A Black Veil for Lisa

a.k.a. La Morte non ha Sesso
directed by
 Silvio Amadio
1968 | Filmes Cinematografica | 92′ 

Warning: there will be spoilers

Hamburg’s drug scene is hit by a series of professional killings. All victims are enemies of drug kingpin Schürmann (that’s the way you’d actually spell it in German, not the way the film spells it), so the police seems to have their work cut out for them.

Unfortunately, whatever investigating Inspector Franz Bulon (John Mills) does leads him nowhere. Witnesses disappear, or are murdered just after Bulon first hears of them. Why, one could think there’s a mole in the police force very professionally delivering vital information about the investigation to Schürmann. But that’s not the only problem with Bulon and his investigation. The aged cop is driven to distraction by outbursts of insane jealousy for his much younger wife Lisa (Luciana Paluzzi), whom he met during a criminal investigation where she was suspected of being involved in the drug trade somehow. Lisa is understandably dissatisfied with the way her husband treats her. But then, she’s acting in ways to not only make a paranoid old cop wonder, so the way Bulon treats Lisa is still quite insane but also not very surprising. Later developments will even make it clear that Bulon isn’t actually wrong about Lisa. This doesn’t make the cop’s behaviour any more sane, though.

After many a false trace and despite all jealous fuming, Bulon – who must have been a ruthless yet effective cop once – finds the professional killer who does Schürmann’s dirty work. Max Lindt (Robert Hoffmann), as he is called, is just about to leave Hamburg forever when Bulon catches up to him, having his own troubles with his boss. And that would surely be that for the case, if Bulon didn’t see something that convinces him absolutely of Lisa’s cheating ways right when he is hauling Max in. Why not offer the killer freedom in exchange for murdering Lisa?

Bulon’s insane idea results in further complications. Lindt, beginning to enjoy himself, decides to first make contact with Lisa before killing him. Making contact with Lisa and falling madly in lust with her is (and I won’t say that I blame the man) a question of minutes. From here on out, things proceed rather a lot like anybody not one of the film’s characters would expect.

 
 
 

Massimo Dallamano’s A Black Veil For Lisa starts out as that most curious of things, a police procedural I actually enjoy watching, spiced up with at first little yet ever more frequent occurrences of giallo elements. Once Bulon decides – if you can call something based on pure irrational rage a decision – to have his wife killed and betray everything he must have believed in once in the process, the police procedural completely transforms into a very noir-ish giallo, the orderly, sober-minded world of the police procedural turns crazy and emotional.

I particularly love how Dallamano and his four co-writers decide not to use a sudden turn from police procedural to giallo here but show the film’s style slowly turning from police procedural to giallo, as Bulon’s state of mind and morals slowly deteriorate further (he’s already deeply compromised in the film’s beginning) until he reaches a breaking point that finishes the transformation. It’s not difficult to interpret this approach as a political statement that also tells the audience something about the central character (or the other way around): chaos and disorder are living especially under the veneer of pronounced orderliness and discipline, and are all the more explosive in the proponents of order because they repress and deny them. Even though order – such as it is – is restored in the end of the film, it’s an ending that comes with a heavy price, leaving questions unanswered and the world only set right again in the most superficial interpretation.

One of the most interesting questions is how calculating a woman Lisa truly is. The film never really makes clear if she only married Bulon to milk him for information from the very beginning, or if it was Bulon’s inability to have any faith in her that drove her to it. I’m glad the film leaves this aspect to open, because it also leaves room for Lisa being an actual human being instead of the mythical femme fatale. The film’s ending really suggests the more human interpretation, too, but it leaves enough of what happened between Lisa and Bulon in the past untold to make this question unanswerable for any outsider.

This might have something to do with the next interesting aspect of Dallamano’s film: unlike many mysteries – be it giallos, police procedurals, cozies – the film is not at all interested in judging its three central characters. Bulon, Lisa and Max are all three capable of committing – and are in fact committing – various amoral, illegal and horrible acts, yet the film just isn’t willing to judge them for these acts at all. Instead, there’s a feeling of unsentimental sympathy for all of them running through the film, as far from the cynical sneer the giallo often loves as it is from staunch moralizing or singing hymns to vigilantism. In that sense, this is as humanist a giallo as I can remember seeing, which might be what happens to a film that is as carefully concentrated on understanding its characters as A Black Veil is.

In his project of keeping his characters human, Dallamano is helped along by very strong performances from Mills, Paluzzi and Hoffmann. On one hand, the actors manage to fulfil the expectations an audience will have for the mystery archetypes they embody, yet on the other they give them a subtle and believable humanity and complexity that makes them more than mere archetypes.

Dallamano’s visual treatment of the film is often equally winning as the acting and the script are. The director gives even the rather talking head bound early phases of the film a high degree of dynamism, as if to demonstrate that yes, you can film even a brown and bland office that is quite believably German, and therefore particularly brown and bland, in interesting yet not distracting ways. Dallamano actually uses quite a few flashy techniques, but he puts them so organically in service of the film’s plot and characters you have to watch out for them to realize what he’s doing. It’s pretty fantastic.

Which also turns out to be a fitting description of the film as a whole. Where else will you find a humanist, elegant, and subtle noir-influenced giallo than here?


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete

a.k.a. Teseo Contro il Minotauro
directed by
 Silvio Amadio
1960 | Gino Mordini | 92′ 

Life isn’t pleasant in Ancient Crete. For a generation or so the Cretans have made yearly human sacrifices to the Minotaur, whom its priesthood sees as a protective godhood rather than a monster with a tragic backstory roaming a labyrinth. Crete’s king Minos (Carlo Tamberlani) changes his mind about the whole human sacrifice thing when his wife begs him on her deathbed to abolish the practice. After all, she even has proof the god’s don’t care about these sacrifices, seeing as she secretly hid away one of their twin daughters with foreign peasants to protect her from being sacrificed as the later born of every twin pair in Crete should be, and was not punished by the gods for it.

That argument is enough to convince Minos, and while he’s planning on breaking with traditions, he also decides to bring that twin daughter, Ariadne (Rosanna Schiaffino) to court. Alas, his other daughter Phaedra is not very happy with another claimant on a throne he already sees at hers, and the man Minos sends out to find Ariadne, Chiron (Alberto Lupo), is all too willing to fulfil her wish to see her sister dead rather than rescued.

Chiron’s tactics as a political assassin are bad, though, for instead of locating Ariadne and then silently letting her disappear, he hires a horde of bandits to snuff out the whole village where she lives. Fortunately for the forces of justice, hero and prince-of-Athens Theseus (Bob Mathias) and his best buddy, the Cretan noble Demetrius (Rik Battaglia), are in the area. As Greek heroes, they are quite willing and able to push back a mere horde of bandits, even though Ariadne’s adoptive parents and a lot of villagers die in the attack before the duo can get in on the action.

Since Ariadne is a bit of a stunner, and Theseus really a nice guy, he takes the now orphaned girl to Athens to be taken into his father’s house and romanced. Demetrius’s confused reaction to the girl looking exactly like his princess our hero just laughs off.

Of course, this won’t be the last attempt on Ariadne’s life, and of course Theseus and Demetrius will sooner or later have to set out to set things right in Crete. However, things will become more dangerous and complicated than anyone could have expected, with Phaedra falling in love with Theseus, the involvement of the Cretan resistance of people who sit around drinking wine instead of acting, and war and doom coming for Athens.

 
 
 
 

Silvio Amadio’s Teseo came as a bit of a positive surprise to me. I do love my peplums, but I generally don’t expect too much of them, so when a film delivers so much more of interest as this one does, I tend to get a little giddy. It’s only fair, too, for there is much to be giddy about here.

Some of the film’s positive aspects are easily explained by the fact that it came relatively early in the peplum cycle, when the budgets for films of the genre often were a bit higher, and the productions could afford to hire extras for mass scenes and put more effort into their production design, which is always helpful in films as soundstage based yet in need of spectacle as these tend to be. Consequently, there are often more people on screen here when the script needs it than one would expect, giving the handful of battle scenes and the obligatory storming of the bad guys’ throne room (though it’s the sacrifice chamber here) a bit more weight and believability through the sheer number of participants. Compared to classical Hollywood monumental epics, there aren’t still all that many participants, but when you have seen enough of these films, you get rather thankful when an army consists of more than ten people. Depending on your taste in historians, you may even see the not quite as large armies as more realistic, though I doubt anyone involved here was interested in historical authenticity as much as in producing as much of a visual spectacle as the budget allowed.

Weight and a bit more believability seem to have been important when it came to the production design too, for every set and every costume is created with a love for telling details, from the walls of the houses of nobles actually being adorned with pictures and wall hangings, to the ubiquitous minotaur and bull depictions in Crete. This extra effort helps make the film’s Mythical Greece feel more like a world with its own coherence and its own rules than a series of sets.

Yet even an army of extras and the most beautiful production design in the world need a director equal to the task of using them properly. Amadio is more than equal to the task, with a sometimes painterly eye for the staging of scenes to the greatest visual effect, and a wonderful sense for the use of vivid colours. Amadio’s Mythical Greece may not be as dream-like and magical as that of Mario Bava, but it never is bland or colourless, and always vivid and larger than life.

The word “bland” unfortunately does lead me to the film’s greatest weakness, Bob Mathias as Theseus. His performance isn’t bad at all, but rather painfully neutral, as if that awesome (in the classic sense of the word) hero Theseus the other characters are speaking of had just stepped out for a moment only leaving his body there. Mathias’s blandness isn’t enough to ruin the film or even to annoy me much, yet it may be a stumbling stone for some.

The rest of the cast is much stronger, with Schiaffino able to play her double role well enough to keep Phaedra and Ariadne believable as two distinctively different persons; even though the script tends to make Ariadne a bit too virtuous and Phaedra a bit too evil for my tastes. But that sort of thing is part of the genre, and on the other hand, Ariadne is a bit spunkier than peplum heroines usually are. It’s probably not necessary to mention that Alberto Lupo could play the type of heel he’s playing here in his sleep; he’s clearly not asleep here.

On the script side, the film underplays the mythological elements of the story for most of its running time, making this a very entertaining and melodramatic story of Mythical Greek palace intrigues with an influx of swashbuckling, that just happens to include a surprise rescue by Amphitrite, and the battle against a not very threatening but rather lovely Minotaur with a very mobile but also very confused looking face. I also have to applaud the writers for their use of interesting and not always the most obvious parts of Greek myth here. They take their freedoms with it, but they sure do seem to know what they are doing and why.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Pact

directed by Nicholas McCarthy
2012 | Preferred Content | 89′ 

The death of her abusive mother brings Nichole (Agnes Bruckner) back to the family home she and her sister Annie (Caity Lotz) thought to have left behind for good. Annie’s even less happy with going back than Nichole, and only some fine sisterly pressure convinces her to return at all, and much later than Nichole does.

When Annie arrives “home”, Nichole has disappeared into thin air after – as the audience knows – some rather disquieting things happening there. Annie assumes Nichole, with her history of drug use and disappearing acts, has just fallen back into old habits, leaving her sister alone to deal with a house and a funeral she only thought of going to for her sister’s sake, and her cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) to take care of her little daughter Eva (Dakota Bright).

But when Annie meets her Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) and Eva (Dakota Bright), at her mother’s funeral. she isn’t quite as convinced of Nichole’s disappearance having a comparatively harmless explanation anymore. Liz argues Nichole would never have left her daughter alone this way; after all she has turned her life around for her.

Because Annie is more than a bit freaked out about staying at her mother’s place another night, she invites Liz and Eva to stay the night with her. At night, everyone is woken by strange noises, and now it is Liz’s turn to disappear while Annie has an encounter with an invisible force that can only be explained by supernatural agency. She barely manages to get out of the house with Eva before whatever happened to Nichole and Liz can happen to her too.

When Annie goes to the police with her story, the part about poltergeist phenomena does not exactly improve her chance for being taken seriously about anything else she says. Only Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien), a cop who knew Nichole – and one suspects also knows something about the family history – is willing to actually listen to her. Creek isn’t willing to believe in any of that spooky stuff, but at least he’s still taking Annie seriously enough to help her in the few ways actually in his power. However, if Annie wants to find out where her sister and her cousin went, and what is haunting her mother’s house, she will have to do most of the investigating alone and with a messed-up sensitive named Stevie (Haley Hudson) she knows from her high school pointing the way. Annie might just find some terrible family secret hidden nearly in plain sight.

 
 
 

Say what you will about (or against) the last decade in horror movies, but it has – probably via the successes of Japanese cinema in this regard – brought about a minor renaissance in movies about hauntings and ghosts, some of which, like Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact, can stand their ground next to any movie in that particular sub-genre you’d care to mention.

The Pact is a brilliant example of a movie closely concentrated on creating a mood of dread and fear very close to the kind of fears I remember too well from my childhood. The movie manages to create a feeling of tension even though it isn’t a permanent barrage of Completely Shocking Things™. There are some truly shocking and some truly creepy things happening throughout the movie, but there’s never the feeling any of them are in the movie because it needs to include a shock every ten minutes. Rather, everything here happens for a reason closely related to the film’s plot and the film’s mood, two elements as organically entwined as possible.

McCarthy’s direction is very stylish (the Internet tells me of Argento but also Val Lewton productions as an influence, and I believe her in this case), yet he never gets too flashy. McCarthy instead opts to put his stylistic abilities exclusively into the service of creating the film’s particular brand of tension. For most of the time, the camera glides through the cramped and claustrophobic spaces of Annie’s mother’s house, looking over Annie’s shoulder, lingering on blackness and the place’s quotidian and bleak interior until they become threatening in their near normality.

I also love how willing McCarthy (also responsible for the script) is to not outright state a lot of what is going on with his characters and their lives but to subtly show it through details of the interiors they move through and Caity Lotz’s body language (insert gushing praise about Lotz’s performance here). It’s not that the film is vague about anything, The Pact is just not the kind of film feeling the need to spell everything out an attentive audience will understand in other ways.

It’s all part of the film’s overall spirit of tightness and concentration, virtues it doesn’t even leave behind when its plot later on takes a turn towards a somewhat different type of horror film than it initially seemed to be, fortunately without doing the boring “look at this surprising twist!” routine. What could have been flabby and digressive in less capable hands feels organic and logical here.

Finally, it’s also worth mentioning – seeing as this is a horror movie – how creepy the film is throughout, how successful The Pact is at combining Annie’s struggle with her past (her own childhood fears), the idea that however horrible one’s past was, there might always have been something more horrible lurking unseen just a (literally and metaphorically) thin wall apart, and the more general images of childhood fears it conjures up in pictures that seem archetypally effective – and willing to be strange if it suits the film – to me.

That, dear reader, means I was freaked out more than once during the course of The Pact, which is the sort of compliment I can’t give many horror films.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Der Fälscher von London

a.k.a. The Forger of London
directed by Harald Reinl
1961 | Rialto Film Preben-Philipsen | 90′ 

Peter Clifton (Hellmut Lange) and Jane Leith (Karin Dor) are getting married, but the bride at least isn’t very happy about it, seeing as she only marries Peter so his money can provide for her uncle, the not very successful postcard painter John Leith (Walter Rilla). Peter for his part should be happier, for he loves Jane madly, but he’s surprisingly moody for that, as if several dark secrets were hanging over him and his affairs.

On the couple’s (such as it is) wedding reception, some of these secrets begin to come to the fore. Firstly, there’s some curious business about a forged five pound note. When Scotland Yard inspector Rouper (Ulrich Beiger) finds it in his heart to go to a frigging wedding reception to question people about a forged five pound note, family doctor and friend Donald Wells (Viktor de Kowa) says he got from Peter, who of course and quite believably says he knows nothing about it. Still at the same wedding reception, Basil Hale (Robert Graf), an admirer of Jane appears to make a very loud nuisance of himself, insinuating much and achieving little. And because fun comes in threes, next up is a certain Mrs Unterson (Sigrid von Richthofen), who races in to loudly complain that Peter doesn’t deserve all his money. By rights, it should belong to her (dead) son, his half brother. or so says wedding crasher number three.

After the best wedding reception ever is over, the newlyweds go on their honeymoon in a dark and spooky old castle that’ll sure lighten everyone’s mood. Jane – who doesn’t want to sleep with Peter because he “bought” her, by the way, even though it really looks rather more as if she sold herself to him as neither shotguns nor blackmail were present at the wedding – soon learns more awesome things about her new family life. Turns out Peter fears he has inherited a bit of violent schizophrenia from his dear dead dad. And might be the biggest forger of Britain, known as The Cunning. And might be going around murdering rude people like Hale.

Obviously, once she finds her husband in bloody clothes and with a bloody hammer by his side, Jane decides she suddenly does love her husband. That sudden love is so gigantic, Jane’s even willing to hide murder weapons and lie to the police. Speaking of the police, another Yard inspector, Bourke (Siegfried Lowitz) is just as willing as Jane to break the law to protect Peter, for both he and the woman suspect somebody has it in for the young man, and he is a poor beleaguered innocent.

 
 
 

This early in the Wallace movie cycle, nothing about the movies was as set in stone as it would soon become, so there was still room for a movie to be quite different from those that came before or after it. Der Fälscher is quite a bit more of a “normal” mystery than most of the other Wallace krimis, though also a film quite interested in its melodramatic elements, while the pulp elements are rather underplayed. This doesn’t mean the film is totally devoid of your typical Wallace-isms, or in any shape or form interested in being realistic, its feel is just delightfully weird in ways slightly different from other Wallace films.

Sure, the film’s comparative lack of two-fistedness, evil orphanages and odious comic relief (well, Eddi Arent pops in for a curious very minor double role, but I always rather liked him) may come as a bit of a shock to the krimi neophyte, especially since the first two of these things are elements of the krimi the film’s director Harald Reinl usually excels at, but a plot that manages to be at once obvious and ridiculously convoluted and a series of well-paced revelations, semi-revelations and reversals will soon enough distract from that particular shock.

Der Fälscher‘s major positive surprise for me is the emphasis its script puts on Jane as an actually active character. I suspect the relatively heavy influence of (gothic) melodrama to be the catalyst for this not very Wallace-ian change. The melodrama, after all, is one genre in film history absolutely dominated by its female characters. In a Wallace adaptation on the other hand, the female lead is usually there to be threatened and kidnapped, and sure as hell isn’t allowed to do anything regarding the solving of the film’s core mystery.

On a plot level, the damsel in distress here is really Peter, who may not get kidnapped but is knocked out and confused more often than not, and is utterly unable to help himself in any way. Even though Jane isn’t allowed to solve the whole mystery herself – that’s what Siegfried Lowitz in an unusually sympathetic and finely ironic performance is there for – she is the audience identification figure of the piece, not given to hysterics, and resolute when she needs to be. Even more surprising is how well Dor – all too often an actress with much beauty but little presence – sells the role. She’s still as stiff as usual, but here, her stiffness seems to be there to tell us something about her character, and not because she’s totally lacking in personality. If it weren’t for a slight subtext of helping one’s spouse during a murder investigation seen as a married woman’s duty, I’d even call the film’s gender politics progressive instead of just progressive for a German film made in 1961. But I’m not complaining.

While Reinl’s direction has been more obviously strong in other krimis, he still shows his usual fine, often clever, sense for the blocking of scenes, an eye for the slight gothic touch – especially whenever the plot concentrates at the rather fantastic looking castle and his surroundings -, a hand for pacing that works for this melodramatic pulp mystery as well as it does in the pulp adventure movies most of his other Wallace krimis are, and of course an un-Germanic love for dynamic set-ups in the movie’s few action scenes. Add to Reinl’s talents some rather beautiful, moody, photography by series mainstay Karl Löb (who I think might be as responsible for the actual look of the krimi as any of the various directors he worked with), and a fine semi-jazz soundtrack by Martin Böttcher (who somewhat unfairly always stood in the shadow of the slightly more crazy and original Peter Thomas, even though his scores are generally nearly as good), and you have yourself a Wallace krimi as fine and entertaining as they get.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Arena

directed by Peter Manoogian
1989 | Empire Pictures | 87′ 

In the future, an intergalactic, inter-species fighting championship is held in a shoddy looking space station. Since the contestants are kept on the same physical level (except for things like size and number of limbs which won’t ever be important in a fight, no sir) by magical scientific handicap beams, a level playing field should be guaranteed for all. In truth, the championship is in the hands of evil Rogor (Marc Alaimo for a change being the evil boss instead of the evil boss’s first henchman) who cheats, lies and sucks the sportsmanship out of the sports wherever he can. Under these circumstances it comes as no surprise Rogor’s rude fighter Horn (Michael Deak) is the Champion of the Universe right now, and there’s no chance for the only honest trainer in the universe, Quinn (Claudia Christian), to ever lead one of her fighter to the title.

That is, until a series of complicated circumstances including a punch-up in a Space McDonald’s, an illegal gambling den and the human’s four-armed buddy Shorty (Hamilton Camp doing his best Ernest Borgnine) turns Earthling Steve Armstrong (Paul Satterfield in the beginning stages of anime hair) into her main fighter. Steve is not just as pure-hearted as Quinn, but also, as it turns out, the fighter who will once and for all lay the space sports rumour to rest that humans can’t fight, even if he has to survive sex with and a poisoning attempt by Rogor’s (space, one supposes) girlfriend and (definitely) space singer Jade (Shari Shattuck), and other evil plans of Rogor and his assistant Weezil (Armin Shimerman) to get and win his title fight.

People who know me won’t be at all surprised to hear that one of the few movie genres that doesn’t do anything at all for me is the sports film. Turns out I don’t care who can throw the ball hardest or kick his opponent in the reproductive organs the most subtle, and find the whole ideological shtick of these films rather unpleasant. Hell, I usually don’t even enjoy tournament martial arts films, unless they feature a yogi with retractable arms.

But put the sports film onto a space station and make most of the fighters cute little alien freaks, and I get all excited. It seems as if the best method to convince me that the general silliness of sports movies is fun lies in transporting them into even more silly space opera SF surroundings. And who am I to complain about it, seeing as I get a very fun time out of it, at least in Arena‘s case?

 
 
 

One of the best features of Arena is how serious it takes its own silliness, with nary a moment going by where the film isn’t decisively not winking at its audience, even if winking would be the most natural thing to do given the circumstances. However, delivering the weird and the silly with a straight face is often the best technique to make it fun to a viewer instead of just annoying. One doesn’t, after all, go into a movie to witness how much the filmmakers look down on their own work (and implicitly the audience paying to see it). Here, the knowledge of the silliness of the film’s basics is taken as self-evident but not as a reason to half-ass anything.

In fact, half-assing is quite the opposite of Arena‘s way of going about things. Instead director Peter Manoogian (also responsible for the awe-inspiring Eliminators), working for Charles Band when Charles Band was still doing his best to be Roger Corman and not a puppeteer, scriptwriters Danny Bilson (also responsible for a few other fine bits of fun low budget movie writing before he became a videogame company suit) and Paul De Meo (Bilson’s long-time writing partner), and the usual Empire Pictures gang do one hell of a job of piling weird, interesting and often funny detail upon weird, interesting, and often funny detail. There might not have been much money going around, but what these guys had, they put visibly on screen in form of a surprising number of different aliens with actually different body types (no Star Trek “facial lumps” only aliens here), sets that may depend on the audience’s goodwill yet are also built with love and effort, haircut and make-up crimes that make for a distinctly 80s kind of future, and more sight-gags than anyone could notice in a single session with the film.

Arena is the sort of movie that goes so out of its way when it comes to creating its world (even if its is a very silly world), it even features two pretty alien musical numbers for its not-all-that-alien singer Jade where most films would have contented themselves with a mock swing number with synthies instead of horns. The film isn’t creating a believable future (not that it’s out to do that), but it sure builds a place out of cheap sets, concepts and ideas plundered from Hollywood films of the 30s to 50s, pulp SF, and energetic enthusiasm.

That the few fights the film contains aren’t all that great to watch (it seems Steve’s fighting prowess consists in his ability to actually move faster than a snail) isn’t much of a problem in this context, for who cares about the quality of the fights when everything that happens on screen is so fun to look at?


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Devil Story

a.k.a. Il était une fois le diable – Devil Story | Devil’s Story
directed by Bernard Launois
1985 | Condor Films Production | 72′ 

This October, the agents of M.O.S.S. are digging deep into the heart of Halloween, taking a look at films about demons, the devil, and every kind of fiend. You can find our collected annals of evil here. Today, I take a look at a film that may or may not have anything at all to do with the devil, but sure as hell contains Halloween costumes.

Somewhere in what I think is supposed to be Florida, but sure looks like a picturesque part of France to me, a guy (probably Pascal Simon) in a Halloween gnome mask that is supposed to be his face wearing a uniform jacket with SS insignia – so I think we can call him Adolf Gnome – randomly kills various people in rubber-gory ways.

After fifteen minutes of these shenanigans, the film cuts to a married couple driving through what might be the same area. They stop, and the woman (most probably Véronique Renaud) has a nasty encounter with a black cat that might at least in part be hallucinatory. Anyhow, it’s enough to drive her into the first of many bouts of hysteric screeching (therefore I dub her “Screechie”).

That very same night (I suppose), the couple is still driving around the countryside, having lost their way terribly. Fortunately, they come upon a gothic palace inhabited by two weird yet friendly members of the elderly demographic who invite them to stay the night. For some reason, Elderly Guy wears a camouflage outfit, but this sort of thing doesn’t invite comments here. The rather strange hosts ramble on about the terrible things that happen in the area “before, during and after the equinox” (which I translate into “always”) and then proceed to tell the young couple a pointless story (historical flashback the film can’t afford time!) about five brothers who lured a ship to its doom but somehow drowned in the proceedings, plus some stuff about their descendants supposedly having made a deal with the devil.

Remember Adolf Gnome? He is one of said descendants, living alone with his equally crazy elderly mum. The female half of our husband and wife protagonist team will eventually meet those two, for during the night, she is awakened by a black horse that makes one hell of a racket outside and will proceed to do so in the most annoying fashion throughout the rest of the movie. Obviously, Screechie decides to go out in her nightie and investigate. That decision is the beginning of an epic journey during whose course Screechie makes the acquaintance of Adolf Gnome and Mum (they think she looks like Gnome’s newly dead sister, so they decide to bury her alive), a mummy with a bulging crotch that randomly kills people and digs out said dead sister (she’s a zombie now, I think) to walk around holding hands with said dead sister, and has random shit happen to her.

Also featured are Adolf Gnome bringing fists to a hoof fight, the usefulness of powder kegs and petrol when confronted with the backside of a mummy, Elderly Guy’s epic (he’s shown to shoot at it for hours out of what I assume to be his starting gun – that does at least explain the infinite ammo) obsession with the black horse he declares to be “the Devil Beast”, the ship from the story, and a random (or rather, even more random) gotcha ending featuring the black cat from the beginning and a very hungry patch of ground.

 
 
 

It looks as if France during the 80s had its own little tribe of people making the really awesome kind of backyard horror films, the sort full of rubbery gore, random nonsense, and a narrative that makes most dreams look coherent. As my attempts at giving you a feel for the absurd randomness of its plot should have made clear, Bernard Launois’s Devil Story is a proud and unapologetic part of that group of films, leaving no brain undamaged and no narrative rule unbroken. It’s not as mind-expanding as N.G. Mount’s improbably awesome Ogroff, but it sure is a film doing its damndest to overwhelm its audience with pure weirdness.

If you want to be all serious about it, Devil Story‘s randomness is obviously influenced by European folklore and fairy tales. The black horse and black cat as creatures of the devil are important parts of that tradition, and stories about smugglers luring ships to their doom and paying for it later on are parts of many local folklores too. However, where fairy tales and folklore usually have quite clear thematic connotations and an understandable subtext, the film at hand just grabs some outward signifiers from the folk tales, adds impenetrable rambling, screeching, some rubbery gore, a mummy and a serial killer and calls it a story in a way that suggests the writer (not surprisingly also Bernard Launois) to be either twelve years old or under the influence of mind-expanding substances like wine or strong coffee. The whole project is awe-inspiring in its stubborn insistence on making no sense at all beyond “bad magical things that may have something to do with the devil – or not – happen to people in this area – or not”.

On the technical front, Devil Story is a curious beast. It’s well photographed in so far as Launois knows how to frame and block scenes and everything he – well DP Guy Maria – shoots looks rather picturesque, but everything else about the film is a (hot) mess. As already mentioned (and obvious), the narrative structure is more or less non-existent, with no really discernible plot, no characters (let’s not speak of the acting beyond giving Elderly Guy the day’s price for most excited line delivery), and no feeling of progression or dramatic escalation.

This problem is further emphasised by the most curious, a-rhythmic editing decisions – every possible moment of suspense is sabotaged by recurring, random cuts to the devil horse being an obnoxious – and very loud – animal, the Elderly Guy shooting and shooting and shooting and shooting, the horse, the shooting, etc, until the little structure there is just turns to goo, very much like the mummy’s lower lip once Screechie has ripped off a few of its bandages. And even if Launois could keep away from Elderly Guy’s horse adventures, all action scenes are so awkwardly staged, and so overly long, they become befuddling instead of exciting, with cause and effect obviously divorced from each other, actors and the things they are acting on clearly not at the same place at the same time, and the same little thing going on and on and on for seeming hours, turning moments that could have been semi-exciting highlights like the scene when Screechie is playing tug-of-war with a gravestone against Adolf Gnome’s Mum who is trying to bury her alive into improbable slogs through the swamps of time and space.

So, clearly and obviously, Devil Story is a horrible movie. And yet it’s also a fascinating and quite riveting artefact of filmmaking that cares so little about – or misunderstands – the way films are supposed to be made, to look and to feel it nearly invents its own filmic language, entering the space so beloved by a certain type of film fan (that is, me) where the objective badness of a movie turns into something quite loveable and beautiful. I know, I do like to go on about films feeling as if they came from another world/dimension, or were made by aliens who once watched a movie and are now trying to make their own, but that is still the best way I’ve found to describe films like Devil Story in all their glorious, unapologetic oddness.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Black Zoo

directed by Robert Gordon
1963 | Allied Artists Pictures | 88′ 

Superficially, Michael Conrad (Michael Gough) leads a charmed life. He is the owner of a small, yet successful private zoo in Los Angeles, where he can live out his love for animals by holding a lot of big cats in way too small cages and feeding a guy in a gorilla suit. By night, the lions, tigers, panther and cheetahs are chilling in Michael’s living room while he plays the organ for them. Curiously, seeing as he’s obviously quite mad, Michael isn’t living alone with his animals. He is married to chimp trainer Edna (Jeanne Cooper). She copes with Michael’s erratic and abusive behaviour (he’s one of those “I hit you but it won’t happen again” types) with the help of lots of booze.

Then there’s Michael’s mute assistant Carl (Rod Lauren). The zoo owner has had the young man under his thumb for years, systematically destroying his self respect to have a better class of helper than the mere hired help like his animal-hating zoo keeper Joe (Elisha Cook Jr.) can offer.

Of course, this very particular idyll can’t last forever. Various people are real and imagined threats to Michael’s lifestyle, and the zoo owner deals with these threats by letting his very cooperative animal pals loose on them, puzzling the hilariously incompetent police exceedingly with his murders.

Things come to a climax when Edna realizes how mad her husband truly is, and packs up her chimps and Carl and tries to leave.

 
 
 

Robert Gordon’s Black Zoo is the classic case of a film that has all the elements that could make a thriller, digging deep into the messed-up relationships and power imbalances in a deeply dysfunctional family by way of not exactly healthy psychology, but instead applies all its energy to being as silly as possible.

Although it’s easy enough to be disappointed by Gordon’s – or producer and writer Herman Cohen’s – decision not to make a film that’s as much in the vein of Peeping Tom or Psycho as the better written parts of the script pretend it to be, the film’s utter silliness does make it practically impossible not to be entertained by it. It all starts out innocently enough, if Michael Gough throwing pointed gazes around as if he were a basilisk is one’s idea of innocence, at least. But before long, the film juxtaposes typical psycho thriller scenes about Michael Gough being a jerk to everyone close to him with scenes of a lot of big cats our villainous protagonist calls his children looking very relaxed on couches and settees in his living room (there’s a big painting of lions on the wall, of course) while their buddy Mike makes an unholy racket on his organ.

And that’s before the film presents us with a dignified big cat burial with the whole cat gang in attendance, again chilling very relaxed on a blue-lit, foggy graveyard set right out of a gothic horror movie, listening to a heartfelt speech by Gough about the deceased’s kitty virtues.

Another moment of great hilarity follows when our hero visits the multi-cultural animal-lover cult he is a member of (which I didn’t mention in the little synopsis because it has no import at all on the film’s plot). There the soul of his dead kitten is transferred to an adorable tiger cub by a high priest wearing the upper half of a dead tiger on his head (that is how true animal idolators dress) while a shirtless black guy plays the bongo and the audience mumbles rhythmically. In one of the greatest moments of acting I have ever had the joy to witness, Gough manages to keep not just a straight face throughout the scene, but one that is so full of fake intense emotion I found myself riveted and laughing tears.

 
 
 

There’s also an awesome swirly flashback late in the movie that explains Carl’s origin story, a final battle to the death in the rain that would be dramatic and poignant if not for all the awesome nonsense that happens before, a gorilla costume that looks really good if you can overlook the fact that it doesn’t look like a gorilla at all, and oh so much intense, overly dramatic ACTING by Cooper and Gough, who both manage to treat their roles with total, unwinking earnestness like the true professionals they are.

Surprisingly, given the usual budgetary standards of Cohen productions, the tenor of the script, and director Gordon’s nature as typical hired gun director, all this intense, ridiculous beauty is presented with a degree of style that came unexpected to me until I realized that Black Zoo‘s director of photography is Floyd Crosby. Crosby was of course also the cinematographer of most of Roger Corman’s best gothic horror films (and of some other fine budget productions too). His use of contrasting colours – just look at the interplay of deep blues and reds in some of the film’s silliest yet most effective scenes – work exceedingly well with William Glasgow’s (himself a man with an interesting filmography) more carefully realized art direction, creating a style for the film which may not be as gloriously dream-like and artificial as that of the best Corman productions of the time, but that still lifts the ridiculous up towards the sublime more than once. In fact, the sillier the given scene, the more creative energy the crew seems to have invested in its look, with the burial and the organ playing scenes as particular aesthetic high points.

It’s this obvious effort everyone involved put towards a script that really doesn’t seem to deserve it that explains Black Zoo‘s particular charm for me.I see in this not just a demonstration of dogged professionalism, but the result of a group of filmmakers putting everything they have into their cheap drive-in movie fodder instead of just phoning it in. It is this on-screen enthusiasm that helped turn every moment where I should have been laughing at the film into one where I was laughing with it, congratulating it on a job well done.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Return of Daimajin (Daimajin Ikaru)

For our review of Daimajin on Blu-ray, click here. The Daimajin Triple Feature Blu-ray is available now from Amazon.com.

When Daimajin premiered in April of 1966 it did so to big returns, earning ¥100 million or more in its initial distribution. Producer Daiei Co. was naturally anxious to take advantage of their successful property, but the speed and efficacy with which they did so is mind-bending by the standards of modern productions. Daimajin Ikaru (大魔神怒る, previously released to domestic video as Wrath of Daimajin and here known as Return of Daimajin) debuted on a double feature with Kazuo Ikehiro’s Zatoichi Umi o Wataru (Zatoichi Across the Sea) on August 14th, 1966 – just shy of four months from the premiere of its predecessor.

Serving once more as screenwriter is Tetsuro Yoshida (who would script all three of the Daimajin films), and those familiar with the first film will find themselves in familiar territory so far as story is concerned. The kind, prosperous communities of Chigusa and Nagoshi find themselves under the envious eye of the greedy warlord Danjo, who promptly conquers each for himself. Danjo takes to his newfound affluence in the usual way, with plenty of geisha girls and alcohol, but violent encounters between his forces and the surviving royalty of Chigusa and Nagoshi prove a constant distraction. The remaining royalty are eventually captured of course, and swiftly primed for public execution. Unfortunately for Danjo local superstitions he was so quick to discredit prove to be more fact than fantasy, and dreadful divine vengeance is visited upon him in the form of one very angry giant Majin.

Though the tropes may be familiar Daimajin Ikaru benefits handily from a more vigorous approach to the material, courtesy of ace director Kenji Misumi – master of all things chanbara and one of the biggest names among Daiei’s creative staff at the time. Where Daimajin was a more sullen venture, low on action and high on stiff period dramatics, Misumi’s entry in the series is a pure action picture, with plenty of intrigue, chases and swordplay to keep viewers hooked until the fantasy comes to the fore. Misumi lends a potent vitality to the material and just plain keeps things moving. Even the requisite drama has a spring in its step, and is bolstered by Misumi’s wholesale embrace of the stereotypes of the genre. The good guys here are of such saccharine purity that it can make one’s teeth ache, and the villains are delightfully pulp – Danjo can’t so much as spit without erupting into maniacal guffaws over how clever he is. It’s tremendous stuff, and played with an unflinching earnestness that prevents it from ever falling into glib parody.

More than just an accomplished genre craftsman Misumi was also Daiei’s preeminent peddler of DeMille-ian excess, having previously thrilled audiences with 1961′s Shaka - a massive 70mm undertaking and Japan’s most direct answer to the big-name religious epics of the ’50s. That film climaxed with the epic destruction of a temple by an earthquake, a sequence that reminds heavily of the showstopping finale of DeMille’s 1949 smash Samson and Delilah, but the similarities there pale in comparison to the transparent reinterpretation of DeMille spectacle that awaits in Daimajin Ikaru. The influence of Paramount’s blockbuster The Ten Commandments on the Daimajin films, as noted in my first article, comes full circle here in one of the Japanese film industry’s most dramatic (if derivative) special effects accomplishments.

In Daimajin Ikaru the Majin (referred to simply as kami – god – in this film) resides on a holy island on a placid lake between the kingdoms of Nagoshi and Chigusa, a location that becomes a rally point for the kingdoms’ surviving royalty, and thus a target of the evil Danjo’s violent advances. As in the first film the Majin’s statue becomes a target in its own right, though Danjo’s forces do a more complete job in desecrating it – whereas the first Majin survived intact, with only a chisel embedded in its forehead to show for its troubles, the statue in this case is obliterated outright with explosives. Its destruction is only temporary of course, and when its patience is finally at its end the Majin rises, whole once more, from the depths of the lake. What follows is awesome in the original sense of the word. The island splits in twain and crumbles into the lakebed as the waters part, creating a miraculous path for the wrathful god to tread. The ode to The Ten Commandments is obvious, making the Majin’s passage through the parted “sea” as much pop art as effects extravaganza. Effects director Yoshiyuki Kuroda (assistant SFX director at the time of Shaka) and series photographer Fuji(r)o Morita pull off the concept, perhaps the most ambitious of the entire series, with nary a hitch, setting the bar still higher for what should be expected of contemporary Japanese special effects.

The rest of the giant Majin’s righteous rampage, here limited strictly to the baddies (a contrast to the violent ambivalence of Daimajin), is handled with the same flair, with Kuroda and company taking heed of their missteps in the production of the first film (particularly in the implementation of the full-scale Majin mock-up) and crafting a near seamless sequence in the process. Series composer Akira Ifukube also improves upon his efforts for the first film, providing a superior score that lends a palpable weight and added purposefulness to the Majin’s advance. Ifukube was short of resources more often than not in his film work, leaving some of his scores sounding quite ragged for want not of ability or effort, but of time. While Daimajin is a quintessential example of just that Daimajin Ikaru proves a lovely exception, and obviously benefits from whatever additional resources were thrown Ifukube’s way. The themes here are undeniably heavy, dominated by low brass and even lower woodwinds, but balanced by an almost indefinable elegance, and taken in context with the work of Misumi, Kuroda, Morita et al the effect is appropriately divine.

Even more so than with the first film, Mill Creek’s new Blu-ray presentation of Daimajin Ikaru puts past editions to shame. The initial releases on VHS and DVD from ADVision were sourced from laserdisc masters that were already out of date by the time they were licensed, but at least presented the film in its original ‘Scope ratio. The company’s second run of DVDs (those in the white cases for those seeking to avoid) needlessly complicated things for Daimajin Ikaru on that front in presenting it panned-and-scanned at a compromised ratio of just 1.78:1. With the advent of this new Blu-ray edition that past transgression can be blessedly forgotten.

Mill Creek present Daimajin Ikaru progressive at its original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 courtesy of a fine 1080p master from Kadokawa. Like Daimajin, this is not a perfect filmic presentation, but its improvements over the SD editions of the past are such that I can live happily with its minor limitations. The worst that can be said of the transfer here is that it can look a touch processed, and by virtue of that a shade more video-like than some my prefer, but detail and texture still prevail and in motion it can look quite striking. Colors and contrast are each at natural levels, and the dust-soaked conclusion is thankfully free of the unnatural saturation of the last DVD. Detail isn’t so crisp as it perhaps should be, but makes strong advances over SD just the same, and the various composite work retains the thicker, grittier quality inherent to its production. This made for a fine home presentation for me – I dig it!

 

Technical specifications are comparable to those for the first film (which shares the same dual layer BD50). The 79-minute show receives a nice Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at a healthy average bitrate of 28.1 Mbps, and artifacts are kept sufficiently at bay. The primary audio, DTS-HD MA 2.0 Japanese, is again a touch flat – a product of its original recording – but sounds quite good even without an excess of range. Ifukube’s cues certainly sound better here than they have in the past, making it easier to appreciate their instrumentation, and this may be worth the upgrade alone. The Titra-produced English dub that graced the AIP television version of the film (Return of the Giant Majin) is included, also in DTS-HD MA 2.0, but sounds quite compressed in its range compared to the Japanese – I suspect fans, forced to rely previously on bootleg tapes or Retromedia’s unimpressive double bill DVD, will be happy that it’s here at all.  Well translated optional English subtitles accompany the Japanese version, and the film is flanked by the original theatrical trailer (HD) and another substantial interview / effects discussion with cinematographer Fuji(r)o Morita (HD), both of which can be found on disc 2 of the set. Though marked for Region A only I suspect these discs to be all-region compatible – each of them booted up just fine in my secondary Region B deck.

There’s really not much else to say – this is another strong showing for Mill Creek, and another must-own for Blu-ray capable kaiju fans. The film itself makes a strong argument for being the best of the series, a fine actioner with a strong fantasy bent and an effects production that’s second to none for its time. Recommendations don’t come any easier – see it!

Blu-ray screenshots were made using our usual method – taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Click to see full size.

Daimajin Ikaru is available now at Amazon.com

Pirates of the XXth Century

a.k.a. Piraty XX Veka
directed by
 Boris Durov
1979 | Gorky Film Studios | 80′ 

Little does the crew of a Soviet freighter transporting medicine for the Motherland expect the true nature of their cargo – opium. However, what the sailors don’t know, a bunch of evil pirates does. A shipwrecked sailor (Talgat Nigmatulin) the freighter takes on board on the open sea is in truth the pirates’ man on the inside, bound to destroy their radio when the time for attack comes. Soon enough half of the Soviets are dead, their freight is stolen, and their ship is sinking.

The survivors, led by their Captain Iwan Iljitsch (Pyotr Velyaminov) and engineer and part-time hero Sergej Sergejitsch (Nikolai Yeryomenko) manage to escape on a life boat without their enemies realizing it, but without supplies and far-off from help, their situation looks none too pleasant. That is, until they come upon an island. As luck will have it, the crew’s troubles aren’t over yet, though, for it is this very same island the pirates are using as an HQ after having enslaved a village of peaceful pearl-divers. Or rather the female population of it – for the men, the pirates just couldn’t find any use.

Fortunately, the Soviet sailors are nearly to a man – there is of course the obligatory “coward” (aka a person who reacts rather more realistically to the whole plot) and the crew’s two women are only there to get kidnapped and tortured a bit – improbably competent at the manly arts of sneaking, fighting, and being badass while disco funk plays, so they even have a chance to survive the ensuing cat and mouse game against the much better armed and more numerous pirates. In the end, though, all will depend Sergej Sergejitsch’s ability to do the lone hero bit.

 
 
 

Boris Durov’s Pirates Of The XXth Century was the highest grossing movie in the existence of the USSR, which again goes to show that people are the same wherever you go. So if there’s a film full of fun violence, an audience will choose it over anything generally considered more worthy every time, no matter where it comes from or what specifically is considered to be more worthy at a given place and time. I say this and make it sound as if it were a bad thing, but obviously, Pirates and films of its type are my bread and butter when it comes to movies, and I’ll watch and enjoy a film with shoot-outs and explosions over a treatise about some rich people’s marital troubles (or in this case the purity of the working classes) every time.

As an action film – a genre Soviet directors only had limited experience with - Pirates often is a bit awkward, with everyone striking the same poses you’d find in a Hollywood production or something produced in the Philippines, but doing so in a manner that can feel slightly off, as if the actors and the director weren’t totally fluent in the filmic language they were speaking. This does only strengthen the film’s charms for me by providing it with a feeling of playground innocence, not unlike that found in Turkish pop cinema, although Pirates‘ creators show quite a bit more technical proficiency. Like many action films this is a variation of kids playing cowboys and Indians, just with a greater budget for playing make-believe.

Other elements of the film are completely in keeping with the international language of action movies. There’s awkward-yet-awesome white guy martial arts (still better than Chuck Norris because these white guys at least lack the ick factor), the need for people to at least nearly fall off a cliff if a cliff is provided, the naturalness with which everyone who isn’t a woman not only knows how to use an assault rifle but is good at it too – all these pleasant clichés and more are there and always pretty fun to watch.

 
 
 

Pirates also offers some choice noises for our ears too thanks to a wonderfully late 70s disco funk score by Yevgeniy Gevorgyan that is clearly a brother in spirit to what I like to call Toei Funk and assorted genres of film music, with some added moments of random synthie-warbling during the diving sequences (which are pleasantly short and to the point instead of the traditional boring and long-winded).

Pirates is great fun if you don’t have to take your action movies dead seriously, but can enjoy silliness for the sake of silliness like a proper cult movie fan should. No worries, though, while the film is as silly as one could ask for, it never goes the frightening and wrong route of conscious camp that has destroyed many a movie over the years. This film’s silliness is a product of a certain naivety, not of cynicism.

It also should be noted that the film’s script (by Durov and Desyat Negrityat‘s Stanislav Govorukhin) eschews the bane of many a Soviet movie, the propagandist speeches about the superiority of the Soviet people, awesomeness of the working classes, communism, and so on, and so forth that have sucked the joy out of many a film (which I suspect to not have been the favourite parts of movies for their native Soviet movie audiences either). There are of course certain assumptions about the way people and the world work that are slightly different from what one is used to from western films (for one, there’s a larger emphasis on team play than is typical for action movies without the number seven in their title), but these are the result of people coming from a culturally slightly different place, and will only annoy people who can’t cope with others having vaguely different values or ideas than themselves.

So, all in all, Soviet Russia can be proud of having this as its highest-grossing movie.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Daimajin

The 1960s were a time of flux for the Japanese film industry, with the postwar cinema boom finding itself at odds with both lavish import epics and that old Hollywood nemesis – television. Of the prosperous studios of the time it was Daiei who made the biggest gamble towards competing with the West abroad and the tube at home, going so far as to invest in and implement large-format film equipment as a means of differentiating themselves from their domestic competition. It was a bold move that elevated the expense of practically every picture Daiei produced, but one that failed to pay off. By the middle-60s a financial disaster was already brewing at Daiei and in 1971 the company collapsed outright. While the Daiei story doesn’t end there – the studio would see resurrection under Tokuma Shoten in 1974 and survive until 2003, when it was absorbed entirely under the Kadokawa banner – it was certainly the end of an era.

In this context Daiei’s Daimajin films, a series of three high profile special effects vehicles produced back-to-back in 1966, takes on renewed significance, not just as one of the more interesting diversions of the decade’s kaiju boom, but as one of the last gasps of the grandeur that had marked the studio’s postwar career. “Great Films are Daiei Films” the ads said in a pun on the company name, and for a time at least they spoke truth. The production of the first Daimajin (titled simply enough Daimajin [大魔神]) proved particularly ambitious, with Daiei’s Kyoto studio undertaking the project simultaneously with Daiei Tokyo’s production of the A-list Gamera sequel Daikaiju Ketto: Gamera tai Barugon (Monster Duel: Gamera vs. Barugon) – the two films would premiere as a much-publicized double bill on the April 17, 1966.

Penned by Tetsuro Yoshida, a regular contributor to Daiei’s jidaigeki fantasies and chanbara actioners, and directed by studio veteran Kimiyoshi Yasuda, Daimajin plays for the most part as a straight period drama, albeit with an important fantasy twist. The vile Samanosuke, a drifter taken in and made chamberlain by the kind Lord Hanabusa, rises up against his master and takes the feudal lands of Yamanaka Castle as his own. The elder Hanabusa and the majority of his confidants are murdered, but household samurai Kogenta escapes with the lord’s two young children – daughter Kozasa and son Tadafumi – and takes shelter with his aunt, a priestess of the local mountain god. With Samanosuke ever vigilant the priestess leads the usurped to the only safe haven around, the forbidden holy mountain of her god, where the surviving Hanabusa’s rest uneasily, praying for a day when they might reclaim their kingdom.

In the meanwhile Samanosuke consolidates his power, striking bargains with surrounding warlords and raising an army with which he hopes to conquer Edo. His citizens are forced into slave labor building a monstrous fortress and taxed to the point of starvation and homelessness. Gatherings are forbidden, and much to the priestess’ horror the local faith falls by the wayside. In ancient times it is said that the mountain god did battle with the evil spirit Arakatsuma, whom he defeated and imprisoned in a giant statue of his own likeness – a great stone warrior. With gatherings banned the rituals to appease the mountain god and keep Arakatsuma, the dreaded giant Majin, at bay go undone, and as the years pass the god grows very, very angry.

Things come to a head in the tenth year of Samanosuke’s reign, when Kogenta and young lord Tadafumi are captured in their attempt to infiltrate Castle Yamanaka and slated for crucifixion. As though that weren’t bad enough, Samonosuke also murders the mountain god’s priestess and orders the guardian statue – now known as a Hanabusa safe haven and a rallying point for local rebellion – destroyed. But there are consequences for inviting the wrath of a god. Just as any hope for peace in the territory seems abolished the angered deity takes action, loosing the devilish, unstoppable Arakatsuma against Samanosuke’s fortress…

There was a decidedly DeMille-ian influence upon Daiei’s upper echelon productions in the ’60s, courtesy of that director’s recent VistaVision smash The Ten Commandments, and nowhere (except Kenji Misumi’s monstrous 1961 production Shaka, Daiei’s most direct answer to Western epics and Japan’s first 70mm film) is that influence more obvious than in the Daimajin trilogy. Indeed, strip away its distinctly Japanese sensibilities and the first Daimajin feels a lot like a thematic retread of DeMille’s swan song, complete with peasant-oppressing iron-fisted overlord, ill-advised heresy, and a climactic third act loaded for bear with Old Testament-style divine intervention (and for anyone doubting the DeMille influence, just wait for Daimajin part two!). In terms of dollars the end result was much what Daiei had hoped – a whopping success home, even if the international impact left something to be desired. Stateside Daimajin went unseen theatrically, and was instead integrated into American International Pictures’ television syndication packages as Majin, Monster of Terror.

Inspiration for the giant Majin himself, identified here for the only time in the series as Arakatsuma, came from Julian Duvivier’s 1936 film Golem (another retelling of that oft-filmed folktale), memories of which Hisashi Okuda carried with him until he became production director for Daiei Kyoto. In stark contrast to his simplified portrayal in successive films the giant Majin here is quite morally ambiguous, unleashing his monstrous vengeance not just against Samanosuke, but the oppressed villagers as well. Even his one demonstrably heroic act, the saving of lord Tadafumi from crucifixion, has a malign undercurrent, giving the impression that the Majin would just as soon have killed him, too. It’s a poetic device, not any personal sense of “mission accomplished”, that eventually ends Majin’s rampage and sends him on his way. Moved by the tearful pleas of young Kozasa, whose prayers raised the devil in the first place, the Majin’s spirit speeds off in a ball of light, leaving its physical form to crumble back into the earth.

Though well produced in terms of its drama the human element here is pretty formulaic, and ultimately just a narrative means-to-an-end to draw audiences in to the real star of the show – its ace special effects production (advertising proudly proclaimed Daimajin as “Japan’s first full-scale special effects samurai spectacular!”). So important was the effects production deemed that director Yasuda is billed alongside special effects director Yoshiyuki Kuroda in the opening credits. Even today the effects for Daimajin are captivating, not only in their superior execution but in their considerable style as well. The Majin’s arrival is heralded by grim clouds and blood-red skies, and his reduced stature (around 20 feet) in comparison to the usual kaiju combines with a sense of vengeful purpose (and some tremendous large-scale model work) to lend his attack a potent immediacy. Contemporary critics took note, and the film’s standard-setting effects photography earned cinematographer Fujiro* Morita the Miura Prize from the J.S.C. in 1966.

*The supplemental subtitles for this release say “Fujio”, and I’ve no idea which is accurate. Online translators are unhelpful, though amusingly so, translating the name as “Shiro Moritani wealth”.

Daimajin has been available in America before, but never like this. Original television airings were predictably pan-and-scanned from the original ‘Scope ratio, and dubbed into English besides. ADV (now defunct) went a long way towards remedying both problems with VHS and later DVD releases of the film, sourced initially from the Japanese laserdisc masters and later from those prepared for remastered DVD editions. Though better, these releases were still imperfect, with unreliable translations and image quality that just doesn’t hold up to contemporary standards. Since the folding of ADV bargain-bin proprietor Mill Creek have taken up their stead, and contrary to what some might have expected they’ve done a hell of a job bringing Daimajin to Blu-ray.

Daimajin arrives in great form, sourced from the latest HD masters and progressive at the original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1. Rather than just ordinary 35mm anamorphic ‘Scope Daimajin was photographed using the same large-format VistaVision equipment that had earlier been put to use for Daiei’s epic Shaka, and the resulting image is of terrific quality. Detail is very strong where the photography allows, as in the close-up that follows this paragraph, and the filmic quality of the original elements is blessedly retained courtesy of a fine, unobtrusive layer of unbastardized film grain. Unlike rival Toho’s recent HD restorations of their tokusatsu properties, which can look quite pale and over-bright (more on that in our upcoming review of Destroy All Monsters), Daimajin presents with contrast and color that are each at lovely, natural levels. I’m unsure of what degree of restorative work was undertaken here but I noted no damage beyond a few wayward specks and scratches and the usual grit associated with the film’s practical effects techniques – in motion this makes for a wonderful presentation.

Where Mill Creek have been found lacking in the technical department on earlier releases (like their single-layered double features from a couple of years back) they leave nothing to complain about here. Daimajin is paired with its sequel Daimajin Ikaru (The Giant Majin Grows Angry, under the title Return of Daimajin) on a dual layer BD50, and while the encode is only single layer (the same is true of the Japanese Blu-ray releases) the support is more than substantial enough. Daimajin receives an average video encode in Mpeg-4 AVC at an average bitrate of 20.6 Mbps, but artifacts are kept well at bay and the fine grain is well maintained throughout. Audio is provided in two flavors of DTS-HD MA 2.0, one being the original Japanese and the other being the same English dub that graced the Majin, Monster of Terror TV version. The original Japanese sounds precisely as it should, notably flat in comparison to modern mixes but significantly more robust than in past iterations – the lows of Akira Ifukube’s score (very similar to, if less bombastic than, his work on War of the Gargantuas the same year) have punch hitherto unheard. The big news, however, may be the quality of the English dub which, despite some additional flatness, sounds practically pristine. Optional English subtitles are included and, with the exception of some unintended humorous moments (“Gasp!”), are very well translated. Aside from its two co-features Daimajin Ikaru and Daimajin GyakushuDaimajin arrives on domestic Blu-ray accompanied by an interview / SFX discussion with cinematographer Fuji(r?)o Morita (28 minutes) and the original Japanese theatrical trailer, both in HD. The two-disc release (2x BD50) comes housed in standard side-lock Blu-ray case and fancy slipcover, and retails for $24.98.

I came into this Daimajin triple feature Blu-ray fully expecting to find the plethora of minor faults that have plagued many of Mill Creek’s past Blu-ray editions, and to have to defend those faults with a low price tag. Instead I find one of the best genre releases of the year hiding in plain sight, offering domestic fans the same kind of quality the Japanese are charged six times more for. This isn’t just a recommended release, it’s unskippable stuff, and the best deal to arrive on the Blu-ray shelf in ages. I literally cannot recommend it highly enough.

Daimajin is available now at Amazon.com

Daimajin is available now at Amazon.com