Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Wicked City (Tai Kit Mak, 1992)

Wicked City is a Chinese live action adaptation of a  Japanese animated series and it is one of the most fun 90 minutes (or so) you can spend in front of a screen. How fun you ask? Well, its opening scene features a gun battle with a prostitute-turned mutant spider-woman that ends in a decapitation. That fun.

It's not uncommon with films of this ilk to have a belter of an opener and then save everything up for the finale and in these cases the lure of a spider-sex worker might not be enough to keep you going through a sluggish middle. Fortunately Wicked City not only keeps the pace up but actually out-does each scene before it. Every moment in this movie is brimming with joyfully absurd choices that to look away, even blink, would deny your eyes cinematic pleasures you wouldn't believe have been committed to film.

Before we go any further, let's have a stab at the plot. A government agency made up of gun-toting psychic detectives are at war with a secret society of raptors; creatures that masquerade as humans but have bizarre and deadly powers. These raptors seem to have been organised into a crime syndicate and are themselves embroiled in a turf war with members of their own gangs. Into the fray bound our two heroes, both anti-raptor agents and both compromised in some way. One is half raptor while the other has fallen in love with a beautiful raptor woman. A beautiful raptor woman named Windy. Rather than explain why they call her this we are instead asked to cast our imaginations beyond the narrative frame to decide whether it is because she is as quiet and graceful as a soft breeze or because she has a serious lack of rectal integrity. World-building I believe it's called.

Many movies feature the battle between government organisations and their supernatural enemies but what makes Wicked City stand out is the powers the raptors possess. They can command cutlery to attack at will, generate laser finger nails, explode limbs and produce glowing fibre optic tendrils. One guy turns into a giant knife to battle a killer clock while mid way through the movie a belly dancer fires cogs as projectile weapons. There is even a scene where a man has sex with a part-woman part-pinball machine creature. Read that last part back. Got it? Man fucks a living pinball machine. If I'd have had anything to do with the marketing of this movie I'd have just written that in bold letters (maybe used Impact as the font) on the VHS cover.

And sex with arcade machines isn't where the weirdness stops! Like I said, this movie just keeps topping its last scene. The same woman (her ability seems to turn into machines with huge sexual appetites) later turns into an erotic lift and tries to ingest our two heroes, who have unwittingly entered her elevator car, in her fleshy semi-vaginal cabin. They are saved at the last minute by a heroic raptor who takes their place and rummages around in the gooey walls of her ascending mecha-vulva until he reconfigures her body into a sexy flesh motorbike. He then proceeds to ride it violently until he casts it/her off the top of a building where it/she burst into flame on impact with the ground. He then screams and goes bald instantly.

And breath.

That scene would ensure a lifetime of therapy for Sigmund Freud, along with the most complicated stiffy he'd ever experienced.

The movie may be utterly bonkers but it isn't incompetent. The visuals are evocative and the action sequences as thrilling as most early 90s Hong Kong genre movies. In particular there is a genuinely exciting docklands car chase featuring guns, stunts and laser-firing raptors. Even though it ends with the pursued car being shrunk into a tiny toy car and driven between the wheels of the pursuer's vehicle (another raptor power apparently) the sequence still manages to get the blood, and fists, pumping.

The finale, featuring a tentacle-legged lizard man fighting a Nosferatu-style dude atop a skyscraper and on top of and around an in-flight 747 is an amalgamation of all the movies strengths in one scene. It is at once absurd and brilliant, hilarious and thrilling.

Wicked City is a joyous mess of ideas and tones that brims with energy, imagination and scale. I have no idea what it is about but by god I know I love it.

Santo and the Vengeance of the Mummy (Rene Cardona, 1971)

Many years ago I came into possession of a lost map charting a perilous course through unknown lands to the tomb of an ancient King and a wealth of priceless treasures. Despite countless offers of support from qualified scientists and historians I took the one man I new would have the requisite skills to make the endeavour a success: WWF wrestler Ravishing Rick Rude. Many people thought this choice was a little out-of-left-field but for every criticism I received I referred them to the precedent set by Santo and the Vengeance of the Mummy.

Like every Santo movie we begin with a full length wrestling match seeing the Luchador in action. Although these matches are shot and cut in a fairly pedestrian way, and not having any real narrative value,  they remain quite athletic and interesting to watch. Fresh from his victory Santo is roped into helping unearth an ancient tomb. Donning his silver mask, white tights, wrestling boots and a safari jacket Santo sets off with the search party only to fall foul of rebellious locals and a re-animated mummy!

Santo movies often take a while to get going and this one is no exception. Between the opening ring action and any real monster antics there isn't much going on although here we are least treated to some nice sets. The caverns and campsites are all stagey but create atmospheric and evocative dioramas. And when the mummified shit does hit the fan it is extremely satisfying to watch. Since we are not dealing with Egyptian mummies the Producers are free to get creative with design and so this mummy is a skull-faced archer draped in hessian. This dude stealthily creeps about popping shafts into the hearts of the search party and getting all up in Santo's be-masked grill.

This leads to the eventual showdown where Santo, using all his knowledge of history, mythology and mummification practices, defeats the creature by wrestling the shit out of it. Santo movies may be low on production value and a little slow-paced, but the sight of watching a mexican wrestler tussle with a monster never fails to be fun.

In a Scooby-doo style twist, however, it is revealed that the mummy was really just a greedy member of the party wanting the riches for himself. This was at first disappointing but ultimately lead to my favourite scene in the movie. Having defeated the antagonist Santo, the love interest and a child walk back through the woods unaware that one final scare is in store. A corpse falls out of a tree and onto the kid. Santo rocks up and frees the child saying something to the effect of "Don't worry, this was just the real mummy. He must have placed him here when he switched places" and then walks off! Yeah, great Santo, that makes it all okay. I'm sure this kid won't have any lasting psychological or emotional damage as a result of having a thousand year old cadaver drop onto him. Santo; wrestler, tomb raider, historian and, it would appear, child therapist.

We end with another full wrestling match which is, again, devoid of any narrative relevance. The Santo movies are far from great, but the mix of sports footage and genre adventures is curiously engaging and always fun. This one in particular is enjoyable, if not totally up there with the best.

Friday, 5 February 2016

The Especially Shot Teaser

Fan culture has created a hive hunger, an all-consuming mass need for information relating to their preferred movies. Anticipation for trailers, and more importantly what new footage they contain, is frenzied and continues until after a film is released with talk about footage in the trailer that didn't make it to the final cut (and what this means in terms of eventual extended releases or Director's cuts). In response the industry likes to keep their products under wraps so that they have total control over any footage being released.

The result of this is that we rarely get trailers containing especially shot footage anymore. If a teaser is released prior to production it will normally come in the form of an animated logo, while additional material is shot on the cheap and featured as part of viral marketing. This was not always the case.

The especially shot teaser trailer was something of a trend in the eighties and nineties and helped build anticipation of a movie in advance of its completion. Back to the Future had a trailer that featured all the iconic elements of the movie, including Michael J. Fox, yet featured no actual footage. Or check out this one for Terminator 2 that was shot before the film went into production and cost more money to make than most low-budget movies do now.

The Thing kept it simple, creating an eerie atmosphere with a nicely controlled camera, some dry ice and a prop ice block. This trailer builds so much damn tension yet doesn't reveal anything.

Of course the problem is that a trailer like this can promise a movie that you don't actually end up getting. I remember being thrilled to see Godzilla's foot come crashing through that museum roof only to be severely let down by the movie itself. Or this teaser for Jason takes Manhattan that revels in the notion that Jason is going hack away at the Big Apple for 90 minutes when in reality it only features in the film's finale.

My absolute favourite, however, is for Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3. I haven't seen the full movie but only because I'm pretty sure it can't live up to the sheer awesomeness of this trailer.

Structured much like Jason's, this trailer pays off not with a turn and grimace but with the lady of the lake hurling a silver chainsaw into the sky. The mind boggles at how the narrative would explain that if this footage were to actually appear in the final cut but by god that is a movie I'd want to see.

The especially shot trailer isn't entirely dead, but the courting of fan anticipation means that it is used far more rarely. I'm not asking for a revival, I'm just asking for some appreciation of this creative marketing.

Oh and if someone could go ahead and make that version of Leatherface that would be great too.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis (Akio Jissoji, 1988)

Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis might seem like an odd recommendation especially when I spend most of this piece talking about how little of it I actually liked. It's a strange movie that doesn't really satisfy as a whole yet manages to push some very specific buttons of mine in some very satisfying ways.

As expected from a translation of a movie based on part of a series of books the plot is a little hard to decipher. From what I can gather an ancient evil is being summoned by a long dead M. Bison-a-like named Kato and it threatens to destroy the burgeoning new city of Tokyo. The movie makes this seemingly simple story utterly confusing as the film plods along. Its narrative is hard to penetrate, its two-hour plus running time a challenge not to try. So why write a review saying you should go out and watch it? Well what it gets right it gets really right. So much so I can actually see myself giving it a second viewing at some point in the future.

I love theatrical horror. Horror that doesn't always need to be horrible, or scary, but can depict a nightmarish plane of lurid imagery. From Universal to Bava, stopping off at Hammer on the way, I've always been more captivated by colour soaked mists and expressionistic shadows than a guy in a dirty apron hacking things off women. This is precisely why I love The Keep so much: not because it's a great story but because it takes me to a phantasmagoric world associated with horror merely because it's too dark to call fantasy.

And Tokyo has a lot in common, atmosphere-wise, with Mann's spectral wonder. Rich with stylised light and heavy on colour the film poses horror as a weird sub-reality in opposition against the normal hues and tones of the every day drama scenes. Whenever the narrative drained and my interest threatened to dry up I'd be confronted by an image so tuned into my specific aesthetic proclivities I could have sworn I was watching my favourite movie of all time.

A women in traditional Japanese dress running through a shower of sparks while in pursuit of a kidnapper, a pulsating mound - its cracks bleeding light into the night sky, a destroyed city washed in nuclear orange, any scene involving the maniacal Kato, all images I will never forget despite having no real recollection of what narrative threads connected them. There is also a shit-ton of stop motion and a robotic train for crying out loud.

Above all else I felt like I was watching a Lovecraft movie. Not in the superficial tentacles and libraries way, but because it showed us glimpses of a ghastly world bigger than we could comprehend. A world that sometimes emerged in small personal ways and sometimes in apocalyptic ways. And it is important not to ignore the scale and ambition of the movie. It reaches for epic and through incredible production value often achieves its goal.

It's slow, po-faced and incoherent yet scattered across this mess is some really evocative imagery that won't leave my brain. If you have the same weirdly specific tastes as me you might find Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis worth a try.