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|90 reviews in total|
Taut, unexpectedly gripping mid-shelf thriller stars Ben Gazzara as
Baumgartner, ex-Ranger Captain from the Vietnam War and now
semi-retired crop duster in an unnamed, corruption-riddled military
junta. He's trying to eke out his own little patch of paradise but the
powers-that-be won't let him, as he's blackmailed by corporate snake
Alejandro Martel (Alejandro Rey) into rescuing his company's repellent
American CEO Anderson (Keenan Wynn) from a guerrilla stronghold in
rebel-held territory. Killing's a business for Baumgartner and he's
reluctantly back on the payroll, as his ex-Nam buddy, the equally jaded
African-American Woody, and they both don the camouflage warpaint and
head up the river -literally and figuratively - with a small arsenal of
crossbows and explosives. Unfortunately for Anderson his head's full of
corporate secrets, and Martel instructs Baumgartner to leave Anderson
for dead rather than bring problems back home for him and his mistress,
Anderson's listless wife Marie (Britt Ekland).
I call High Velocity "mid-shelf" as it appears to exist somewhere between an A and a B feature, with Gazzara (in Cassavette's Killing Of A Chinese Bookie the same year) giving his role class and grit in equal measures, and with the usually dependable Ekland, here little more than window dressing, providing the glamor. Eddie Romero's long-time collaborator Mike Parsons as actor, co-producer and screenwriter throughout the Sixties adds local flavor to director Remi Kramer's script, lending the film an authenticity: the cockfight, the drunken machismo, the omnipresent military (this WAS filmed during Martial Law, remember), and the requisite titty bar loaded on stage and off with doomed white expatriate faces. The character names are Filipino, the unsubtitled dialog's Tagalog, and-the-army versus rebels backdrop (for the so-called "Gang of 45", read the Philippines' communist NPA) is all too familiar to a Filipino audience.
It's an interesting smart-pulp improvement on the familiar "mercenaries rescue kidnapped Westerner from enemy territory" scenario, and not just because of Gazzara's gnarled, laconic delivery, and enjoyable dynamic and snappy banter between him and the as-gnarled Woody. For starters, our sympathies certainly don't lie with the Ugly American Anderson, played as a barking brutarian, vainglorious and vein-popping popinjay by an over-the-top Wynn, nor with his multi-national corporation, whose conspicuous extravagances are proudly on display. The opening polo match, from which Anderson is snatched, hammers the point home to perfection: polo-playing royalty inside their palatial walls, watched by their resentful, threadbare subjects through the gate's cell-like bars.
So do we cheer for the left-wing guerrillas led by Commander Habagat (Joonee Gamboa), themselves white-anted by corruption and desire for power, and all too eager to commit the ghastliest of deeds so long as they're sanctified by the noblest of motives? Or does High Velocity labor under the right-wing libertarian notion that the individual, and not the power structures that hold his true spirit in chains, can triumph? Certainly Baumgartner is only too happy to blast apart the rebels' huts to save his and his wife's skins, and doing the corporation's dirty work in the process; in High Velocity's unmarked hellhole, life is cheap, if not instantly disposable, and is ultimately measured by how strongly one feels the survival urge. Subsequently, there are no cheats nor sappy clichéd resolutions as the film hurtles towards its sour conclusion. Grim, satisfying stuff.
One of my favorite Bollywood films from the Sixties is the 1965 murder
mystery Gumnaam, a rip-roaring plundering of Agatha Christie's Ten
Little Indians bathed in saturated Mario Bava-esque lighting and
featuring a butler with a Hitler mustache (the late, great comedian
Mehmood) and a musical number every twenty minutes. It's not the first
time Dame Agatha's plot has been adapted by enterprising producers
inside and out of the English-speaking film world, as it's a hoary,
occasionally effective device - a group of strangers with hidden pasts
are brought together in an isolated environment, and are killed off one
by one until the killer is ultimately revealed which demands
limitations budget, cast and locations, often requiring little more
than a single studio set. For a competent filmmaker, a considerable
amount of tension and any number of unexpected narrative twists can be
wrung from meager resources.
Such a filmmaker is former cause celebre Danny L. Zialcita, a writer-director whose career trajectory bears more than a passing resemblance to the revered Celso Ad. Castillo. Both graduated in the public's mind at some point in the Seventies from gifted, gimmicky populists to genuine auteurs. Like Celso Ad. Castillo, he started in the pulps, directing spy thrillers and lurid bomba dramas; his 1965 debut, a Bond riff titled Lady Killer, kick-started a whole series by Zialcita which propelled Romano Castellvi to stardom, and he also helmed two popular spy films with Bernard Bonnin as secret agent Hammerhead. And like Celso, his films from the Seventies and Eighties were more of a Happening, in the Sixties' sense of the word, than just a premiere. Celso's peak has long passed, and it's no doubt due in part to his relentless self-promotion that long-unseen films like Nympha (1971) are recalled with such clarity. Not so Zialcita, who only recently emerged after years of self-imposed exile (due, word on the street tells us, to a decades-long drug problem), and whose name continues to slip under the radar of many cineastes.
Masquerade, a 1967 mystery "inspired" by Ten Little Indians, is an odd duck, appearing at a time in Pinoy cinema during an avalanche of spy films, westerns, war films, karate actioners, Hollywood parodies, musical comedies and both teen and mature weepy dramas. Zialcita hides here behind his eponymous "DLZ", as does the producer "BZ" (a rich relative, perhaps?), and rounds up an impressive cast of top-shelf Pinoy names and character actors to play eight strangers tempted to a masquerade on secluded Diablo Island by an unseen benefactor known only as Mr X, and his enigmatic American proxy Mr Dreyfus (Jack Davis), a strange bird complete with brolly and bowler hat. Hammerhead's Bonnin plays dashing celebrity and man-of-few-words Philip Monteverde; glamor comes in the comely shapes of Marlene Dauden as the manipulative Vera, and a lovely, if somewhat bedraggled, Liberty Ilagan as booze-hound Emily. Veterans Vic Salayan, Alfonso Carvajal, Martin Marfil and Vic Andaya help round out the list of suspects which include a judge, a General, a nightclub singer, a doctor and industrialist playboy. None of them suspect a connection between each other; they are more interested in Mr Dreyfus' offers of money, women and sport (and for more than one character, the three are inseparable).
As the ferry leaves the island and the eight guests are trapped in a sprawling mansion along with Dreyfus and two bemused servants, they all find themselves unwilling participants in, as one puts it, "a Masquerade of DEATH!" One suffocates in a glass-topped coffin and another lands a cleaver in the face, while their hidden host plays upon each of their insecurities, suspicions and paranoia. No-one has been judged innocent, it appears, and their killer has stacked eleven funereal wreaths in the basement and published their death notices in the previous week's newspaper. Eventually the characters are whittled down to just two, and still there's no sign of an easy resolution. "Who could it be?" demands the narrator, as a ragged yet effective recap of the film's murders swings the footage into negative stock. "You have been given ample time. Now be prepared for a SHOCK!" Zialcita attended a 2010 screening of the film's only surviving print from its distributor, JE Films' Joseph Estrada, and during a Q&A session trashed his efforts as "short of rubbish". I can understand why I'm sure he prefers the post-bomba films he's more famous for, in which he had found a far less forced voice, and a maturity in theme, form and technique. On the evolutionary scale of a filmmaker, Masquerade is the showy, self-conscious attempt by a young auteur-in-waiting at breaking out of the restrictions of local story-telling and attempting a more sophisticated, deliberately European-influenced or Welles-ian work. A telling sign is that almost half of the dialog is spoken in English (delivered at a leaden pace for those less familiar with the language), which immediately sets the film apart from its Tagalog contemporaries. It's also in the noir-ish lighting from below casting shadows on ceilings, in the deliberate framing, and perspective tricks. The film is certainly impressive for a young director working within such a rigid star system, audience expectations and formulaic genre, but Zialcita's stylistic ploys are often forced and aggressive, and cry out for attention. It's far from "rubbish", however, and Mr Zialcita is either being unnecessarily humble or self-critical to the point of self-immolation. Masquerade is not great and, despite the nods to Welles, can in no way be considered his Citizen Kane. Instead it's "clever" (and I mean that with no disrespect), zippy and intriguing, and crammed with shadows of films to come.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As with much of the Philippines' pre-Eighties cinema, very few vampire
films from the Sixties have survived. Thankfully there are two bona
fide masterpieces of Pinoy horror directed by Gerry de Leon, The Blood
Drinkers and Curse Of The Vampires. Both were constructed from the
ground up as export-friendly titles, filmed in Technicolor and dubbed
into English using the actors' own voices. And then there's Dugo Ng
Vampire, a product of a stagnating studio system, and it shows; Vera
Perez Pictures was an offshoot of Sampaguita Films which until the
early Sixties was part of the Big Three's monopoly over Filipino
cinema, along with LVN Pictures and Premiere Productions. Dugo
prime example of the local industry's glaring limitations: patchy live
sound, an unwieldy regulation 110-minute running time, a masala of
melodrama and comedy based on a pre-branded komik series, and a
dreadful transfer from a scratched, rat-assed black and white 35mm
print. That the film still exists, however, is a miracle in itself; the
fact it's a decent populist Pinoy horror from the Sixties is, for the
most part, pure cream.
Dugo Ng Vampira's hand-scribed credits flash over an opening that's vintage Universal horror: the town's landed gentleman and unrepentant vampire Angustia has just feasted on a young female victim and is now pursued by an angry mob of torch-carrying villagers. Cornered in the grounds of his villa, Angustia is staked through the heart with a sharpened cross and left to die alone in agony. With the sound of a howling wolf in the distance, he is tended to by his distraught sweetheart, who removes the cross and buries him underneath it. Being mortal, she is also carrying the vampire's children twins, one good and one inherently evil and after her mother is thrown down her stairs by an unseen force (linked to the cobra curled around the vampire's grave marker!), she leaves one of the babies, flees the village with the other child, and heads in a trance directly for the sanctuary of Angustia's villa.
A decade passes, and the mother grows suspicious of her remaining child's true nature. She catches the girl Lucinda in a cave talking to a cobra and bat and the bat, a bizarre sock puppet contraption with wings, is talking back! The girl plumps up quickly into a brazen teenaged hussy (Gina Pareno), unaware of the existence of her twin sister Rosario (also Pareno, without the excessively vampish makeup, puffy hair and go-go boots). Meanwhile the mouldered corpse of their father rises out of the soil, transforms into his suave former self, then disappears in a flapping of bat wings and reappears at the villa along with his last victim, unlocked from her cobra shell. Angustia and his new bride are keen to teach Lucinda the finer points of her vampiric legacy ("We need blood," they hiss, "HUMAN blood "), and take her for a flying visit around the craggy countryside looking for victims. It's here the film's rudimentary special effects dissolves, jump cuts, miniatures for the Villa exterior take a quantum leap: Lucinda complains of being tired, and suddenly the cabal split into two mid-air in typical Manananggal fashion, their fanged top halves continuing to soar while the bodies gently land. A simple optical effect, and positively prehistoric by today's standards, but crudely and eerily effective.
Naturally the plaited, seminary-going Rosario is mistaken for her bloodsucking sister, and her beloved Victor becomes fiercely protective of her; once the angry villagers notice she is not scared of a crucifix but the "other" Rosario is, the hunt is on for a neighborhood vampire. Victor's deceitful, treacherous Lothario brother Rufo arrives from the city and he too has eyes for Rosario; Rufo's plan is to trap her in his house until she falls in love with him, but then the equally duplicitous Lucinda, posing as Rosario, seduces him over to the Other Side. The scenario now brother against brother, mother against child, as both families fight to save what Goodness is left within them.
More pronounced than ever is the presence of Evil in this instance, vampirism - as a dramatic rip in the fabric of everyday, God-fearing, family-bound normalcy. The film's core rests upon a triumvirate of dualistic relationships, one representing Good, or at the very least temporarily lost and potentially salvageable, and the other Evil: unwed mother and vampire Angustia, daughters Rosaria (Rosary, perhaps?) and Lucinda (Lucifer?) and brothers-at-war Victor and Rufo. The protracted finale sees not only Victor cornered and forced to kill his sibling (in a neat twist, with a conch shell!), but the mother to sacrifice her Bad Seed. In Dugo's intensely moral, necessarily komik page black-and-white universe, Evil is ultimately vanquished and the wayward are brought back to God's bosom, but at a heavy price.
At times you'd be forgiven for thinking Dugo is a Bollywood remake of a Mexican vampire film: melodramatic, a fusion of Asian and Hispanic family-centricity, tarnished and years-weary, and entertaining in an arched, eccentric way. In its favor it's not nearly as cloying and sentimental as it could be, there are no musical numbers to spoil the atmosphere, and the regulation comic relief from a mugging German Moreno effeminate leader of a group of tourists stranded overnight at Angustia's villa - is kept to a minimum, as is the teen soap angle (if Vilma Santos or Nora Aunor were the lead, God help us...). OK, so comparisons are mean, and so what if Dugo Ng Vampira is no Curse Of The Vampires? Sometimes it's good to turn a blind eye to the Ugly Duckling's smarter and prettier classmates and welcome them home as a lost child, sorely missed and never to be forgotten.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For connoisseurs of Pinoy parodies, the recent appearance on Filipino
VCD of Dolphy's Bond-like action comedy Napoleon Doble And The Sexy Six
signals an unearthing of grail-like proportions. I realize it's hard to
be entirely objective about comedy, and even more so when you're
removed from its host culture by time, language, and the shared
experience of growing up in the shadow of Dolphy's shtick. To this
pulp-addled brain at least it was worth the wait, but keep in mind I've
already devoured over twenty of Dolphy's back catalog and haven't even
made a dent. If you're a casual Trash Tourist, a cursory examination of
Napoleon Doble...'s discs reveals a film that looks, sounds and feels
like Dolphy's James Batman, also from 1966. Actually you're not far
from the mark: it's a similarly crazed surfadelic romp through
appropriated Sixties pop culture, with wildly tilted camera angles,
cartoon goons and go-go girls, and the omniscient Dolphy filling almost
every frame and sometimes twice! During Dolphy's busiest phase, the
genre du jour was the James Bond craze. Most Western-influenced film
cultures were churning out one gadget-laden spy caper after the other,
and the Philippines' copycat industry was more eager than most.
Following Goldfinger's worldwide release in 1964, no fewer than twenty
Pinoy Bonds appeared within a manic two year cycle. And, as every
popular Pinoy genre must have its parodic mirror, so too did the Bond
Parodies begin in earnest, most notably from the dual Kings of Comedy:
Chiquito as James Bandong or Agent 0-2-10 ("oh-two-ten" is a play on
"utoten", the Tagalog word for "farter" for "fart-face"), and Dolphy as
Agent 1-2-3 (the name suggests a person's been tricked) or in
variations on the "Dolpinger" theme. In Dolphy's filmography from 1965
to 1966, a minimum of fifteen features can lay claim to parodying the
spy genre, or at least include elements of the Bond films and that's
a considerable number of Bondian villains with goon armies at their
Viewed as part of a much larger whole, Napoleon Doble And The Sexy Six makes perfect sense. Dolphy's individual films are elements of a much grander story arc, almost a meta-narrative spread over fifty-plus years, with its main protagonist growing older disgracefully, and his supporting cast and crew entering and leaving at will, more often than not becoming familiar parts of the background scenery. Wives, girlfriends and siblings appear, along with children and eventually grandchildren. Families are at the core of Filipino culture and is reflected in the Dolphy's own film company RVQ Productions: from its inception in 1967 and through its Glory Days into the Eighties, it was a dynastic studio dynamo for the Quizon clan, and Dolphy more than generously shared, and still shares, the limelight. The cherry-picked icons from both foreign and domestic pop culture, the interchangeable plot lines of Western spoofs and goon comedies, domestic barrio soap operas and their ilk, the recycled characters (the droopy-shouldered Ompong, the flamboyant Pacifica Falayfay), the movies, radio shows, stage performances and TV series, are all episodes of a seemingly endless variety show, with Dolphy center stage as its amiable emcee.
Although Dolphy's Napoleon Doble presents himself to the filmic world as an undercover policeman, he's essentially Dolpinger: a government representative of the forces of Good, facing off against a Super Villain with a lair choked to the brim with Bondian gadgets (a pen, for instance, that doubles as a Ray Gun!), not to mention his very own Q on tap. Bond allusions aside, Dolphy takes characteristically low swipes at other Sixties pop icons, not least The Man From U.N.C.L.E. - Napoleon "Solo" being the obvious reference point, plus a sizable portion from U.N.C.L.E. feature The Spy With My Face (1965). Let's not forget the Pink Panther series, notably Ponga's Kato-like Mr Tan, a Chinese caricature saved by Napoleon during the bank robbery, and whose housebound karate fights with Napoleon usually end up trounced by the equally chop-frenzied maid (Aruray).
"Thrifty" is is not a surprising term for a low-budget quickie, and there are constant reminders of the budgetary shortcomings, from the use of limited locations (Elias' mansion, with its now-familiar warren of rooms, balconies and shadow-lined stairwell is put through the ringer, as is his nightclub) to its tin-can sound recording and compact, cut-to-order thrills. As rough as the seams are, however, the film never threatens to tear a hole in its pants' seat; LSJ Productions' camera crew are imaginative with their comic-strip framing and composition, not to mention weirdly effective though glaringly primitive lighting techniques, and Restie Umali's horns-and-bongos jazz score, despite its occasional Bond stings, never becomes glaringly clichéd. Like most populist Pinoy films, Napoleon... trots out its regulation array of marquee-value "Special Guests" like well-rehearsed sideshow exhibits - the big-chinned Babalu (one of Dolphy's regular sidekick in his later films) makes a blink-and-he's-gone cameo as a shirtless waiter, crone-ish Menggay tries out as the Sexy Sixth (and is accused of being less than human!). It's modest yet easy money for an afternoon's work, and all are welcome faces, along with the remainder of Napoleon Doble's cast: Sancho Tessalona, Rodolfo "Boy" Garcia, Prospero Luna, the SOS Daredevils and many others, some of the hardest working actors and stuntmen in show business and equally at home in a Fernando Poe Jr or Dolphy and Chiquito flick.
Likewise, Executive Producer Luis San Juan successfully balanced straight action films and "goon" or action parodies over a thirty year career as producer/writer/director from Dolphy and Chiquito vehicles to Ramon Zamora and Rey Malonzo chop-sockeys. It's this double helix of thrall and gall, the essence of Goon combined with the sheer chutzpah of James Batman and company, that makes Napoleon Doble And The Sexy Six a satisfying Sixties pop cocktail, brimming with pure unadulterated Pinoy Pulp.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ray Dennis Steckler is true original American DIY auteur whose
eccentric takes on pulp culture and almost expressionistic editing look
and feel like the films of the Kuchar Brothers but sillier and without
the self-conscious artiness. Free-form to the point of experimental,
his movies Rat Pfink A Boo Boo and The Lemon Grove Kids Meet The
Monsters are a triumph of determination and imagination over a complete
absence of budget. There's no denying Steckler's charm; you just need a
special kind of eyes to appreciate his innate genius.
So to The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies, Steckler's second film after 1962's Wild Guitar for Arch Hall Senior and Junior. It's billed as the world's first Teen Monster Musical, and I'm certainly not going to argue the point. Set in a carnival that by 1963 was already looking like a more seedy version of Nightmare Alley, we meet the boozy Marge Nielsen (Steckler's then-wife and favorite muse Carolyn Brandt), a lush whose endless tangos with the bottle are putting her dancing career on the skids. She crosses palms with Estrella, the carnival's resident fortune teller with an accent that would make Bela Lugosi blanch and with a wart the size of Romania, but the prognosis isn't good.
It's then "teens go wild", in one of the film's many schizophrenic leaps in internal logic. Meet Jerry and his mate, a pair of cheerful would-be delinquents who look suspiciously like Nicolas Cage's old man and Sean Penn Senior, as they pick up Angie, a good girl with a yen for adventures with bad boys. Jerry played by Steckler as his on-screen alter ego "Cash Flagg", who obviously fancied himself as a receding Jimmy Dean - ditches his girl to watch the bump-and-grind routine of the exotic gypsy dancer Carmelita, who just happens to be the gypsy crone's sister. Between the two and their grotesque chain-smoking henchman (an unspecified rubber-faced stereotype that Goebells would have been proud of), they hypnotize Jerry with a crazy hypno-wheel.
We're never quite sure if Estrella the gypsy hates all men, or just the ones with penises. Whatever the reason, Jerry is now one of her back-room collection of hypnotized "zombies", hideous acid-scarred creatures (and I'm not talking about hippies here): hood up, eyes bulging, and going hammer and tongs at Carolyn Brandt with a knife. Fading in and out of the hypnotic state, he's haunted by visions of a bloodied Carolyn and, in the film's most perfectly realized scene, has an extended hallucination it's Salvador Dali's dream sequence from Spellbound, but with ballerinas, go-go dancers and gorillas.
Words can't describe the experience of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies, and its twisted variety format crossed with old-fashioned spook show, only with real-life Muppets. At times dreamlike and hyper-real, with stunningly garish color photography by Vilmos Szigmond, the film's weirdness is heightened by a seemingly endless parade of musical numbers, all filmed over one day on the same threadbare set until the dancers were on the point of collapse. The Rockettes they ain't, but the costumes are fantastic. You're left with the impression it's a script-less Bollywood production where most of the meager budget's been spent on papadums and silly putty.
Roll back to 1963 when The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies first opened during the Freaks-inspired ending, hooded "zombies" would run through the crowd in rubber masks holding rubber knives, and scare the living Bejeebers out of an already-befuddled audience. I wish I could be in your house now, but like Santa Claus, there's a lot of children to visit. So, just imagine I'm coming up behind you as we let loose The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies.
We now go to East Africa, where life is cheap but clearly ape suits are
expensive. And by Africa we mean a studio back-lot somewhere in Italy
that doubles for the "island" in King Of Kong Island.
I must have denghi fever and it's my insane imaginings that jungle B-films were the property of the 1930s and 40s: what could be described as "Apesploitation", or the "Monkeys Going Bananas" genre. And yet in the 1960s, with Planet Of The Apes one of the most popular films of the year ("You dirty rotten stinking apes!") we have Night Of The Bloody Apes (1968) from Mexico, soon followed by the Italian sexploitation film Queen Kong (1976), and Hong Kong's Goliathon/Mighty Peking Man (1977). It may be man's endless fascination with our lesser-evolved simian twins, or we just can't help but get a cheap laugh out of a guy in a monkey suit.
King Of Kong Island opens with a dastardly scientist Dr Muller using stolen goods to fund his surgical experiments on gorillas. Now, seriously, "gorilla"? Even I own a better monkey suit than this. Cut to a hunting expedition led by Burt (Brad Harris, the American actor who played everyone from Samson to Goliath and Hercules) who is ambushed by not one but TWO "gorillas", complete with surgical scars, who kidnap Diana, the most attractive of the group. Despite his previous mission's complete and abject failure, Burt is charged with bringing Diana back, past miles of stock footage - although to be truthful the producers did find a parrot and a cockatoo and a few pink flamingos for a shirtless Burt, who at times resembles a shaved ape himself, to chase around a studio lagoon.
In an amalgam of every thirty-year old jungle cliché, Burt comes across some spooked natives in awe of the Sacred Monkey God, a helpful chimp and a jungle girl called Eva, who can't utter a word of English but speaks fluent monk-ese, which leads Burt to look her square in the eye and ask, "Are you the Sacred Monkey?" Unbelievable. The hunt ends at Dr Muller's underground dungeon-cum-laboratory in the middle of the jungle where the insane megalomaniac - and the King of the title - has turned the apes into radio-controlled zombies, manipulated by an enormous Electronic Brain.
The film was picked up by American producer Dick Randall, an old-fashioned expert in hullabaloo who was as colorful as the characters in his own Z-grade pickups. Born in the US but based mainly in Rome, Randall was the guy who filmed Jayne Mansfield's grieving family a week after her death and immediately edited the footage into his 1968 mondo film The Wild World Of Jayne Mansfield. He also sold the Filipino midget James Bond spoof For Your Height Only (1981) to the world and turned the two foot nine star Weng Weng into an unlikely international superstar. He could sell a chainsaw massacre to Texas with the 1982 Spanish slasher film Pieces, and could sell a turkey-baster to Foghorn Leghorn in the same breath as he sold this turkey.
Did I say "turkey"? I meant "gorilla", and as honorary Great White Hunters we should approach this film with the right spirit, whose concepts are as absurd as the very idea of white colonialism itself.
Ten minutes into The Grudge I started to think about another recent
movie, which is always cause for alarm bells. Though hardly a memorable
movie, The Butterfly Effect ends with Ashton Kutcher beaming himself
into his mother's womb and strangling himself with his umbilical cord,
in the belief he should never have existed. Oh boy. There's a p*ss-easy
metaphor for this pointless remake that should never have seen the
light of day.
Sitting in the cinema on my left is The Grudge's target audience: the Wide-Eyed Western Pig. A slack-jawed foot soldier for Hollywood's war of cultural imperialism, he trades the art-house for the megaplex as he prefers their fake butter flavor on his popcorn, views "Blockbuster" as a seal of quality, and wants a cute, familiar, WHITE face to focus on. Elsewhere the Horror Fetishist, a sad Pavlovian creature conditioned to lick its own d*ck whenever the name "Sam Raimi" appears on screen, is busy doing a lap of honor during the opening credits. These people have money. These people vote. These bottom-feeders are the mindless consumers the Dream Factory keeps chained to cigarette machines and Gold Lotto slips. Buds: this Grudge is for YOU.
The original Ju-on: The Grudge, the story of a self-perpetuating curse centering on a family's tragic murder-suicide, was an effective if empty and ultimately silly variant on the seemingly endless Ring cycle and was itself spawned from two TV movies. At this point producer Sam Raimi, no virgin to the concept of franchise, waved a huge sack o'cash under director Takashi Shimizu's inscrutable gaze, not for him to reinterpret the movie, but to do a carbon copy of it. In Japan, with a Japanese crew. Virtually scene for scene, and in some cases shot for shot, on an almost-identical set, but with wide-eyed western stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and Bill Pullman. The message here? Money will make it better. Dance, monkey. Do a jig to the tune of two thousand megaplex cash registers all chiming at once. Jump through the hoops just a little faster, 'cos Buffy wants a new series.
If the original Grudge had anything unique, it was its innate "Japanese-ness". Not so here. There's no sense of mounting horror in Shimizu's tired retread which gives the game away in the first 10 minutes, leaving its shocks all the more absurd. To add insult, its episodic structure has been tampered with by a Hollywood scriptwriter who explains away the inexplicable. Surely producer Raimi, while counting down the paychecks till Evil Dead 4, must have realized the Japanese horror film is like a bonsai tree, in its own culture a thing of symmetry, beauty and perfection. Stick it in a tiled pot in the Mall outside Hoyts Regent and it becomes a stupid looking tree.
This isn't just a case of a remake, an updating or yet another pointless sequel. This is unmitigated arrogance - Hollywood saying "do it OUR way, and we can all make a chunk of change". Shimizu should have learned the lessons of history. The original directors of two effective European chillers The Vanishing and Nightwatch were both sent packing to the States to "Americanize" their movies. Does anyone remember George Sluizer or Ole Bornedal? Did anyone give a rat's *ss about the remakes? It's even more proof the Dream Factory has gone bankrupt for ideas, and Scrooge McDuck is at the helm, throwing cloth bags with dollar signs on them even further afield.
This is a war, make no mistake, and for the moment the Wide-Eyed Western Pig is winning. What next? Ang Lee's remake of Crouching Tiger... with Casper Van Dien? Have mercy, and let this curse die right here.
If Western culture is a serpent eating its own tail, it follows that it
will eventually choke on its own feces.
Put simply: the original version of Alfie was a Snake Feast. The watery, transparent 2004 Alfie, another redundant remake from the Selected Works of Sir Michael Bleedin' Caine, is Snake Sh*t.
One of the British box office hits of 1965, Alfie is a snapshot from a moment in history, a perfectly framed view of the Sexual Revolution from a working class perspective. It was both a highbrow sex farce and a populist kitchen sink drama with some wry observations about social class and convention thrown in, all held together by the magnetic presence of its star on the rise. Alfie's like a timeless character from Thackary who spends more than half his screen time justifying his appallingly rakish behavior to the audience; a vain, cocky yet insecure and neurotic Lothario attempting to escape responsibility and pain through a series of doomed sexual misadventures. He emerges at the end of the film unrepentant and only a little wiser, turning to the camera with the immortal tag-line "Wossit all abaht?" It's that timelessness the makers of Alfie '04 attempt to capitalize on in their grotesque carbon copy, updating its East End setting to lower Manhattan but with the female archetypes - or "birds" - left intact. There's the doormat girlfriend, the frustrated wife, and Susan Sarandon updates Shelly Winters' loud, vulgar 50-something man-eater as a slightly more classy 2004 model. A pointed comment on the eternal sexual condition? More like an industry that's fat, indolent, and believes the general public have a long-term memory no longer than six months. One can only imagine its audience are cocktail-guzzling Manhattan matrons with a yen for all things British, like Bridget Jones or Sarah Ferguson, and Jude Law's posterior. True, there are more shots of Law as Alfie "on the job" as it were, but those are mighty big shoes he's walking in. Jude Law comes across affable and worldly and tosses in the odd Caine-ism, but on final judgment is a pale streak of snake sh*t not worthy to fill Sir Michael's Italian loafers.
Maybe that's the problem. Caine's Alfie is cold, calculating, and at times utterly repellent. One dubious conquest he refers to as "it" is set to work as his personal slave, and then cast off for showing too much affection. Alfie '04 attempts to sanitize him, sand off some of the uncomfortable un-PC angles. Alfie 65's moment of truth arrives when the dumpy middle-aged wife of his hospital chum asks Alfie for a backyard abortion (Alfie only slept with her, mind you, to help his lunch go down). As he stares down at his miniature reflection, Caine's face is a contorted mask of pure sorrow. Law's moment of truth in Alfie '04 - no plot spoilers here - is so wide of the mark it's an insult. Strip the character of his tics and grimaces and cutesy cockney patter, and ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Invisible Man.
Even more offensive is the use of 60s pop art icons to evoke the original's aura of cool. A Chet Baker poster, Alfie's scooter - in fact the entire coke-smeared, boots and fur coated, Nico-meets-Julie Christie coquetry of the Nikki character, played by Sienna Miller. The Clash once sang "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977" and the same can be said about Alfie. That Golden Age of popular cinema in the Sixties could actually be about experimenting with style and breaking cultural taboos; not so in 2005, where surface passes for style, smarminess is a stand-in for genuine wit, where sh*t is champagne and sacred ground is something for film industry Burkes and Hares to plunder at will.
Los Angeles, 1976. Indie film brat John Carpenter, fresh out of film
school and with one film - his class project's no-budget spoof of 2001
called Dark Star - under his belt, finishes a gritty actioner called
Assault On Precinct 13. The story of an almost deserted police station
under siege by an unseen LA gang, it was a minor hit on the drive-in
circuit and garnered small praise from the few critics who cared, but
it hardly set the film world on fire, unlike Carpenter's follow-up
smash Halloween (1978). On Precinct, Carpenter was still learning how
to exploit his almost non-existent budget by using lower-shelf actors,
keeping the action to the one hellishly small location, and moving the
film along at a tight pace with a combination of editing, intelligent
camera work and switched-on genre savvy.
No-one wants or needs to be hungry in Hollywood anymore, particularly if the week's catering bill on the 2005 version of Assault On Precinct 13 is more than the entire cost of the original. It does translate into a certain kind of laziness on a filmmaker's part - you have a stupidly large union crew, a studio and a marketing firm all doing your thinking for you. Which is why twenty years after watching Carpenter's film I can still see every glorious moment, from the small girl gunned down in cold blood while buying an ice cream, to the relentless pounding synth score. A week after Assault 2005, I remember Larry Fishburne's unmoving ping pong ball eyes and little else.
"Forgettable popcorn actioner" fits the top of the poster perfectly. It's New Years Eve at Precinct 13, a station closing down with a skeleton staff to see in its final hours. On call is Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), an ex-narc now deeply troubled and hopped up on Jack Daniels and Seconol after his partners were iced in the opening scene; Iris (The Sopranos' Drea de Matteo), a nympho with a thing for criminal types, and Jasper (Brian Dennehy), a crusty old timer one scotch away from retirement. As in Carpenter's Assault..., a bus with four heavy-duty criminals is rerouted to the Precinct. All boozy eyes are on gangster kingpin Bishop (Fishburne, still beefed-up from his time in the Matrix) who has narrowly survived an assassination attempt from an undercover cop and plans to blow the lid on the endemic corruption in the organized crime unit led by Marcus Duvall (a tired-looking Gabriel Byrne). Soon the phones are out, the power lines are down, and both crims and police find themselves heavily armed with a serious police arsenal and consumed with paranoia while waging war against a task force of Duvall's corrupt cops sporting white balaclavas, bullet vests, infra-red bazookas and more high-tech gear than the Skywalker Ranch. This, we're expected to believe as the helicopters buzz around the top of the police station shooting rockets into windows, is a clandestine operation to cover Duvall's tracks. He may as well have taken out billboards on Hollywood Boulevard.
As with the recent Seventies genre reworking Dawn Of The Dead, Assault 2005 takes the barest plot essentials of John Carpenter's original and, to quote the Seventies, "does it's own thing, man". The main question is - why bother? John Carpenter's 1976 is a cult favorite among genre buffs, but is hardly branded in the public's collective consciousness. Carpenter himself was busy reworking Howard Hawks' classic western Rio Bravo into a tight, claustrophobic urban thriller for only $20,000. French wunderkind director and rap producer Jean-Francois Richet, a self-professed fan of John Carpenter's work, seems less concerned with making an homage to either Hawks or JC - although the script is peppered with references to cowboys and injuns - and seems intent on squeezing in as much flash and firepower as the multi-million dollar budget can withstand. The result: some tense moments with hand-held POV cameras, an unexpectedly high (and bloody) body count, a few neat plot twists, but essentially a B-grade urban actioner with a much inflated price tag. As for name-checking Carpenter, it's pure conceit on the part of the filmmakers that doesn't pay off.
To Monsieur Richet, I say bon voyage, and I wish you luck on your music career.
It's impossible these days to talk about horror films without
mentioning other horror films, particularly the recent rash of the
obnoxiously-labeled "J-horror" films. Remake fever and sequelitis have
condemned beautifully-crafted Japanese films The Grudge, the original
Ring and the upcoming Dark Water, all of which have a serious pedigree
that go back several decades, to the dreaded Hollywood revamp. Fifty
years of films like masterpieces like Onibaba and Kwaidan - it's not
something you can tart up with a fresh coat of paint and the actors
Then again, even Japanese horror has its stinkers. Ring 2 (Japanese version), the second and weakest of a three-film franchise, was like a Nightmare On Elm St sequel - silly, noisy and ultimately pointless. Hollywood Ring screenwriter Ehren Kruger thankfully jettisoned Ringu 2's rehash and mishmash and came up with some original ideas for the follow-up. Well, original for Hollywood. Hopefully attempts to turn The Ring's ghost-child Samara into a Freddy Krueger for the SMS Generation will fall flat, and Tinseltown can move on from its J-centric obsession.
Naomi Watts returns as Rachel Keller, as does David Dorfman as her creepy son Aidan. Now in secluded Astoria, Oregon, the curse of the video tape has followed them - in Ring 2's Scream-like opener a teen thrill-seeker is found with the familiar open-jawed look of abject terror. Rachel destroys the tape, but it appears Samara wants Aidan ("I see dead fishes") to be her host, and she's looking for a new Mommy. Aidan's soon freezing to the touch and has hand-shaped bruises on his back; even reindeer hate him. A sanitarium visit to Samara's biological mother Evelyn (a show-stopping performance from Carrie herself, Sissy Spacek, still in her Loretta Lynn fright wig) convinces Rachel that Samara wants back into the dating game, and David is her return ticket.
Even with the original Japanese director Hideo Nakata at the helm - a ploy used by The Grudge with depressingly similar results - these American remakes simply don't work. The Japanese versions are simultaneously silly and creepy; American ones are just plain silly. Japanese films have a tendency to downplay the drama to amplify their shocks, which American productions crudely attempt to ape. American actors thus appear to sleepwalk through their roles. The Grudge's casting trump card was a soporific Sarah Michelle Gellar; in Ring 2 it's The Guardian's heavy-lidded Simon Baker. An interesting casting choice, pitting two former Aussie soap stars against each other; Watts is certainly a long way from Summer Bay. I for one look forward to Harold Bishop's successful relocation to Hollywood.
Ring 2 has an interesting dynamic that Nakata has explored before in his film Dark Water, the child's disconnection from its parent (Aidan calls his mother Rachel, and authorities believe Rachel is beating her child). A much creepier film would have been Naomi Watts trying to destroy her son in order to save him - without the supernatural element. Call me sadistic, but I think it would work. Dark Water also features an orphaned ghost looking for a living mother, and Samara's staccato spider-walk up the well recalls The Grudge (itself an attempt to out-do Ringu, on which Nakata was technical adviser), as well as Linda Blair's restored upside-down stroll in The Exorcist: Director's Cut. All familiar elements which resonate with Nakata's Japanese work, but with less than spectacular results.
The film emerges from its slumber when Nakata goes to work hammer and tongs on two quite preposterous set-pieces. First, an entire herd of CGI reindeer hammer Rachel's car into scrap metal. Its meaning? Reindeer are sacred in Japan, says Nakata. Maybe they don't like working with child actors. Second is a bathtub sequence (the old J-horror standby) where the water forms a vortex around Aidan and floods the ceiling. It's both a triumph for special effects, and a vain attempt to breathe life into a drowned beast.
A final word to the Hollywood producers of the Oldboy remake: Judd Nelson in the title role. Think about it and give me a call.
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