Monday, 15 December 2014

The Blind Dead Saga - Part 1

Paul Naschy's blend of classic gothic horror with European sensibilities saw a resurgence in the Spanish horror genre during the late 60s. This clash of stylised and evocative mis en scene with a brazen use of gore and sexuality proved popular not just in Spain but in Germany, Italy and further on into the East. Spurred on by this genre renaissance Amando De Ossorio wrote and directed four films featuring a corrupt order of knights (based on the Templars) who are resurrected in various ways and set about destroying the living. Ossorio shot each of the Blind Dead films in around five weeks with little money and and lots of pressure from foreign producers who, hungry for erotic content, were keen on Ossorio to exploit the increasingly relaxing censorship of the waning Franco regime. Despite these difficult conditions Ossorio managed to create a series of unsettling and iconic horror stories that hide their limitations while using their strengths to the fullest.

Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)

A trio decide to go on a railway trip but the pressures of a romantic history between two of them forces a member to leap from the train and spend the night in an abandoned medieval fortress. When she is found murdered her two friends decide to spend the night in the fortress themselves in an attempt to uncover the events that lead to her death. They soon discover that she had become the first victim of the Blind Dead.

Like many of the Spanish horrors of this era Tombs is steeped in gothic iconography. What sets them apart from the Universal and Hammer movies is that rather than using sound stages and sets most of the interiors are on location in actual ruined castles and monasteries. This, coupled with the edgier sex and violence, give the films a sense of grittiness that a lot of gothic horrors don't have and as a result Tombs often feels like the child of a classic horror and an exploitation movie.

Not only are the settings impressive but the creatures themselves are exceptional. Ossario was under pressure from producers, eager to replicate Naschy's success, to include classic monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula. Ossario luckily convinced them otherwise as his creations are exceptional. Rather than applying make-up to actors a combination of masks and puppetry were used to create the look of actual walking corpses. The creatures, draped in rotting capes and cowls, are iconic and convincing. Since the knights had their eyes plucked out by crows in their previous incarnation they hunt by sound. This scare mechanic results in some exciting sequences as their prey try and conceal movement, breath and in one case their heart-beat to avoid being caught.

Fleeing is also futile, as these undead knights still know how to ride a horse. The site of them pounding across fields on horseback in slow motion is terrifying and makes them an almost inescapable threat.

The middle section of the movie spends a little too much time with odd sub-plots. A ghostly apparition in a mannequin factory doesn't make much sense and the involvement of a wanted criminal and his promiscuous girlfriend leads to a predictably unpleasant outcome. It's arguable the inclusions of the latter are a response to the pressure to fill the film with sexual content. There is a girl-on-girl flashback, some brief nudity and some sexual violence. Despite all of this the film remains strangely traditional in its morals as all of the partner swapping and hanging out with criminals leads to horrible deaths.

Considering the inescapable monsters and the narrative's tendency to punish those that transgress traditional values one should really see the ending coming a mile off. The climax is clearly the result of a limited budget but one that ends up benefitting from its minimalism. The mere use of a still frame and the sound of screaming ends up being immensely unsettling and conjures images of the kind of apocalyptic ending favoured by zombie movies of the same era through implication alone.

Return of the Evil Dead (1973)

A small town run by a corrupt Mayor tries to celebrate their annual festival only to find it interrupted by the resurrection of the Knights Templar. Taking refuge in a nearby Church a local mobster, his girlfriend and the man she truly loves try to fight off the sightless undead.

This sequel doesn't directly follow on from the previous entry and although it adopts a more traditional siege narrative a lot of the themes, plus the mix of modern and gothic imagery, remains the same. Sex, crime and love triangles may once again be the thematic focus but this film mostly steers away from any unpleasantness and unlike the previous entry the narrative stays focused for the majority of the running time. Women still don't fare particularly well and the treatment of deformity is hardly handled with care, so the movie isn't exactly progressive. It does, however, highlight the often overlooked plight of the heroic fireworks organiser. It's very rare a pyrotechnics technician is featured as the protagonist and so it is a real relief that the film shows them for the square jawed, macho love machines they really are.

The creatures are still great and the cracks in the budget are covered even more successfully this time round. The siege element of the movie is handled nicely resulting in a movie that is a little sillier than its predecessor, yet less problematic and more cohesive. The ending isn't anywhere near as effective or satisfying as that of Tombs even though it does result in some striking imagery.

The first two movies in this series are dripping in atmosphere. They are brilliantly produced horror movies with edge and although there is the occasional nastiness of the sexual variety the movies still come off as fun.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Gogol's Triple Bills: Short Scares and Tiny Terrors

If you like horror then chances are you'll have had a discussion about your favourite episode of The Outer Limits, or shared memories of the middle story in that Amicus portmanteau movie that scrambled your bowels as a kid. This triple-bill is my opportunity to share some of my favourite short horror stories. They might be slim on minutes but they are big on frights!

Mirror, Mirror (Martin Scorcese, 1986)

Amazing Stories had a fairly broad agenda, however it wasn't afraid to deliver an episode that was drop-your-maltloaf scary. Mirror, Mirror, directed by THE Martin Scorcese, was such an episode. A horror film director returns to his modern but isolated home in the Hollywood hills only to discover that every time he looks in a mirror he sees the reflection of a caped phantom standing behind him. It is a simple device and one that allows for plenty of jump scares both in the movie and subsequently every time you look in a reflective surface. Having re-watched it through my now jaded and de-sensitised adults eyes it's not quite as effective as I'd hoped (especially the climatic moments) but it still remains a great idea with imagery that lasts in the mind long after the credits have rolled.

The Ledge (Lewis Teague, 1985)

Not strictly horror but like the previous entry this, the centrepiece of Cat's Eye, goes against the usual gag/punchline structure of most horror shorts and instead builds on a fun conceit that wouldn't have stretched to a feature. Airplane's Robert Hayes is caught with the wife of a mobster in the penthouse suite of a skyscraper and given one opportunity to get out of trouble: If he can climb out onto the ledge of the building and climb around its circumference without falling to his death than the mobster will let him go free. What follows is a surprisingly exciting set piece generating some genuine high-wire thrills. Hayes is a delight to watch, balancing terror with exasperated humour (his delivery of " flying shithouse!" is gold) with expert precision. There is a sting in the tale that tries to inject some horror into the story (thereby justifying its inclusion in this anthology of Steven King horror shorts) but it remains a story that generates its scares by dangling a man over a ledge rather than murdering a babysitter in her sleep.

The Last Theft (Jiri Barta, 1987)

Jiri Barta is a Czech animator usually associated with stop motion. In 1987, however, he produced this live action short film that is both enthralling and unsettling all at once. A burglar breaks into an old ramshackle house with the intention of stealing whatever he finds but gets rather more than he bargained for. Barta's mix of stop motion and live actors renders motion awkward and uncomfortable while some of the images depicted are nightmarish. Nightmares are key here and it is something that most filmmakers get very wrong. Very rarely do nightmares take the form of perfectly detailed flashbacks, or logically sound scare sequences. Most nightmares are bizarre and ridiculous, defying logic to the point that the person involved cannot trust anything. The Last Theft is the closet I've come to a waking nightmare and one that has stayed with me for some time. It is absurd, unsettling and an absolute joy.

Horror shorts are no longer confined to portmanteau movies, TV shows or festivals. With the explosion of digital distribution frights have gone viral and as such this selection of shorts can only ever hope to represent a minuscule portion of my own favourites, let alone of the medium as a whole. So in the grand tradition of ghost stories let's start sharing our own favourite horror tales in the comments below!

Monday, 8 December 2014

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! Ninja (Isaac Florentine, 2009)

A disgraced martial arts student becomes a hi-tech ninja assassin and returns to the Dojo he was expelled from years later to claim a chest full of ancestral ninja paraphernalia. It’s up to Scott Adkins, an orphaned ninja in training, to protect it.
Adkins is always a strong action lead, mixing his ability to emote with his unbelievable martial arts skill. This movie is a showcase for his abilities and features a number of well crafted fight scenes. The badass costumes are a great mix of traditional and high tech garb and although the film only features two ninjas, their battle runs throughout the duration of the movie meaning there is plenty of on-screen ninja action. 
There could always be a little more in-costume action and a dependancy on CGI blood and “suspense” library music takes the edge off. None the less, this is a satisfying slice of ninja action.

Ninja Abilities – Poisons, apparent teleportation, enhanced senses.

Ninja Kit – Poison, Hook on a chain, nunchuku, metal dart, blade on a rope, hi-tech body armour, hand guns, night vision goggles, acupuncture needles, smoke bombs, telescopic sword, glidy bat wings, bow, assault rifle, shuriken, floor spikes, throwing knives.

Ninja Colours – Black.

Notable Ninja Kills – Neck slice, sliced from head to waist, beheading, thrown in front of moving train, neck chop, arm off.

Ninja Activity? – Medium to high (Frequent appearances of hi-tech ninja, ninja on ninja finale).

Ninja Mythology - To impress potential girlfriends ninjas like to behead unarmed and defeated foes in front of them.

Overall rating - 8/10

Wondering what the hell you just read? Check out the introduction that explains everything you need to know about this column here!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Vindicator (Jean-Claude Lord, 1986)

Hands up who wants to read about what appears to be a cheap Robocop clone but actually has a lot going for it albeit in an endearing TV movie way? All of you? Well isn't that a happy co-incidence?

The Vindicator begins with a bunch of real dickhead scientists who make a monkey's brain explode. When a scientist who was not present for the monkey murder (therefore qualifying him for the role of hero) starts inquiring about what value their research actually has he is mysteriously killed in a freak lab explosion. It is clear that this was arranged by his slimy and unethical boss who then convinces the rest of his dickhead science team to dig up their dead friend's corpse and perform their experiments on him and they all agree with very little persuading. He calls this experiment 'Project Frankenstein' (just in case you where still on the fence about the whole are they/aren't they dickheads debate).

They get his brain going and fuse his body to a robotic prototype space suit. But guess what? Something goes wrong and not only does our hero retain his memories but loses control of his emotions. He perceives even the slightest physical contact as an act of aggression and overcompensates in his retaliation. He escapes and sets about hunting down those that betrayed him while trying to avoid accidentally murdering innocent people and occasionally talking to his widow via a synthesiser.

The suit, built by Stan Winston studios, is actually pretty cool. Matt black and packed with detail this suit leaves our heroes eyes as the only visible part of humanity. The effects work doesn't stop there, however, as underneath his robotic faceplate lies an effectively gruesome fleshy skull-face in a glass casing.

The sets and locations are equally good and are exploited for atmosphere at every opportunity. The action, although infrequent, is well handled. A sewer hunt that ends in the liberal use of makeshift flame-thrower is particularly effective while the final fight, pitting cyborg against cyborg, is excitingly staged and causes quite a bit of destruction. And if all that wasn't enough, they also throw in Pam Grier as a tough mercenary hired to bring down this big bad robot.

The movie's main issue is that it feels very much like a TV movie. For all the production value on show it stills feels a little cheap and un-cinematic. Unlike TV movies, however, it features some degree of violence, some nudity and some rude words. It can also be tough when it wants to as the scene that ups the threat level against our heroes loved ones proves.

This movie is tough, exciting and fun and if they'd only had the finances to shoot on more cinematic stock we could be looking at something even more special.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

We've collected a load of our articles and reviews, transcribed some of our podcasts and added all manner of new bits into a 400+ page book! Gorge yourselves on cults this winter!

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Knights (Albert Pyun, 1993)

Set in a post apocalyptic desert Knights tells that oft-orated tale of Lance Henriksen and his big old arm hunting robo-Kris Kristofferson and his lady kick boxer friend so he drink their blood. Or something. For the first twenty minutes this movie sits there like an Oompa Loompa that's been skimming far too many Wonka bars; all orange, bloated and lethargic. Just as I was getting bored of the heavily filtered and slow preamble, however, a cyborg Kris Kristofferson shows up and engages in a fight scene that is funny, exciting and well staged. Taking on another 'borg, the two synthetic sluggers leap, twist and swashbuckle their way through a well realised super-brawl.

It is this scene that breathes some life into the movie and catapults us into the narrative as Kris trains a young female warrior so that she can take on Henriksen and his army of blood drinking cyborg overlords. The cyborgs vary from camp and theatrical to almost good. Hardly high praise, but then they do waft around in colourful silks that hide any mechanical awesomeness they might have going on. Only Henriksen and his enormous Trapjaw-style arm stand out.

Just as the movie gets going in runs out of breath again plodding along for a further 40 minutes. Although there is spattering of half-decent fights along the way it doesn't really get its shit together until the climax where the female warrior, an impressive Kathy Long, sets off on a good twenty minutes of slow motion ass-kicking. The fights, featuring moves now popularised by MMA, are excellently choreographed and captured. There are also some fun gags along the way, especially Long fighting with half a Kristofferson strapped to her back (a la C-3PO).

There are some familiar B-movie faces that show up, namely Scott Paulin and Gary Daniels but they get very little to do. Kristofferson looks bored and Henriksen does what he can with some awful dialogue. The movie also seems to end before it finishes telling its story. This is possibly in an attempt to set up a sequel. Unless that sequel was going to be nothing but Kathy Long kicking cyborgs I'm not really distraught that it never happened.

Maybe I'm being harsh. Don't get me wrong, Knights isn't great, but the end fight is genuinely good, Henriksen's mega-arm is worth a look, some of the location cinematography is gorgeous and about two-thrids in a man gets his head kicked off. In short, not a total loss.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Timebomb (Avi Nesher, 1991)

Back when renting physical media from a shop was a thing, movies had a finite shelf life. Once a movie was no longer able to tempt the casual customer looking for their Saturday night movie these big-boxed buggers, often straight-to-video movies, would be condemned to a bargain bin. This allowed for people with an open mind and a little cash to pick up a stack of videos for the cost of a single new release. This is probably why I've seen as much crap as I have. Amongst the worthless rocks, however, was the occasional nugget. Timebomb is by no-means a home run, but it is a fun little action movie that is not afraid to get excessive when it needs to.

Michael Biehn gives his usual terrifyingly intense performance as Eddy Kay. Kay is a normal everyday guy who suddenly finds himself being hunted by trained government assassins played by the likes of Tracy Scoggins and Billy Blanks. As it becomes clear that Kay's weird dreams might actually be memories and that he is skillful in areas of, shall we say... fucking people up more than he should be we realise he might be part of larger conspiracy. Teaming up with Patsy Kensit's Anna Nolmar, a psychiatrist, the two follow clues that rattle in his meddled-with head in the hope of discovering who is trying to kill him and why. If Total Recall and The Bourne Identify are your kind of thing then this budget version might be up your street.

For the most part the film is a fairly run-of-the-mill low-budget thriller. The visuals aren't particularly stylised and the action scenes are fairly spaced out giving the film a slightly slower pace than you might hope. What makes the film stand out, however, is it not being ashamed of being brazen. Like Eddy Kay himself the movie feels dull and languid but then suddenly erupts into excess when least expected.

The fight scenes are nicely staged and shot but what makes them punchy is the hugely over-the-top sound effects. The titanic impacts bear little resemblance to sounds heard in nature making even Ben Burtt's work feel naturalistic. The intensity of the sound is, at times, matched by the brutality of the action. A nasty fight in a motel room, for example, results in the least efficient and messiest bare-hand kill I've ever seen.

Timebomb is also not shy of nudity either. Kay has frequent dreams of a naked woman which they get away with but the shoot-out in a porn theatre is nothing short of shameless. When Kay and Nolmar inevitably sleep together it a short but explicit (for '91 at least) scene.

One could argue that there is too much time spent faffing between action to give the film any real juice but had the movie maintained this level of sex and violence it could have easily become obnoxious. As it is Timebomb is a routine action movie notable for it's sudden outbursts of sex and violence.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Total Cults Podcast #88: The Cinema

Blood Glacier (Marvin Kren, 2013)

My biggest problem with the The Thing prequel/remake (you know, The Thing thing), was that is was almost exactly the same as Carpenter's movie just presented with a modern aesthetic. I nearly turned it off halfway through not because it was doing anything badly but because I felt I knew every beat in the narrative and because it was so similar it was impossible not to constantly compare it to its superior predecessor. I don't have a problem with remakes but sometimes I feel the productions would work so much better if they wasn't living in the shadow of something far greater.

Blood Glacier is an Austrian horror movie that is exactly what I wanted from The Thing prequel. Set at a research station in a remote frozen wasteland, a team of scientists discover an eerie blood red glacier. This discovery launches them into a fight for survival against a parasite that enters the body, mixes with the host DNA and then incubates a fast growing hybrid creature. As the parasite passes from created to creature it absorbs more and more DNA resulting in a parade of weird genetic mishaps that hunt our heroes down one by one.

Comparisons to The Thing are justified, but it is enough of its own movie to be judged alongside Carpenter's film rather than against it. The main difference here is that our main characters are not cut off entirely from civilisation. This results in a less claustrophobic film but it amps up the threat levels as the danger of the parasite infecting the rest of the world is far more imminent. It also allows the addition of more characters in the middle of the movie. Since more characters means more potential hybrid monsters this injects the movie with an added layer of tension rather than defusing what was already there.

The DNA leeching parasite hook allows for some wonderfully bizarre creatures including an insect-like bird-of prey with an impressive feathered wing span and a lethal stinger. The monsters are mostly, if not entirely, practical and despite a couple of moments of rather over-enthusiastic puppeteering (for my money the goat monster would have looked far more imposing slowly raising its head out of the darkness) they are all the better for it.

But it's the tone of the movie that makes it all the more watchable. It's a creature feature through and through and one that goes out of its way to give you a fun time. Crucially the sense of fun never over powers the tension. It is a little difficult to warm to the characters and there is an overriding feeling that there is something missing, but this is a well made monster movie that manages to feel both modern and classical at the same time. So if you feel like watching something like Carpenter's The Thing but want more than a slightly faded carbon copy, check out Blood Glacier.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967)

James Bond, the pride of Britain, fakes his death so he can travel to Japan, dress up as a Japanese person, sneer at women who he is not attracted to and kill whoever crosses his path. Part of this patriotic agenda is teaming up with a bunch of ninjas lead by his Japanese counterpart Tiger Tanaka. These range from traditional ninjas and samurai to modern gadget ‘n’ gun wielding assassins. Their moment to shine, however, is when they assault the villainous Blofeld’s secret volcano lair. It’s a Bond movie, so gore is as limited as problematic racial and sexual politics are abundant, but it is nice to see ninjas pop up and shine in a mainstream western movie a good fifteen years before they were popularised.

Ninja Abilities – Race changing

Ninja Kit – Sword, Kendo sticks, shuriken, pistols, machine guns, rocket bullets, cigarette rocket launcher, grenades, abseiling kit, plastic explosive.

Ninja Colours – Blue/grey

Notable Ninja Kills – Hack ‘n’ slash (bloodless, but oddly brutal in this context)

Ninja Activity? – Low (In the training ground scene ninjas are costume-less)

Ninja Mythology - Every ninja clan has a secret Sean Connery and here is a tip in case you want to spot one; they’ll be the one wearing racist make-up.

Overall rating - 3/10

Wondering what the hell you just read? Check out the introduction that explains everything you need to know about this column here!

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Robowar (Bruno Mattei, 1988)

Having been impressed by Mattei's aptitude for creative plagiarism in Shocking Dark I decided to give another of his films a go to see if it was a one-off or whether he was prone to ripping off much better movies on a more frequent basis.

In Robowar a group of muscle-bound commandos and a deceptive intelligence officer are sent into the jungle on a secret mission where they are hunted down one-by-one by an elusive creature who can see via a form of heat vision. So yes, it would appear it's habitual. However, rather than focus on all the things Mattei has copied from Predator director John McTiernan I thought I'd focus on what he has done differently. This way we can begin to fairly assess Mattei as an artist in his own right.

The Team

McTiernan introduces his group of badass commandos in what has become the standard for macho repartee as they trade quips, chew tobacco and pump golden oldies while they swoop over the jungle canvas in attack choppers. Mattei, however, introduces his team (known as the Big-Ass Motherfuckers, or B.A.M. for short) on a slow boat ride as they make off-colour Aids jokes and dress like this:

What further separates this bunch is that they are completely inept. In Predator, the iconic scene where the team open fire on the jungle only happens once desperation has taken hold of its members. In Robowar B.A.M. are not in the jungle a minute before they see some leaves rustle and one of them blindly opens fire into the unknown screaming as his does. It's only after he's unloaded into the foliage that they then think to check what it might be. The fact that this happens another two times (the third time being the actual rip-off of the aforementioned Predator scene) suggests this is not panicked fire but the units main operational strategy. As a result I imagine most of this units kill count is collateral damage and they probably don't even realise that is a bad thing.

When not fighting trees and screaming B.A.M. also like to disregard orders to launch assaults on local guerrillas, presumably because they've not drawn enough attention to themselves already. It is here we can once again clearly differentiate between this unit and the ones in Predator. While team Predator use stealth and ingenuity to creep up on their targets, B.A.M. stand in a line and yell "Hey, assholes!" before, you guessed it, opening fire and screaming.

So it is already clear that Mattei has a unique vision for his military unit making them loud, irresponsible, inaccurate and in possession of none of the qualities required to be an elite unit of soldiers.

The Craft

McTiernan created a tangible feeling of heat and tension though his cinematography. This, along with Alan Silvestri's careful use of distant percussion and orchestral music, allowed the movie to drift from small moments of rope-tight tension to grand science fiction moments of scale effortlessly.

Mattei primarily uses a synth track that sounds not unlike the music from a Sonic the Hedgehog level. He plays this same track over and over, mostly through the endless wide shots of the team walking through the jungle destroying all the danger, mystery and atmosphere that the location offers. More than that, the music drops out every time we cut back and forth to the robo-vision brilliantly making it sound like the music is diegetic. Mattei also likes to avoid logic, internal or otherwise. This shows most explicitly when a man explodes for no reason.

McTiernan also had use of one of movies most exquisitely designed and realised creatures which helped somewhat, but the way in which the alien creature moved through the jungle was also part of its charm. Mattei has a robot that lumbers around muttering in a robotic voice all the time and looks like this:

The Cast

McTiernan populated his movie with charismatic badasses. Leading them was Arnold Schwarzenegger who, despite not being the greatest actor, has considerable presence and charisma. Mattei, on the other hand, casts one of my favourite b movie actors Reb Brown. Readers of this site should be familiar with Brown's work and the fact he never stops shouting. In Robowar he doesn't disappoint as he is seemingly incapable of pulling the trigger on his gun without screaming. As much as I like Brown he doesn't quite hold the movie together as well as Arnie, yet effort has been made to make him a unique character. For example, where Arnie's Dutch pins a guy to wall with a thrown knife and quips "stick around" Brown's Murphy pins a guy to wall with a thrown knife and quips "don't' move". He also winks as he says it.

The rest of B.A.M. don't really get much to do except die off-screen. Quang, on the other hand, plays a slightly bigger role being an ethnic tracker with some greater, almost mystic, sense of what is going on. Oh wait, that's the same as Billy in Predator. Well at least he doesn't offer to hold off the hunter by bearing his chest and pulling a large knife and…

Oh, right. Okay ignore everything I said about Quang.

The Finale

Forgoing the back-to-basics warfare between man and monster, Mattei loads his climax with a twist. The robot killer is actually a cyborg made from the remains of Brown's long-thought dead best friend. Once the two make eye contact they realise they should not be fighting each other. Actually, that's not the case. Brown immediately shoves him over and explodes him. Luckily, the robot survives and they get to have another heart-breaking moment of eye contact. This time Brown does some acting and the robot hands him a device that can kill him. I can only assume he does this because he has become tired of being a robot, or something. Anyway, he explodes again and Murphy leaps of a waterfall screaming as he does. We then get the credits which begins with a shot of each of the cast members and their names, exactly like Predator.

Okay, I'm fooling no-one. This film is essentially a shittier Predator. Having said that it is a hoot. The one sustained action sequence the movie has is not only competent but full of fun moments (a guy blowing someone up with a grenade then shooting him) while the film is peppered with magic moments throughout its running time. Copycat or not, Mattei knows how to give a good time, even if he doesn't realise he is doing it.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Jungle Warriors (Ernst R. von Theumer, 1984)

Jungle Warriors opens with some of the worst singing I ever heard and I say that without hyperbole. It sounds like Madge from Neighbours receiving a particularly clumsy rectal examination. Fortunately for a movie about a group of beautiful models held prisoner by a drug lord's private army, the opening song is the most unpleasant thing that happens during its running time.

Things immediately brighten up with the appearance of Marjoe Gortner. I am always pleased to see Marjoe pop up mainly because I love saying his name out loud. The Gort is also joined by a who's-who of b movie talent including Sybil Danning, Paul L. Smith, Woody Strode and John Vernon. If some of those names don't stir any memories just do an image search, you should recognise them immediately. None of them really get a chance to shine though their presence is enough to take the movie up a notch. Plus we are treated to this response from Vernon when asked if he had a pleasant journey:

"The trip was the shits."

The plot revolves around a group of fashion models crash-landing in South America and, after trying to survive the night in the hostile clutches of the jungle, eventually being kidnapped by a drug cartel. Before we get too far into discussing this movie let me re-assure you that we do get a fashion shoot montage. I know how much everyone loves fashion shoot montages in movies and though I'd best get that out of the way so that everyone can relax.

The overriding feeling I had while watching this movie was how chaste it was. Generally if you put a group of attractive women in a jungle and then introduce a lawless male criminal element you end up with all sorts of unpleasantness. However, aside from some relatively minor sexualised threat and a couple of moments of brief, partial nudity (both of which are in the trailer below) the whole thing seemed rather harmless.

It would appear, though, that I was watching a heavily cut version and a little post-viewing research quickly alerted me to the nature of the cuts. It was the lack of gore that first made me suspicious while watching the movie. Every time a kill is set up we cut away to a reaction shot. Having checked out some of the cut gore moments it would appear that anything from squibs to full-on decapitations have been cut. Reading up a little has revealed that there was some more nudity and, well, some of that unpleasantness I alluded to earlier.

I can't say how the cut version plays against the uncut and since the only available DVD through regular channels is the 15 certificate version I doubt I'll be able to do much comparison. What I can say is that even without the added spice of a bit of bloodletting the film is quite good fun. As it stands we have a movie about a group of seemingly unprepared and vulnerable women forced into imprisonment  before turning the tables on their captors and proving themselves to be mentally, emotionally and physically stronger than they realised without all the nasty sexualised violence most women-in-prison movies wallow in. As such the cut version plays as oddly progressive, at least by comparison to other movies of the same sub-genre.

If anyone out there has seen the movie without cuts let me know if I'm missing out on something. As it is I'm quite happy to stick with the cut version of this movie despite me generally liking a little blood spilt in my b movies.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Black Mask 2: City of Masks (Tsui Hark, 2002)

On paper Black Mask 2 might appear to be the best movie ever made. A super-powered martial arts expert dressed in the iconic Kato mask and driver's cap battles a gang of wrestlers who have been turned into monsters while a cyborg villain plans to drop a DNA altering bomb on the city. Featuring a cast including Scott Adkins, Traci Lords and Tobin Bell, directed by Tsui Hark and with fights choreographed by Woo-Ping Yuen it would appear there is enough talent to make the wonderfully insane concept a reality. Alas the movie never quite reaches it potential.

The first Black Mask (Daniel Lee, 1996) featured Jet Li as the super soldier turned hero battling equally powerful villains. It was a showcase for Li's mix of traditional martial arts and wire-fu taken from the usual context of turn-of-the-century China and dropped into the super-hero genre. It was fun, but nothing groundbreaking. The sequel appeared on my radar not long after but aware that it no longer starred Li I unfairly dismissed it. However, a copy of the movie caught my eye recently primarily because the cover featured some cool looking monsters. A little deeper investigation lead me to the discovery that the film promised to be loaded with cool practical beasties. I took the bait and although it falls short of what it could have been it still proved to be a fun 100 minutes.

The various monsters, ranging from a snake-creature, a lizard-man and a werewolf, all look great. There are some battles, the showdown in the zoo for example, that rely on practical effects and work really well as a result. Where the film falls down, however, is when it relies on decidedly under-cooked CGI. As such the fight with the lizard man, Traci Lords' chameleonic creature and the weird squid-headed thing all end looking like animatics for a much more exciting movie.

The final battle, where Black Mask fights off some regular henchmen before going up against a barely recognisable Adkins (who looks a lot like the rebooted Action Man's arch-enemy Doctor X) works so much better than any of the fights before because it involves barely any CGI. Unfortunately by this stage the cool monsters have taken a back seat and don't get to see much of the action.

In terms of story or character it is difficult for me to comment. I saw the film on a Chinese DVD release with English subtitles that, as tends to be the case, seemed to be a best guess as English rather than an accurate translation. As a result there was a steady supply of unintentional gems which kept me going in-between actions scenes. I therefore can't comment on how the movie works when dubbed or accompanied with more reliable subtitles.

There are a lot of great elements in the movie, however a little more faith in the practical effects would have made this a wonderfully ridiculous kung-fu monster mash. As it stands it is a bit of a CGI mess with the occasional moments of brilliance.

And you do get to see a superhero fight a werewolf on top of an elephant.

Not just any werewolf. THIS werewolf.