Miragemen

Mandrill Films [2007] 90′
country: Chile
director: Ernesto Diaz Espinoza

cast: Marko Zaror, Maria Elena Swett,
Ariel Mateluna, Mauricio Pesutic

When he and his brother were young, Maco’s (Marko Zaror) parents were killed in a robbery. Maco now works as the bouncer of a slightly classier strip club, but the death of his parents hasn’t left him with much of a life – he’s honing his martial arts skills alone in his nearly empty cellar hole of an apartment and is obsessed with physical fitness, and that’s all he has in life. He certainly has neither friends nor lovers.

Maco is still less hurt than his brother who lives in a mental institution, traumatized and depressed and unable to even leave his room.

One night on his way to work, Maco witnesses a robbery. He kicks the perpetrators’ asses, donning the mask he takes from one of them for no reason he himself could explain, rescues their victims and flees. One of the victims (Maria Elena Swett) is a TV reporter and on the next evening news, Maco finds himself styled as a masked vigilante hero.

His brother sees the news too, and the newly made hero seems to help him to get in contact with reality again. With a motivator this strong, Maco really doesn’t have much of a choice. He buys himself a reasonably silly outfit and tries to become the masked vigilante his brother dreams of.

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At first, his exploits aren’t always dignified, but everything goes reasonably well. Things change for him with rising popularity, though, and soon he has to cope with the dark side of the vigilante business – a media circus that wants to use him and eat him up, criminal enemies who are more dangerous than your typical street thug and the simple fact that Maco himself is not made of steel nor a millionaire playboy.

Mirageman demonstrates admirably that you don’t need Hollywood blockbuster money to create a good superhero movie. Director/writer Ernesto Diaz Espinoza and his star and martial arts and stunt expert Marko Zaror (who before made Kiltro, “the first South-American martial arts movie”, if I can believe what I read) take the whole masked vigilante thing down a to the street level and into something more aking to reality as we know it and ask the question how and why a physically normal man in modern Chile would go about being a hero of a sort. It’s probably as close to realism as you would want a film like it to be.

The film’s low budget aesthetic helps a lot to build this mood. Espinoza uses a lot of handheld camera (not to be misinterpreted as “shaky-cam”), while at least some of the film is obviously shot guerilla style on the streets, giving everything a gritty sheen which reminds every reviewer writing about the film – me included -  of 70s cinema, as does the third generation funky soundtrack. The colours are unfortunately very much of the yellow, blue and gray 2000s, but I’m willing to let this slide as one of the compromises people making movies without much money have to make to be able to produce something at all.

The first half of the film plays at least in parts for laughs, but it never overplays the humor in the way your typical spoof would do it. The film’s humor instead arises mostly from thinking the difficulties of things like costume changes in real life through and looking at them in a clever and dry sort of way without any need to fall back on meanness or slapstick.

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But Espinoza is also able to handle the darker and more tragic parts of his film well, shifting its mood from lightness to grimness in a fitting replica of the history of superhero comics. If one goes into the film only expecting sweetness and light and broken bones, one would probably be shocked by the big final battle.

There are also some very fine fights on display which Espinoza decides to show instead of hiding everything in them away by way of fast cutting and stupid camera effects. It does of course help that Zaror is an actual martial artist who is able to perform authentically enough looking fights without problems. To my surprise, Zaror shows himself also to be quite a decent actor, able to sell the psychological scars of his character well enough.

Of course there are flaws – the film’s pacing is a little jagged and not every element and character is as clearly or logically developed as our hero and his brother. I found the deus ex machina character who helps Maco a few times especially clumsily inserted.

Still, its healthy mixture of believability and playfulness, comedy and tragedy is what makes Mirageman so satisfying. It’s the great little superhero movie that could, even though too few people know about it.

For more bizarre movie goodness, be sure
to visit Denis’ excellent review blog The Horror!?

IT! The Terror From Beyond Space

Vogue Pictures [1958] 69′
country: United States
director: Edward L. Cahn
cast: Marshall Thompson, Shirley
Patterson, Kim Spalding, Ann Doran,
Dabbs Greer, Ray Corrigan
MGM [2005] $9.98
single layer DVD10 / NTSC / Region 1
subtitles: French, Spanish
Order this title from Amazon.com

When the first manned mission to Mars meets with unexpected disaster a rescue mission is quickly ordered, but what the rescue ship finds upon landing is far stranger than they had anticipated.  Out of ten original crew members only Colonel Carruthers [Thompson] is alive, claiming that a violent Martian creature is responsible for the deaths of his fellow astronauts.  With no sign of the beast to be found and evidence mounting against him [like the skull of one of his friends being found with a bullet hole in it], Carruthers’ story falls on deaf ears in favor of a more logical theory – that the Colonel killed his crew.

But the ship has more than just Carruthers on board when it begins its return flight, with the monster that killed the Colonel’s crew sneaking aboard through an open cargo hatch.  It isn’t long before the formidable beast, invulnerable to conventional weapons and possessing immense strength, is on the prowl, leaving Carruthers and the deminishing rescue crew little choice but to find a means to destroy it or die.

This is a reasonably successful little no-budget sci-fi shocker from the tail end of the American genre boom.  Ostensibly a rehash of the superior man vs. alien effort THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD [minus the nod to the flying saucer craze] with the action moved to outer space, IT! made an indelible impression on generations of viewers thanks in large part to its healthy life on television.

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Prolific director Edward L. Cahn [CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN, THE INVISIBLE INVADERS] managed to produce not only IT!, but its accompanying feature CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN and three other films before 1958 was through, and there is no denying that it’s every bit as quick and dirty as that packed production schedule would suggest.  Much of the limited special effects work is re-cut and repeated throughout, notably shots of the monster’s shuffling feet and footage of the rescue spaceship ascending through the stars.  Still, Cahn was a competent director even if the material he worked with was often not and, along with cinematographer Kenneth Peach [an accomplished fellow who would go on to work on many episodes of the original THE OUTER LIMITS television series], he manages to class up the proceedings to a certain extent.

One thing that clever lighting and competent direction can’t gloss over is the ludicrous science of IT! – heaven help them if there was a technical advisor for the production.  Forget for a moment that much of the crew smokes while in their oxygen-rich environment [cartons of cigarettes can be seen stocked in the ship's store room], as that’s small potatoes for a film that has a man defending himself with a blowtorch in space.  Lifting off from the Martian surface doesn’t even rate the crew of the ship sitting, much less being strapped in, and a spacewalk is undertaken with not so much as a single tow-rope in evidence.

Luckily, IT! is more horror than science fiction and it manages at least a few memorable moments in that respect – Marshall Thompson’s [CULT OF THE COBRA, FIEND WITHOUT A FACE] spooky narration helps.  It’s hard to forget the image of a three-clawed hand punching its way through one of the spaceship’s central hatchways or of “it” bursting forth, backlit, from the reactor room.  But IT! suffers in showing far too much of its menace in its brief running time, and could have been that much more effective had its makers taken a cue from inspiration THE THING and limited audience exposure to the Paul Blaisdell-devised monster suit [later re-used for THE INVISIBLE INVADERS].

Most notable among IT!’s cast is the man behind the monster – none other than Ray “Crash” Corrigan.  While he received the starring role in the 1936 serial UNDERSEA KINGDOM, Corrigan was better known for playing variety of film monsters, predominantly of the ape variety [as in THE WHITE GORILLA and BELA LUGOSI MEETS THE BROOKLYN GORILLA].  Those who have seen his previous work will find his mannerisms here, in his final role, instantly recognizable.  Sad is the case of the beautiful and reasonably talented Shirley Patterson [using her pseudonym Shawn Smith] who is wasted in a traditional female role only slightly less thankless than the one she’d played in THE LAND UNKNOWN the previous year [at least the men on board this ship don't spend every waking moment making lewd remarks while Patterson grins and takes it].  She would appear only once more, in an episode of FRONTIER DOCTOR, before disappearing from screen acting all together.

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MGM first released IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE as a stand-alone DVD in August of 2001 – it is this same encoding that is copied over to the Midnight Movies double bill [with THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD] flipper reviewed here.  The black and white transfer is progressive and open-matte, leaving ample dead space at the top and bottom of the frame.  This looks to be the same SD master used for previous VHS and United Artists Sci-Fi Matinee laserdisc releases and while detail is at reasonable levels contrast is flat and damage is both present and frequent.  Audio is presented in serviceable Dolby Digital monophonic – the score by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter, re-composed themes from the previous year’s KRONOS, has some nice punchiness at times, but don’t expect anything spectacular.  Subtitles are available in French or Spanish.  A fanciful theatrical trailer [complete with some utterly failed attempts at subliminal marketing] is the only supplement.

Frankly, I can’t see any reason not to recommend this disc – the retail price is low, online sale price lower, and you get the memorable THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD on the flip-side of the disc for your troubles.  Those just wishing to test the waters should check hulu.com, on which you can currently view IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE in a new and properly matted 1.85:1 transfer [undoubtedly one of MGM's many recent HD remasters] free of charge.

However you choose to see it, IT! is a hoot and a sight better than many in its class from the same time period.  It’s also mercifully brief, running just 69 minutes with credits and all.  I have no problem recommending.

Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection

casecompany: Sony
release date: August 18, 2009
retail price: $24.96
details: 1x DVD5 + 2x DVD9 / NTSC / Region 1
subtitles: English
film: The H-Man
a.k.a. Bijo to Ekitainingen
company: Toho Co. ltd.
year: 1958
runtime: 86′ / 78′
director: Ishiro Honda
cast: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa,
Akihiko Hirata, Eitaro Ozawa
film: Battle in Outer Space
a.k.a. Uchu Daisenso
company: Toho Co. ltd.
year: 1959
runtime: 93′ / 93′
director: Ishiro Honda
cast: Ryo Ikebe, Kyoko Anzai,
Koreya Senda, Yoshio Tsuchiya
film: Mothra
a.k.a. Mosura
company: Toho Co. ltd.
year: 1960
runtime: 101′ / 90′
director: Ishiro Honda
cast: Frankie Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi,
Kyoko Kagawa, Jerry Ito
Order this collection from Amazon.com


This has been a long time coming from Sony / Columbia Pictures, who have been sitting on renewed rights to a trio of Toho-produced science fiction and fantasy classics for the past 20 years.  The good news is that this Icons of Sci-Fi collection [hopefully the first of many more to come] is well worth the wait, a few nagging caveats aside.  I think it best that we get those out of the way right now.

The biggest complaint I have is with just how cheaply the set appears to have been put together – this is a far cry from the excellent slim-case packaging of the earlier Icons of Horror: Sam Katzman Collection.  The cover is a aesthetically off-putting blob of photoshop madness that’s far beneath what we know Sony can produce when they put their minds to it.  The packaging itself is a single Amaray case with a single hub used to house all three discs in a small stack, making scratching during removal all but inevitable [this reviewer's first action after opening the set was to put each disc in a proper case of its own and chuck the one provided in the garbage].  Then there is the labelling of the discs themselves, which is just printed text on the silver DVD surface.  I expect this kind of garbage from companies like Mill Creek or Navarre, but from a major studio it’s nigh on unacceptable.

Less a complaint than an admission of personal disappointment is the lack of supplemental material [beyond the two fine audio commentaries, to be discussed below] for the set.  Both Toho and Sony / Columbia Pictures have trailers for these films in storage, but they are nowhere to be found on this set.  The most we get is a bit of cross-marketing via a trio of previews for unrelated releases that can be found on the disc for THE H-MAN.

That said, the set’s retail price is low and the sale price at most online retail outlets even lower – I snagged my copy for less than what a bootlegged disc of any one of these films would have cost from popular fan venues like Video Daikaiju and for a third of what a R2 Toho disc can be imported for.

It’s also important to note that all three films in this set received digital restorations from Sony, which recreated the English dubbed editions through a combination of their own less than stellar  elements with new interpositives provided by Toho Co. ltd.  The image quality remains consistent between the English dubbed and original Japanese versions, as shown in the second and fourth captures from THE H-MAN.  While some dust, speckling and minor damage is still present, the transfers are very satisfying to behold and will be a real treat for stateside fans.

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THE H-MAN is a film I fondly remember waking up early to see on the precious few occasions that it aired through the late 80s and early 90s, but my younger self couldn’t have appreciated the true spectacle of the thing from the cut and cropped version that kicked around on US television.  The film follows the interweaving stories of a woman on the run, detectives out to solve a gang-related missing persons case and a young researcher looking to prove his radical hypothesis that exposure to intense radioactivity can liquify living tissue.  It’s a bizarre mix of crime noir and Quatermass-inspired science fiction goodness and one of the most memorable of the non-daikaiju efforts Toho was producing at the time.

The script by Takeshi Kimura [MATANGO] from a story by Hideo Unagami is played essentially straight and offers up plenty of opportunities to showcase the horrific powers of the titular menace [and, vicariously, nuclear weaponry].  The H-men [or liquid humans, as they are referred to in the original Japanese] are the bi-product of nuclear testing in the Pacific and a unique metaphor for mankind’s more destructive tendencies.  Kimura’s end message is clear – more tests mean more H-men, and more H-men mean no humans.  Ishiro Honda’s direction is deft and assured, and he allows the picture to retain a welcome darkness in spite of its primary focus on entertainment.  Special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya are more limited with this effort than with the other two in the set but are no less accomplished – who can forget those oozing swaths of green slime or the vistas of Tokyo waterways engulfed in flame.

Sony offers up two transfers of THE H-MAN, the original Japanese cut and the shorter English dubbed American theatrical cut, on a dual layer disc.  The general details are the same, with the restored sources being presented in fine 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 Tohoscope with great color and solid contrast.  Hajime Koizumi’s vivid scope cinematography is well served.  Audio is presented in the original 2.0 stereo for both the English dubbed and Japanese versions, with the latter having the best fidelity overall – Masaru Sato’s lively score, one of the best out of his early work, punches through nicely.  Separate easy to read English subtitles are provided for both versions.  For an older Toho title THE H-MAN looks very good here, and I’ve no complaints with the presentation.

This film gets the short end of the stick in the supplements department and is the only one of the set not to feature a commentary track – a pity, really.  The only supplements are a trio of trailers for unrelated Sony product.

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BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, Toho’s big sci-fi special effects blockbuster for the New Years season of 1959 / 1960 plays like a thematic sequel to THE MYSTERIANS from two years earlier [there are no direct plot connections to the earlier film, though a few characters share names with characters from that film], but with the bulk of the action moved beyond Earth’s atmosphere.  The story concerns a moon-based assault on our planet by the war-mongering people of Natal and the efforts of the United Nations to stop the invaders.  The fantasy quotient of BATTLE is spot on.  Audiences are treated to a lunar offensive by way of ray-gun armed super vehicles that look like a cross between the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile and the landmasters from DAMNATION ALLEY, an outer space dogfight between alien saucers and Earthly fighter craft and the uprooting of downtown Tokyo by the Natalian mothership.

Unfortunately the drama of BATTLE is strictly bottom-of-the-barrel stuff.  Romantic interest must have been deemed necessary late in the game and seems to have been tacked on as an afterthought, with the relationship between stars Ryo Ikebe and Kyoko Anzai relegated to two brief scenes in which the former is a complete jackass.  The rest of the screenplay is devoted exclusively to military / scientific babble and the stereotypical threat-speeches from the Natalian invaders.  The only really promising element is the character of Iwomura played by the eccentric and ever-reliable Yoshio Tsuchiya, and his arch from scientist to Natalian slave to self-sacrificing hero is still shortchanged by the writing.

Inept as it is in the drama department, Eiji Tsuburaya’s effects direction is top-of-the line for the genre.  The lengthy moon offensive and it’s bevy of blue screen work is particularly impressive, as is the first-of-its-kind outer space dogfight.  Tsuburaya’s work is enough to make BATTLE a must-see for genre aficianados.  Akira Ifukube’s rousing score, one of his best for the genre, is another high point of the film – the dark and melodious themes that accompany Earth’s astronauts on their first visit to the moon are not to be missed.

BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE was not edited in regards to running time by Columbia Pictures, though new titles were made and much of the Ifukube soundtrack removed in favor of bland library cues.  Sony presents the film on a single layer DVD5 with seemless branching between the original Japanese and English dubbed variants.  The transfer is 16:9 enhanced in the original Tohoscope ratio and looks splendid, with vibrant colors and contrast – I’ve seen this film in all manner of disrepair over the years and the restoration here is a revelation.  While the vast majority of the transfer is encoded for progressive playback, the branched opening and closing segments are interlaced and a drop in quality is noticeable [particularly at the end of each version].  Audio is presented in Japanese and English, both in their original 2.0 stereo formats.  Unfortunately someone seriously goofed on the subtitle front, and the only option available are the subtitles made for the English dubbed varient.  That version’s talkiness leads to many subtitled lines that simply don’t exist in the original Japanese and the dub-titles are, predictably, not always accurate to the Japanese dialogue that is present.

Supplements are limited to a fine commentary track by authors Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, two of the best in the business as far as genre commentaries are concerned.  The two keep the discussion lively, entertaining and, most important of all, informative.  Thanks to the branched structure, the commentary track is accessible from both the English and Japanese cuts of the film.

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Rounding out the collection is one of the most highly regarded of Toho’s giant monster efforts, the big budget fantasy MOTHRA.  The story has a bit of a KING KONG vibe, with two young women substituted for the giant ape as the exploited centerpiece.  Novel to this film is the concept of a giant monster as an impartial guardian, concerned only with the well being of the two Infant Island princesses.  The peaceful culture of Infant Island exists in stark contrast to the rest of the world in MOTHRA, even with the Cold War literally knocking at its door through its use as a nuclear weapons test site by the country of Rolisica [a fictitious stand in for Cold War superpowers Russia and the United States].

MOTHRA was a huge undertaking for Toho, warranting a higher budget than was typically alotted their already largely budgeted genre pictures, and it shows.  Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya is at the absolute height of his talents here, creating vast cityscapes for the larval and adult Mothras to destroy.  Some of the models are quite large and, as such, feature an amount of detail rarely seen in miniature work – seeing them smashed to bits by the unstoppable monster-god is pure old-school spfx bliss.  A sequence in which the larval Mothra destroys a dam is simply astounding and was recreated by Teruyoshi Nakano, albeit on a smaller scale, for the much maligned GODZILLA VS. MEGALON.

The drama in this case is, in contrast to BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, quite good and balances out the picture nicely.  Frankie Sakai and Kyoko Kagawa are wonderful as a trouble-causing reporter / photographer team, two characters who would be recycled [with different actors] in 1964′s MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA.  Hiroshi Koizumi, one of my favorite genre actors, plays the eccentric linguist Chujo, who is forever at odds with Jerry Ito’s greedy opportunist Rolisican Clark Nelson.  Nelson is one of the most ridiculous and audacious villains in Toho history, and is so identifiably bad that it’s hard not to boo and hiss whenever he’s on screen.  A prime example of his character comes just before he is killed at the conclusion of the film, with Nelson stealing the cane from a hobbling elderly man and hurling it into the street.  Then there is the twin sister musical act The Peanuts [Emi and Yumi Ito], whose reasonable performances and exceptional voices hold MOTHRA together.

Sony presents MOTHRA on a dual layer disc with two unique transfers – one for the English and another for the original Japanese variants of the film.  Both are presented in 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 Tohoscope and are progressive, with exceptional color and contrast.  The level of detail is a notch higher here, and Hajime Koizumi’s work as cinematographer is well served once again.  This is easily the best looking film of the set.  Audio is presented in 2.0 stereo for both films, with the original Japanese element being the most aurally satisfying.  Seperate subtitles in an easily readable white font are provided for both variants.

Another choice commentary track by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski is on board as the only supplement, but it’s a welcome one.  The pair are as entertaining and informative here as ever, and provide extensive background and production information for the title.  The commentary track is available for the shorter English dubbed variant of MOTHRA only.

While more supplements and [especially] better packaging could have improved my reception of this set, I found myself growing more and more satisfied with it as I watched.  The films all look fantastic [brief interlacing on BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE aside] and the addition of the English dubbed US theatrical variants is just what my inner child ordered.  This one is an easy recommendation and a must-buy as far as I’m concerned.  Now if whoever is sitting on the U.S. rights to the Brenco Pictures distributed Toho classics GORATH, THE LAST WAR and THE HUMAN VAPOR will just get with the program . . .

Cult Camp Classics Vol. 1: Sci-Fi Thrillers

Warner Brothers [2007] $29.98
Single layer DVD5 x 3 / NTSC / Region 1
subtitles: English, French, and
English SDH available for all films
ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN
Allied Artists [1958] 66′
director: Nathan Juran
cast: Allison Hayes, William Hudson,
Yvette Vickers, Roy Gordon
QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE
Allied Artists [1958] 80′
director: Edward Bernds
cast: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eric Fleming,
Laurie Mitchell, Lisa Davis
THE GIANT BEHEMOTH
Allied Artists [1958] 80′
director: Eugene Lourie
cast: Gene Evans, Andre Morell,
John Turner, Leigh Madison
Order this collection from Amazon.com

This is an excellent little collection that I took my sweet time catching up to [finally picking it up from a secondary seller at Amazon.com and getting it, new, for $12 less than retail] and the first dip by Warner Brothers into the vast collection of old Allied Artists properties they now own.  With the DVD market in a downturn and Warner opting to offer its archive titles in expensive [$15 to $20 a piece] on-demand editions it seems that these sorts of collections from the company may be a thing of the past – a real shame, as the Cult Camp Classics label had real promise.

Volume 1 brings together a trio of wildly disparate but undeniably fun Allied Artists science fictioners from the late 50′s, all new to legitimate US DVD and all of which are available separately for $14.98 retail.

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ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN is a fine tongue-in-cheek take on the popular giant-themed Bert I. Gordon efforts of the time [THE CYCLOPS, THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, et al.] that I remember first seeing on a UHF station towards the end of the 80s.  It concerns unfaithful husband Harry [William Hudson], his affair with greedy beauty Honey [Yvette Vickers] and the duo’s disdain for Harry’s needy but rich wife Nancy [Allison Hayes].  Harry and Honey devise a number of lame schemes to off Nancy after an encounter with an alien spacecraft sends her off the deep end, but wind up getting their just deserves when the encounter has the unlikely side effect of turning Nancy into a 50 foot giant . . .

Nathan [THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS, THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, 20,000,000 MILES TO EARTH] Juran directs under the pseudonym Nathan Hertz and does what he does best – taking sub-par premises and turning out entertaining drive-in diversions.  ATTACK, like the previous year’s THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS, is intentionally ludicrous from top to bottom and features effects that wouldn’t have passed muster with the king of the ineffective travelling matte, Bert I. Gordon himself.  It’s all in good fun and over in barely an hour, making it prime material for a double [or triple, in this case] feature.

Warner Brothers presents ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN in a fine 16:9 enhanced progressive widescreen transfer, and I doubt this black and white cheapie has ever looked better.  Detail is at the high end and contrast is spot on.  I noticed no encoding issues though the 66 minute feature takes up less than 3 gigs on this single layer disc.  The only extra is a commentary track from the always excellent Tom Weaver, here interviewing actress Yvette Vickers.  The packaging lists a theatrical trailer, but it seems to have been forgotten in the finished encoding and is nowhere to be found in the vob structure.

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Fashioned from a satirical source script that no one seemed to notice was satirical until it was too late and loaded with props and effects from previous ventures [like FORBIDDEN PLANET and WORLD WITHOUT END], QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE is easily the worst of this set but is no less fun for its numerous troubles.  The story concerns a band of Earthmen, three astronauts and a scientist [the dependable Paul Birch, of WAR OF THE WORLDS and DAY THE WORLD ENDED fame], crash land on Venus and overthrow the evil feminist society that has developed their in the absence of men.

Director Edward Bernds [WORLD WITHOUT END, RETURN OF THE FLY] plays Charles Beaumont’s outright parodic script painfully straight for much of the picture with unintentionally hilarious results.  The cast, headed by beauty Zsa Zsa Gabor, deliver the inane dialogue as well as can be expected but look to be having a good time with things [how could you not?].  I missed this one in my early childhood but caught it on TNT as part of their Rudy and Gogo New Year’s Eve Flaming Cheese Ball special at the nexus of 1995/1996.  It was in good company with the likes of THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO and THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL – I had a blast.

Warner’s progressive and 16:9 enhanced transfer of QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE presents it in its original Cinemascope for the first time outside of theatrical exhibition, which only makes the paltriness of the production even more apparent [there are at least twice as many cuts in the pan-and-scanned edition, which at least adds some variety to the static dialogue takes].  Detail and contrast are strong, though the colors fluctuate from time to time due to negative damage.  The unrestored image is certainly good enough for me, and I can’t imagine anyone footing the bill to improve upon it.  Like ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN, QUEEN is accompanied by a Tom Weaver commentary, with Laurie Mitchell [the disfigured queen of the title] the interview subject this go around.  The commentary is fun and informative, though there are a few dead patches here and there – I suppose one can’t be blamed for having too little to say about a film like this.  The promised theatrical trailer is present and accounted for here, allowing us another glimpse at just how much the film’s marketing depended on Zsa Zsa.

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THE GIANT BEHEMOTH [or BEHEMOTH THE SEA MONSTER, as it's called in the United Kingdom] was a co-production between Artists Alliance, Ltd. [THE STRANGE WORLD OF PLANET X] and Diamond Pictures Corp originally intended as an X THE UNKNOWN / QUATERMASS styled science fiction thriller about a radioactive sea-blob.  But the money lenders wanted a more bankable run-of-the-mill monster, and the rest is history.  The story involves two scientists [Gene Evans and the great Andre Morell] investigating a fish kill and mysterious deaths that are eventually linked to the resurrection of the fictitious paleosaurus, a radiation-spewing dinosaur perturbed by atomic tests that soon makes a bee-line for London.

The biggest draw of BEHEMOTH is its sparse stop-motion effects work, directed by Willis O’Brien and animated by Pete Peterson [THE BLACK SCORPION], but it’s obvious that there wasn’t enough money around to produce much of it.  What’s on display is quite good, though several shots are rather obviously optically enlarged and repeated throughout the climactic attack on London [we see the creature step on the same car at least three times].  The final script by Eugene Lourie and Daniel James has much in common with Lourie’s earlier THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, including the important plot point that the monster must be killed in one piece and the daffy professor who dies to see the thing.  Still, BEHEMOTH is at the high end of the spectrum as far as generic creature features are concerned thanks to its excellent cast and Lourie’s solid direction.  I’m constantly surprised by just how dark this film is compared to the earlier BEAST and some of the images of the destructive aftermath of the eponymous monster are quite graphic for a mainstream release from 1958.

Warner’s new DVD of THE GIANT BEHEMOTH is of the full-length cut of the film, including the ferry boat sequence omitted from an earlier VHS release here in the states.  The unrestored progressive and 16:9 enhanced transfer is crisp and clean, with excellent contrast and minimal damage.  Every flaw in the under-funded special effects is front and center, but that didn’t deter me in the least – BEHEMOTH looks great on digital, and it’s been a long time coming.  Unfortunately the commentary track commissioned for the disc is anything but helpful – effects men Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett are woefully under-informed and have nothing of use to say beyond a few comments on the effects and the occasional condescending remark.  It’s a real shame that Tom Weaver wasn’t approached again for this title, as this track is a complete bust.  The promised theatrical trailer is present and accounted for and is in reasonably good shape, though it reveals nearly all of the stop motion monster effects.

There have been three other Cult Camp Classics collection released thus far, though it would probably be best if we not expect more [especially with Warner offering up obscure titles like FROM HELL IT CAME through their Warner Archive Collection].  I’ve not seen the others and don’t have the same attachment to the films contained in them, but this set is, with few exceptions, a real winner.  Highly recommended!

Mahakaal

a.k.a. THE MONSTER
Prime Films / Cine Film [1988/1993] 132′
country: India
director: Tulsi and Shyam Ramsay
cast: Karan Shah, Archana Puran Singh,
Johnny Lever, Mayur, Reema Lagoo
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The life of thirty year old college teenager Anita (Archana Puran Singh) is starting to get interesting. Right now, she and her equally old student friends (among them the most terrifying monster of all – “comedian” Johnny Lever) are still cavorting around merrily – that is when her boyfriend Prakash and his best friend Rakesh aren’t dishooming the local would-be rapists - but all this is beginning to change when Anita’s best friend Seela, and very soon our heroine herself, is starting to have terrible nightmares.

In them, they are hunted by a shadowy, mulletted man with a scarred face and the propensity to laugh menacingly while showing his charming iron-bladed gloves. That would probably be troubling enough for the girls, yet the worst thing is that these dreams are leaving physical traces behind. It’s one thing dreaming about getting your nightshirt ripped by claws, but it’s quite another when you wake up and actually find it ripped.

Still, the friends are (theoretically) young, their hair freshly sprayed and mulletted, so they decide to drive to the country-side to have a picnic and cavort some more. That works out nicely until they want to drive back home and discover that their car won’t move an inch anymore. Fortunately there’s a hotel nearby. Unfortunately, it’s managed by another Johnny Lever and has no working phones to call home from. How immoral! Well, at least it’s dry and warm.

Anita and Prakash do the boring and responsible thing by keeping chaste. Seela and Rakesh however decide to have a real picnic together in one bed. Would you believe that Seela dreams of the nice man with the interesting gloves again? Yeah, I was completely taken by surprise myself. This time, though, he’s not just appearing to scare the girl; he kills her, leaving Rakesh – who of course decides to run – as the main suspect of the dastardly deed, no matter that there’s no proof whatsoever against him.

Hunting Rakesh is Anita’s father, your usual Bollywood patriarchal copper arsehole. Thanks to Rakesh’s brilliant idea to make a visit to his school campus in bright daylight, it’s a very short manhunt, and the young idiot finds himself in a nice, damp cell.

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The next night, Anita dreams of Rakesh getting killed in his cell by the mullet man and his new pet snakes, and even her skeptical father looks shaken when he learns that the young man did in fact die that night.

After a few more small revelations, Dad explains who the man with the gloves is. It’s a certain Shakaal, a black magician who worshipped some undefined dark gods by sacrificing children to them. Seven years ago, he kidnapped Anita’s little sister to do the same to her. Her father wasn’t able to save his daughter, so he poked Shakaal in the face with a torch and buried him alive in a chained box in some ruins. Obviously, the dead man has returned to take his vengeance.

If there is one thing you can count on when it comes to the films of the Ramsay Brothers, it is their absolutely shameless will to entertain in the broadest and sleaziest (for Hindi cinema) way possible. These two aren’t afraid of anything, not even ripping off one of the two films by Wes Craven that are actually any good – A NIghtmare On Elm Street.

Well, there is something the Ramsays were afraid of – putting their Nightmare rip-off into the cinemas when their arch enemy Mohan Bakhri had just before thrown his own version of the tale, Khooni Murdaa, on the market. Just imagine, they could have lost money! So they let the film lie and ripen for a few years and only put it out when the Bollywood horror boom had already run its course, making it their last theatrical feature before they had to flee into the land of cable TV, as far as I’ve heard while being hunted by villagers carrying torches.

So the fashion and the victims of Johnny Lever’s “parodies” (and does Amitabh Bachchan’s comeback vehicle Shahenshah truly need to be parodied?) and “satire” are very much part of the late 80s. I have a hard time imagining that this will have helped Mahakaal‘s financial performance, but hey, what do I know about stuff like that.

What I do know is what I find fun, and Mahakaal definitely is fun.

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Sure, if you are easily angered by really brazen theft of plots, ideas, scene set-ups or musical cues, you’ll probably have a hard time watching it without beginning to froth at the mouth. I find the Ramsay method here rather charming. The first half of Mahakaal copies the plot progression and characters of its model as closely as possible, but adds a lot of flavor to prepare Craven’s recipe for the taste of an Indian audience. So the viewer gets to see a slightly less bloody version of A Nightmare on Elm Street plus everything he, she or it ever loved about the trashier side of Bollywood cinema – musical numbers of dubious quality (well, I actually found the last one with its golden glitter costumes from hell rather undubious, even quite delightful), heroines with an insane propensity to get very very wet, said dishooming of would-be rapists and other assorted rabble, Johnny Lever humor you can blessedly fast forward through because his scenes are not in the least relevant for anything else in the film (although you will then miss out on things like his Michael Jackson imitation, his Amitabh Bachchan in Shahenshah stick – which is actually kinda funny – and the rare Johnny action scene).

Then the last third of the film arrives, and the Ramsays have obviously had enough of following Craven, throw out the dream demon idea completely and turn the film into the monster rumble most of their films I have seen until now end in. Which is an excellent idea when it brings us a re-jigged scene stolen from Dawn of the Dead, an inexplicable, but fun bout of demonic possession and a much better water bed death scene than in the original. The only way to beat that (or bring it to an end) is of course to end the film in a bizarre beat-down that is at once gruesome, silly and absolutely insane and alone worth the price of admission.

Technically, Mahakaal is typical Ramsay Brothers filmmaking – there’s not a bit of subtlety to find anywhere, yet the brothers show an exhilarating sense for hysterical in-your-face intensity when it comes to the horror sequences or the action. If it has to do with the use of zoom, manic camera movements, fog, multi-coloured lights, more fog, or bizarre interior architecture (watch out for the temple of evil!), the Ramsays know what they are doing and (or so I suspect) love it.

Memorable acting you won’t find here, but at least our heroine, future TV personality Archana Puran Singh, is as game for anything as Polly (Shan) Kuan, be it fighting an invisible man, getting very very wet repeatedly, or just screaming “Nahiiiiiiiin!”. Especially her screams are something I won’t soon forgot.

What more could I ask from a film?

For more bizarre movie goodness, be sure
to visit Denis’ excellent review blog The Horror!?

Wool 100%

The Klock Worx Co. [2006] 100′
country: Japan
director: Mia Tominaga
cast: Kyoko Kishida, Kazuko Yoshiyuki,
Ayu Kitaura, Carolina Kaneda, Eiko Koike
dvd: Cult Epoch [2008] $24.98
Dual layer DVD9 / NTSC / Region 1
subtitles: English [feature only]
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Ume [Kyoko Kishida] and Kame [Kazuko Yoshiyuki] are sisters who, since their childhood, have been obsessed with collecting and caring for the things other people throw away.  Now asocial elderly women, their daily routine revolves entirely around their finds – which have quite literally engulfed their large home.  One morning while wandering about town they discover a hamper full of red wool yarn and decide to take it home to add to their collection.  But far from being a benign bit of abandoned junk, the yarn attracts a young girl [Ayu Kitaura] to their home . . . a young girl who spends all of her waking hours in a sisyphian routine of knitting the perfect sweater and bursts into ear-shattering hysterics every time she realizes she must knit it again.

The introduction of this stranger into their set way of life is understandably troublesome for Ume and Kame, particularly when the young girl [nicknamed "Aminaoshi", or "Knit-again", by the women] takes to disorganizing and outright destroying their junk collection.  But the old women soon realize that the more things they remove from the house, the more they unravel about their own past and the often traumatic events that have led up to their present circumstances.

Mia Tominaga’s WOOL 100%, which she both wrote and directed, is another in a long line of fantastic genre-defying Japanese feature films that have appeared over the past two decades.  Steeped in its own allegorical fantasy mythology and lacking in traditional narrative sensibilities, WOOL is both welcoming and abstract – intrinsically watchable but so demanding of thought that many audiences will undoubtedly be left scratching their heads.

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In style and subtext, WOOL reminds of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s eccentric coming-of-age horror fairy tale HOUSE from 1977 – particularly when various items in Ume and Kame’s huge home begin attacking their ever-knitting guest.  Both films focus on the trials and traumas of growing up, though WOOL’s perspective is ostensibly the opposite of Obayashi’s film.  The two sisters here are traumatized at a young age when their mother dies during pregnancy, with the second World War throwing a figurative wrench into their burgeoning sexuality by destroying the only young man they’ve come to know.  Thusly the two begin a reclusive lifestyle, walling themselves in behind a mountain of remnants of other people’s lives.

Enter Aminaoshi, the first human being the sisters have willingly [even if not at first] associated themselves with in decades.  It is she who allows them to see the things of the house for what they are, less protectors [as the opening narration describes them] than the wardens of a prison of their own making.  As the wall comes tumbling down and Ume and Kame’s routine unravels, they begin to remember the past and, more importantly, start to realize what they have to do.  The conclusion has them [young once more] abandoning the house in the wake of a cheerful Aminaoshi-led firestorm, following a thread of red yarn wherever it may lead them.

The treatment of Aminaoshi is interesting as well.  When she first appears the sisters mark her down as an object like the rest they’ve found and even give her a cute name, adding a drawing of their conception of her to one of their piles of collection scrapbooks.  Their perception defines her existence in the house in the beginning, and the inanimate objects take on an unlikely life in her presence and fight for domination over her.  She is nearly eaten by a blanket and a TV set and is pummeled senseless by a large teeter-tottering doll.  This culminates in an animated showdown between Aminaoshi and some of the home’s more recognizable denizens, a battle that ends with Aminaoshi beginning her destructive rampage through the sisters’ possessions and affirming the importance of the living over the inert.

Tominaga directs with considerable flair and a truly unique visual style, and its easy to lose yourself in the impressive visuals.  She keeps the overall tone of the picture light and whimsical, aside from a few key moments, with excellent results overall.  Her screenplay, which manages to connect just about every story element to a few spools of vivid red yarn, is charming if a bit forced at times.  I was hard pressed to find any nagging issues with the production side of things at all, but I’m a sucker for any film that starts with two old women scaring the bejesus out of a youth choir.  I find it a real pity that Tominaga hasn’t directed more in the three years since WOOL saw release and can only hope that we see more of her in the future.

Special mention needs be made of the fantastic cast Tominaga assembled for her debut feature.  Big-time actresses Kiyoko Kishida [perhaps best known for playing the eponymous WOMAN IN THE DUNES in the 1964 Hiroshi Teshigahara film] and Kazuko Yoshiyuki [Seki in Nagisa Oshima's EMPIRE OF PASSION from 1978] are phenomenal picks to play the delightfully bizarre older sisters.  Both actresses had highly successful careers that had spanned at least five decades at the time WOOL was produced, and Yoshiyuki is still working in film today.  This was Kishida’s final performance before her passing in December 2006, and it’s a fine swan song.  Equally good in her role as Aminaoshi is relative newcomer Ayu Kitaura, who should have a long career ahead of her if her work in WOOL is any indication.

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Cult Epoch should be commended for giving WOOL 100% a North American DVD release at all, though the disc has its fair share of detracting factors.  The transfer [mis-advertised as full frame] is a reasonably detailed interlaced 16:9 enhanced job with colors and contrast both well rendered.  There is minor ghosting evident at times as well as a few video artifacts, but this appears to be more the fault of the DV source format [transferred to 35mm for theatrical distribution] than the disc’s dual layer encoding.  The pleasant Dolby Digital stereo audio track is augmented with intelligible and highly readable English subtitles.

The disc only really falls flat in the supplemental department.  We get a set of trailers that are of lesser quality than the feature and a brief behind-the-scenes docu running 17:29.  The latter is particularly troublesome as Cult Epoch has neglected to provide any subtitling options for it, making it a useless add-on for the vast majority of the North American DVD market.  A brief stills gallery rounds out the related supplements, and a few unrelated trailers for other available Cult Epoch DVDs finish off the disc proper.  This release of WOOL 100% retails at $24.98, which seems high to me [particularly given the lack of viable supplements] but is still a better bargain than the pricey and subtitle-devoid Japanese disc from 2007.

WOOL 100% is a real charmer as far as I’m concerned and one of the best films I’ve seen in a while.  This deliciously off-kilter and undeniably original fantasy isn’t going to be for everyone, but I think those willing to give it more than a passing thought will find it a rewarding experience indeed.  Highly recommended!

District 9

TriStar Pictures [2009] 112′
country: South Africa / New Zealand
director: Neill Blomkamp
cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope,
Vanessa Haywood, Robert Hobbs

Twenty years ago a massive space ship stalled over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa complete with a huge crew of malnourished and downtrodden workers belonging to an unidentified [at least beyond the derogatory distinction of "prawns"] alien race.  Under international pressure, an internment camp known as District 9 is built within the city to house the population of illegal aliens and keep them separated from the wary human population.  The camp, intended to be temporary, quickly becomes a disgusting slum for the impoverished extraterrestrials.  As public opinions against them grow more vitriolic the government is pressured into creating a new camp far from the city limits.  Multi-National United – a huge arms manufacturer with a vested interest in sorting out the piles of un-Earthly technology the creatures brought with them, since rendered useless by dissociation from its owners – is put in charge of relocating the exploding prawn population, now a staggering 1.8 million strong.

Enter Wikus van der Merwe [Copley], an alien affairs officer at MNU who is promoted and tasked with evicting the inhabitants of District 9.  While handing out evictions he enters a shed where a non-threatening alien cylinder sprays a black liquid onto his face.  By the time the day is through Wikus is violently ill, to the point that he ruins his own surprise promotion party.  At the hospital it is discovered that his right arm, injured in District 9, has since transformed itself [a la THE FLY] into a prawn arm – whatever he was sprayed with is obviously having considerable effects on his DNA.  Kicking and screaming, Wikus is whisked away to an underground MNU lab for further examination.

It turns out that MNU has been conducting genetic experiments throughout the two decades since the aliens’ arrival in an attempt to unlock the secret of their bio-mechanical engineering handiwork, and Wikus is their most promising discovery in years.  The substance sprayed into his face seems to be the key – the biological compound used to power the prawn technology.  Wikus is put through a barrage of tests and made to fire each and every one of the confiscated alien weapon types [in one instance he is even forced to kill a captured prawn], but escapes when the scientists at the laboratory announce their intentions to dismember his body so that a human-friendly alien weapons control system can be devised from it.

With MNU and the government flooding the media with misinformation about his case [claiming he was engaging in illegal cross-species sex, for instance] and hired mercenaries in hot pursuit, Wikus takes refuge in the only place he can – District 9.

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The Peter Jackson produced Neill Blomkamp directed feature expansion of the latter’s inspired short film ALIVE IN JOBURG plays less as straight science fiction [there is very little science to be had at all] than as socio-politically minded actioner with sci-fi trappings.  Whatever you classify it as, it’s a fine picture and one of the few intelligent ones to have seen wide release this summer season.  The apartheid message may seem a bit overstated, with the lost and helpless aliens pitted against an evil corporation, a crazy Nigerian warlord, a ruthless mercenary squad led by a trigger-happy prawn-hating thug and the teaming masses, but the racism still in evidence in many parts of the world should show it to be as important as ever before.

Regardless of its subtextual intentions DISTRICT 9 is still an action picture first and a message picture second, but it should be commended for the fact that it compels its audience to think at all between its impressive special effects centerpieces.  The considerable digital effects work, devised mostly by Vancouver firm Imagine Engine, are quite impressive.  The aliens, slender bipedal insectoid creatures with strangely emotive eyes, are particularly well rendered and achieve a unique believability among their contemporaries – the film could easily have failed had it been otherwise.  No less impressive is the image of the omni-present mothership hovering over Johannesburg, constantly abuzz with squadrons of helicopters.

DISTRICT 9 is filmed in a faux-documentary style akin to CLOVERFIELD, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, and DIARY OF THE DEAD, et al., with cleverly intercut news reports and interview segments providing much of the early exposition.  While the documentary aspect is removed from the equation roughly thirty minutes in, the style is both retained and smartly utilized, lending the picture an immediacy lacking in at least two of the previously mentioned cinéma vérité shockers.  The form returns to true-documentary in the closing reel, showing what little progress has been made on the prawn-rights front while leaving the door wide open for a future DISTRICT 10 [yes, please!].

Much as I enjoyed the picture it still has a few obvious faults, most of them on the narrative front.  The screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell teeters a bit uneasily between the seriousness of its premise and the frequent campiness of what follows.  Villains are cartoonishly constructed, especially the scowling mercenary thug, and their type have been done to death in the eleven decades of film that have come before – I’d have loved to have seen a threat posed by something other than an evil multinational corporation or racist militant scumbags.  Adding to the camp factor is Wikus’ transformation, which seems outright silly at times [re-enforcing the character's newfound understanding of the alien plight as it may], and just what role the black fluid plays in the alien scheme of things is woefully underexplained.

That said, Blomkamp and Tatchell’s script succeeds in large part and is certainly well above average for either the science fiction or action genres.  The parallel between Wikus and the aliens, both little more than workers who lose all sense of purpose when removed from their superiors, is well drawn, as is his uneasy alliance and eventual friendship to Christopher Johnson [that the aliens are re-christened with earthly names is a clever detail].  Copley fills the role of Wikus wonderfully, and his character flows effortlessly from ignorant worker bee to man-on-the-run to unlikely action hero and beyond.  The extensive supporting cast does fine work as well, though few have enough screen time to really develop their roles.

While imperfect to be sure, there’s nowhere near enough wrong with DISTRICT 9 to sink it and certainly nothing so unforgiveable as to prevent my recommending it.  The drama is [mostly] solid, the message compelling, and the action phenomenal.  I may not have been floored, but it only missed the mark by this much.  See it.

Fiend

Cinema Enterprises [1980] 92′
country: United States
director: Don Dohler
cast: Don Leifert, Richard Nelson,
Elaine White, George Stover,
Greg Dohler, Del Winans
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A strange red energy descends upon a graveyard by night. It seems to have plans with one of the corpses which are so peacefully rotting away. Conveniently, a pair of lovers has decided to spend some time together there, and the freshly revived dead guy (Don Leifert) can have some fun strangling the female part of the duo with red glowing hands. Looks like he is sucking out her life force too – at least he looks much fresher after the rude deed is done.

Some weeks later, we see the former dead guy move into a house in the circle of hell known as the suburbs. Another jump in time forward, and we finally learn a little more about him and what he is up too.

Dead guy now goes under the name of Eric Longfellow, owns a music school and drives his choleric and paranoid neighbour Gary Kender (Richard Nelson and yes, ladies and gentlemen, our hero) bonkers with his proclivity to play the violin until the early evening hours (terrifying, I know).

When he’s not fiddling away merrily, Longfellow sits in the cellar of his house, pets his (of course black) cat and swills wine. From time to time, he drives out to kill another woman to replenish his energy levels.

This could probably go on forever if Longfellow wouldn’t start to get sloppy. He kills his victims ever closer to his home until he one day strangles a child in the woods just behind his house. The police might not suspect anything, but his categorical statement that he hasn’t heard or seen anything out of the ordinary when the child was slain is more than enough to put the aggressive lunatic that is Gary Kender on his case.

Gary is soon convinced that his hated neighbor hides something terrible behind his facade of arrogant politeness.

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For once, there are no evil aliens invading Baltimore in a Don Dohler film. We are in fact not in Maryland at all but in Delaware, and the change of scenery does minor wonders for Fiend. It’s the peculiar case of a Dohler movie that is actually more good than just stupidly entertaining.

Sure, Dohler still provides all of the flaws that characterize his films in copious amounts, but their impact on the film as a whole is not as bad as I’m used to in his works. As a director, Dohler often had trouble reaching a level above “technically barely adequate”, probably thanks to the shoestring way he had to budget his film, but also thanks to a decisive lack of visual imagination. Fiend still isn’t a festival of the senses, yet there are enough moments that show a higher amount of style than one is used to from the director. For once, Dohler is out to evoke a mood through his film’s visuals instead of just pointing the camera in the direction of his actors. Don’t get me wrong, he isn’t suddenly transforming into Mario Bava, but in the context of his other works and the way American local independant horror films had to be shot to be shot at all, it’s quite an impressive development for Dohler.

The acting is also quite a bit better than in other Dohler films. Of course, there are still enough bad line readings to make viewers unaccustomed to backyard filmmaking flinch. Nelson and Elaine White as his wife however are at least coming over as natural instead of wooden, which is all I ask for in a film like this, really.

Don Leifert’s performance as the film’s Big Bad is a little more difficult to evaluate. On one hand, he does some truly fearful mugging for the camera, like a chimpanzee trying to imitate Vincent Price (and of course failing), yet on the other hand he hits some notes of real creepiness, sometimes even of evil, when one would least expect it.

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Also better than usual in Dohlerland is the script, or at least the plotting. The pacing is very delibarete (meaner people than I might call it slow), yet also lacking the rambling, disconnected quality of Dohler’s other films. Calling it tight would probably go too far, but it’s pretty solid.

What I found especially interesting about the film was the character of Kender. The viewer is obviously meant to identify with him, but his irascible nature and extremely rude manners and the initial irrationality of his antipathy towards Longfellow made this completely impossible for me. Our hero here is the kind of guy who, living in a totalitarian state, would go around denunciating people with the smugness of one perfectly unable to have empathy with anyone but himself. In this, he is ironically enough just like the monster he is after, both of them perfectly punchable.

Now, I’m not arguing this is something Dohler put into his film on purpose; looking at the politics of his other films I rather think Dohler sees Kender as “good people”, and as someone perfectly in his rights when being an insufferable arse. To me, it just seems to be one of the beauties of art, and something that happens especially often in this type of local filmmaking, that aspects and ideas an artist never planned for still find their way into it, making it stranger and quite a bit more interesting than anyone could expect.

Of course, one would be perfectly in one’s right to call this pretentious crap and just let oneself get distracted by Fiend‘s perfectly annoying synthie soundtrack.

For more bizarre movie goodness, be sure
to visit Denis’ excellent review blog The Horror!?

Disgusting Spaceworms Eat Everyone!!

T-N-H Productions [1989] 73′
country: United States
director: George Keller
cast: Bill Brady, Lisa Everett Hillman,
Michael Sonye, Tequila Mockingbird

I have to admit, this isn’t something that immediately struck me as being my kind of movie.   Shot on video at the end of the 80′s for what couldn’t have been more than a scant few thousand dollars in the same vein as the Troma Studios efforts of the day and with the same tongue-in-cheek comedic intention that has doomed so many independent efforts to mediocrity [the recent DEAD AND BREAKFAST comes to mind], DISGUSTING SPACEWORMS EAT EVERYONE!! sounded like just the sort of obscure garbage I tend to despise on sight.

How many ways can I say I was wrong?

DISGUSTING SPACEWORMS EAT EVERYONE!! begins in space – on a ship full of worms to be precise.  So the wriggling mealworms dabbled about every corner of the ship aren’t necessarily disgusting, but they more than make up for that in their enthusiasm.  While it was impossible to tell what was being said by the worms [yes, they talk] due to the overbearing sound effects and background music and the overall crappiness of my review copy, I gathered that they intended to destroy mankind, who have stumbled upon the secret to the destruction of their race.  The scene is hysterical, with the master worm speaking passionately from a cardboard cup pulpit to his pile of devoted and cheering followers.

Their plan devised, the spaceworms warp their ship to Earth, choosing Los Angeles gangster Ziegler [Michael Sonye, here under his pseudonym Dukey Flyswatter] as their first conquest.  After yelling at someone on the phone about killing someone else the gangster heads out to his patio for a cocaine snack.  But wait – what’s this?  The worms have teleported themselves into Ziegler’s bag of cocaine!  The gangster lines up his rows and snorts, only to find himself covered in wiggly worms and spewing blood from just about everywhere.  A horrible death to be sure . . .

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Somewhere else in L.A., hitman Ray [Bill Brady] is reading the funny pages when he is interupted by a phone call.  He’s obviously in no mood for a job, and throws the phone dramatically into a nearby swimming pool before heading out on an extended drive.  Ray literally runs into the young and assless-jeans-donning Lisa [Lisa Everett Hillman], who proves very protective of a crumpled brown paper bag in her possession [she says it holds her recently deceased cat].  The two drive around for a while but don’t get along terribly well.  Soon Lisa evacuates Ray’s car and wanders off, leaving him with nothing to do but meet up with his contact and get his assignment.

Some secret envelope and money exchanging later, Ray has his job – unfortunately the person he’s supposed to hit is no other than Lisa.  Fortunately for her Ray is the sensetive type, or at the very least tired of working for his slimeball gangster boss.  He opts to kill off all of Ziegler’s minions and get in on whatever action has put Lisa in the spotlight instead.  Meanwhile, that pesky ship full of spaceworms is still floating about L.A., teleporting instant rubbery death into the homes of countless unsuspecting victims.  A family of television obsessed drunkards here, a bathtub beauty there . . .  All fall before the might of the worms, who are working hard to fulfill the titular promise of eating everyone.

Ray becomes understandably distressed by the situation unfolding around him, making him all the happier when he finds Lisa once again.  But what’s this?  The zombified worm-powered Ziegler has found the two as well, and is waiting to pounce from the backseat of Ray’s car.  Through him our heroes learn that the worms are after mankind because of its tampering with “zarmon crystals” – the one thing that can possibly destroy them.  What are zarmon crystals, you ask?  Cocaine of course [never mind that it's the same stuff the worms teleported into earlier without issue]!  Luckily for Ray, Lisa has a load of the stuff stashed in her paper bag and she isn’t afraid to use it.  Having heard the alien plot, she decides that it’s time for Ziegler to go for good and chucks a handful of cocaine in his direction.  Blood spurts and steam bubbles and soon he is little more than a smoldering mushy puddle in the backseat.

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The spaceworms’ motives and means of destruction revealed, Ray and Lisa go on a quest to destroy the invaders.  Can they possibly throw enough cocaine at the right worms at the right time to put an end to their savage conquest?  I’ll never tell!

Against all odds I came to love DISGUSTING SPACEWORMS EAT EVERYONE!! and its peculiar brand of no-budget antics.  What little is on display in terms of technical fortitude [VHS looks to have been the master format] is more than made up for by the shear ridiculousness and liveliness of the proceedings.  The screenplay credited to Keller / Mulliron / Sellers is actually quite good and takes 40′s noir crime films, of all things, as its jumping off point – Ray even narrates his own misadventure at times.  It’s abundantly clear than none of it is intended to be serious in any way, which is a definite upside when skyscraper-sized cans of Raid figure prominently in a film’s conclusion.

Scimpy as the production may be, SPACEWORMS packs a few neat little punches.  The soundtrack is loaded with songs from local Los Angeles talent of the time that, while it may be irritating to those not into the late 80′s punk-pop scene, sounds absolutely awesome to these ears.  Editing is another strong point.  Wisely avoided are the lengthy stretches of static dialogue shots that dominate most indies.  Keller constantly cuts from camera to camera to camera and keeps the pace going fast and hard.  The body of SPACEWORMS passes by in nary an hour, with the final ten minutes or so dedicated to some colorful end credits that come complete with a few bits of behind-the-sceens goofiness.  It looks like everyone involved had a blast, and it shows in the final product.

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Now, complaints against SPACEWORMS could certainly be made.  The special effects, particularly the vintage video animation and terrible blue screen that dominates the latter third of the picture, are almost universally bad and the performances by the no-name cast [Sonye/Flyswatter is the only reckognizable name, and his resume features such classics cinema as SURF NAZIS MUST DIE and TERRORS FROM THE CLIT] vary considerably in quality.  There are also far too many scenes devoted to driving.  But these are all minor quibbles at best in the context of the feature in question, with at least two of the three helping to elevate its hefty potential to entertain.

If there are video releases of this oddity, legitimate or otherwise, I’ve not seen them – I snatched my review copy from my favorite cult film torrent tracker [linked to the right].  If anyone involved with this flick knows of an official way to purchase this gem be sure to let me know so I can promote the hell out of it.

This one obviously isn’t for everyone and those without the patience for shot-on-video fare should proceed with caution.  Still, I loved it and have no problem giving it a recommendation.  I suggest seeing it with friends and making a party of it – with a title like DISGUSTING SPACEWORMS EAT EVERYONE!!, how could it go wrong?

High Crime

a.k.a. LA POLIZIA INCRIMINA LA LEGGE ASSOLVE
Capitolina Produzioni Cinematografiche [1973] 100′
country: Italy
director: Enzo G. Castellari
cast: Franco Nero, James Whitmore,
Delia Boccardo, Fernando Rey

Genuan Commissioner Belli (Franco Nero) is one of those highly irascible cops movie Italy is full of, always screaming and raging about the terrors of corruption etc and etc.

Belli’s unwillingness to play politics and his nearly comical impatience lead to frequent clashes between him and the chief of detectives, Commissioner Scavoni (James Whitmore), but the older cop obviously respects Belli’s passion for justice a lot and treats the younger man with the patience one has for talented if absolutely mad little children.

Scavoni himself has a secret file full of information that he wishes to use to bring the whole network of corruption and crime that dominates his city to fall, yet he does not dare to use what he has too early out of fear that all his efforts might go to waste.

Life in Genua isn’t going to get easier for the two. A new organisation tries to bust in on the turf of the city’s aging crime lord Caffiero (Fernando Ray), and the new guys are even more brutal and reckless than the Mafia the police knows. A bunch of car chases and shoot-outs later, all tracks lead Belli to the highly respected industrialist clan of the Grivas, but witnesses have the sad habit of dying.

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Belli is finally able to shout Scavoni into using the material he has on the Grivas, but the old cop is murdered and his files lost before he has even begun to make a ruckus. Scavoni’s death just intensifies Belli’s crusade, a crusade that will in the end be very costly for everyone involved, especially Belli’s loved ones.

Enzo G. Castellari’s High Crime is one of the core films of the Italian police film genre of the 70s and to me, it is one of the best parts of it.

That the film is highly kinetic and racing from one brilliantly filmed action sequence to the next is par for the course in the genre, yet Castellari’s action – always given a rhythm of its own by a hypnotic score by the de Angelis brothers -  feels somehow more driven and desperate than the action scenes in the films of his contemporaries. There’s a special feeling of recklessness and wildness at High Crime’s heart you won’t too often find in European films, even other Italian cop movies, and that connects Castellari’s work in my mind with the sheer madness of Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and early 90s.

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But even here, the action is not all there is to the film. I remember more than one film of the genre I had difficulties to stomach on account of their unpleasant politics which usually just start with the supposedly heroic cops getting mightily pissed off by the fact that they have to keep to the laws they are sworn to protect. The longing for a police state is often quite strong in these films and makes me in cases like the films of Umberto Lenzi nearly physically uncomfortable. Now, I wouldn’t call High Crime’s politics pleasant, but they are a lot more complex than in some of the lesser films of the genre. It is very helpful that Belli may be overtly irascible and not exactly a stickler for human rights, but at least we never see him torture gay people or fake evidence. Basically, Belli comes across as a decent man in a society teetering on the edge of chaos, much more interested in getting the big fish than in kicking in the teeth of some junkie. Actually, one of the things the film seems to say the loudest is “look at the big picture to end corruption”.

It does of course help quite a bit that Franco Nero plays Belli as highly sympathetic in his desperation for change, an impression that is strengthened further by the scenes he has with his girlfriend (Delia Boccardo) and his daughter. That a pleasant family life won’t be in the card for Belli is obvious from the beginning, but the way Castellari handles the things that were bound to happen to the two is at once so ruthless and so right (in the context of the film, mind you) that I couldn’t help but be impressed.

One of my pet theories about directors of action films is that the great ones can’t be judged by the quality of their action sequences alone, but by the quality of the melodrama in their films and the way they use this melodrama to heighten the tension and meaning of their action. That’s the reason why the American action cinema of the 80s does so little for me – they just didn’t know what to do with their heroes’ emotions, if they admitted to the existence of them at all.

Castellari knew.

For more bizarre movie goodness, be sure
to visit Denis’ excellent review blog The Horror!?