Monday, February 19, 2018

Demons (Lamberto Bava, 1985)

A young woman named Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) is walking through a train station in Berlin where a silent man in a metal half-mask (assistant director and future director of genre fare such as The Church and Cemetery Man Michele Soavi) is handing out free tickets to a film showing at the Metropol Theater. Cheryl asks this Man in Black for an extra ticket for her friend Kathy (A Cat in the Brain's Paola Cozzo). Neither girl has heard of the Metropol, but they go to the film anyway. Other viewers include George (Urbano Barberini, Tarl Cabot in the film versions of John Norman's Gor books) and Ken (Karl Zinny of Bava's Delirium), with whom the two hit it off immediately; Tony (Flight from Paradise's Bobby Rhodes), a black pimp accompanied by his employees Rosemary (Geretta Geretta) and Carmen (Fabiola Toledo of Bava's A Blade in the Dark); Tommy (Guido Baldi) and his girlfriend Hannah (Fiore Argento, eldest daughter of co-screenwriter and producer Dario Argento); and blind man Werner (Ladyhawke's Alex Serra) and his daughter Liz (Sally Day). Rosemary tries on a mask on display in the lobby, which leaves a scratch on her cheek. The film plays: it features a group of young people discovering the tomb of Nostradamus, which contains nothing but a book in Latin and a mask. One of the characters tries on the mask, which scratches him just like Rosemary. True to the prophecy in Nostradamus' book, the mask turns the character into a demon, and mayhem ensues. In the real world, Rosemary discovers her wound is bleeding again and heads to the bathroom, but turns into a hideous, green bile-spewing demon herself. Soon, the filmgoers discover fiction has become horrifying reality.

Lamberto Bava may not have been a brilliant filmmaker on the level of his father Mario, the master of Gothic horror, but he did have genuine talent, and of the three films of his I've seen to date, this would have to be the best, and indeed it's Lamberto's favorite of his own films. The story by Bava, the legendary Dario Argento, Dardano Sacchetti (writer or co-writer of such masterpieces as the elder Bava's A Bay of Blood and Fulci's The Beyond), and Franco Ferrini (Once Upon a Time in America and Argento's Phenomena) is surprisingly meta (including fakeout end credits!), and thankfully no explanation is given for why the demons of the movie are real other than Werner's claim the theater is cursed. The gore FX by Angelo Mattei and makeup by Sergio Stivaletti are impressive indeed. The characters are not particularly well-developed, but still entertaining, especially the foul-mouthed Tony, who takes charge of the theatergoers in their escape attempts. Unfortunately, he is not as lucky (relatively speaking) as Ken Foree's Peter Washington in Dawn of the Dead. The idea of a blind man going to the movies is pretty hilarious (according to the film's trivia page on IMDB, deliberately so), but since Werner's daughter Liz is there for a romantic tryst, it makes a certain amount of sense. Sadly, Werner suffers an ironic fate. Surprisingly, redheaded usherette Ingrid (Nicoletta Elmi of Argento's Deep Red) at first seems mysterious and sinister, but ultimately turns out to be an innocent victim herself, something not acknowledged. There are some hilarious scenes with a quartet of punks who steal a Ferrari and snort coke through a straw in a can of Coke and stumble upon the theater, which contains posters for Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre, and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Look out for a cameo at the end by young Giovanni Frezza, who genre fans will know best as Bob in Fulci's The House by the Cemetery. The soundtrack is utterly '80s: besides excellent work by Claudio Simonetti, it also boasts work by Rick Springfield (this would be my second favorite film with a scene where characters snort coke while listening to his music, the first being Boogie Nights), Mötley Crüe, Pretty Minds, Go West, the Adventures, Billy Idol ("White Wedding"!!!), Accept, and Saxon. A sequel by Bava followed in 1986, and as so often happens in Italian genre cinema a number of unrelated horror films were touted as sequels in other countries. Stivaletti said in 2016 he, Bava, and Argento were talking about a 3-D remake, but two years later there seems to be no forward progress. No worries; this version would be hard to top for sheer fun.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Blood of Fu Manchu (Jess Franco, 1968)

The insidious Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) has his dacoits kidnap ten beautiful women from around the world, and expose them to the bite of the black cobra, which gives them the "kiss of death," causing first blindness and then, as the name indicates, death. He plans to have the women use the kiss on ten influential men around the world, his enemies. Assisting Fu in his efforts is his equally evil daughter Lin Tang (You Only Live Twice's Tsai Chin). An archaeological expedition lead by Carl Jansen (Götz George of the long-running German cop show Tatort) and Professor Wagner (whose actor is sadly unidentified on IMDB). The dacoits open fire on the explorers; Wagner is killed, and Jansen barely escapes. In London, we learn that Jansen was searching for Fu Manchu at the behest of the latter's archenemy, Nayland Smith (The Adventures of Robin Hood's Richard Greene), who is visited by his sidekick Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford, the grandson of author F. Marion Crawford). Unfortunately, also dropping in is one of Fu's assassins, Celeste (The Blue Max's Loni von Friedl), who gives Smith the kiss of death before fleeing, only to be hit by a car. Meanwhile, Jansen comes to the mansion of the Governor of Santa Cristabel, saying he needs to arrange passage to Mealia to inform Professor Wagner's niece Ursula of what has happened, but the Governor instead arrests him for his colleague's murder. Fu Manchu suspects bandit leader Sancho Lopez (Spaghetti Western standby Ricardo Palacios) of being a spy for Nayland Smith, and has him captured when his men raid Mealia shortly after an encounter with Ursula, (Franco regular Maria Rohm), a doctor for the local mission service.

Jess Franco is a director whose films run the gamut from really good to blisteringly bad, and this film falls firmly in the middle. The fourth film in a series produced by Harry Alan Towers (Maria Rohm's husband, not coincidentally), and the first of two directed by Franco, this is an entertaining but never above-average film. Based on Sax Rohmer's novel series, this film is likely to disappoint some ardent Fu Manchu fans such as myself. For one thing, Dr. Petrie, the narrator of the early novels, is changed from a basically competent and robust individual into a doddering jackass who seems more concerned about his damn tea than fighting the Devil Doctor. Also, he's apparently in a relationship with an unseen bleach-blonde, so no hint of the literary Petrie's beloved Kâramanèh. Also, Fu Manchu's daughter, known by the childhood nickname of Fah Lo Suee in the novels (as well as such aliases as Madame Ingomar, Koreani, and Queen Mamaloi) has had her name changed for this series, just as the 1931 film Daughter of the Dragon gave the name of Princess Ling Moy to Fu's daughter played by Anna May Wong. (For the record, Fu himself was played by erstwhile CharlieChan Warner Oland.) Fu's organization is never referred to as the Si-Fan, and he doesn't have his faithful marmoset Pekoe. As so many book covers and films have done, Fu is given a mustache despite Rohmer explicitly desribing him as clean-shaven. Even so, if you're not a purist, it can be pretty enjoyable. Or not, depending on how you feel about white actors such as the legendary Christopher Lee playing a Chinese man. Of course, Lee and Oland were not the only white men to play the Lord of Strange Deaths; as recently as 2007, Nicolas Cage played Fu Manchu in a memorable cameo in Rob Zombie's faux movie trailer Werewolf Women of the S.S. as part of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's film Grindhouse. And at least Fu's daughter is played by an actual Chinese woman. Lee is as awesomely sinister as always, and as with the other films of the series he appears in an isolated shot declaring "the world shall hear from me again." There's also some beautiful scenery in the form of the Brazilian jungle used to stand in for Santa Cristabel. There are also plenty of lovely ladies in the film, some of whom provide a bit of frontal and rear nudity. Shirley Eaton appears in a scene lifted from the Franco/Towers collaboration Rio 70, used without consulting Ms. Eaton herself. (Ol' Jess was not above reusing scenes or character names from his other films, as Francophile well know.) This film had no less then three alternate titles in the U.S.: Against All OddsKiss and Kill, and Kiss of Death. Personally, I prefer the original title, as Rohmer always included Fu's name in the title of the books. I do have to say, it's weird that Fu Manchu thinks Nayland Smith would employ a murderous rapist like Sancho Lopez as a spy, but needless to say he's proven wrong. Fu has a group of female scientists working for him, but they sadly only show up for one scene. Of the two Fu Manchu films Franco directed, I'll take this over the oft-incomprehensible The Castle of Fu Manchu anyday. Check it out on Amazon Prime.

As a Sherlock Holmes fanatic as well as a Fu Manchu one, I have to note that three of the main actors in this film have appeared in adaptations of the Great Detective. Considering Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie were essentially Rohmer's versions of Holmes and Watson, this seems pretty appropriate to me. Christopher Lee played Sir Henry Baskerville in Hammer's 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes himself in the 1962 West German-French-Italian co-production, and the 1992 TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady, and Sherlock's brother Mycroft in Billy Wilder's 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Richard Greene played the aforementioned Sir Henry Baskerville in the 1939 version of Hound starring Basil Rathbone, and Lord Brompton in "The Case of The Purloined Letter," a 1979 episode of the television series Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Interestingly, Greene took over the role of Nayland Smith in the last two films of the series from Douglas Wilmer, who played Holmes in a 1964-1965 TV series and The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, as well as having a cameo in "The Reichenbach Fall" episode of Sherlock. Howard Marion-Crawford played the Dr. Watson to Ronald Howard's Holmes in the 1954-1955 TV series Sherlock Holmes.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Sword and the Claw (Kiliç Aslan; Natuk Baytan, 1979)

King Solomon is killed by the usurper Antoine, and his fleeing wife dies giving birth to his son. The baby, who like all males of his line has a birthmark in the shape of a scimitar and a lion's head, is raised by lions himself, while Antoine's wife, who slept with Solomon shortly after her forced marriage and before the king's death, gives birth to a boy herself, only to be placed in the dungeons for the rest of her life after insulting Antoine. Years later, Solomon's son has grown into a feral but heroic Lion Man (Cüneyt Arkin, best known in America for Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam, aka Turkish Star Wars due to its unauthorized use of footage from the original film), who helps the peasants led by Rustam in their rebellion against Antoine and his son Aslan. Lion Man uses his hands like claws, slashing mercilessly at Antoine's soldiers. He also falls in love with Rustam's daughter Ida, while Aslan finds himself drawn to an exotic dancer. Soon, Lion Man and Aslan discover a connection that leads them to join forces against the cruel King Antoine.

Turkish exploitation cinema is pretty popular amongst grindhouse cinema aficionados, from the aforementioned Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam to the Kilink films (inspired by Italian fumetti photo-comics) to 3 Dev Adam, a knock-off film in which El Santo (not played by the real luchador) and a shieldless Captain America take on "the Spider," a sadistic crimeboss version of Spider-Man with eyebrows on his mask. Since 3 Dev Adam was the only other Turkish cult flick I've seen, I was pretty excited when AFGA (American Genre Film Archive) released The Sword and the Claw on Blu-ray last month. I can now say it was very much worth the wait. Set apparently during the time of the Byzantine empire, exactly when and where these events occur are never made fully clear. Some of Antoine's soldiers wear robes, others armor, and some of them have shields that seem to bear the letter "P" on them, for some reason (if there's any historical reference to that, readers can feel free to let me know). The acting feels awkward, and from the way the actors emote it probably would be even without the goofy dubbing, including the longest string of consecutive cries of "Bastard!" The actor playing Antoine hams it up something fierce too. I've heard delivered by a film character since Juan Piquer Simón's Pieces. Cüneyt Arkin (credited as Richard Arkin, incidentally, and more on that below) is a wooden leading man, spending most of the film with no dialogue before taking English lessons from Ida midway through the film, then not speaking again until the film's climax, in complete sentences, apparently having learned human language at a speed that Tarzan might envy, if Lord Greystoke were so petty. The fight scenes are pretty hilarious, with lots of characters jumping around (clearly a trampoline was used), and the gore is far from convincing. Lion Man's mother (whose husband is evidently not the King Solomon) apparently gives birth while fully clothed. The plot twist about Aslan's connection to Lion Man can be seen coming from pretty much the beginning of the film. The fact that Lion Man's family birthmark is an icon that looks exactly like two real things is a pretty goofy plot contrivance. Rustam's fellow rebels include a hairy dude named Hammerfist (of the Boston Hammerfists, perhaps?) and a bald guy who looks a little like Sid Haig in Spider Baby. The soundtrack often sounds more appropriate for the Bolshoi Ballet then a historical epic. When Lion Man acquires a pair of steel claws, it seems redundant, since his old hands worked pretty much like claws anyway. This movie was totally ridiculous, and that's why I loved it. Kudos to AFGA for introducing this Turkish delight to a new generation of American film buffs such as myself. Apparently, there's also a sequel, 1979's Lionman II: The Witchqueen, with a different director and cast. One can only hope AFGA will do that film at some point as well. Bonus features on the Blu-ray include trailers for other AFGA releases (such as Superargo and the Faceless Giants and Three Supermen in the West) and a bonus film, the 1978 South Korean martial arts flick Brawl Busters (whatta title!), which I'm sure I'll be watching and covering here at some point in the near-future.

Unfortunately, IMDB lists the full cast, but not who plays what character. The end credits don't help in that regard either. The fact that many of the actors have both non-Turkish sounding names and a lack of other credits on IMDB makes me think many of the actors used pseudonyms to make the film more palatable to English speaking audiences. Hopefully, someone will track down more info.