Saturday, 27 August 2011

Total Cults Podcast #8: TV Adaptations

Trick and Gogol cast their gaze upon the tricky process of adapting a successful television series into an equally successful feature film.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Kaiju: King of the Monsters

The Kaiju, or 'strange beast', is a staple of Japanese science fiction cinema (or 'Tokusatsu'and, prior to manga, probably the countries most famous cinematic export. To the west the creature most associated with the genre is the big ‘G’ himself, Godzilla.

Godzilla (actually 'Gojira') is an enormous radiation-breathing lizoid-o-saur. He first terrorised fleeing residents of Tokyo in Godzilla (Ishirô Honda,1954) but then returned for a further thirty plus films. The series has a somewhat flimsy continuity, with some films being continuations and some, Godzilla: Giant Monster All-out Attack (Shûsuke Kaneko, 2001) for example, being direct sequels to earlier films in the series. Some even start all over again, as if it were Godzilla's first appearance.

More than just a hulking leviathan, Godzilla is also a sodding great allegory. A personification of the destruction caused by the bombs dropped on Japan towards the end of the Second World War, Godzilla is Japan’s way of living out such a devastating cultural milestone through popular entertainment.

Godzilla isn’t the only monster to deal with the atomic aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki though. Frankenstein Conquers the World aka Frankenstein Vs Baragon (Ishirô Honda,1965) centres around a child, left homeless and feral in the wake of the bomb, who as a result of exposure to radiation mutates into a giant lizard fighting mutant. That is until the random enormous octopus attack that closes the film, whereby he becomes a giant enormous octopus fighting mutant.

This national catharsis could well be integral to forming a huge amount of Japan’s output. Difficult subject matters are dealt with in traditionally whimsical mediums*. Sex, violence and body horror seem fair game to engage with in animation, comics and fantasy film. Kind of like if Cronenberg created a Saturday morning cartoon.

Now, I’m not going to say that cartoons featuring attacking fifty-foot space genitals, or two grown men in rubber lizard suits wrestling over a model city are always intellectually stimulating. But it is so nice to see that on occasion there is a film industry that recognises imagination and intellect aren’t mutually exclusive. More so, when imagination and intellect do collide you are not left with an irregularity, rather something that can reach a mainstream audience. 

But let's not overlook the fact these films are fun. Utter bat-shit, ludicrous spillages of insane imaginations splurged onto film in a splatter of light and dinosaur costumes. If you are looking for hot monster action not including Godzilla then might I suggest the magnificent rocket-powered galactic turtle Gamera and, more specifically, the recent trilogy of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995), Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion (1996) Gamera: Revenge of Iris (1999) by Shûsuke Kaneko. These are full of monster battles and the production on display is at times astounding. The last film, however, is a little slow and does show a Kaiju in danger of disappearing up his own rocket-propelled arse.**

Then there is Ultraman, who adds a pinch of superhero into the monster's bowl. There have been a number of TV series and films, but may I recommend an episode from the original sixties series entitled Cries of the Mummy.

Or, if you like lots of spandex giants on screen at once, Mega Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy (Koichi Sakamoto, 2009).

But my favourite non Godzilla Kailju is Daijamin (Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1966), a giant Japanese golem brought to life to wreak terrible revenge on oppressive forces. It is a film made with all the class and integrity of the great Japanese period films and builds genuine tension and atmosphere. The effects are a mixed bag, ranging from some shots with fat blue lines around badly keyed foreground plates, to the rapid-fire cutting between costumed actors, miniatures and composites that don’t give your brain quite enough time to work out how they did it. The monster looks cool too.

When we in the west try our hands at giant monsters we focus more on trying to convince the audience these events could actually take place. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008), for example, gets you in with the fleeing crowd but loses the joyful frolicking in imagination. The American Godzilla (Roland Emmerich, 1998) looks fine, but it is far from the iconic design of the Japanese original. It's also a little bit shit.

So until Guillermo Del Toro menaces us with his Pacific Rim, or Gareth Edwards shows us his big ‘G’ the Kaiju remains king, smashing us with his rubber fists and sometimes reminding us of our own devastating mistakes.

*See James Trick’s article on animated tentacle assault here;

**That is assuming that Gamera also wrote and directed his films.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

House IV (1992, Lewis Abernathy)

In the course of revisiting House II the other week, I was a bit mean to House IV. In fact, I described it as "an attempt to recapture the vibe of the first which ends up crashing and burning fairly horribly".

Now, at the time I felt a bit bad about that, mainly because I hadn't actually checked out House IV in a looong time. My memories hadn't been favourable, but it seemed a bit harsh to dismiss the flick on the basis of a half-remembered opinion from two decades back. Thus, I decided that the movie needed to hit the player again, just to make sure that I hadn't unfairly slighted a forgotten classic.

Guess what? I hadn't unfairly slighted a lost classic. I'd called it pretty much on the money, actually.

We are reintroduced to Roger Cobb, still played by William Katt but otherwise a very different dude. He's got a daughter rather than a son, a wife we've never met before and a deep attachment to a different creepy-assed house to the one in the first movie. Those of us who actually remember the first movie (either by having a functioning long-term memory, or possibly by having seen it a mere 4 hours earlier as part of a manic all-night House marathon, accompanied by beer, caffeine and a growing sense that life might not be all we hoped it would be and we might never achieve even the drastically scaled-down 2011 version of our dreams) are left confused. Personally, I entered a kind of dream state for at least twenty minutes, during which time I pondered whether this was an alternate reality Roger, whether this Roger shared memories and experiences with his same-name sibling from a better movie or whether the two were entirely autonomous, kept apart by the gossamer-thin fabric of...

Oh, they've killed him.

Yes, after sitting on the touchline for House II and House III, Roger returns triumphantly to the franchise only to get unceremoniously bumped off in the opening act. Our hero has been reduced to a plot device. How the semi-mighty fall. The plot (such as it is) shifts to Roger's new-wife and new-daughter as they adjust to life in the big family house without him, only to be plagued by mysterious and usually fairly badly executed creepy things. Blood out of the taps, all that sort of stuff - which is a bit bizarre given that the house *also* seems to be protecting them from some gangsters. Yes, this is a movie that can even bugger up the motivation and character arc of a building, so you've got to feel a bit sorry for all the human characters wandering around because they really don't stand a fucking chance.

Whereas the tonal shifts of the original House were smooth and rather nicely executed, here the gears crunch horrifically whenever the movie changes the mood. Silly comedy sequences bounce against badly-executed po-faced and cliched horror bits of business (Blood coming out of the shower! Scary warnings!) without ever finding a mood that works. I'll refrain from blowing the plot resolution, but it makes precious little sense given what comes before.

I'm not sure if the flick was the subject of reshoots, but the disjointed feel certainly gives that impression: even the swearing comes in odd little clusters in specific scenes, as if the rest of the movie had been shot for PG-13 and then six months later extra stuff was filmed after the plan for the low rating had been abandoned. Unlike House II, there's no commentary track to shed light on this kind of stuff.

Yeah, the flick doesn't work. Crashes and burns, etc, etc.

At least I've set my mind at rest that I didn't mislead you guys in the House II review.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Total Cults Podcast #7: Sequels and Remakes

Dr Gogol and James Trick poke and prod at the supposed cultural canker that is the sequel and/or remake. Granted, they seem to quite like some of them, but Trick seems to have a fairly huge problem with that pesky Elm Street remake.

Now enjoy this episode in glorious YouTube vision if you don't fancy clicking through to the MP3 in the title..

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Icons of the Overlooked #2: Lewis Collins

Many will be familiar with Lewis Collins from his portrayal of William Bodie in the British television action series The Professionals. Just as many, however, will also assume that beyond The Professionals Collins didn’t have much of career. That’s not entirely fair, yet it’s not entirely untrue as the work he did never reached the audience that The Professionals did. Despite this, Collins managed to frequently display all the physicality and charisma needed to be a leading action star. So why did he never become one?

The Professionals, for those not in the know, was a late 70’s early 80’s series that owed much to The Sweeney, yet was an entirely different beast. Bodie and Doyle, the main characters, were two tough men’s men and members of CI5. They dealt with anything from drug trafficking and hate crime to espionage and global terrorism with a pint in one hand and a gun in the other. 

The series is often considered as something of a relic and occasionally sniggered at, thanks largely to a roasting by The Comic Strip.  Yet for all the unfashionable attitudes on display it had a heart and it was in the right place. Well, in the ball-park. It was frequently violent, yet often questioned the need for violence in pursuit of justice. It had a lot in common with the Italian Poliziotteschis and inadvertently documents a somewhat reflective Britain on the cusp of changing attitudes towards violence, gender and race.

The charm of the series, however, came from the chemistry between the leads. Despite not always seeing eye-to-eye on set, Collins and co-star Martin Shaw never failed to sell the idea that whether Bodie and Doyle were kicking a junkie or chatting up a bar maid they were always close friends. For a television show the action was frequently impressive and of the two Collins handled the physical elements far more convincingly. This might have something to do with the fact he was genuine tough guy. He studied Karate, held a black belt in Ju-Jitsu and in later years passed all the entry tests for the territorial SAS, but was only rejected on the grounds that his high profile would present a conflict of interests. Being hard off-screen, however, doesn't always mean you can appear hard on-screen. Yet Collins just seemed so natural firing a machine-gun, or driving a Ford Cortina through a pile of boxes. No surprise then that he was the one to hit out in an action film all of his own.

Shot towards the end of the The Professionals run, Who Dares Wins aka The Final Option (Ian Sharp, 1982) is a criminally underrated action film. Cashing in on the interest in the SAS following their very public storming of the Iranian Embassy in 1980, the film centres on a very similar hostage situation and how Collins, as head of an elite group, infiltrates and takes them down. The film is hardly subtle and kind of cumbersome, but extremely tense and at times brutal. The end siege is short yet thrilling and once again Collins proves that not only can he handle the action but can exhibit considerable screen presence, even when sharing said screen with the likes of Edward Woodward.

It wasn’t long before rumours where circulating that he'd been talked to regarding Bond. Collins has gone on record saying he felt the world needed a new kind of hero, yet the Bond producers did not agree, feeling his audition was too aggressive. Instead Collins ended up making a trio of Italian/German action films for Antonio Margheriti (Codename: Wildgeese 1984, Kommando Leopard, 1985 and Der Commander 1988) alongside actors such as Klaus Kinski, Donald Pleasence, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Van Cleef. These films play as if someone had decided to make Action Man: The Movie and Collins, even without the scar on his cheek, looks just like the permanently pant-wearing action figure. The films aren't terrible by any means but I can only recommend them for Collins enthusiasts or people who love watching model bridges explode.

The model bridge market, it would appear, was quite small and the films never hit big. To many, Collins appeared to fade from view. He cropped up on British television well into the early 90’s but beyond that rarely surfaced. Collins’ last credit was in 2002 and he died in 2013.

While The Professionals aired Collins was a household name and a television icon but also had the talent to justify that status and I find it hard to believe no one was able to exploit that in recent years. His age, and health as it would appear, would have no doubt precluded him from finally taking up the action hero mantle he never truly attained but I’ve always felt he would have done wonders in one of the many gangster films Britain currently churns out. I, for one, wish we’d had another chance to see him back on screen, even if it wasn’t firing an Uzi from a car window as it crashes through a tower of cardboard.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Total Cults Podcast #6: Childhood Fears

Dr Gogol and James Trick re-open old wounds as they discuss what scared them as children. It was apparently The Two Ronnies and Kenny Everett, which is a bit weird I suppose but there you go.

And now, rather sensationally, for people who don't like mp3s, this episode is available in sensational YouTube vision..

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Her Majesty's Top Gun AKA No. 1 of the Secret Service (Lindsay Shonteff, 1977)

When considering a films potential to entertain, it is often discussed as to whether a film that earns its ability to entertain is more worthy than a film that happens upon it. Should a film that is unintentionally enthralling, most likely through ineptitude, have less value than a film that gets everything right, even if the experience had watching the former is the greater of the two?  

This is a discussion that becomes muddied when looking at films that are deliberately bad, asking us to enjoy the farcical production by dipping its nuggets into large blobs of Heinz irony.

Yet I can go one further: How about a film that attempts to be deliberately bad in order to entertain, fails, yet in its failure still manages to be wildly entertaining?

Allow me to introduce Her Majesty's Top Gun, a film which through discussing may open a black hole that will swallow all logic. You have been warned.

Here are the opening credits for your enjoyment (the closing credits are there too, but don't bother with them):

Now, before we do anything else, I would like to begin a campaign to make Givin' it Plenty the theme for the next Bond film. I suggest the visuals that accompany it should be the usual abstract guns and girls, but with Daniel Craig in the foreground marching and fist-pumping in time with the music.

Her Majesty's Top Gun stars Nicky Henson as Charles Bind, NO.1 agent of S.E.X. Despite appearing in many British films Henson will most likely be remembered as the open-shirted lothario trying to sneak a woman into his room in an episode of Fawtly Towers. Henson's Bind is a Bond clone (oh... Bind, I've just got that) but as evident from the opening credits this film is not taking itself too seriously. Everything that is in that sequence actually occurs in the film. And, against all odds, the rest of the film not only lives up to that montage, but betters it. Well, sort of...

Allow me to try and describe an example of the comedy gold this film drapes across its hairy chest with an account of an early scene. Two female soldiers, uniforms unzipped to the navel, do press-ups while their commanding officer watches. The C.O. is given news to which he replies, with one eye on the girls, “Keep me abreast of the situation”.

Now that the tumble weed has passed, I shall continue. This is an attempt to fuse Bond films with the kind of cheeky humour found in the great British farce. Unfortunately, it is entirely witless. Yet so witless is it you cant help but find the groans turning to laughs especially when the so-called gags start to fly at you like machine-gun fire. It transcends its incredibly low ambitions and becomes so utterly hilarious despite its distinct lack of anything resembling comedy. Unless of course they knew that and were producing an ironic take on the ironic spy-spoof sub-genre hybrid? My head hurts.

But what I also love about this film is that it creates (and I apologise if the following terminology is a little too academic to follow) a good list of stuff. I love a good list of stuff. Take G.I.Joe (Stephen Sommers, 2009), for example. I will defend that film until I die. Not on the grounds of quality, but for the very fact they weeded out all the narrative logic and characterisation and filled the space with, well, stuff. Army, lasers, ninjas, jet-packs, ninjas on jet-packs, an underground fortress, master-or-disguises, mad scientists, stormtroopers, men fighting, women fighting, children fighting... and this is merely the first act.

Her Majesty's Top Gun does much the same, filling the screen with such a collection of oddities that it makes you question whether you may have fallen asleep and re-awoken during a different film.

H.M.T.G. contains; spies, an assassin on a dog-leash, a transsexual with metal underpants, Tinker from Lovejoy, an assassin/cowboy so accurate with his pistols he can shave a man by gradually shooting his beard off, John Pertwee shutting his balls in a drawer, a vampire, an invisible force-field, cartwheels and much, much more. I believe someone even catches a bullet in their mouth at one point.

Regardless of its intention or ability, H.M.T.G. is 90 minutes of pure joy. Despite its inability to raise a genuine laugh, its need to please is so evident that you can't help but get swept up in the onslaught of convention bending sequences that unfold before you in an exquisite collage of camp and cool.

Pretentious? Moi?

Monday, 8 August 2011

House II: The Second Story (1987, Ethan Wiley)

The House series of films is an odd one. The first one is quite an effective little horror-comedy, the third on is an (often heavily cut) hard horror film that was originally nothing to do with the franchise and the fourth is an attempt to recapture the vibe of the first which ends up crashing and burning fairly horribly.

And the second?

Well, the second one is nuts. It's a movie that I simply can't imagine getting greenlit nowadays; an oddball mishmash that is basically a children's movie, yet also features zombies getting their heads blown off. The plot follows Jesse, a 20-something whose parents died when he was a baby. He moves into the family home and promptly decides to dig up his great-great-grandfather's grave, which is probably one of the more left-field act one plot devices that I've come across. This ill-thought-out act of desecration leads to the discovery that said ancestor is not dead... Although he is, given the expected genre of the film, surprisingly friendly and cheerful.

A little bit further along in the flick and you should be braced to meet a caterpuppy (or possibly puppapillar), a baby pterodactyl and an electrician/adventurer played by Cliffy from Cheers. The whole mix starts to play like a missing Muppet movie, and by the time Jesse declares that he has come to consider the caterpuppy et al as being his 'family' the viewer is likely to be questioning their sanity.

That said, it's great. Of course it is. In fact, I enjoyed my recent rewatch even more than I enjoyed it back in the 80s, when I rented it on VHS after the woman in the cinema box office had refused to believe that my group of friends were old enough to see Midnight Run and sent us home heartbroken. Provided the film is approached in the right spirit, it provides quite a lot of warm hearted chuckles.

Just be aware... It's got rather more in common with In The Night Garden than A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Total Cults Podcast #5: Fantasy

James Trick, Dr Gogol and special guest Arnold Yuchuse discuss the fantasy genre while taking a moment to dwell on swearing and animals in the moving image.

Icons of the Overlooked #1: Paul Naschy

When asked to think of the icons of classic horror most minds will mosey to names such as Chaney, Karloff and Lee. Rightly so, as these individuals have been burned into our collective sub-conscious for their ability to be lost in a spectrum of unforgettable monsters and yet, despite this, never allowing their humanity to be lost with them. Regardless of the layers of thick make-up a measured and serious performance always managed to shine through.

If this be the criteria for becoming a horror icon, then writer/director/producer/actor Paul Naschy deserves no less than to be mentioned alongside such greats.

Naschy was the primary figure in Spanish horror, clawing his way onto the screen in 1968's Las noches del Hombre Lobo (René Govar) and staying there with a supernatural durability that would put most of his monsters to shame. Coming around during Hammer's late period, the films that Naschy appeared in shared very many similarities. They were very much gothic pieces with considerable production value up on the screen and a penchant for classic monsters (mostly).

Yet like a lot of European horror (outside of the UK that is) the Spanish films had a slight schizophrenia when it came to their conventions. Despite high production, they always seemed a little cheaper at times then their British or American counterparts. For every moment of controlled, crafted camera work there was a clumsy zoom. Atmosphere was favoured over gore, yet the blood flowed free enough and although the cleavage was far more reserved than that of the Hammer films the nudity was far more prolific. They still retained their class, however, and the early cycle of films come highly recommended for lovers of stylised and atmospheric tales of men and monsters, or proper horror films as I like to call them.

Naschy played many monsters in his time yet the one he most frequently transformed himself into was a werewolf. And not just any werewolf I might add, but the same one; Waldemar Daninsky. Naschy played this character for no less than twelve films and although there was no real continuity between them the character oozed history whenever he appeared covered in fur and fangs.

And what fur and fangs. Daninsky was one fine looking wolf-man, fully embodying the qualities required to make this character work. He is at once savage and terrifying yet clearly human and tortured. I've always been fascinated with the Wolfman character. This is possibly because whereas all the other classic monsters embrace, if reluctantly, their monstrous form the werewolf is always at war with it. He is both the protagonist and antagonist and nearly always doomed from the start. It was this fascination that drew me to Naschy and I have yet to be disappointed.

Another difference between these films and Hammer's output was in the embracing of the idea that more than one monster could exist in one film. Oh yes, Naschy was big on 'versus' pictures. Pick up a Naschy and you're almost guaranteed his wolf-man will throw-down with some other creature of myth, be it other werewolves, vampires, Mr Hyde or even the Yeti. In Daninsky's third outing; Los monstruos del terro AKA Assignment Terror (Tulio Demichelli, 1970) he came up against Dracula, Frankenstein, the mummy and aliens.

Now for me to say all of these films were of the highest quality would be somewhat misleading. Assignment Terror, for example, has next to none of the qualities I harped on about earlier. So I feel it somewhat necessary to point you in direction of a quality example should you intend to seek out some of Naschy's work.

The film that encapsulates everything I have talked about so far best is Werewolf Shadow (León Klimovsky, 1971). This often crops up on those wonderful '50 horror film' sets under the title The Werewolf versus the Vampire Woman, albeit a terrible print and with cuts. It is a great gothic horror and is well work checking out when you're done with that Hammer box set.

To say Naschy is overlooked is not all that accurate. But to this day he still holds something of a cult status and is by no means the house-hold names that Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff are. Yet Naschy has been far more prolific than any of his fellow monster-makers. In addition to the gothic horrors Naschy appeared in any kind of horror film you could imagine and even wandered out the genre altogether. When he died in 2009 he not only left behind a filmography of a hundred films but a number of in-development projects too. It would appear that, not unlike the animal that dwells in Daninsky's soul, Naschy's mortal frame just got in the way or his true ambitions.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

C.H.U.D II: Bud the C.H.U.D. (1988 – David Irving)

I think it's fair to say that you don't really have to have seen the original CHUD in order to enjoy the mastery that is CHUD II. The original CHUD was actually a fairly dull bit of work.. A 'monsters in the sewers' flick that was heavy on the sewers and low on entertainment. CHUD II wisely ignores the whole sorry mess and decides to do its own thing. What its 'own thing' constitutes, of course, is brain-damaged comedy horror that could *only* have been produced in the 80s.

Some guy who I dimly remember from a show called 'Head Of The Class' steals a frozen corpse from a military facility for reasons too dumb and convoluted to go into. The corpse wakes up and goes wandering off, biting everything and everyone it finds with a hugely OTT comedy 'crunch' sound. As soon as someone's been bitten, they turn into another walking corpse. The recipe is simple; take a bunch of the reanimated dead, add Robert Vaughan, some terrific 80s hairstyles, some appalling puns and stupid sight gags, and stir for 82 minutes.

CHUD II manages to find time for that staple of 80s living dead movies, the zombie budgie, but also throws in a very good value zombie poodle, which provides most of the big laughs throughout the flick's first half. I hardly need to point out that none of this is exactly high art, but somehow the whole enterprise manages to come off as cheesily endearing. There's also a lovely 'hiding-my-head-because-it's-been-knocked-off' sequence, of the like that we never seem to see in these CGI days.

And the title song.. My good God. Not since the days of 'The Blob' has a movie been blessed with such an inane singalong to accompany the carnage. 'Coming Over For A Bite.. Bud the Chud.. Bud The Chud.. Buh.. Buh.. Buh.. Bud The Chud'. How wonderfully, gloriously, maniacally shite. It breaks my heart that the Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers Who Don't Actually Live Underground were never reanimated for a third outing, but consider this their finest hour and remember them this way.

This CHUD's for you, indeed.