Saturday, 13 April 2013

Dawn of the Mummy (Frank Agrama, 1981)

I have an affinity for the mummified undead. Of all the classic monsters they seem to be the one that few filmmakers really know what to do with. And I love an underdog.

Most of the time you have the bandaged, hobbling weapon of some ancient curse. These guys make zombies look like efficient killers. They are really slow, are normally inconvenienced even further by their constrictive wrappings and when they do catch up with their victim have little to do other than man-handle them. Of all the shuffling mummified instruments of revenge movies the only one I truly rate is Hammer's The Mummy (Terence Fisher, 1959). We then have Universal's original The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932) that was actually a kind of re-animated egyptian sorcerer, a model re-imagined to excess in the more recent Stephen Summers movies. A shout also goes out to the lone attempt to sex up the mummy mythos in Hammer's Blood From the Mummy's Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971). But more than anything mummies are tame. It is very rare to see a mummy rip someone to shreds, or use some kind of antique egyptian blade to hack off limbs.

So when I hear about an Italian mummy movie that supposedly mixes the icky splatter of Fulci with the aesthetic pleasures of fine desert dust, warm orange sunlight, gold-lined tombs and decaying corpses wrapped in soiled gauze, it demands my attention. That film is Dawn of the Mummy and it is neither tight with its gore or its aesthetic pleasures. Well, maybe that is a little too generous. True, there is little ambition in the framing or the way the camera moves and it could do with generating a little more atmosphere but the sets and locations make the film look more expensive and immersive than it has any right to be and the lighting is often quite effective. It doesn't hurt that the mummies look pretty awesome too.

So we've got a mummy movie that promises the gore of Italian zombie movies mixed with mummy mythology and one that has enough effective imagery to easily cut an impressive trailer for. The problem is that everything else is, how should I put this... awful.

The films first problem is that it takes forever to get going. We start with a fashion photographer and his team of models stumbling across a treasure hunter who has dug up a tomb ready to raid it for all its worth. Not wanting to draw attention to the dig the hunter allows the models into the tomb to take pictures. Since the tomb is that of an egyptian sun-god, the lights used for the fashion shoot begin to re-animate the mummy that has been discovered. This takes over half an hour. Despite this, there are still deaths that occur in the tomb including beheadings and face-meltings, yet it is never explained who is actually responsible for this. Anyway, once the mummy does get off it's arse it also re-animates an army of mummies, all of which do to next to nothing for another twenty minutes or so. We don't really get any sustained chaos until the third act.

Which means that despite the occasional messy death all we have to keep us going is the chemistry of the actors and the dialogue that passes from their lips. Unfortunately the actors are grating at best and I suspect that rather being given dialogue they were just told to make it up as they go along. It is what I imagine Whose Line is it Anyway? would be like in hell. It also doesn't help that no-one in the production seems to have any insight into normal human behaviour. For example, one of the models happens to speak to Rick the treasure hunter for a minute or so. The next time they meet she has already feinted and therefore does not see him carry her to her bed. She wakes up in bed with him standing over her and rather than scream for help, she pulls him towards her and kisses him as romantic music swells. What makes this especially bizarre behaviour is that Rick is by no-means a traditional romantic lead. He looks like this:

He is the films secret weapon and my favourite thing about the whole movie. It appears that having seen the other cast members perform he feels the need to act for all of them squeezing as many different ambivalent extremes into any one moment. His performance veers from the wide-eyed and maniacal rasping to a form of silent fitting. It's like watch Fred from Scooby-Doo have a nervous breakdown. Regardless of the emotion he is shooting for he is constantly hysterical, though that does not adequately describe it. Let me put it crudely, if Action Essentials provided a pre-keyed arc of ejaculate, then adding a constant jet of it to his groin in every scene he is in would not effect any reading of his performance. Screw it, see for yourself.

When we get to the gore itself it is too little too late. The mummies are basically just zombies, so much so I will now call them 'mumzies'. These mumzies bite chunks of flesh, gather round fallen people and eat their entrails and, in their worst moment of heinous be-devilry, interrupt a wedding. Only the lead mumzie gets creative, sticking a cleaver into the head of one of Rick's friends and hanging him up on a meat-hook.

Alas even the third act is mishandled. Once our heroes turn up all of the mumzies have vanished bar our lead mumzie. They dynamite him and all celebrate winning the day, even though there is still supposed to be an army of these things milling about. Then, about ten seconds after they have celebrated the lead mumzies death, his hand bursts out from beneath the rubble. Is he coming back for more a la The Terminator? No, because that is when the credits roll.

The films final moments are a machine-gun barrage of bad choices and confusing moments and considering what we had to get through to experience them you can't help but feel a little short changed. Still, at least we'll always have Rick.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Cyber Ninja (Keita Amemiya, 1988)

Cyber Ninja AKA Mirai Ninja: Stealth Joy Cloud Device Side Story is a sci-fi samurai adventure set against a war between human warriors and robotic ninjas. A human warrior is killed and rebuilt by his enemy as the titular cyber ninja. Unfortunately for the bad guys the warrior keeps his memories and rebels, aiding an untrusting band of human samurai as they attempt to rescue their princess from the clutches of the mech-ninja fortress.

Many people will be put off by the similarities in production between this and Power Rangers but since I think Power Rangers can, at times, be pretty awesome I had a whale of a time. The world in which this story is set is a kind of steampunk affair. It is essentially based around the social systems and technology of feudal japan, but with the addition of high-tech devices such as hologram maps, laser canons and cybernetics. What I though was particularly interesting is the very un-manga like designs for the robots. Rather than sleek lines and dynamic poses, the robots are a clunky mix of Meccano-like robotics and ramshackle wooden huts.

There are also flying ships and huge mechanical fortresses to feast our eyes on. The production is inconsistent, with some sequences looking very expensive indeed and others looking like they were filmed on the set of Takeshi's Castle. What is consistently good, however, is the costume design. Again eschewing notions of cool and going for the inventive and absurd, the film boasts some amazing outfits especially in the case of the bad guys.

There is a host of creative creatures, from the ninjas themselves to the variety of cybernetic henchmen. In fact the only weak link is the very camp end of level boss who has to make do with face paint and a pony-tail, but even then I have seen worse.

The marital arts are adequate but impressive when you consider quite how cumbersome the outfits that the stuntmen are wearing must be. In addition there is a variety of action presented to us including sword fights, laser battles and robot-on-robot warfare.

The film feels like a series of cool ideas thrown at the screen with only the barest of narratives to string them together and it's all the better for it. It is absurd, imaginative and at only seventy-two-minutes well aware of how long it should stick around for.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Keep (Michael Mann, 1983)

Forgive me if I've told this story before. When I was very young my older Brother was asked to babysit me one night. My Dad had been to the video shop and asked the man behind the counter to recommend a family film for the two of us to watch. Now either the guy at the shop was an evil bastard or he was operating at the mental capacity of a pebble because he recommended Michael Mann's The Keep. Ten minutes and one exploding nazi later I was scarred for life. If it where not for that moment, however, I might never have even known The Keep existed. Released to both commercial and critical failure it remains a flawed film and one that has not been released on a physical format since LaserDisc*. I sought to revisit it as VHS was dying out and I'm glad I did because despite its obvious flaws it is, in my opinion, a film worthy of your attention and appreciation.

Set during World War 2, the story sees a division of nazi soldiers arriving at a Romanian castle keep to set up camp. The residents of the surrounding village try to dissuade them but their warnings are not taken into consideration. Soon enough, two of the soldiers accidentally unleash an evil force that brutally destroys them. The Captain, a somewhat reluctant nazi, calls it in hoping to be transferred out of there. Instead he receives an SS troop lead by a vicious prick convinced the deaths are the work of local rebels. As the two officers collide over what is actually killing their men the supernatural force gradually takes terrifying shape while a mysterious and supernaturally powered individual makes a pilgrimage to the keep to enter the fray.

With so many pieces in play it is a miracle the film remains so lacking in drama. The performances are patchy and with a lot of the backstory and mythology surrounding this supernatural conflict cut from the final release the narrative does somewhat demand the audience to “just go along with it”. The pacing doesn't help either meaning the 92 minute runtime feels an awful lot longer. That's not to say any of the above cripple the film, but they do make it a little more demanding on the viewer than it should be. What eases this is that the film is gorgeous to look at.

The film oozes production value and atmosphere, though many will be quick to dismiss the film as too “80s”. True, there is a lot of dry ice backlit with blue lights and a Tangerine Dream score, but it creates such a tangible sense of phantasmagoria that you cannot help but be drawn into this exquisitely rendered world.

What will be an issue for many is that beyond atmosphere there is little else to quench ones thirst for horror tropes. Despite a couple of splattery deaths there is, for the most part, very little blood shed. There are no jump-scares, no real moments of utter terror nor is it particularly disturbing. Some may even go as far as to question whether it is horror at all. For me it cannot be anything else. Horror can be so much more than the criteria mentioned above. Director Mann is here not concerned with cheap jolts and gushing red jets instead opting to work hard to create nothing more than an unsettling dream, a soft yet chilling landscape that just falls the horror side of fairytale.

The keep and its surrounding village, a mix of actual locations and purpose built sets, are extraordinary effective in creating a nightmare world. Every dimly lit corridor, every shadowy chamber is impregnated with foreboding. When the creature finally takes form and unleashes hell on the nazis the landscape becomes at once utterly fantastical and terrifying. It feels stagey yet this only seeks to further enhance the finales nightmarish quality.

And then there is the creature itself who, depending on your threshold for rubber monsters, is either a horrifying presence or a horrifying mistake. Unsurprisingly I love it. Each of the forms the monster takes may not be entirely convincing, yet is so impressively designed and imaginatively realised that it becomes iconic and for this reason alone I wonder why the film hasn't received more attention. Surely with all the horror merchandise out there one can make room for a Molasar action figure?

It may be bloodless, slow, light on scares and dramatically inert but The Keep is still a magnificent achievement. It is a film that takes the gothic constructions of the Universal classics, the dreamy atmospherics of the 80s and mashes them together to create an aesthetic that is so vital to my appreciation of the genre that if I were to close my eyes and think of the word “horror” images from this film would appear.

The Keep is a chillingly beautiful work.

*Thanks to Ed Hennessy for informing us of the films LaserDisc release.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Santo and Blue Demon Against the Monsters (Gilberto Martínez Solares, 1970)

For a while I have wanted to do a full article on Santo, unfortunately I've only seen two of his films. To claim to be a source of knowledge on him would therefore be like saying i'd seen the statue of liberty when i'd only stared at her sandals. So instead I thought I'd review my favourite of the two I have seen; Santo and Blue Demon Against the Monsters. To be clear, I own the spanish language version that has no subtitles. Since my utterly non-existent spanish is a little rusty I am unable to appreciate any real nuance in the film and am entirely going by whatever visual storytelling is on offer.

But I'm ahead of myself.  Many of you might not even know who Santo is. Wrestling is big in Mexico and Santo is the biggest, a superstar in the ring and out. His popularity was such that a move to film was a no-brainer. And so Santo started a film career that saw the production of over fifty films. Yet this was not an acting career, oh no, Santo played himself in all his films and alongside his regular partner Blue Demon went up against a host of bad guys including vampires, werewolves, martians and zombies. Like many popular mexican wrestlers Santo and Blue Demon wear face masks that never come off in the ring, in public or in film. As a result, we are frequently treated to everyday scenes of domestic pleasantries such as this:

But enough preamble, let's get on with the main feature where the two biggest wrestlers in Mexico go up against all of the classic monsters at once. This film features a supergroup of monsters made up of zombies, vampires, a werewolf, Frankenstein's monster, a cyclops, a dwarf with a hunchback and this little bastard:

I'm presuming he is an alien and that his relevance is explained in the dialogue somewhere. I say this because all he does is shuffle around in the back of the baddie's lab. He is never spoken to, nor interacts with anyone and disappears without any mention.

When your film features wrestlers then it better have wrestling.  In this respect it doesn't dissapoint. It is by no means the extreme or acrobatic wrestling of modern day, but it is a darn sight more energetic than the british wrestling of the seventies and eighties. Not exactly graceful, the fights are fairly brutal and all shot with long, hand-held takes. This embues the scenes with a real energy without ever obscuing the fact the actors are the real deal. Of course with some of the more elaborate costumes mobiltiy becomes an issue, yet this doesn't diminish the fun to be had. Check out this monumental conflict twixt Santo and the Cyclops.

This culminates in a touching scene where the evil scientist performs surgery on the felled cyclops while all the other monsters gather round with concerned looks on their faces. It's like the moments in M.A.S.H. where it goes all serious and you'd wish Hawkeye would just fire off a classic zinger to break the tension. He never did.

The structure of the film basically consists of Santo going somewhere and being attacked by the monsters who for the most part are lead by an evil clone of Blue Demon. My favorite of these is when Santo is tricked into fighting a zombie in the ring and just as he defeats him all the monsters rush the stage. It's like a royal rumble with the Universal Monsters.

Although the structure of the film gets a little repetitive it does manage to throw a few curveballs at you. For example Santo takes his girlfriend to dinner (still wearing the mask remember) in a tiny little restaurant/cafe. They sit at their table and look off to camera. We then cut to this enormous stage that is clearly not part of the same location where a series of lengthy and expensive musical numbers play out. Occasionally we cut back to Santo and friend for reaction shots but for the most part we have to sit through these elaborate numbers. It's like cutting between the cafe set in Allo' Allo' and the end number of Singin' in the Rain. But that is not all, for although this sequence is clearly set at night when Santo is chased from the restaurant by the monsters, who inevitably attack him (seriously, he cannot go anywhere), we suddenly find it is the middle of the afternoon. It's almost as if someone took two entirely different scenes from the film and dropped them in a bin full of footage from a musical before printing the lot in some random order.

Inside the restaurant

Outside the restaurant

Tonally, the film feels a little like the 60's Batman series, though I suspect without the self-awareness, yet this too is contradicted with some moments of real violence. Although the monster attacks are mostly bloodless, we do see Frankenstein's monster stamp someones head to a pulp. In addition, when Santo and Blue Demon stake the vampires it gets pretty messy indeed. Though it is worth mentioning these guys are so hard they don't bugger about with hammers, they bang them in with their bare hands!

If you haven't gathered by now this film isn't for everyone. Which is good becasue it's not easy to track down. You may also feel that I'm being a little sarcastic in my review but this is not the case. I have great fun every time I throw on this film to the point that I am considering launching a Kickstarter project for a project I'm going to call Kendo Nagasaki Vs the Cult of Cthulu.  But until that day we'll always have Santo, Blue Demon and these bad boys: