Saturday, January 28, 2017

141. Kung Fu Arts

141. Kung Fu Arts (1978)
Directors: Kuang Hui, Hsi-Chieh Lai, Ju-Shou Li
Writer: Hsue-chen Hsiao
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: archive.org

The Emperor’s daughter is hit with a poison dart during a foiled assassination attempt on the Emperor. The Emperor offers her hand in marriage to anyone who can cure her and is shocked when a monkey arrives with the cure! The Princess’ life is saved, but she is forced to live in exile with her monkey husband while the domestic threat to the empire continues to grow.

I do not know how to describe this movie. That blurb above only covers the first half hour. We open in the midst of the assassination attempt where it seems the Emperor’s former favorite, King, has been caught by General Hu. In the ensuing fight, King tries to throw a poisoned dart at Hu, but ends up hitting the Princess, the woman King himself is betrothed to. King escapes and Hu tells the Emperor that the betrayal must be out of jealousy for the Emperor promoting Hu over King.

The Princess is in a coma and close to death. The Emperor’s doctors’ can’t cure her so he makes a proclamation that anyone who can cure the Princess may have her hand in marriage. The proclamation goes up in town where King, disguised as a wandering doctor sees it. Before he can go to the castle, his disguise is revealed and he has to fight. During the fight, a monkey steals the proclamation and then presents himself to the Emperor with the cure. The Princess wakes up and, because of honor, the Emperor is forced to make her marry the monkey. However, because she’s married the monkey, for the sake of the Emperor’s honor, she and her new husband must be exiled to the sea and wherever they may wash up.

Imagine getting 2nd billing to a monkey
Bet that monkey’s regretting his choices at this point.

This is all the first half-hour, by the way. We’re not even into the entirety of the plot.

Anyway, Princess and the monkey wash up on an island and the Princess has a baby, which raises all sorts of questions. King is in hiding and, since there’s no longer an heir in the empire, the Emperor is convinced to promote Hu to commander-in-chief. In case anything happens to the Emperor, Hu will become Emperor. Naturally, the Emperor is immediately assassinated.

Time passes, Hu is a despot, the Princess’ son is now ten being raised by her and “Uncle Monkey.” King has completed his training in the mountains and returns to the castle where a former maid stops him, tells him she saw Hu murder the Emperor, and that she has his blood note—the final words of the Emperor revealing Hu and exonerating King. She tells King the Princess is presumed dead since her boat was found, ten years earlier, washed up on the island’s shore. The maid and King put together a plan to sneak into the castle and kill Hu in a few days.

Jesus, how am I still writing plot? King goes to the island, sees Uncle Monkey, who’d actually been his monkey the whole time, but the monkey’s afraid of King and gets killed by a snake. King then finds the Princess, tells her the truth of what happened, and makes up with her. He meets his son for the first time, but has to ask if the boy is his or the monkey’s (I’d complain, but the movie keeps it a secret for a long time too), then heads back to storm the castle, leaving the blood note with the Princess.

The raid goes poorly, King and the maid are captured, the Princess is seized on the island, but the boy has the blood note. With his parents imprisoned, and the revelation of another twist, the boy gathers an army of monkeys and raids the castle. King finally faces off against Hu with the help of the boy and, after some delay, kills the usurper. The end.

How can a movie with a monkey be at once so convoluted and boring! I had to take three passes at this flick to watch all of it—I kept passing out at the thirty-minute mark when they’re just reaching the island.

At its core, this doesn’t feel like a movie. Instead, it feels like several works stitched together. There are long stretches of time that go unremarked and there’s no sense of when events are occurring. With the monkey doctor/husband thing, and then there being a child, this felt a bit like the retelling of an old fable, but there are no cues to indicate that this is based on a fable and, even if it were, the importers decided an American audience wouldn’t recognize the fable so they just cut those parts. So the first third feels like the set-up to an absurdist piece about this woman and monkey on an island, but then it switches to being about King and his quest for revenge against Hu. The second third, then, is a standard kung-fu revenge film. Then he and the Princess are captured and suddenly it’s a kids’ film with slapstick and goofiness of a kid leading an army of monkeys. It’s so strange.

I don’t know what to say about this movie. I’d say it’s not a recommend just because it’s pure gibberish—this does not make a lick of sense—but that very WTFery almost makes it worth seeing. WHM includes the “seeing is believing” tier in their recommendations, but the movie doesn’t quite hit that level of weirdness. I’m not sure I’d even recommend it for riffing. Instead, you’re probably better off muting it and creating your own dub from scratch. It couldn’t possibly make less sense.

There's no copyright marker on this print and I can't find any mention of it on copyright.gov, so I'm thinking it's in the public domain. I've added a copy to the Internet Archive here.

Friday, January 27, 2017

140. The Kidnapping of the President

140. The Kidnapping of the President (1980)
Director: George Mendeluk
Writers: Richard Murphy based on the novel by Charles Templeton
From: Cult Cinema

The President of the United States is kidnapped and held in an armored truck that’s wired to explode. It’s up to the acting head of the Secret Service to work out a way to get the President out safely without caving to the kidnapper’s demands.

I don’t need to describe this movie to make you want to watch it. I only need to use three simple words.

William

Fucking

Shatner

That’s right, Captain James Tiberius Kirk himself is the star of this picture playing the put-upon Secret Service agent. Everything else I have to say about this movie would only serve to discourage you from watching it. All the joy, everything good about the movie, resides in Shatner’s Shatnerian performance.

If I could offer an analog: when my friend and I watched Pump Up the Volume for the first time (it’s excellent and still holds up), I said we have to watch it because “it features Christian Slater Christian Slater-ing all over the place.” Neither of us knew what that meant, but, upon viewing, realized it was true. While I still can’t define “Christian Slater-ing” in words, I can, with the same confidence, say The Kidnapping of the President features William Shatner William Shatner-ing all over the place. I mean, you get to hear Captain Kirk say, "If you fuck me around, I'll rip your heart out." That should be the tagline for the film! What more do you need?

For those interested in spoilers, here are the failings of the movie:

The movie falls apart whenever it moves away from the titular event, which doesn’t even happen until a good thirty-forty minutes into the movie. The first ten minutes are the opening credits and then the Argentinian terrorist who ultimately kidnaps the President murdering members of his own paramilitary squad. Why he does this is never explained. Well, maybe it’s explained while he’s doing it, but I didn’t catch it because it was in Spanish without subtitles. Good. . . uh, good choice there movie.

Cut to the White House where the President is being briefed by the CIA and FBI over a letter from the Vice President indicating the VP accepted a bribe from some criminal. This leads to a subplot of the President asking for the VP’s letter of resignation and the VP then struggling with the decision to give in to the kidnapper’s demands or to let the President die thereby becoming President himself. The VP’s wife wants him to accept the Presidency (she gives off a real evil stepmother vibe in both of her scenes) but he’s undone by the moral quandary of it all.

I will not see a concept more sci-fi this year than the idea of a politician being bothered by his own acts of corruption.

On top of this, the head of the CIA resents the Secret Service’s being in charge of the case and makes moves to undermine Shatner even while the President’s life is at risk. That, honestly, felt the most realistic. To be fair, it feels like the movie gets the details about how this situation could actually go down right, and that’s interesting in the abstract, but not in practice.

The movie makes the mistake of initially placing the drama in the kidnappers’ putting their plan into action: will they get the truck to its destination in time, will they avoid the police long enough to enact their plan, will the action that’s literally the title of the movie even happen? Short answer: yes. Long answer: uh. . . did you see the title? Yeah, they do.

Overall, the movie’s pretty dry and a little boring, and feels oddly televisual. This feels like it wasn’t actually a movie for theaters and, on top of that, it's way too long at an hour and fifty minutes. Shatner is the only good thing and, while his performance doesn’t reach Khan!-levels of delight, his fast-talking and overall presence are the only things that elevate this from being a total snoozer. It's not a complete recommend, but it's a good hangover movie or something to have on in the background while you’re doing chores.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

139. The Day Time Ended

139. The Day Time Ended (1979)
Director: John “Bud” Cardos
Writers: Wayne Schmidt, J. Larry Carroll, and David Schmoeller from a story by Steve Neill
From: Sci-Fi Invasion

A family moves into their newly-built house only to find themselves at the center of a vortex between time and space.

I don’t know where to start with this movie. For instance, the IMDB summary says, “Aliens visit the solar-powered house of a middle-class family, and the house is suddenly sucked into a time warp that transports it back to prehistoric times.” That includes elements that sound like things I saw in this movie, but I’d swear this was describing a completely different film. Likewise, I could talk about this being a relatively early Charles Band production featuring co-creators that’d work with him on Puppetmaster and other Full Moon Pictures’ features. It’s not like I can talk about the story. There is no story. Let me tell you the full story:

A family moves into their newly-built house in the middle of the desert. Jenny, the youngest of the family, finds a glowing green pyramid that starts manipulating things to her will, but that doesn’t really matter to the plot.

An electrical storm forms over the house placing it in the middle of a vortex. Two alien monsters appear in the front yard, attack each other, and the surviving one harries the grandfather and his son. Then the house is taken to some strange future where it’s surrounded by the wreckage of various planes and trucks only to jump further forward to a world with several moons and two suns. During the trip, Jenny is, somehow, outside the vortex and her mother, Beth, jumps through it to save her, causing them both to disappear.

After the vortex subsides, the grandfather and grandmother meet the son in the stables where he insists only moments have passed, but they say hours. They ride off on horses and, as a new, massive sun starts to rise on the horizon a la Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, Beth emerges from a green pyramid to say everything’s okay and that she’ll lead them to Jenny and her husband, both of whom are there. The reunited family crests a hill and see a futuristic gem-like city in the distance and happily head towards it.

An early film from the star of Air Bud.
The movie doesn’t have a plot or even a central logic, it’s just stuff that happens. This family happens to be at the center of it, but their actions don’t shape or decide any of the outcomes. There isn’t even a solid idea of what’s making everything happen. The movie opens with a voice-over from the grandfather saying that he now realizes all time happens at the same time, and his metaphors are even more muddled than that. Then three stars explode at the same time and this “trinary supernova,” as the radio station KXPN—all exposition, all the time—continually informs us, is bombarding the Earth with strange, but insignificant radiation.

There is a real pleasure to be had here, though. The special effects are pretty good. The aliens and tiny spaceships that harry the family are not only nicely designed, they also move nicely. All of this is blue-screened stop-motion and there’s no doubt that this is the case, but the aliens move pretty fluidly. Compared to the herky-jerky style of Ray Harryhausen, whose stuff is amazing, this is really good.

I also felt an odd nostalgia for something I never experienced (which may well be the definition of nostalgia itself) when I saw those effects. This movie is from 1979, right on the cusp of the 80’s and those effects are pure 80’s for me. This is the kind of stuff that was popping up on USA Up All Night and that metalheads were renting from the video store. I never watched Up All Night and my family was one of the last ones to get a VCR so that was never my experience, but watching this made me feel like I could remember it.

If I wanted to be snarky and uber-critical, I could point out how this movie is essentially a void—non-characters involved in a non-story that goes nowhere—but that wouldn’t reflect how I actually experienced it. In terms of what was sincerely good: the effects stood out. In fact, when the first alien appeared, I was wondering if it was stop-motion or a person in a suit because they managed it so well. Outside of that, the movie’s hilariously bad. The acting is terrible, the characters make awful decisions, and a lot of the situations are just silly. All of which makes it a great Saturday afternoon feature. Get some popcorn, some sodas, some friends and laugh away. It’s not good, but it’s entertaining enough for 80 minutes.

Friday, January 20, 2017

138. All the Kind Strangers

138. All the Kind Strangers (1974)
Director: Burt Kennedy
Writer: Clyde Ware
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: archive.org

A photojournalist is kidnapped by a group of children who want him to be their new dad. If he refuses or tries to escape, they make it clear they intend to kill him.

The movie opens with our protagonist, Stacy Keach, whose character has a name, but, let’s be fair, he’s Stacy Keach, driving down a lonely highway. A child is walking along the side of the road with a bag of groceries. Keach pulls over and offers to give the boy a ride home. As they’re driving, Keach reveals that he’s a photographer and even offers to take the boy’s picture.

Stranger Danger alarms were going off in my head as well. It turns out, though, that this isn’t that movie.

The boy directs Keach down increasingly rough and unmarked paths until they reach the isolated farm house where the boy’s siblings live alone. When Keach is introduced to them, it’s not clear that they’re siblings. There’s a real Lord of the Flies/Children of the Corn vibe here of kids living by themselves, off the grid and without the constraints of society.

All the children defer to Peter, the eldest, who has dreams of getting out and seeing the big cities—specifically New Orleans and Mardi Gras. After Keach meets Peter, they go out and Keach learns that his car won’t start leaving him stranded until the next morning. It’s also at this point that he meets “mom,” a woman the children are holding captive and forcing to play the role of parent. Over dinner, it becomes clear that they want Keach to take over the role of “dad.” The next morning, his car has vanished.

As has most of the movie’s transgressive edge. This is a mid-70’s TV movie about how frightening these unenlightened country folk are and so can’t or won’t go into really unnerving territory. Whether that’s good or bad depends upon your tastes. Were this same plot done today by Eli Roth or one of his protégées, there’d be all sorts of overt torture, incest, and taboos present just for their shock value, something I’m not a particular fan of. I don’t object to any specific type of content, but have it there for a reason. If you’re just trying to shock me or prove how edgy you are, you’re really boring.

The rest of the movie, predictably, is Keach trying to escape. Since the timeline of the film is only a couple days, there isn’t much opportunity for him to develop a plan, start playing the kids’ loyalties against each other, or even get a proper lay of the land. When the conclusion arrives, it doesn’t feel like a natural payoff to the events of the story so much as the inevitable end of a TV-movie: what kind of content will 70’s network television allow? That’s going to be the end of this film.

Looking at the film thematically, there are two conflicts at play: children vs. adults and country vs. city, both framed, curiously, as spaces necessitating escape. The kids, while being a threat, are not evil. Instead of seeking to free themselves from the power of adults, they crave that control—they want parents, to the point of wanting Keach to take on the specific role of the stern father who’ll beat them when they break the rules (which, again, if made today would be taken to a very uncomfortable extreme). The adults—two single people—are actively trying to escape parenthood. Could this be part of the abortion debate that had been kicked off with Roe the year before? That seems like a stretch, but it is interesting to see that inversion—rather than kids’ attempts to escape responsibility being the threat, it’s that very desire to be held accountable that is the threat. Parenthood becomes a form of imprisonment.

Likewise there’s the conflict of country vs. city—and it’s framed very specifically in that order. The urban, city-hopping Keach is under assault by this family of farmers. More than that, Peter, the head of this family, is longing to leave the country and go visit the city. Building off of that previous theme of parental responsibility being a prison, he can’t leave until someone else takes his place. That same dynamic, though, implicitly applies to city life. Peter speaks of the cities and what they have to offer with awe and Keach supports that view, but indicates that it’s something Peter will have to wait to see. Peter, a person who in terms of responsibilities is already an adult, will have to wait to enjoy the pleasures that Keach already enjoys. That Keach ultimately accuses Peter of trying to leave while making Keach the head of the family implies that their roles, in both spaces, are interchangeable, but that Peter doesn’t deserve Keach’s place.

There is a real sense of contempt and fear of rural folk, so it’s probably worth noting that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is also about the threat of these isolated backwoods folk are, came out in October of the same year. What was going on in the culture to make people so resentful of non-urban populations? The question seems doubly-important now since, today was the inauguration of the the new president, a president whose victory, despite the reality of statistics and polling data, is being blamed on uneducated rural voters. Since that’s the narrative being put forward, there’s an almost gleeful backlash against that very population over the anticipated forthcoming suffering they’re going to endure due to government cutbacks. That’s a narrative of city vs. country that posits country as a threat deserving of either correction or escape, a narrative that says both, “You hicks aren’t allowed to do that do us!” and "You don't deserve what we have!" So I’m curious of what prompted it in 1974 as well as how we’ll see it play out in our culture now.

All of which is a lot of empty theorizing for a film that doesn’t really warrant it. The movie opens with a sense of tension that may be based purely on the fact that we have so many stories of weird children and child predators—that the threats present in the movie’s set-up are due less to what’s in the movie than what stories we’ve seen since then. After that, it’s a touch dull but moves along well enough. A film of middling quality, but it is at least in the public domain. I’ve uploaded an MPEG to archive.org here. It’s the kind of film you can safely watch until you’re bored and then fast-forward to the end.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

137. Land of the Minotaur

137. Land of the Minotaur (1976)
Director: Kostas Karagiannis
Writer: Arthur Rowe
From: Cult Cinema

A cult dedicated to the worship of an ancient Minoan god kidnaps 3 archaeologists. It’s up to their friends—a priest, a young woman, and a former local—to figure out what’s going on and save them.

This film feels like a forgotten Hammer Horror flick, possibly because it features Peter Cushing in a prominent role, and he’s not even animated! Adding some extra horror/b-movie gravitas is Donald Pleasence as an occasionally Irish priest. He has a slight accent that comes and goes, as though not only Pleasence but everyone associated with the movie periodically forgot about it.

The movie opens with Cushing and his cult sacrificing two people to their minotaur god. Then we cut to Pleasence as Father Roche calling the local Greek police because another pair of youths have gone missing in the region. A trio of young archaeologists—a friend of Roche, her boyfriend, and a man they met while traveling—stop by Roche’s home to say hi and to tell him about their friend’s knowledge of an ancient temple in the nearby ruins. The youths Roche called the police about had gone searching for that same temple and Roche makes the trio promise not to go. They agree and then sneak out in the middle of the night to go there. Within a day (and twenty minutes of the start of the film), they’re captured by the cultists.

Before leaving Roche, the friend sends a letter to his girlfriend, Laurie, telling her to join them in their find. She arrives and gives Roche the letter which leads him to contact an old friend, a private investigator from New York, to help in the search.

From there it’s standard "outsiders in a suspicious town"-type stuff. All the townspeople are cultists and Roche’s friends seem willfully resistant to recognizing what’s happening. That allows for some unintentional comedy as Roche sees cultists walking past outside, but his friend misses them and doubts Roche’s claims—even though they’ve both come back from finding the corpse of someone who wanted to talk to them. Additional humor comes from the fact that the cult uniforms are all robes with pointy hoods. Yup, they’re all Klansmen.

For whatever reason, Cushing, the lead cultist, wants to sacrifice Roche to the minotaur. There’s a little back-and-forth, only a touch of cat-and-mouse before we arrive at the climax that includes people literally exploding.

The movie’s fun in its own campy way. Cushing and Pleasence are, hands-down, the best parts about it and it’s nice to see things that have that Hammer tone, even if they’re not explicitly Hammer films. It does drag a bit, though, and there isn’t a whole lot of tension or drama. Everyone in the town is evil so there’s no doubt about which side characters are on and the goals of the cult, beyond being generally evil, never emerge. There are some nice sets as well as unintentional hilarity, though, so it’s not too bad. Nothing great, but satisfying enough.

Friday, January 13, 2017

136. Bloodlust!

136. Bloodlust! (1961)
Director: Ralph Brooke
Writer: Ralph Brooke
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: archive.org

A quartet of teenagers travel to what they think is a deserted island only to find themselves trapped by a maniac who hunts people for sport.

A review on IMDB refers to this as “A Cut-Rate Version of Most Dangerous Game,” and that about sums it up. The “teens” (each of them was in their late-20’s when they filmed this) rock up on the island, get captured, and twiddle their thumbs trying to figure out what’s going on, although they don’t put too much effort into that. They’re like the Scooby gang on Quaaludes. About halfway through they learn that their host is planning on hunting them and turning their corpses into trophies. They manage to evade him long enough for a henchman he abandoned earlier to arrive and kill him. Useless white heroes at their best.

I’m not going into detail about this movie because, well, there’s not a lot of detail to go into. The heroes don’t actually defeat the villain—one of his own henchmen does—and one of the girls ends up with a higher body count than anyone except the villain. That element’s kind of interesting, but not much is done with it. There is an unintentionally hilarious sequence shortly after the teens are brought into the murderer’s mansion where people keep bursting into the room to introduce themselves and their relation to the plot.

Another reason I’m not going into detail is I’ve seen this movie before, several times maybe. This is part of the Horror box set, so I watched it then, and it’s episode 0607 of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The episode is on Volume 1 if you want to watch it (there isn’t presently an official streaming copy online, although unofficial copies aren’t hard to find). That’s the version I watched this time around, and it’s fine. The riffs are all right and the host segments are super-short, almost absurd. Forrester’s mother visits (first appearance of Pearl), but that’s only in the opening and closing segment. Not a whole lot is done with it. There’s a short at the beginning, ”Uncle Jim’s Dairy Farm” that’s probably funnier than anything in the movie.

The movie itself, though, is in the public domain and I uploaded this to archive.org here seven-and-a-half years ago next Friday! Strange coincidence. I’m trying to find some enthusiasm in talking about this, but I really can’t. It’s a boring flick. The one upside is that it stars Robert Reed, aka Mike Brady from The Brady Bunch, so there’s some fun to be had with that. It’s a simple, inoffensive little film that’s only barely over an hour. Grab your snarky friends and have a run at it.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

135. Katie's Passion

135. Katie’s Passion aka Keetje Tippel (1975)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writers: Gerard Soeteman from the memoirs by Neel Doff
From: Cult Cinema; Drive-In

A period piece about a young woman’s coming-of-age in late-19th-century Amsterdam that tracks her evolution from washerwoman to prostitute to socialist revolutionary to aristocrat’s wife.

The first thing to note is this is an actual movie. I know everything from these sets is “actually” a movie, but this is a serious piece of filmmaking, not an overt work of exploitation. This was an early film by Paul Verhoeven who went on to direct Robocop, Total Recall, and Showgirls among others, and was also, up until then, the most expensive Dutch film ever produced. So how did it end up in these sets?

Well, it’s amazing what slap-dash editing and dubbing can do.

Had this been imported with the view of treating it like the big-budget art piece that I think it was, this would be a very different film. Instead, it was imported post I Am Curious (Yellow), which, as Joe Bob Briggs notes in Profoundly Erotic, established “foreign art film” as code for “porno.” Thus a tale with socialist overtones about a girl being forced into prostitution being included in these sets starts to make sense. And that feels like the focus of the movie: there’s some character stuff happening, but it’s all filler between the nude scenes.

The movie starts with Katie’s family leaving their small town to move to Amsterdam and hoping for better economic opportunity. As they boarded the boat, the sound cut out, and I wondered if there was something wrong with my copy. Turns out, whoever dubbed the film didn’t bother to include any audio apart from the voices and an occasional bit of music that repeats throughout the film. Seriously. There are long stretches of silence and the line reads of the people dubbing the secondary characters are terrible. This gets into hilarious bad kung-fu-style dubbing.

On the way to Amsterdam, Katie catches her sister having sex with a random member of the ship’s crew and she gets mad at Katie for interrupting because she’d been promised some bread with bacon fat. You can guess what the narrative arc of the movie will be from here.

So they arrive, Katie gets a job at a dye-plant, tries to sing “the Internationale,” gets shouted down, gets into a fight with a co-worker, and is fired. Then she gets a job at a hat shop and delivers an order to a bordello where she discovers her sister working as a prostitute. Katie’s roped into letting an old man feel her up and then she gets raped by her boss at the hat shop.

I was also a little shocked at how quickly things escalated.

And escalate they do! Katie gets beaten by cops while stealing some bread. She's diagnosed with tuberculosis, but the doctor won’t give her medicine unless she sleeps with him. After she’s healed, she returns home and her mother puts her on the street to work as a prostitute. Katie’s second customer turns out to be an artist who wants Katie as a model, not a sex worker, and starts painting her as the muse of Socialism. This, though, just leads to her meeting his banker friend who wants her to be his kept woman and to spy on local business people to see if the are safe bets to give loans.

Katie leaves him and stumbles across a Socialist march that she immediately joins. Cops descend on the protesters as the artist and his aristocrat friend (who’s also in love with Katie) try to convince the crowd to turn back before they’re shot. The pair try to get Katie to safety, but the aristocrat gets shot, and Katie rides with him back to his estate. She speaks to him in his bed and then an end title card tells us they got married and the memoirs by Neel Doff that the movie was based on were nominated for the Nobel Prize. PS. They weren’t.

The description makes it sound like the movie is full of incident and social commentary, but what’s not coming across is how everything is built around nudity and sexual exploitation. Women are constantly naked in this film, and it’s not in a fun way. Most of the time they’re being looked over as a product, or being forced into taking their clothes off for someone else, or being actively assaulted. They’re never happy to be stripping down and that makes all of it uncomfortable.

Likewise the Socialist edge is clearer when I’m writing about the content of the movie than it is in the movie itself. What is the message of the movie? That selling our labor is just selling our bodies by other means, that Capitalism reduces us all to a product? I don’t have a problem with that reading, but what, then, are we to make of the end of the movie where Katie is rescued from the Socialist march and taken to the aristocrat’s estate to become his wife? Is that family and love triumphing over the exploitation of labor or is that the final moment of sale, that because he’s the richest he’s the one that ultimately can buy her?

So this isn’t very good as it is. Maybe a subtitled version of the original works better with dialogue (and background music) that foregrounds a bit more of what the movie’s arguing, but I missed whatever this version was trying to do. As I said above, I think this was imported and dubbed by some exploitation distributors. They didn’t care about the story or politics, just the abundance of nudity so they worked with that. The original may be interesting, but I’d suggest giving this version a pass.

Friday, January 06, 2017

134. The Revenge of Doctor X

134. The Revenge of Doctor X aka Body of the Prey aka Venus Flytrap(1970)
Director: Norman Thomson
Writers: James Craig, Tota Kondo, and Lawrence O’Neill. Or Ed Wood. Or Norman Thomson. It's unclear.
From: Chilling
Watch: archive.org, Rifftrax

A scientist builds a monster out of various species of venus flytrap to try to prove the evolutionary connection between plants and humans.

Dr. Bragan, a NASA scientist who’s having fainting spells due to stress over the latest mission. He decided to go on vacation in Japan, but has car trouble on the way to the airport. When he pulls into a gas station, he finds a venus flytrap which reignites his interest in botany and exploring the evolutionary link between man and plant (no, really). He goes into the surrounding countryside, digs up his own flytrap, takes it with him on the plane, and, in the most sci-fi part of the movie, has no trouble taking it through customs. In Japan, he meets up with Dr. Hanamura who agrees to be Bragan’s assistant and help him do experiments on the flytrap and a species of tubeworm off the Japanese coast.

Very little happens. What I just described is maybe the first hour of the movie. I feel I’m being a bit unfair with that estimate, but there’s a whole lot of nothing before Bragan cobbles together his monster. Much of the downtime is Hanamura trying to earn Bragan’s trust so that he’ll actually tell her what he’s working on and just show her the normal flytrap.

Together they build a man out of plant material, do a whole Frankenstein bit on it with lightning, and then. . . not a whole lot. The monster looks like someone wearing a green superhero costume with foam muscles sewn in, except he has flytrap mouths for hands and feet—basically a botanical version of Y'golonac. Finally (finally), the monster walks, escapes into town, Bragan convinces Hanamura that he’s going to go kill it, but he’s actually looking to save his creation. When he finds it, though, it ends up knocking them both into the mouth of a volcano. *womp-womp*

There’s not a whole lot here on any level. It’s not good, not at all, but it’s not campy either. The monster takes too long to show up and then isn’t much of anything. Even the exploitation elements—the kills and nudity—are lacking. The monster never kills anyone on-screen and, while there is nudity, it’s strange in its. . . ambivalence?

The nudity comes when Bragan is looking for the tubeworm to cross with his flytrap. Hanamura enlists a group of local women who are excellent deep-sea divers, and they’re all sitting on the beach topless. The movie doesn’t make anything of it, though. Suddenly there’s just a quartet of topless women agreeing to go swimming. The camera isn’t leering, there’s no sense of impropriety or transgression, it’s just ambient nudity. It’s not anything I object to, but it did add to the sense of, What is this movie? Also, because it comes so late in the film and is so subdued, it was surprising to realize I’d have to mention that the movie has NSFW content.

Supposedly Ed Wood wrote this, although the uploader of a different version of this film from archive.org disputes that, and I’m sympathetic to their reading. I’ll be hard pressed to say anything stranger this year, but while this feels like it could have been written by Ed Wood, it’s actually not good enough to have been. Wood’s work has a logic and self-importance that’s completely absent here. His pieces always feel like they have a touch of preachiness, even if it’s not clear what he’s preaching about.

This film was riffed by Rifftrax, but I can’t really recommend even that version. There’s so little to the film itself, and their riffs don’t do much to elevate the experience. A good portion of the beginning is spent pointing out the incongruities of the set-up, then making fun of the bad background music, and then Bragan’s hair-trigger. In fact, to the movie’s credit, despite being an American film made in Japan, it doesn’t resort to any overt exoticization. While it’s a weakness of the film that it doesn’t engage in its setting at all (at least have latent radiation in the soil be a reason the plants start growing) nothing about the movie seemed racist, which surprised me. Unfortunately, the Rifftrax version makes a lot of jokes about Hanamura being Japanese, about “r” and “l” words, and just entering a really tired space. If they were riffing on something the movie itself was doing, that’d be one thing, but this felt like, “It’s in Japan, let’s make Japanese jokes.”

The movie is in the public domain because who could care about it even when it was made, and I’ve uploaded an MPEG to archive.org. Obviously, I’m not recommending it, mostly because it’s boring. It’s completely inoffensive, though, even with the nudity, and certainly could be useful for an editing project or just to include footage of the monster in something else. Maybe a supercut of movie monsters to play in the background of a Halloween party. It's also interesting to consider this movie in the context of Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster” because it's at once exactly the kind of movie she's talking about, and completely fails to be the kind of movie she's talking about. I wouldn't be above making them a paired reading/screening for a course lecture.

Also, the movie features neither a Doctor X nor any revenge. So, there's that.