Tuesday, May 29, 2018
Come on come all to another year of May Monster Madness! This year I'll be looking at Monster Squad (no, not THAT one...or THAT one either)...
Walt is a young criminology student working at a wax museum. One night he plugged in his Crime Computer, and it brought to life the museum 'exhibits' Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man, once villains but now seeking to make up for their past misdeeds. Together, this group seeks to fight evildoers wherever they may spring from...
The Monster Squad did NOT get off to a good start! Not only was the writing in the first episode shockingly awful, but the effects seemed pretty lousy too! Thankfully it steadily improved in quality with every episode, and is ultimately entertaining!
Quite a lot of the humour falls flat on its face in the earlier episodes, but that too gets steadily better One weird joke I'm still not sure about is the somewhat slow-witted policeman named Officer McMacmac. What?! My favourite presence is by far the Crime Computer. On paper a supercomputer that literally burps out its info-cards may not sound that funny, but it made me laugh every time, even in the really bad early episodes. The concept of a supercomputer that you talk with via an in-built telephone is also a great visual design.
The show is quite cheap, horrible so in many episodes. The visuals are sometimes its greatest downfall, but are also occasionally triumphs. There is some possibly re-used footage whenever the team 'come to life', but if they are, the editing sometimes shortening them or showing from a further way or closer angle than normal makes them feel fresh and new.
The make-up for the three monsters had me confused at first. I thought it was awful to begin with, but not only did I warm to them, I realized that they're actually pretty good! I guess the abysmal first episode just had me soured on the show's overall design. That's not to say the designs are perfect though. Both Frankenstein and Dracula have gaps in their make-up, around their eyes and mouth, as well as the insides of their hands. The Wolf Man's look is by far the best!
The characters are a lively and distinctive bunch. They're not amusing all of the time, but make the show a joy to watch, and it truly does live up to its cool high concept, even if it does leave you yearning to know how it all began, because a simple narration in the opening credits isn't enough! I need more!
It seems a bit of a cheat at first that we only get Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man, but on reflection, not only is three enough, it also makes sure the show doesn't get overcrowded. It's also a pleasure how often the three monsters are the ones doing hands-on investigation as well as brawling, and they aren't upstaged by their human buddy, who's usually a stay at home agent, instructing from the sidelines.
Walt is funny in how he sometimes talks like an overdramatic kid with his nose stuck in a dictionary. He has the kind of characterisation that could be infuriating in the wrong hands, or even in a decently written but taken seriously show.
One minor annoyance is that it's pretty inconsistent how much the authorities/general public know about the team, and how much has to remain a secret.
Something else strange is how the Wolf Man is never actually called that. The opening narration refers to him simply as 'The Werewolf', and he's named Bruce in the show itself. Did they not have the rights to the character? If not, it's surprising they were able to get away with this character who's the Wolf Man in all but name.
The villains are the most mixed aspect of Monster Squad throughout its run. Some are quite good, most are mediocre, and a couple are awful! Their henchmen are often derivative thugs, with their most often being exactly two, and more often than not their names are emblazoned on their clothes. Another issue is similar motivations. This starts dwindling at around the halfway mark, giving way to more interesting motives, perhaps because the writers got a stern call from the higher ups to pretty please use more imagination.
The effects range from good, to not that great, to downright awful, but you get the feeling that a lot of the more unconvincing ones are used with a grin. Less appealing though are the really obvious and cheap sets and costumes in a lot of the early eps, making the show feel like a no-budget 15 minute PBS production.
I'm not that crazy about the main theme. It's a bit weird and noisy.
Ok, let's delve into the episodes proper...
The Queen of all bees is dissatisfied with the way things are being run, and holds the world at ransom, threatening to destroy humanity unless her demands are met...
Good god this episode is awful! I was dreading the future of the series once I saw this, and knew at once why it only lasted one season! This is trash. The production values are appallingly cheap, with obvious sets, super fake 'honey', a guy in a low-rent bear costume, and the puns. Oh my god, the puns! Bee-lieve, bee-witching, bee-dazzling, bee-guiling, bee-wildering, bee-seech, bee-moan, bee-loved, bee-headed, etc. There's literally over 50, if I'm remembering correctly! It's beyond a joke!
Beyond that, the villains are still annoying, and the plot not very interesting or well written. The heroes don't get that much chance to shine, and overall this is a painful watch!...
The city's mayor is replaced with a lifelike doll by the nasty Mr. Mephisto, who increases taxes in the city, shutting down practically every local business and lining his pockets with all of the money. That is, until the Monster Squad figure out what he's up too...
Mr. Mephisto is an improvement over Queen Bee, but baby steps. It's still not that great. The villain is at least less annoying. He doesn't really get a fitting title though. Mr. Mephisto sounds more like a demonic figure rather than a dollmaker using his skills for theft. His henchmen are just barely tolerable, but they're women, unlike the rest of this show's second bananas, which were usually always men!
The climax is a total mess, literally as well as figuratively. Hardly all that appealing.
Mr. Mephisto is one of the show's least good episodes, but it's not totally awful, and is at least watchable, which is certainly something...
Archfiend The Tickler is a clown who has never laughed in his life, and has devoted himself to that one goal, at the expense of everyone else's happiness. Setting his eyes on one-time foes the Monster Squad, he plots a dastardly revenge to tickle them until their bodies collapse...
The Tickler is where Monster Squad starts picking up. The episode isn't perfect, but it's watchable, mainly thanks to the good antagonist. The actor (Ivor Francis) does very well with the material, coming off like a Bond villain! I mean that in the good way not as a pejorative.
The villain of the week's hideout actually looks like a real location this time, rather than a poorly dressed-up set, and it's got some neat touches to it!
The humour is improved once more, with some funny dialogue like when Walt destroys an indestructible cage with a laser, saying "It hasn't been invented yet but I used it anyway".
The Tickler isn't perfect, but it was at this point when I realized the show's quality had taken a definite upswing...
An embittered ringmaster and his circus cadre decide to get revenge on America by holding thousands of children hostage for millions of dollars, which they'll use to buy all the toy stores in the country.
This entry has and ok story and some decent laughs, but the villains are a pretty gross bunch, mainly down to the overeating 'fat' lady, and whoever did the make-up job for the Ringmaster.
The addition of 'stupid gas' is...well, stupid, but it at least saves the episode from going to a very dark place regarding what fate would befall these kids if the government didn't pay up, so stupid gas it is!
Billy Curtis is ok as the villain, despite the ugly make-up, By the way, his self- described title is The Impish Impresario, which is a much better title than just The Ringmaster!
The Ringmaster is a step back for Monster Squad, but it's still better than its worst...
The Music Man
The failed singer and manager of a music shop robs a successful charity blind of all its earnings, in order to hire everyone in America to attend his latest concert. Unwilling to let a charity be robbed, or let the world be subjected to the terrible singing of the Music Man, the Monster Squad sets up to stop him, going in subtly with an undercover job...
The episode begins with an amusingly bizarre joke about a charity devoted to battling the dreaded affliction 'natural causes', the leading cause of death in most people It's perhaps repeated a smidgen too much, but it's entertaining, as is the one near the end about Dracula's impressions. I also got a kick of the intro, with the three monsters calmly and serenely playing violins.
The villain is pretty meh. He's nicely sparkly though, even if the costume itself is pretty awful. He has the makings of a neat plan, but it doesn't end up coming together that well, probably because he doesn't even get close to fulfilling it.
The sound trap that the Music Man has the heroes in is a somewhat neat and creative prison, but a bit annoying to hear.
Overall, this is an ok ep, but one you'll perhaps want to have turned down for a lot of the duration...
The villainous No Face impersonates Chief Running Nose in an effort to wrest control of the city away from the mayor, instituting a new policy making all crime legal. Not satisfied with his handsome drip-feed of money, once criminals everywhere have stolen all the money they can, No Face will make crime illegal again and pocket all of the ill-gotten goods, unless the Monster Squad can stop him...
No Face, with its portrayal of Native Americans, was one of those occasions where I wasn't sure if the show was going to end up insightful and witty, or shockingly racist. How does it do? Um, cringey, but not that bad. It's worst fault is the name Chief Running Nose, but that does at least pay off in a good way by the end. Overall, given we see him at the end wearing modern day clothes (as well as speaking normal English), I figure the episode knows full well having him decked out of full old-world native regalia, featherhead and all, is over-the-top and not something most indigenous Americans don't wear commonly, and is just taking the opportunity to be goofy.
This brings up an interesting point, however unintentionally. The way Native Americans were often portrayed on older comedy shows, with full-on tribal outfits, is actually quite progressive in a way, as it's showing them still holding true to their culture and customs, with their sometimes broken English showing that they still speak their original languages, keeping them alive for new generations. Do I think any of this is intentional? Oh hell no, but it's a nice thought regardless.
There are quite a few laughs to be had here, from the funny witness description, to Chief Running Nose (really No Face)'s line "Because White Man speak with forked tongue, and subdivide sacred land with fork lift, I forking over certified cheque for 24 dollars!".
Unlike a lot of the series' prior enemies, No Face came across like a more genuine supervillain, as The Tickler did, rather than just a random criminal, even if his motivation (Get lotsa money!) is the same as just about every other episode. I also found it effective how we never see his true face, until the end of that scene ruined that mystique, with a pretty bad effect to boot. No Face gets a neat music accompaniment in one scene too!
Regarding the actor who plays him, I was wondering if he was Native American, rather than a white guy in brownface. My reaction to their identity is as follows-"THAT'S SID HAIG?!". Ok, so that's a 'No' for the 'Are they actually Native American?' question, and a "So that's why!" for why No Face is the best villain in the show's run!
Getting to the heroes, there's clever thinking on their part, and the episode showcases all of their skills quite well! We're also treated to an amusingly loquacious Wolf Man. There's a reference to the show's overarching continuity, and if this episode is to be believed, the Monster Squad have saved the city once a week for 5 years. Really?! I've heard of older shows starting off in media res, but not by that much!
No Face is by far the best episode in the series, and a great example of what this show could be at its heights...
A disgruntled TV astrologer who never gets a prediction right has turned to crime, having stolen a nuclear bomb in order to make his latest prophecy come true-That of an earthquake separating California from the mainland. Can the Monster Squad stop him in time?...
Siiigh, one step forward, one step back. The Astrologer has some good aspects, such as a motivation that's different from the series' norm, even if it seemed like a bit of a ripoff of Superman (in actuality this predates that movie by 2 years, so that's neat!). The villain is its greatest weakness though. Feeling like his outfit was cobbled together from random parts in a costume box, Johnathon Harris does a painful job as the Astrologer.
There are some funny moments here and there, usually when Harris is offscreen. There's a 'ticking clock' that goes way past its supposed time, even by TV logic, which kinda ruins the climax. There's also a weirdly depressing ending, almost mean to poor Dracula.
The vengeful Ultra Witch demands to have her jailed boyfriend returned to her, and has made all the world's cows (except Arabia) dry up, and turns all U.S. soldiers into castor oil when her demands aren't met right away. Thankfully the Monster Squad has an ace up their sleeve-They're monsters, so Ultra Witch will be more liable to trust them. Will their plan succeed?...
Somewhat dated Ronald Reagan jokes aside, Ultra Witch is a decent outing, and has the welcome addition of Batman alumni Julie Newmar! The plot is the right amount of silly. Serious props to Fred Grandy for acting his ass off in the way he interacts with the cardboard cutouts. You totally believe they really are the team due to his enthusiasm! I also liked the concept of Dracula sending a morse code message with his pulse.
The climax is quite good! While the fight itself isn't that impressive, it's at least clear to make out thanks to the nice use of colour
By the way, it was this episode where I realized that there hadn't been any puns (terrible or otherwise) from the villains since Queen Bee! Thank god for that!
Ultra Witch treats us to yet another interesting motive. It's not even wanton destruction this villainess craves (although she's more than happy to cause it), but the release of her wizard boyfriend (unrelated to next episode's baddie). I also find it neat how we get to see Drac going undercover by coasting on his former reputation, one that a witch of all people is likely to actually recognise.
Ultra Witch's costume is of note It's still terrible, yes, but it at least looks like effort was put into thinking of an actual costume rather than just dressing the actor up in random junk and calling it a day. The henchmen actually have a bit of character to them, even if they look pretty similar as henchmen past.
This is another fun entry, which is thankfully becoming increasingly common for me to say with this series!...
An angry wizard seeks revenge against the American government for stiffing him, so he starts miniaturising major landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, etc. During their investigation, two of the Monster Squad are shrunk and trapped inside the tiny landmarks, leaving only Walt and Dracula to save the day...
The Wizard is a pretty entertaining time to be had.
I couldn't help but find it amusing when the characters are going on about America 'losing her identity' when all these landmarks are whisked away, yet they're all European in origin. Hehe. I bet Chief Running Nose won't be losing any sleep over 'em! Also, for a villain The Wizard's motives aren't that bad. The dude was legitimately screwed over by the government, so he's getting back at them for leaving him with worthless property by placing all of the nation's most famous landmarks on said worthless property, opening it for tourists even. So far you've said nothing wrong, Mr. Wizard! But alas, he's a bit of a dickhead, so the Monster Squad have to kick into gear and stop him.
Walter's latest invention (a universal antidote biscuit) is fun, though makes him a suicidal wackjob at the beginning! Also, laughing gas isn't a poison.
The climax is fun, despite budgetary limitations. In fact, the invisible sword fight is quite entertaining, with both actors giving it their all! The pre-cut watermelon a minute later is just embarrassing though.
Arthur Malet makes for a fine villain as The Wizard. It's almost kind of a shame they didn't try and tie this into the previous episode though. Oh well, it still stands well on its own...
Evildoer The Skull has stolen the body of Tutankhamen, the world's greatest thief, and he resurrects the long dead pharaoh to steal precious diamonds. What will the Monster Squad have to say about this?...
This episode has humour that doesn't really hit the mark, but is intermittently funny (the borderline racist Asian character named Kung Fooey is not). The villain is pretty entertaining, and has a neat design, although he does sound basically the same as Dracula. I'm less positive towards the annoying henchman, who is sadly not strangled by Tutankhamen.
We almost get another Universal monster on display this episode in the form of the mummy. Unfortunately it does barely anything, especially in the climax, even though the end does kinda set him up for a return, though it's really just for a joke conclusion. Kind of a shame the personality we hear of (King Tut as one of the most devious criminal masterminds in history) wasn't explored more, because that sounds like high concept fun!
The finale is pretty interesting, in that while there is a brawl, the true showdown is more low-key and psychological (to the extent that a goofy show like this can be, of course). And funnily enough, the whole time I as yelling at the Wolf Man to just reach up and pull The Skull into the grave, and woudn't you know it, he ends up doing just that! It serves The Skull right, trying to use a bullet by poking someone with it!
The effects here aren't very good, with an obviously plastic and obviously hollow diamond, and an unimpressive mummy.
With it's Kilink-inspired baddie, The Skull is a neat episode, albeit imperfect...
A diabolical gangster has taken control of the weather, and will bring America to its knees unless he is unanimously voted in as President for Life of the United States. Obviously the Monster Squad cannot allow this, but how will they fare when one of their own is frozen solid?...
The Weatherman makes for a relatively amusing time, but it's not that comfortable to watch in winter. Brrrrr!
This one of the only episodes in the entire series that actually shows the effects of the villain's plan! This is accomplished through use of stock footage though, which could perhaps be seen as a little insulting?
There are very good effects for the people who get frozen. So good that they'd look good in a higher budget movie!
The Weatherman is a pretty fun villain with his swaggering crime boss demeanour, and he gets a very anti-Bond speech during the climax in how quickly he decides to kill the leads, but the mystique is ruined by how easily he's disarmed twice in a row afterwards.
The final battle this time round is...interesting. 'Interesting' in this case is not code for 'funny', but at least it's not samey. I had a good time with this episode, though maybe I'd enjoy it more if I wasn't shivering the whole way through!...
Lawrence of Moravia
Foreign dignitary Lawrence of Moravia is unsatisfied with being able to buy anything he wants, and derives much greater pleasure from stealing it instead. Having set his eye on the largest pearl in the world, it'll take the combined efforts of the team to stop him...
The Monster Squad do battle with a nefarious Arab sheik, and boy do I hope this won't be racist! Thankfully it's mostly not. *phew* once more!
This struck me as a really good final episode! It has by far the best climax, character moments, a fun villain, henchmen who are varied and mostly not annoying (more in that later), and is an all-round great time! My how this series has improved!
It's interesting how the heroes meet the villain relatively early on, and that part of the episode is a nervous conversation, a tete a tete between the two parties. The Monster Squad are at their best here, coming across as very endearing! They are the heroes we need!
The effects are ok. The costuming is pretty good! Dracula's make-up is somewhat faded in this episode. This kinda has an unintentional positive effect, make his cheeks appear more sunken, and thus more deathlike
The oil rising is less convincing, with it being obvious it's only entering into a thin chamber sitting in front of the actors, designed to make it look like they're being submerged despite it being plainly obvious they're not.
Despite not being Arabic, Joseph Mascolo acquits himself off pretty well, making for a fun enemy. His henchmen though, not so much. They're in obvious brownface, and it's embarrassing!
Lawrence of Moravia is the pinnacle of what this show could accomplish, and is well worth a watch!...
Criminal mastermind(s) Albert/Alberta are plotting a dastardly scheme in order to hold the world ransom, and the Monster Squad must stop them in order to avert an apocalyptic catastrophe...
This episode is borderline surreal! A literal half man-half woman is stealing two of every animal in order to flood the world and create a new 'Genesis'. What the flying heck? Bloody weird! As for the hows of his plan, I'm only going to describe them with "Uhhhhhhhhhhh"...
My greatest fear going into this episode (right after if it'd stand up next to Lawrence of Moravia) was whether or not it'd be inadvertently transphobic. Thankfully it's not. *phew* While is not is still pretty annoying (thanks mainly due to his 'half' obsession), as are his henchmen. Vito Scotti also doesn't do a very good job at being Alberta. So bad that his Alberta personality fleetingly speaks.
Despite some decent moments, this isn't that great of an episode, nor is it a good send off for the series as a whole...
Monster Squad is a very flawed show, but it's got enough upsides that I recommend giving it a watch. Just make sure to avoid the first episode like the plague, and to make Lawrence of Moravia the last one you watch...
Thank you all for reading, and be sure to check out all the other contributors to this year's May Monster Madness! They'll all have fangtastic posts, I am sure!...
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
When I go trawling through lists and film databases at random, seemingly pedestrian looking titles sometimes grab my attention with crazy sounding plot descriptions. They don't usually live up to them, but it's always good to take a look anyway. In this case, Uzun Ince Bir Yol (A Long Thin Road) purported itself to be a movie bout former Turkish heart-throb Tarik Akan in a Seventh Seal style game for his life against Death! Let's see if it lives up to that summary...
Turkish expatriate Müşfik has arrived back to his home country with his wife and son, during a holiday drive. The trip takes the family though Turkey, but things seem off as Müşfik keeps seeing the same man wherever they go, no matter how much distance they travel. In his haste speeding across a road, he causes a traffic accident, killing several people. With his family unaware of what he's done (??), he just keeps on driving, eventually arriving at the home of his parents. The mystery figure continues haunting Müşfik, and he struggles to fight back against what seems to be the inevitable...
Uzun Ince Bir Yol is a 1990s Turkish film directed by Tunç Başaran (yes, that one), possibly taking inspiration from the Greek play Alcestis and the Turkish folk tale of Deli Dumrul, which both centre on trying to cheat death (or rather, Death, capitalized, since it makes for much better theatrics if the lead is actually conversing with another actor who can talk back, rather than just yelling at an abstract construct for thee hours).
The plot and characters maybe feel a little underdeveloped, and not a lot really happens, with the majority of the film's runtime devoted to seeing a creepy guy interspersed with driving, hanging out by the ocean and sunbathing, strange scenes where Müşfik is tied to a ship's mast and sprayed by his wife and son with shaken-up wine bottles, etc. Thankfully his encounters with Death do ramp up in intensity as the movie progresses, and bar a couple of scenes I never really found it boring overall.
There are other plot threads that seem either forgotten or just not paid much attention too (assuming a key line didn't fly right over my Turkish-illiterate head), such as when Death influences Müşfik's son to accidentally shoot someone with a harpoon gun. I don't even think the little brat noticed! The last half hour is where things get a bit more interesting, with kooky dream sequences, more abstract visuals, and Death finally looking the part with a cloak and scythe, which he does get to use.
Everything culminates in a weirdly upbeat ending that seems to forget Müşfik totally killed like half a dozen people, or that his son impaled a woman. Is this a case of the movie wanting to have its cake and eat it too (in this case, wanting to have a happy ending regardless of how much or little the characters actually deserve it) or did I simply miss something in the patches of dialogue I didn't understand? Either way...the movie is better thought-out than the previously-used idiom (or analogy? Metaphor? Whichever), because of course someone is gonna eat the piece of cake they have, since that's the whole damn point of having a slice! What else were we supposed to do with it, use its component amount of crumbs for mathematical problems? Goshdamn passive aggressive proverbs trying to shame us for eating cake.
The acting is pretty good here. As noted in my Üçüncü Göz review, the then-39 year old Akan looked more like 65, and he does here at first until he shaves his beard early on, with only a moustache remaining. Not only does this shave away a few decades from his visage, it leads to him looking not only completely different from his bearded self, but also his younger one!
Taner Barlas does quite a good job as Death, looking just weird and offputting enough without being really obviously malevolent. He delivers his lines in a powerful and menacing manner. I also thought it a nice touch that Death is always dressed in white as opposed to black.
The rest of the acting is ok, but nothing hugely impressive.
One weird touch to the movie is how the main characters alternate between languages. I guess I should give the movie props for trying to realistically portray a multilingual family that hail from different countries originally, but it's as confusing to listen to from an audience's perspective as much as I imagine it is to actually talk like that. There were times when I'd hear a word and wouldn't be sure if it was Turkish or English.
The cinematography here is quite good, especially some scenes! The movie manages to look quite evocative and almost epic in places, with the ancient locations on display such as an ancient Colosseum aiding the production superbly. There's a great use of lighting too, with deep oranges, and the blue of the ocean and the night sky contrasting well with the yellow of the lamplight in one scene.
Uzun isn't exactly an effects heavy production, but what there is is good, from a dream decapitation, to an implied harpooning, and the scenes of Müşfik's wild careening through traffic looks convincingly dangerous! A flying effect later on is well handled too.
The soundtrack, by Hasan Yükselir, is quite good in spots, though a lot of the movie is either un-scored, or is just very low-key. As for the good pieces, they have kind-of a medieval Romanian sound to them. That's the best I can describe it, anyway, next to 'It sounds like an N64 era Castlevania game.
Uzun Ince Bir Yol isn't that great of a movie, but it's got its redeeming qualities for sure, and despite the undercurrent of gloom and death, it really makes you wanna visit Turkey's South/West coast!...
Thursday, March 29, 2018
Doctor Kuzumi and his ailing wife Yoriko are moving to the small and quiet village of Kyushu, to help with her health. They move into a centuries-old house, and Yoriko sees many unexplainable things, from people who appear and disappear, to footprints that go nowhere. Her husband is skeptical, but soon enough the haunting becomes violent, and the vengeful ghost of an old woman tries strangling Yoriko repeatedly. Dr. Kuzumi and Yoriko's brother seek the local priest to find out what happened at this house in the past...
Ghost Cat Mansion is a nicely spooky little horror film. It's not great, and there are probably more intense scares to be found elsewhere in Japanese cinema, but I still quite enjoyed this. It shows a very good understanding of the horror genre, in part due to its direction and staging, and the themes it covers.
One oddity regarding the structure is that it's technically a flashback within a flashback! This sounds stupid, self indulgent, and confusing, but it's no such thing here. I think it's because the framing story is just the lead sitting in his hospital listening to nearby footsteps and basically going 'Man, sounds in the night sure can be creepy, like this experience I once had...' and the rest of the movie (bar the final minute) is set back then. So never fear, we don't jump constantly between 1958, 1952, and hundreds of years in the past every 5 minutes. However, I feel that the story jumps around too little. Once the flashback to Feudal Japan starts, we don't leave it until the final 7 minutes of the film. I wish there was a little more time given to Story A, because it doesn't end up feeling complete. There's not even enough time for a satisfying climax and conclusion. It all happens very quickly, and a little too easily, feeling a little unclear. Also, perhaps because the Story B was such a relentless downer (a fact we know throughout all its runtime), the present day's ending is amusingly sunny and upbeat!
Story B is decent, moving along at a good pace, feeling relatively comfortable telling its shorter story within its constraints. The plot starts out simple enough, but then gets a bit overcomplicated for its own good, and is further marred by a silly death scene. The cat ghost in all its glory looks pretty laughable too, but if that's what they look like in Japanese folklore, I won't complain. There's a possibility this section may explain and show too much for viewers who like things more of a mystery.
The characters are a good mix of likeable and loathsome. While the story is a downbeat foregone conclusion for pretty much everyone, we at least see the evil Lord Shogen get his comeuppance. The guy's almost unbelievable as the hair-trigger temper guy who tries to cheat at literally every move when playing Go, and murders his teacher for electing not to continue such a game, or to let Shogen win. Due to those transgressions and more, he's quite deserving of a thorough haunting by a ghost cat, don't you think?
The ghostly lady has a bit more depth to her in this part of the movie than she does in the present, which makes sense I suppose, since all her real enemies are long since dead by that point, and she's just running on centuries old hate, basically on autopilot. It's a shame she never learns that Shogen's son Shinnojo is actually a decent person, undeserving of her curse, although even without that interference, his dad's machinations still would've screwed him over even if she hadn't.
The cast in the present day are serviceable. Yoriko is the one who sees the haunting, but is consistently told by her husband that she's clearly seeing things. Thankfully her brother is more endearing and actually believes her, even taking the husband to see the priest, winning him over.
The performances here are all pretty good, if sometimes over the top.
The cinematography Ghost Cat Mansion is superb, with well-framed shots that are effectively creepy. The scenes set in the past are less good though, because of their very set-bound nature. They feel a bit like watching a stage play. It improves as it goes on though, with one great death scene done in silhouette. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie's appearance is the colour shift between the two stories! I'll say no more...
This movie's effects are pretty decent, if quite visibly low-budget at times. The ghostly Kokingo and spirit cat lady look well-realised, even if the latter might elicit more laughs than scares. Finally, I'm glad the crew didn't get a black cat for the film. It's nice to see some equal opportunity representation of mystical and/or evil felines in cinema.
One final thing to note. The title does conjure up to mind something different than what the movie delivers though. I was expecting a mansion full of spectral kitty cats roaming the hallways, when instead we just get a regular ghostly old woman in the present, and the single cat woman in the past. Not really a disappointment, since the movie technically never promised more than that, but still, I wanted a manor house full of ghost cats!
Ghost Cat Mansion may not be perfect, but it's a worthwhile watch if you're into the old-fashioned horror movies that were more likely to have unexplained creaking, doors opening by themselves, and other such frights as opposed to more gory setpieces...
Thursday, March 22, 2018
Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules occupies a somewhat special place in my moviegoing heart, not because I particularly like the movie (indeed I only saw it very recently), but it was one of the first obscure films I actually researched online when I started to get into movies as a youngin'! For that at least this is a memorable title for me. As for how it fares as an actual movie, though? Well...
In the ancient days of Greece, countless villages have fallen victim to the evil mole people, who kidnap the survivors of their conquests to be slaves in their diamond mine. The famous hero Maciste hears of this crime and swears to seek justice and take the mole people down. Aided by a fellow strongman named Bangor, Maciste infiltrates the caverns of the mole men as a prisoner, intent on freeing the prisoners and ending the reign of their sadistic queen Halis Moyaab. She has other plans though, and wishes to either see Maciste dead, or reigning by her side...
Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules is a slog to get through! The plot has little substance to it, and with the hero becoming a captive of the mole men so early, it leaves one to wonder how the rest of the film is going to do to pad out its runtime. What indeed! The majority of scenes are boring conversations, or the leads being tortured. Some of these scenes are good, like the weight setpiece, but others are just a draaaaag.
Maciste is a pretty unremarkable protagonist. Not very charismatic, and just full of great ideas, like infiltrating the Mole Men by getting captured. Not pretending to be captured, but actually taken prisoner, and thusly pretty helpless. There are also many scenes where his slow to act behaviour gets lots of people killed, often only fighting back against the mole men when there's no-one left to protect. Maciste also can't spot traps to save his life. I like that Maciste isn't so strong that nothing is an obstacle to him. I also found the occasional moments where he fells multiple targets at once, or with the same object, to be very amusing! Also, I have to admit, I do find it impressive that his muscles are able to remain consistently oiled up despite being a prisoner!
Bangor is a decent sidekick. Not much more charismatic than our main lead, but more likeable. He's gravely underused in the film's midsection though, mostly being chained up. There's an incredibly awkward moment early on when Bangor is rescued by Maciste, and he sticks his head under The guy's foot and pledges to be his slave forever more. Uhhhhh...
The villains plans are a bit confused. It's to have a mole-man mate with their secretly human queen, so that their offspring will have an immunity to the fatal effects of the sun's rays. Ok, nevermind that it'll take FAR too long for the effects of that plan to ever amount to anything, if ever, but why do the Mole Men even think it'll work? It might not work biologically, or maybe it won't because, oh, I don't know, the Gods who enforced the punishment in the first place will take issue with their plan?!
Also, the first time I saw this movie I was under the impression that kidnapping the baby Halis Moyaab is what caused the curse in the first place, so simply giving her back would've fixed the issue. I didn't hear a thing about that on rewatch though, so I'll give the movie credit in at least not being that stupid.
Halis Moyaab starts out as a decent villain, but that status is soon completely torpedoed as she's reduced her to an ineffectual and swooning damsel practically going "Oh, Maciste!". Her part in the end isn't really that involved, and what becomes of her is predictable, but satisfactory.
Possibly what pisses me off most about the whole last act is how 10 minutes before the end, when Maciste frees the slaves and they start overrunning the Mole Men, finally escaping as their antagonists flee, the moment is the ruined. What was previously a victorious scene is undercut by the exits being barred, and half the freed slaves being slaughtered by arrowfire. Way to totally make your triumphant climax become needlessy depressing! The climax as a whole is pretty unsatisfying, but the ending is amusingly cheesy.
While we're on the subject of cheesiness, yeah, that's a factor here with the general feel of the movie, the costumes, the music, the bad dubbing, and some of the dialogue, such as "A man can only resist so much when he is a man". The moment when a mole man is executed by being exposed to the sunlight is pretty hilarious too! Other than those fleeting bits of entertainment, there's not enough to make Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules all that watchable though, I'm afraid.
The acting here is pretty mediocre, as is the dub performances. The look of Mark Forest and Paul Wynter is a sight to behold, at least! Their often-oiled pecs are so huge I'm surprised they aren't really the sons of Hercules! Gianni Garko is apparently in this movie too, but hell if I recognized him under the heavy costuming and make-up.
The set design and some of the props here are quite good, and sometimes creative, if a bit silly (or abstract in a Dom Patrol-esque way). One major special effects failure is how in any scenes when the mole people are outdoors, it's clearly broad daylight, yet they talk as if it's still night. 'We'd better get back underground before the sun's rays touch us!' says a concerned mole man while the sun's splendifferous rays are shining upon him.
There are some animals on display here, including some horses that were either greatly inconvenienced, or well-trained and adept at pretending to fall over. There's also a pack of adorable lions! The gorilla in the one fight scene though is of course a guy in a crummy suit.
The music is generally ok, and the theme song (recycled in a lot of the Maciste movies, among other sword and sandal heroes, like Argolese for example) positively reeks of machismo with its over-the-top lyrics!
Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules isn't all that great a film. It seems as if medicority is the standard for a lot of these old Italian sword-and-sandal flicks. I sure hope not! I want to see some of these that are genuinely good! Well, Zeus knows there are plenty more to choose from!...
A small farming village in Yugoslavia is rocked by a series of murders at the local mill, and the locals are convinced it's the doing of a vampire. Meanwhile, young lovers Strahinja and Radojka wish to get married, but her guardian won't accept it due to Strahinja's low station in life. After the fourth worker at the mill is found dead, Strahinja is hired for the job, and he hopes taking it will impress Radojka's guardian...
Described as one of the scariest movies ever made in its former home country of origin Yugoslavia, the 1973 TV production Leptirica is a movie I went in to with reasonable expectations, as I knew it probably wouldn't live up to the hype from that description. I also braced myself in-case the movie might lose something in translation for those who haven't grown up in a rural Slavic environment. As for whether it does or not, I suppose it depends. I grew up in a country-ish area (only and hour and a half from the nearest city, so quite urban, really), so I could put myself in the characters' shoes to an extent, but I also don't live in beautiful pastoral Serbia, so...
The plot is decent, feeling like an old fairy tale at times. There are elements of local folklore here, such as the inclusion of Sava Savanović, and the story as a whole is based on a novel from the 19th century, called After 90 Years.
Sadly I found Leptirica to be a bit boring. Not terribly so, but for a lot of its brief runtime it just wasn't grabbing me. Making this worse is how much time goes by without any scary scenes. We also don't really get any insight into the villainous vampire. They're just evil because, and never even say a word, disappearing in fact to give way to another vampire that they presumably sired.
Something that endeared me to the story was the actions of the supporting characters. The superstitious townsfolk are dismayed at the continued deaths of those who work at the mill, and hire Strahinja for the job, seeing him as a bit of a patsy they can goad into taking the job with honeyed words convincing him it'll be good. When he ends up surviving the ordeal, these guys now have an abiding respect for Strahinja, now seeing him as a hero, and supporting his romance with Radojka, even helping him elope with her to be married! They started out as somewhat manipulative dicks to him, but I liked how much they genuinely come around and help him out. A shame then that the movie has such a downer ending, but oh well, you can't have everything.
The climax unfortunately came across more silly than scary. It reminded me a bit of that section from the tales of Sinbad, with the little old man who jumped on people's necks and strangled them to death, except here there's less choking and more of what resembles a piggyback ride. Nothing that happens seems to make a whole let of sense, either, and the uncle and whatever he was plotting seems to have been forgotten. All of this ultimately takes the wind out from the sails of an already underwhelming experience.
Sounding like a cross between a kookaburra and a chimpanzee, the howl of the vampire wasn't 100% percent chilling to me, but it is a bit spooky how even in broad daylight the characters can hear this unsettling wailing coming from an unknown place, signalling the presence of a malignant evil somewhere closeby. It'd be especially creepy for those who live in the great outdoors, and often hear the sounds of unknown animals.
The effects in Leptirica are mixed. We don't get a good look at the vampire early on, but what we do see is effective, showing just enough to leave you wondering. When we do see one in full, it's good! The teeth look great, while the charred-looking furry skin is a nice touch. They also complimented the clean whiteness of the fangs.
There's very little violence on display, but what there is is great, such as an impalement wound near the end. It looked very impressive, especially given what the budget for this must've been. Another effect I felt was really well-handled was the one at the ending. Working with animals can be tricky, but insects are even trickier, so the fact that the final shot works as well as it does speaks well to the skills of the filmmakers. Less convincing though is that none of the scenes taking place at night-time actually seem to be filmed at night. I guess the director was worried that things would be too hard to make out if he shot in darkness, which I get, but I wish they would've waited at least a little longer before hitting record.
I'm not totally sure how the acting was, but I liked the characters nonetheless, as well as the performers behind them. Petar Božović did well as the simple lead, while Mirjana Nikolić has an air of radiant beauty to her, and terror later on.
One bit of gloomy trivia related to the movie is that a Macedonian man reportedly had a heart attack during/after watching this movie! I imagine they were already a ticking time bomb, and watching a horror movie is what set them off, but this movie is so slow-moving in the scary department that it's almost leisurely at times, so it seems odd it would be a factor in such a reaction. More than likely is that the guy would've suffered the heart attack even if he was at a screening for a romantic comedy, and it's just that he was watching a horror movie that made the event seem more morbid than it actually was. Whatever the case, this caused a bit of a stir back then, with the authorities not looking kindly upon the movie, and that's perhaps why it to date doesn't seem to have an official DVD release.
Leptirica is a mixed film, but by no means bad. As an example of Serbian/Slavic filmmaking, and their take on the horror genre, it's worth checking out. It's simple, but delivers on quite a bit, even if I felt the movie as a whole wasn't the best...
Monday, March 19, 2018
Back in the day, it seemed like New York was really going to the dogs, and a few made movies all about how in the future, it'd become a dystopian no-man's-land. Seems kinda quaint nowadays to imagine that nowadays, but it helps that these were usually really good watches! Today I'll be looking at one such movie-Enzo Castellari's 1990: The Bronx Warriors...
The year is 1990, and The Bronx has become such a crime-ridden hellhole that the authorities cordoned the suburb off, leaving the gangs inside to roam free, plundering and killing each-other as they please. In the more affluent New York, young heiress Anne runs away from her home and into the Bronx, almost being captured by a gang of malicious hockey-skaters until she's saved By Trash and the Riders, who take her in. Anne and Trash get to know each-other as time goes by, but her disappearance has not gone unnoticed, and her father (head of the corrupt Manhattan Corporation) desperately wants to get her back, sending in the malicious and nasty operative Hammer, who may well leave The Bronx a charred wasteland when he's through...
1990: The Bronx Warriors is never boring, and thoroughly entertains. The look of the film can be cheap at times, but I don't think that's much of a drawback, as this is meant to take place in a run-down city populated by gangsters with too much time and make-up on their hands, improvising a lot of things. Regarding its roots, Bronx Warriors is definitely inspired by the likes of Escape from New York and The Warriors for its setting, but its plot actually makes an effort to be different from that of those other two movies.
Castellari's direction (as well as the cinematography by Sergio Salvati) is really good, with many scenes that are shot and framed interestingly, such as the gang funeral. Only half of the movie was actually shot in New York, but that's enough. If there was only half a minute's worth of establishing shots and nothing else, this would be unconvincing, but when at least half the movie is out in the streets of the Bronx, while every other scene is in buildings/sewers, where it'd make sense not to be seeing NY landmarks everywhere, then the movie's succeeded at doing its job.
The dialogue is often cheesy, with some lines sounding unintentionally hilarious, thanks to an Italian crew translating their script for the English actors they had. Not technically incorrect, but still amusing to native English speakers.
For a sleazy romp that's mostly action, the backstory behind 1990: The Bronx Warriors, as well as the world everyone inhabits is quite interesting! We're told just enough to make it intriguing, but not enough to over-explain things. There are some spots though where I wish there would've been a bit more depth and exploration, such as Anne.
I'm a little sketchy on why Anne decided to leave her old life in NY. She stood in line to inherit everything. Complete control of not only New York, but of nearly the entire world's arms trade. With the power of dystopian megacorporations fully in the hand of someone who isn't an asshole, she could've just stayed, maybe pretended to be a nefarious businesswoman at first, but enacted sweeping changes. There's a brief explanation in one scene that she didn't want to just be a puppet, which fair enough, but she also says without her the corporation is powerless, which...errr, doesn't quite make sense. They'd just replace her with someone actually on their side, I imagine, making everything worse.
The remaining characters are distinctive. Trash is a decent protagonist, with a great look to him. Witch and Ogre are honourable rulers trying to keep the Bronx as safe and stable as can be, while Hammer is just the opposite. Sadistic, nihilistic, and intent on making everyone in the Bronx remember his name (provided they live long enough), he's a greatly intimidating villain. Not sure why he randomly goes crazy in the end though.
Now we come to the lowest point of Bronx Warriors in my opinion-The ending! It's a miserable piece of work, as downbeat as you can imagine. There are two reasons why I dislike it so much. The first is that it's unnecessarily depressing, and secondly I feel it's a disappointing alternative to where the story was heading. We were going to get Trash, Ogre, Witch, and all their warriors to fight back against Hammer's machinations, possibly even against the Manhattan Corporation itself, but instead they just all suddenly get butchered while eating cake, Trash kills the now-insane-for-no-reason Hammer, then rides off, the movie just abruptly ending at that point. Jeez, The New Barbarians had a lighter conclusion than this, and that movie was literally set in the apocalyptic wasteland after the bombs dropped and wiped out nearly all humankind!
The acting/dubbing varies from good, to over-the-top, to just plain bad. Marco di Gregorio (credited as Mark Gregory) is stoic as Trash, but I'm pretty sure he nails softer emotion too in some good scenes, and he absolutely looks the part! He was only around 16 in this film, but you wouldn't know it it look at him! One thing of note is how amusingly loquacious Trash is given his exaggerated New Yorkah accent.
Vic Morrow makes for a really good antagonist. Unfortunately we don't get to hear him speak in the English version, as he's dubbed over by someone else (Bud Spencer's common dub actor, I think?). Given Morrow is American, I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps the guy could speak Italian and did that in the original language cut, and didn't have time time to do his own dubbing, given his tragic passing?
Fred Williamson is great fun as Ogre! Out of the first 50 minutes, he's only in a scant few, in the beginning. From that point on though, he's a main player in the story. Elisabetta Dessy is neat as the badass and stylish Witch, but doesn't get used a whole lot. Stefania Girolami is a bit milquetoast as Anne, but she doesn't really get much to do, so it's not really her fault. John Loffredo is good as the secondary villain if a bit on the nose at times, while Christopher Connelly is a bit wasted. witch?
There are quite a few familiar faces of 'Italosploitation' cinema present, such as Enio Girolami, Massimo Vanni, the incomparable George Eastman. I suppose I should probably find it concerning that I can't name any big-name A-list Italian performers of the 20th century, but oh well.
The rock/synthesiser soundtrack is quite good, with a great main theme, scored by Walter Rizzati (originally I got producer Fabrizio de Angelies confused with Maurizio de Angelis of Oliver Onions fame, and thought he was doing the score). It really gets you into the mood! The accompanying opening credits are neat too. Silly make-up for sure, but I like how it shows off a lot of the gang designs and weapons we see in the film with the music overlaid.
1990: The Bronx Warriors isn't a perfect film, but it's still got many great qualities, and I highly recommend it! It's a fabulous showcase for Enzo Castellari's skills, as well as his cheesier side, and is sure to entertain, even if it'll leave you needing a pick-me-up by the end...
During the heyday of Blaxploitation cinema, there were quite a few horror titles coming out, some making a name for themselves. Quite a few of these got lazy following Blacula's example, inserting 'Black' into all their titles even though the reason that worked for Blacula is that 'black' rhymes with 'Drac'. I'll probably never stop harping on this, but Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde is one of the laziest titles I've ever heard! Quite a different story for Sugar Hill (aka The Zombies of Sugar Hill)...
Diana 'Sugar' Hill lives with her loving nightclub owner boyfriend Langston, looking forward to getting married. Things take a turn for the worse though when a criminal who wants the nightclub for himself sends his goons to beat Langston to death. Distraught, Sugar seeks out Voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse, who helps her get in contact with Baron Samedi, Lord of the Dead. Now in control of an army of the undead, Sugar is determined to wreak a terrible revenge upon those who killed her love...
Sugar Hill is a great example of African-American horror! The plot moves along at a nice pace, never feeling boring as it tells this relatively simple story of Woman wants revenge, Woman takes revenge, The End. The minutes breeze by, and there are plenty of creative death scenes to keep one's interest, and creep one out. A couple are largely offscreen, but in an effective way, and the ritualistic stabbing is filled with tension! Perhaps less appealing to others is that the story never really diverges from its simple structure, nor is there any tension for the title character, who stays on top for the whole movie with no struggles against her opponents.
Unlike some Blaxploitation flicks, Sugar Hill isn't so much dated as it is a time capsule, which is very much in its favour. Also, I dig the variety of different black people/African Americans this movie shows. Some good, some bad, civilians, business owners, gangsters, cops, voodoo priests/demigods, etc.
The dialogue is sometimes cheesy, and there are great lines here and there, like Sugar's fabulous put down of "Talking to you means I look nowhere but down".
The effects here are pretty good! There's little violence on display, but what there is is decent. As for the zombies, they look neat, with their pallid skin, chrome eyes, and sometimes deranged grins. Unfortunately, they don't directly contribute to about half of the death scenes. Two of the gangsters get offed by Sugar and her voodoo dolls, while another is fed to hungry pigs.
Onto the acting. Marki Bey is really good here! She starts off as a regular lovestruck person, and as the movie goes on, becomes a harder-edged avenging angel. One look at her and you know that this is not a woman to mess with. I particularly liked when the vengeful Sugar is pretending to be gracious with the villains she manipulates.
Don Pedro Colley is by far the best thing about Sugar Hill! He plays Baron Samedi with a wonderfully creepy charm, and is so amusing to watch! Thankfully his character plays quite a proactive role in events too, and isn't just offscreen for much of the movie. Zara Cully delivers a neat performance as Mama Maitresse, too. The rest of the acting is ok, though Robert Quarry doesn't make for a very good villain, and none of the other bad guys are at all memorable (except in the spooky conclusion).
Sugar Hill is a lot of fun, and it's the best Blaxploitation horror I've seen so far! If you're looking for something to watch that's positively dynamite funky, then go for this!...