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.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Shocking Dark AKA Alienators (Bruno Mattei, 1989)

In the world of b-movies and cult cinema it is not uncommon to find directors feeding off each other a little. Some films borrow moments here and there, maybe a concept or a character. Some will piggy-back the success of a film with something of a similar flavour. It's all par for the course really. I can honestly say, however, I can't remember a movie so transparent in its ripping off as Shocking Dark.

It begins with a nice enough concept. Venice has been rendered uninhabitable by pollution and when researchers working to solve the problem start going missing it is up to a highly trained team of soldiers to descend into the poison filled catacombs beneath the city to investigate. We are introduced to the team, or Megaforce as they are called, while they are suiting up. I started to feel a sense of familiarity start to emerge in this locker room scene, primarily around the butch female solider and her banter with the male soldiers. It is when the soldiers and the civilian counterparts (including a curly haired researcher and a stiff corporate suit) enter the underground tunnels that I began to realise that this film was going to owe a lot to Aliens.

The cultural impact of the first two Alien movies lead to a vast number of derivative lower budget productions being made. You could spend a lifetime counting the movies out there that involve a group of bickering soldiers in an industrial complex being hunted by KY covered biological nightmares. At least with this movie they seems to have put together an interesting set-up.

Once they enter the industrial part of the complex, however, originality begins to fade quickly. From this point the movie goes out of its way to rip off Aliens as overtly as it possibly can. It begins with them finding a lone child survivor whose name I can't remember but who is basically Newt. She is taken in by our curly, overall-wearing researcher that they at least had the decency not to call Ripley. After a conversation that felt like it might have been lifted verbatim we are then treated it carbon copies of scenes such as the monsters getting closer and closer on the motion trackers even though they don't seem to be in the room, to the corporate stiff locking Ripley and Newt in a room with one of the monsters. The latter scene is almost recreated shot-for-shot, like Gus Van Sant's Psycho but without the wank.

With the introduction of an indestructible android, complete with milky white blood, the director's intentions are made clear: he isn't even trying to hide his plagiarism. So as the research centre begins to self-destruct, complete with wind, red lights and lighting, and Ripley rescues Newt from having slid down a chute into an underground compartment (you know how it goes) I began to settle in to this cover version of someone else's greatest hit. That's when the movie threw a plagiaristic curve-ball that shook me out of my new found sense of comfort.

Ripley and Newt find an escape craft just before the centre explodes. The craft turns out to be a time machine and the two travel back to modern day venice. There they are confronted once again by the evil android who has travelled back in time himself… hang on. A time travelling indestructible cyborg? surely not.

Oh yes. As the androids pulls off the side of his face to reveal a metallic endoskeleton it confirms that Director Mattei is not above ripping off more than one James Cameron movie in the same film. And in the last ten minutes! So as the Terminator chases Ripley and Newt through Venice, narrowly missing the flying piranha (ok, that doesn't happen but I wouldn't have been surprised if it had) I couldn't help but wonder what could have been achieved with some original ideas.

You see, the sets work, there is some evocative atmospherics created, the music is solid and although the production value is far below that of the film it copies it still manages to look good throughout. As fun as it was spotting the lifts this movie could have been a solid genre entry had it wanted to. Sadly,  the movie remains a testament to how shameless some movie makers can be in leeching off others successes.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Gogol's Triple-Bills: Unleash the Underdogs of War - Generally Disliked Period Super Heroes

There is nothing I like watching more than a wartime romp involving super-powered crime fighters thwarting spy rings and smashing smuggling rackets. That of course is a lie as there are plenty of things I like watching more… my children growing up for example.

However it is hard to resist the charms of this particular super-hero sub genre. The benchmark for these movies is arguably The Rocketeer (Joe Johnston, 1991), a brilliantly produced and charming adventure that is perhaps a little light on the costumed heroics for most of its running time but more than makes up for it with an exciting finale atop a burning zeppelin. Johnston also directed Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the most recent and possibly most famous period superhero movie. Of course this being Total Cults I won’t be talking about the ones everybody love. So here is my suggested triple-bill of period heroics, most of which are generally considered as a bit shit.

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (Michael Anderson, 1975)

Literary adventurer Doc Savage is a hero with the body of He-man and the mind of The Doctor. He is an expert in every scientific and physical discipline and, along with his five companions (each an expert in their own fields) is thrust into an adventure involving secret tribes, ectoplasmic snakes and a pool of molten gold.

Ron Ely, most famous for playing Tarzan, is cast as the titular hero and is a pretty good fit for the part. Although he’s not quite the grizzled adventurer as depicted in the Larry Bama covers (arguably the most popular visualisation of the character) his likeness to earlier artwork is uncanny. The rest of the
cast seem to have been cast based on physical resemblance rather than ability. This, combined with some very television shooting techniques, means at times the movie feels more like an expensive episode of Columbo rather than a blockbuster adventure

Tonally the film is a little unsure of itself. It is obviously going for the same sensibilities as the 1966 Batman movie, but while that had a specific and focussed sense of humour Doc Savage is all over the shop. Some scenes play silly which makes the more violent moments seem all the more brutal. Some gags fall flat on their face while a couple (the “you're a brick” moment springs to mind) are played so well you wish the rest of the film was that sharp.

There is also a curious decision to leave out some key information. Readers of the books will know that Doc Savage often wears discreet bullet-proof material of his own design, while his lawyer companion, Ham, wields a sword-cane tipped with a tranquilzer. Since the movie never explains these points less informed viewers might find themselves confused when Savage survies a chest full of machine gun fire and when each of Ham’s victims smiles and feints when stabbed with a blade. In fact it looks like the henchman that gets stabbed in the arse is enjoying every minute of it.

All this aside the film is still fairly harmless fun. It gets enough right to be considered a fairly accurate adaptaion and some of it is so bizarre it cannot help to raise a chuckle. Ultimately, it’s a movie that coasts on charm and ends being very difficult to dislike.

The Phantom (Simon Wincer, 1996)

Kit Walker is one of a long line of avengers, sworn to pass down their pistols to each descendant so that they may continue their fight against the nefarious pirate gang called the Tsang Brotherhood. Known as the ‘Ghost Who Walks’ this hero stalks the jungle ready to take on this evil organisation at every turn. Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that despite living in the jungle he wears purple lycra and rides a white horse.

This seems to be the sticking point for most people. Yes, it’s absurd. But superheroes are absurd. Batman is absurd. Who in their right mind dresses as a bat to intimidate mafia bosses? Absurdity is not a bad thing though. The Phantom is unapologetically absurd, revelling in its early comic book tropes rather than trying to legitimise them out of a sense of embarrassment. The costume looks great. It’s textured enough to look interesting close up but without the modern trend of looking too busy. Even if you don’t agree there is plenty to enjoy in this film if you can overlook the heroes wardrobe.

For one Billy Zane makes for a great classic leading man. Handsome and charming he weirdly never looks ridiculous even when conversing with animals and ghosts while dressed in a purple one-piece. The film looks surprisingly expensive with a range of beautiful location work and some fantastic sets. The action is both inventive and well-staged, from some excellent rope-bridge dangling to leaping from a plane onto a horse it provides a succession of thrilling cliff-hanger set pieces and swashbuckling action.

The worst criticism I have is that sometimes the fights can be a little sluggish, but other than that this is a rollicking good adventure movie.

The Shadow (Russell Mulcahy, 1994)

If I haven’t lost you thus far this one might do it. The Shadow is often regarded as something of a turkey and I can kind of see why. Many will claim it is a film that is all surface, trading on production design over and above story and character. It is also a little over-the top at times. True it feels like all of the subtle elements of Burton’s Batman have been ripped away leaving just the excesses yet it never quite goes full Schumacher (never go full Schumacher). It is also strange that despite the hero wielding two automatic pistols there is very little in the way of actual action sequences. Ultimately it does feel like a series of connected set-pieces rather than a cohesive narrative. Still, I think there is a lot to like.

Firstly the movie looks great. Russel Mulcahy has really rung every bit of value out of the various art departments as sets, costume and VFX are all stunning. The shots of the the Shadow’s communication network whizzing messages around the city is either utterly stunning model work or CGI well ahead of its time.

The Shadow also has an edge to it. Our “hero”, the brilliantly named Lamont Cranston, starts the film as a ruthless opium dealer, his powers being punshiment for his awful crimes rather than a gift. The villain’s commupance is deliciously cruel and delivered with a figurative grin so wide it makes the movies intentions very clear: for all their wonderous powers supeheroes are royally fucked-up people. Rather than wallow in this, though, the movie is determined to have fun with.

It is this streak of humour is what elevates the movie above its shortcomings. All of the cast seem to get it (although you could argue that Tim Curry over-eggs it somewhat) but it is Alec Baldwin and his ability to balance charm, smarm, chivalry and psychosis while always remaining likeable that really holds the movie together.

So, problems aside, this is a gorgeous looking movie with a wicked streak delivered by a game cast with pin-point accuracy.

As much as like I The Rocketeer and as big a Captain America nut as I am, it is these three movies that capture the giddy thrill of the cliffhanger serials they emulate and as such get a regular viewing at the Gogol residence. If you can overlook some wonky tone here and a bit of purple there you might find there are worth a watch too.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! Nine Deaths of the Ninja (Emmet Alston, 1985)

Before we begin let me state for the record that I had a great time watching this movie, but like the shadowy warriors these articles focus on I must be ruthless. As such this movie looses points on a technicality.

Sho Kosugi dons a snug camouflage suit adorned with chrome high-tech gadgets (but no ninja mask dammit) and alongside Gwendolines Brent Huff sets off to rescue a bus full of hostages. This mission involves a strange modern dance-related opening credits sequence, a villainess with MASSIVE hair (Dark Helmet's helmet massive), Kosugi being attacked in a public museum by gang of little people and Huff unleashing the firepower of a massive mini-gun into a jungle. It's a fun movie and one I would have loved as a kid. The violence is frequent, well put together and entertaining but ultimately bloodless. There are rumours of a stronger cut existing somewhere and although that would have added value the only thing that would raise the score of this movie is more ninjas. You see as much as we are told Kosugi's character is ninja he only wears the proper outfit once. There are other ninjas in the movie but their presence is kept to a minimum. It's a shame, because otherwise this is a really fun way to spend 90 minutes of your time.

Ninja Abilities – Trap avoidance, blindfolded melon slicing, super somersault, disguise, mannequin generation (?).

Ninja Kit – Hi-tech Sword (turns into tonfu style bladed weapon), shuriken, grappling hook and rope, bow, nunchuku, homing watch, palm-claw, crossbow with explosive bolts, sai with dart launcher attached, explosive shruiken, giant scissors, garrotte.

Ninja Colours – Black.

Notable Ninja Kills – Clawed out of a helicopter and into water, shuriken in eye, explosive shoved in mouth, wheelchair bound villain thrown in front of polo horses.

Ninja Activity? – Minimal (had Kosugi worn a mask, medium).

Ninja Mythology: Ninjas will make you a nice fruit salad if you can tolerate their incessant showboating while doing it.

Overall rating: 5/10

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