Whenever you think of zombies you're probably thinking of the George Romero kind, that devour the living and spread their virus far and wide. It wasn't always like that. Before Night of the Living Dead, zombie movies were more of the Voodoo variety, focusing on people resurrected from the dead as slaves for nefarious human masterminds. Tonight I'll be looking at four such films...
Neil Parker and his fiancee Madeleine Short have just arrived in Haiti for their wedding, to be held at the estate of Charles Beaumont, a plantation owner. Beaumont is in love with Madeleine too, and conspires with the feared Voodoo master Murder Legendre to make her fall in love with him. They accomplish this by drugging her with a poison designed to cause death-like symptoms, and Madeleine is later dug up, and made into a mindless zombie. Wanting her for himself, Legendre turns on Beaumont, and it's up to Neil and a friendly local missionary to save his paramour and stop the diabolical madman before its too late...
White Zombie is a mixed bag of a movie. Some elements are considered classic, and it's possibly the first zombie movie ever, but some issues drag it down a bit, which I'll get into later.
Some sequences are brilliant! There are quite a few almost dreamlike scenes with little to no dialogue that rely entirely on interesting visuals, such as the one of Neil in the bar, despondent on 'losing' Madeleine, and reacting to shadows. The use of sound is likewise great, such as the uneasy repetition in the zombie slave mill. The direction overall is interesting, with many very well shot and realized moments!
I also really dug that the movie was about real zombies, instead of being fanciful. Not that I would've minded more magic-based zombies, and Bela's hypnotic skills do veer a little into fantasy territory, but for the most part it's about the real life practice of drugging people into a deathlike state, letting them be buried, then digging them back up again to be a mindless doped up slave.
My biggest problem with White Zombie is that the plot feels a little underwritten, and not quite enough happened to my liking. Also annoying is the short length, which adds to the previous negative.
Another big issue with White Zombie is that the acting...uh...leaves a little to be desired. Bela Lugosi is fine, but the script somewhat lets him down, and he doesn't get a great deal to do other than stare. Boy is he great at evilly glaring though! The heavy eyebrows and devilish goatee all help make him look super evil. The rest of the performers range from ok to not so great. Never terrible, though, except for the old tribal man who may or may not have been a white dude in blackface!
The dialogue isn't that great. There's some good stuff here and there, but most of it's pretty standard and unremarkable. A couple of lines stood out, and not for the right reasons! The first was Neil's line of "Surely you don't think she's alive? In the hands of natives?! Oh no, better dead that that!". Dude, not cool! The second, markedly more amusing, was in the same scene, when Neil finds out all about zombies, and that his wife may not be dead after all. His response is a simple "Boom!".
The score is quite good. It's suitably ooky in some parts, but a little too jaunty in others.
White Zombie isn't a perfect film, but there is a reason its reputation had endured for over 80 years, and it's not exclusively because Bela Lugosi stars (though that helps).
Revolt of the Zombies
During World War 1, soldier Armand Louque has met the Cambodian priest Tsiang, and learnt about the secret to creating an unbeatable zombie army. After Tsiang is murdered, an expedition is mounted to the ancient region of Angkor to find the lost knowledge of zombies...
Revolt of the Zombies is actually quite an interesting movie, but sadly one that's very nearly sunk by its tedious and confusing first half. It seems to start off midway through the story, and the plot we see makes no sense. One minutes the top brass want to destroy the 'recipe' for zombies, and the next they want to keep it for themselves to win the war, then in the same sentence they'll say how they want to destroy it. Their opinion on whether Tsiang the priest is an ally or an enemy also changes often, depending on the scene. Then characters who've only just met are having an engagement party in the very next scene, all while Armand and his friend are damn near impossible to tell apart! For this first stretch, the film is more concerned with soap opera love triangle antics than telling a spooky story involving zombies!
Now we come to the interesting part. The lead Armand is really the villain! Hypothetically you grow attached to the protagonist, liking him, and only once this has happened does the turning point occur, and you realize he was never the hero. It would be a brilliant twist if not for the bad taste in my mouth from what came before, but it still does work to an extent. The first half hypothetically spends its time developing the characters and their relationships, then you're hit with the revelation once the second half begins, and the film takes a turn for the spooky. The problem is that not only is the first half of the film hard to follow, but the characters are all unpleasant jerks, and you don't know at this point that that's intentional. It comes across as simple bad writing. Secondly, the apparent main villain (who looks like Snidely Whiplash) appears so little you almost forget he exists, so that misdirect doesn't work as well as it should. It's also not the sign of a good horror when pretty much the entire first half of it doesn't have a single scare.
The title is disappointing for a few reasons. The zombies do in fact revolt, but it's only in the climax. This means that for almost the whole movie you're annoyed the zombies aren't revolting, and once you've finished, you're pissed that the title spoiled the ending! Secondly, where are the zombies?! They're right in the title, but aside from one brief scene, they don't appear until over half an hour in, and do very little but stand around until the end. The ending also comes across more as 'Revolt of the Humans', but that's not a problem with the movie, necessarily, as zombie meant something different back then. But then again, none of these people are even so much as undead, so...
Speaking of a different time, the word 'robot' is used to describe mind-controlled zombies. People in the 1940s were weird! At least they don't pronounce it 'ro-but' here.
This is labelled a semi-sequel to White Zombie, but it isn't really. They're both made by Victor Halperin, and are about zombies, but they're completely different in every single way, even down to the cultures springing up the undead. The only carryover is something I'll get into below.
For a film set primarily in Cambodia, you maybe wondering how Revolt of the Zombies does on the race front. Eh, not too terribly well, I'm afraid. Tsiang the priest seems to be getting a pretty big role, but unfortunately he's killed only 8 minutes in, and the only other Asian characters we see are servants. Also, one particular scene gives off the impression that the expedition is so racist
they have to bring their own white exotic dancers with them to Cambodia! The main servant character we see does become awesomely independent in the conclusion though, which is a small plus.
The effects here are ok. One improvement Revolt of the Zombies has over every other movie in this post is that when the zombies are shot, the bullets actually make marks! In all the others, characters shoot, but just because the zombies can't die, I guess they've also got metal skin, and remain completely unmarked. The film is lazy in one respect though-Its re-use of Bela Lugosi's hypnovision eyes from White Zombie whenever characters are hypnotized.
The Cambodian scenery on display also looks pretty gorgeous, though it sometimes gets a bit obvious that rather than film the movie itself over there, the directors just went ahead on their own, shot some footage of the country, then went back and had it rear projected in front of the actors. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the hilarious wading scene! Besides that though, it never looks too bad.
The acting is all pretty ok. Not that great, but not terrible either. The leads are all pretty dull. Roy D'Arcy is pretty fun as the over-the-top misdirect villain, and I wish he was actually the main antagonist, as he's having a ball (and the villain we do get has the indignity to refer to Robert Burns as Bobby Burns! That's just wrong!). Also, he looks Asian, but apparently isn't? I don't man to say he's a white actor in yellowface. I mean he actually looked somewhat Asian at first. Meanwhile, the very English-y named William Crowell actually is Asian! As is Teru Shimada, who plays the main servant character. He's entirely wasted until the climax, where he finally gets to actually do something.
I may have used the word 'jaunty' in this post too early, because it's much more suited to the opening theme for this movie than White Zombie's score! The remainder of the soundtrack is ok, but unmemorable.
Revolt of the Zombies is an almost neat film, but it's sadly a failure in many respects, and not really worth watching. You'd do much better to stick with White Zombie. I do dig that poster though! It's WAY better than the film deserves...
King of the Zombies
'Mac' McCarthy, Bill Summers, and the manservant Jeff are flying to the Bahamas when their plane experiences difficulties, and they're forced to crash land on an island below, where they were able to pick up radio signals from. Despite a bumpy landing, the trio survive with only a few scrapes and bruises, and are met by the sinister Dr. Miklos Sangre at his foreboding mansion. While Mac and Bill are at first only slightly suspicious of their seemingly-accommodating host, Jeff picks up on what's really going right away, as the servants of the house tell him of the zombies that prowl the island...
King of the Zombies is a decent film and it tells a fine story, but there are certain aspects that go too unexplored for my liking, such as Mrs. Sangre's condition and her apparent motivations coupled with how she can act on them despite her condition. Then there's the villain himself, whose personal motivations are pretty unclear. I mean, we know that he's a nazi agent (though they never actually say that) wanting information from a kidnapped U.S. admiral's head, but he doesn't really have a reason for doing this besides being generally evil. I also feel not enough is done with the zombies or the Voodoo until the relatively brief climax, and by that point it almost feels a bit too little too late.
Another problem is that it feels like there are scenes missing. There's one character I suspect only survived due to a last minute
rewrite, as they're never seen again after an apparent death, and the
denouement feels empty without them if they did survive. I'm tempted to say this is a film that could've benefited from being longer than just 67 minutes long, but actually if some prior scenes had been cut and replaced with something better, the runtime might've been fine as it is. As for the mixing of the horror/comedy and spy genres, that's done marginally well, albeit hampered by the previously listed faults.
The characters are mostly a bit bland, but a few are more memorable. The villain is a neat one, even if he isn't played by Bela Lugosi or Peter Lorre, as originally planned. Also, as if you couldn't guess he's the villain from the get-go by his general ooky demeanour, there's when he pours out "some of the finest brandy in Europe", but only in three glasses, with Jeff getting a handful of nothing when he goes to grab one. Racist prick!
The direction by Jean Yarbrough (who I'm constantly disappointed isn't a woman) is good, and he frames spooky scenes really well, making great use of shadows too! One of the best is the candle = at midnight! The production looks great for a low budget picture, though we never really get a feel for the island as a location, presumably because the sound stage posing as one only had so much (read: so little) space.
Popular African-American actor Mantan Moreland absolutely makes this film! He is indeed the main character, which is a relief, and he's as funny as usual, singlehandedly pulling the movie from 'somewhat bearable but mediocre' to 'quite watchable'! He gets plenty of funny dialogue, like when he mistakes the distant beating of Voodoo drums
for his heartbeat, "Quiet, will ya? What you tryin' to do, wake up the dead?", or "Whew, if it was in me, I sure would be pale
now!", On zombies, "That's what they is. Dead folks who was too lazy to
lay down.", "I never dreamt a dream like that in my wildest
nightmares!", and the hilarious closing lines!
There was a stereotypical archetype in some spooky films of this time which tended to portray black characters as exclusively perpetually frightened wimps. This is usually groanworthy, but it works here and doesn't come across as racist or problematic, for a few reasons. There's a wide variety of black characters in the film, from the sassy maid Samantha, to the nefarious butler who seemingly holds more power than first apparent, and a Voodoo high priestess. Because of this, Jeff being scared at spooky stuff doesn't come off as a stereotype, but rather a character trait exclusive to him. One good example is when he sees zombies for the first time. He runs away like a scaredy cat, but Samantha who casually told him of the zombies and called them in is as cool as a cucumber. Also, despite being scared (and he frankly has good reason to be!), Jeff is also a quick-witted and proactive character.
The rest of the acting is all fine. The two other leads fare decently, while Joan Woodbury is ok, but the movie doesn't give her much to do, and it almost feels like her character and her quest to discover what's happening to her mother was meant for a different script entirely. Henry Victor is quite good as the antagonist, however he too is let down by the script. Margeurite Whitten is great fun as Samantha, working well with Moreland, and Madame Sul-Te-Wan is a delightful presence, though also not used a whole lot.
What I'd like to see is a remake of King of the Zombies, about a very urban American black lead who doesn't know head nor tail of African/Caribbean cultures falling into a Voodoo-infused adventure in the West Indies/around that region. It might be an interesting idea, and a potentially neat way of remaking this!
While it may have its flaws, King of the Zombies is definitely a fun time, and I recommend it! It's probably one of the best early zombie films out there, even if there is room for improvement...
Revenge of the Zombies
Scott Warrington and his friend Larry Adams, along with the servant Jeff, and the local doctor, head to the estate of Dr. Max von Alterman. Scott's sister Lila (also von Alterman's wife) has just died under mysterious circumstances, and Scott and co. suspect foul play. Jeff is the first to pick up on the freaky nature of the estate, while the others learn soon enough of the true horrors afoot, and the reason why Lila's body keeps disappearing...
While I've heard it labelled as a sequel, Revenge of the Zombies is more a remake of King of the Zombies if anything, but thankfully it's a good kind of remake. It takes the base story, but changes up the setting and characters, enough so that it's different, but not so much that it's unrecognizable from the source material. Howfuckingever, I do NOT appreciate a remake, even a well-handled one, coming out a mere two years after the original film!
The two leads here have more interesting motivations than the previous film's duo, but there's one thing that the heroes of King didn't share-They're dicks! I was hardly endeared to them thanks to their treatment of Jeff, which is in complete contrast with King. In that movie he may have still been a servant, but you get the impression that Jeff and the other guys are friends, and he's not just subservient help to them. In Revenge, however, the leads are all too happy to unconsciously belittle him, and all-round ignore his very existence.They barely interact with Jeff, and noticeably never invite him in when they visit people, instead just leaving him outside like a dog, and he's immediately put to work in the kitchens of the von Alterman estate once they reach it. Just goes to show how tolerant and accepting King of the Zombies was, because in Revenge, Mantan Moreland is stuck in a stereotypical role, getting almost nothing to do but holler and be scared. Depressing that this came out later, not before! Thankfully Jeff is able to briefly shine come the end, Shining style.
More problems with the 'heroes' are that they're terrible investigators, as they spend nearly the whole movie unaware of the truth of what's going on at the estate, which is especially stupid considering it's positively crawling with the undead! Discounting that for a second, they're rubbish investigators when it comes to their much simpler suspicions about von Alterman, making very progress over the course of the film.
The villain is quite good, while the supporting cast range from decent to meh. The love interest is pretty dim and barely contributes. There's barely even a romance, yet she and Larry still become an item come the end of the film.
The dialogue is mostly tolerable, but there are a couple of funny lines from Mantan Moreland. "I don't know where you at but 30 seconds from now I'm going to be 11 miles from here!", "Well my head keeps telling my feet there ain't no zombies, but my feet ain't convinced.". I also liked the amusingly Southern dialect, with lines like "Sho'nuff", and "Ah 'sspect". One line REALLY rubbed me the wrong way though. After being rescued from a fix by Jeff, Larry responds by either saying "Thanks boy, you're here in the nick of time", or "Thanks! Boy, you're here in the nick of time".
If he said the latter, the actor is just guilty of very poor enunciation. If
the former though, the movie and I need to have some words!
Revenge of the Zombies starts off somewhat intriguing, but devolves once it turns out the villain's mysterious motivation is a much simpler 'workin' for the stinkin' nazzies variety'. Thankfully the concept of a mad nazi scientist making an army of zombies to conquer the world is still an awesome one, if a little too high-concept than the low budget (or indeed the writer's imagination) can show.
The plot itself is actually good, but it's the script that lets it down. This is a film that could really do with a remake. Problems aside though, the climax is great! Horror perfection. The ending is also pretty funny, with a sweet denouement for Jeff and Rosella the maid.
Unlike the 'prequel', this isn't a comedy at all. It's straight horror with no laughs outside of the occasional amusing line from Moreland. There is one scene with a hilariously unsubtle disguise an enemy agent uses to masquerade as an American sheriff, complete with a cowboy hat and ridiculously huge cigar! Trouble is, I don't think it was meant to be funny!
The acting here is all ok. Robert Lowery and Mauritz Hugo are pretty milquetoast. Mantan Moreland is good as usual but not particularly prominent. Now, believe it or not, John Carradine was actually young at one point, and this has indeed been caught on film multiple times. He has fun playing the typical mad scientist. Gale Storm is ok as the secretary and sorta-not-really love interest, but nothing special. Veda Ann Borg is decent but her delivery is a tad monotone. I'm not sure if that was unintentional, or if she was deliberately talking like that given her zombie status. It's likely to be the latter, so I'll give her a pass. Playing the head servant/head zombie Lazarus is James Baskett, who I quickly noticed has a very distinctive voice, thinking 'This guy sounds like a regular Geoffrey Holder', so I decided to look him up, and as it turns out, he's Uncle Remus from Song of the South!
African American actress Sybil Lewis is in much the same role Marguerite Whitten had in King of the Zombies, but sadly she's not used nearly as much as Whitten was there. Madame Sul-Te-Wan (the only other returning cast member next to Mantan Moreland) was likewise underused at first, but gets a really good scene near the end.
Revenge of the Zombies is certainly watchable. Not great, not as good as King, and perhaps even guiltier of wasting a good premise than said predecessor, but in any case it's not awful. Really its biggest sin besides the wasted potential is the criminal underuse of Mantan Moreland!...
Those who prefer modern day zombies of the flesh eating variety may be disappointed by the stark difference and relative bloodlessness of these old Voodoo ones, but then again, the opposite might be true. Any zombie fan who's gotten a bit tired of the modern stuff might relish something as far out different in the genre as these flicks. For those people I definitely recommend White Zombie and King of the Zombies, but Revolt and Revenge are both skippable.
Speaking of my selection, funnily enough two of them are technically sequels, but barely, only holding on by the tiniest of threads. So really I've been looking at four random zombie movies of the period, which is good, as that allows for looking at a wider variety of films from the era rather than if they were all part of the same series. All in all, this is an interesting sub-genre for sure, but not one used to its full potential in these particular films, some less so than others...
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Saturday, April 1, 2017
Good evening my friends, and you are all my friends. For your consideration, we shall today, on this prestigious April the 1st, be looking at the artistic merits of the unsung classic How To Stuff a Wild Bikini. Hark, does that appellation not doth give you chills?
Beach enthusiast Frankie (Frankie Avalon) is out in South East Asia on navy reserves, where he's banging every native girl with a pulse, yet doesn't want his girlfriend Dee Dee cheating on him, so he goes to a witchdoctor Bwana (Buster Keaton), to get a spell done to make sure that no man goes near Dee Dee. The spell takes the form of Cassandra (Beverly Adams), a beautiful, yet clumsy bombshell, who's meant to distract all men from Dee Dee. The plan would work, if not for ad exec Peachy Keane (Mickey Rooney) discovering her and hiring her for his new girl next door ad image. A worker for the company, Ricky (Dwayne Hickman) is attracted to Dee Dee, and the two hit it off really well. Meanwhile, biker and head of the Rat Pack Eric von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) falls for Cassandra, and as the two team up, they and Ricky and Dee Dee are in for a motorcycle race to decide the girl and boy next door...
The subject for tonight's essay shall be on the somewhat precarious mental state of one Eric von Zipper. Despite his mean biker-ish exterior, he's really a big huggably wholesome man-child in a sense, and perhaps this contradiction is a good showcase of his fractured and splintered personality. Never lucky in love, and not seeming to have found the right path in life, he ends up meeting his dream woman-Cassandra. She is everything he thinks he wants in a partner-Stunningly beautiful, smart, and klutzy just like him, but never while with him, because their natural clumsiness cancels each-others' out. It truly sounds like a match made in distant Aidenn, but alas, the problems are apparent with Cassandra's true nature, and that is she doesn't really exist...
Cassandra's secret is that she isn't really one with our physical plane of existence. I know this may come as a shock to those of you who saw the movie and didn't pick up on this, but bear with me. Let's start with the pair's first meeting. From the first moment he sees her, von Zipper joyously declares that she is his idol. Why would he say such a thing when he's literally only just met her? Simple. He does already know her in a sense, in the respect that she's always been a part of his subconscious.
There's further evidence of her nonexistence, such as how she pops in out of nowhere, following her bikini by only a few seconds, or how she makes very little impact on the plot herself but rather events unfold around her, almost like she's not really there. And then there's the climax, and THAT'S why von Zipper is disqualified at the final bike race! You see, I thought it didn't make sense that the race for who gets to be the girl next door is contingent on the man winning the race, and if the woman is riding while their bike passes over the finishing line, they instantly lose! That's patently unfair! What monstrous sexism...Or is it! You see, if Cassandra never really existed, then of course Eric didn't win, because if the nonexistent Cassandra was riding it, nobody was, and thus he was declared ineligible.
'But how is any of this possible?' you ask, 'Cassandra clearly has a physical presence on this realm, as she was noticed and picked up by Peachy and co., and she's briefly with Ricky at the end. Well there's a simple explanation. Eric von Zipper's delusions warp reality! 'Of course!' you say in a startled tone, 'It all makes sense now, like a jigsaw puzzle expertly coming together. Why the gosh hell didn't I think of this before?!'. I don't blame you. This is challenging stuff, and hard to take in on first viewing, but there's clear evidence of it. And this is a film set in a universe with magic, as well as ghosts, aliens, and mad scientists so it's not too out of the ordinary.
Another question you may have is 'How can these events be reconciled with Cassandra clearly being created by Bwana?' Well that's simple! That's all a delusion by Deedee, who subconsciously wants to imagine her boyfriend Frankie is being unfaithful to her despite a complete lack of evidence. She chooses to imagine that fiction to feel good about finding another partner, and the magically appearing Cassandra fits right in with that worldview. How about Frankie magically appearing to her at the end? Well that too was imagined, and that along with her breakup with Ricky was her way of coming to terms with accepting that her boyfriend is worth holding onto, despite whatever hardships the couple face. As for Cassandra, she vanishes on Ricky at the end despite Bwana specifically saying that wouldn't happen! If Bwana himself is only a figment of Deedee's imagination, that contradiction suddenly makes perfect sense!
Back to Eric von Zipper, we see more of the discontent he feels when he strives to change his image and be a new man, dressing up in very classy businessy attire and trying to act civilized. His friends are shocked and dismayed at first, but keep faith in him, and soon join in, if only to help Eric feel good about himself. The unconscious desire von Zipper has to be someone else is key to his mental roadblocks. He's displeased with the way things are, not because anything's actually wrong, but because he's not sure if it's the right path, and he's anxious the bottom will all fall out, so he constructs this new identity, with the catch-line of "If there's an image to preserve..." then it's this new one, trying to delude himself into being someone and something else. There's still a lingering sense of doubt though.
Now we come to the finale, once the race is done, and the race is lost...but all is not lost for Eric von Zipper, as he has finally made the key internal realization, and is happy. He discovers that Cassandra isn't the one for him. In his own words after they lose the race, "Don't feel too bad about this, young lady, because you're gonna go a long ways", and she responds with "Farther than you think.", "Only I ain't gonna go with you.", "That's what I meant". The meaning is clear. Being part of his subconscious, Cassandra already knows of his intentions and is at peace with them, and the couple amicably break up, knowing they simply can't be together forever.
Having faced up to his insecurities, Eric rediscovers his own self worth with the epiphany of "I am my ideal, and the Rats are my idols". von Zipper realizes and admits to himself that his delusions of romance aren't necessary, and not only is he already a complete person unto himself, but he's got a band of 7 loyal and faithful friends he can always rely on. Plus, two of them are female, so he finds out the reason he's unlucky in love has nothing to do with how the fairer sex views him, but is rather just bad luck-Bad luck he knows he will one day overcome.
Eric von Zipper has not necessarily led an easy life a times, but it's the road he chooses to tread, and he does to in the company of true friends. May we all be as lucky as this roguish rapscallion and his revelous...band of compatriots!
In closing, I hope this most illustrious essay has helped to inform any of my readers about the true meaning behind this entry in the 60s beach movie canon. I am here to serve and teach, now and always...
Thursday, March 30, 2017
At this stage I guess I could say I know a little bit about Iranian cinema. Not nearly as much as I do about Italian or Turkish, or even Mexican, but I'm beginning to learn more, be it from the works of Jafar Panahi, the Makhmalbaf family, The Cow or the early days of films in Iran. Today, for Fritzi of Movies Silently's Early Women Filmmakers blogathon I'll be looking at the 1963 documentary The House is Black...
This film is set at a leper colony, and it shows the residents in their daily lives, from prayer, to receiving medical treatments, taking care of their children, learning, singing, and engaging in activities such as playing games as best as they can. Throughout we see people coping with their deformities, and learning to manoeuvre as they could before despite their disabilities.
There's not really a 'story' as it were to this documentary. It's not but rather simply showing these unfortunate souls in their day to day life, with poetic verses narrated to us from their point of view, as well as actually by them. There's poetry written entirely by Farrokzhad (I think) as well as some slightly rewritten (again, I think) Quran verses. The writing on display here is very good, and sets the tone very well, establishing a tone of gloominess and despair, but pared with shades of optimism from certain things we see on camera. Perhaps the most important and hopeful line present is the simple statement from a doctor of "Leprosy is not incurable".
A big recurring theme is religion among the people of the colony, and how they keep their faith despite the cards they've been dealt.
Despite its relatively short runtime, The House is Black is definitely open to plenty of interpretation, in many different ways, and that's certainly a fine achievement!
One random thing to note is that this movie is not for the squeamish, but I hope that doesn't put off anyone who is, because it's still an important watch/viewing experience.
Onto the woman behind the camera-Forough Farrokzhad. Not only did she direct the film, but she also edited it, wrote and read aloud the poetry we hear throughout, and God knows what else! I can imagine she presumably had a big part in the production of the movie too.
From what I've read, Farrokzhad was so moved by the plight of those afflicted with leprosy that she adopted a child from the colony as one of her own, and took care of it, which shows the kind of person she was. Sadly things didn't turn out well for Forough, as in 1967 she was caught in a car accident and killed.
At only 32 on her death, she may have only been around for a few short years, but Forough Farrokzhad certainly seems to have left one heck of an impression on Iran, and even outside for those in the know of foreign poets. As for her lone movie, it may be a short documentary, but its importance can't be overstated, as it was one of the precursors to the Iranian New Wave, which saved cinema in Iran as we know it, and has produced many fascinating artistic products, which stand on the shoulders of giants such as Farrokzhad...
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
I'm going back to Australian cinema for this review, which is always something I'm up for! Too many films are American! The subject in question is the 1975 adaptation of Joan Lindsay's book Picnic at Hanging Rock...
On Valentine's Day 1900, the students of Miss Appleyard's School for Girls go on an excursion to the area of Mount Macedon, nearby the ancient natural formation known as Hanging Rock. Despite warnings to stay away from the dangerous and craggy mountain, four girls led by the alluring and mysterious Miranda go anyway. After a few hours, something unexplainable happens, and three of the girls go missing, and the other runs away screaming. Searches are undertaken by the police, as well as locals, but nothing can be found, and the girls remain lost, along with one of their teachers. A young aristocrat from Britain who feels an emotional attachment to the case tries, with some luck, but not enough to solve the mystery, which might stay such forever...
There aren't that many movies where I've discuss the score before I do the story or other such elements, but in this case, it's justified. The iconic soundtrack in this film is definitely something special, particularly the pan pipe music courtesy of Gheorghe Zamfir. The score is beautiful, yet eerie, and really makes the movie, along with the weird noises Unfortunately the two big pieces of the score are repeated quite a bit, which kinda dampens their power a tad near the end.
Picnic at Hanging Rock has often been misunderstoof as a true story. It isn't, but it's not hard to see why people might think it is. The film is presented in a true-to-life way, especially with little touches like the text at the beginning, or the voiceover at the end.
The story makes no effort to dwell on the cause of the mystery itself. Rather, the freaky things happen, no-one knows why, and we see life going on for everyone in the area. This is actually a good decision, as had the movie focused deeper into the mystery, it'd be more frustrating when it inevitably doesn't give any answers. The flipside though is that because of the somewhat lacking final half hour, the movie feels a little...listless? Back to the positives brought about by this structural decision, there's how it makes the film feel genuine. Unlike a supposedly 'based on a true story' film that might see fit to embellish the events in order to give a narratively satisfactory answer, Picnic at Hanging Rock feels like it's accurately portraying real events, because of how it never speculates directly what the cause of the disappearances might be, or tries and give its own answer.
Another praised elenent is the character of Miranda. She barely appears, yet her character permeates the entire film. It's just a shame she and the others disappear so early on, we don't really get much time to get used to their presence and characters before they're whisked away.
The ending is a bit weird (in a bad way) and confusing, as well as extremely abrupt. In fact, abruptness is a problem in other places too. When the three girls disappear, for example. The sky seems to turn a shade of red, and Edith runs away shrieking, while bizarre sounds are heard over the soundtrack...and then the scene almost immediately cuts to Miss Appleyard's office later that night. I wish the scene had've lingered a little longer, and transitioned less suddenly to such a different feel and location. Another annoyance is that we never see Miss McCraw's disappearance. We just hear about it after it happens. Because of this, I didn't know she was the teacher who had disappeared on my first viewing.
Another problem is the brother-sister relationship between two random characters who never meet. It just seemed like a pointless addition, since nothing came of it. I felt similarly about the sort-of lesbian subtext, which for me seemed too unexplored, resulting in it being a bit superfluous.
An interesting question is whether or not Picnic at Hanging Rock is a horror movie. After all, what's the base requirement of horror? That it should scare the audience, and this movie certainly does that. It's incredibly haunting and eerie. However, a lot of the story is focused on the effects the incident is having on the residents of the area, in what feels rather like a character drama. Whatever one's thoughts on the matter are, it's definitely an interesting thing to talk about, which is yet another reason the film is great! It just keeps provoking more and more different discussions about its nature.
Peter Weir's direction is fantastic! The camerawork is great already, but what really helps is the way the film was shot. Weir and crew deliberately filmed at certain times of the day when the sun shined/shone through the trees best, or by putting lace over the camera to achieve a more ethereal look to the movie.
Finally, onto the acting. It's all good, with some great performances. A lot of the performers come across like they're real people, which sells the 'true story' feel. Anne-Louis Lambert is great in her relatively small but important role as Miranda, while Dominic Guard carries large portions of the film well, as does a young Jon Jarratt. Rachel Roberts does very well as Miss Appleyard, capturing both her severe nature and also more vulnerable moments, and the very Aussie Helen Morse's French accent doesn't sound unconvincing to me, someone who doesn't speak French, nor can pick up on such subtleties, whatever that's worth.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a great example of Australian cinema, as well as low-budget cinema, and is still a revered film over 40 years on for very good reason. I wholeheartedly recommend you watch it! With luck, it'll creep you out and make you think...
As always, the wonderful Emily of The Deadly Dolls House of Horror Nonsense has organized The Shortening: A blogathon to celebrate all things short of stature in this the shortest of months. Yet another month, I've been too wrapped up in trying to do a million things at once, and thusly my reviews aren't getting posted until the very last day of the month. Whoops! Anyway, they'll be up soon. I'm always glad to take part in The Shortening...
Sunday, February 26, 2017
*Special thanks to my friend Ilayda for procuring me a copy of this movie*
When one thinks of science fiction movies coming from Turkey, their minds probably wander to Turkish Star Wars (Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam), if anything at all. In recent years, however, cinema over there has been improving greatly, now offering genuinely good movies, rather than unintentionally funny ones, as G.O.R.A. is testament too...
A goofy Turkish salesman named Arif is abducted by the alien Gorans, who put him to work as a slave in their colossal prison, on the planet Gora. The villainous Logar, Commander of the Goran military, has plans of conquest through marrying the princess Ceku, much to her extreme displeasure. Things go awry when Arif manages to foil one of his plans to take control, and gains the affection of the princess. Seeing his chance of freedom, and seeking a mystic named Garavel, Arif escapes the prison with the aid of friendly fellow inmates Bob Marley Faruk and 216, as well as Ceku herself, who's fallen for Arif. Together, they'll try and save the planet from the clutches of Logar...
G.O.R.A. is a 2004 sci-fi comedy starring local comedian Cem Yilmaz (who also wrote the film), and it's a blast! Well-written, entertaining, and often funny! It's just over two hours long, but I never found it overlong or boring (though I can imagine that runtime wearing on some people). The movie is paced well, and the first half concerns itself with setting up this world to the best of its abilities, doing a nice job.
Despite coming from another country, the comedy translates well enough, and there are plenty of laughs. Most are regular humour, while others are in the form of parodies. There's a couple for The Matrix, which actually turns out pretty well! Surprising, I know! It was at this point in time when lots of comedies had forced Matrix parodies for no other reason than that movie was really popular, and they ended up dated (like that scene in Shrek, for example). GORA, however, manages to avoid that particular pitfall, perhaps due to the fact that it's actually sci-fi themed, has a mild fourth wall breaking streak, and most of all, it also sorta-parodies a couple of other movies too (such as The Fifth Element), so one of The Matrix doesn't feel out of left field.
Finally, there's a gag involving time at the climax that's amusingly meta.
One aspect to the movie I dug is the sexuality of the villain, who just happens to be gay (or bisexual), which I appreciated. As I may have said on this blog before, equality in media is people of different ethnicities, sexualities, etc. being able to have whatever role they want, be it hero or villain. So while a film from, say, 1940 might have a gay antagonist and mean it homophobically, GORA has gay villains who just so happen to be gay, and they're villainous for completely different reasons.
I'm glad to say the effects here are really quite good! Plenty is done by computers, and that's clear sometimes, but they still look lovely, so I'm totally willing to forgive that. Plus, they never look outright fake or anything. The set design here is also fantastic!
The acting in G.O.R.A. is good all-round, as far as I can tell, not being a speaker of Turkish. Cem Yilmaz plays both Arif, and Logar, and is unrecognizable in the latter role, which is surprising considering his whole face is exposed! I guess it's a mix of the costume/hair, contacts, and his general demeanor, which certainly speaks to Yilmaz's talent as an performer. The rest of the acting is fine too, with Rasim Öztekin and Ozan Güven as Arif's sidekicks, Özkan Ugur as the somewhat deranged mentor, and Özge Özberk as the stifled and lovestruck princess.
The soundtrack likewise is really good. Perfectly fitting, complementing the scenes well. Also, on a side note, this is one of the rare times I've been able genuinely complement a Turkish move's score, what with the majority of ones I've seen being older ones that didn't have the money for music, and thus went foraging in other films' soundtracks for suitable music.
In closing, G.O.R.A. is a very funny movie, and really show just how much Turkish cinema has grown and evolved in just a few short decades. I highly recommend it! Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go watch Turkish Star Wars 2...
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Greetings once again to the Vampire Soiree, hosted as usual by the lovely Holly of Holly's Horrorland. This year, I'll have the pleasure of looking at a few Mexican vampire films! Unfortunately I wasn't able to procure any more Jean Rollin movies in time for this year's soiree. Hopefully next year!...
In 1661, the Spanish Inquisition holds a trial for one Baron Vitelius, who they deem guilty for a variety of offenses, burning him at the stake. As he dies, the Baron swears by a passing meteor that he shall return to Earth with it in 300 years an exact vengeance upon the descendants of his judges and executioners. Sure enough, the Baron returns come 1961, decidedly more monstrous. Using his dark magic to assume a normal appearance, he sets about rebuilding his life, and fulfilling his promise. Meanwhile, young lovers Rolando and Victoria, are trying to help an astronomer friend locate the meteor and, while searching for it after its mysterious disappearance, come across Baron Vitelius, who recognizes them from 300 years ago...
The Brainiac (aka El Baron del Terror) is a pretty entertaining flick, as you'd expect froma movie about a brain sucking space vampire, but the structure and plot hold it back. The plot is pretty threadbare, just showing the Baron hypnotising and murdering one of his targets (always a man and a women), before moving onto the next victims and doing the same, then moving onto the next ones, etc, interspersed with scenes of either the heroes or the police expressing confusion. This is tolerable seeing as how The Brainiac is just a basic B-Movie, but I still wish there was a little more to its story.
Other issues I had with the story were examples is missed potential, in a way. First up is the setting. The opening trial is as cruel and ludicrously prejudiced as you can imagine coming from the Spanish Inquisition, but then again, Baron Vitelious totally does have it coming, so I guess that's a stroke of luck. Given that unfair nature though, it really gets you looking forward to their punishments...buuut then the movie jumps forward 300 years, with Vitelius instead going after their very distant descendants, as he bizarrely promised to his executioners back in 1661. I dunno, that kinda takes the sting out of it, especially since two of the descendants are played by different actors (being of different genders). After 300 years, I doubt the ancestors would really care all that much what Vitelius would do, and he would do better to let go of his revenge and just use his vampiric magic to start up a business or something. Hell, he could even make friends with his would-be targets, as at least one of them is totally disgusted with the Spanish Inquisition's history. That would sure spite Votelius' executioners!
Another sadly unexplored avenue is how the lead's ancestor defended Baron Vitelius back in 1661. Why did that guy do that, and what was his relationship with the Baron? That could've also played more into the modern day, with the movie focusing more on the differences between ancestor and descendant, and delving further into Rolando choosing good unlike his predecessor, as opposed to being briefly mentioned when he defends Victoria, and nothing more.
Other problems with the story are a couple of ridiculously convenient moments, like when Rolando discovers the baron's terrifying brainy secret only through randomly deciding to bust open a cabinet, for no explained reason. Then he promptly stares at the brains for several seconds, only running to his girlfriend's aid once she starts screaming in terror. After a brief run around, the leads do nothing to defend themselves from the monster, and the situation is only resolved once the police just so happen to show up, with flamethrowers to boot! They thought Vitelius was just a human psychopath! Why the heckballs did they bring flamethrowers?! This culminates in an incredibly abrupt ending. The movie just suddenly stops once the villain is dead!
One last thing about the plot is how strange it is that despite the passage of 300 years, Vitelius' executioners each only have one descendant!
The Baron makes for an almost neat villain, but the movie underuses him, only letting him stare hypnotically and 'seductively', which admittedly is mildly intimidating. He barely talks, stares for uncomfortable lengths of time, and has all the charisma of a murderer, yet is able to make fast friends with his soon-to-be victims!
The effects on display in The Brainiac are pretty funny. The meteor comes in two effects-The first is when in the sky, as an obvious drawing, while the second is a laughable hunk of styrofoam that doesn't exactly look convincing as a meteor. The mask for the Baron's monster form is also chuckleworthy, but looks neat regardless. I like the way it pulsates. Doesn't help make the mask look more convincing, but it's still a neat touch.
The dub acting is pretty awful, with the actors delivering lines poorly, as well as off, resulting in weirdly structured sentences. As for the acting proper,it's hard to gauge. Everyone seems to do decent jobs, with Abel Salazar doing what he can as the villain. Famed local actor Germán Robles (well known nationally and abroad for The Vampire) also shows up for a small-ish role as one of the Baron's objects for revenge.
While not perfect, The Brainiac is still a fun watch, and a nice way to kill some time...
Samson vs. the Vampire Women
In 1960's Mexico, a local professor is gravely worried about his daughter, for she is prophesied to be a part of a chilling plan by a group of vampires to make her their new queen. Desperate for help, and unsure of whether the police will take him seriously, he goes to luchador El Santo for help. The silver-masked crusader for justice sets out to stop the vampires once and for all...
Allow me to point out the obvious...That is not Samson!
He's actually famous Mexican wrestler El Santo, played by himself. As well as being a cultural icon in the ring, he also had an extensive movie career, made up of fighting various threats, from monsters, to aliens. Not sure why they changed his name for the American release, and that seems a little disrespectful. Also, one would wonder why, of all the mythological figures for them to pick from, the American distributor (K. Gordon Murray) chose Samson, the one to whom hair is integral, while Santo on the other hand has none that we can see!
The plot to 'Samson' vs. the Vampire Women is pretty dull, and not particularly well-written. It feels like it stalls on the first plot point, and as a result, the movie feels stuck with not much to do until Santo finally comes across the vampires' hideout. The bad pacing is no help either. It really wasn't necessary for the vampires awakening to take up the first 13 straight minutes! Also, it takes Santo 26 minutes to show up! That leads into a bigger problem-The titular hero really doesn't appear much in the film at all! He takes all that time to appear, then vanishes for large swaths of the movie. He's a pretty uninteresting protagonist, too, for which I blame the script rather than Santo himself. The character then goes into full on psychopath mode against the lady vamps at the end, which doesn't exactly endear him to the viewer, but does make for a really cool shot!
The rest of the characters aren't particularly bright either. The professor's daughter Diana is getting married (at age 20?!), and here's a choice line of dialogue from her fiancee-"Pretty soon you'll be using my name, and I'll be giving the orders around the house", he says with a laugh. When can the vampires kill him, please? Her father isn't much of a prize either, seeing as how he deliberately keeps his terrified daughter in the dark about what's going on, for no reason, instead treating her like a hysterical child. The villains are a dull bunch, and irritatingly, about 40 minutes in, the vampire queen is awakened and she takes centre stage as the lead villain, even though Tundra the priestesss had been set up as the antagonist. At least it's mildly amusing how each level of the vampire hierarchy tells their underlings to "Not fail again or die", and so on, so on.
More problems with the story include a deus ex machina scroll of the professor's that describes modern names and addresses perfectly despite being thousands of years old, and is further translated whenever narratively convenient, ensuring that the lead doesn't actually find out where the vampires are hiding based on his own skills. On that note, Santo is also only saved in the climax due to a conveniently timed coincidence!
Being a luchador-vehicle, there's of course plenty of lucha libre on display here. I kinda zoned out during those bits, given my disinterest in wrestling. The second match we see is more interesting though, partially because it's actually related to the plot, and with only two characters, both distinctive due to their masks, rather than four to keep track of, most unmasked. Even so, this second match still starts to drag after a while. The big problem with these scenes is that they kinda highlight how a wrestler isn't really up to fighting supernatural monsters when he has trouble facing off against fellow luchadors in the ring!
Samson vs. the Vampire Women is probably most well-known in the States for its appearance on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Given the long stretches of time with not much happening, I don't know how this could make for a good episode of MST3K, but I suppose they did a little snipping to make it go faster, and be more accommodating for riffs.
The acting all seems pretty uninteresting. Yeah, it is dubbed, which of course sucks, but even so I don't think these actors did that great a job in the first place. As for Santo, I'm not sure though, seeing as how his face is completely covered by a mask, so I can't judge his acting performance at all! As for the fight choreography, it's pretty decent.
The effects here range from laughable (like the cardboard flying bats), to decent enough (the fangs, the monster make-up, the fiery deaths). There's also some neat direction here and there.
Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro isn't a very good example of either Mexican horror cinema, lucha libre adventures, or even a vampire movie. It's not all bad. but all in all just plain dull. I'm sure it makes for a great episode of MST3K though!...
El Imperio de Dracula
Weeeell I've watched two Mexican movies so far that were dubbed into English, so the least I can do is watch one in its native Spanish, without subtitles (not by choice, mind you), even if I don't understand the language.
In 1800's era Mexico, a slain vampire, Baron Draculsten, returns to life and waits in his stolen villa, waiting for its true owners-a brother and his two sisters-to arrive. Unaware of the lurking dangers, the siblings relax in their new home, until they realize the terror that surrounds them...
El Imperio de Dracula opens with a showdown between the titular-ish antagonist, and some pudgy middle-aged guy he's chasing. At first I figured the dude would be killed fairly quickly, as the movie's first victim, but as the scene kept going, so did he, always getting the upper hand! It got to the point where I was actually rooting for the guy to win, because if he's putting up this much of a fight for a seemingly random would-be victim, he frankly deserves too! And then, surprisingly, he does! Wow, this was a short movie. Dracula died only 8 minutes in!
Following that, he's of course brought back to life, by a faithful servant. At first I figured 'Maybe he was just short of blood earlier, and thus in a weakened state. Maybe when he's replenished, he'll put up more of a fight', but then he later loses to a guy who was just in a carriage crash, so Draculsten's success rate isn't exactly the greatest! As the movie progresses, he continues to show himself as quite the weakling, which makes him an unintimidating villain! Each fight this vamp gets in, he soundly gets his ass kicked by mere mortals, who are unarmed no less!
For the most part, I can hardly judge this movie's script, seeing as I didn't actually understand it. Something I can take issue with involving the story though is the villain's resurrection early on, by having blood poured over his 'remains'. That didn't make sense in Being Human, and it certainly doesn't here! Dead vampires being resurrected by removing the stake from their hearts is stupid enough, but if they're already dust, I don't think there's much recovery to be made from such an inauspicious position!
Further logical hiccups include a scene where a horse drawn carriage crashes (don't worry, the horsies are fine!), and burst into flames! As it turns out, 2004's Van Helsing wasn't the first vampire movie to pull that insanity!
At first I was under the impression that the villain's name was literally Draculstein (thanks to some reviews online, as well as IMDb), but it's not. We see a couple of written examples in the movie, and it's not spelt with an 'i'. That's kind of a shame given the laugh value of Draculstein, but on the other hand, the movie is able to be taken more seriously without it.
Onto the film's atmosphere. It's pretty refreshing seeing a Mexican Gothic film! Also, more often than not, in so many old westerns, the only Mexican characters you'd see were simple 'primitive' townsfolk in ramshackle old villages. Here though, they're nothing like that, being more varied, and less stereotypical, as you'd expect.
Unfortunately El Imperio de Dracula is pretty slow. Its pace is quick enough that I didn't realize 45 minutes had passed already, but the story's slow enough that I was thinking on how little had actually happened in 45 whole minutes, of an 81 minute long film. That's my biggest problem. I wish there was more plot here!...And yes, I know that's an odd complaint when I couldn't understand the plot I was given anyway...
One part I didn't get is the hilariously lax security the leads tale despite the attacks from vampires they know full well are still in the residence, leading to the girls being recaptured by Draculsten once again!
For the most part, El Imperio de Dracula is pretty easy-ish to follow unsubtitled, though the lack of understandable dialogue can be tiresome, so finding a subtitled DVD if there is such thing, or learning Spanish are the way to go. By the way, it's amusing how a lack of subtitles on a foreign movie can change the plot for the viewer. With the group of couples we see about 20 minutes in, I was under the impression they were meeting with the previously couple who met with a violent end, and after coming across the abandoned carriage, they go to look at the villa, calling for Maria, the woman. I was wondering why they were only calling for her, and not the guy she was with. Then they find Maria, who's now a maid, and looks nothing like the woman we saw before. Huh? 'Maybe she's under a vampiric curse making her look prematurely aged?' I thought? Or maybe, Chris, you moron, Maria was always a completely different character! It took me a while to realize that the first couple was unrelated, and this other party came to the castle because it's theirs, and Maria is the maid working there, hence their calling for her.
One last thing to note about the plot is the title. Even without subtitles, I could still tell there was no such empire.
The acting is quite decent, mediocre at worst. Eric del Castillo plays the vampiric baddie, and physically does a fine job, but has very little to work with. Also, at first I thought he looked too young, but as the movie went on, he looked fine, and I was just mistaken. One heck of a compliment for the dude, I'm sure, seeing as how he was 37 at the time! Speaking of his age, that leads to a nice little touch on Baron Draculsten's crypt headstone
The effects are a mixed bag. The modelwork, locale, and how the two blend together as well are all really good, and help make the movie look more expensive than it actually is. Also worthy of praise are the scenes involving horseback/carriage fights, which are impressively done! The swordfight near the climax is pretty laughably choreographed, though. That scene is also made amusing by how the brother is busy fighting the Baron, and his two sisters aren't helping at all! Granted, Draculstein puts up such a paltry fight that the brother doesn't really need any assistance. The old-age makeup an actress clearly in her 30's isn't that great either (unless it turns out I'm totally wrong, and that's really an older actress, in which case SORRY!). Finally, the vampire resurrection/death effects look neat, even if they're both obviously the same, but one's in reverse.
The score isn't anything special, but it's decent. What I especially liked were the moments which early on built up an atmosphere of desolation. I also dug the pipe bashing (best way I can describe it) sounds on the soundtrack, though it can get a bit overused.
The Empire of Dracula isn't all that great a movie. It has it's faults, but upsides too, however, and it's still worth a watch for vampire aficionados who are curious to see how other countries handle them. And it's also a pretty uncommon example of Mexican Gothic, too, so that's worth a lot!...
Unfortunately the movies I've looked at for this year's Vampire Soiree weren't exactly the pinnacle of good Mexican cinema, but they're far from bad examples to look at, because they at least do show just how creative Mexican cinema could be, even when not at its best. Happy Valentine's Day, and may your day be filled with vampires, or not, given your preferences to potentially being killed by creatures of the night!...