Saturday, 24 September 2011

Total Cults Podcast #12: "Heroes"

James Trick and Dr Gogol reveal the truth about heroes in that beneath the charm and the bravado beats the tragic heart of a borderline sociopath.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Hillbilly Sheriff: The Golem of the Deep South

Of all the creatures committed to myth the Southern Sheriff is one of the most misunderstood. Beneath the confines of his tan uniform beat the clogged heart of an agent of justice. In order to administer this justice to a world that was beginning to idolise the anti-hero the Sheriff began to employ tough methods of law enforcement. Yet his strong hand only worked against him, his tightening grip not squeezing out the subversives but crushing the fragile reputation he had carved for himself, finally becoming the very thing he swore to do battle with. No longer will he be remembered as a righteous protector of the peace, but rather a monster.

Before we begin this sad tale it is necessary to reveal the unique blend of herbs and spices that make this southern-fried law enforcement officer taste so good:

  1. The Southern Sheriff will always carry excess weight and, quite possibly, a heart condition.
  2. Though not essential, the Southern Sheriff may often have developed an unpleasant habit. In most cases this will consist of chewing a great big mouthful of drool-browning tobacco.
  3. The Southern Sheriff will fear change.
  4. The Southern Sheriff will not fear bending the rules to administer justice. Where some might see this as corrupt, the Sheriff sees it as a necessary evil (and something of a perk of the job).
  5. The Southern Sheriff is always covered in a layer of sweat so voluminous that he will frequently need to mop his brow, neck and just under his shirt with a hanky.
  6. The Southern Sheriff will, if confronted with the term 'Liberal', react in much the same way as a vampire might if force fed a Vatican approved bowl of garlic puree.
  7. The Southern Sheriff will always end up looking like a right prick, more often than not having just driven his cruiser into a ditch.

This simple man is a product of his environment. Raised in small, isolated and dusty towns he is very much a man of the community and wants to protect that community with a rabid lust. As the modern world seeks to connect these remote towns, joining them with the more tolerant and promiscuous cities, the Sheriff's responsibilities become more urgent. Yet with an inability to make it through the day without being involved in an automotive accident and a circulatory system that is slowly running out of batteries his pursuit of this goal is somewhat challenging. In fact, it is only a matter of time before the Sheriff is forcibly retired from life.

Worry not, nature finds a way.

Deep beneath the bowls of these small towns is a birthing chamber not unlike something you might see in an H.R. Giger painting. Thousands of fleshy eggs line the disused mine-shafts and honeycomb caverns ready to birth an endless supply of deputies to follow in our Sheriff's footsteps. Although initially lean, nicely stupid and willing to question the methods of their mentor (especially if it is going to upset a young lady in denim shorts), these embryonic young officers will immediately rise to the challenge when required. Often only one Deputy will be produced, yet a whole army can be raised if the situation requires it (a haphazard cross-country “hot pursuit” for example).

Alas, as if some kind of cruel joke, the Deputies have an air of baffoonery (see also; boobery) hard-wired into them. Each aforementioned cross-country chase ending in a collection a police vehicles piling up in a dried-out ditch. Upon finding themselves in such a situation, the Deputy will react in one of two ways:

  1. If with a partner they will remain seated, with seatbelts, while upside down in their overturned car. One of the Deputies will then nonchalantly radio for help and/or backup.
  2. If alone, they will half climb out of their window, survey the damage and, in some cases, throw their stetson to the floor in frustration.

It is the curse of the Southern Sheriff, yet one every Deputy must accept in his pursuit of his destiny and, ultimately, justice.

The Southern Sheriff is, in many ways, like the Golem. A creature from Jewish mythology, the Golem was a hulking figure sculpted from clay to protect their community from those that might invade and persecute them. This uneducated creature lumbered around seeking to conserve the society they had created.

The Southern Sheriff is, similarly, a hunk of meat elected into position by the community to protect them, often from themselves. He is not clever, nor desirable, yet has a clear purpose in life.
Yet like the Golem of Prague the Sheriff has fallen from grace. Finding that the people that had created him now fear and loathe him he is forced to employ even tougher methods finally extinguishing any and all resemblance to a police officer, save the uniform.

The Southern Sheriff of contemporary cinema differs a little from his ancestor.  The modern Sheriff is concerned with nothing but the abuse of the powers he has been granted. Whereas the Sheriff of old would be suspicious of newcomers to the community, the contemporary Sheriff begins his persecution of them immediately. The new Sheriff is no longer guilty of corrupting the existing laws, but is an overt criminal altogether.

And let us not forget the contemporary Southern Sheriff is a magnificent pervert. Any frisking or cavity search, necessary or not, will be executed with the lick of a sweaty upper-lip and a look of frenzied eroticism in his eyes, regardless of the gender of the friskee.

I wouldn't rule out cannibalism either.

So I would like to take this opportunity to tip my hat to the Sheriff of old. Sure he was aggressive, repressed, unpleasant to look at and at his worst a colossal racist, but at least he laboured under the delusion that what he was doing was right. Which is more than can be said for the Southern Sheriff we have patrolling our dusty highways today.

You will be missed...  kind of.

The Doll Master (Jeong Yong-gi, 2004)

The old 'fuck, aren't mannequins creepy?' sub-genre is always worth taking out for a spin around the block every few years. As sub-genres go it's a pretty safe bet for some mid-level chills, but rarely produces a stone-cold classic. Such is the case with the Korean flick The Doll Master, which is quite atmospheric and moody but never really does much beyond reminding us that, yes, mannequins are creepy and, no, we wouldn't much like to wake up in the night to find one dangling off the ceiling. and staring at us.

The plot concerns a quartet of folks receiving the old 'mysterious invitation to a house in the middle of nowhere' gambit, a plot device so evergreen that it can be used perfectly happily in everything from torture porn to Miss Marple. In this case, they've apparently been invited there in order to model for dolls. From this point in, if you expect there to simply be a spot of doll-modelling followed by everyone heading home in time for Eastenders you're rather overlooking the narrative engine of every horror movie since the dawn of time.

So where do things go from there? Just one direction; doll scares. Dolls in mirrors, dolls out of windows and, best of all, dolls in toilets. The bastards are everywhere, and we're not talking Charles Band style mini-horrors, we're talking shop window dummy size. Like the Autons, but with glossy hair.

Thankfully, they aren't CGI, either. They're usually just actual mannequins, positioned carefully in frame (or in bowl, in the toilet case) to give the viewer the willies. And an awful lot of the time it works rather well.

The plot tie-up is slightly confused and the last line is genuinely awful, but if you haven't spent 90 minutes pondering how fucking creepy mannequins are lately, you could do a whole lot worse than The Doll Master.


Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Candy Stripers (2006, Kate Robbins)

Okay, so what do we have here? Taking Doctor Gogol's lead about judging books (and DVDs) by their covers, let's take a quick butchers at what the marketing department have thrown our way.

Candy Stripers

A quick glance at the cover would tend to imply that we're in for the following over the next 90 mins.

1) Some Candy Stripers (who we don't have an equivalent to in the UK, but as far as I understand it are non-nursing personnel who help out looking after kids and old folks in hospitals. If I'm totally wrong, I apologise to Candy Stripers everywhere)
2) Some kind of alien possession/body snatching shenanigans
3) Some vague titillation
4) An awful lot of lollipop sucking

And, yup, this delivers on all 4 counts. Particularly, funnily enough, on the lollipop sucking. Because the aliens that possess these candy stripers (Yay! Both of my assumptions were correct! I am the Sherlock Holmes of the B-Movie world!) need to intake an awful lot of sugar to survive, in a plot point which also handily provides an excuse for lots of long close-ups of hot candy stripers sucking things suggestively.

I can see you already tapping your feet impatiently. You want to know the plot, don't you? OK, but let's do it really quick. Like pulling off a plaster, it'll hurt less.

A pre-credits car accident sequence introduces us to an alien which spreads by popping out of people's mouths and sort of stinging them. It'll prompt a feeling of deja-vu in anyone who's ever seen The Hidden or Jason Goes to Hell. Once stung, the stingees turn into aliens who do the same thing. Rinse and repeat. Oh, and they get a bit sexier than usual. The main body of the flick takes place in a hospital. I think that's about as much as you need to know plotwise.. If you attempt to grill me for things like character names I'll hold my hands up and admit that I've forgotten 'em all already.

There's a bit of nudity here and there, some fairly good practical effects and some fairly poor CGI ones. It goes about its business perfectly effectively and would be best enjoyed with a crate of Sam Adams and some fairly low expectations. There's some nice use of PVA glue and joke shop aerosol cobwebs. I would imagine that it'd sit nicely as part of a horror all-nighter, and I personally had fun with it.

Right, I'm heading off to Google 'candy stripers' in order to find out what they actually do for a living. If I don't come back within a week or so, send out a search party.


Onechanbara: The Movie (2008, Yôhei Fukuda)

Onechanbara features a five minute swordfight between a girl wearing a cowboy hat and a furry bikini, and another girl wearing a Japanese school uniform. The fight also features teleportation, flying and unexplained CGI explosions of coloured light. Elsewhere in the movie, there are zombies. Lots and lots of zombies.

I'll wait whilst you go and order it. Don't mind me.

Right. You're back? Well, then. I guess it's time for the bad news. There are stretches of Onechanbara that don't really work, where characters sit around on industrial wasteground and talk about their families. But, back to the good news; these sequences invariably end with a zombie attack, and more bikini-orientated swordfighting.

Onechanbara is based on a series of computer games of the same name; I haven't played them, but a quick glance around at reviews suggests that it's a case of great concept, bad execution. I imagine that, wasteland family-discussions aside, one of those games on demo mode would probably give you a good indication as to what it feels like watching Onechanbara: The Movie (aka Chanbara Beauty in some territories). You get what you pay for, and in this case what you're paying for is to watch a girl in a furry bikini kill lots of zombies with a sword. There's an over-reliance on CGI sparks and spurts, which is actually a bit frustrating because when the movie gets down and dirty and uses actual practical effects (half a prop head here, a jet of actual tangible fake blood there) it works an awful lot better. If this had been made in the days pre-CGI and been forced to go fully practical, it might have been a 5 star experience.

As it is, you'll have known from my first sentence whether you're up for it or not. Personally, I'm in for the sequel.


EDIT: I realised after posting this mini-review that I'd completely forgotten to consider plot, and instead just focused on bikinis, schoolgirl outfits and armies of zombies dying by cold steel.

As luck would have it, the exact same could be said of the filmmakers. The plot is such a tiny element of the whole experience that to mention it would almost seem like pointless nitpicking.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Total Cults Podcast #11: Villains

James Trick, Doctor Gogol and special guest Dennis Market put the worlds most diabolical criminals on trial.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Cover Me

I have always judged a book by its cover, and I mean that in a literal sense. 

As a child I would scan through the junior fiction at fantastic images, devoid of narrative context, and wonder what possible series of events could lead to the breathtakingly improbable situations rendered before me. Folding back the creased cardboard cover I would often find the barrage of text a disappointment and I soon realised that what I was actually looking for within was more of the same attention capturing and fantastical imagery.

Comics, I believe they are called.

Comics were not the only place to feed by hungry brain.  For someone with a distinct bias for visuals, the video shop was an art gallery. Like the images discovered in the library, VHS covers promised much but had a greater chance of delivering once that cover had been traversed. But more than just a captivating image, the rows of videos had two numbers set against a red circle that told me there were things beyond the covers that would fry my tiny mind. An eighteen certificate wasn't a warning, it was almost a dare.

As a child the prospect of bloodletting was something that scared me, but even then I was fascinated with why it scared me. It always felt like something I would need to overcome and although I eventually did (I have Robocop to thank/blame for that) I was vary wary of potentially violent films. I would sometimes dip my toe in, yet sat mostly on the pool-side in a position of safe curiosity. As such, there are some films that promised so much violent debauchery I was never able to make it past the cover.

Over the years I have sought some of these films out to see what I was missing and in most cases they have not lived up to what my imagination had conjured, irrespective of the quality of the film.

There are a couple, however, that I have yet to see. To begin with this was accidental, however part of me feels like never seeing them so as not to dilute their potency and in order to preserve that ever weakening link back to my childhood.

The following five VHS covers both excited and terrified me, and still kind of do. I imagine they will do neither for you, but I hope to explain why they hold a special place in my psyche.

Death Ship (Alvin Rakoff, 1980)

Being on a sinking ship concerned me as a child. More specifically, it was the thought of looking under water and seeing the ship I had previously been on disappearing into the depths of the ocean. To see something so big rendered so small only served to remind me of quite how insignificant and delicate the human race is. So by adding a big scary face on the front of the ship they are just rubbing salt in the wound. I can only imagine he's some sea-bound relative of Thomas the Tank Engine, banished from the island of Sodor for a series of unspeakable tram assaults and driven insane and hungry for human flesh by the isolation. I doubt the ship actually has that face in the film and judging by the screenshots of a papier-mâché head and George Kennedy looking like he's just trapped a bollock in a drawer I can't imagine the film is going to live up to the promise of the cover.

The Protector (James Glickenhaus, 1985)

This may seem like an odd one. I'm aware that Jackie Chan, despite being an adept martial-artist, has managed to somehow cultivate the image of being fairly harmless. But I had never seen a Jackie Chan film. I couldn't contemplate what kind of violence this man could unleash with his bare hands that would warrant an 18 certificate. I was convinced this film was going to be ninety minutes of him ripping out lungs and breaking spines. Now that I'm older I imagine that it was the usual BBFC assumption that despite martial arts taking a lifetime of study to perfect, children would instantly master the basics of Wushu upon watching this film and unleash martial hell across the playgrounds of Great Britain.

Blood Beach (Jeffrey Bloom, 1980)

There was something off-putting about this image and I'm not talking about the appallingly garbled Jaws referencing tagline. The faded colours, the lifeless and unnatural posing of the lonely model and the blood-red sky creating a weird, almost alien, ambience all added to an image that made me feel bad deep down inside. Then there is the thought of thick liquid blood mixing with coarse, gritty sand. I could almost feel the stodgy congealing mess forming as I looked at it. Then we get to the overt subject of being sucked under the sand, subverting a safe childhood place and turning it into a place as dangerous as the shark infested ocean. As an adult I think it looks kind of fun but as a child this poster just made me feel utterly wrong and generated a genuine sense of foreboding in me. Young me did not like this image, yet could not stop looking at it.

Blackout (Douglas Hickox 1985)

I must have been seven when this film was released and I’m pleased to say that my upbringing was conventional enough so that at the time I had no idea what a gimp was. Regardless, I knew this guy was not a nice person. What really tops it off is the fact the zip across the mouth forms a slight smile clearly suggesting a perverse pleasure in the horror he is about to perpetrate. Still creeps me out.

Ultimax Force (Willy Milan, 1986)

How can this not be the best film ever made? It has ninjas, but they are also in the army. Army ninjas. Read that again. Read it? Good. Well guess what? I'm going to stake my credibility on a reckless prediction and say that this film probably isn’t the best film ever made. That being said I certainly thought it looked like the best film ever made. In fact I wanted to see this film so badly as a child that I cursed it for being an 18. By the time I was old, and brave, enough to start watching films that might draw blood it had vanished from the shelves of the video shop. Over time the name of the film faded from my mind (primarily because half of the title is a made up word). The only thing that remained was an insanely accurate mental image of the cover. Since the internet was created I have been looking for this film and I'd almost given up hope. In fact I was preparing to draw the image from memory so that I could finally publish this article. But would you believe just a day ago I discovered the image and it is exactly how I remember it, right down to the head band on the guy on the far left. Of all the films featured in this article this is the one I'm considering watching, regardless of how bad an idea that probably is.

For the most part I still only have a vague idea of what these films are about and in some cases I've not seen a frame of footage. Yet each of these films has made such a huge impact on me that I feel like I have. That speaks volumes for the power of an image and its ability to achieve more than the narrative it represents possibly could.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Total Cults Podcast #10: Genre Hybrids

James Trick and Doctor Gogol looks at the mad science of taking two things and splatting them together to make one thing.

The Tripods

Imagine, if you will, the scene from Goodfellas where Henry Hill, James Conway and Tommy DeVito are stamping on Billy Batts head in a diner. Now imagine that the three gangsters represent the television series Doctor Who and Billy Batts is the fragile childhood psyche of many British youngsters. Now in my case the three gangsters are joined by a fourth assailant. A smaller, lesser known fella, yet just as willing to get in there and give my protected childhood world a good scrambling with his well polished shoe. A fella who goes by the name of...

The Tripods was a trilogy of books, the first two of which were adapted for British television. The first series aired in 1984, around the time that Peter Davidson was making an impression on me, and is something of an overlooked treat.

The story concerns a post apocalyptic England. Well, sort of. The World has long since been invaded by the Tripods and we as a race have reverted to a simpler age. At first this doesn't seem so bad. We are shown lush green countryside, pristine white castles and a real sense of community amongst the townspeople we are introduced to. That little bubble is soon burst by the arrival of a bloody great three-legged robot that stamps a mind controlling chip directly onto the skull of a teenage villager as a sort of coming-of-age ritual.

This traumatic brain operation/Bar Mitzvah is the catalyst for our story as our heroic teenage protagonist, Will Parker, decides he is having none of it. Joined by his very own personal Samwise he escapes the oncoming ritual in search of freedom. His quest takes him around the world, through a crumbling Paris and into the midsts of freedom fighters hell-bent on ridding our planet of those giant three-legged brain molesters.

Now the young actors aren't great. When they meet their third companion it's not too far away from having three little Adrics on-screen. Yet it could be far worse, as none of them actually are Adric.

That's the bad news out of the way. The good news? Everything else. For a BBC TV show this thing has amazing production value. The sets, costumes, locations and even special effects are all utterly superb and it still delivers on the creeps. Since it is somewhat difficult to build a big fun scare out of robots you can see coming a mile off, the show instead opts for a palpable sense of dread.  As a child I'd sit in front of the television on a Saturday evening with my fish fingers and crinkle-cut chips happily watching this programme safe that there will be few moments that will require me to cover my eyes with a cushion. Yet the next day I would be eyeing the horizon nervously, hoping not to see a haze-shrouded colossus marching across it. This show got right under my skin and has stayed there until I revisited it recently.

And you know what? The bloody thing holds up. The effects still look pretty good (amazing when compared with other shows of the decade) and it is still kind of creepy. In the second series shit gets real (Tripods armed with massive laser-cannons) and shit gets weird (the hero working with the bad guys for the best part of the series). Yet the first series is the source of the images that have been burned into my skull for all this time.

The third series was reportedly written, but never went into production and there have been rumours of new adaptations for both TV and film.  To be honest I don't know if it needs one. This series is a pretty perfect realisation and one that I revisit often.

Nice theme tune too.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Total Cults Podcast #9: Freestylin'

James Trick and Dr Gogol deflate their armbands and disconnect their stabilisers as they dive headfirst into a totally unplanned podcast.  Where will their conversation head without a topic to springboard from?

Mostly 80's toys.

Mirageman (Ernesto Díaz Espinoza, 2007)

Mirageman is a Chilean super-hero flavoured martial arts film starring 'The Latin Dragon' Marko Zaror. It is, even by Total Cults standards, an oddity, yet one that immediately deserves your attention.

It is the second collaboration between Zaror and director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza and continues their apparent love for throwing as many genres into a cinematic mixing bowl and seeing what kind of cake comes out. Actually that's unfair, they know exactly what kind of cake is coming for Espinoza has a command of tone rarely seen in films such as these.

The first of their collaborations, Kiltro (2006), feels like a test run for Mirageman. It is part romantic comedy part street-fighting film (think 500 Days of Summer meets A.W.O.L.) and although there are moments where the subversion of genre conventions by the sudden introduction of another genre plays really well, it mostly comes off as unfocused. It is a film where the romance isn't quite as charming as it should be and, for a marital arts film, you are made to wait some time for a decent fight to come along. When it does, though, it's a cracker.

The film is an interesting failure and one that intrigued me enough to want to keep an eye on this duo. I'm very glad I did.

Mirageman does much the same, veering from a sweet story about brotherly love, to ludicrous superhero film, to flat out comedy, to dark vigilante drama and referencing (either visually or tonally) everything from the Spider-man TV show of the seventies to Taxi Driver. And it is all shot on video.

Doesn't sound like it should work does it? Yet Espinoza's delicate touch eases each tonal shift with such lightness that you are carried away in this journey.

Their third, and to date, last collaboration Mandrill (2009) is their ode to James Bond and one I have yet to see. Unfortunately these films take a bit of tracking down and while Zaror has dabbled in a few straight to DVD marital arts films, including the surprisingly very good Undisputed 3 (Isaac Florentine, 2010) Espinoza has little else lined up.

Mirageman is well worth your time and a proof that genre bending can work and not just as a cynical gimmick to appeal to a wider audience, but to genuinely create something new and exciting.