but literally too, ensuring that we can't possibly focus on anything else during particular scenes. Often the film is as unkempt as Morgan himself and as wild as the landscape, but it's obvious that this was deliberate, the film being part of the golden age of Australian cinema which told very Australian stories in very Australian settings with very Australian actors. Much grittier than something like Picnic at Hanging Rock, released the same year of 1975, this feels utterly Australian.

Cure (1997)

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Stars: Koji Yakusho and Masato Hagiwara

Once upon a time, we begin, a man and his daughter lived in the forest and a king turned up in a golden carriage, asking for the young lady to be his wife. The man was hardly going to say no, and apparently was delighted with the whole concept, even though the king had a blue beard. The young lady reading this story to her psychiatrist stops reading but tells him that she knows the ending: the girl kills the king. Whether this is an indication of the mental problems of this patient or the inevitability of human destruction is completely open to question and remains unanswered as the film comes to a close.

Our film would appear to be about killing too, but it's no simple murder story. In fact it's no simple anything. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who also wrote the screenplay from his own novel, throws out a few different threads for our consideration, all cryptic and deceptively simple, and then gradually ties them all together, but only to give us questions rather than answers. This first thread, dealing with this young lady and her therapy, is the most obscure as it doesn't seem to have much to do with anything. However it turns out that the young lady is the wife of the detective at the heart of the other two threads and the reason why he can identify with the real protagonist.

He's Det Kenichi Takabe and he's investigating a string of bizarre murders. What makes them most bizarre is that they would appear to be a set of connected killings, but there isn't one murder, there isn't one murderer and there isn't even one modus operandi. Each of the killers is caught, quickly and easily, after their crimes. They seem to be normal people, apparently totally aware of their actions, which they see as normal at the time but regret later in candid confessions. Kurosawa brings us in during the third in the series: a man who pulls a piece of pipe out of a tunnel on the way to an appointment with a prostitute, who he bashes to death. He then hides in a cubbyhole in the corridor, utterly stunned by what he did, to be found by the police.

There are two things that these killers have in common. The first, which is obvious from moment one and the reason the cops are seeing the murders as connected, is the fact that each murderer, after killing their respective victims, carves a large X across their throats, reminiscent of Microsoft's XBox logo which would make an awesome reason for this to never be remade by Hollywood. The second constant only becomes apparent after some time, and that's the presence shortly before each murder of a man named Hunihiko Mamiya. We meet Mamiya before the fourth murder, wandering aimlessly around Shirasato Beach in Chiba without any clue who he is, where he is or apparently anything else about anything.

An elementary school teacher called Toru Hanaoka happens to be on the beach at the time, and unfortunately for him and his wife, he tries to help the man. Not long afterwards Hanaoka kills his wife and leaps out of the upstairs window in an attempt to kill himself at the horror of what he's done. He survives though to enter custody, as does the next killer. He's a cop called Oida who tries to help Mamiya after seeing him on the roof of a building, only to continue the trend himself, shooting his partner of three years. What's strangest here is that once in custody, he repeats his X cuts on a guard in his interrogation cell, but he has no knife at the time.

And so it continues, but now there's a trail for Takabe to follow. Before becoming killer number five, Oida had left Mamiya in the custody of Dr Miyajima at Shiomicho Hospital, who promptly becomes killer number six. It doesn't take long before he's in custody and being interrogated by Det Takabe. However this is far from the end of our story, in fact it's really the beginning as Takabe, the husband of a woman with memory problems, gets to interrogate a man who apparently has no memory, even a short term memory. It's a rare example of a film where we're given everything but still don't have a clue where it's going.

We know it's about Takabe, Mamiya and the power of mesmerism, but we don't know the how or why of it. Early on there are a few discussions about why these unlikely killers would do such a thing and whether the devil made them do it. The obvious initial question for us is whether Mamiya is the devil and we're watching a quirky religious horror movie. Then as Takabe discovers who this amnesiac really is, a student of psychology, and sees his apartment and working environment, we realise that it's nothing religious but has to do with mesmerism and hypnotic suggestion. Then gradually we realise that these two approaches are more consistent that we would have expected, as in Japan mesmerism was suppressed as a heresy known as soul conjuring, akin to witchcraft.

And the questions remain even when we reach the end of the film. How much of this is reality and how much the hallucinations of the characters we're watching? Certainly a good deal is the latter but how much of it is open to question. Why does Mamiya do what he does; what drives him? Is there something or someone sinister at work here, such as a traditional protagonist to catch and stop, or is this an entirely internal problem, making any attempt to fathom it using traditional methods useless? That's Takabe's problem here and one that he transfers to us, the viewers.

Kurosawa seems to have seen any traditional answers as a lesser concern to the bigger question of what drives us as human beings. Mamiya is a fascinating character because he's so vague yet he's the pivot for our entire film. He is absolutely a question rather than an answer, providing it verbally through the repeated line of 'Who are you?', reminiscent of 'What's your function in life?', the core question of Survive Style 5+. We as viewers have to provide the answer ourselves: who are we and would we fit in a horror movie too?

So as a story, it's intriguing but unfulfilling, at least initially. Maybe another viewing, where I know how things are going to end up, will help to flesh that out. Often when I think about needing extra viewings, the film is probably deficient. In this instance, I'm not too sure. I think it's a film that merely needs to make us realise that it isn't going to answer our questions and thus warrant a further run through outside of our usual stance as disassociated viewers. On one viewing, it's no classic, but further viewings may well move it up the ratings to something closer to the accolades I'm reading that many viewers are prompted to shower over it.

Beyond the story, it's a visual film, powerfully shot in long and carefully framed shots rather than the more standard closeups. As Det Takabe, Koji Yakusho is an able lead, though he really shares that role with Masato Hagiwara as Mamiya. Moreover nobody plays the star here, this being one of those rare films comprised entirely of character actors playing characters. No relation to his more famous countryman, Akira Kurosawa, Kiyoshi Kurosawa nonetheless has carved out something of a name for himself in modern Japanese cinema. I see his name mentioned a lot, though I've not been bowled over by him yet. This is my third of his films, after Pulse and Bright Future, and each has been similarly intriguing yet unfulfilling. Maybe I should track down the rest and immerse myself. And then watch them all again.

Friday 24 April 2009

Knight Without Armour (1937)

Director: Jacques Feyder
Stars: Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat

Jacques Feyder certainly got around. After making Carnival in Flanders in both French and German, he headed over to England to make Knight Without Armour for London Films, with Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat. It's based on a novel by James Hilton, who also wrote Lost Horizon and Goodbye Mr Chips, which is undoubtedly Donat's brightest hour. He doesn't get the opportunities here that he did in that film, but that's hardly surprising given that it won him a deserved Oscar for Best Actor in Hollywood's greatest year, 1939. It begins as a decent part for him but it doesn't develop well, and the film falls prey to the old failing that nobody in the cast even attempts an appropriate accent, which makes it difficult to follow the nationalities we watch.

Donat is Ainsley J Fothergill but not for long. He's an Englishman but he's known Russia for years, working there as a journalist and now as a translator of English novels into Russian. However not long after getting back into Russia after a pretty pointless initial scene at Ascot, he gets kicked out again for publishing apparently inflammatory material. As he's told, it would have meant Siberia for him had he been Russian. But before being kicked out, he gets recruited as a spy, working undercover as Peter Ouronov in the revolutionary movement, a burgeoning thing, this being the Russia of 1913, with revolution round the corner.

Unfortunately for him, he gets carted off to Siberia anyway, because an idiot revolutionary throws a bomb at General Vladinoff's carriage and after being shot trying to get away, promptly dies in Ouronov's house. It takes four years before the revolution actually happens so he misses out entirely on the Great War but returns in lucky style: he chanced to be exiled with a major name in the movement, a man named Axelstein. On their return from exile he becomes his assistant commissar. This work takes him quickly to the Vladinoff Estate near Khalinsk and the responsibility of transporting the Countess Alexandra to Petrograd.

Needless to say the Countess is played by Marlene Dietrich, who smoulders wonderfully as the Countess but is blessed with immaculate hair and makeup whatever situation she happens to find herself in, up to and including swimming in the river. I'm sure you'd be utterly stunned to find that they fall for each other, even though the Countess married Col Adraxine of the Russian army at the beginning of the film, a particularly nasty fellow who is overjoyed when the war starts. 'At last,' he says, right after their wedding, and runs off to fight.

It takes a while for this love to be properly acknowledged because everywhere we go is under the same changes that are sweeping the rest of the country and whoever is in control isn't likely to be for long, meaning that they keep getting separated. We alternate frantically between the Reds shooting the aristocrats and the Cossacks shooting the Reds. The Countess bounces between the two sides like a tennis ball, with Ouronov alternately escaping and rescuing her. And the more this goes on, the more they fall in love.

This isn't a bad film but it just doesn't seem to go anywhere. Even when we reach the end, it doesn't feel like an ending, merely another step along the road. It could have played as a serial, with each episode finding the pair of lovebirds separated again, only to be reunited at the beginning of the next. Donat would have been far better had he attempted an accent, because in this film an Englishman posing as a Russian sounds precisely the same as an Englishman, so half the acting opportunity vanishes. Donat is OK and Dietrich a little better, but they both end up just wrapped inside the plot as it hurtles onward. It's definitely a missed opportunity for all concerned.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Carnival in Flanders (1935)

Director: Jacques Feyder
Stars: Francoise Rosay, Jean Murat and Louis Jouvet

I've seen a half dozen of Jacques Feyder's films and I've found this underrated Belgian talent a fascinating filmmaker. That half dozen includes three silents and three sound films; three French films, two American and one German; two Garbos and two Ramon Novarros. He certainly got around during his time as a director, which ranged from as far back as 1915 to 1946, two years before his death. Now TCM gift me with another couple of his films, these ones from late in his career: the French Carnival in Flanders and the English Knight Without Armour.

Carnival in Flanders begins in 1616, in a town called Boom which, like the rest of Flanders, is under the Spanish thumb. However this occupation is pretty sparse with not a single Spaniard in sight. Apparently this is the time of Philip III, so a far less severe time than it had been, with war not far in the past. Life appears to be pretty happy, with all the preparations for the annual carnival in full swing, given that it's due the following day. The locals are preoccupied with their own lives, the town elders having their portrait painted, by a Brueghel no less, and Siska, the burgomaster's daughter, turning sixteen and preparing to be engaged, though her father has different ideas to her as to who she'll be engaged to.

Now, like everywhere else in 1616 the whole place is run by men, at least they think so. They're really a bunch of cowards the lot of them. When a trio of Spaniards ride into town everyone pays attention; and when one walks into the town hall to deliver a message, every man in the place trembles in fear. This is before they even notice that it carries the royal seal, at which point they reach outright panic. Apparently the Duc d'Olivarès will be visiting shortly with his retinue and they need somewhere to stay for the night.

At this, the burgomaster panics. He foresees the town being looted and pillaged, the leaders tortured and hanged, the women carried off and raped and even the babies thrown from windows onto raised pikes. So they hatch their plans for defence, which involve hiding everything they own, including themselves, and as a piece de resistance, pretending that the burgomaster is dead. So with the Spaniards close, it's left to the women to welcome them instead. And while the men see them all as 'old hens cackling before a storm', they're the real force behind the town and they know precisely how to take care of the Spanish.

The Duc arrives, in the company not just of soldiers but also of his personal monk, a dwarf and a pair of pet monkeys. And he's the picture of elegance, politeness and charm, the utter contradiction of what the Burgomaster expected. He accedes to the burgomaster's wife's request to move on a little further, but the men have travelled far, the horses need a rest and couriers are due to meet them in Boom, so they stay. He even insists on visiting the 'dead' burgomaster to pay his respects. His men are well behaved also and even pay for their drinks, but then again they have the women of the town taking very good care of them. Very good care.

I've seen a lot of films set in historic times, some in the seventeenth century, and with rare exceptions they tend towards the serious. It's as if filmmakers are afraid of insulting the ghost of Shakespeare by attempting except the most serious drama. It's the others that tend to bring me the most enjoyment, whether it be horror films or comedies like this. It takes care before even the title credits to point out that it isn't a true story, calling itself instead a heroic comic farce. It's a delight, albeit a fluffy one, with nary a dark side. It has a little spice to it, which is hardly surprising given the fact that the women of Boom drive the whole story, and only the wildly inaccurate projections of the burgomaster project doom in Boom.

The cast are superb, though it's a real ensemble performance. The closest thing to a lead is the burgomaster's wife, played by the real life wife of the director, Françoise Rosay. She takes charge with credibility, while her screen husband, played by André Alerme blusters about in an utter facade of control. Jean Murat is a dashing duke, Louis Jouvet is solid as the priest and Micheline Cheirel and Bernard Lancret are a believable doe eyed young couple. The dwarf is played by Delphin, bizarrely the only actor to be credited with a single name, a custom normally highly prevalent in French film.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Director: Leo McCarey
Stars: Charles Laughton, Mary Boland, Charlie Ruggles, ZaSu Pitts, Roland Young and Leila Hyams

At the 1936 Academy Awards that represented the 1935 year in film, Ruggles of Red Gap didn't do too well. It was nominated for Best Picture, though so were ten others, but the film that won out was a different Charles Laughton picture, Mutiny on the Bounty. That took a number of other awards too, but notably not the Best Actor award, The Informer's Victor McLaglen taking advantage of the fact that he was the only nomination for that category to not have been from Mutiny on the Bounty. So Laughton lost out on a nomination for this film for that one, and lost out on the win because his co-stars in that one, Clark Gable and Franchot Tone, were nominated too, thus diluting the vote in McLaglen's favour.

However the awards read though, 1935 was an awesome year for Laughton, already an established star but making him one of the most memorable actors in the business. And one of the most versatile too: Ruggles and Capt Bligh are about as different as roles could be. As we begin this film, Ruggles is in Paris, serving as gentleman's gentleman to the Earl of Burnstead. These two characters are the first of many outrageous stereotypes we'll meet through this film: Ruggles is precisely what he should be, a top notch servant, and he's taking care of a confirmed member of the absent minded idle rich. Between the pair of them, they comprise a single functional human being, but soon the Earl will have to fend for himself because the night before he lost Ruggles in his first poker game.

The winners are an American couple, just as stereotypical as the English characters we've just met. Egbert Floud is a loud and obnoxious backwoods hick well versed in colourful colloquialisms, prone to whoops and hollers and truly horrifying checked suits. He's also a millionaire, courtesy of some sort of lumber interests back home in Washington state. This has led his wife to delusions of grandeur, attempting horrific French and committing faux pas after faux pas as she attempts to pass herself off as the peak of high society. While Egbert wouldn't know what to do with a gentleman's gentleman, Effie is very eager to pick herself up a cultured English servant to impress her friends with.

So off they trek back home to Red Gap, a frontier town in the wild west of Washington, where Egbert introduces him to everyone as Colonel Ruggles, retired British army officer. And so Ruggles throws the whole place upside down. Egbert leads him astray in every way that could horrify Effie, who wants to get rid of him. Of course, by this time the rest of Red Gap is eager to meet the Colonel, so she can't do any such thing. By the time Mr Charles Belknap-Jackson, a Boston creampuff who married into the family's money, manages to get rid of him, the timing is as terrible as can be because the Earl is on his way to get him back.

This would seem on the face of it to be a fish out of water tale, done up with so many stereotypes that it ought to be scary to watch. However it's an utter gem, with a razor sharp script, subtle direction and a string of utterly perfect performances. I'm not going to suggest that it should have beaten Mutiny on the Bounty for that Best Picture Oscar, but it's a film to return to far more than its competitor, and watch over and over again. There's a throwaway line in this film where Egbert Floud describes a bottle of champagne as 'imprisoned laughter' and that would be good description for the film too. The title doesn't suggest much but the film is an utter delight.

Much of that has to go to Charles Laughton in the title role. He is stunning here, in a role that takes him from comfortable service to awesomely uncomfortable service and on to breaking generations of tradition to become his own man and start up a restaurant. He steals these early scenes like a pro. While his new master and mistress, played by Charles Ruggles and Mary Boland, whoop it up or flounce around, both flamboyantly, he is always the character to watch, even when he's just moving his eyes or by doing precisely nothing. It's a tour de force and a textbook on how to scene steal from scene stealers.

His most notable scene though comes later on. In the Silver Dollar saloon, Egbert mentions what Lincoln said at Gettysburg but can't actually remember what he said. Neither can any of the other men in the bar, who of course are all Americans. Ruggles recites the thing in entirety, which Laughton was keen to do in a single take, something that he repeated offscreen on the sets of Mutiny on the Bounty and, later, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This scene is a pivotal one in the story but it became a memorable one for moviegoers of the thirties, who would often applaud at the end of the scene.

Ruggles and Boland are excellent as the Flouds, utterly different but equally flamboyant, in what would be only one of fourteen films they made together as a double act. They get so many great lines it's hard to count them, never mind list them, but they throw them out there with aplomb. My favourite may be one of Effie's that epitomises her character, a common sort who tries to live above her station. In asking Ruggles to take her husband to the art gallery, she tells him to 'see that he acts like a gentleman if you have to hogtie him.'

However they're outshone by Laughton and by a couple of other actors in the film. ZaSu Pitts (this was back in the days when her first name had two capital letters) is the lady who Ruggles falls for in Red Gap. Initially she's the widow of Elmo Judson, who was hit by his favourite mule and never got over it. She becomes Prunella Judson, the lady who sets Ruggles firmly on a new direction in life. It's not the most ditzy or the most outrageous role that Pitts ever played and in fact it's a lost more subtle than most of the parts here, but the scenes that this mismatched couple share are some of the best in the film.

Bizarrely, the funniest character in the film is the driest: the Earl of Burnstead, George Vane Bassinger. In the hands of Roland Young, he's the epitome of the upper class character who swans through life without a care and without apparently a thought. I was in stitches for a number of his dialogues. He falls for a Red Gap girl himself, Nell Kenner, in an absent minded haze. 'Do you believe in love at first sight?' he asks her. When she answers, 'No, do you?' he throws out utterly deadpan, 'No. That's why I'd like to stay for a while, if I may.'

There are many such examples, with Young playing the dry card to almost everyone in the cast, but the most memorable has to be the one in which he plays the drums at one of Nell Kenner's parties, with her singing and accompanying him on piano, apparently teaching him American rhythms. There's no specific word or line that makes this scene funny but I swear Young had actress Leila Hyams in stitches and director Leo McCarey refused to cut. It's an awesome scene in every way, and the film is not far behind.

Feet First (1930)

Director: Clyde Bruckman
Star: Harold Lloyd

$15 for a pair of shoes was pretty expensive in 1930, but Tanner shoes are apparently the best and as their slogans runs, 'The world walks on Tanner shoes.' It would seem to be true but not quite in the way the inventors of the slogan intended, given that hobos are carefully cutting out Tanner adverts from the Honolulu paper and pasting them into their own shoes to replace their own worn out soles. One very minor employee of Tanner Shoes is Harold Horne, a mild mannered shop assistant who dreams of being a salesman. He even practices his spiel on the legs of dummies, but his superiors laugh at the concept. Salesmanship is 98% personality, they say, and he just doesn't have it.

Given that he's played by Harold Lloyd, you can be sure that he's going to find a way to get it. This time out it comes through a six month correspondence course from the Personality Plus Corporation on the road to financial freedom. And sure enough he soon has the dynamic get go that he needs to move on upwards, and also to impress the young lady he falls in love with after seeing her through the window, someone who is well out of his class. He finds that out when he meets her in the street, after her chauffeur runs into a truck.

Once he uses his newfound personality to finagle his way into the Embassy Club, he meets her again in the company of Mr Tanner, the man who runs Tanner Shoes. The next hour provides us with gag after gag as Harold tries to impress Miss Barbara, while trying to avoid the fact that he's disaster on legs to her parents. He even ends up stuck on board ship with them as they sail back to Los Angeles, with gag potential everywhere given that he's a stowaway, he's in the magazine everyone's reading as a testimonial for Personality Plus and because this large ship apparently has only one sailor in its entire company who becomes a running gag himself as much as being an integral part of others.

Now this is a Harold Lloyd film, so he knows how to set up a gag, but there's something lacking about this film. The gags themselves are generally solid and some are masterful, but they don't seem to string together too well. In other words the film is chock full of clips well worthy of appearance in any collection of collection of slapstick comedy but as a cohesive film, it just isn't that cohesive. To be fair on Lloyd much of the fault isn't tied to him but to the rest of the cast and presumably to the production itself.

Barbara Kent is a dreamy enough love interest but she's not much more. Her voice is soft enough for the microphones to have problems picking it up. Some scenes have enough background noise for us to have problems with other actors too. Then again this was 1930 and the industry was still working out how sound worked. There are more than a few actors here who are more than a little uncomfortable with delivering lines and obviously would have preferred relying on their size or shape, anything except their voices. We even get one title card, so perhaps this began as a silent.

The last half hour of the film is fascinating, even though it has precisely nothing to do with the rest of the plot. Harold has found his way off the ship and into Los Angeles and he gets stuck on the side of a tall building. Now anyone who's seen Safety Last! knows what he can do on the side of a tall building and he does plenty here, the stuntwork being amazing and the gags no less. But while we sit on the edge of our seat willing Lloyd's safety and survival, the whole thing is actually pretty contrived.

The key prop is a portable scaffold that seems to continually move up and down the building with no other purpose but to help or hinder Lloyd's attempts to get inside, and the key character other than Lloyd himself is a black janitor played by Willie Best, credited as always as Sleep 'n' Eat. Best was a massively talented comedian whose entire routine is dated beyond belief through precisely no fault of his own, and which is often painful to watch in every way but to observe the skill behind it. He pulls out the stops here up to and including reacting to a stuffed gorilla.

Once the sound era hit, Lloyd had gradually decreasing control over his movies as time went by. He was still as talented as he ever was and his films didn't decrease in quality to scary degrees, but they weren't generally up to his expected standard. I've now seen five of Lloyd's seven sound features and this is undoubtably the weakest of the bunch, though it was apparently the most popular. Perhaps audiences left with the last half hour in their mind, rather than the first hour.

Monday 20 April 2009

Hanzo the Razor: Who's Got the Gold? (1974)

Director: Yoshio Inoue
Star: Shintaro Katsu, Ko Nishimura and Mako Midori

Hanzo the Razor's two assistants, Devil-Fire and Viper, are fishing in the river near the shogunate's treasury when they see a ghost, and their master's response is to head straight out there himself. Every man should want to make love to a ghost once, he says. Never mind that ghosts apparently don't have lower halves and this particular one has large facial scars, he's all set on taking her. Given the rather kinky nature of these Japanese sexploitation films, it comes as a disappointment that we never see this necrophilia too.

But of course, like every episode of Scooby Doo you've ever seen, this ghost is a fake, though she's far cuter than every janitor they ever had. She's keeping people away from the river because someone is stealing brand new gold coins from the treasury, loading them up into rods of bamboo and literally throwing them between the bars on the windows into the river. The sharpened ends ensure that they embed neatly into the river bed, ready for our ghost and her cohorts to come and collect them. And naturally Hanzo has just broken that racket right open.

And just as naturally, once they've captured the fake ghost and discovered the gold in the bamboo, they take her home and we're thrown straight into the first torture net sequence. This third film certainly starts as it means to go on, because just as she's about to confess to everything under the sheer power of Hanzo's irresistible pecker, she's murdered, making at least a second or two of this experience necrophilia after all, however unintentional. And after a torture net sequence, we get an attack on Hanzo's house, prompting even more unveiling of secret weaponry within the walls of Hanzo's awesome house. He really has it all: a pecker for all women to lust after and a house full of secret weapons for the men.

The killer is this lady's husband, a samurai guard at the treasury who is pissed off at the low wages he gets. However he can't have seen the first two films in this series, because it really doesn't pay off to well to attack Hanzo the Razor in his own house. They're all killed and Hanzo returns the stolen money to the shogunate, prompting Elder Hotta to pay him a reward. And get this, after all the sexploitation and violence in these films and all the bad blood between Hanzo and Magobei the Snake, he gives all but one coin to his chief and they pinky swear to keep it a secret! Hanzo the Razor doing a pinky swear is a freaky sight indeed.

All of this sets us up with the few plot threads that weave together to form our story. The first thread is the fact that there's someone still out there behind all these thefts from the treasury, and they obviously have a purpose beyond just acquiring money. The second is the sad state of affairs that working samurai are finding themselves in, including one of Hanzo's childhood friends, Heisuke Takei. They're paid so little that they fall for such schemes as the treasury robbery; they flock to Elder Hotta's palace every day, hoping for work; and they borrow money from Kengyo, a blind loan shark. The third deals with a rebel doctor who tries in vain to persuade his leaders to use western weapons to save the country from foreign invasion.

All of these threads tie together. Heisuke owns a valuable antique spear that the Elder dearly wants, and he owes Kengyo money. Kengyo visits the Elder regularly to give his wife, the Lady Yumi, koto lessons. He also hosts wild parties three times a month at which Lady Yumi is a regular attender. The doctor, Genan Sugino, used to be the personal physician of Elder Kotto, until he fell into disfavour. And of course Hanzo the Razor is involved with all of them. He was a childhood friend of Heisuke, he's impressed the Elder with his results, he's tangled with Kengyo and he has hidden the doctor in a secret room at his house.

You can guess what he has to do with Yumi, and you'd be half right. Yes, he sneaks into her bedroom to treat her to his magnificent member, while Kengyo is in the next room playing the koto for her, no less. However he also breaks into one of those wild parties to see what really goes on, cunningly concealed in a fake barrel of sake and in ninja gear to boot. Lady Yumi and her friends go there to sow their wild oats in secret, now that they're past thirty and their husbands prefer younger ladies who are more likely to bear heirs. He brands them all with the mark of a plum petal that they can't remove.

It doesn't take too much imagination to see how all of this is going to end up and there are no real surprises here, beyond a general one. After two outrageous exploitation flicks, this third and last in the series is surprisingly tame, content to get almost all of its exploitation content out of the way in the first ten minutes. What continues from there is a far more conventional story with a more consistent plot and even some added humour, not entirely from Viper and Devil-Fire either. It's certainly the most accessible of the three, if mainstream audiences could get past the opening scenes. It even has the most appropriate music, with all the koto work much appreciated, even though there is one repeated blaxploitation style theme that sounds suspiciously like Satisfaction by the Stones.

Yet somehow it's not as much fun. Having seen all three Hanzo the Razor movies together, not quite as a triple bill but all in the same day, I found them reasonably consistent in quality. The first is the most fun, especially from the perspective of a confirmed exploitation fan. The second is the most twisted, pushing that envelope just a little bit more. The third is the best or the worst, depending on your perspective. If you ate up the first two, you'll find it a lot tamer and less satisfying. If you worked your way through them but wished they'd just tone it all down a bit and concentrate on the story a bit more, you'll have got your wish. All in all it's a pretty amazing trilogy, and it makes me doe eyed for all the Zatoichi movies and prompts me to get round to watching the Lone Wolf and Cub series in one go.

Sunday 19 April 2009

Hanzo the Razor: The Snare (1973)

Director: Yasuzo Masumura
Stars: Shintaro Katsu and Ko Nishimura

No, it wasn't a great film by most standards of critical measurement, but I'm not sure any exploitation film fan can watch the first Hanzo the Razor film, Sword of Justice, without wanting to follow up with the other two. Here's the second, The Snare, with both Shintaro Katsu and Ko Nishimura returning as the Edo officer Hanzo Itami and his superior, chief magistrate Snake Magobei Onishi respectively. There's a new director though, Yasuzo Masumura, who had plenty of experience making exploitation films (or what look like exploitation films) since 1957. Masumura also wrote, based on the original manga by Kazuo Koike, who is also well known for the Lone Wolf and Cub, Lady Snowblood and Crying Freeman series.

This time out we get straight down to business. Hanzo and his assistants, Devil-Fire and Viper, are chasing a couple of thieves when they run into the travelling procession of Lord Okubu, the government treasurer. His men are ready to kill these thieves for their insolence in happening to be in the way, but Hanzo saves them because they're his to chase and arrest and question. This leads to a battle, a duel and a whole bunch of rudeness to his Lordship, who listens patiently and leaves after letting Hanzo know he'll be summoned to the shogunate general himself, for which meeting he should prepare to die.

The thieves turn out to be more like opportunists, having stripped the corpse of a young girl they found at the water mill. Hanzo finds that she had had an abortion, so heads off to the local female only shrine, even though it's officially out of his jurisdiction. After all it's never been even remotely hidden that he really doesn't care about that sort of thing, luckily for us as these abortions are performed by a Taoist priestess who feels that she has to do an utterlly pointless but bizarrely sexy ritual dance first.

She provides the girl's name, so Hanzo can follow up with her family, only to find that they not only expected her to not be pregnant, they expected her to be a virgin. She lived at home and only left it to visit the Kaizan convent to learn flower arranging and the tea ceremony. Hanzo's innovative approach to finding out what really goes on in the convent is to organise a burial for the girl there, only to take her place in the coffin and burst out of the grave in the middle of the night. It's a memorable approach, that's for sure.

What he finds is Priestess Nyokai auctioning off to the highest bidder the young ladies who study there, with no restrictions. Our first winning merchant gets off on beating the young girl he wins and the priestess has plenty of viewpoints for the losers to watch. In comes Hanzo to take the place apart, free the girl and take the priestess prisoner, so he can torture her in the ways he knows best. First he shows her hell with the kneeling down on wooden blocks corner up routine we saw him go through himself in the first film, piling on stone slabs until she passes out. Then he shows her heaven with the net trick he used on another young lady in the first film, relying on the utterly sexist concept that no woman can say no to him after he's used his trained and conditioned wedding tackle on her. Which works. Of course.

We have some other subplots going on that all lead us to the finale. It can't be a surprise to anyone that Lord Okubu, the government treasurer, is behind the goings on at the Kaizan convent. He's also involved in devaluing the currency to line his own pockets while making the poor poorer. So Hanzo goes after him, while officially chasing Japan's most notorious thief, Shobei Hamajima, who apparently has his eyes on the gold coin mint.

That's where he meets up with Riku, a young widow who reminds quite a bit of Myrna Loy, and who manages the mint. That's also where we get the most bizarre scene from a western perspective. Hanzo gives her a lecture about how Shobei rapes his women after robbing them blind, and hey, that's not something she'd want. Like duh. But then he promptly rapes her himself, because he's Hanzo the Razor, and so the experience is what she's been waiting for. I'd love to read a feminist review of these films to see what they come up with. They're sexist beyond imagining and the machismo just drips off the screen.

Masamura does a pretty good job. I don't think this one looks quite as good as its predecessor but there are a number of scenes of great beauty, especially the building up to the inevitable duel between Hanzo and Junai Mikoshiba, Lord Okubu's fencing instructor. We still only get two sex scenes but there's a massive increase in the spurting blood department. Everything we know about that's hidden behind the plain walls and ceiling of Hanzo's house gets used, and there's new stuff to boot. This isn't a good example of the 'everything has to be doubled' in the sequel, but Hanzo's house is the exception. I want a house like that!

Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (1972)

Director: Kenji Misumi
Stars: Shintaro Katsu, Yukiji Asaoka, Mari Atsumi and Ko Nishimura

I'm a fan of the long running Zatoichi series with Shintaro Katsu as the blind swordsman of the title, so the opportunity to see his three Hanzo the Razor movies was too good to pass up on. This first one was fascinating from moment one, because of its unholy and bizarre mix of genres. On the face of it it can't possibly work that, given that we're set in historical Edo but with a blaxploitation soundtrack probably lifted straight from an early American original, but that's just the start. This is a swordplay movie, as you'd expect with Katsu in the lead and Kenji Misumi as the director, but the sword of the title is not what you think.

But more of that later. Before we reach the sexploitation side of this film, we establish Hanzo the Razor as the Dirty Harry character of our drama. We begin in the office of the north magistrate, home of the cops who keep peace and order in Edo. They're taking their annual oath to uphold the honour of the office, which seems pretty standard for about thirty seconds. Chief Magobei Onishi recites the oath, all about hating the crime not the criminal, not taking bribes, not compromising authority, that sort of thing. Then he signs the oath, in blood no less, wearing traditional garb plus yellow John Lennon glasses.

But Hanzo Itami, alone out of all the officers, refuses to sign this oath. Now this isn't because he's corrupt, it's because he's the only one who isn't, given that the entire office receives bribes from brothels and tradesmen and what seems like everyone else in Edo. He's been on the force for four years but has managed to avoid signing the oath thus far by calling in sick or being on duty but this time round he's there, he really speaks his mind and he refuses to sign. Naturally this causes something of a scene, with him hurling accusations at everyone from the chief on down, but that's nothing to the next one.

Next we find Hanzo, this tough and uncompromising cop, being tortured. He's stripped mostly naked, exposing scars and body damage, he's kneeling on pointed wood and having his assistants pile stone slabs onto his legs until his shins bleed. 'Are you out of your mind?' asks the chief as he discovers this scene, but Hanzo explains that he's testing himself, to find the limits that can be gone to during torture sessions without sending the subject into a state where the torture means nothing. The scars come from hanging upside down and going through the water and basket tortures.

So Hanzo's a tough cookie, no doubt about it, but this is still only the beginning. Here's the sexploitation angle: Hanzo discovers that he gets erect when under pain, so he puts himself through another bizarre ritual to take advantage of that fact. He pours hot water on his apparently rather large member, beats it with a stick on a dedicated beating block and then makes love to a sack of rice. This brings a whole new meaning to the term 'beating it' and I don't remember the Karate Kid going through this particular ritual, even in the sequels. Also, while we don't see this magic member, this not being a porn movie, we do get some surprising shots via silhouette or even penis cam. No, I'm not kidding.

The other character setup we get is the introduction to his assistants. He has two of them already, one a former thief and the other a former white slaver; they're the ones helping him torture himself with the stone slabs. On a vagrant round up he acquires a third. He's refused to take part in such a thing, because it's beneath the stature of an officer, but turns up at the periphery when one is trying to escape from the law. He catches him but rather than hand him over for deportation to the prison island of Hachijo, he breaks the man's nose and pretends that he's dead, carrying him off on his shoulder.

The reason for this is our real plot. In his fear, this vagrant speaks of a man named Kanbei Harada, a former samurai and notorious killer for hire. Kanbei was long wanted by the police but they had caught him and sent him off to Hachijo years before. However this vagrant points out that Kanbei is back in Edo, because a pickpocket friend of his saw him very recently. Given that a month of pain is preferable to four years of exile on a prison island, this vagrant happily becomes assistant number three and off we go to investigate the mystery of Kanbei the Killer.

As Hanzo has had his assistants trailing the chief, we almost instantly find a link between him and Kanbei: the same woman seems to be the mistress of both, highly recognisable because of her lack of pubic hair. This is hardly a downturn for Hanzo, who really doesn't like the chief. During their argument over the vagrant roundup, he even tells him that he's known as Snake Magobei, a man who solicits bribes even from his own men, given that he has to approve their continuing on the force on an annual basis. So with the chief as a suspect in this growing mystery, Hanzo may even get a chance to do something about him.

His next step though is to interrogate Omino, the shaved mistress. And if they weren't already, here's where things get truly bizarre. First he has her kidnapped, by setting up a corpse in her rooms, the corpse not being real but the bloody and mangled form of assistant number three. Then he has her brought to his boat to be interrogated, his technique being to rape the truth out of her. No, I'm not making this up. Women just can't get enough of Hanzo's large and thoroughly conditioned member, so end up telling all just so he won't stop. Anyone discovering Shintaro Katsu through this film could be forgiven for thinking that this film, which he produced and starred in, may be little more than a manifestion of his ego, but given the selflessness of Zatoichi, perhaps this is more a deliberate change of pace.

The story leads us to not just to Kanbei the Killer but to the inner castle and the lords of power. Given that this is film one in a series of three, it's obvious that Hanzo is going to win out but there are some good surprises to come. Some are very welcome indeed, from the hidden armouries to the key hidden messages. Much is hidden in this film and I wonder how much won't see the light of day until the sequels. Luckily I have those on my DVR also ready to go. I don't know if they're going to be as outrageous as this one but I'm looking forward to finding out.

As a film this has problems. It has high production values and is shot well, acted well and written well, but all that assumes that the viewer doesn't have a problem with the exploitative factors involved. Exploitation fans are likely to love this; I know I did. But mainstream fans are not even likely to get to the penis toughening scenes which would likely have them switching off then and there. They're going to quit during the title sequence, where the music is most obviously and stunningly inappropriate. Whoever thought to limit the audience of the film by playing blaxploitation music over a period Japanese film may be an exploitation genius but he alienated the mass audience at the same stroke.

The music remains amazingly out of place throughout. My favourite inappropriate use goes far beyond the cheesy Charlie's Angels type themes to the music used during Hanzo's rape interrogations. In one such scene he has a haughty young lady stripped naked, wrapped in a net and hauled up in the air. He then strips naked himself and lies down on his back underneath her, so his assistants can lower the net onto his waiting manhood, where he proceeds to bend her to his will. And as he's spinning her round and she's moaning in ecstasy, we're treated to soft romantic mood music which is as hilarious as it is inappropriate. But such is the mindset of this film.

It has some sex, though there's not much nudity and most of it is suggested. It has some violence, which bizarrely ranges from the old school approach where slashing someone to death with a razor sharp sword miraculously leaves the outer clothing completely intact to the new school approach of spurting blood and gruesome special effects. We have a number of instances of both here, the latter most prominent. Some of these scenes are cleverly done too, with those secret weapons I mentioned earlier: spears coming out of the ceiling and spikes coming out of the walls.

So, as a film it has problems; but as an exploitation film, it is amazing stuff. It's definitely cult material, that I'll have to recommend to the Midnite Movie Mamacita for potential screening at Chandler Cinemas. Even after one film of three, a Hanzo the Razor triple bill sounds as magnetic to me as the Street Fighter triple bill that Tarantino had Christian Slater attend in True Romance. Here's to hoping.

HMS Defiant (1962)

Director: Lewis Gilbert
Stars: Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde

Given the American propensity for bowdlerising titles, it seems surprising that they'd retitle something as simple and inoffensive as HMS Defiant to something far more antagonistic: Damn the Defiant!, especially as that title really doesn't fit in the slightest. I presume it was a cultural thing: 'HMS' has a clear meaning to everyone in England (His or Her Majesty's Ship) but its meaning may not be obvious to an American audience. That makes this change perhaps more understandable than say, the dropping of the III from The Madness of King George III because test audiences couldn't understand why they hadn't heard of the first two films in the trilogy.

We're open in Spithead in 1797 where the Defiant has just docked and sparked a whole slew of action. New officer Lt Scott-Padget is out with the press gangs to fill out a couple of dozen spots on the crew. It's wartime and they have the right. However while they pull people out of one of the local inns, some of the existing crew are already there: in a downstairs room polishing secret plans to remedy the brutal conditions of men below decks in the King's fleet. They're aware that mutinies don't work, but mutinies are generally on one ship. This bunch are aiming for something fleet wide.

The ship's captain, Capt Crawford, is well aware of these conditions and doesn't like them either. He even speaks of them to his superior, though both know full well that the matter is for men further up the chain of command than them. The only man who doesn't seem to be aware of what goes on is young Midshipman Crawford, the 12 year old son of the captain who is about to set sail for the first time under his father's command. He's looking forward to the experience.

And pretty quickly off go the women, in come the pigs and HMS Defiant prepares for sailing. Now, you may expect from the setup that we'd be looking at a straight mutiny story, especially with so many men pressed into service but this is far from that simple. Capt Crawford is no dictator, in fact he seems to be a pretty able and fair captain and the men below decks don't have a grievance with him personally. Their grievance is at a higher level, and it provides us with a suspenseful subplot rather than the focus of our story.

The focus is on a personification of this conflict, in the forms of Capt Crawford and Lt Scott-Paget. The latter is a hard ass of the old school, intelligent and able but vicious and in full belief that he's always right. However what makes him a truly dangerous opponent is that he has contacts back home in England in high places, and his last two captains have fallen prey to his machinations. Capt Crawford is next on his list and he doesn't hold back, using young Midshipman Crawford as the core of his attack.

Given that the captain is played by Alec Guinness and his lieutenant by Dirk Bogarde, it's obvious we're in for some powerful acting. What surprises most is how good Bogarde is as a heel, overtly ambitious and subtly vicious. I'm used to him in far less meaty roles that don't give him the opportunities that this role does, and he does a solid job, never taking the easy way out and becoming a scene stealing sadist. The verbal and politically sparring that this pair run through is tense, building stuff and it's a pleasure to watch, the acting and the script working well together. Guinness has the precise talent to make the captain someone to inspire.

This verbal battle plays havoc with the subplot. The concept of a mutiny or even just support for a petition to the Admiralty is easy to propagate when there's a firm hand crushing them down. Every time Lt Scott-Padget has the upper hand, the cry for mutiny grows, but every time the Captain has his power in check, it wanes again. Of course it all has to come to a head, but it's not clear just how that's going to come about, especially with Anthony Quayle doing a powerful job as Vizard, the leader of the complainants.

Luckily the script is in as good hands as the lead characters. It's based on a novel by Frank Tilsley, who I don't know from Adam but was adapted by Edmund H North and Nigel Kneale. North had written the screenplay for The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951 and was experienced with sea stories having written Sink the Bismarck! two years before this film. Maybe the similarity in titles to that film is the reason for the American retitle. Kneale I grew up watching, as the creator of Prof Quatermass and the writer of other films and TV shows. Both are huge talents and they did good work here.

There's not a lot of downside to comment on. Some of the special effects are dated, but they're hardly poor. Complaining about them would seem about as valid as complaining about how hard it was to see in the fog scenes. I loved the hiss of hot cannonballs on water but couldn't ignore the way that knives didn't do too well at actually piercing human flesh. The ships look good, though to be fair I don't know enough about wooden ships of war to really comment. There are people who know this stuff backwards and may well find plenty to complain about. I just saw ships that looked and moved like ships.

It isn't the best Alec Guinness I've seen (he made it during a two month gap in filming Lawrence of Arabia, so may not have had anywhere near the preparation time he might have liked) and it isn't the best seafaring yarn I've seen, but it does precisely what it set out to do and it does it well.

Wednesday 15 April 2009

Cinderella (2006)

Director: Bong Man-dae
Stars: Do Ji-won and Sin Se-Kyung

I've become something of a fan of Korean movies, though even twenty some films in I'm only scratching the surface. This one is a horror movie, one promising high on the ick factor because of its framework, plastic surgery, though surprisingly skimping on that front. We begin pretty vaguely, with a birthday cake and a suicide by hanging and a music box soundtrack, but it doesn't take long for a lovely young lady to go under the knife. And this film is packed with lovely young ladies. In fact it's rare that we see anything else: there are few men in the film and when they get screen time, it doesn't last. I think only one ever spoke. And hey, I'm not complaining!

We follow a young lady by the name of Choi Hyeon-su. She's on summer break but attending classes at the SBrush Art Academy with her friends. All of these are teenage girls and they all look good but, like many teenage girls are mildly obsessed with their looks. Fortunately for them, Hyeon-su's mother Yoon-hee is a plastic surgeon, but unfortunately for them, this is a K-horror film so you know it's not going to turn out well for most of them. The first girl to die is Sukyung, who cuts her face off with a sliver of broken mirror after facial surgery.

Now there's something strange going on, beyond the obvious facts that Sukyung saw some weird Asian crawling ghost thing while preparing for her surgery, that she goes gradually insane through a belief that she's not wearing her own face and that she commits bloody suicide. It's not even the fact that all the young ladies who die do so after having been worked on by Yoon-hee. They all see something strange too, presumably the ghost in some form or other, and other more traditional supernatural shenanigans go on too, like lights going out and visions in mirrors.

I'm looking more at the relationship between Hyeon-su and her mother, which is a little intense and obsessive from moment one, even allowing for the fact that the two of them comprise the entire family: daddy lives somewhere else and we don't meet him until much later. Hyeon-su calls Yoon-hee her best friend, her husband, her mother, which is a little bizarre, and in return Yoon-hee dotes on her to extreme degrees. She washes her in the bath and at one point even takes a cast of her daughter's face. It gets more and more suspicious as the film runs on.

And then we're treated to the reason: Hyeon-su isn't Hyeon-su. She's an missing child who Yoon-hee brought home from a church after the real Hyeon-su was severely burned in a overheating car explosion, and then raised from a young age to believe that she's Hyeon-su. Or at least Hyeon-su believes so after finding pictures with her name on them in her mother's basement. There's definitely some twisted obsession going on and it gets even more twisted from there, as work through a few twists to realise what else happened back in the past of this family.

It's a powerfully twisted vision and Do Ji-won does a great job as the orchestrator, Yoon-hee, showing us all the various facets of her role from caring mother to madwoman and back, across a number of years. Unfortunately, as someone who doesn't too great at working out whodunit in mysteries, I worked this one out pretty early and so the second half of the film didn't hold too much in the way of surprise. I kept watching, held by the capable if not stunning cinematography, shocks and acting performances, to see if I'd missed anything and to see how it would all play out. It is nicely layered and there was one twist I missed.

I was disappointed at the lack of actual plastic surgery scenes, which would have brought some obviously juicy ick to the film, though we do get a very cool mutual face cutting in the art lab. Some of the transitioning between scenes by reusing the set and the characters didn't work too well for me. Mostly I was just disappointed at how easily I worked it out, and that may be unfair because it doesn't seem to be badly done. Perhaps my mind is just twisted on the same wavelength as screenwriter Son Kwang-soo and others would be shocked and stunned at how it all turns out.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Silk (2006)

Director: Su Chao-Bin
Stars: Chen Chang and Yosuke Eguchi

This Taiwanese horror film opens a little strangely, with a Japanese guy with a French accent speaking English to a Canadian man who wants to capture a ghost on film. OK, the French accent doesn't last, but still. The Canadian uses special Japanese film with menger sponge coating, whatever that is, and he visits a particular location that he's told about. He then follows a few rules he's given about taking pictures of the furniture every hour without flash, only to die of an apparent heart attack when he actually sees a ghost. And that's it for the English language portion of the film, as we switch to Asian languages: some Japanese and Mandarin, but mostly Hokkien, which is one of the Chinese dialects spoken in Taiwan. At least I think that's the key one.

Our Japanese guy goes by the name of Hashimoto and he's the key name working in the field of menger sponges, which are the MacGuffin in our story. Menger sponge is a substance apparently made of human protein that looks somewhat like a lament configuration box from Hellraiser. However it doesn't reconfigure itself to let loose demons, it's a sort of black hole that sucks in electromagnetic waves. This is key for two things that Hashimoto and his team are interested in: it can be used to trap energy, which is what ghosts are comprised of, and with enough energy is key to the implementation of anti gravity. There are downsides: it doesn't work on a large scale and there's a radioactivity issue to contend with.

However Hashimoto has made a breakthrough. The room in which the Canadian photographer died is entirely coated with menger sponge to trap a ghost inside. This has all worked fine and the ghost of a young boy now resides in the room, but Hashimoto and his team can't work out who this ghost is and why he hasn't just disappeared. So they hire a cop by the name of Yeh Qi Tung, who has a number of abilities, not least an acute sense of sight enhanced still further by the ability to lip read, even from the side. That he's able to remain calm in very trying circumstances can't hurt and he's also very aware of death as his mother is slipping slowly into a coma.

This is a pretty cool setup but it's put over with panache. Everything is consistent but nothing is obvious and it takes us places we don't expect to go. After two deaths, they let the young ghost out and Tung gets to follow him to find out who he is and what happened to him, and this becomes seriously suspenseful. It's not a gory film, though we see our young ghost jump off a building and there's a neat throat cutting; it's more of a suspense film wrapped around an intelligent ghost story, which is highly refreshing. And it doesn't let up. We see where some of it's going through working out the motivations of the characters but the surprises keep coming and we're never quite sure where it's all going to end up.

I wasn't that impressed with my previous Taiwanese horror movie, Leste Chen's The Heirloom, because of the potential it wasted. It promised much and didn't deliver until the end. This film promises much too but hooked me in quickly and kept me hooked. It's not perfect but it's fascinating and tense stuff. The effects are mainly excellent, including the corpses and the ghosts, though a few are a little less consistent. The worst offender, not in quality but in realisation, is the cheesy way the large menger sponge is activated. The direction is solid with less cinematic tricks than I would have expected.

The acting is solid too. Chen Chang is the standout as Tung, though he plays much of the film perhaps a little subdued. The child actor who plays Yao does a wonderful job and plays both a great corpse and a great ghost. Yosuke Eguchi played Hashimoto, the character that it would have been easiest to dominate proceedings with, and he does to a degree, but reins it in. I wonder what Tadanobu Asano would have done with the role. I think he would have reined it in as much but added a little more quirkiness. The star is the story though, courtesy of writer director Chao-Bin Su, who has directed two films (the other is 2002's Better Than Sex) and written a total of seven. I haven't seen any of them thus far but he did write a third of Three Extremes II, which I have on DVD.

Monday 13 April 2009

The Element of Crime (1984)

Director: Lars von Trier
Star: Michael Elphick

A very fat man with a monkey on his shoulder wants to put someone under hypnosis, a cop called Fisher who has been having headaches since his last case. He takes him back a couple of months to a working trip to Europe, his first time there in thirteen years as he's been living in Cairo with an Egyptian wife. Apparently he was invited to Halbestadt because he can solve a murder case, and he's not surprised given that he finds a very clumsy investigation in the tatters of some flooded futuristic Europe, with the authorities shooting at shadows, literally. And meanwhile girls are being murdered, girls who sell lottery tickets, always suffocated but mutilated after death in the same way, a way which has not been made public.

Fisher is officially working for Kramer, the chief of police, someone he neither respects or cares for. First he goes to see his mentor, a great theorist called Osborne who has now been discredited. He's now a alcoholic wreck of a man, mumbling in lunacy, but still with moments of lucidity; his treatises have been removed from the police library. Fisher believes in his theories, discredited or not. He also believes that he's being threatened because he was getting too close to the lotto murderer, something the rest of the inept police force aren't in any danger of doing.

In the talented and dry form of Michael Elphick, who I know best from English TV, Fisher investigates, though he's hindered in almost every way possible. Lars von Trier's debut professional film is a highly dystopian future, Europe having collapsed into a nightmare of climate failure. There are no summers any more, everything is broken and everything is drenched because there's water everywhere and it hardly eever stops raining. It's a film noir, though instead of black and white we watch in a sort of sepia: some scenes are yellow and black, others more red and black. Nothing is in colour. As a Chinese whore tells Fisher, it's always three o'clock in the morning in Halbestadt.

The key to the story is found in The Element of Crime, Osborne's most important work, which appears to be a sort method acting approach to criminology, in which the cop effectively becomes the criminal to catch him. Here the key suspect appears to be a man named Harry Gray, whom Osborne had trailed in detail on a seemingly innocuous trip that Fisher is determined to follow in order to pick up the man's motivations. Think of it like Criminal Minds where the team don't just put a profile together, they relive it.

An IMDb reviewer by the name of Infofreak describes this journey as 'if Peter Greenaway directed Blade Runner with a script by David Lynch'. It's a magical description and one that rings mostly true. It's as organic as I remember Greenaway, as surreal as I know Lynch and as visually magnetic a future as Ridley Scott's, albeit in a thoroughly different way. Blade Runner saw humanity take on nature at its own game, where here nature takes humanity back. This feels more than any film I've seen like civilisation crumbling under the onslaught of powers greater than man. It doesn't even just feel like nature, it feels like inevitability.

What amazed me most was this rich visual tapestry, lush in detail carefully designed to be lived in and used up. Yet it comes at the hand of Lars von Trier, founding member of the Dogme movement that espoused purity over cinematic license. Rather than finding purity through handheld cameras, natural light and no makeup or effects, this film is pure cinema in a thoroughly different way: through something that can be done on film but in no other form. This film is full of cinematic trickery: overlayed imagery, stunning set design and utterly three dimensional camera work that not only shows us people upside down in polished floors, sideways under a desk to answer a phone or to reading reports while drifting in circles on rafts, but leads us effortlessly and seamlessly from one scene to another with deceptively subtle trickery. It isn't something that would work the same on radio or on stage.

It was the first in his Europa trilogy, to be followed by 1987's Epidemic and finally 1991's Europa. I'm going to need to find both of those now, even though one is far higher regarded than the other. Perhaps three films like this, if indeed the other two follow suit, wore him out, and led him to yearn for something so lacking in trickery that it almost isn't film: it's just acting on a screen. The Element of Crime takes that and builds on it in layers. The stunning storyline is obscured and remixed and played around with like a masterful jazz improvisation, but inexorably leading round in a circle to its inevitable end, which through the power of art is one level beyond what we expect. It's magnificent stuff and not something that can be truly appreciated in one viewing.

The Heirloom (2005)

Director: Leste Chen
Stars: Terri Kwan, Jason Chang, Chang Yu-Chen and Tender Huang

This film has the dubious honour of being the one that's lived on my DVR for the longest: I'm watching on 12 Apr 2009 but I recorded it on 19 Aug 2007. It's a Taiwanese horror film, which makes it something new for me: the only Taiwanese films I've seen were decidedly not horror movies: Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman and Hou Hsiao Hsien's Millennium Mambo. It's directed by Leste Chen, his first film, though he's produced and directed another one since: a drama called Eternal Summer that seems to be much higher rated that this one. I should also add that it isn't based on the horror novel of the same name by Graham Masterton, instead being written for the screen by Dorian Li.

It's highly promising from moment one. The opening image is of a girl crawling along the floor under a whole host of hanging corpses. There's a noose waiting too, obviously just for her. We've already been treated to an intriguing folk custom before the credits rolled: that of hsiao guei or 'raising child ghosts'. Apparently it has to do with keeping foetuses in urns and feeding them the blood of their master to bring fortune or even to kill, depending on the inherent power. Of course, as with all the more familiar dark arts we know about in the west from H P Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley, there's always a price to pay for dabbling in them.

The heirloom of the title here is a house, an old one from the Japanese colonial era, that is left to James Yang by distant relatives. He's some sort of architect who has spent most of his life in England and he moves in with his girlfriend Yo who is a professional dancer. The house isn't in great shape but it's large and they look forward to gradually cleaning it up. I'm sure it won't be much of a surprise to find that strange things start happening, but in this instance they seem focus around a family shrine that has a lot of photos on the walls. There are lots of visions about people hanging and there's some connection to water. Midnight seems to be important also, as is a girl who walks around with a red blindfold on.

James and Yo are involved in this, living in the house, but naturally it's their friends that get impacted hardest: Yi-Chen disappears for evenings at a time, and returns utterly unaware of where she's been or what she's done, appearing upstairs without having entered the house. Cheng collapses in a bar and then dies at home, apparently drowned in his bathtub even though the cause of death may well be hanging by the neck. Even the cop investigating Cheng's death falls prey to the bizarre concept that falling asleep transports him back to the house.

There's a back story here that explains everything, but hardly any time is paid to it all and there are no real clues left for us to work it out by ourselves. There's a revelation at one point that there was a mass suicide there 25 years ago with only a sole survivor, but even then James seems to ignore it. The bad stuff happens to other people, after all. Yo is more interested in following up and she tracks down that one survivor to find the secret of the house, and we get the whole story all at once. Given that we were introduced to the folk custom at the centre of it all before the story ever begins, it's hardly a surprise when we find out how it's being used. It's a pretty cool concept, I'll give it that, but its promise is hardly realised and could have been so much more in more experienced hands.

That's the biggest thing I'll take away from this film: failed promise. It promises much from the outset but utterly fails to deliver, mostly through the writing. The actors are decent without being particularly memorable, the music is good and the visuals are professional: everything is perfectly capable here though nothing stands out. There are no great scares, shocks or standout shots. There's some clever tracking and the dilapidated house is a good set but one dilapidated building is hardly enough reason to watch a film.

It's the writing that's most at fault. The writing is what could have turned this from an average film into a really good one, but instead it doomed it average. Only at the end does it get interesting because that's the only time we're on unknown territory. Now we know the secret but like the characters we're watching, we don't know how to deal with the knowledge. We find ourselves in new locations: at a Buddhist shrine for dead children and at the airport as Yi-Chen prepares to leave Taiwan. I spent 75 minutes trying to keep attention and wondering why such a cool concept could fall so flat and then 20 more rivetted to the screen loving the freakiness that had found. If the whole film had been like these last ten minutes I'd be recommending it highly. As it is I'm recommending the finale and wishing you didn't have to wait as long as I did to get to it.

Sunday 12 April 2009

Billy Liar (1963)

Director: John Schlesinger
Stars: Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie

Apparently one of the lighter films that came out of the era of the kitchen sink drama, it still rated an A for Adult from the BBFC. A lighter kitchen sink drama is a refreshing thing, because as powerful as many of those films were, they were often draining things. It's an Anglo Amalgamated production, written by Keith Waterhouse and directed by John Schlesinger, with a couple of key names. The lead went to Tom Courtenay, a year after The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and the film introduced the world to Julie Christie. English audiences knew her already from the Fred Hoyle TV series A for Andromeda and its sequel but the world paid attention to her after this. Two years later she was starring in Doctor Zhivago.

The Billy of the title is William Fisher, an accounting clerk at a funeral home called Shadrack & Duxbury, but who spends most his time in his own fantasy world, like Walter Mitty. The day we meet him he won't get out of bed because he's busy celebrating the return of democracy to Ambrosia, which naturally was entirely due to him. He won't leave for work because he's being locked up for stealing the postage money for the Shadrack & Duxbury calendars he should have posted last Christmas but which instead are filling up his wardrobe.

Yes, this fantasy world is causing more than a little chaos in the real one given that he piles lies upon lies to prop up the lies he tells to begin the trouble in the first place. He's leaving his job because he's apparently got a job as a scriptwriter writing comedy skits for Danny Boon, who doesn't actually need a scriptwriter. He's engaged to two different girls at once and only has one ring that he has to juggle between the pair of them. He even has people asking about his father, who's had his leg amputated (but hasn't), and his sister, who's in an iron lung and/or dead (but who doesn't even exist). Somehow he's managed to keep all these stories juggled thus far but we know even better than him that that can't last.

I had a lot of reasons to watch this one and I'm many years overdue, given that it came out eight years before I was born. I know many of the locations here, having worked in most of them: Halifax, Bradford, Leeds and Manchester, all places we see in this film. I grew up in Halifax, the birthplace of one of the key actors here, Wilfred Pickles, who plays Billy's father. I was also a friend and colleague for many years of someone who also got lumbered with the name of Billy Liar, for obvious reasons. He landed a girlfriend on the basis of being a member of the Halifax rugby league team, which he wasn't.

In his case, she became his wife, something that inevitably didn't last. In a similar way there's no way that the Billy Liar in our film would have lasted with either of the two girls he was engaged to. Luckily for him there's a third lady in his life, this one called Liz, and she actually understands who he is and how his brain works. In some ways she's the same thing, though she escapes from reality by travelling rather than through lies. She wants him to go back to London with her to start afresh and get married, and it's obvious that she's his only way out of the tangled web he's woven, but given his track record and talent for causing chaos, would he actually go for it? Watch the film to find out.

Tom Courtenay is excellent in the lead, much less flamboyant than Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and, pardon the expression, but much more realistic. Where Kaye's film was a fantasy that interconnected with reality, this is the opposite: reality that interconnects with fantasy. It's a great part and Courtenay, known for being something of a chameleon actor, makes it live. Julie Christie is as magnetic as you might expect. She has a smaller role here compared to most but makes it seem like a lead. Wilfred Pickles was also excellent though he acted far more with his voice than his body. Others, whether important names like Rodney Bewes, Leonard Rossiter or Mona Washbourne or lesser known actors like Gwendolyn Watts, Finlay Currie or George Innes amply fill out the cast.

Mostly though this belongs to Courtenay (and Christie); to writer Keith Waterhouse who was a lesser but still important name in the kitchen sink era; and to John Schlesinger, who was still in England at this point but showing the promise that led to the huge films he had to come in the States. And while he was undeniably a very important name Stateside, I can say that I preferred this to Midnight Cowboy, the film that won him his Oscar. And that's me talking, not Billy Liar.

Cromwell (1970)

Director: Ken Hughes
Stars: Richard Harris and Alec Guinness

As I begin to realise that Alec Guinness isn't just a great actor, he may just be the greatest of them all, TCM gifts me with a pair that I haven't seen before: 1962's Damn the Defiant! and 1970's Cromwell. He isn't Cromwell in the latter, that part going to Richard Harris who gets top billing, but Guinness plays the king, King Charles I. I'm no expert on the Civil War but this film would seem to play fast and loose with the reality of history. If I'm reading this correctly, about ten years of history is compressed into a week or so. Then again Cromwell has always been a controversial character: some see him as a harsh dictator and vicious military enforcer, others see him more as a hero of the people against tyranny.

This Cromwell is firmly in the latter camp. He's a champion of the rights of the people which he sees as being consistently trampled under the greed of King Charles I, a believer in the divine right of kings and thus a man who sees himself as above the government in every way. He's also rather upset about the attempts to corrupt the Protestant religion of the state with Catholicism, the religion of the queen. As our film begins, Cromwell, a Puritan member of parliament, is planning to leave his estates for the New World. Fellow MPs visit him and suggest treasonable things, but he is a loyal subject of the crown, however much he disagrees with the king.

Time changes his mind, though not a lot of time and not a lot of mind, it would seem. We're treated to a little political chicanery, but the suggestion is that the conflict known as the English Civil War was inevitable and all the speeches and manouevres were merely everyone's cards being played onto the table. So the King threatens, Parliament threatens in return and it all leads to the dissolution of Parliament and the beginning of war between King and Parliament.

This war is skimped over to a massive degree. I mentioned that I'm no expert on the Civil War but I remember some things from my school history lessons a couple of decades ago. We begin with an inconclusive Battle of Edgehill, which is fair enough, but then three years of history is apparently ignored entirely. While reality had the Royalists take the lead for a few victories, then get knocked back at Gloucester and hammered at Marston Moor, where Parliament took the north of England with the help of the Scots, all of this is forgotten in our film. The impression we're given here is that after Edgehill, Cromwell left to build a real army while the Earls of Essex and Manchester carried on for three years on his own, only for Cromwell to return and rout the Royalists at Naseby.

With the absence of any real history to speak of, the film by necessity falls back on its cinematic powers to achieve anything at all. Unfortunately there aren't enough in evidence to retore the balance after the history failed. The battles are mostly not there, though Edgehill is excellently done, mostly in that it isn't excellently done. As the first pitched battle of the war nobody really had a clue what they were doing, and that lack of pretty much anything is aptly depicted here. The sets are impressive, but that's rarely not the case in historical English films, whether made by English filmmakers or merely set shot in England by others.

The only thing that really impresses here is the acting. Richard Harris is superb as a principled and defiant man, steadfast in his faith to his church and his country. His performance simply cannot be ignored and he dominates over everyone else on the Parliamentary side, not least in the angry power of his eyes. However the man he plays only bears a slight resemblance to the real Cromwell and the idea of an Irishman playing Cromwell is simply preposterous. While he's a controversial man to the English, Cromwell is nigh on universally hated by the Irish. I wonder what Harris saw in the part.

Guinness is similarly excellent as the king. I've read that his is the only really historically accurate portrayal in the film and I know nowhere near enough to comment on that. He doesn't dominate the way Harris does but he's unmistakeably the lynchpin of the royalist side. He makes his mark not through force of personality, though the way he moves is perfect, but through more subtle means. Mostly it has to do with his accent, a weak Scots that becomes more pronounced with strength of words, combined with a mild stutter. It's also to do with his arrogance, that unfaltering belief in his divine right to rule, which manifests itself in the way he moves and even the way he strokes his moustache while listening to charges brought against him by Parliament.

Backing them up are a whole host of recognisable names who provide worthy support. Most obvious are Robert Morley as a sanctimonious Earl of Manchester and Timothy Dalton as a flamboyant and blissfully arrogant Prince Rupert, the King's cousin, but these are only a few of many. Actors of the stature of Patrick Wymark, Patrick Magee, Charles Gray and Nigel Stock make the cast a notable one. It's only sad that such names were not given better material to work with.

Onibaba (1964)

Director: Kaneto Shindo
Stars: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura and Kei Sato

Within the dense eight foot tall pampas grass in a Japanese swamp, fighting men race almost hidden by their surroundings. Some are chasing, some escaping, some scavenging the bodies when those escaping are caught. This is 14th century Japan, which is rife with war: two rival emperors are fighting it out, with each side forcibly conscripting anyone they can find and laying waste to the country in the process. Kyoto is burning and one emperor is on the run. It isn't a good time for a mother and her daughter-in-law, living alone in a hut in the swamp with the man of the house gone to the war through no choice of his own.

They don't have names, these two, but they're surviving the war the only way they can. Crops have failed year after year and they have no man, so they're killing soldiers who find their way into the swamp with their reaping spears, then stripping their bodies of clothes, weapons and, not least, food and water. They keep what they need and trade the rest with a local merchant living off the war for more food. They drag the corpses through the swamp to dump them into a deep hole, which has some sort of significance that we're not immediately made aware of. And so they survive.

Into the mix comes Hachi, escaped from the war. He's another swamp dweller who lives nearby and who was forced into the war alongside Kichi, our scavengers' son/husband. He tells stories of how they were forced into the Ashikaga army, then captured by the enemy and promptly turned into Kusonoki soldiers. After all it didn't matter to them which side they fought on; it wasn't their war. He tells also of how Kichi is dead, killed by a band of farmers who they were attempting to rob.

And so we find ourselves in a bizarre love triangle. With Kichi dead, Hachi wants his wife. Hachi's wife is young and isn't going to say no, so sneaks out at night to get some. But Hachi's mother doesn't want any of this to happen, whether it be because she wants a man herself, because she doesn't want her partner to leave or, more probably, both. And while all of this is beautifully shot, well acted and highly atmospheric, we can't help but wonder where we're going, because this is supposed to be one of the great classic Japanese horror stories and we're not seeing anything that would fit into that genre, except perhaps the old woman's pronouncements about purgatory and sinner's hell to discourage her daughter-in-law from straying into Hachi's bed.

And then one night, into the women's hut while her daughter-in-law is away comes a samurai in a horned demon mask. He's apparently a samurai of good family trying to get back to his men and he needs direction. As they walk, he explains why he wears the mask. Apparently he is so beautiful that women fall in love with him when they see his face and so the mask protects him from them and from battle all at the same time. Now this old woman is hardly going to be that helpful to those who started the war that apparently killed her son, so she walks the samurai right into the hole.

What's more she uses the demon mask to scare the crap out of her daughter-in-law in an awesomely effective scene. Everything combines here to build the atmosphere and when this is sprung on us two thirds of the way through the film, it's a real shocker and we have our horror story with bells on. The cinematography is the biggest success, the whole film being truly gorgeous, even though all we really see is a swamp and a tiny handful of characters. In this tiny human drama, the omnipresent reeds and wind become characters themselves, something that director of photography Kiyomi Kuroda makes full use of. This swamp is amazing to see, in close up, in slow motion, in long shots, whether under moon or sun.

While the cinematography and camerawork are the most obvious successes, they only scratch the surface. The use of light is highly effective, showing us precisely what we need to see how we need to see it. The music by Hikaru Hayashi is understated and utterly appropriate, keeping entirely out of the way most of the time but then throwing us into frantic drum rhythms when needed. The acting doesn't let the side down either, even given that the whole film is carried by three actors and that we get surprisingly liberal doses of nudity for a 1964 film. Nobuko Otowa is most notable as the old woman.

The direction by Kaneto Shindo, who also wrote and designed the sets, is top notch, even better than the other film of his that I've seen, The Black Cat, made four years later. I'm certainly going to need to seek out more of his work. This is most certainly a triumph of classic Japanese horror, utterly timeless. This was made half a century ago and set half a millenium before that, but it's just as timely now and will remain so another five hundred years down the road. It's perhaps better than its frequent comparison in the classic Japanese horror genre, Kwaidan. Those comparisons are now obviously more due to the undeniable quality and the shared year of release more than anything else, the two being otherwise very different films.

Saturday 11 April 2009

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Director: Stan Winston
Stars: Lance Henriksen, Jeff East, John DiAquino, Kimberly Ross, Joel Hoffman, Cynthia Bain and Kerry Remsen

One of those few late eighties horror movies I somehow managed to miss at the time, Pumpkinhead was directed by Stan Winston who for some reason did not also do the special effects. Given that he's one of the true greats of the field, who designed the Terminator, that seems a little surprising. I wonder how he felt about that. Maybe they were protegees of his or some such that he guided through the work needed. I really hope they weren't just folks the studio forced on him because that must have frustrated him silly. I'm leaning towards the former because it's done pretty well indeed.

We begin back in 1957 with something weird going on at the Harley farm. Someone's outside with blood on his face screaming to get in, but old man Harley won't let him. He knows what's going on, enough so that he wants to keep a locked door between him and whatever's outside. Naturally whatever's outside is the Pumpkinhead of the title, and the brief glimpse we get is enough to show us that he's a huge and scary monster. Little Eddie sees him through the window and the image stays with him all the way through till the present day.

In the present day, Ed Harley (not the one Fletch pretends to be) runs a grocery store in the same small town and has a kid of his own, little Billy, who looks like the Milky Bar Kid. Ed himself is played by no less a genre name than Lance Henriksen. The day we meet them we also meet two other sets of kids. One is a local bunch of young'uns, who are all bedraggled filthy urchins who live on a farm that looks like a shanty town. They have names like Jimmy Joe, they walk around with pigs and they chant stories about Pumpkinhead to scare each other. They all belong to Mr Wallace, who's memorably played by Buck Flower.

The other is a set of city kids who have driven up in their SUV to mess around in a cabin on the mountain. While buying stuff at Harley's grocery store, they chase around on their dirt bikes and in a freak accident, Joel crashes into little Billy on his bike and kills him. Most of this bunch are just youths who are still young enough to know everything, but Joel's a nasty piece of work. They want to help but he makes them leave, even ripping out the phone cord in the cabin so that they can't ring for help. He's already on probation for another 'accident' in which he hurt a girl, so does all he can to avoid going to jail or worse.

Unfortunately for Joel, of course, Ed Harley knows about Pumpkinhead, so goes to the cabin of the local weird woman, a wizened old hag called Haggis, who apparently has the power to wreak vengeance on those who have been wronged. Haggis sends him on to a local graveyard deep in the woods, where folks bury kin they're ashamed of. It's an awesome set and there Harley digs up a corpse from a grave surrounded by pumpkins, to bring back to her to work her magic on. Soon Pumpkinhead is alive and doing what Harley wished, but he has more than a few second thoughts about what he set in motion.

This is far from a flawless film but there's a tone to it that rings very true. Henriksen is never bad, but he gets some great scenes here as a father whose son is killed, leaving him utterly alone. When he realises what he's done, he tries to stop it but of course that's not as easy as it might sound, and he feels every kill rush into him. On the victim side of things, Joel deserves everything he gets but the rest don't share in his guilty, or if they do it's to a much lesser degree. In fact, some of these kids are among the most sympathetic victims I've seen in horror movies. Usually I couldn't give a monkey's for any of them.

The monster is memorable and well built, as well as being a tricky little thing. It's also not explained too well so we're deliberately left trying to work out the rules as the film runs along. We realise the way out just before Ed Harley does himself, and we learn the secret shortly thereafter. It's a good secret, well written and well put together, just what a vengeance demon should be. In fact, there's nothing really bad about the film at all, which suffers only unfairly by comparison to what else the participants were doing at the time. Henriksen was coming off Near Dark and Aliens and Buck Flower was about to make They Live.