Sunday, 31 July 2011

Blood Camp Thatcher / Turkey Shoot (1981, Brian Trenchard-Smith)

It's got blood! It's got camp! And it's got a character called Thatcher in it!

An Australian movie sometimes known as Turkey Shoot or Escape 2000, this has been clobbered with a frankly ridiculous amount of cuts in most of its incarnations but finally crept out uncut on Region 2 DVD a few years ago.

For the first half an hour or so, BCT trundles along as a fairly standard prison exploitation movie, set in the then-futuristic arse end of the twentieth century. People who oppose the state or, in the case of one character, hang out in badly decorated shops are unceremoniously hauled off to a detention camp to be re-educated. Here they are whipped, assaulted and forced to wear unflattering yellow boiler suits.

After that first half an hour, though, the flick changes gear for the better and becomes a riff on The Most Dangerous Game. Several prisoners are released, and hunted by wardens across the surrounding terrain. We are also introduced to Alph, a rather dapper werewolf/freak character with a taste for toes, who joins in the hunting fun. He seems particularly pleased with his novelty contact lenses and sleek facial fur - he's half lycanthrope, half Head & Shoulders advert.

The camp outweighs the sadism, and I had a great time with this movie. The gore effects are low-tech, naturally, but surprisingly effective in their own way.. There are lesbian archers, sudden hand removals and a bit of business with a sharpened log that has immediately earned a place in my all-time top ten 'sharpened log’ scenes. Oh, and there’s a top-notch exploding head. If only they’d chucked in a rubber octopus, I’d have glued this disc to my DVD player and cast all others aside.

If you've ever wanted to see a wolfman in a waistcoat eating the toes of a man who looks like Chris Evans, then this is the movie for you. I should probably point out that I don't mean the guy who played Captain America. I mean the other Chris Evans.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Total Cults Podcast #4: Science Fiction

James Trick and Dr Gogol discuss the apparent lack of good science fiction adventures, a discussion from which they name many.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Rise of the Diabolikals!

During the 60’s Britain and America were mesmerized by the international exploits of Bond, Flint and the Men from U.N.C.L.E. While their eyes were on the spies a very different type of character emerged from the shadows and into the hearts of other European cultures. These characters had much in common with the super-spy, in that they liked living in luxury, were always surrounded by beautiful and often under-dressed women and had a number of then state-of-the-art toys to play with. The only difference really, is that they were the bad guys. Diabolical ones.

These 'Diabolikals' appeared in a number of forms across Europe but were most successfully crystallised in 1968's Danger: Diabolik. Diabolik was ripped from the pages of the Italian Fumetti and rendered in light by none other than Mario Bava. This marvellously stylish, naughty and, most of all, fun caper centres on Diabolik; a mask-wearing super-thief on a mission to steal anything he can get his hands on. John Phillip Law played him as dashing, handsome and far cooler than the bumbling Police he humiliates with every elaborate heist.

Don’t be fooled into thinking Diabolik is Robin Hood. He either keeps what he steals or gives it to his girlfriend/accomplice Eva and he certainly has no concerns with killing the policemen he routinely thwarts. Despite this we, the audience, are placed firmly on his side hoping he gets away with each daring scheme.

Although Diabolik seems like something of a cult to us, in Europe he achieved some popularity. There is even Diabolik merchandise including toys, a cartoon series and, more recently, a Nintendo DS game.

But Diabolik was far from the only super-villain doing the rounds. Italy also produced Kriminal (1966), and its sequel The Mark of Kriminal (1968). This fellow wore a black one-piece with a yellow skeletal design.

Staying with the Ks we have the equally skeletal Killing, star of the Italian photo-novels, or Fotoromanzi. Rather than steal from the rich, Killing's adventures normally revolved around the capture and torture of half-naked women. Not content with pestering helpless women he also angered the censors, especially when the photo-novels began bordering on pornography. Yet Killing travelled further than most, being renamed Satanik for the French market.

The Turkish, continuing their trend of making unofficial adaptations of foreign franchises, shot no less than three films in 1967 with their version of the character: Kilink in Istanbul, Kilink vs The Flying Man and the gloriously titled Kilink: Strip and Kill. The Turkish Kilink films have had to be reconstructed from old Beta tapes and are patchy at best and although they are far tamer than the Italian photo-novels an intangible sense of sleaze does hang in the air somewhat.

These characters popped up all across Europe, some original and some thinly veiled re-branding of existing characters but all liberally brandishing a letter 'K' where one isn't required. Each of these characters had varying moral standards but were all clearly criminals, if not flat-out terrorists.

Some suggest Europe's pre-occupation with anti-government super-criminals is due to post WW2 trauma. Whereas the British and Americans were celebrating their leaders after the war, some European countries were executing them. A sense of anger and distrust at the government is evident in all the films and has been a continuing subject in Italian cinema. Moving into the seventies we see this subject played out in a more brutal fashion in the Italian Poliziotteschis, a theme also mirrored in the post-vietnam/watergate cinema of America.

Yet the origins of this type of character can be traced all the way back to the early 1900s in Louis Feuillade's 'Fantomas’ (1913). Fantomas, himself coming back for further adventures in the sixties, was a master of disguise stealing from the French Bourgeoisie. It therefore seems in addition to offering a kind of political catharsis, there is something more timeless and universal that makes this characters appealing. The Diabolikals represent the purist form of escapism. Not just just from reality, but from the law. Even, perhaps, morality itself.

With the exception of Diabolik these films still require a bit of work to track down, yet like all good bad guys the Diabolikals keep coming back from the dead. Christophe Gans is currently working on another Fantomas film, a Danger: Diabolik TV series is in production and Japan has recently produced K-20: The Fiend with Twenty Faces (Shimako Sato, 2008), which isn't explicitly the same kind of character, yet shares many of the same conventions. So whether they be robbing the rich, attacking government or subjecting young women to non-consensual S&M, the Diabolikals will always be there, in the shadows, probably in a lycra one-piece.  

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Malice@Doll (2002, Keitaro Motonaga)

There's a subgenre in Eastern animation which consists largely of animated girls being assaulted by demons with phallic tentacles. I mention this as merely an observation, not an approval. Malice@Doll appears to have ideas several stations above this kind of flick, yet also seems to be far too fond of the whole 'tentacle assault' aesthetic to distance itself from the idea completely.

The movie follows Malice, a malfunctioning prostitute robot.. Hell, there must be a neater way of saying that. Prostibot? Robotstitute? Anyway, she's roaming around in a typical post-apocalyptic wasteland. She's leaking fluid from her eyes, and seeking to get it sorted out. See the symbolism? See what they did there? Being a wide-eyed female animated character in a Not-A-Tentacle-Molestation-Film-Honest, she soon gets molested by something with tentacles and rather surprisingly turns into a human being. If only Pinocchio had known it was that easy.

From that point onwards, she wanders around kissing other robots, which turns them into human beings as well. Except it doesn't really, and more often turns them into shambling half-human wrecks. But at least she means well. There are a few more unpleasant bits of business with tentacles here and there, a few discussions on the meaning of humanity and then..

Well, then, on the UK DVD release at least, the damn thing loops, and the DVD is suddenly back at the first scene again. Seeing as there are no opening or closing credits, this appears to be a somewhat underhanded trick to force stoned people or the chronically inattentive to spend the rest of their lives watching Malice@Doll in the misguided belief that it's going to end some day soon.

The animation's really pretty interesting. It's CGI, but designed to look like stop-motion puppet theatre. Although this might sound a bit like a sports car disguising itself as a Skoda, the trick works rather well, and the flick certainly has a unique atmosphere. The virtual sets are pleasingly clanky and oppressive, and there are a few quite remarkable visuals. Despite all this good stuff, however, I really can't see myself recommending it to anybody as anything other than an interesting oddity and a missed opportunity. For all the artistry involved, it still feels pretty grubby.

At the end of the day, you should probably leave Malice@Doll on the shelf unless you're a fanatical animation fan.

Or, of course, an octopus with deeply questionable attitutes towards women.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Captain Scarlet: The Stone-cold Bastard of Children's Television

As he tentatively shuffles along the shadowy alley, lit only with sickly yellow and green shafts, the awareness that someone, or something, is following him sets his breath at an unnatural pace. His shoes crunch on wet concrete, setting a languid, yet excruciatingly tense, beat. It is a beat that never builds and the space between each step is a pool of silence from which could leap any kind of terrible surprise. A cat darts through the shadows, sending a tin can clattering across the pavement. He spins instinctively, right into a beam of searing light that burns his eyes. Less than a second later the shrill crack of a bulb lighting attacks his ears. Spotlights blast to life like gunfire riddling him with light. Spinning, he tries to get his bearings. His sight returns almost as quickly as it was taken and there, in front of him, is his scarlet-clad stalker. Without thinking he raises his gun and opens fire on his pursuer. Bullets tear open the man's red tunic, but draws no blood. He looks at his target, hoping for a sign of weakness yet gets nothing but cold, dead eyes back. His adversary slowly raises his own gun and squeezes off one solitary shot. The bullet hits him in the stomach, and as his life spills from the wound he looks for one more sign of emotion in his killer's face. He gets nothing.

And that is how every episode of children's television show Captain Scarlet starts. Seriously, watch:

So I embellished a little, but my intent was to truly sell you how bizarre it is for the main character of a kids show to execute someone in a dank alley in the opening credits every week. Welcome to the world of Captain Scarlet, the coldest son-of-bitch on kids TV.

Gerry Anderson's 1967 action series pitted the Captain and the rest of the Spectrum organisation against the Mysterons, ethereal alien entities that are launching their “war of nerves” on planet Earth. Each attack is carried out by the murder, possession and duplication of an unwitting human. It is this doppelgänger they use to carry out their acts of global sabotage. The only information Spectrum have to go on is a chilling aural warning the Mysterons administer before they carry out their evil deed. So that's terrorism and a little of Freud's Uncanny for you kids.

The Mysterons' proclivity for killing and duplicating means that there is a body count of at least one in every episode (and that's excluding the opening credits). How do they handle such violence I hear you ask? Like this:

Yeah, they just show it. In addition, since Captain Scarlet is indestructible (did I forget to mention that?) he quite often buys the farm in every episode too, only to wake up later completely healed. Even the closing song has lyrics that detail the many ways his body can be smashed into a pulp.

The Mysterons are therefore pretty formidable and as a result some episodes end with them flat-out winning. I've seen at least two cases of this, one in which the president they are trying to assassinate has his Mysteron-controlled plane sent right into the path of another resulting in a big presidenty fireball, while another sees them detonate an arctic base full of workers. In both cases our heroes stand around with a 'WTF?' look on their faces.

Thank the lord for Captain Scarlet then. Our indestructible hero with an equally indestructible moral code. Because when you're dealing with a doppelgänger, any hero truly has to question whether they are now completely alien or whether anything of the original person still remains. If that's a possibility, then surely it is the duty of any hero to find a way to establish that fact in case they might be saved:

Is there a piece of your humanity still in there somewhere? Guess what, Captain Scarlet doesn't give a shit. Look at the guy's face, he might as well be reading his shopping list for all the emotion he gives away.

Six years ago there was a new series of Captain Scarlet which ditched the puppets and some of the iconic design elements and went with a modern, computer generated look. There was some concern in the lead up to the first episode that not only would the sheer craft that went into the original be lost but that the subject matter and attitude of the series would be neutered for a modern audience. Not only was the show pretty good, he still dished out the rough justice when needed. In one episode Scarlet is struggling with another female Mysteron agent in his Spectrum Patrol Vehicle (SPV). Using his indestructible noggin', he forces her outside and slams on the breaks inches before the edge of a canyon sending poor Mrs Mysteron hurtling to what is presumed a fairly splatty end.

Captain Scarlet kills a woman on Saturday morning kids TV, cut to Holly Willoughby and Stephen Mulhern throwing custard pies at each other.

Now I'm aware that the two examples I've given involve women. I'm not trying to say Captain Scarlet has a thing for killing women per-se, it is merely to highlight he doesn't care who or what you are, if you're a Mysteron you're going down. Hard. Captain Scarlet is an equal opportunities sociopath.

So the show is like 24 for kids, with Captain Scarlet the brightly coloured Jack Bauer, smashing alien terrorism wherever it shows its lack-of-a-face.

What, is that it? What does that tell the children who watched it? I mean the shows I grew up with always had a message, quiet literally in many cases. He-Man never left without addressing the camera and telling all the watching children about friendship or some shit. So what is the message that Captain Scarlet offers? Well after some careful consideration I think I have distilled every episode down to this fun yet educational whiskey-shot of knowledge:

“Hi kids, I'm Captain Scarlet. Y'know, there are some bad people in the world. People who don't see you as an innocent child, but rather a viable military target. These people could attack at any time and in any form. It could be your neighbour, your teacher, even your parents. That's right, I'd start keeping a close eye on them if I were you. But don't worry because to fight these evil doers you have me. I won't stop until I've defeated them, or until they destroyed their objective and there is nothing and no-one left to save. It happens sometimes. I don't care, I'm indestructible. They can drop a bomb on you and I'll waltz away without a scratch. Now get out of here before I drop you where you stand just to be on the safe side. Oh, and er... say no to strangers... or... whatever.”

Friday, 15 July 2011

Total Cults Podcast #3: Action, Horror and Ninjas

The usual cults discuss the uneasy relationship between action and horror and are then joined by special guest Arnold Yuchuse to tackle ninjas. Not literally, i'd hate to be accused of mis-selling this podcast.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Cinema of Peril

There are times when I wish I were born in a different age. When my Dad talks about the cinema he used to visit as a child it conjures images and feelings in me that I know I won't get to experience myself.

Now this may seem like the perfect juncture to discuss the contrast between the cinema experiences of old and the modern experience; with its high prices, uncomfortable seats, tiny screens and twats. That's a discussion/rant for another time.  No, I have an entirely different agenda here.

For my Dad's generation a night out at the pictures (imagine that, a whole night!) offered a selection of diverse programming. In this selection, nestled before the feature presentation(s) along with the newsreel and the cartoons, sits the cliffhanger serial.

For those not familiar with this format, you take a fully produced film and release it weekly in twenty-minute (more-or-less) episodes. Each episode ends with the central character apparently perishing in a seemingly inescapable death trap.

The most famous of these serials are probably the Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers adaptations featuring Larry 'Buster' Crabbe and although there were many genres my particular field of interest is the superhero cliffhanger.

Spy-Smasher, Commando Cody, Captain Marvel and The Green Hornet all had adventures in this format. Batman had two, though the first of these was marred by its anti-japanese rhetoric.  Although it would appear money wasn't exactly thrown at these films (for the most part it seemed locations only ranged from an office, a warehouse and an abandoned mine) the heroes themselves were well realised.  Okay, maybe not Batman.  The Phantom (left), on the other hand, is about as accurate a visual adaptation of the character as you could wish for.

But my favourite of the superhero serials has to be Captain America (yes, him again) by Republic Films. Now purists might balk at this version since some changes have been made. No longer is he Steve Rogers; patriotic weakling turned nazi-smashing super soldier. He's now Grant Gardner; tough district attorney who fights crime with his non-bullshit attitude and gun. When crime gets too tough for these methods he becomes Captain America who fights crime with his no-bullshit attitude and shei... oh, wait... no... also a gun. In fact the only difference between his two identities is that one wears an ill-fitting and conspicuous costume. I'd imagine if, for example, he were giving chase to a saboteur that stopping to change into his costume would only waste valuable time. There is literally no practical value in becoming Captain America. So quite why he's invented this other persona is beyond me.  Maybe he's just insane. In fact, considering the amount of people he flat out kills in Chapter 1:  The Purple Death, this might well be the case.

I mean he punches a guy out of skyscraper window for crying out loud.

But there is some intentional pleasure to be had from this particular serial. The fights are far slicker and more brutal than its contemporaries and the production is impressive throughout, but especially in the inventive cliffhangers themselves. The first cliffhanger we get involves an earthquake ray (or something) going off inside a skyscraper. Check out the embedded video below from 6:50 onwards, it's awesome.

I think this is a format ripe for a comeback. In recent years running times have defined the product, designating something as either a feature or a short, but with the explosion of digital distribution that is still, quite frankly, in its infancy, run-time means nothing. Would I download a weekly ten to twenty minute superhero adventure? Yes I would. Would it be purely for nostalgia. Nope.

A film shot with a TV budget, yet released in short bursts so that it doesn't outstay its welcome and with an irresistible hook that brings you back for more?  I can't help but think that will offer more to a filmmaker with a tiny budget and a huge imagination, not to mention an audience, than a trip down memory lane.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Total Cults Podcast #2: Night of the Creeps

In which Doctor Gogul and James Trick discuss Night of the Creeps. Well, they try to anyway. They get sidetracked, like always.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Story of Ricky (1991, Ngai Kai Lam)

Just to clarify something straight away - how you deal with Story of Ricky greatly depends on where your limits are set. Just for the sake of argument, I'm gonna assume that you guys have high limits. I'd hate to think I was recommending this flick to a bunch of RomCom fans.

Dear Lord, though, Story of Ricky is a treat. Insanely violent and utterly daft, it's huge amounts of fun providing that you take it in the right spirit. This is the sort of flick where attempting to strangle someone with your own intestines is considered a legitimate fighting technique. Where a dog gets unconvincingly kicked in half for no particular reason. Where false eyeballs are a perfectly logical place to store breath mints.

If you're looking for plot, you're in very much the wrong place. Wrong town, wrong planet. Ricky's in prison and Ricky kicks arse. That's largely it.

Oh, okay, there's a bit more to it than that. There's a subplot about prison officials growing opium in the west wing. There's a wafer-thin snippet of stuff about Ricky's lost love, (the only female to appear onscreen: she wisely dives off a large building within minutes, presumably to avoid being kicked in half or strangled with intestines). Pretty much, though, the flick just shifts from one overblown fight scene to the next. The air of almost whimsical insanity is greatly boosted by the bizarro subtitles, which appear to have been written by someone who learnt English from 1970s episodes of Grange Hill. Extreme violence is greeted by cheerful shouts of "You're the tops, Ricky!" and "Ricky's the best!"

The movie plays very much like a moving comic book, which is fair enough as it's an adaptation. As I said at the beginning, it's all a matter of where your levels are set. If you enjoyed Bad Taste then Story of Ricky is likely to be very much your cup of suspicious liquid. If you thought that Bad Boys II was too violent, then you'd better start covering your eyes now.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Flares are back in fashion

With the release of Super 8 imminent there has been some discussion over Mr Abrams liberal use of lens flares. Many critics have mulled over their application and possible meaning and comedy mileage has been found in sketches and memes across the web. Are they being over-used?  Possibly, I guess it's all down to context. Lens flares on the bridge of the Enterprise, a gleaming hub of lights and screens? Okay. In a remote ice cavern with no light source what-so-ever? Perhaps not.

It's not just flares, however, that are in question but an emerging trend whereby film-makers are actively alerting us to the presence of the lens. In both Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Hellboy II: The Golden Army there are moments where small creatures are crushed and their post-produced gooey innards are ejaculated (stop it) onto the camera lens.  

Surely this just destroys the carefully constructed facade that the audience have, if they are behaving themselves, agreed to buy into? Surely it's no different to catching a glimpse of a digital watch on a Roman, or a microphone peeping into shot. Only in these cases, great lengths have been taken to place that watch and that microphone into the full view of the audience. What up with that?

During a dalliance in filmmaking myself (the Doctor has fingers in many metaphorical pies. Curiously a number of literal ones too) I made an interesting discovery while checking the rushes for a particular scene. It appeared that I had been so caught up in the creative moment that I had not checked my lens was clean. The rogue spots and smudges that peppered the lens created some irregular results. Areas of blurring, primarily, but the way in which the light behaved as it made its way through to the CCD had also changed, albeit subtly. It was beautiful, in an ugly sort of way.  It was a happy accident and one that was kept in the final edit.

I kept it because it was not exposing artifice. Microphones, poor costuming and continuity mishaps are all technical errors showing the audience how the facade was constructed. Exposing the audience to the lens only exposes them to the way in which it is presented. 

Like seeing the brushstrokes in an oil painting, when used appropriately it exposes the technique, not the technical.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Total Cults Podcast #1 - Commando

Doctor Gogol and James Trick discuss Commando. Well, about ten seconds of it, anyway.