Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Saturday morning horror

I was wary of Scooby-Doo as a kid. The version that used to get repeated most as I was growing up was this one:

I could generally cope with it, but every now and again an episode would crop up where the ghost-of-the-week would genuinely freak me out. I can remember leaving a birthday party in tears once. What a wussy little shit I must have been.

As is usually the case, that which scares you also beckons you closer. Thus, I braved Scooby (despite endless rumours from my cousin of an episode that was so gory and disgusting it was more like a horror movie; oddly, I think the episode he was talking about was Miner Forty-Niner, so it's amazing what a kid's imagination can come up with). Soon, braving Scooby wasn't enough. I dipped my toes in darker, murkier, often crappier waters.

Waters like these ones.

The New Shmoo. Fuck knows what happened to the old one.

The Drak Pack. "Count Dracula! Known as 'Big D'!"

FangFace. This was really rare, and more often cropped up on TVS rather than Anglia or Thames, I seem to remember (we could pick up any of the three by messing around with the aerial). It looks utterly dreadful, but I rather liked it because it felt 'edgy'.

The campaign for the assorted reboots of these treasured franchises starts here.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Total Cults Podcast #26: Trailers

Fingers ever on the pulse, Trick and Gogol pull apart the Superbowl trailers the way Henry VIII might have devoured a massive cock.  Chicken.  You know what I mean.
In addition, Gogol continues his "trek" (ho ho) through the Star Trek films much to the delight of Trick.
Warning:  This weeks episode contains frequent sniffing which some listeners may find upsetting.  Or erotic.

This podcast features:
Why is Gogol wearing mouse ears?
Trick's face is full of mucus
Spider-Man and the glass table
The Avengers trailer is very exciting
The tone of Spider-Man movies
Superhero origin stories
GI Joe
Teaser trailers for trailers for films
Dabbing Thanos on your weeping Skrulls
Machete: From trailer to movie
Gogol still enjoys The Phantom Menace. Leave it.
Back to Star Trek. Wrath of Khan this week.
Gogol's jingle is fucking shit
Wrath of Khan got a 15
The inevitability of ageing comes a surprise
Trailers giving away too much
The bit with Rachel McAdams in her underwear that's not in Sherlock Holmes but is in the trailer
We hope you're full of our seed

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Bloody Pit of Horror (Massimo Pupillo, 1965)

This wonderful little Italian horror starts the way all timeless stories begin; a fashion photographer and his sleazy boss take a number of young female models to an old abandoned castle for a photo shoot.

Yet it is not abandoned at all, but inhabited by the bathrobe wearing ex-boyfriend of one of the models; Travis Anderson. He temporarily allows them to stay and complete their photo shoot, which is captured in vivid detail.

This is quite possibly the most horrifying sequence in the whole film. It is meant, one suspects, to be some form of comedy montage, yet it is neither funny nor strictly a montage. The various moments play out with no real attempt to show the passage of time nor create any greater meaning. In fact there are only about four cuts in the whole five minute sequence. In addition, the awful music that plays in the background (something not unlike what would emit from the demo button of a child's electric organ) appears to be only three seconds long and is cack-handedly looped for the entire duration of this non-montage (or nontage, as I shall call it). Start the clip below at 4:01 and see how far through it you make before vomiting an internal organ.

Since they are shooting one of those torture-based fashion shoots (or perhaps material for a Fumetti?) there are edged devices involved. Some accidents occur and the lives of a couple of models are lost. The caring reaction of the boss? Get on with the shoot. Yep, all the models just forget about their dead friends and plough on. They are nothing if not professional.

But these deaths were no accident. No, Travis has been possessed by the spirit of The Crimson Executioner (try and imagine a mix of The Phantom, a male stripper and one of the Beastie Boys) and seeks to imprison and torture the models for not being the perfect physical specimen that he is, or something.

There are many ways to read this film. Is it about repressed sexuality (did I mention Travis lives in his castle with a bunch of muscular men in sailor outfits?) returning to the surface as misogynist rage?

Is it a confused,and frankly offensive, condemnation of homosexuality, a celebration of misogyny and a promotion of unrealistic male and female body images?

Is it an attempt, as it claims, to adapt classic literature?

Or is it just a random assortment of poorly conceived images and moments? A pot-pourri of shit ideas, if you will.

To be honest it doesn't matter. Regardless of it's disregard for taste there is a surprising amount of unintentional fun to be had in the Bloody Pit of Horror!

Friday, 17 February 2012

Total Cults Podcast #25: Fight!!


So, click the title for our long-delayed first podcast of 2012. Fighting! Film fighting! All sorts of fighting! Gogol and Trick get their fists dirty (but not in a horrifying, unspeakable way) as they discuss toe-to-toe showdowns. As a sidenote: this podcast sounds a bit weird. Garbled. We are aware of this. The next one won't, and hopefully it won't take 5 weeks to turn up, either!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Lone Wolf and Cub #3: Social Pessimism and Sledge Wars!

The pace of production slows as we near the end of the Lone Wolf and Cub series.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (Kenji Misumi, 1973)

A full year after the last film Misumi returns and produces the bleakest film of the series. Initially hired to retrieve a document by the Kuroda clan, Ogami is then hired to kill the Infant Lord of the Kuroda as well. This secondary mission being arranged by a secret sect within the very same clan. And that is simplifying it.

Children in peril is something of a theme in this instalment and not merely because of Ogami's infant target. During the course of the film Ogami's son, Daigoro, is embroiled in a pickpocket scheme while they visit a nearby town. He is caught and marched though the town square by the authorities and threatened with a beating should he not reveal the identity of the real pickpocket. Although this threat provokes disgust with the assembled crowd nobody attempts to stop it. The tension is wound tight as it looks like Daigoro is about to receive a savage public beating. Yet the tension is relieved as the real female pickpocket, Oyo, comes forward.

This is another example of a women, thriving while living outside the law (and expectations of a woman) having maternal instincts aroused, thus returning to her expected place and being punished for it. At least that is what we assume will happen. For even though Oyo has come forward Daigoro refuses to identify her and takes the beating after all.

Daigoro stands up for those living outside of the law and although is punished for it eventually receives the admiration of Oyo, those administering the beating and the assembled crowd. Although hard fought, it is very much a victory of living outside the oppressive and unfair laws of feudal Japan and perhaps an indicator that this is a society that is beginning to change its values.

Upon returning to his father, who watched the whole incident with his usual cold stoicism, there is no hint of emotion between them. Yet the camera lingers on father and son's tightly clasped hands for just long enough to show what is really felt. Held against the emotional remoteness found in the rest of the series, this borders on melodrama. It is an emotional moment earned genuinely.

With confused loyalties, plots within plots and moral questioning this presents a very tumultuous and puzzled society. Within this are the children, a generation in peril yet also a hope for the future. During the final confrontation, where Ogami reveals to the Lord's parents he is really there to execute them all, infant Lord and Daigo make funny faces at each other.

It is touching and funny and presents a brief hope that from all this confusion innocence might still prevail.

That hope is almost immediately crushed when the infant Lord coldly orders Ogami and sons execution. After a bloody battle Ogami executes the infant Lord and parents and the world is returned to its harsh and unfair status quo.

Despite an ingenious underwater assassination and an amazing sword battle with some ninjary types, there is not a lot of fun to be had in this chapter, yet it is possibly one of the most thematically complex and sophisticated of the series.

White Heaven in Hell (Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1974)

Another year and a new director results in this, the final film in the series, having a significantly different tone then not only its preceding chapter but the series as a whole.

Gone are the overarching themes and social critiques, this one is just about Ogami facing off against the Yagyu clan that killed his family.

For this director Kuroda cherry-picks the most insane moments from the previous films and adds in a few of his own.  Supernatural assassins primarily.

Ogami's nemesis Retsudo calls on his illegitimate son, raised amongst the beasts in the mountains, to help kill his prey. This son calls upon the black arts of the Demon-Spider clan and uses all manner of supernatural tricks (as well as a bazooka) to hunt down Ogami.

The film becomes, at points, a full-on horror movie. This suggests that Ogami, who has constantly claimed to exist at the gates of the afterlife, might be nearing his end. 

Indeed the entire film builds to the glorious final confrontation where Retsudo and the Yagyu clan face-off against Ogami and son in a snowy wasteland.

What follows is a glorious visual cacophony of swords, bullets, blood and, um, skiing. It is also one of the few scenes that can boast a sledge battle, especially since one of the sledges carries rocket launchers. Yet once the snow has been turned red Retsudo turns and runs, denying us the confrontation the film has been building to. It is something of an anti-climax then and as such we have no resolution to this epic six-part story.

But hey, we had a sledge fight.

The Lone Wolf and Cub manga have been adapted into two TV series, a number of TV movies and have been the influence for other interpretations, for example Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes, 2002). Yet it is this series that really brought the stories to an international audience. They are exciting, ridiculous, sophisticated, intelligent and iconic and another example of Japan using b-movie sensibilities to deliver culturally relevant stories to the world.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Lone Wolf and Cub #2: Corrupt Values and Topless Assassins.

Like the previous two films in the series the next two chapters were both made in 1972. You would be forgiven for thinking that when a film and three of its sequels are all produced in one year that the quality might suffer. Yet the next two chapters in this series prove that these films are not being churned out on a soulless production line.

Babycart to Hades (Kenji Misumi, 1972)

The third film in the series not only changes tone again, but also changes tone mid-film. As Ogami further descends into the murky underworld of feudal Japan we are introduced to the more subtle layers of society, from 'hired hands' (thugs and bullies hired to protect the rich and powerful) to crime lords.

This allows for the film to examine with more care the way in which the warrior's code (Bushido) is assimilated and regurgitated in all areas of Japanese life. In most cases these codes are easily manipulated so that those with privilege and title, or those that work for them, can get away with the most heinous of crimes while still appearing to be 'honourable'. If this hypocrisy was suggested in the previous two films, then it is fully exposed here.

Yet again it is women who suffer the most. The film's unpleasant opening features the rape of two women (a mother and her daughter) by three of the aforementioned hired hands. They do this knowing full well that once back with their prestigious employer they will be untouchable. Later we are introduced to a young virgin who has been sold into slavery by a local gang. To fulfil her 'contract' she must either allow her first time to be at the hands of a client (thereby earning the gang significant pay) or endure a passage of rites involving drowning and beating.

The gang leader herself is female and on the surface seems a strong character. She is calm, intelligent and respectful and her gang adheres to a strict code not unlike Bushido. Her first meeting with Ogami, where he flatly refuses any of her requests, is a surprising one. Rather than subjecting him to violence
she negotiates a relatively peaceful, and somewhat mutually beneficial, solution. However, it also clear that she views this young girl as her property and is willing to force her into either of the appalling options her social position presents. In other words she is utterly indoctrinated. It is clear from this character that women can only achieve power and strength if they except their place in society, while those that fight back are punished and, since said punishment is carried out within the parameters of the various codes, they have no hope of justice. Yet for all the unpleasantness on screen the film never truly feels exploitative as we are asked to view it with a critical eye.

The film has significantly less action than those before it and the blood-letting is also toned down. So unlike its predecessors it is less badass samurai flick more serious attempt at critiquing the values of this period.

That is until the last twenty minutes when the film goes crayon-eating insane.

Suddenly surrounded by an army of swordsman, archers and musketeers, Ogami unleashes the full power of his cart. With the flick of a bamboo button shields flick into place and a panel at the front of the cart drops revealing a rack of frigging machine guns.

This little wooden tank allows Ogami and son to mow down sixty-plus of the poor sods who charge them. Then Ogami goes to work with his sword and the blood finally rears its splattery little head. As fun as this all is, it is a very jarring shift for a film that has so far been concerned with realism and legitimacy.

What is also clear in this film is the influence of the Italian western. Both the spaghetti western and the samurai film have always shared common DNA, namely tension building slowly only to erupt into sudden action. Yet here both the music and the use of firearms (even Ogami produces two six-shooters at one point) shows an overt admiration for the genre.

Yet once all this craziness is over we return to the central theme as Ogami and another disgraced samurai duel. They are not enemies, but consider each other honourable rivals and both have fallen foul of their code; being labelled outlaws for doing what they thought right. Babycart in Hades is a schizophrenic film, yet one that despite its muddled tone has a clear theme; that values as a formal structure can result in an exclusive, even oppressive, society.

Babycart in Peril (Bulchi Saito, 1972)

The first of the series to be headed by a different director, Babycart in Peril remains consistent with the themes that have run through the series so far.

What is most obvious in this chapter is the humanising of Ogami. Here we see his somewhat iron will falter and indestructible body crumble. Initially this is due to the separation of him and Daigoro, his son, at the beginning of the film. Although they are reunited quickly, it is enough to soften the edges of Ogami. It is then we learn a little more of his past, namely that he arose to the position of Executioner through honourable defeat in combat, rather than the skill he is now infamous for. When he is attacked in an abandoned Temple by Yagyu assassins (dressed in grey and faces painted so as to resemble gargoyles) the film takes on a nightmarish quality. During the battle we see these horrific looking assassins from Ogami's perspective; crawling, limbless, bleeding and wailing in agony. It is an unsettling moment and one that suggests that for a split second even Ogami is disturbed by the carnage he has left in his wake. It is a half hour of film that deconstructs the character and leaves him vulnerable to the trials that are to come.

One of the most significant characters in the film is Oyuki, a female short-sword expert enlisted by a clan-lord to be one of his guards. It is a rare occurrence for a women to be offered such a position, yet she suffers sexual abuse at the hands of another guard and flees. Like many of the women in this series, she is punished for not excepting this oppression and becomes an outcast, hunted by the clan for deserting their lord.

Oyuki is unlike the other women, however, in that she uses her position as outcast to gain revenge. She is tattooed with offensive and shocking images and fights stripped to the waist. This gives her a distinct advantage over her male opponents distracting them with both her sexuality and her refusal to adhere to the image of women deemed acceptable by this society. Her tattooist remarks that the discomfort of a tattoo is a life-long endurance test and so Oyuki literally wears her suffering across her body, a personification of the anguish women suffer in this society.

Ogami is hired to assassinate her and although he carries out his assignment, his vulnerable state means he understands her position and handles her death with far more respect than any other of his victims. Indeed, her death is something of a release and one she is ultimately pleased with.

The final assault from the Yagyu leaves Ogami heavily wounded, his cuts and bruises symbolic of the chinks that have appeared in his emotional armour. Although this film is heavy on action and arterial sprays it is overcast with clouds of doom. Whereas it introduces a new theme of the relationship between parent and child and how that is tested when the two are separated, it also brings a continuing theme of the series to the foreground. The theme that death is not always the worse fate a person can suffer, indeed in many cases it can be desired. This only goes to show how tough an existence these characters endure and casts a shadow of melancholy on an otherwise exciting and action-packed chapter in the Lone Wold and Cub series.