Monday, 30 November 2015

The Many Appearances of The Phantom

Heavy with humidity and strangled by mist the depths of the rainforest are a foreboding place for any foreign to its treachery. And yet for those there to loot the riches of ancient tribes or exploit their customs for nefarious purposes the deep green threat of the jungle is the last thing to worry about. Should you defile the laws of the jungle your concern should be focussed only on one; an immortal spectre, a vengeful phantom, a dude in a bright purple leotard. Wait... what?

The Phantom has always been something of an unintentionally comic figure. A jungle-dwelling adventurer dressed not in camouflage or rugged climbing gear, but a brightly coloured spandex onesie. Galloping around the jungle on a massive white horse and followed by his pet wolf The Phantom is the definitive sore thumb. His less than covert approach to jungle justice in most widely known from the '96 Bill Zane vehicle that came on the heels of two early nineties period superhero flicks The Rocketeer and The Shadow. It appears that The Phantom, though, is not merely immortal in his stories but as a pop culture character as well.

Conceived by Lee Falk in 1936 The Phantom appeared in newspaper comic strips on and off until Falk's death in 1999. The Phantom also appeared in a series of books and in more recent years an array of comic series produced by multiple publishers including DC, Moonstone and Dynamite. Of course all manner of comic book heroes have stood the test of time but the purple pirate puncher has also had as many screen adventures as some of the A-list superhero superstars.

The “Ghost Who Walks” first walked in front of a camera for the Columbia cliffhanger serial of 1943 which featured a pretty accurate costume and some fantastic nail-biters including falling in quicksand while being menaced by a tiger and being shut in a primitive octagon to go hand-to-hand with a killer gorilla! This 15 episode romp is an absolute joy (despite some patience-testing faffing in the first few episodes) and a bloody faithful adaptation to boot.

Less known is a 1961 pilot for a new series that featured guest turns by Richard Kiel and Lon Chaney Jr. Our hero looks like he stepped right of the cover of his novels though the episode isn't exactly thrilling. An early fight with a crocodile is exciting but ultimately it is absent our hero for too long. I picked up a version at a convention (though it is now viewable on YouTube) but since this was effectively a “lost” pilot the footage is black and white, washed and grainy. In fact it is poorer quality than the adventure serial from twenty years earlier.

The Phantom next appeared in the mainstream in the awesome/awful cartoon series Defenders of the Earth where he and a group of other awesome/awful heroes fought Ming the Merciless and his army of ice bots. Someone really should/shouldn't follow the trend of making 80's cartoons into movies as this would be a great/terrible idea and would make an awesome/awful blockbuster/flop.

The Phantom got his second shot at an animated adventure series in The Phantom 2040 which I have yet to see and a Sega Megadrive/Genesis game of the same name that I haven't played. Billy Zane then donned the purple pants for his movie and believe me I saw the shit out of that. I seem to be in a minority but I think the costume looks great and the action, especially the cliffhanger elements, are brilliantly staged.

The Phantom's last on screen appearance came in 2009 and served as a kind of precursor to Arrow. Modernising both the mythology and the outfit this series turned the jungle dwelling hauntist into a free-running teenager. At least that's what the trailer indicates. I never watched the thing, y'know... because of all the things in the trailer.

Although this seems like a fairly standard cinematic trajectory for a superhero the amount of times he has appeared on screen is odd considering most movie-going audiences won't have ever heard of him. This is not the case elsewhere in the world, especially Australia. Not only can a motorcycle gang member be seen reading an issue in Stone so recognisable to a mainstream audience was the Phantom that Oz rib tickler and large knife expert Paul Hogan decided it was a safe bet to run this sketch in his series:

There is also a Phantom Land in a a Swedish theme park where you can visit the famed skull cave and meet the man himself!

So why is such a bizarrely conceived crime fighter so unwilling to roll over and die? I can only speak for myself, though even I'm not one hundred percent sure. What I do know is that this character is deeply rooted in some of my childhood fascinations, such as:

  1. Being in awe of imagination and design. I can find a wash of colour or the way a line curves as stimulating as high drama. Superhero stories are full of creative choices and thrilling images that weren't always tethered by the needs for narrative logic or common sense. This may sound like an underhand criticism, but it is not.
  2. Thrilling adventures. Spawning from my utter love of the Indiana Jones movies as a kid I became obsessed with rope bridges, mountain passes, fights on trains and other exciting set pieces. Even when reading sensible material like school geography books I'd skip straight to the cross-sections of caves and imagine myself leaping from ledge to ledge or travelling down the underground rivers.
  3. An underdog. As much as I loved Spider-man and Batman my attention would always be drawn to the characters I knew less about. I'd flip past the Superman story at the front of Action Comics to find out more about Wild Dog or The Secret Six. I walked past an issue of my beloved Transformers to grab a copy of the edgy and dark Warrior. The weirder the better, any supernatural slant drawing my attention. Oh it so easily could have been Deadman...

When I saw The Phantom grace the cover of a DC comic a connection was formed that has never broken. Here was a stroke of vibrant purple against a landscape of greens, a hero draped in a traditional superhero outfit, not pasted against the New York skyline but fighting pirates and tomb raiders over chasms and collapsing bridges. An unknown spectral avenger; colourful, thrilling and new.

As an adult I love the sheer boldness of the choices. Comicbook superheroes are allowed to defy sense. Their gaudy costumes and absurd antics are joyful flights of fantasy that, over the years, have been neutered to fit them into the darker, more sensible world view of an audience unwilling to just roll with it. That's not an underhand criticism of modern superheroes, far from it. Yet there is a part of me that longs for colour and adventure, for the sheer joy of imagination and excitement. And sometimes, as a po-faced jungle chokes me, its seriousness forcing me into unconsciousness, I spy a streak of purple and I know “The Ghost Who Walks” is there. I also know he's not going anywhere anytime soon.

Total Cults Podcast #107: Practical VS CGI

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Nonsploitation: Six Ozploitation Movies That Don't Exploit A Damn Thing.

Those of you who have seen the documentary Not Quite Hollywood or have skimmed the rim of world genre cinema will be more than aware that Australia is renown for being a throbbing artery of B-movie mayhem. So much so that the films produced throughout the 70s and 80s have become affectionally known as Ozploitation. And so with that one label Oz joins black, sex, car, (probably dog) under the umbrella of exploitation. My issue is having now watched a bunch of these movies I'm not sure that label is entirely accurate.

As a term Exploitation is loaded with negative connotations and is used as much to dismiss movies as it is to celebrate them. You can go ahead and assume, based on the subject of this blog, that I'm of the latter yet I'm well aware then generally exploitation is regarded as several rungs below “proper” movies on the cinematic ladder of worthiness. It's bullshit, yes, but not just because of elitism. So many movies have found themselves labelled as video nasties, or exploitation when they really aren't.
Common signifiers of exploitation movies are brazen approaches to sex, violence, morality and yet all of those things can be found in abundance in the Dirty Harry movies and we all know those as classic crime movies. Killer animals goring nude swimmers sounds like Grindhouse gold but that's how Jaws opens. Of course both those movies had named actors while exploitation is associated with small budgets and a lack of star power but the truth is the parameters for defining an exploitation film are flimsy at best. Knowing this going into a season of so called Ozploitation films meant I should have been expecting a couple of movies to transcend that barrier, yet what surprised me most is how few of the movies I saw even registered as exploitation to me.

Let's tackle the subject of cheapness head on and begin with the movies that encapsulate Australian genre cinema the most. Mad Max is the closest of the four films to a bonafide exploitation movie. Its brutal and edgy but doesn't necessarily drip with production value. The sequel's frame bulges with production value, however, despite taking place in much the same environment. And this is an important point to note: as much as shooting in the outback might be more cost effective (and I admit I'm making an assumption here) shooting on that kind of background can produce the same scope as the great romantic Westerns. The run down shacks and rusted factory remains would cost a production team considerable time and money to replicate whereas it's not too great an assumption to make (again, admittedly) that these great bits of set might just be found lying around. So although a lot of these movies may appear cheap they actually have significant scope and detail.

Of the movies I watched two featured killer animals and could therefore feasibly end up on some 'Grindhouse Creature Feature Classics' double-disc set, yet neither even come close to being traditional exploitation. Razorback, next to Mad Max arguably Australia's most notable export, comes close but oozes with the incredible location work afforded by an expansive landscape littered with evocative debris. It also features ominous caves, armoured hunting vehicles, a menacing processing plant and a massive rubber pig that, not unlike Jaws' Bruce, features limited articulation and is therefore kept from any full reveals. Yet what Director Russell Mulchay lacks in subtlety and storytelling he makes up for in atmosphere meaning that his killer animal movie is nowhere near as engaging as Spielberg's yet actually looks more expensive. It's gaudy colours, smokey dream frames and disorientating editing makes it a gorgeous movie that is difficult to forget.

Killer crocodile movie Dark Age, on the other hand, looks expensive without the overt stylings of Mulchay's porker and not because of a desert setting either. Crowds scenes, fancy restaurants and immaculate apartments all feature as backdrops and at no point does the movie ever appear like it is faking a location or making do with whatever is available. It has a fairly progressive environmental conscience, a pretty bloody convincing giant croc, some beautifully stylised Burtt-esque punch sound effects and a car chase involving a truck with a giant reptile on its back. This is a solid, crafted, expensive looking movie that goes cheap with neither the production or its thrills.

Of course car chases are prevalent in exploitation films. Everyone likes to see a motor bite it on the tarmac. Every glowing review of Schindler's List mentioned how the lack of a cartwheeling Vovlo stopped it from being “truly great”. EVERY SINGLE ONE. Luckily it didn't cost all that much to tumble a banger on a dis-used stretch of road, especially in the 70s, so it was a crowd pleaser that movies at any production level could afford, even Troma by fuck. 

And if Mainstream movies were John Cleese, B-movies Ronnie Barker and Exploitation Ronnie Corbett, then Troma is surely the tragic monstrosity with a wooden eye, a hair-face, teeth on its tongue and a snake of black vomit slithering down its hessian bib snorting and dry humping Corbett's workman's boot. True, Troma only had one car crash and they used it in every fucking movie made after they shot it, but my point still stands.

Most trailers of Australian movies feature vehicular carnage of some sort. Nuclear Run AKA The Chain Reaction, for instance, puts its muscle car showdown front and centre yet this scene features only in the film's final moments. The movie is actually a thriller that deals with both corporate greed and environmentalism as a couple having a raunchy weekend in a log cabin discover the area has been contaminated by a power plant leak and must fight against the corporation who quarantine them while trying to cover the whole thing up. From the trailer Dead-End Drive In appears to be a demolition derby set inside and an open air cinema but actually its big car moment is just a moment. Most of the movies feature car chases or crashes at some point and often feature modified motors. No doubt these moments were featured in the trailer to capitalise on Max's success around the world but the use of cars really comes from a culture born of necessity. How else are you going to get around the outback?

Nudity featured in a lot of the movies I watched, but unlike the usual sordid female flesh served up for male gazes the nudity was often de-sexualised and evenly balanced between male and female. Nuclear Run's nude swimming scene gifts its viewers with a penis alongside the expected breasts while the decontamination sequence, featuring the same couple parted by a plastic water speckled booth, is shot in such a way as to make their nakedness appear innocent and somewhat beautiful. Undercover cop posing as a biker movie Stone replaces cars with bikes and the outback with the suburbs and features a skinny-dipping scene with both men and women that is actually quite moving (emotionally not trouserly, you disgusting filth peddlers).

Then there is Fair Game, a movie that could be easily promoted as an out and out exploitation film featuring an armoured car, a hunted woman, nudity and violence but actually has the engine of any straight mainstream US thriller rumbling under its slightly dented and dust spattered bonnet.

A woman who owns a nature reserve comes into confrontation with local hunters and their one-upmanship spirals until she becomes their prey. It is ultimately an adult Home Alone style siege piece that looks exquisite and features the increase of beautifully crafted tension until it reaches its unbearable peak. Of all the movies this seems to have the most problematic nudity as it is entirely female and voyeuristic. Its most problematic sequence, where the female lead is strapped topless to the front of the hunter's truck and driven round in circles, immediately made me uncomfortable. Yet that might have been muscle memory trained from so many US exploitation movies. Ultimately it felt different to all the images of naked women in peril in Roger Corman's girls in prison flicks. This scene genuinely felt like there was no expectation I'd find some perverse pleasure in the images I was presented with but rather it was using nudity in the way that a lot of exploitation film makers claim to use it; to suggest vulnerability.

That's not to say that Australia doesn't produce exploitation movies. Blood Camp Thatcher is as crazy as its trailer would suggest while Midnight Spares feels like a Corman American Graffiti cash-in (of sorts) but generally the movies I saw looked well produced, crafted and weren't saturated with the lurid taboo nudging that American exploitation movies were so fond of.

Exploitation is not a badge of judgement, rather an indication of what you should be looking to enjoy from the movies that wear it. So I am by no means suggesting the term Ozploitation is unfair, I'm just saying that for the films mentioned above it's mostly incorrect and as such my expectations have changed ready for the next season of Australian genre movies I plan.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! The Super Ninja AKA Killers Invincible (Kuo-Ren Wu, 1984)

Holy shit this might be the best ninja movie ever made. Ex-ninja John is now a cop and swans around with his giant of a partner dressed like they've just wandered out of a side-scrolling beat 'em up. After a grilling from their cliched Captain (who also happens to be a massive racist) John is framed for the possession of drugs and imprisoned. John uses all of his ninja training to escape, clear his name and find out what connection his predicament has to an elite and deadly clan of ninjas.

By traditional film making standards Super Ninja is a shoddy piece of crap. The story barely makes sense, the script is appalling, the performances from both the physical actors and those dubbing them are wince-inducing and the only female character exists almost entirely to be leered, fondled and shoved around. If you have been following these pieces, however, you will know that I assess ninja movies with my own specific set of criteria and quality isn't one of them.

Super Ninja ticks so many of my ninja movie boxes it's insane but what really earns this movie points is our central ninja clan the Five Elements Ninjas. Adorned in colourful outfits these warriors possess powers in line with their elemental namesakes: Water - can breath while submerged, Fire - can shoot fireballs, Wood - can climb trees really well, Earth - can travel underground like Bugs Bunny and Metal - can dress from head to foot in Christmas wrapping paper. The action sequences in the movie are genuinely thrilling with some considerable martial arts skill on show, some inventive choreography, just enough gore to make the stakes feel high and cinematography that elevates the action.

It also contains a number of frankly bizarre moments, including some cartoonish post explosion soot-covered gurns, the biggest cheeked skeleton you'll ever see and Earth leaping out of his costume and into the ground, only to pop out somewhere else dressed in only a nappy and a Hitler moustache. And then there is the sex scene! Sex scenes in movies like these tends to be two shirtless people moving their open mouths near each other's necks for a while. In Super Ninja, though, they really go for each other's nipples. I mean almost too much attention. It's as if the participants had been told the key to ecstasy is to use your tongue to play Track & Field with your lover's areole. This nippular abuse plays out with soft saxophone music and, I guess, a degree of tenderness. Until the music changes to a cue that belongs in a Sonic The Hedgehog bonus level and we are treated to sped-up close-ups of arse fondling and screams of ecstasy that sound like trapped animals.

Oh the music, I almost forgot. This movie has one of the most iconic scores ever heard, primarily because it's been nicked from a load of other movies. This quilt of a soundtrack features cues from Dawn of the Dead, Deathwish 3, Psycho, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. And these aren't subtle lifts but uses of tracks like The Murder (Psycho), The Battle of Yavin (Star Wars) and Desert Chase (Raiders).

Super Ninja has pretty much everything I want from a ninja movie, some memorably weird moments and I dig the whole Bad Dudes Vs. Dragonninja vibe. It's as gold as Metal's pyjamas.

Ninja Abilities – Tree climbing, Arrow catching, super leaping, flight, teleportation, burrowing, water skiing, fireball generation.

Ninja Kit – Katana, bow, sickle on chain, sai, smoke bombs, staff, grappling hook, claws, spring board, axes, nunchaku, grenade launchers.

Ninja Colours –White, black, red, gold. blue, camo.

Notable Ninja Kills – Neck slice, double decapitation, bannister slide, crushing elbow to chest, three swords in one gut, person exploded by fireball.

Ninja Activity? – High

Ninja Mythology - Ninjas consider themselves exempt from copyright laws.

Overall rating: - 10

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