Sunday, 31 May 2015

They Call Her One-Eye (Bo Arne Vibenius, 1973)

Frigga (Christina Lindberg), a mute farm girl, accepts a lift from a dashing stranger and is promptly seduced, drugged and forceably hooked on heroin. Using her dependancy to control her he puts Frigga to work as a prostitute throwing her into a cycle of sex and violent abuse. Frigga, realising the futility of trying to escape, begins to put her earnings towards lessons in combat while also generating her own supply of heroin so as not to depend on her captor and begins to implement a plan that will allow her to exact her revenge.

This Swedish revenge thriller is a tough yet memorable watch. It is a methodically paced movie with perpetually foreboding cinematography and editing. The action is captured in super-slow motion
allowing us to revel and recoil in equal measure at the bloody revenge killings Frigga perpetrates on her abusers. Even action sequences shot at normal speed have had considerable audio treatment, adding echoes to the foley to evoke an almost dream-like atmosphere. Many sequences play without dialogue but with abstract sound-scapes or electronic beeps and clicks externalising internal conflicts and ambivalences. One slow motion fight scene plays out with soft synth, the fluid motions becoming intimate and beautiful, far more so than any of the sexual content in the movie. There are also some immensely iconic images rendered with Lindberg dressed in an eye patch and long leather coat establishing the Snake Plissken look long before he made it to the screen.

The movie is synonymous with controversy, primarily due to the effect of an eyeball being pierced with a scalpel being achieved by stabbing the eye of a real human cadaver. Appalling as it is this controversy overshadows a more interesting discussion that is perpetually associated with the rape-revenge exploitation movie.

Sexual violence is almost a convention of exploitation and it is unsettling easy to see why. Write a rape scene into your movie and you have an easy point of motivation and an even easier moral standpoint to hide behind when the inevitable accusations of objectification are thrown about. "But it is supposed to be horrifying, it's rape!" cries the exploitation filmmaker as their audience sits in a darkened room silently, passively observing female suffering. The audience become complicit in the voyeurism yet engage in a contract with the Director that it is all above board because what they are watching will help them understand the cruelty men inflict on women more. The filmmaker and audience truly believe they can have their cake and eat it.

Yet it is the easy point of motivation that is possibly the more problematic. When used as a plot point rape is a unifying point of identification that justifies whatever rampage of revenge follows. The women suffer so that the audience can cheer when she gets her own back. Through this vengeance she becomes empowered yet women's sexuality is covertly accepted as a weakness, the vagina becoming the female kryptonite.

I'd seen They Call Her One-Eye a long time ago, before a lot of these concerns had fully coalesced in my mind, and before I sat down to watch it again I had nothing but concerns about what I was going to see. Weirdly, despite the movie clearly being exploitation and its subject matter almost entirely about sexual violence, I found its depiction of sexuality and its representation of women less clear cut.

From the second she is kidnapped Frigga asserts herself. Each time her captor believes he has broken her she bolts for the door. Even when she finally gives up trying to escape she it not succumbing, merely biding her time so that she can not only escape but get revenge. It is a choice to play the long game, not a passive acceptance of her fate.

As you'd expect the scenes of abuse are unpleasant to watch yet while the initial scenes are cut one after another, they eventually become intercut with her training in Karate, driving and shooting. Having scenes of her mistreated at the hands of men juxtaposed with men treating her with the upmost respect  presents the awful scenes so that they appear more integrated, rather than wallowing in her misery for a prolonged period of time.

Frigga is also an amazingly badass character. Lindberg, famous for soft core sex flicks, trained in martial arts for the movie and actually does a lot of her own driving for someone who didn't even have a license at the time. She handles the weaponry and action with ease utterly convincing as a killing machine and there is almost no attempt to treat the fact that she can drive, shoot and fight well as being unusual for a woman; she is accepted by Karate masters, race drivers and tough army brutes as unquestionably their equal. That is until she surpasses them and takes on almost mythological status. Frigga (in Norse mythology the highest ranking Goddess) is no hero. After beating the shit out of two police officers that try to arrest her she steals their car and drives it at high speed ramming seemingly innocent drivers off the road and often to their deaths. She has become death incarnate, an iconic and brutal bringer of doom.

Her mythological status does not entirely consume the young innocent we meet at the start of the film. In the final moments of the movie Frigga stands over her captor, gun in hand and yet due to her affliction cannot form the words she wants to say. It is not overplayed, yet the impact of her abuse is such that her voice has literally been removed. It is a moment of genuine heartbreak at a time when one would assume one would be expected to merely enjoy the blood letting. As she drives off across a desolate wasteland, an angelic choir mixed with the sound of a thunderstorm it is clear that she is neither innocent victim nor ruthless aggressor but has transcended both into something more.

One could even argue the movie serves as a commentary of the porn industry. Frigga, forced into various poses and photographed by one client later blows him away with a shotgun. Is this Lindberg, transforming herself from nude model to action star off screen, blasting her way out of an abusive porn career? I'd be the first to admit that I might be reading more into this film than perhaps I should. Despite the way the abusive scenes are handled they still serve the same function; they are there to make us pity the character so that we may enjoy her violent retaliation without guilt. Making the movie even more difficult is the somewhat harder cut (aptly named Thriller: A Cruel Picture). In this version shots of actual penetration, using body doubles, are intercut during the scenes of sexual abuse. The close-ups are grotesque and ultimately make the scenes that much uglier.

Director Vibenius has said he wanted to make the most commercial film he could and added the scenes to capitalise on Sweden's more permissive attitudes to pornography. This alarmingly suggests the shots were added to make those scenes sexier despite how utterly repellant the images are. Even more problematic is the inclusion of promotional photographs included on the DVD. Images of Linberg posing naked on the very set her character is repeatedly raped in is a terrible misjudgement. These could well have been just the images taken in the scene mentioned earlier and included as a curiosity, yet one can't help feel it adds to the notion that these scenes were ultimately composed as titillation.

I'd not normally consider the implication of DVD extras on a movies ideology but the fact that Vibenius objected to the release of the DVD and attempting to block it's distribution might suggest he was not happy with some of the material they intended to release. Upon it's release, the movie was banned in Sweden and Vibenuis released the film under an assumed name which might further suggest his displeasure in the final product, yet interviews suggest quite the opposite. For a film to be conceived as a commercial venture it is often unconventional and contentious. So what was the intended product meant to actually mean? The movie's schizophrenia and the Director's erratic attitude towards the movie only make reading the text more difficult.

Ultimately They Call Her One Eye is everything above: a weird, problematic, visually arresting, ugly, empowering yet exploitative revenge movie that is both memorable and thought provoking even if not for the intended reasons. I don't know if I like it, but I cannot forget it.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Death Warmed Up (David Blyth, 1984)

After some horrendously eighties titles leave our screen, a sleeveless Gunther-alike takes three friends  to a remote island for a saucy weekend. But he has a hidden agenda: to kill the mad scientist who drugged and hypnotised him into killing his own parents and whose sinister medical experiments have created a mob of undead henchmen that roam the otherwise idyllic holiday locale.

If you're a B-movie enthusiast then this Kiwi schlocker is time well spent. So well versed in genre vernacular is it that if it had been made in the last five years it would have been a pitch-perfect parody. In fact the movie's DNA is present in Garth Marenghi's Dark Place, Danger Five and Planet Terror.

There is more going on than just stylistic lighting and smoke machines. The effects are shoe-string but utterly satisfying (a slow-motion shotgun attack, a messy surgical procedure and an exploding face boil are among the messy highlights) while there are also some impressively staged sequences. Particularly exciting are an underground motorcycle chase and a night-time zombie siege.

Tonally the movie gets it just right containing enough blood and sleaze to have bite yet never crossing over into anything too problematic or unpleasant. Well, except for the horrifying "comedy" asian shop owner, clearly a white actor in black-face putting on an absurd Indian accent while jiggling his nut like a bobble-head. Luckily this affront only lasts for one short scene so its awful taste soon fades.

The finale sees the mad Doctor's undead goons take over his research centre. There are axe murders, scissor stabbings, a great full body flame stunt, a painful looking way to shake some sense into someone and quite possible the loudest curtain ever captured on film. Even despite the movie's downbeat ending it was difficult not to smile as the credits rolled.

Death Warmed Up movie hardly ranks amongst the grade A genre movies to come from the other side of the World, but it's a fun slice of camp splatter all the same.

Light Blast (Enzo G. Castellari, 1985)

Two lust-fuelled teenagers sneak across an old rail track and find a corner of an abandoned rail carriage to steal a moment of intimacy. Desperate for each other's touch they are quickly shirtless and lost in each others embrace. So lost they fail to notice the doom that edges near. For like many young amorous couples we are introduced to in the opening reel of genre movies these two will inevitably become victims of… A LARGE MELTER RAY! A melter ray that strips their stop-motion flesh to the bloody bone and fries the entire rail road along with it. Okay Lightblast, you've got my attention.

Ex-Chip Erik Estrada plays a tough cop on the trail of a mad scientist who is extorting money from the Government by threatening to melt people with his super-ray gun. So, y'know, best concept ever. Where Lightblast fails, however, is by neglecting to run that vein of science fiction throughout the movie. With the exception of that opening there is another melty scene early on and one short one at the end. Sans mini-melters or half-melted minions the movie slips into a familiar 80's action movie fairly early and stays that way for some time.

That's not to say there is no fun to be had twixt meltings. Estrada's entrance into the movie sees him foiling a hostage situation with nothing but a gun hidden in a joint of meat and a pair of speedos. Aside from that Castellari ensures there are plenty of car chases and shoot-outs and uses messy squibs, slow-motion and some impressive stunts to make sure each action scene pops. The climactic sequence sees Estrada commandeering an awesome looking off-road buggy and giving chase in an excitingly staged vehicular showdown.

It's a shame they didn't find a way to get a little more sci-fi into it though as the end result is a film that isn't quite as bonkers as it deserves to be. Every aspect is handled with the right amount of silliness and competence to be a fun ride but with the heavier B-movie conventions only book-ending the movie it won't stick in the mind as an all-timer. It is, at times, a blast but like its title says; only a light one.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Gogol's Triple Bills: Sonny Chiba's Karate Mind-Punch

Those of you that studied Karate as a child might remember stiffly walking up and down a matted community hall throwing the same forward punches and kicks over and over again. Sonny Chiba did not study the same form of Karate as you. Wild of hair, crazed of eye and ruffled of gi Chiba looks like a man who has been angrily woken from a rough sleep. Like Bruce Lee mixed with the Tasmanian devil his limbs flail as he flips and crashes his way through fights, the camera frantically trying to keep up with him.

Although famed for his martial arts movies, like the wonderfully titled Karate Inferno: Executioner 2, Chiba also appeared in a number of remarkable non-Karate based movies (Bullet Train is a standout) and has popped up in a number of small roles in recent western movies such as Kill Bill and Ninja Assassin. The three movies below have been selected to serve as an introduction to the diverse and weird world of Sonny Fucking Chiba.

Karate Bear Fighter (Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1977)

Go in expecting to laugh at a man fighting a stuntman in tatty bear costume, come out surprised at a densely packed martial arts epic, some slightly baffling pseudo philosophy and a shocking amount of integrity. Although I would normally recommend The Street Fighter as a first stop for a classic Chiba movie this one actually has most of what makes that movie great (including an x-ray punch!) plus a lot more.

The movie is filled to the brim with nicely choreographed fights captured with loose and kinetic camera work that matches Chiba's frenetic movements while imbuing these sequences with energy and urgency.

Of course it is the bear fight everyone wants to see and boy does it deliver. If you're worried that you might actually see a real bear getting the shit kicked out of it, rest assured it is some poor bastard in an outfit taking most of the punches. Despite this the fight is still surprisingly convincing, brutal, bloody and actually quite tense.

The movie is a sequel to Karate Bullfighter and together they are based on the true story of Chiba's own Karate master Masutatsu Oyama. Oyama's party trick, it would seem, was to actually beat a live bull to death with his bare hands. He would do this a lot. Even when he was getting on a bit he would still wow crowds with his ability to smash a cow to death (although by this point in his life the bull would have been tied down to make it less of a strain for him). So not only was he an expert in the martial arts but also a master at being a massive bellend to farm animals.

Since he never fought a bear and since this movie is only loosely based on him you may well be able to enjoy the beautiful cinematography and vibrant fisticuffs without feeling bad about endorsing animal cruelty.

The narrative climaxes with a beach showdown and it is here the central message of the film is clarified. Understanding that to become strong you must first become weak, Chiba runs up and down the beach over and over until he is completely shagged out, then engages his ultimate foe in a fight to the death. It's nonsense of course but don't let this put you off an excellent martial arts extravaganza with a memorable centrepiece.

G.I. Samurai (Kosei Saito, 1977)

Chiba is a military officer on manoeuvres who somehow gets launched back in time to feudal Japan where he, his fellow soldiers and their array of (then) state of the art weapons must battle against a tyrannical warlord and his fierce Samurai warriors.

What more do you want? Fully armoured Samurai warriors fighting against tanks and guns. If you like hard sci-fi this movie isn't really for you as it wisely stays away from any real scientific explanations and gets straight to the fun. The production is superb and nothing beats a shot of an armed helicopter hovering outside a Tenchu while a soldier empties an M-60 into the Samurai inside.

It is a movie that truly delivers on its concept with scale and production.

Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1975)

If either of the two movies above sound a little eccentric then strap yourselves in because this motherfucker bottles its own piss.

Chiba plays a reporter who, although not a werewolf as such, has wolf blood coursing through his body which gives him some enhanced strength and healing ability. His main goal is (deep breath everyone) to investigate the gang rape of female singer who, now riddled with syphilis, is able to unleash an invisible tiger on those who attacked her and those that covered up her assault. A werewolf does also pop up in one scene.

Now I've never had syphilis (he protests a perfectly measured amount), nor have I checked with any local sexual health clinics but I'm pretty confident the ability to conjure a phantom big cat is not a common symptom of the affliction.

Considering this movie features a mix of horror, action and marital arts the most common ingredient is sex. It's like an episode of Game of Thrones with brain damage.

I'll be honest, I had no idea what was happening most of the time. I was, however, treated to lots of sex, two scenes were someone is ripped apart by an unseeable feline and far more comedy waa-waa music than you'd expect.

These movies only touch on Chiba's filmography. Thankfully there are a number of box-sets available so there is no excuse for getting your sanity pummelled by the furious fits of the bear-beating, time-travelling lycanthropic karate tornado that is Sonny Chiba.