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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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Cool Breeze (1972)

The Horror?! - 03/23/14
Freshly released from prison, criminal mastermind and sharp dresser Sidney Lord Jones (Thalmus Rasulala) already has a new big plan to steal jewellery worth three million dollars. With the help of people like whiny, religious bookie Finian (Sam Laws) and former Texan football player turned small-time tough Travis Battle (James Watkins), whatever could go wrong?

Everything, of course, for the heist always goes wrong. However, the trouble isn’t just with Jones’s plan, and the following interest of the police, but also with the little fact that the project’s money man, Mercer (Raymond St. Jacques) has plans of acquiring all the pretty loot for himself. Things probably won’t end too well for anyone involved.

This Gene Corman blaxploitation film directed by Barry Pollack (who didn’t exactly have much of a movie career before or afterwards, it seems) is based on the same novel as John Huston’s flawed classic The Asphalt Jungle but never really plays in the same league. The jury’s out if it’s even trying to, if it just goes for the exploitative thrill of being a blaxploitation version of a revered Old Hollywood classic (which I’d approve of quite a bit, actually), or if somebody involved just thought the novel’s plot the archetypal heist movie story and structure, so why not use it.
In fact, to my eyes, the film’s main problem is that it doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind which of these three things it wants to be, and instead meanders back and forth between these approaches, while adding some comedy cops. Even though I think adding comically stupid white people to an exploitation movie is a time-honoured way to pay back some of the indignities people of colour had to suffer through in the movies, it doesn’t exactly help an already imbalanced film. Lincoln Kilpatrick’s (black) Lt. Knowles is a lot more convincing but the film muddles up his role and character too by only mentioning his corrupt ways in an off-side manner late in the movie when he’s putting pressure on Finian, which to my mind is just sloppy writing.

It’s this sloppiness that is the script’s main problem more often than not, leading to a film that just blithely wanders around the best bits of the movie it remakes (or of the novel it adapts), only from time to time stepping into the right spots, making changes seemingly at random and in spaces where there just isn’t any other way to go about things a few decades later. It would, for example, be too awkward even for Cool Breeze to cast James Watkins as a cowboy, so they go with the in itself rather clever “poor farming country boy with football talent he never truly managed to live up to” variant; too bad the film doesn’t know where to take this, nor how to fit it in with its various other elements.

Despite these major problems, Cool Breeze does have some recommendable aspects, too. The 70s atmosphere is as strong as in any blaxploitation flick, with some choice, naturalistically real feeling locations and the kind of period detail these films generally achieved by just going out and shooting, and don’t mind if you’re allowed to or not. Taken singly, and if you just pretend a movie’s single scenes don’t have to make a whole together, there are also some fine moments in the film. The scene between Knowles and Finian I already mentioned is, for example, tough and unpleasant, suggesting a lot of history between these two men, and telling no friendly lies about what kind of people the men involved are.
It would of course be much better if that scene and others of similar quality would ever add up to a movie with a coherent personality (or you know, a coherent mood, tone, theme, or plot), but then, those movies don’t give us a theme song where Solomon Burke declares someone is looking “like a cool dude”, so there’s something to be said for Cool Breeze’s approach.

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The Weekly Crapup – 004 – The Knights of Badassdom and The Plague Dogs

Internal Bleeding - 03/22/14
In this crapup, Dave speaks upon Thor: The Dark World and LARPing, and Sean waxes philosophical about NBC's Believe amongst other thangs.  Then we talk about our reviews of Knights of Badassdom, and The Plague Dogs. Links to shit we talked about: Intelligence Believe Links to the Reviews Knights of Badassdom The Plague Dogs
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Assignment Naschy (sort of): La herencia Valdemar & La herencia Valdemar: La sombra prohibida (2010)

The Horror?! - 03/22/14

A man assessing the antiques in an old mansion somewhere in rural Spain disappears; then the woman called in to do his job disappears as well. The company both worked for doesn’t like the police but calls in a private detective who will spend a very long train journey listening to a melodramatic flashback about the sordid history of the house with cameos by Aleister Crowley, Lizzie Borden, Bram Stoker and poor H.P. Lovecraft, as if his actual life hadn’t been crappy enough. People run through the woods. A guy talks to manikins. Cthulhu is embarrassed by a really bad cult. Three hours of my life just disappeared.

On paper, I should be all over this. Cthulhu Mythos stuff, the late 19th Century occult boom and Gothic horror, all the things this film in two long and tedious parts is built on are pretty much catnip to me. Add to it the – I think – final appearance of the great Paul Naschy as loveable butler, and I should be in some sort of movie heaven singing the praises of some deity, at the very least.

Unfortunately, what La herencia Valdemar truly is, is tepid, overlong and boring, a film so lacking in control it feels the need to bloat up a ninety minute story into two ninety minute films full of pointless overlong scenes of nothing of import happening, and a lot of side-business that should have ended on the editing room floor. You’d think the filmmakers would have noticed they had a problem when they could summarize film one at the beginning of film two in about a minute without leaving out anything important, but then you’d probably think people with enough of a budget for the films’ very pretty photography and set design would have enough of a clue not to let their work pointlessly sprawl into various flashbacks, add lots of characters with no use to the story at hand at all, and would actually not let every scene run on and on and on and on for what feels like hours.

Tonally, the films are just as much of a mess, wildly meandering from way-to-overcooked melodrama to “ironic” winking at the audience, pointless attempts at the grotesque, and sheer stupidity, resulting in a double-film nobody involved – certainly not director José Luis Alemán – seems to have any control over, nor even just a simple idea of what kind of film this is actually supposed to be.

I do assume the idea wasn’t to make a draggy, boring and tedious one, at least, though that’s exactly what I just waded through.

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On ExB: Phoenix the Warrior (1988)

The Horror?! - 03/21/14

aka She Wolves of the Wasteland

Ah, the cheap, female-led post-apocalyptic low budget film, a genre that’s closer to my heart than it deserves. The film I’m talking about in this week’s column over at the glorious Exploder Button is a particularly fine example of the form, as full of nonsense and joy as the end of the world and the resulting clothing shortages allow.

So I suggest you click on over and take a look.

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Three Films Make A Post: Aliens Invade! Mankind fights back!

The Horror?! - 03/20/14

The Wolverine (2013): After the apocalypse of crap that was the first Wolverine movie, I didn't expect anything at all from James Mangold's sequel, so it was a rather pleasant surprise to find it to be a highly entertaining mix of action movie tropes, good-natured Japan clichés, appropriate comic book silliness, and even half-way poignant moments. Add to these points the production's decision to cast the Japanese characters with actual Japanese actors instead of any Asian looking guy or girl they could grab from the street, and the (for contemporary blockbuster cinema) surprising amount of time The Wolverine has for its female characters. The film has reached the point where Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima are actual female leads again, and not just the girls on screen to look pretty and motivate the lone hero.

And isn't it a fine thing too that the film's usually very lone hero actually needs a lot of help to get by, which the film treats as a strength and not as a weakness?

The World's End (2013): I think I've repeatedly gone on record as a big admirer of Edgar Wright, so it won't come as much of a surprise to anyone that I really, really like the last film in the thematic trilogy that started with Shaun of the Dead. Having said that, I also think it’s fortunate the film at hand is the final film in the thematic trilogy because it's hard not to see that things begin repeating themselves now, and it's probably good Wright is doing something probably quite different next with Ant-Man (as he did, to be fair, with Scott Pilgrim, a film many sad people seem to hate for reasons inexplicable to me). At this point, The World's End repeats Wright's favourite themes and character types on a still highly entertaining and clever level. It's also at its core probably Wright's saddest movie, though this is the kind of film that really isn't out to make its audience sad; the sadness is just there if you're of the temperament to see it.

Children of the Night (1991): Tony Randel's vampire horror comedy is a bit of a strange egg. Tonally, it rather undecidedly jumps from broad small town satire to gore to really stupid comedy to slightly less stupid comedy to grotesque semi body horror to dark fairy-tale and back again, putting quite a few moments of actual magic in between triteness, annoying stupidity and stupid fun. The permanent tonal shifts make it impossible to a) get a very good grip on the movie as a whole and b) to ever be as much drawn into the film's very weird world as one would wish. Still, there's as much to like as to hate in here, and this is the sort of small town horror movie whose true hero isn't one of its theoretical leads (Peter DeLuise and Ami Dolenz), nor Karen Black chewing scenery, but Garrett Morris as said small town's black town drunk. Which is to say, a film worth fighting through the unfunny moments for the actual surprises it contains.

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The Cyclops (1957)

The Horror?! - 03/19/14

Even though her fiancée Bruce has disappeared in plateau somewhere in Mexico, Susan Winter (Gloria Talbott) is convinced he is still alive. She manages to get together three men to help her with a small expedition into the area. These are Russ Bradford (James Craig), a bacteriologist and old friend of Bruce’s who is in love with Susan and is really coming along to prove his friend’s death, alcoholic stock market trader Marty Melville (Lon Chaney Jr.), out to find some uranium, and hired pilot Lee Brand (Tom Drake).

After some trouble with the local governor, the quartet barely manage to land where they want to go – turns out having Lon Chaney Jr. grabbing the control stick of one’s plane in mid-flight is not a good thing. But hey, at least there’s more uranium to be found here than Marty could ever have dreamed of! In a strange coincidence, there’s also a frightening amount of preposterously giant fauna around. After boring interpersonal problems and too much footage of “giant” animals slaughtering one another, our heroes finally meet the titular personage (Duncan “Dean” Parish), though the “cyclops” really is a giant guy with a half melted face and brain damage. You’ll never guess who he was before the glories of radiation had their way with him.

Bert I. Gordon’s The Cyclops is a bit of a shame, for it puts a rather interesting and effective twenty minutes of film behind forty minutes going on two-hundred of library footage of planes, pointless feet-dragging, and the kind of interpersonal conflict that doesn’t even make sense if you believe every character in the film to be a fool as well as an arsehole.

Worse, the film’s early three hours of running time are mostly dull as dishwater with scenes that shouldn’t have been in the movie in the first place going on for far too long while little of importance to character, theme, plot or audience enjoyment happens. It’s, as is regularly the case with Gordon’s films for me, particularly frustrating because the director actually was one of the more visually dynamic ones of his time and budget bracket, talents that are wasted when there isn’t anything in Gordon’s own script to actually apply them to. The animal slaughter involved doesn’t exactly help improve things, adding a degree of unpleasantness that still manages to be pretty dull, adding insult to the injury of animals dying for our enjoyment by not containing even the suggestion of enjoyability.

The thing is, once the actual film begins about forty minutes of real time in, the still conscious viewer is actually treated to something worthwhile. Jack H. Young’s “cyclops” make-up is as gruesome as anything I’ve seen in a film from this era, really making the so-called monster look like the victim of radiation damage, enabling the film to make its so-called monster painfully human at the moments when it counts. And make no mistake, this make-up, the big guy’s background and his unceasing desperate grunting (thought up in a time when sound design generally was an afterthought), as well as his undeserved end combine not just into one of the sadder giants in Gordon’s giant-rich filmography, but reach a point amounting to actual tragedy; which is no mean feat given that the giant also has an embarrassing wrestling match with a python (or is it a boa?).

I find this aspect of the movie so surprisingly dark, so effective in its darkness, and so atypical for 50s horror/SF films I’d nearly be willing to suggest it’s worthwhile wading through the dullness that comes before. At the very least, this part of The Cyclops illustrates that Gordon, despite what people - including myself - often unfairly suggest had ambitions as a filmmaker beyond making a quick buck by showing giant or tiny things.

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In short: Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)

The Horror?! - 03/18/14

After taking a time-out in the last movie, our old friend He Who Walks Behind the Rows is back again. Unfortunately, the mysterious Godhood's return to kids' favourite corn-based horror series isn't all one would have hoped for.

For one, He (as his friends call him) is now some sort of living flame thing, which must be awkward when you're a mysterious power living in a cornfield. Consequently, He now lives exclusively in a corn silo, stinking up the neighbourhood while waiting for his followers to throw themselves down into the silo once they reach that horrible age of eighteen. This time around, there's one exception to the age rule though, because the production was able to hire David Carradine for ten minutes of sitting in a comfy chair, which he does while doing a cult leader shtick, until his head splits open and a fire-breathing something burns a hole into useless sheriff Fred Williamson's head, which might be the one scene that makes this rather tepid and boring outing worth watching.

I really don't know what it is with the film's whole obsession with fire anyhow, seeing as He will also be beaten (until the inevitable, lame kicker ending, of course) by fire ("fight fire with fire", the film helpfully explains), which makes even less sense than the whole cult this time around. The lameness of this film's cult also has a lot to do with the lameness of the supposedly creepy kids, or rather, the bored looking teenagers led by Adam Wylie playing a boring prophet named (I kid you not) Ezeekial as if he were a kid staring someone down playing with marbles.

All in all, it's so dispirited and dispiriting stuff, I'll even spare us all a plot synopsis, and only mention that you'll also get to see final girl Stacy Galina, Alexis Arquette, Eva Mendes, Ahmet Zappa, and Kane Hodder, if that sort of thing is important to you, but honestly, excitement lives elsewhere than in Ethan Wiley's movie.

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Music Monday: Painted Edition

The Horror?! - 03/17/14
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The Unknown (1946)

The Horror?! - 03/16/14

Some nasty business has been going on in the old Southern Martin family about two decades ago, leaving daughter Rachel (Karen Morley), and sons Edward (James Bell) and Ralph (Wilton Graff) in thrall of their dominating mother Phoebe (Helen Freeman) and in various states of mental un-health; the only sane member of the family is their black butler Joshua (J. Louis Johnson) - who is also one of the few black characters in 40s movies I’ve seen neither there to demonstrate the supposed superiority of the white cast, nor to provide the kind of comic relief that makes a boy want to slug the filmmakers. The interactions between said white cast and him are of course still rather painful to watch. Of the family, particularly Rachel is bad off, hearing the cries of her long lost baby daughter and having lost track of minor details like what decade it is quite some time ago, living in a kind of perpetual young womanhood.

Things change when the matriarch dies and the mysterious benefactor who financed her schooling orders young Nina Arnold (Jeff Donnell) to go to the reading of Phoebe’s will on the old Martin plantation. Nina, it turns out, is Rachel’s long lost daughter. Fortunately for Nina, her – still mysterious – benefactor has hired international men of adventure and private detectives Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and Doc Long (Barton Yarborough) to help and protect her, for there’s something very wrong in the house even if you ignore the whole decadence and madness vibe. The baby noises Phoebe hears seem to be quite real, for example, Nina’s new uncles are nasty old men beyond expectation, and somebody who likes to dress like a proto-giallo murderer is sneaking through the dark trying to kill our heroine.

The third and final Columbia movie based on the popular radio show I Love a Mystery, again directed by Henry Levin, changes up tone and style quite a bit, turning from the two-fisted charms of the pulpy mystery to the melodramatic joys of a – still pulpy so don’t worry – Southern Gothic old dark house tale.

One’s appreciation of this development will certainly depend on one’s sympathy for the type of melodrama that’s generally part and parcel of Southern Gothics, or rather, on one’s tolerance for the film’s broad application of it. The acting of everyone involved except for Donnell, Bannon and Yarborough – fittingly given their position as outsiders – is as broadly melodramatic as a film can get away with, more than just bordering on areas some viewers will read as camp and/or will feel decidedly uncomfortable with.

Melodrama’s the watch word not only for the acting: The Unknown’s plot and mood are just as melodramatic, which makes complete sense when you see both as an expression of the genre-mandatory decadence and madness (the beautiful twins, the film would probably call them), the feeling of a world moving on outside while the Martin family inside can’t – or won’t - move with it. In this context, it can hardly be an accident that Rachel specifically is trapped in a perpetual past. It also seems rather poignant to me that Nina’s addition to the family, as someone who is young and very much not part of the noble tradition of come-down slave-owning shits by anything but blood, is the thing that might drag at least some family members back to sanity and the world, unless they manage to drag her down with them.

Levin tells this tale with his usual professionalism but also a good sense for the appropriate shadowy mood. While you can’t exactly feel the decay of the house (40s low budget filmmaking in general being not really up to that particular task independent of the talent of the directors involved), Levin provides the film with its fair share of cheap yet effective Southern Gothic thrills, and never loses control of his scenery-chewing cast, unless you think letting them chew the scenery is already losing control of them.

It’s not what I expected of the final I Love a Mystery film, but The Unknown is a very pleasant surprise as a film that knows very well what it’s doing and does it well, too.

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