Wednesday, 26 June 2013

European Superheroes

The European superhero is an odd little archetype that mixes the fun capers of traditional sixties superheroes with something a little edgier.

Italy was at the forefront of these movies matching its villainous Diabolikals, such as Diabolik, Kriminal and Sadistik, with the heroic Superargo, Argoman and the Three Supermen (amongst others).

Superargo, a wrestler turned crime fighter wears an awesome costume that manages to make him look relatively intimidating. It is worth considering that his first outing, the fairly hard to come by Superargo Vs Diabolicus (Nick Nostro, 1966), was released the same year that Adam West hit the screen as Batman. But while West plants his tongue in his cheek and his belly behind that enormous belt buckle, Superargo cuts a fairly convincing super hero figure. He also has no problem gunning people down in cold blood. Not all that heroic then.

Things get weirder, however, in Argoman (Sergio Greco, 1967). Beginning with this yellow and black avenger being placed in front of a firing squad we are quickly treated to a demonstration of his psychic powers as he convinces them to all turn their guns on each other. Like Superargo it seems he has no problem with killing his enemies. That is because Argoman is not only in possession of incredible psychic ability but a bloody wobbly moral compass.

He is a thief, wanted for a number of crimes yet always one step ahead of the law. Like the Diabolikals he lives a life of glamour and sophistication off his ill-gotten riches and is something of a super misogynist. This is a man who has a database of previous conquests he calls whenever horny. A database that when choosing a girl it patches him through to a camera feed in her bathroom. He also abuses his psychic power, mentally persuading a woman in a passing hovercraft (?) to come to his island to partake in a bet. A bet that if she loses results in her having to sleep with him. Again, not exactly heroic.

Curiously, he looses his powers for six hours after sex which could be read as a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases, and as such a criticism of his lifestyle, or simply as women are his literal weakness. I imagine it is the latter. Like Superargo he also has no issues carrying a gun. Do you see a pattern developing here?

The Three Fantastic Supermen (Gianfranco Parolini, 1967) further cements this archetype. Starting as two fantastic supermen, they are a couple of costume wearing criminals who use their acrobatic skills, suction-cup boots, bullet-proof costumes and the odd metal yo-yo to commit daring robberies. They are persuaded by the third and newest superman, an FBI agent, to help fight on the side of right by taking down a counterfeiting/cloning ring. In fact it only this factor that separates heroes from villains. Both Argoman and the supermen end up fighting for the law despite their natural antagonism for it. They are not naturally heroic, but are willing to be so if it is of benefit to them. So not heroic at all really.

What is also evident that the big bold superhero scores that we are familiar with now where not what was associated with these characters. Many of these films go with Bond-esque guitar twangs and cool jazz. Having said that, The Three Fantastic Supermen features something not unlike the Benny Hill theme, some circus music and a hell of a lot more kazoo music than you would expect from a superhero movie. Still, it's a damn sight better than the theme to 3 Supermen Vs The Godfather.

The Three Fantastic Supermen was extremely popular and saw no less than ten sequels that took them to Tokyo, the Wild West and the Jungle. Despite a changing roster of actors the costumes remained the same as did the need, apparently, for one of the supermen to be something of a gibbering idiot. Many of these sequels were co-produced by other european countries and a couple were made entirely as Turkish* productions.

Turkey's most famous superhero film is of course the mighty 3 Dev Adam (T. Fikret Ucak, 1973).  Like many of its most famous films this is something of a knock-off/homage to existing creations, featuring Turkish versions of Santo, Captain America and something resembling Spider-man. Whether the Turkish supermen movies were homages or official sequels I'm not sure but more interesting are Turkey's own (or less-obviously ripped-off) superhero creations.

In both Casus Kiran** (Yilmaz Atadeniz, 1968) and The Deathless Devil ( Yilmaz Atadeniz, 1973) we are treated to two more traditional heroes. They are good guys, yet like their Italian counterparts are happy blasting away at bad guys. They also both seem to have a comedy sidekick that likes to dress as Sherlock Homes.

These films have strong, brutal fight scenes and nice stunt work but don't quite have a grip on narrative logic and continuity. It is also evident that despite heroism being a little more prevalent in these films, the mentor characters aren't quite up to the job. In The Deathless Devil our protagonist visits the office of his step-Dad who tells him his real father was a famous, and now dead, superhero called Copperhead, shoves a camp outfit in his hands and promptly instructs him to go and carry on his legacy. Thanks Da.. I mean, guy who has been lying to me whole life and is now pushing me towards vigilantism with no training and a flimsy lycra outfit. Thanks for taking a whole thirty seconds to destroy my life.

While minding the door doesn't hit him in the arse on the way out, Copperhead gets off to a flying  start by failing to notice the guy with the huge knife standing by his step-twat's secretary. Coming back to the office moments later (for no reason at all and with a smile that suggests he wasn't listening to the life changing conversation, well... sentence, his prick of a step-Dad just had with him) Copperhead stumbles across the bloody carnage. Copperhead proceeds to engage in his first fist-fight which, despite being in a small office, manages to break enough continuity rules to fill a batcave (including changing to an exterior location at one point). The film carries on much this way, right up until the end which features “hilarious” hero and side-kick acrobatics. Seriously, next to the God of Gamblers willy-cutting this is one of the best endings to a movie ever.

Like the Italian movies these films showcase more spy-orientated music, although in both these cases musical cues lifted from John Barry's Bond scores. At one point in Casus Kiran they give up trying to hide it and let the Bond theme itself kick in.

Despite the fairly straight heroics there is occasional nudity and blood-letting which are a little jarring, yet the bright costumes, impressive acrobatics and, in the case of The Deathless Devil, a fucking amazing robot, mean they are fun in their own kind of way.

It would appear that decades before Miller and Moore started deconstructing the superhero Europe was already at it. These characters often use their abilities for their own selfish needs, only fighting the good fight when they absolutely have to and even then gunning down bad guys left and right. This is most likely due to the inclusion of spy movie conventions. Eschewing the hard to produce super powers and science fiction elements these characters, and their movies, are nothing more than Bond clones in spandex. If you're a regular here at Total Cults you will know that as much as we love Bond we don't see him as a hero and the juxtaposition of the costumed do-gooder with the violent, womanising spy gives these films a frisson you might not expect. European superheroes fight, shoot and sleep around, have fast cars and swinging pads and all the things you would associate with the sixties spy movie.

Of course this isn't all of them. I haven't mentioned Fenominal or Kaliman or the heroes from the rest of the world including Goldface and Flashman. But it is the heroes featured here that best represent the european superhero and their allure: high-camp capers with real edge.

*I'm including Turkey Europe.  I know it kind of is/isn't, but I'm running with it.

**Not an original hero per-se, rather a clone of classic radio and serial hero Spy-Smasher.  Since Spy-Smasher is fairly generic anyway and this character is well removed from him it's hardly a straight rip-off.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Icons of the Overlooked #8: Caroline Munro

The kind of films we look at here at Total Cults are not, in all honesty, a treasure trove of great roles for women.  It would have taken either a great actress or an actress with considerable charisma to transcend the victim/sex object/soppy romantic role given to them.  Caroline Munro is such an actress.

As a queen of cult cinema Munro gets a fair bit of attention but when you check out her filmography, an astonishing journey through cult cinema, you realise it isn't anywhere near enough.  To date she has appeared in two Hammer films, two Bonds (one official and one not), an eighties slasher, an Italian Star Wars rip-off, worked with both Paul Nacshy and Jess Franco, was the abominable Dr Phibe's late wife, fought Joanna Lumley in The New Avengers, when to the Earth's core with Doug McClure and joined Sinbad on his golden voyage.  That alone earns her more b-movie credibility than Ingrid Pitt or Ursula Andress.

Yet Munro has more going for her than her filmography.  Like most actresses she was given neither the most progressive roles or, as you'll see from the pictures in this article, the most progressive costumes.   Take this one, for example:

This is how she spends the majority of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (Gordon Hessler, 1973).  Yet, despite the ludicrous neckline and the constant layer of oil/sweat she still manages to draw your eyes up and away from her chest and towards her eyes.  It takes a lot of presence to up-stage that bust, but  Munro had it by the ton.

It was this presence that allowed Munro to take the usual roles and make them her own.  Take Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (Brian Clemens, 1974), for instance.  One of her earliest scenes has her character, Carla, fawning over the heroic and shirtless Kronos as he washes himself.  Not two scenes later they are at it in a barn. At least that is how it is on the page.  Munro, however, never comes across as a helpless, easily seduced young girly, rather a direct and ambitious woman who targets Kronos and instigates the relationship.  If anything, Kronos is the one who appears to be seduced.  It's a minor difference and the outcome is much the same, yet Munro sells Carla as someone who knows what she wants and how to get it.

This continued through a lot of her films In The Spy Who Loved Me (Lewis Gilbert, 1977), she turns up wearing a bikini, yet exudes deadliness and is a Bond girl that never lets Bond bed her.  In her stellar star turn as Stella Star in the stellar Star Crash (Luigi Cozzi, 1978) she wears much the same, but sells the Han Solo charm far better than the not-stellar co-stars Hasselhoff and Gortner.

Even more remarkable is that despite the kind of films she worked on, the kind of people she worked with and the way she looked Munro has never participated in a nude scene.  Even in Kronos' barn scene it was clever lighting and costuming that hid the fact she wasn't actually naked.  She even went as far as to turn down a lead role in an adaptation of Vampirella due to the amount of nudity required.

She has flirted with mainstream, her early career as model and the aforementioned Bond role (and the offer to play Ursa in Superman that she turned down to get it), but her on-screen home is very much in cult cinema.

We are not the only ones to notice.  Recently she popped up in an episode of detective series Midsomer Murders as an actress from an old British Hammer-like horror film studio, honouring her status in cult cinema.  For that reason I think the biggest crime here is not the lack of recognition that Munro has been given but that she was born in the wrong time.  I imagine Munro, if working today, being offered the ass-kicking heroines that are normally given to Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale.

As it is she stands someone who, despite a career littered with b-movies and bikinis, has made her name due to her screen presence and her determination, conscious or otherwise, to make her characters more than just fodder for the male gaze.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Marquee Pictures: Awesome Moments in Un-Awesome Movies.

I know precious little about Marquee Pictures other than I own three DVDs they distributed in the mid-nineties and each one features a scene of brilliant absurdity despite the films around them being wholly routine.

The Peacekeeper (Frederic Forestier, 1997)

Dolph Lundgen and that Montel Williams star in this unimaginative Under Siege photocopy set inside a nuclear silo. A maniac and his mercenary crew have hijacked a nuclear missile and are threatening to launch it unless the President, played by Roy Schneider, shoots himself on live TV. The film lacks any of the excitement, scale or invention that you'd want to the point that you begin to envy Schneider's president for at least having a way out of this.

Luckily the films awesome moment comes right at the start meaning the second it stops you can eject the disc and pretend you watched a really fun action short. The film opens with Lundgren's Major Frank Cross pursuing stolen launch codes through the streets of Chicago in a car chase that, to begin with, seems fairly ordinary.

Until Cross drives his car off the roof of a multi-story car park and continues the chase across the rooftops. Shit yes.

As chimneys and television aerials are mown down left and right the cars veer into each other stopping only to leap from building to building. It is a brilliant escalation of action that is surprisingly well-realised and pretty bloody exciting. Unfortunately this level of achieved ambition stops once the scene is over and the film quickly becomes, and remains, an entirely anaemic affair.

Armageddon AKA Redline (Tibor Takacs, 1997)

In this kind-of cyberpunk Point Blank Rutger Hauer comes back from the almost dead looking for those that double-crossed and shot him. This brings him into conflict with the ever awesome Mark Dacascos. The whole thing is fairly sleazy and violent throughout and the mix of Hauer and Dacascos is a definite attraction, yet the narrative still manges to plod along, at times bordering on the inert.  Yet just when I was about to write it off as gratuitous and boring, it suddenly became gratuitous and ludicrous. And I mean that as a compliment.

Hauer's character is scoping out a party full of the rich and the corrupt while at the heart of the party a boxing match plays out. Very quickly security catch onto to Hauer and follow him, forcing him to divert from the main party and go behind-the-scenes. It is there he encounters two fighters training on punchbags in a corridor (for some reason). One is male and one is an inexplicably topless female. Security lock the doors to each end of the corridor trapping Hauer with the fighters. He shoots the guy immediately then goes toe-to-toe with the topless fighter ensuring she maximises her screen/jiggle time. He defeats her and just as we are pondering why on earth she was topless a second, only this time completely naked, woman runs out of a nowhere and tries to throttle him. For some time indeed. It's fairly bewildering, regressive and, frankly, funny as hell. This scene is closely followed by a sex scene, a Battleship Potemkin reference and a competent shootout. In short, the forty minute mark is a good place to start watching.

The Silencers (Richard Pepin, 1996)

A bit of an oddity this one. Mixing traditionally loose-gun cop action with X-Files style alien conspiracy and, well, some other bat-shit stuff The Silencers comes to life in one pretty impressive action sequence.

A number of army green Sedans (you know, the kind that used to flip over in every episode of The A-Team) is escorting a petrol tanker with a mysterious cargo (driven by the guy that played Decker in The A-Team too... hmm) when it is attacked by pupil-less, fanged and super-powered men in sunglasses and suits. Lone wolf Agent Rafferty (Jack Scalia) leaps to the rescue of the driver, a good friend of his, and what follows is vehicular carnage of a quite spectacular standard.

The scene is incredibly inventive with a number of exciting gags peppered throughout. Rafferty manages to be in his car, out his car and at one point dangles from the tanker mere feet from its wheels. Cars flip, spin, explode and launch to heights that would allow them to clear a house all rendered with razor-sharp editing. Captured from a number of angles each stunt is cut to expand the moment to its fullest or repeat impacts to imbue them with intense kinetic energy.

This all builds to the one of the most absurdly awesome car stunts I've ever seen.  Remember in Die Hard 4.0 when McClane kills a helicopter with a car? Same thing, only Rafferty doesn't leap to safety first.  He just drives through the tanker, screaming in anguish at the loss of his friend as he does, and straight into the helicopter. As pretty much everything explodes driver and car are catapulted high into the air resulting in the kind of crash that would make you wonder if the planet would have survived, let alone the driver.  Rafferty walks away without a scratch.

Mad Max 2 and Raiders of the Lost Ark both having exquisite lorry-based action set pieces and this genuinely isn't far off either.  It is also not too difficult to see some similarities with freeway sequence in The Matrix Reloaded released a good few years after.  To be fair the action throughout is well handled but this major set-piece mid-way through is an especially thrilling sequence.

So a big thanks to Marquee Pictures.  You may have released some mediocracy into the world but buried in amongst the dull are moments worth watching over and over again.

Total Cults Podcast #66: Werewolves

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Blackjack (John Woo, 1998)

Dolph Lundgren stars as a U.S Marshal who, due to post-traumatic stress disorder, is left with a fear of the colour white.

The film culminates with the bad guy torturing Lundgren's character by waving a bucket of milk in front of him.  John Woo directs.

This should probably be the next film you watch.