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.

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

Music Monday: Baron Punch Edition

No rambling today (you’re welcome), as there’s just no time – I’ve got 16 hours of vintage Japanese giant robot madness to catch up on. Presented here are the opening and closing credits to Nippon Television’s epic tokusatsu saga Super Robot Red Baron from 1973-74. All 39 episodes of the series are, bless us, available on domestic DVD, though the more recent Mill Creek edition has subtitle timing issues that will irk some (a more expensive OOP edition from the defunct BCI/Eclipse is also available). I don’t really care which you choose. Buy it, watch it, and show those Iron Alliance bastards who’s boss.

(Edit to add: The music featured here was arranged by Bob Sakuma and composed by Tadao Inoue and Koichi Hiro. And yeah, it rules.)

They Came From Beyond Space

directed by Freddie Francis
1967 | Amicus | 85′ 

A number of meteors crashes onto a field belonging to a farm in Cornwall. It’s the most curious thing though – usually, meteors don’t fly in a V-formation. The UK government thinks the phenomenon requires investigation and decides to send a group of scientists lead by an astronomer with special interest in the discovery of extraterrestrial life, Dr. Curtis Temple (Robert Hutton), to Cornwall.

There is a tiny problem, though: Temple’s love for vintage cars (slightly prefiguring the Third Doctor, like some of the film’s tone, if you ask me) has resulted in an accident some months ago that left the astronomer with a silver plate in his head, and – at least that’s the opinion of his doctor – still too sick to work away from home, even though he’ll act as fit as James Bond throughout the movie. We all know about the dangerous wilds of Cornwall, far away from civilization, after all.

So there’s nothing to it than to send Temple’s colleague and girlfriend, Lee Mason (Jennifer Jayne) to lead the expedition and send all pertinent data up to Temple.

Alas, things at the crash site fastly become problematic. The meteorites contain alien consciousnesses that take over the scientists, break off all contact with the outside world and slowly begin to infiltrate a close-by village too (starting with the local banker, of course, as if that were necessary). Then, the aliens begin to requisition large amounts of building materials and weapons through government channels.

After a time without news, Temple, as well as someone in government, realizes that something’s not right at all (an attempt by the aliens to take the astronomer over too but fails thanks to that practical silver plate helps Temple’s thought processes there). Temple’s investigations in the village and around the crash site turn up curious developments: it’s not just that the scientists and the dozens of people they have taken on are obviously not themselves anymore, they have built an underground lair all the better to be able to shoot rockets to the moon. Fortunately, Temple is one of those two-fisted scientists from the 50s, and his astonishing abilities (yeah, I know, he must have survived World War II, but how many astronomers really were astonishing commandos and still were when they hit middle-age?) at fistfighting, shooting, and escaping from cells will be very helpful in thwarting the plans of the aliens and their leader – the Master of the Moon (Michael Gough). Not even a strange alien illness part of the aliens’ overcomplicated plan can touch Temple; I suspect the illness is afraid to be infected by Hutton’s well-known right-wing real life opinions about everything.

  
  
  

Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make a 50s alien invasion movie in 1967. This time around, much-kicked Hammer rivals Amicus are throwing their shoestring budget at that old stalwart of British cinema, the alien invasion movie with the American no-name actor in the lead role. One suspects Quatermass and the Pit might have had something to do with that decision, though They Came counters the complexity and intelligence of the Quatermass approach to SF with a tale of a properly dumb alien invasion with a badly delivered 60s peace and love twist at the end that wants me to believe that the two-fisted American scientist whose adventures we have witnessed up to the point is willing to shake hands with aliens who wanted to kill him or make him their slave because they say they now think better of it – twice. Let’s not even talk about these aliens’ idea of secrecy (or the idea of the film’s UK government about how a quarantine works; hint: generally, letting people come and go as they please isn’t a part of it).

This may sound as if I were rather dissatisfied with They Came, but nothing could be further from the truth. The alien invasion plot may be dumb, it is however dumb in the most delightful manner, easily convincing me that I may not live in a world where this sort of plan would sound logical, but I really rather would. Not only are the aliens’ plans and the film’s hero – who reminds me of a more conservative version of one of these non-professional Eurospy movie protagonists – a delightfully groovy age version of 50s traditions (a total improvement on the model, obviously), the way to thwart them is just as beautifully insane, seeing as it consists of knocking one’s possessed girlfriend out, kidnapping her, and using her as a test object while working on a (of course very silly looking) anti-alien-possession helmet, even sillier alien detection goggles and alien re-possession methods with a friendly scientist (Zia Mohyeddin) who just happens to live somewhere in the country close-by, owns many silver trophies and utilities to melt metal. In an especially pleasant development that helpful man is a Pakistani Englishman, not a joke, doesn’t have to die to prove how evil the bad guys are, and will turn out to be save-the-day-competent. Given his role, and how competent Lee is allowed to be once she’s not under alien control anymore, it’s pretty obvious this is a film that may love to indulge in silliness for silliness’ sake but that also has a clear idea of which parts of his 50s models just don’t cut it anymore in 1967.

When people – though too few of them do – talk about They Came‘s special effects, they unfailingly mention their quality to be comparable to contemporary Doctor Who (this was the time of the Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, if you’re not quite up on important historical dates). That’s an old chestnut when talking about British SF cinema, yet in this case it is indeed true. Consequently, the effects’ execution has more than just a whiff of cardboard and spit, but it also shares the other, more important part of the Doctor’s legacy, a decidedly British visual imagination that makes up for the unavoidable cheapness and threadbareness. My favourite set piece is the yellow and black striped elevator that sits right inside a typical British country home, exemplifying at once the loving absurdity and the Britishness (for wont of a better word) of the film’s production design. It’s the mix of the local and the strange that gets me every time.

What the Doctor generally didn’t have at the time (though the show did have some good ones) were directors quite like They Came‘s Freddie Francis. Francis, veteran that he was, was someone seemingly unable to not put real effort even into his cheapest and silliest films, and he works his magic here too, milking every possibility to turn the cheap yet creative sets and the landscape of the locations into a cheap pop art dream that feels saturated with colours even when the surroundings are rather brown more often than not, and that builds visual interest even from the smallest thing.

The movie’s pop art feel is even further strengthened by James Stevens’s score that belongs to the jazzy swinging kind you often find in Eurospy movies, though it has a peculiar habit to just fall into an unending series of drum rolls when Hutton punches people in the face.

The cheap pop art feel of, well, everything about They Came From Beyond Space is sign of a film made to treat the old-fashioned tropes of the 50s alien invasion movie with the sensibilities that produced the Eurospy movie. In a wonderful turn of event, Francis’s movie actually succeeds at that mission, for words like “groovy” and “awesome” come to my mind quite naturally when I think about it.


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.

Banned Japan: From Tsuburaya Productions With Love

Given the very nature of the sort of cinema I gravitate towards its an unavoidable fact that every now and again I stumble onto something that’s banned somewhere, but this may be the first time I’ve ever crossed paths with a banned episode of a television series. The now-infamous episode 12 of Tusburaya Productions’ excellent Ultra-sequel Ultra Seven ran afoul of the same cultural sensitivities that would land Toho’s Prophecies of Nostradamus: Catastrophe 1999 in the hot seat just a few years hence, the result being that it has not been seen (officially) in its native Japan in decades. Those of us elsewhere have proven luckier. While Tsuburaya Productions have pulled the episode domestically and now (according to the interwebs) refuse to so much as acknowledge its existence, Yusei yori Ai o Komete (From Another Planet With Love) was marketed in foreign territories none-the-less. Those fond of Cinar’s mid-80s English adaptation of the series may remember it as the modestly spelling-challenged Crystalized (sic) Corpuscles.

The fuss in this case is all to do with Cristalized Corpuscles‘ requisite villains, a race of chortling backroom baddies from the nuke-ravaged planet Spellia who are out to fill their irradiated veins with delicious Earth blood (“This planet gives good blood!”). For a television show produced in a nation in which A-bomb survivor lobbyists are still counterbalanced against lingering stigma and discrimination the concept of bomb-happy galaxy-trotting vampires gleefully bleeding Earth-men dry is already treading on very thin ice. While likely more than enough on its own to incite an uproar among victims’ rights groups, Crystalized Corpuscles takes the issue one step further in its physical depiction of the Spell Aliens in their native form:

In retrospect it’s easy to see why the appearance of the Spell Alien – a gargantuan pallid figure with a sinister, expressionless face, covered in glowing keloid scars (lingered upon in close-up, no less) and raving about his desire for the blood of children – proved offensive. Even with my Western sensibilities firmly intact I find the presentation a bit tasteless, though it’s done nothing to lessen my innate personal revulsion to censorship, self-inflicted or otherwise. To that end I’m not entirely positive that the word “banned” is even appropriate to this case. Tsuburaya Productions have certainly pulled the episode from domestic circulation, but that appears to have been of their own volition – an effort made, no doubt, to avoid or mitigate a possible scandal. Crystalized Corpuscles was still made available to foreign markets, and well after the domestic moratorium went into effect. And moratorium be damned, even the original Japanese version is but a few clicks away anymore.

With words like “infamous” and “banned” weighing so heavily upon it, it’s easy to neglect the episode itself, which is second to none as an example of the heady ambition and audacious absurdity that mark the best of classic tokusatsu television. The premise is as ludicrous as they come, concerning a nefarious alien scheme to harvest the blood of women and children with wrist watches, but director Akio Jissoji (Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis) delivers not just a rollicking pulp actioner, but an oddball satire of romantic cinematic convention as well! Even the compulsory episode-ending Ultra-fight is handled with unexpected artistry, the battle cast in rich sunset color and depicted in a bizarre freeze-frame style complete with audible shutter clicks. It’s as surprising a 24 minutes as has ever been produced for Japanese genre television, and with an intriguing cultural significance as well. One only wishes it were more officially available…

 

Hundra

directed by Matt Cimber
1983 | Continental Movie Productions | 109′ 

One day, while their best warrior Hundra (Laurene Landon) is away hunting, a generally peaceful village of amazons is attacked and eradicated by a band of ugly, hairy man riding under the sign of the bull. When all is over, a returning Hundra dispatches a horde of the aggressors in a drawn-out fight, but that still leaves her people quite dead.

Our heroine then makes her way to the only remaining elder of her kind, who for some inexplicable reason dwells among a horde of really rude little people. Though after hearing the sage’s glorious plan for the revivification of her people, I’m not surprised by anything about her, for she declares Hundra to now be solely responsible for the survival of the tribe. Our poor, bedraggled heroine shall go down to the land of the men praying to the bull, and get herself pregnant stat.

But Hundra’s first attempt at getting pregnant only teaches her one thing: she still has certain standards, and won’t tolerate the attentions of hairy, unwashed guys who’ll even turn consensual sex into rape. So, after showing off her wrestling skills and sneering at less feminist women (she’d get along well with certain Internet feminists), off she rides to what goes under the term of “city” in sword and sorcery land.

There she will get into trouble with the ruling cabal of religious male chauvinist pigs whose religion is orgies, meet a man who doesn’t stink and isn’t a jerk, learn the womanly arts, teach the warrior arts to her teacher of womanly arts, and be somewhat responsible for a death by sitting on a face.

  
  
  

Among the many, many films jumping on the bandwagon created by John Milius’s Conan the BarbarianHundra is one of the most unique in that it isn’t slavishly copying all of its predecessor’s story beats and aping its philosophy, but actually having a head of its own. Admittedly, Hundra‘s head just might be as much full of nonsense as it is of clever ideas, but I find it difficult to disagree with a film that is clearly having so much fun.

Still, having fun or not, Hundra is at times a film sending very mixed messages. Tonally, it’s just very inconsistent, with scenes of really unpleasant slow-motion violence like the destruction of Hundra’s village (ending – especially tasteful – with the rape of Hundra’s teenage-at-best sister) and sequences of Hundra romping through the city and kicking guards in the balls (one of her favourite fighting moves) standing in strange contrast to each other, quite as if half of the film were made by a low-rent Sam Peckinpah and the other half by the director of one of the later Terence Hill and Bud Spencer movies. I suspect part of this curious mixture is just director Matt Cimber (a man with a career so curious someone should write a book about him, he did Hundra and Pia-Zadorasploitation, after all) fulfilling his quota of exploitational values, just that in this film, violence towards women after the big village destruction usually leads to Hundra giving the respective prick a kick in the respective balls. It’s a bit like a woman in prison film where all the male bad guys are dispatched before the grand climax, and therefore don’t have enough time to get really sadistic.

At times, when it’s not spending its time having strange plot holes (so, the main bad guys are all about seeing Hundra tamed, but they somehow don’t realize when she’s pregnant?) or making jokes about Hundra’s cowardly male dog, Hundra actually becomes a somewhat clever inversion of the classic sword and sorcery tale, where the storyteller suddenly realizes that treating women like objects isn’t alright at all, and sends out a female version of Conan to sort things out with men. The film plays with a lot of traditional sword and sorcery elements this way, turning what begins like the usual tale of vengeance into the story of a woman who learns that a lot of men are indeed shits, but not all of them, and that consensual sex is a-okay if both partners want to have it. And in a really surprising turn of events, this does not lead to our heroine giving up on her curious destiny and only ever living for her man from then on, but just sees her psychologically better prepared for it. Of course, her male love interest here is just as bland as the female love interest in sword and sorcery movies with a male hero often is, so it’s not too much of a surprise she can leave him (at least for a time – the film actually is all about choice on that level).

These clever bits are surrounded by an Ennio-Morricone-scored shot in Spain series of fights, brawls and slow-motion attacks (with a bit of nudity), bad jokes, good jokes, male characters so vile I’m sure they don’t wash, and Spanish actors speaking English with heavy accents. It’s a bit of mess, really, but so much of the film is riding on a wave of fun, with a lead actress who may not be all that great at, well, acting, but sure seems to have as much of a blast in her slightly awkward action scenes as her character has. That sort of thing always goes a long way in turning awkward action scenes into loveable awkward action scenes. And once a film is like Hundra and mixes its loveable awkward action scenes with kinda sorta feminism that would make John Milius (and Robert E. Howard, for that matter) cry, there isn’t really anything anyone could do to remove it from the warm place it has found in my heart.


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 Trilogy on Blu-ray from Mill Creek in September

Fans of giant monsters and jidaigeki alike should mark your calendars for September 18th, as that’s the date Mill Creek will unleash Daiei’s inimitable Daimajin trilogy on domestic Blu-ray. Those who want a primer on the films should check out our article here. Each and every of them is a long-time favorite of mine, and needless to say, I’m excited.

Quoting from Mill Creek:

In 1966, the Daiei Motion Picture Company – the studio behind Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON and the Gamera series – released a trilogy of films that combined elements of the popular daikaiju (giant monster) and jidaigeki (period drama) genres.  Set during Japan’s “Warring States” era, the Daimajin movies told the story of Majin, a giant statue of an angry god that would come to life in times of desperation to punish evildoers. But when Majin’s rage was unleashed, it could be directed at both the wicked and innocent, alike.

Acclaimed for their serious tone and spectacular special effects, DAIMAJIN, RETURN OF DAIMAJINand the rarely-seen DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN present a unique take on a monster who is both savior and devil.

CONTENTS:

1. DAIMAJIN 
2. RETURN OF DAIMAJIN
3. DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN

Bonus Features – All New English language track for DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN

Mill Creek’s Daimajin 2-disc Blu-ray collection streets September 18th with a retail price of $24.98, and is currently available for pre-order through Amazon.com.

Wu Xia

a.k.a. Swordsman / The Dragon
directed by
 Peter Chan Hoh-San

2011 / We Pictures / 116′
written by Aubrey Lam Oi-Wa and Joyce Chan Ka-Yi
cinematography by Lai Yiu-Fai, Jake Pollock, and Yeung Jan-Yu
music by Comfort Chan Kwong-Wing, Peter Kam Pau-Tat, and Chatchai Pongprapaphan
starring Donnie Yen Ji-Dan, Kaneshiro Takeshi, Tang Wei, Zheng Wei, Li Jia-Min, Jimmy Wang Yu, Kara Hui Ying-Hung

China, 1917. Liu Jin-Xi (Donnie Yen) lives a peaceful life with his wife Ah Yu (Tang Wei), her son from a first marriage Liu Fang-Zheng (Zheng Wei) and their son Liu Xiao-Tian (Li Jia-Min) in a country town, working in a paper mill. Shadows of a different man Liu Jin-Xi once was begin to emerge when the two martial artist villains try to rob the mill.

Liu Xiao-Tian kills the men in what on first look seems like a series of exceedingly lucky accidents, making him the hero of the village. But Xu Bai-Jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the detective investigating the villains’ death, has his doubts regarding Xiao-Tian. How, after all, should one hapless butcher’s son be able to “accidentally” kill two of the meanest martial artists around? Some of the physical evidence Xu Bai-Jiu finds tells a different story, too, and the detective is soon convinced Xiao-Tian must be a masterful martial artist and experienced killer who is just using this identity to hide himself from the law.

Even though Xiao-Tian must be a changed man from whoever he was before, Xu Bai-Jiu can’t help himself but go after him, sniffing and asking questions and even accommodating himself at Xiao-Tian’s place. Xu Bai-Jiu’s own past has him convinced that his natural tendency to compassion is a weakness before the spirit of the law that must be purged, so he treats his sense of empathy like the illness that keeps him unable to practice the martial arts; not surprisingly, he also doesn’t believe a man can ever truly change, so Xiao-Tian becomes an obsession and a riddle for him to solve.

Xu Bai-Jiu’s investigation has other consequences than those he intends, too, for once it has reached a certain point, the people that made Xiao-Tian the man he once was (Jimmy Wang Yu! Kara Hui!) learn where their old friend now is, and they very much want him back, not realizing that some men do in fact change.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Peter Chan Hoh-San’s Wu Xia is one those films from Hong Kong that makes me doubt the truth of the old-fartish refrain of “things in Hong Kong cinema are just so bad now” I and many other long-time fans of the city’s cinematic output have been singing for about a decade now, for how bad can a regional cinema truly be if it still can produce fantastic movies like this?

In time-honoured fashion, Wu Xia mixes elements of the mystery genre with elements of the wuxia (a real surprise given its title, surely), to form a meditation about the possibility of change in people, the usefulness of suppressing impulses, and even the old question about nature and nurture that may remind some of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, just with the difference that Chan’s film – unlike that of the Canadian – is not a comedy. (To digress for a parenthesis, yes, I am that weird guy who really thinks Cronenberg’s film is not just a black comedy, but is also meant as one rather than as the bloody drama most viewers seem to see when watching it; I’ll only point at the nature of the sexual role-play between Mortensen and Bello as an obvious hint at that film’s true nature.)

Unlike Mortensen’s Tom Stall, though, Xiao-Tian isn’t only truly alive when he is a monster, and his family life with Ah Yu and the children never has the feeling of somebody going through trained motions without any actual emotions; Xiao-Tian may have only locked away the monstrous parts of himself, but what’s left is not an automaton, but an actual human being.

The movie’s first two thirds are in large parts about exploring its two male main characters (with Tang Wei getting a handful of scenes that flesh her out as a character more than I would have expected from a film with this set-up and structure – it sure helps how much the actress is able to express with just a few looks) as mirror images of each other: Xiao-Tian as a man who has locked away everything destructive and monstrous about himself to become a human being, and Xu Bai-Jiu who has locked away his most human traits – compassion and empathy – to become a better agent of the Law. The former is a man who will not use his martial arts abilities because they are so closely connected to his worst nature, the latter unable to use his because his best nature cost him his abilities. I can’t imagine what the Chinese censor thought about the film’s treatment of compassion and the Law, especially since the film treats Xu Bai-Jiu as being in the wrong with his priorities; it’s nice to still find Hong Kong films that dare to argue for humanist values being more important than the jackboot. Interestingly, the film also seems to express that it’s easier to suppress one’s worst impulses than one’s best. Of course, both of Wu Xia‘s main characters will have to accept parts of what they’ve kept closed up to become fully functional human beings, possibly even heroes.

I was a bit surprised by how well Donnie Yen is able to sell his character’s complexities. I do of course love the man and his generally motionless or scowling face, but he always has been a better martial arts actor than an actor, and this is a film that needs him to express himself outside of fight scenes quite a bit. Yen is still using more body language and posture than facial expression (though he has developed a surprisingly pleasant ability to smile over the years), but he is doing that very well, selling the inner changes his character goes through without having to talk about them.

The well handled philosophical discourse alone would be more than enough to recommendWu Xia, but there is so much more to love here: there are the fantastic fight scenes – of course choreographed by Yen – that dominate the film’s final third; Chan’s curious yet effective decision to treat Chinese village life of the early 20th century as a peculiar mixture of naturalism and bucolic idyll and still have martial arts be more than a little magical instead of “realistic”; the relatively small but important roles of Jimmy Wang Yu and Kara Hui who feature in the film’s two most intense fight scenes; the way the film uses Kaneshiro’s traditional Chinese science and medicine as the base for some CSI-inspired scenes and makes that work too without things becoming ridiculous; how Chan’s direction handles action, near-mythical dramatic family conflicts, human-level emotions and moments of peace with the same assured sense of rhythm and pacing as well as a deep understanding of their importance. In Wu Xia, it’s all good.


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.