Friday, February 26, 2016

041. Atomic Rulers of the World and 042. Invaders From Space

041. Atomic Rulers of the World (1964)
From: Cult Cinema
042. Invaders From Space (1965)
From: Sci-Fi Invasion
Directors: Koreyoshi Akasaka, Teruo Ishii, and Akira Mitsuwa
Writer: IchirĂ´ Miyagawa

The leaders of the Emerald planet, fearing the effects upon their own planet of nuclear fallout on Earth, dispatch their creation, Starman, to save our planet from destruction.

The first two parts of the Starman tetralogy, the other two being Attack From Space and Evil Brain From Outer Space, all of them translations of the Japanese Super Giant series/serial. There were nine episodes of the Japanese original condensed into the four films released in the US. The first six episodes were three stories told in two parts which made them relatively easy to re-cut for US release. The last three, though, were each standalone stories and so made for a curious final product, but I'll discuss that when I get to Evil Brain From Outer Space.

This week is all about parts one and two: Atomic Rulers and Invaders From Space, respectively. Just starting with the basic plot, even the first movie feels like a sequel. Each movie starts with the same moment, maybe the same footage (I didn't compare them) of the alien tribunal of the Emerald planet debating a nuclear threat facing Earth. Because the radiation resulting from a nuclear attack on Earth would eventually filter through space and destroy the Emerald planet, they once again decide to send Starman to Earth to deal with the problem.

This is my first issue with the film. In the very first Starman movie, he's being sent to Earth again. What adventure did we miss? Also, since every movie in the series starts with him being sent to Earth, you gotta wonder why the leaders of the Emerald planet didn't just leave him there. None of the aliens on the Emerald planet look remotely human. Starman is specifically created to interact with Earth, but he never stays on Earth. Wouldn't it be easier just to have him remain on-site to deal with problems as they arise, informed of or alerted to issues by his bosses on the Emerald planet?

Also, what is this Emerald planet? They're described as wise, kind, and benevolent because they're sending Starman to save us all from nuclear threats, but it's always explicitly because if we're destroyed through nuclear attack, their planet will eventually die as well. We are saved only because our deaths would be problematic for the Emerald planet. If an alien force were coming to enslave all humans, but using conventional weaponry, the Emerald planet wouldn't be bothered. Hell, if the aliens of Bad Taste who came to Earth to market humans to the rest of the universe as fast food came down, the Emerald planet would be offering to open a franchise on one of their moons.

Anyway, both movies start there. In Atomic Rulers of the World, the evil nation of Meropol is planning to take over the Earth by threatening to detonate suitcase nukes in all the major cities if they're not put in charge. Starman is dispatched to stop them, which he does relatively quickly.

Starman is basically the Japanese Superman (comes from space to save the Earth, immune to bullets, is described as having clothes “made of steel”) only instead of stomping Nazis, he's fighting nuclear weapons, which, frankly, is kind of what you'd expect. Like Superman, he can't be harmed by mere mortals and, like Superman, becomes a really dull character because of it. Stories are interesting when there's risk. Since Starman can't be harmed, the risk has to be shoehorned into this first movie which is done by introducing the goddamn stupid kids.

Starman arrives on Earth, immediately finds the goons with the suitcase nuke, gets into a fist, then gun fight with them, both of which he proves invulnerable to, and he defeats the goons. During the fight, though, a group of passing orphans steal the suitcase and one of the discarded guns. They run back to the orphanage, but one of them trips and is captured by the goons.

Space Jesus stuffs his shorts for your sins
Meanwhile, Starman's magic radiation-detecting watch leads him to the children where he destroys the gun and takes the suitcase back, appearing initially as Space Jesus. Look at that image and tell me I'm wrong. If you have any doubt about the fun you can have with these movies, set it aside. They are goofy in all the right ways.

So he gets the suitcase nuke from the kids, goes back to the field where he had the fight, the kids and their nun guardian immediately find him again and ask him to save their kidnapped friend whereupon he gives the suitcase nuke back to them to hold until he returns.

Remember what I said about having to shoehorn in risk?

Nixon or the Angry Video Game Nerd?
He saves the kid but the goons steal the suitcase back from the orphanage, taking a hostage who he then has to save while trying to disarm the villains. In the midst of this, he gets framed for murder but quickly escapes. Throughout it all, Richard Nixon looks on in growling disapproval.

Of the four, this was my third favorite. Even though it's edited from two other films, it could be cut even shorter. There's a lot of downtime and not much happens. It is, however, fun, campy, and possessed of many joys. While it's in the public domain, my copy unfortunately has the Mill Creek Entertainment bug burned into it so I can't upload a copy to the Internet Archive. There are, though, some avi and divx copies up there for streaming as well as copies on YouTube.

Why so serious?
In Invaders From Space, the second Starman movie, the producers get things right. Starman is sent to Earth to save it from invasion by alien salamander men. Hell yes! They even look awesome. Although the effects are as cheesy and cheap as the first movie, they work a little better here. There are aliens with make-up on and the black-and-white film makes them look creepy. If a kid stumbled across this in the middle of the night, I think it would honestly scare them (confession: one of the scariest things I remember stumbling across on TV as a kid was Sinead O'Connor's “Nothing Compares 2 U” video. Kids see things differently).

A further bonus is the narrator—these things are relentlessly narrated, by the way, giving them more than an echo of old time radio like X-Minus One—tells us that Starman is actually vulnerable to the salamander men's claw attacks. So this movie corrects the mistake of the previous one by introducing stakes: the hero can be harmed, even killed, so his actions and decisions carry risk and therefore weight.

The alien threat manifests through a disease spreading across the land whose source appears to be a theater where a modern dance troupe is performing. Of course, the dancers are all secret salamander men. I'm pretty sure this is where David Icke got his Reptoid theory.

While it would be easy to make fun of the idea that Starman is being menaced by modern dance, the dance routines are pretty neat. At one point, the shot of the dancers is running backwards, but, because of how they're moving, it's not immediately apparent. This also allows for some relatively dynamic and well-choreographed fight scenes. On top of this, the aliens' spaceship interiors are composed completely of shadows. Instead of having consoles and command centers, everything is just a silhouette on a wall with the dancers miming in front of them. Yes, that's a result of the low budget, but it's done in such a way that it feels like the filmmakers are taking advantage of the limitations that arise. They can't afford to build a whole set so instead they use shadows in a way that echoes German Expressionism and makes the space seem even more alien.

This one was easily my favorite of the four, even though it has the standard genre hang-ups of introducing the goddamned kids. The threat is actually alien and comes across as vaguely monstrous, the cultural gulf between the US and Japan makes the odd parts even odder, and it's generally interesting throughout. All these films are in the public domain and this one is available on the Internet Archive in a DVD-quality MPEG2 version.

Next week, I'll cover parts three and four, Attack From Space and Evil Brain From Outer Space. One curious thing, even though all four movies are public domain, Attack From Space wasn't in any of my box sets, so I'll be using the Internet Archive's version for my review.

Friday, February 19, 2016

039. Cathy's Curse and 040. House By the Cemetery

Jump to House By the Cemetery (1981)

039. Cathy's Curse (1977)
Director: Eddy Matalon
Writers: Myra Clément, Eddy Matalon, and Alain Sens-Cazenave
From: Chilling

Cathy gets possessed by the spirit of her dead aunt, a ghost who hates all women and doesn't want anyone getting between her and her father.

I'm having trouble saying anything about this movie. It's not particularly good, not particularly bad, not particularly boring either. The film is around 80 minutes and I can say that with conviction!

We open in 1947, as a title card tells us, where George and his mother have left, abandoning his father and sister. The father comes home, finds Laura alone, stuffs her into the car shouting, “Your mother's a bitch! She'll pay for what she did to you!” and then crashes when Laura makes him swerve to avoid a rabbit. The car catches fire and they both die. We, by the way, never learn what the mother did to Laura unless it was the leaving thing, but wouldn't that have been done to both of them?

Jump to 1979—a bold move seeing as this was made in 1977—when George is moving back into the old family house with his wife, Vivian, who recently suffered from a nervous breakdown, and their daughter, Cathy. Cathy finds a ratty doll with its eyes sewn shut and Vivian shouts at George about having had a nervous breakdown but being okay now.

Vivian shouts everything, by the way. That's how you know she's both serious and too hysterical for George to ever listen to or treat with any sort of credibility whatsoever because otherwise we wouldn't have the movie we barely have.

The doll carries the spirit of Laura, or channels it, or is possessed by it, or something, but Cathy gets mind powers and starts messing stuff up, kills a few people, tries to kill her mother, and then the doll is defeated.

The movie never commits to the elements it brings in. For example, people keep finding the doll and wanting to take it from Cathy because it's “filthy.” She refuses to give it up and the person gets hurt. The climax has Vivian realizing in a fever dream that the doll has to be burned to save Cathy. Of course, the spell is broken when Vivian removes the doll's eyes.


Likewise, Cathy, when possessed, just wants to have her father all to herself and hates all other females regardless of species. She even hates the dog because it's female. That misogyny, though, seems to come from Laura's father, not Laura. Even if it is from Laura, this isn't her father, it's her brother, so shouldn't the relationship be more sibling than father/daughter? All of which goes back to the inciting incident: why did the mother leave and only with George?

The movie has hints of The Omen and The Exorcist in that it features a demon child, but, to be fair, seems to be more within that genre than borrowing from either of those. There are moments of unintentional comedy as well. No one seems to notice the growing evil even when it's happening right in front of them. One scene features Vivian yelling at Cathy only to have Cathy literally vanish and then reappear somewhere else. Vivian doesn't react like she's seen teleportation, she continues to yell at Cathy telling her to stop “hiding.”

This is the kind of movie that a good riff group or horror host could do something interesting with, but isn't enough of any one thing to grab attention otherwise. The forums say this is covered by GATT, but also that it's TV-safe. If I get confirmation that it's PD, I'll upload my muddy, poorly-preserved copy, but until then, there is a copy on here.

040. The House By the Cemetery (1981)
Director: Lucio Fulci
Writers: Lucio Fulci, Girogio Mariuzzo, and Dardano Sacchetti from a story by Elisa Briganti
From: Pure Terror

After a colleague's murder/suicide, a man moves his family into the colleague's house to continue his research. Only there's a malevolent presence in the basement and a ghostly girl keeps warning the son to leave before it's too late.

This is the third of Fulci's Gates of Hell Trilogy (following City of the Living Dead and The Beyond) and, since I haven't seen those, I can't speak to how it relates to them. I can say that there are heavy hints of The Amityville Horror and The Shining here: a family ignorant of a house's dark past suffering from hauntings, a psychic child having ghostly premonitions. Likewise it feels like the movie influenced—in tone if not in content— the Silent Hill franchise and the first season of American Horror Story, respectively.

I don't have much to say about it, though. It's enjoyable, but it feels derivative, like Fulci was tapped to do his own version of Amityville and The Shining. That's closer to my exposure to Fulci as well.

I first learned about him from Anchor Bay's Lucio Fulci collection around 2002, the same time I learned about Dario Argento and the same way. I saw the “special collector's editions” of their DVDs for sale at Best Buy and that piqued my interest enough to buy the 3-disc numbered “Limited Edition” of Suspiria (portrait of a life with disposable income and no student debt) and I really enjoyed it. As I mentioned when talking about Deep Red, I like Argento's use of color, tone, and the over-arching fairy-tale/dream logic of his works.

Fulci isn't working in the same way. I never did buy any of his DVDs (or any other Argento ones), but kept coming across them at other Best Buys and independent video stores. Something I really miss about the end of video rental is the way a cover could sell a movie, even colonize part of your dreams. Fulci's Zombie (or Zombi or Zombi 2) did that for me until I finally rented it from, the now, sadly shuttered Incredibly Strange Video in Pittsburgh.

Zombie is famous for a lot of things, most notably the underwater zombie vs. shark sequence, but is mentioned here because of its marketing and release. In Italy it was sold as a sequel to Night of the Living Dead (Italian title: Zombi, hence Zombi 2) even though it's not related to NotLD at all. That's why House By the Cemetery feels, not derivative, but as though it has clear echoes and influences of other horror movies and that really draws the line, for me, between Fulci and Argento.

Both are known for their roles in the Italian Giallo genre, but Argento feels much more like a storyteller. He has a specific vision and tone and is able to really paint pictures with film. Fulci seems to have a better understanding of genre film and excels at it. Whereas Argento makes images that are new and unnerving, Fulci precisely creates and recreates previously unnerving images. Fulci is like Sam Rami in that he knows exactly how horror works and hits all the notes with precision, and that is something to praise.

The House by the Cemetery is fun and more than competently done. The opening sequence of a woman wandering an abandoned house looking for her boyfriend only to be stabbed through the head really tells you everything you need to know about the tone of what's going to follow. There are nods to domestic distress, townspeople keeping secrets, and obvious premonitions of death that are completely ignored, but that's part of the fun of the genre.

Fulci is a canonical director in his own way so I don't know if recommendations even apply. My copy was a little uneven, something that seems to happen with these dubbed late-70's/early-80's Italian films, and may be solved by finding one of the more recent blu-ray releases, but I enjoyed it well enough. I've been wanting to see The Beyond for ages and this hasn't diminished that urge at all so maybe there's a Gates of Hell trilogy in my future.

Friday, February 12, 2016

037. Guru, the Mad Monk and 038. The Nightmare Never Ends

Jump to The Nightmare Never Ends (1980)

037. Guru, the Mad Monk (1970)
Director: Andy Milligan
Writer: Andy Milligan
From: Pure Terror
Watch: Internet Archive

Father Guru runs the church/prison on an island where plague victims were once sent. Now given over to evil, he tries to maintain his cover while selling cadavers and protecting his vampire mistress.

That description makes the movie sound so much more dramatic than it is. It's entirely accurate—there's also a woman trapped in a tower of the church who's lover has promised to help Guru gather bodies for the next three months—but it doesn't play out in a dramatic manner.

I'm less interested in talking about the content of the movie than about it's writer/director, Andy Milligan. He made ultra-low-budget horror films in the 60's and 70's that were very much like this: take a Gothic concept suitable for a Hammer film and shoot it wherever you can with whoever you have. This takes the idea of a corrupt/corrupted monk in the dark ages and shoots it in a local church when no one else is around. I've seen other films of his that were clearly shot in his own house.

The effect is similar to watching a video recording of the dress rehearsal of a play at your community theater. The sets are minimal to non-existent, you have the barest number of cast members, and no one else is there.

And it all works, in its way. This is neither a high-brow art film nor some campy delight, but rather a proof-of-concept. All of Milligan's works are films made with least resources and thus become semi-experimental. How do you tell a medieval Gothic without access to a budget that allows you to build sets? If you're in New York, find a cathedral and shoot on weekdays around sunrise. Dress the attic and basement in your house with cobwebs and keep the shots tightly cropped. The success, and, for me, pleasure of these films is seeing how well he worked within his limitations. My sense is this is a guy who was dying for digital filmmaking to come along.

The movie itself is all right, a little monotonous even though it's just under an hour. The idea for the story is more compelling then the execution of it and it's probably most useful if watched as an instructional guide: here's how to maximize everything you have no matter how small. It's certainly better than films I've seen with much higher budgets.

There's no copyright notice on my print so I've uploaded it to the Internet Archive here.

038. The Nightmare Never Ends aka Cataclysm (1980)
Directors: Phillip Marshak, Tom McGowan, and Gregg C. Tallas
Writer: Phillip Yordan
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: Troma via YouTube

A demon trying to perpetuate Satan's work on Earth starts interfering in the lives of a detective, a defrocked priest, and an anti-religious zealot. The only person who can stop him is Claire, a devout Catholic whose heart is still pure.

I know that description makes it sound like half-baked Christian propaganda, but this doesn't even rise to the levels of gleeful incompetence that the most enjoyable of those do and it's not really invested in trying to convert people. This wants to be an Exorcist/Omen-style horror/exploitation pic, but it barely rises to the level of incoherence.

I'm not even interested in going through the plot. The best part is that the movie has Cameron Mitchell (may his name be praised) as a police detective whose neighbor is a Nazi hunter. The neighbor insists he's found the Nazi who killed his family 35 years before, only he hasn't aged. Mitchell takes him to the man's house, but does nothing. That night, the hunter returns to the house and has his face torn off by a demon. His last words are, “Look at the wall,” leading Mitchell to obsess over all the newspaper clippings the hunter had tacked to his wall.

Eventually he convinces himself that the hunter was right and tries to find a way to connect the murders that keep occurring to the demon. This constitutes, maybe, a third of the plot. And then Cameron Mitchell gets blown up.

That's the leitmotif of this one, “and then they died.” None of the stories play out, none come to any closure, none have any impact. It's all pointless and all tied together by Claire whose acting is more wooden than the worst moments of Ed Wood's filmography. The movie is relentlessly blah.

And it's directed by three different people. I have no idea why. If it had been an anthology film (and apparently it's been recut to be the last third of one called Night Train to Terror), multiple directors would make sense. This is one film, though, and the stories weave in and out of each other.

I found the movie to be one big pile of “What?” but I know bad movie aficionados could find some real entertainment in it. The “anti-religious zealot” is played by Richard Moll whose hair changes from scene to scene and his arguments against religion are as generic as a fedora-wearing pony boy on Reddit (that he mansplains atheism to his devoutly Catholic wife is just icing on the cake). People get killed by demons that pop out from behind curtains—the aggressive editing fails to mask the cheap, puppety nature of the demons. One person gets drowned by a powerful wind that begins when a demon whips the bottom part of her robe away—yes, I'm suggesting he gets farted into the sea.

With the right perspective and group of friends, this could all be entertainingly bad. I wasn't in that place when watching it, though, and just found it dull.

Monday, February 08, 2016

PD Project Bonus: Mesa of Lost Women

Small bonus. My weekly email from Rifftrax arrived today announcing that their deal of the week was Mesa of Lost Women. I tend to check if I have copies of the movies they offer at a discount because I'd rather watch the riffed version than the straight one. Turns out, I do have a copy of Mesa of Lost Women in one of my Mill Creek sets, but it's the Sci-Fi one, one of the ones I did years ago for the PD Project. I'd said at the time that the movie was still under copyright, but after checking a few lists on the Internet Archive, I see it's actually PD. Also, the Internet Archive's copy isn't an uncompressed MPEG2 copy. So I've uploaded my own. Check it out here.

Friday, February 05, 2016

035. Death Riders and 036. Medusa

Jump to Medusa (1973)

035. Death Riders (1976)
Director: Jim Wilson
From: Cult Cinema

A documentary following the Death Riders, a death-defying stunt troupe that specializes in motorcycle jumps and car crashes.

The first title card in the movie notes that all the stunts are real and have resulted in someone's death at some point in time. Then they run through a list of all the stunts with the names and dates of people who died doing them. I know they intend for that to be dramatic and to establish early tension, but opening your movie with, “people who've done what you're about to see have died!” could just as easily preface a film of people eating a meal or walking down the stairs.

Which, of course, is not the attitude to have approaching this film. I was doubly inclined toward my contrarian posture, though, when one of the people said they take “no special safety precautions. That's the way we like it.” Well, then they're stupid.

I have nothing against daredevil acts or stunt performers, but part of the appeal is that they're going to be okay. They may be pushing their bodies to the limit or doing things that are, on their face, really dangerous, but in reality they're going to be safe because they've prepared and taken precautions. I mean, Mad Max: Fury Road looked as good as it did because nearly everything on screen was practical effects. So when a guy leaps from one speeding car onto another that then explodes, someone did that. It's spectacular to see. And it's no less spectacular for all the harnesses and low-speed practice runs they did to make sure no one got hurt doing it.

When I see someone say, “We could really get hurt. A-hyuk!” I'm not sympathetic and I'm not really worried. So the movie started off on the wrong foot for me even though it did have a nice scene of one of the drivers knocking all the glass out of a car because, for safety, he can't have anything that might break off or confine him during or after the stunt. That's neat, that explains part of this work that I don't inherently understand. Unfortunately that's the only moment in the movie like that.

The documentary is trying to be more a slice-of-life/portrait than trying to tell any kind of story. So there's no through line, no sense of what the film is focused on, and no sense of any of the Death Riders in particular. They're all 17-18 year-old kids with that same unaffected, “like, I dunno” way of speaking. Also, being kids, they can't really articulate what is special about what they do or why they keep returning to it despite the risks.

I mean, Wordplay is about crossword puzzles and it got me excited about its subject. How does a movie about people riding motorcycles through tunnels of fire fail to grab me?

There are a few very nice shots—particularly one of a motorcycle doing a ramp-to-ramp jump that keeps pace with the motorcycle the entire time—but the movie seems more interesting as a curiosity or document of a moment than as a film you'd recommend to someone.

036. Medusa (1973)
Director: Gordon Hessler
Writer: Christopher Wicking
From: Cult Cinema and Chilling

Jeff owes nearly $200,000 to a loan shark and has found out that he and his sister have just been cut out of their uncle's will. His only hope is to find and destroy the final will so that the inheritance will be reinstated. Doing so may leave several people dead, though, and draw his sister into the trouble as well.

I've seen this movie several times. It's on the first disc of the Chilling set so it ended up getting rewatched every time I tried to wade through these movies before. Despite having watched it several times, I still don't remember what it's about, which maybe says everything that needs to be said.

The movie takes its time establishing what the plot is, who the characters are, and how they relate. Seriously, the opening portion is a long stretch of “Who is this? Why is this happening? Hey, it's Cameron Mitchell!”

Yes, the movie features our lord and savior, Cameron Mitchell, may his name be praised, and he is, hands down, the best part. He plays Angelo, a loan shark who needs the $174,000 Jeff owes or the syndicate Angelo works for will be angry. That provides a nice source of pressure. Angelo is being the evil mafia-type, but is putting pressure on Jeff because there are worse things breathing down his neck.

Jeff starts tracking down who might have the will, but none of the targets have it and some mysterious person keeps murdering them in conjunction with Jeff's visits. Meanwhile Jeff's sister, Sarah, is betrothed to be married and is trying to cover for Jeff's public outbursts, doing harm to her relationship in the process.

So things roll along their merry, confusing way. We know Jeff and his sister are going to die because the movie opens with the two of them dead on their boat and Jeff beginning the story in voice-over. Since this isn't Sunset Blvd., it doesn't work.

When the film isn't being confusing, it's focusing on Jeff, played by George Hamilton who is hamming it up and trying to, I guess, demonstrate his range. Hamilton, though, seems to understand that as braying like a donkey and doing bad impressions of Cary Grant, among others. Hamilton has a production credit on this so I don't know if he was brought in to add his name to it and just assholed his way through the movie or if he was actually involved in the creative process and wanted to prove he could do a “scary, serious” role.

Whatever the case, this felt like My Big Fat Greek Tax Shelter. There are shades of incest in the movie as well as pained pretensions of depth by referencing Socrates and other philosophers, but never to any purpose. Hell, even the title never makes sense. Medusa is never invoked and there's not any metaphorical significance to the title. It's just pointless, which I guess, does make it an apt title for this film.