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Battle of the Last Panzer (1969)

The Horror?! - 04/16/14

Original title: La batalla del último Panzer

During the Allied invasion of France, at a point when Germany has been beaten back far enough that more than one soldier of their side knows which way the winds blows regarding the whole master race thing, a single Tiger tank finds itself caught behind enemy lines, and worse for the handful of soldiers involved, commanded by a Lieutenant (Stelvio Rosi) who is still a gung ho Nazi out to win a war that’s already lost.

Not surprisingly given these circumstances, the handful of soldiers decreases in numbers fastly, what with the good Lieutenant’s unwillingness to just surrender to someone. There are encounters with the French resistance, a village repeatedly in need to change the flag congratulating their newest conqueror/liberator, an innkeeper’s wife (Erna Schurer) with a bad taste in men to live out her existential crisis with, and much interpersonal wrangling. And that’s before the Americans get wind of the German tanks loose behind their lines and send in Guy Madison (as well as a dubious plan). It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that things will end badly.

If you are one of these sad people populating even sadder parts of the Internet demanding historical accuracy from your cheap Spanish war movies, and get in a tizzy when an on-screen Tiger isn’t an actual Tiger, or when soldiers wear the wrong helmets, or really, if you’re the kind of person who cares about the helmets people wear in a war movie instead of what any given film has to say about the people wearing those helmets, you’ll probably probably die of a heart attack watching this. Me, I’m made of sterner stuff when it comes to films that aren’t documentaries, and really don’t think the helmet makes the movie, though it is of course nice when a film can afford the money and care to find the right ones.

Really, José Luis Merino’s Battle of the Last Panzer is worth a bit of tolerance, seeing as it features a handful of moments of clever filmmaking and a script with some ideas of its own you don’t find in every World War II film - though generally more often in those made in Europe, because the filmmakers will approach the theme from a different direction, and perhaps with more mixed sympathies.

The film’s script is quite loosely structured, only escaping the description of “episodic” by not having all that much happen in it at all. However, the stretches of little happening with an undercurrent of watching psychological damaged people getting close to their breaking points, followed by violence, followed by little action again, which make up the film’s structure seem to fit the nature of the war as its German protagonists experience it quite well. Now, I’m not necessarily saying the script uses this structure on purpose, however, the impression while watching stays the same in any case. What I definitely am saying is that the film is more interested in the psychological pressure of the situation and exploring the strain of people in a situation built to crush them than in clever plotting. This approach works quite well for the film, too. It has its share of boring scenes, but also a cast of characters that is as a rule more complicated than you’ll find in most war movies.

The complicated relationship between Erna Schurer’s Jeanette and her husband, as well as the thing going on between her and the Lieutenant come to mind at once, or the fact that the Lieutenant is not just a deeply unpleasant Nazi thug (though he is that, too) but also shows moments of kindness. He also suffers from PTSD, something films generally seem to think is ennobling, and therefore only inflict on whomsoever they deign to be the good guy in any given situation, as if history (and hey, even World War II) wouldn’t make quite clear that monstrosity and vulnerability are both very human traits, and both traits can appear in the same person, perhaps even one entwined with the other so much it becomes difficult to tell which is which.

The violence here is generally not of the fun and adventurous sort, yet also keeping away from the kind of gruesomeness that produces a visceral reaction in its audience (one suspects there wasn’t a budget for the latter). It stays in a middle ground where violence is a bad thing, and war is hell, but there’s nothing spectacular or emotionally disturbing shown. There is, though, one blunt yet clever directorial trick in a scene that would have been a big (or biggish, with the budget involved here) violent action set piece in most films but turns it into something quite different, and arguably more interesting, here. When the Lieutenant and his surviving crew slaughter the French resistance members, Merino films the action through a simple red filter, turning what we see of the violence surreal and strange, and echoing the estrangement, and what I’ve read described as the tunnel vision of battle, of the men involved.

It’s difficult to disapprove of a film that exchanges a sure-fire moment of outward excitement for something like this, and for me, this scene is emblematic of Battle of the Last Panzer’s ambition as well as of its strengths. Not a bad thing for a cheap exploitation movie.

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Three Films Make A Post: Live by the gun. Die by the gun. Come back for more...

The Horror?! - 04/15/14

Machete Kills (2013): Objectively, there's not much of a difference between this one and the first adventure of mythical superman Danny Trejo. Subjectively, I didn't enjoy the second film nearly as much as the first one, or really, enjoyed it at all. It might be because some jokes don't get funnier by repetition, or because director Roberto Rodriguez has now completely fallen under the spell of urine-based colour schemes, and I never liked the colour yellow all that much, and certainly not to the exclusion of all other colours in the spectrum, or just because Machete really wasn't a film screaming for a sequel. In the end, I just didn't find much to enjoy in the film.

King Kong (1933): One thing I always forget about the Merian C. Cooper's and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong - probably because of its status as a "classic" - is how hard the film is working for its audience's enthusiasm. Willis O'Brien's special effects work is not just pioneering, it's also still overwhelming in the sheer number of effects and the pace with which they rain down on the audience after a necessarily slow first half hour. Once the film's middle is reached, the film’s sheer speed becomes so exhilarating, most of our blockbusters right now can only dream of it. Just a few of King Kong's contemporaries outside the musical genre managed to feel this alive, the film seemingly breathing pure energy and sheer enthusiasm for filmmaking as a visceral thing. Even after eighty years, it's still glorious.

Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return (1999): We don't know what happened to Children of the Corn films 6 to 665 but if they are anything like this outing, I'm rather glad they don't exist, for Kari Skogland's direct-to-video anti-epic is more than enough to convince me to keep away from films with the words "children" and "corn" in the title for the next few hundred years. I do appreciate that this film actually is a sequel to the earlier films, but its continuity is confused to say the least. Bizarrely, someone involved in the production decided to leave out the more interesting parts of the series' mythology, so there's little fun with creepy kids or cornfield-dwelling supernatural entities to be had (and what we get to learn about said cornfield-dwelling entity is so lame I would have preferred a complete absence). Instead we get, well, a lot of nothing consisting of some lame pseudo-shocks, many a non-surprising surprise, and the only visible effort to keep the prospective audience awake consisting of featuring Stacy Keach and Nancy Allen in roles that - again - amount to nothing of interest in a film beyond even trying to be vaguely entertaining.

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The Man Called Noon (1973)

The Horror?! - 04/13/14

aka Un hombre llamado Noon

A man (Richard Crenna) is nearly assassinated while making what looks like preparations for a classic western showdown. He barely manages to escape with his life and – after a somewhat nightmarish chase – finds himself sharing a hobo-style train ride with the surprisingly friendly outlaw Rimes (Stephen Boyd). The man does need all the help he can get, it seems, for a grazing shot to the head has left him without memory; he only remembers that his name is Jonas, and that someone named Janish was involved in the attack on him, but apart from that he has no idea what’s going on with him whatsoever.

Rimes takes Jonas with him to the ranch of Fan Davidge (Rosanna Schiaffino), which just happens to be a place a certain Janish has turned into a safe house for his bandit gang - without Fan’s consent. Janish isn’t on the ranch right now, but various dangerous developments suggest that Jonas is actually a gunman called Noon. At the very least, he has very practical experience with meting out brutal violence, and is certainly a ruthless man.

Both traits will come in handy once various people start trying to kill Noon while he’s trying to solve the mystery of his own identity; a gold treasure is involved too.

Peter Collinson’s British-Italian-Spanish co-production (of course shot in Spain) The Man Called Noon is quite an interesting film. An adaptation of a Louis L’Amour novel, the film stands with one foot in the realm of the psychological western as made in the United States during the 50s, with the other – particular when it comes to its depiction of violence - in the world of the Spaghetti western. Collinson made quite a few fine genre films that often seem to straddle eras and sub-genres the way Noon does, never quite reaching the heights that give one posthumous cult status as a director, but generally turning out films at least worth watching.

Noon certainly is, despite being marred by a slightly overcooked finale that contains more melodramatic posturing than the rest of the film together. Outside of the finale, the film is tight, yet often growing unreal and dream-like. Particular some of the scenes of violence are filmed with stylistic methods you can often see connected with dream sequences, suggesting its action taking place in Noon’s (to leave it at that name) mind as much as in the outside world.

Even outside the action scenes, Collins tends to position his camera at peculiar angles, shooting very traditional western scenes in uncommon ways that turn the often seen into something a bit stranger. I suspect it’s an attempt to let the audience share some of Noon’s confusion, the befuddlement of someone who still knows the rituals of his job and genre by instinct, but doesn’t know what they’re actually meant for. From time to time, Collinson overdoes this a bit and things threaten to feel a bit silly, but the largest part of the film expresses a peculiar mood of alienation very much its own, with Noon stumbling through a fun house mirror world quite like a noir protagonist who isn’t at all sure anymore if he’ll want to find the truth about himself. Although, it has to be said, Noon lets its main character off quite lightly in the end.

Richard Crenna does a good job on the acting side, believably embodying Noon’s state of confusion and basic decency as well as the coldness and ruthlessness he only still remembers as reflexes. Crenna’s performance even suggests another dimension the script doesn’t really seem to be interested in: that forgetting parts of what he was is exactly what enables Noon to change and possibly find a future, his loss of memory helping him regain some buried part of his humanity (while killing a lot of people, of course).

As a fan of European genre cinema of the era, I’m also happy with the rest of the film’s cast, the well-known faces of Farley Granger, Rosanna Schiaffino, Aldo Sambrell and last but not least Patty Shepard, who gives a pretty unhinged performance as capital-e evil Peg Cullane. Why, Shepard’s so evil, she even owns an adorable black cowboy outfit she wears when she’s out doing evil!

And if that doesn’t sound like a recommendation, I don’t know what does.

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In short: Tom yum goong 2 (2013)

The Horror?! - 04/12/14

Kham’s (Tony Jaa) peaceful country life is disturbed when another gang of evildoers steals his elephant. This time around, the bad guys around a certain LC (RZA, because why hire an actor and martial artist when you can get a rapper who can’t act and is shit in his action scenes presumably for free because he’s an – admirably – big martial arts fan) want to use the poor elephant to blow up some foreign politicians. The elephant bomb is not the most stupid thing in the movie.

If you expected Tom yum goong 2 to be a return to form for Tony Jaa and director Prachya Pinkaew, there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed, for it’s rather overly polite to call the film not very good. It’s not just that RZA – whose love for martial arts movies, it turns out, doesn’t make up for him being crap in them - makes a horrible main bad guy. There’s also the fact that for every fun stupid action movie idea, the film has three ideas that are just stupid, the trouble the films plot has to even connect the action scenes decently, and that Pinkaew’s direction seems rather disinterested.

The action itself fluctuates between the by now routine Thai choreography style, badly integrated CGI, and too many moments that are clearly meant to impress the audience with their stupid awesomeness (I’ll just say burning feet) but mostly feel like acts of a filmmaker trying way too hard and embarrassing himself with it. It’s a shame too, for there are a handful of moments in the fights that still show the brilliance early Pinkaew/Jaa had. Unfortunately, these moments are never where any given scene stops, because each and every fight here goes on way past its welcome, editing things down looking like a lost art.

Last and worst, if you were hoping that the casting of JeeJa Yanin beside Jaa would lead to either some awesome team-ups or awesome fights between the two, like I did in my naiveté, you will also be disappointed, for JeeJa spends most of her fights being everyone’s punching bags in what I can only see as a desperate attempt to make Jaa look more impressive. Well, at least it fits the film’s series of other wasted opportunities.

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On ExB: Gold of the Seven Saints (1961)

The Horror?! - 04/11/14

I’m really not watching enough US westerns, despite the genre offering many obvious treasures I still haven’t encountered yet. On the positive side, this does mean that when I do watch one, I more often than not get to see very fine films like Gordon Douglas’s Gold of the Seven Saints, a film that finds Roger Moore doing a horrible Irish accent, yet still turns out to be quite fantastic, for the very first time.

What makes the film at hand particularly fine I explain in this week’s column over at Exploder Button, so just click on through, ahem, pardner!

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DeepStar Six

Internal Bleeding - 04/11/14
In the middle of the ocean, thousands of feet beneath the surface of the water, a navy outpost is 2 months behind schedule.  The mission a matter of national security - installing defense missiles on the ocean floor to thwart an attack from outside our country.  While scouting the location and prepping the the installation, […]
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Salt in the Wound (1969)

The Horror?! - 04/10/14

aka The Liberators

aka War Fever

Original title: Il dito nella piaga

World War II, somewhere in Italy. Lieutenant Michael Sheppard (George Hilton), freshly arrived at the front from West Point, manages to bring himself into quite a bit of trouble on his very first mission, getting the shooting squadron he commands killed by sheer obstinacy, and ending up having to team up with the two men he was supposed to have being shot – Corporal Brian Haskins (Klaus Kinski) and Private John Grayson (Ray Saunders).

After various violent misadventures the not exactly loving trio ends up “liberating” a small Italian village. Here, the cynical Haskins learns he still has love, though probably not much decency, in his heart, and Grayson finds himself protecting a little boy, while Sheppard just might learn something about the realities of the lives of people not born into the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, the soldiers’ new found self-realizations and the peaceful village life that makes them feel like human beings again might not amount to much for them in the long run, for a German combined arms unit is closing in to “liberate” the village right back.

Salt in the Wound is one of the clear highpoints in the storied career of Italian genre film director Tonino Ricci. Ricci was one of those low budget filmmakers who could turn out pretty horrible crap, but when provided with an interesting script, actors actually there to act (if only a little), and a smidgen of money, his films ended up rather interesting, or even – as in this particular case – pretty damn great. Ricci, going by the resulting films, was putting as much visible effort into his films as the budgets allowed, with many a beautiful shot of unbeautiful things, and much clever – if not exactly subtle – editing. Competence (and more) in the required action scenes is pretty much a given in this context anyway.

A large part of Salt’s effectiveness does of course rest on its acting ensemble, with fine, multi-dimensional performances by Hilton and Saunders and a Kinski palpably enjoying to be allowed to show other emotions in a genre film beyond craziness; though Klaus does of course do craziness here too, and even particularly fine. That’s probably because the film actually gives him (as well as Saunders) opportunity to show where all the violence he expresses comes from. Having said that, I suspect people not fond of the ways of Italian genre cinema will not be satisfied with even these performances, for while the film has some interesting ideas of its own, and its characters are more multi-dimensional than in a shoot ‘em up style war film, it shows these things in the most unsubtle ways possible, with many an opportunity for melodramatics for everyone involved. For me, this approach fits the themes involved well. I also don’t believe war movies are a very good place for emotional subtlety (not to be confused with psychological subtlety), with melodrama’s heightened emotional states rather more fitting to the experiences the characters in these films go through.

Watching Salt, I found particularly impressive how little this film with a traditional “redemption through violence” plot actually believes in violence as being redemptive, eschewing that idea not only in the final scene when the film’s last survivor of our protagonists puts his new medal unto the grave of an unknown soldier (who just might have been one of our other protagonists). For a film of its style, Salt seems honestly and deeply bothered by the cost of violence, not just as a melodramatic gesture but at its actual emotional core. It is hardly a sign one can misinterpret that the film’s most directly redemptive moment for any of its characters is when Saunders breathes life back into a little boy, a thing that – in a film from a very Catholic country that starts quoting from the bible and sees Saunders character struggling with the difference between his religious belief and the way the world is – is hardly an accident, and is pretty much the opposite of redemption through violence.

It’s also rather uncommon in the genre to not just show bad men (or rather “bad men”) redeem themselves in dubious manner, but for a film in it to actually show why these men probably weren’t quite right even before the war began. Again, it’s all very melodramatically realized, but it’s also effective and thoughtful.

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In short: C.I.D. Raju (1971????)

The Horror?! - 04/09/14

This film can and should be watched on YouTube right now. I don’t know about the legality of the whole affair, but then if some company subtitled this and brought it out on DVD or BluRay (one can dream, right?), I’d buy the hell out of it.

I only write up films I watched in a language I don’t speak without the help of subtitles in very special cases, but a thing as inspired as this Telugu effort by K.S.R. Doss does deserve a mention as well as a YouTube link, so I’ll drop a few words that’ll hopefully entice some of you to give the film a shot. Even though I didn’t have a clue about what was going on in C.I.D. Raju for most of its running time (and neither did my watchalong partner, the ever inspiring Beth of Beth Loves Bollywood), Doss’s hyperkinetic direction that at times reminded me of Eisenstein or Universal horror (or perhaps their over-enthusiastic Indian brother) and sure loves swirling more than sainted Andy Milligan, keeps things decidedly exciting even if you don’t speak the language. The film’s series of serial-like but even more hectic and pleasantly ridiculous fight scenes, copious moments of bug eyes, all-around pleasant insanity and bizarre stuff that certainly wouldn’t be any less bizarre once I understood why it’s happening, speak the international language of Awesome anyhow. Or really, in the case of a film this enthusiastic and unafraid to be loud, shrill, and melodramatic, I should probably speak of shouting rather than speaking.

If you enter Doss’s wondrous world, you will – hopefully - be delighted by things like the film’s ass kicking heroine (where’s Die Danger Die Die Kill’s Todd to tell me what her name is when I need him?) kicking ass in improbable yet inspiring ways (which are always the best ways), turning into a ghost with not one, but two, musical numbers, many guys with huge pompadours, a main bad guy who dresses like a cowboy (for reasons I hope the film never explains), a monster looking through very large holes in a way Alfred Vohrer would highly approve of (and mauling people in also improbable yet inspiring ways), national stereotyping only the most po-faced could be outraged by, a soundtrack that of course includes a bit that sounds a lot like the James Bond theme but also includes surf guitar and a farfisa organ, and only very few seconds in which the camera holds still, leading to two-and-a-half-hour movie that just blasts by while you’re having fun.

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On Fist of B-List: Night of the Kickfighters (1988)

The Horror?! - 04/07/14

In the spirit of jolly cooperation that dominates M.O.S.S., today finds me reciprocating Karl Brezdin’s piece about Kinji Fukasaku’s Black Lizard with a post of my own over at the glorious Fist of B-List.

So if you want to learn what happens during the Night of the Kickfighters – and it is inspirational indeed – please follow this handy link.

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Three Steps in the Dark (1953)

The Horror?! - 04/06/14

Horrible old man Arnold Burgoyne (Nicholas Hannen) summons his family to his mansion for a charming family dinner, or rather, to ruin as much of their lives as he can, and not for the first time. Some of them, like mystery novel writer Sophy (Greta Gynt) are independent enough of the old bastard to be able to assume the position of annoyed bystanders, but people like Arnold’s nephew Henry (John van Eyssen) are in the rather more unlucky position to actually need Arnold’s approval and money.

Consequently, Arnold quite disapproves of Henry’s marriage plans with former stage dancer/actress with another secret Esme (Hélène Cordet) in the most frightful manner and does his very worst to ruin the relationship with monetary threats. Why, he has his lawyer right there to change his will if Henry doesn’t behave.

In a turn of events that doesn’t surprise anyone, some benefactor of humanity shoots Arnold before he actually can change his will. This, together with some thin circumstantial evidence, does turn Henry into the main suspect of Scotland Yard inspector Forbes (Alastair Hunter). Sophy, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in the theory at all and puts all her powers of deduction to work to counteract the policeman’s theories. Given the kind of person her uncle was, Sophy isn’t so much interested in finding the true killer as in protecting her family, but she’ll find out the truth anyway.

On more than one level, Daniel Birt’s Three Steps in the Dark is your typical British B-movie (in the actual sense of the term) of the early post-war years, with an old fashioned mystery plot, generally decent acting, taking place in slightly cramped sets and containing a rather obvious mystery that is solved quite unspectacularly too. Birt’s direction isn’t much to write home about either, showing few stylistic flourishes or much visual imagination. At least, there’s no feet dragging, though, and the director does keep things moving, which is a feat in a film as talky as this one.

It’s really the talk that’s most interesting about Three Steps, or rather, the tone of the talk is. For while the dialogue isn’t exactly scintillating, it is snarky and sarcastic nearly throughout the whole film, with characters being politely rude to each other more often than not. It’s quite fun to watch and to listen to, particularly when it is delivered with the clear delight of Greta Gynt (who has grown to be one of my favourites among British actresses in this kind of B-movie) who is even allowed to combine a sharp tongue with the sharpest mind of all characters on screen without having to assume the role of the femme fatale nor falling into the sensuously neutral Miss Marple role.

The film’s rather amoral tone is quite remarkable too, with only very little – and very possibly only polite – disapproval shown for the murder of Arnold, and quite a bit more excitement for the less savoury parts of the lifestyles of the rich and idle than strictly nice. In fact, given the strictness of the British censorship regime of the time, I can’t help but imagine that the film would really rather like to be like one of the later Italian giallos of the sub-type that was all about the joys of loudly disapproving of the lifestyle of the rich while getting off on it at the same time, if only the times had allowed for actually showing any of the really fun stuff. As it stood, Three Steps just had to make do with what it could, and showed a bunch of not unsympathetic characters being snarky and not caring too much about a murder beyond questions of convenience.

Turns out that’s more than enough to entertain at least me for an hour of running time, even sixty years after Three Steps in the Dark was shot, which is surely more than the people involved in the film ever had ambitions for.

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In short: The Internecine Project (1974)

The Horror?! - 04/05/14

Professor Robert Elliot (James Coburn) is an up and coming star of the military-industrial complex, soon to be promoted into a highly influential US government position. Unfortunately his overlords (represented by Keenan Wynn) need him to get rid of the four people in London who helped him with his own personal, and highly effective, mix of espionage, industrial espionage (in a clever nod to realism, the film doesn’t treat these two things as independent of each other) and good old blackmail.

Elliot, true believer in his own superiority that he is, decides the best way to get rid of his soon to be former associates is a complicated plan that will result in all of them killing one another in a single night with not a trace pointing to Elliot himself. As it goes with these plans, things go well until they don’t go well anymore.

Ken Hughes’s British/German co-production turns your typical 70s paranoia into a crime procedural very much like a nastier heist movie. For most of the time, the result is a deeply focused film, perhaps at times even too deeply focused, with only limited space to get an actual feel for James Coburn’s character.

The film’s only actual detour is Elliot’s relationship with his former girlfriend, journalist Jean Robertson (Lee Grant) but instead of revealing much about Elliot, or even just humanizing him, the scenes between the two don’t add much more than a distraction. I honestly don’t know what the writers were trying to achieve with the subplot. As it stands, it mostly seems there to deflate the tension every twenty minutes or so.

Which really is a bit of a shame, for the rest of the movie is very tense indeed, with Hughes using simple yet effective traditional thriller tricks to string the audience along while not keeping anything about Elliot’s plan secret. I don’t think contemporary thriller writers could even conceive of keeping tension without holding things back or adding twists to a plot, so if nothing else, The Internecine Project’s clearer approach does feel novel again in a movie, at least from the perspective of 2014.

The only real twist here is how Elliot gets his comeuppance in the end. Given when this was made, I was actually a bit surprised things didn’t end well for him, how ever much I was hoping for an ignominious result to his exploits.

The film’s politics are of course 70s standard fare of the type you could still use in a movie today without anyone complaining it to be too far fetched. Alas or fortunately – depending on your tastes – the politics here aren’t explored very deeply, and are only ever used to enable the plot. Which is perfectly alright in a film as effectively plotted as The Internecine Project is.

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In short: Avengers from Hell (1981)

The Horror?! - 04/03/14

Original title: 鬼域

Avengers from Hell is a three story omnibus Shaw Brothers feature directed by Lee Pooi-Kuen from the studio’s decadent late period, though this one’s really more competent and routine than decadent.

The first story concerns a rookie beat cop’s (Alex Man Chi-Leung) intense obsession with a haunted house and the resident ghost of a murdered woman (Lee Yin-Yin), the sort of thing that will need an intervention by his girlfriend (JoJo Chan Kei-Kei) sooner or later.

The second one is another tale of a philandering Hong Kong business man (Phillip Chan Yan-Kin) cheating on his pregnant wife on foreign soil (though it’s the Philippines for a change), killing his mistress (Lily Chan Lee-Lee) over a pregnancy, and soon having to fend off a pissed off ghost you’d probably root for over him if it hadn’t nasty plans for his wife too.

The third one is the comedic close-off of the whole affair with the tale of luckless elderly gentleman Liang Jiu (Lau Hak-Suen) who finds a pair of glasses that brings him in contact with a ghost who will finally help him win at gambling for once. Hot mah-jongg action is of course to follow.

As the basic plots of the film’s segments suggest, Avengers from Hell isn’t a long lost classic of Shaw Brothers horror but rather the sort of quickly shot, competently made film the studio’s exploitation arm excelled at this late in its existence (one could argue throughout it); it’s also the sort of film nobody involved took for anything more than another job to fill some cinema slots when nothing more profitable came around.

Fortunately, everyone involved was at least a professional, so the film might not be all that original, but it is neither lackluster nor boring nor seems too disinterested. Director Lee Pooi-Kuen provides some pleasant moments of lurid fun – although this isn’t the sort of Hong Kong horror film that becomes more than mildly unpleasant and never gets really icky at all -  and keeps everything moving along nicely and not without a degree of visual style.

All the while, the thirty minute segments never overstay the welcome of their basic set-ups, so while it is rather difficult to become very excited about Avengers from Hell, or find hidden depths in it, it’s also rather difficult to not be entertained by it on the basic level it wants to entertain.

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Mysterious yet orderly guest post: Black Lizard (1968)

The Horror?! - 04/02/14

Every member of The Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit is grand in her or his specific way, so for March (or for slow pokes like me, April) we decided to invite other members of that glorious organization to do a guest stint in our respective endeavours. So today, I'm proud to present to you Karl Brezdin of the wonderful Fist of B-List (the place for all your low budget martial arts needs). Take it away, Karl:

It’s been said many times that a hero is only as good as his or her villain. While cliché, this is proven and provable! The films that brought us Skywalker-Vader, Creed-Balboa, and Matrix-Bennett are all examples of how contrasting characteristics bring balance to the relationships between protagonists and antagonists. The characters headlining Kinji Fukasaku’s 1968 crime film Black Lizard may or may not have chairs at the same table as the aforementioned duos, but they are definitely in the same restaurant. In news that will surprise no one, the food and cocktail pairings are really good there.

Kurosawa regular Isao Kimura plays Detective Akechi, a stern but clever everyman drawn into a strange plot after he’s hired by a wealthy jeweler named Iwase (Junya Usami) to protect his daughter, Sanae, (Kikko Matsuoka) from being kidnapped. The paranoid father also expects that Akechi, Japan’s “number one detective,” will also identify and apprehend the person behind numerous threatening letters to Iwase about the impending kidnapping. He suspects that someone is trying to extort him out of the Star of Egypt, a spectacular jewel that enhances everything from strapless ball gowns to replica basketball jerseys.

The source of the letters is a vivacious nightclub owner named Ms. Midorikawa (Akihiro Miwa) who moonlights as a criminal mastermind known as Black Lizard. She “acquires” precious stones and dresses to the nines at all times. Obsessed with the impermanence of human beauty, she laments the effects of anxiety and “spiritual weakness” on outer appearance; this neurosis is manifested in her secret collection of taxidermied lovers and cohorts from years past. Shes inevitably crosses paths with Akechi, and what follows is the cinematic 1960s Japanese crime-mystery equivalent of a H.O.R.S.E. game between Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. (Virtually everyone else in the story is a prop or a pawn). Their perspectives on criminal behavior are near-perfect mirror images, the dialogue underpinning their one-upsmanship crackles, and their adversarial dynamic evolves into something romantic.

Based on a screenplay by literary icon Yukio Mishima (itself based on the novel by Edogawa Rampo), Black Lizard was an engaging cinematic departure for this reviewer when considering the wider body of Fukasaku’s work. While the film is categorized as a comedy on several prominent websites -- none bigger than IMDb -- I’m not sure that label adhesive really has any sticking power after a critical viewing. There’s a certain visual campiness between the gaudy vibe of the Black Lizard’s island lair and her garish naked-and-neon nightclub, for sure. However, I found that neither the characters nor the dialogue necessarily suggested farce. The Black Lizard’s obsessions are shallow and creepy, and her tactics are usually brutal.

To that point, Akihiro Miwa is an absolute powerhouse as the titular Black Lizard. A drag queen icon in his native Japan, Miwa brings both elegant beauty and criminal calculation to a very dynamic role. His costumes are fantastic -- at one point looking like a ruffle-shirted clone of Purple Rain-era Prince -- and his line delivery is wonderfully over-the-top. This might be grating for some, but I thought it worked well opposite Kimura’s delivery of Akechi’s lines, which were a bit more downbeat, and I daresay dull. There’s a lot of voice-over monologue in this film too, but it’s thankfully more contemplative than expository. At one point, Fukasaku weaves his main characters’ separate thoughts together to make a more cohesive whole. The symbiotic relationship between Akechi and the Black Lizard is well-illustrated in both the narrative elements and the technical ones.

Those watching this film for signs of Fukasaku’s directorial trademarks might be a bit disappointed. The handheld technique on display in his Yakuza Papers films is mostly absent here, save for a lone scene of first-person perspective as a camera bobs down a long and colorful nightclub corridor. Beyond a colorful car chase and Sanae falling victim to an ether rag on more than one occasion, there’s very little choreographed action, and even less on-screen violence. Though this film is largely character-driven, we’re still left with a visually engaging piece of work. Fukasaku uses full and smart compositions in his shots, and balances the darkness of this criminal underworld with bright colors quite well. His idea of a coroner’s office is a little curious -- Akechi goes fact-finding in a dissection room containing what appears to be a bubbling hot tub of dead bodies that goes unacknowledged -- but the locations are varied and materials are put to good use. As is the case with a lot of Sherlockian and James Bondish films, some of the hijinx and convenient circumstances require a willfull suspension of disbelief from the audience, but they were consistent with the wild overall tone of the film.

One can only hope that Black Lizard’s growing cult status will help propel it towards a proper DVD release, and I’m not alone in thinking it would benefit greatly from a high-definition remastering by a prestigious label.

-- Karl Brezdin
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Internal Bleeding - 03/28/14
War.  War never changes.  And neither does introducing a new brand of killer into that war, the likes of which few have ever seen.  In the ongoing war between the Alliance and the NEB on planet Sirius 6B, self replicating, buzzsaw wielding robots who burrow underground were brought in to help sway the conflict to the Alliance's […]
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REVIEW: Raze (2013)

The Film Fiend - 03/27/14

Raze (2013)
Director: Josh C. Waller
Writers: Robert Beaucage, Kenny Gage, Josh C. Waller
Cast: Zoe Bell, Rachel Nichols, Tracie Thoms
Runtime: 87 Minutes

Synopsis: A secret organization kidnaps women and forces them to fight against their will. Not surprisingly, they're completely unhappy about the idea.

Thoughts: If you're looking for an action movie about female empowerment, then you should probably search elsewhere. Director Josh C. Waller's Raze is about women beating the crap out of each other for our twisted amusement. Thankfully, the movie is completely and thoroughly entertaining for all the right reasons. Of course, it's doubtful this admittedly stale material would have worked without the presence of the always-enjoyable Zoe Bell. The lady is simply a pleasure to watch on-screen, especially when she has an opportunity to act. Raze gives Bell a chance to stretch her legs a bit, though most of her time is spend pummeling women into the dirt. Which, of course, is exactly what everyone paid to see. Unfortunately, the flick has a surprisingly downbeat ending that pops up at the last possible second. It's probably the producers way of ensuring some sort of sequel, but its jarring nonetheless. Still, Raze is an incredible fight flick worthy of investigation from those who like their action cinema filled with attractive women.

Recipe For Success: Zoe Bell + Zoe Bell Punching Women in the Face + Doug Jones Doing His Best "Creepy Guy" Routine

The Film Fiend - Cinematic scribbling to stimulate your pineal gland.
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Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Horror?! - 03/24/14

please do not panic! Your host will take a short sick break. Normal service will resume when I’ve gotten rid of those pesky humansbacteria.

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