Monday, 21 September 2020

Golden Queen’s Commando
(Chu Yen-Ping, 1982)

Although I can’t find a way to shoehorn it into any of my existing blog categories, today I’m going to go off-piste to tell you all about ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’, a lackadaisical action spectacular from the depths of Taiwan’s b-movie netherworld which charmed and mystified me in equal measure as it unfolded before my sleepy, post-midnight eyes last weekend.

[Quick note: Where possible, I’ve tried to present both the Chinese and English names of cast members when crediting them, but given the extent of misinformation and general obscurity which surrounds the Taiwanese popular film industry, confusion is bound to ensue, so apologies in advance for any mistakes.]

On first glance, ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’ seems like a pretty fool-proof proposition: an all-female riff on ‘The Dirty Dozen’, set in war-torn Manchuria circa 1944. Pretty straightforward stuff, you may think, but just try telling that to director Chu Yen-Ping, a man best known in the West for bringing the world the unforgettable, allegedly Triad-financed all-star headfuck Fantasy Mission Force a year later.

Suffice to say, anyone familiar with that film will anticipate trouble brewin’ with this one, and indeed, the same delirious mixture of full-spectrum sloppiness, misplaced ambition, relentless forward momentum and sheer, unadulterated craziness is already in full effect in ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’, as Yen-Ping leaves any semblance of real world logic way back in the rear view mirror right from the outset.

As seems fairly sensible, the film begins with a series of short vignettes introducing us to each of our ‘commandos’, illustrating the circumstances which led to them being incarcerated together in what we’re forced to assume must be some kind of hellish, pan-Asian prison camp.

And, boy howdy, what a fantastic line-up of ladies we have to root for here! Much in the spirit of Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s ‘House’ (1977), each of our heroines has a simple, one-personality-trait identity, a distinctive costume, and an easy name to help us remember them.

There’s a tattooed lady wrestler from Inner Mongolia (‘Amazon’, played by Chun-Chun Hsu/Theresa Tsui), a master safecracker and cat burglar (‘Quicksilver’, Hsueh-Fen (Silvia) Peng), and ‘Sugar Plum’ (Joyce H. Cheng), who appears to be some kind of man-eating femme fatale / call girl with a cupid’s bow tattooed on her cheek.

 Even more memorable though is ‘Brandy’ (Hao-Yi (Hilda) Liu), an alcoholic swordswoman who we we initially see debasing herself terribly as she tries to scrounge a drink in a filthy, crowded bar. Once she’s managed to glug down a flask of wine however, it’s ‘Drunken Master’ time, as she is transformed into a fearsome fighter, slicing up her goon-ish tormenters in classic chanbara fashion! Wow!

A somewhat more aesthetically complex creation, ‘Black Cat’ (Hui-Shan Yang / Elsa Yeung) meanwhile boasts a spectacular, period-defying teased hair-do, new wave make-up and ray-bans, as well as wearing an oversized black cross around her neck.

Apparently some kind of Old West-styled outlaw / gambler / preacher(?), Black Cat makes up for the fact she was born forty years too early to audition to play bass in The Gun Club by bringing her own brand of rough, frontier justice to the saloons of old… Asia?

In one of several tributes to ‘For a Few Dollars More’ scattering through ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’, we initially see her calling out some no good varmint who’s unsuccessfully tried to stack a card game against her, blowing him away with a hidden pistol concealed inside a bible.

Eventually emerging as the movie’s Charles Bronson / second-in-command figure, Black Cat is undoubtedly pretty awesome, but when it comes to picking my favourite Golden Queen Commando, she narrowly loses out to ‘Dynamite’, played by Sally Yeh (who went on to star in Tsui Hark’s ‘Peking Opera Blues’ and John Woo’s ‘The Killer’ (both 1986)).

Swaggering across the Tibetan Plateau in hot-pants and a red bandana, Dynamite keeps a lit cigarette permanently dangling from her lips and specialises in – you guessed it – blowing stuff up, sometimes even using an oversized, cartoon-style detonator. (At one point later in the film, Dynamite further cements her infinite coolness by literally bringing a knife to a gunfight, and winning. Too much, man.)

As you can imagine, the various episodes required to introduce us to this mob of ass-kicking oddballs eat up so much screen-time that I was wondering whether there would actually be any time left for them to be assembled into a crack team of commandos and sent on a dangerous mission. Not that I’m complaining you understand - I could happily have watched a few dozen more of these action-packed vengeance vignettes, hit the end credits and headed off to slumberland feeling pretty satisfied.

But, ‘Dirty Dozen’ movie’s gotta do what a ‘Dirty Dozen’ movie’s got to do, and so eventually the aforementioned bad-ass dames find themselves incarcerated together in the aforementioned prison camp, being bossed around by soldiers who, in view of the historical setting, must presumably be Japanese, even though their uniforms and equipment appear to be German. Seriously though, let’s not even go there. They’re just baddies, ok?

Incredibly for a film of this vintage and general type however, the rote ‘Women In Prison’ segment which follows is entirely lacking in the kind of exploitative sadistic / sexual content one would usually expect of such material. In fact, the evil Asian Nazis don’t even so much as leer at any of the attractive women under their command, insofar as I recall. (There is a food fight instead though, if that’s any consolation.)

It’s almost as if Yen-Ping was setting out to make a family friendly movie or something. Albeit, one of those family friendly movies which involve hundreds of people being slaughtered, dismembered body parts flying across the screen and so forth - but still.

Anyway, it is whilst hanging around in this strangely non-threatening prison hell-camp that our heroines first encounter the formidable Brigitte Lin, heading up the cast list as our eye patch-sporting Lee Marvin surrogate, ‘Black Fox’.

“The Black Fox was really hot before the war – her two guns were enough to panic any mobster from Hong Kong to Chicago,” Black Cat helpfully explains. (Yes, there’s both a Black Cat and a Black Fox in this film, get used to it.)

[Hopefully Brigitte Lin will require no introduction for many of this blog’s readers, but given that I rarely cover Chinese-language cinema to any great extent, let’s just say – deep breath – ‘Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain’ (1983), ‘Police Story’ (1985), ‘Peking Opera Blues’ (1986), ‘Dragon Inn’ (1992), ‘The Bride With White Hair’ (1993), ‘Chungking Express’ (1994). You get the idea.]

Masquerading as a fellow inmate, Black Fox undertakes assorted chicanery in order to get our six heroines committed to the prison’s ‘black hole’ punishment room (basically it’s just an empty room with no lights where they hang around together, smoking cigarettes), from whence she orchestrates their escape.

Unfortunately however, the lengthy ‘prison break’ sequence that follows takes place at night, rendering the action largely incomprehensible on the badly degraded print of the film included on Golden Ninja Video’s recent Ninja Vortex compendium of IFD/Joseph Lai related films.

Presumably sourced from a Japanese VHS release if the burned in subs are anything to go by, this sadly seems to represent the only version of this film currently available in any format, but, looking on the bright side, at least it’s widescreen. Given that about 90% of the soundtrack consists of stolen Ennio Morricone music, I’m not really expecting a legit, remastered blu-ray edition to pop up any time soon either, so let’s just be thankful for what we’ve got.

A typically moody nocturnal action shot from the extant print of ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’.

So, as you’ll appreciate, I don’t really know how the ladies get out of prison. There seem to be a lot of soldiers being massacred, some jeeps zooming around and some buildings catching fire, but the whys and wherefores are all lost in the tape-sourced murk. Eventually though, they regroup in some kind of hideout which Black Fox has set out for them, where they are – finally! - briefed on the details of the mission they are supposed to carry out.

A spectacularly half-hearted attempt at exposition, this briefing lasts around thirty seconds, accompanied by a single chalkboard map, and basically consists of: “so there’s this underground enemy chemical lab, and some revolutionaries are threatening to unleash a chemical attack, so we get there first and blow it all up before them, any questions?”

Well, ok, how about - whose enemies? What revolutionaries? What the hell is going on here? I seem to recall there was also some reference made to a ‘queen’ at this point, which I suppose goes some way toward addressing this film’s grammatically awkward English title, but… which queen would that be then? I confess, the complex politics of war-time Taiwan and mainland China aren’t exactly my area of expertise, but… on reflection I should stop tormenting myself with these questions and just roll with it really, shouldn’t I?

I mean, I suspect I’ve already put more effort into trying to set the scene for this thing than Yen-Ping ever did, and even if he did deign to address his story’s historical background to some extent, you can be damn sure none of his efforts would have survived IFD’s typically horrendous English dubbing process (and make no mistake, this one is an absolute shocker in that regard).

Anyway, next thing we know, we’re in some dusty rural locale, and our heroines are all riding horses! They all seem to have reclaimed their preferred costumes and weapons from the pre-prison section of the movie, and Brigitte Lin has acquired a big, furry hat which she proceeds to wear through the remainder of the picture, even though the weather looks quite warm.

Meanwhile, someone in the editing room is absolutely caning their old copy of the ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ soundtrack LP, and ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’ seems determined to transform itself into a western. There are many bad men on the Commandos’ tail, which we know because we see atmospheric, low angle shots of the black-hatted riders thundering over the camera, wielding flaming torches. Cripes! 

From hereon in, the narrative more or less degenerates into a series of unrelated set pieces with zero connective tissue linking them together. So, at one point, the Commandos enter a forested area, where they all ensnared by a variety of elaborate booby traps, one of which involves Black Fox getting clobbered by a bunch of human skeletons which swing down from the sky (or something).

Unfeasibly, the instigators of these traps turns up to just be a bunch of slobbish militia type dudes. Could they those ‘revolutionaries’ we were just hearing about? I’m not sure, but whoever they are, they’re a fairly good natured bunch, which leads us to our next set piece, wherein they promise our heroines their freedom, provided they can prove their mastery of various disciplines by defeating their captors in a series of challenges involving noodle-eating, beer-drinking, archery etc.

Sadly, whilst all of these hi-jinks are going on, there’s very little time for us to spend getting to know the individual Commandos, which is a shame, because they’re all such outstanding characters I could easily have watched a spin-off solo movie featuring any of them.

There is some rather minimal back-biting / in-fighting along the way, but the chief takeaway from this is simply the realisation that Quicksilver is by far the most annoying member of the group, prefiguring Winona Ryder’s angsty android character from ‘Alien Resurrection’ by several decades as she brings the action grinding to a halt on several occasions in order to start whining about the fact that she’s an orphan and had to make her own way in the world, and so on and so forth.

I mean, I’m sure each of these women has just as much of a hard luck story to tell, but do you see them tearing up and complaining about it every five minutes? Just look at poor Amazon – she’s been snatched away from her prize-fighting career in darkest Mongolia with nothing but an animal skin bikini to her name, and she barely even gets any screen-time. She’s just quietly takin’ care of business, trying to get this action movie / western / whatever thing done, as should you Quicksilver, you ungrateful cow. Just because you’re slightly less cool than the other characters, you think you’ve got a right to monopolise our attention. Go and crack a safe or something, why don’t you!

Sorry, where were we? Oh yes, the next big set piece finds the Commandos holing up in some sand dunes for a showdown with the army of baddies who have been following them – apparently led by the heretofore unmentioned “Flash Harry, the best tracker around”. (“But it can’t be him, he’s in Brazil,” Quicksilver exclaims, inexplicably.)

This sequence soon develops into a seemingly endless series of stylish, low angle shots of silhouetted stuntmen being thrown from their horses in slow mo, as multiple explosive charges set in advance by Dynamite explode around them.

Grabbing these extremely effective pyro / horse stunt shots was presumably a big deal for director Chu, and he seems determined to milk them for as much production value as he possibly can, throwing together what I imagine must have been every single piece of footage shot for these sequences and looping ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’ endlessly behind them, creating a slo-mo, cowboy blasting montage which goes on for so long it eventually blurs into complete abstraction, resembling some avant garde / psychedelic re-appropriation of violent western imagery – an impression only intensified by cutaways to close-ups of the warrior women, rocking their assorted early ‘80s fashion statements as they blast away at their attackers with rifles.

After all this, we’re left feeling thoroughly discombobulated as the surviving Commandos (yes, some of them have sadly copped it, but no spoilers here) finally reach their destination, which appears to be a system of caves. Here, after more close-quarters soldier slaughter and more weepy shit from Quicksilver as she finally serves her purpose by cracking the lock on the big, metal door, they infiltrate the “chemical plant”, where…. well… good grief. I think this is where I finally lost it.

Imagine if you will, a cornucopia of bubbling, mad scientist beakers and chemistry equipment, full of wildly coloured liquid, all lorded over by cackling, Nazi-uniformed Asian soldiers. Meanwhile, the room’s big, raised central panel spins around (a common motif in crazy, early’80s Taiwanese films, in my experience), revealing - for some goddamned reason - the guy who was in charge of the prison way back at the start of the movie!

He is enthroned, Blofeld-style, upon a red upholstered armchair, stroking a cat, and is attended by a hefty, Eunuch-like servant wearing a one-piece yellow bodysuit. (Those still determined to wring some real world context out of this nonsense may wish to note that there is kind of white-on-red crescent/bull horns motif going on here, whatever that might imply.)

“I beg of you please, you mustn’t destroy any of this, this is not evil, it is art and science, all those wonderful theories,” the Eunuch guy pleads with the Commandos. “With this, we can take man to a higher level of civilisation, where there is peace, no pain, a paradise beyond dreams,” adds the prison boss/warlord.

“That’s a load of horseshit if ever I heard any,” Black Cat immediately responds, before opening fire and machine-gunning everything to smithereens – which I for one couldn’t help thinking seemed at least a bit premature.

I mean, admittedly, the cackling Nazis and cat-stroking Bond villain are assuredly not good signs, but this man in the yellow seems fairly sincere, at least. And after all, we haven’t actually seen any proof that this outfit are up to no good, have we? Wouldn’t it make sense to wait around and ascertain whether or not they have actually made any discoveries vital to humanity’s future, before going for full-on obliteration?

Well, apparently not. Still determined to turn itself into a western by any means necessary, ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’ takes one last deep breath and goes for a kind of Bond movie-ish variation on the ‘Wild Bunch’ ending. Chaos! Blood! Screaming! Slaughter! Will anyone get out alive…?

To find out, you will simply have to commit ninety minutes to watching whatever ragged copy of ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’ the internet and/or grey market can provide you with. I’m confident you won’t regret it.

Resorting to a tired cooking metaphor (last refuge of the speechless movie reviewer), this film feels as if someone cleared out everything sweet or salty from the kitchen cupboard, mixed it all up in a bowl, and served it up raw for dinner. Crazy, indigestible and quite possibly dangerous to one’s continued well-being it may be… but it’s kind of irresistible too.

Filleting through errant genre tropes like an ADHD-afflicted kid trapped in a comic book archive, it finds Chu Yen-Ping dishing out happy, context free pulp adventure mayhem like the unhinged b-movie savant which for the moment I’m going to assume he is.

Justin Decloux, who compiled and annotated the aforementioned ‘Ninja Vortex’ set from which I sourced my copy of this film, informs us that ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’ is “…shockingly coherent for a Yen-Ping production”. Goddamn.

‘Pink Force Commandos’, with most of the same cast and crew, followed in ’83. Wish me luck, I’m going in.

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At the time of writing, a version of ‘Golden Queen’s Commando’ comparable to the one I watched (actually, I think it might be a bit more cropped around the edges, if yr feeling picky) can be enjoyed on Youtube here.

Friday, 11 September 2020

Lovecraft on Film:
The Unnamable
(Jean-Paul Ouellette, 1988)

“The witchcraft terror is a horrible ray of light on what was stewing in men’s crushed brains, but even that is a trifle. There was no beauty: no freedom – we can see that from the architectural and household remains, and the poisonous sermons of the cramped divines. And inside that rusted iron straightjacket lurked gibbering hideousness, perversion, and diabolism. Here, truly, was the apotheosis of the unnamable.”  - H.P. Lovecraft, ‘The Unnamable’

First published in the July 1925 issue of ‘Weird Tales’, H.P. Lovecraft’s brief tale ‘The Unnamable’ is an odd business, even by its author’s usual standards. Though ostensibly a conventional horror story, with an old dark house, a graveyard, scary folk tales and a grisly climax involving an indescribable monster to be found within its few short pages, Lovecraft’s intentions in drafting this one actually seem to have lain somewhere else entirely.

Seemingly functioning more as an extended in-joke aimed at the author’s fans and correspondents, ‘The Unnamable’ is in fact an archly self-aware piece of niche literary jocularity. Chiefly centred around a faux-Platonic dialogue conducted between two gentlemen lounging around in an Arkham cemetery, it also meanwhile provides a vehicle for Lovecraft’s sincerely held views on the value of mystery and ambiguity within literature and culture (as opposed to the smug, Christian Science-derived rationality proffered by his hypothetical critics).

Though identified in the story’s final sentence as “Carter”, the narrator of ‘The Unnamable’ is clearly a stand-in for Lovecraft himself – an amateur scribbler of spooky tales, criticised by his more down-to-earth friends for his “..constant talk about ‘unnamable’ and ‘unmentionable’ things”; “..a very puerile device, quite in keeping with my low standing as an author,” the narrator informs us, tongue firmly in cheek.

Beginning with the unforgettable opening gambit, “We were sitting on a dilapidated seventeenth-century tomb in the late afternoon of an autumn day at the old burying-ground in Arkham and speculating about the unnamable,” the story in fact allows us a rare glimpse of Lovecraft’s capacity not only to recognise, but to happily lampoon, the excesses of his own style, as he proceeds to pepper his text with adjective-clogged sentences so patently absurd that they surely must have been intended as a kind of winking self-parody.(1)

Much of this literary jiggery-pokery is inevitably lost in Jean-Paul Ouellette’s 1988 movie adaptation of ‘The Unnamable’, but nonetheless, the first-time writer/director does a surprisingly good job of retaining the self-reflexive tone of the piece, remaining faithful both to the flimsy outline of the story, and to the reassuringly eerie atmosphere of Lovecraft’s fantastical New England.(2)

Immediately expanding upon Lovecraft’s story, the film opens with a historical prologue which seems designed to reassure nervous Weird Tales fans that they can nix that outraged letter to the editor of ‘Crypt of Cthulhu’ – this movie’s got them covered.

In the drawing-room of a shadow-haunted, colonial mansion, an aged alchemist or warlock of some kind is chilling out with his extensive collection of grimoires. But, his contemplation of the Pnakotic Manuscripts is persistently interrupted by the unholy sounds emanating from the house’s gabled attic room, causing him to recall that this is where he has locked up the unseen, and indeed unnameable, creature which used to by his wife.

One cautious (and, it must be said, extremely slow) ascent of the perilous staircase later, following some shaky fingering of the wrought iron key which may perchance unlock the big, rusted padlock which keeps the door chained, and – surprise! – we’re treated to some of the best value late ‘80s gore that money can buy, and “the unnameable” is on the loose.

Though admirable in its intent to establish an authentically “Lovecraftian” feel, the meagre resources with which this film was produced are all too clearly on view during this prologue. Though the sets and lighting are pretty decent, and the grimoires and candles and stuff look lovely, some of the other period details have a bit of an Andy Milligan feel to them, which does not necessarily bode well for what follows.

(I just couldn’t get past the absolutely ridiculous nightcap/hanky thing the old man is wearing on his head, whilst the puritan minister who turns up to declare that the house should be sealed up and shunned for all eternity looks about twenty years old, and appears to be wearing a sheet of A1 printing paper with a hole cut in the middle around his neck.)

We’re on safer ground however – in terms of costumery, at least - as we zip forward to present day, where we find ourselves in a bucolic cemetery just down the road from Arkham’s Miskatonic University campus. Here, as per Lovecraft’s tale, a group of friends are indeed ‘speculating about the unnameable’. Admittedly, the mature adults of HPL’s story (in which the narrator’s rationalist antagonist is identified as “principal of the East High School”) have been recast here as fresh-faced students, and there are three of them, rather than two, but y’know – this is an ‘80s horror movie. Young victims are needed. 

Making an inter-textual jump never explicitly stated in the source text, Ouellette’s screenplay assumes that that our narrator, “Carter”, is in fact none other than Randolph Carter, protagonist of both HPL’s titular ‘Statement of…’ (1919), and his subsequent series of Dunsany-inspired “dreamland” fantasies.

As played here by the immediately likeable Mark Kinsey Stephenson, it is also clear that this Randolph Carter is going to be anything but a sickly, introverted Lovecraft stand-in. In fact, he comes across as a lively and rather charismatic figure right from the outset, becoming more-so as the movie progresses.

An oddball aspiring folklorist possessed of nervous energy and a presumably vast knowledge of esoteric lore, Stephenson’s Carter makes for a pretty great horror movie hero all round. It’s easy to imagine him having headed up his own TV show or on-going franchise in which he traipsed around New England, collecting old stories and investigating sinister goings-on, like some more collegiate equivalent of Manly Wade Wellman’s ‘Silver John’ character.

(Though this possibility sadly never came to pass, the appeal of Stephenson’s characterisation was clearly not lost on Ouellette and his collaborators; ‘The Unnamable’s 1992 sequel is sub-titled “The Statement of Randolph Carter”, with Stephenson top-billed.)

Unfortunately, none of the other characters here are quite so memorable, but again – we’re in ‘80s horror movie territory here, so they’re all just meat for the grinder, more or less. For the most part the cast acquit themselves fairly well, with Charles Klausmeyer standing out for his young Roman Polanski / John Moulder-Brown type look in the role of Carter’s younger buddy/protégé Howard Damon. (He also seems to wear a tweed suit and tie to campus every day, which lends a touch of class.) 

In this telling of the story, Carter’s rationalist antagonist in the graveyard discussion – business major Joel Manton, played by Mark Parra – becomes so worked up about his friend’s willingness to embrace the supernatural that he stomps off in the direction of the haunted house just across the way, declaring that he will spend the night there in order to prove that nothing untoward is going on within. (Good luck with that, fella.)

Shrugging this off, Carter and Damon meanwhile return to campus, where we re-join them the following morning in the Miskatonic University library, where they discuss Manton’s apparent failure to return from his impromptu camp-out.

Meanwhile, we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of a routine campus slasher, as two studious sorority girls (one of whom the shy Damon happens to have the hots for) are chatted up by a pair of generic frat-boys, one of whom proudly displays that universal signifier of jockitude, a woollen sweater hanging loose over his shoulders (where indeed it remains, worn like a cloak, for the entire remainder of the movie).

Claiming rather feebly that they need to undertake some nocturnal location-scouting for forthcoming initiation-related hi-jinks, the jocks manage to convince the reluctant girls to meet them at the spooky old house by the graveyard that evening for a thinly veiled double-date, and… well you don’t need to be much of an aspiring folklorist to figure out where all this is headed. (Toward a partial recreation of 1981’s ‘Hell Night’, if nothing else.)


This mixture of quirky, Lovecraftian atmospherics and rote slasher movie cliché may seem a little jarring at first, but ‘The Unnamable’s tone actually remains pretty consistent throughout, using hefty doses of humour and raised eyebrow self-awareness to distract attention from the minimal and formulaic plotting -- much as Lovecraft did in his original tale, in fact.

Despite the low budget, the film’s photography (courtesy of DP Tom Fraser) is pretty good, particularly once the action moves entirely into the cluttered, candle-lit interior of the derelict old house during the movie’s second half, making extensive, rather fantastical use of blue gel lighting, alongside some imaginatively patterned shadows.

So smitten do the filmmakers seem in fact by their creepy gothic lighting, the film actually begins to suffer from something of a middle act slump, as characters spend a very, very long time exploring the eerily lit interior sets. Feeling suspiciously like attempts to pad out a near non-existent narrative to feature length, these extended peregrinations could well induce severe wakefulness / attention-span issues amongst late night/inebriated viewers, but as a dedicated fan of ‘60s Italian gothics, I was personally happy enough to roll with ‘em.

Likewise, David Bergeaud’s ridiculously over-bearing, faux-classical keyboard score may prove an intolerable for some, but I actually found it weirdly endearing, functioning in a sense as a persistent reminder of the film’s independent/low budget origins and determined eccentricity, lest we begin expecting it to get too slick n’ professional.


As befits a movie dealing with the, ahem, “unnameable”, much of the drag in the middle half hour results from the filmmakers’ reluctance to reveal their monster. The mystery of what the creature actually looks like is maintained for what, by 80s/90s b-horror standards, feels like an exceptionally long time. And, when we do finally start to get some glimpses of our resident beastie, well…. the hairy goat legs were a bit of a surprise, I’ll tell you that much. [Cue momentary flashback to Dragnet (1987).] 

Unfortunately, most of the posters and box art for this movie rather give the game away, spoiling the eventual appearance of the monster by utilising stills which make it look a scrawny cousin of that demon thing from Ridley Scott’s ‘Legend’, but if we can put that out of our minds before viewing, the creature’s eventual Big Reveal within the movie itself is…. actually quite impressive.

Portrayed by actress Katrin Alexandre, who employs a series of extravagantly theatrical, choreographed movements, this creature’s amalgam of disparate monster tropes manages to justify the “unnameable” epithet about as well as anything which could be conjured up on this movie’s budget possibly could. 

Fans may be liable to declare that it looks absolutely nothing like the kind of entity we usually think of as fitting in to Lovecraft’s universe, but they’d be well advised to refer back to the source text, wherein HPL, who seems to been on a bit of a Cotton Mather-inspired backwoods folklore kick at this point, does actually state that his indescribable creature’s attributes include horns and cloven hooves, as well as the more familiar tentacles and shapeless, shifting clods of organic matter.

Obvious though it may be, the climactic scene here in which the monster skulks in the shadows whilst a doomed jock/sorority girl couple are making out in a deserted room (thus delivering the film’s requisite minimum quantity of gratuitous nudity), rolling a severed head into the view of the female partner, is very well done – a killer scare with some sharp editing. (Meanwhile, I’ve also got to admire the fact that the couple weren’t deterred by discovering a bloody femur bone beneath their makeshift bed.)


Another highlight in the lead-up to the film’s conclusion are the scenes which find a flustered Randolph Carter indulging in a few arch, rather Jeffrey Combs-esque line readings as he ploughs his way through the deceased warlock’s grimoire collection, which has apparently been left untouched for three centuries. Kicking up as much dust as you’d expect in the process, he eventually zeroes in on (what else?) the ‘Necronomicon’ itself, and, in a development almost certainly inspired by ‘The Evil Dead’, he’s soon located the requisite “anaal nathrakh”s necessary to send the unnamable creature which was once the ancient wizard’s wife back from whence it came. (3)

(Actually, it’s implied that Carter saves the day by invoking some kind of dryad-ish woodland spirits embodied in the trees outside the house, or something – an interesting, if under-explored, twist.) 

Though not a lost classic by any stretch of the imagination, ‘The Unnamable’ is nonetheless a noble effort. Ouellette was clearly a sincere fan of Lovecraft’s work, and his attempt to make a film which might actually appeal to his fellow cultists whilst also fulfilling the commercial requirements of a late ‘80s American horror movie demonstrates a certain amount of both daring and ingenuity.

Considering that he and his collaborators were working on a miniscule budget, utilising a largely inexperienced cast and crew, and working to a script which ultimately doesn’t add up to much more than a handful of well-worn genre clichés, I think ‘The Unnamable’ actually emerges as a surprisingly accomplished piece of work, within its own modest parameters. It conveys a ‘little-train-that-could’ style sense of fun and achievement, which seasoned connoisseurs of independent American horror should be able to appreciate, even if it couldn’t hope to hit the heights so recently scaled by Stuart Gordon and co in the field of Lovecraftian cinema. 

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(1)Just as an example, try this one on for size: “Moreover, so far as aesthetic theory was involved, if the psychic emanations of human creatures be grotesque distortions, what coherent representation could express or portray so gibbous and infamous a nebulosity as the spectre of a malign, chaotic perversion, itself a morbid blasphemy against Nature?”

(2) After working in camera tech / continuity roles on a variety of marginal New York-based productions in late ‘70s, Ouellette seems to have gotten quite a big break when he was appointed as ‘second unit director (action)’ on ‘The Terminator’ in 1984, but sadly his career in the film industry never really seems to have gained much traction after this. Aside from the two ‘Unnameable’ films, his only other feature as director is a 1990 STV actioner named ‘Chinatown Connection’, and the remainder of his sparse CV comprises short films, a TV movie script and production credits on a few little-known projects in the early ‘00s. 

(3) Yeah, I know “anaal nathrakh” is actually from ‘Excalibur’, but gimme a break here – I just like it more than the ‘Evil Dead’ incantations.

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Random Paperbacks:
Red Harvest
by Dashiell Hammett

(Pocket Books, third printing 1961)



I have mixed feelings about the cover to this late ‘50s/early ‘60s U.S. paperback edition of ‘Red Harvest’. On the one hand, Harry Bennett’s illustration is clearly a great piece of pulp cover artwork, no question. The manner in which it is presented however clearly leaves a lot to be desired. With the painting apparently sliced out by hand and stuck against a decidedly unflattering white and red background, the whole thing is in fact a bit of a disaster area from the design point of view, and doesn’t look terribly appealing.

Furthermore, if you compare the front cover to the tinted detail from the illustration blown up on the back, you’ll get an idea of how brutally Bennett’s art has been squashed down here, and how much detail has been lost in the process of printing it at reduced scale. That great “huh?!” expression on the male figure’s face for instance is totally gone, along with who knows how much else.

(I would also complain that that expression seems entirely out of keeping with the stoic manner in which Hammett’s Continental Op greets the novel’s ever-increasing pile of corpses, but then the scene and characters depicted here by Bennett don’t actually seem to match anything in the book very well at all, so what the hey, right?)

It’s also interesting I think to observe how little Pocket Books chose to play up the fame and importance of this book and its author in their cover copy here. We’re over three decades away from ‘Red Harvest’s initial publication in 1929 at this point, and this edition was in fact printed in the very month of Hammett’s death (January ’61), but there’s still no “..the classic first novel from the celebrated author of ‘The Maltese Falcon’..” type blurb here, and no pull quotes from critics or noteworthy admirers.

Instead, they’ve just stuck a summary of the book’s most lurid and violent moment on the back, bluntly re-worded by an anonymous copy editor - basically treating the storied originator of the hard-boiled idiom in much the same manner as they would some random mug who just sent in an unsolicited manuscript hoping for the best. Which is fine, don’t get me wrong - in fact it’s entirely in keeping with the no nonsense / straight-down-to-business tone of the novel. It’s just… interesting, that’s all.

Could it be, that in the hey-day of more shamelessly populist detective writers like Spillane and Prather, Hammett’s vintage and reputation might have been seen to count against him in the marketplace? As in, perhaps this genre was pointedly NOT being sold to an audience who cared to read an old book that a bunch of fuddy-duddys at the newspapers liked, at this particular point in time?

Be that as it may, it’s fair to say that this hypothetical audience of uncultured brutes would surely not have been disappointed by ‘Red Harvest’, a book which still sparks with barbaric, ill-mannered energy over ninety years after it first hit the streets.

One thing I will say for the presentation of this “perma-book” is that it still remains readable after sixty years and at least one ocean crossing, and having ploughed through it this week, I’m happy to report that ‘Red Harvest’ remains my favourite of Hammett’s novels, half a lifetime since I first gave it a whirl as a teenager.

As violent, action-packed and callously cynical as anything those aforementioned later writers could have come up with, it stands above them not so much through any sense of refinement or literary pretention, but simply because it’s wittier, more stylish, more tightly constructed and more insightful in its unpacking of the ways in which corruption and back-room power games devalue life in America than pretty much any of its author’s subsequent competitors. Essential reading, needless to say.

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For the record, minimal online research reveals that Harry Bennett produced a full set of Hammett covers for Pocket Books in 1961. Most of them fared a lot better than his ‘Red Harvest’ illustration, and the blurb on a few of them at least makes an effort to sell Hammett on his ‘classic’ rep. Other people’s scans can be seen below. 

Unfortunately, I can’t find a decent jpg of his cover for ‘The Glass Key’, but it’s pretty great too. (Apropos of nothing, Bennett also produced an equally nifty set of covers for Chester Himes’ books, which can be enjoyed via Pulp International here.)



Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Noir Diary # 11:
T-Men
(Anthony Mann, 1947)

Whilst I’m sure that more learned film scholars than I must have addressed this issue at length in books I haven’t read, it’s fairly clear that the initial, early ‘40s, iteration of Hollywood Film Noir underwent something of a sea-change in the immediate post-war years, as brimstone-tinged, nouveau riche melodramas in the Double Indemnity / ‘Laura’ mould were increasingly phased out in favour of more straight-down-the-line police / underworld procedurals. 

Though the fatalism and alienation which subsequently became recognised as signifiers of the ‘noir’ worldview remained intact, the work-a-day, proletarian outlook of these post-war crime flicks in some sense harked back to the Warner Bros gangster epics of the early ‘30s, albeit with an aspiration toward ‘documentary realism’ supplanting the snarling, comic book mayhem proffered by Cagney and Robinson. 

With its ground-breaking use of authentic urban location shooting, Jules Dassin’s ‘The Naked City’ (1948) is often held up as the ‘trigger film’ for this wave of ‘realist’ noir, but by that point the trend already seems to have been well underway around the margins of the industry by the time Anthony Mann laid down the preceding year’s ‘T-Men’ for freelance producer Edward Small. 

Released outside of the studio system by distributor Eagle-Lion, this remorselessly glum tale of two undercover U.S. Treasury agents infiltrating a Detroit crime syndicate in order to help take down a Los Angeles counterfeiting operation is about as ‘procedural’ as a crime film can possibly get whilst still retaining the essence of noir. 

So entirely unencumbered by movie-world glamour is its utilitarian world of men in hats taking care of business in fact, it could easily have been mistaken for a crudely staged re-enactment of factual events, or an instructional film for trainee federal agents, were it not for the presence of a few ‘larger than life’ character types, and, more importantly, of John Alton’s extraordinary, expressionistic photography. 

Perhaps a direct result of its quasi-realist aesthetic, ‘T-Men’ is unfortunately also a deeply schizophrenic motion picture, and not in a good way.

Let me put it to you this way: most fans of Production Code era Hollywood will be familiar with the phenomenon of the ‘tagged on ending’, a device particularly common to crime films and thrillers, wherein some comfortingly square authority figure tends to pop up after the story’s hair-raising drama has concluded, reassuring us that all evil-doers were inevitably brought to justice by the benign powers of the law and judiciary, and that we can all return to their homes for a sound night’s sleep, unmolested by the black-hearted rogues they’ve just seen tearin’ it up on screen for the past eighty minutes (and by extension, unconcerned about the social pressures and inequalities which created them in the first place). 

Meanwhile of course, we can practically see the film’s director and writer just off screen, laughing into their sleeves and making “nothin’ to do with me buddy” gestures, confident that any halfway intelligent viewer will grok that the REAL movie ended a few minutes beforehand, with the tragic antihero expiring in a gutter with police lead in his back.

Variations on this theme include the ‘glib happy ending’, the scene-setting, ‘story-you’re-about-to-see..’ prologue and the thunderous, explanatory voiceover, and they’re basically all just a part of the accepted toing and froing which allowed filmmakers to get their visions somewhere near the screen during the first half of the 20th century. Usually this stuff doesn’t do a great deal of damage to the movie itself – it remains fairly self-contained, and can be tuned out without too much difficulty… but boy, is ‘T-Men’ ever an exception.

Let me say straight-up that if Mann had been able to make the film as a tight, sixty-minute programmer about a couple of double-agent hoods taking down a counterfeiting racket, it would have been pretty great picture – a full strength draught of hard-boiled badassery, and a pretty much perfect exemplar of the post-war b-noir form.

Padded out to eighty-six minutes though, filled with blandly-shot visits to the hard-working back office boys in Washington and ham-fisted testimonials praising the moral righteousness and ruthless efficiency of the U.S. Treasury (“there are six fingers of the Treasury Department fist, and that fist hits fair, but hard,” some functionary behind a mahogany desk absurdly informs us at one point), together with voice-of-god narration constantly crashing in to reiterate plot points and remind us of our undercover protagonists’ patriotic, crime-fighting duty and…. well, let's just say the film’s impact is somewhat compromised, to put it mildly.

Imagine watching a version of ‘Psycho’ in which Simon Oakland’s psychiatrist character kept popping up in the middle of the story to calmly talk us through Norman Bates’ thought processes and to reassure us that everything will turn out ok, and you’ll get an idea of what a frustrating viewing experience ‘T-Men’ can be.

Nonetheless though, the good stuff here is well worth sticking around for. As our ostensible lead, Dennis O’Keefe (who went on to headline in Mann’s classic ‘Raw Deal’ a year later) is such a sneering, heavy-lidded bruiser that it’s hardly surprising the producers (or whoever) felt the need to cram in narration every five minutes reminding us that he’s actually on the side of the tax-collecting angels. (He puts me in mind of a somewhat younger version of Eddie Constantine in the Lemmy Caution movies, if that helps give you a bead on where he’s coming from.)

In fact, it’s easy to imagine a version of this movie – almost certasinly a superior one, from my POV - in which O’Keefe and his associate Alfred Ryder actually are just a pair of freelance crooks trying to muscle their way into an inter-state counterfeiting operation, rather than glorified tax inspectors, but I suppose that Eagle-Lion and/or Edward Small simply weren’t brave enough to foist that kind of cynical, amoral grue upon the Code era American public – assuming that the Treasury Dept weren’t actually covertly financing this picture as a propaganda piece (which seems entirely possible, given how heavy-handed their input seems to have been).

Ryder incidentally is by far the more low-key and reserved of our two undercover men, largely remaining in the shadow of the more charismatic O’Keefe, whilst the knowledge that he has a wife and family back home pretty much puts him on the chopping block from the outset vis-à-vis providing us with the necessary emotional clout to raise the stakes for an inevitable blood-soaked finale.

The film’s earlier, Detroit-set section is pretty straight-down-the-line gangland business stuff, as grim men convene in airless brick basements and back offices to pack crates, smoke cheroots and exchange briefcases, but Mann and Alton bring a dour, smog-choked atmosphere to proceedings which hints at dark deeds and snuffed out lives lurking just around the corner. 

Things really get going though once O’Keefe is reassigned to L.A., charged with using a series of unfeasibly vague clues to track down the gang’s West Coast connection, a “shover” of counterfeit notes known only as ‘The Schemer’. (He frequents Turkish steam baths, has a scar from a knife wound on his left shoulder and imbibes a certain brand of Chinese medicinal herbs.)

Once O’Keefe dutifully enters the orbit of the weaselly, eccentric Schemer (broadly but rather brilliantly played by Wallace Ford), things take a somewhat more fanciful turn, as he follows his mark to the Club Trinidad in Ocean Park, wherein he cracks wise with an underworld-savvy hostess/photographer (Mary Meade) whose ostensible job involves her selling snaps of punters back to them, whilst meanwhile acting an all-purpose message centre for the counterfeiting gang.

“Tell me, you make a good take shooting mugs like me?,” O’Keefe asks her, before leaving her a message in the form of one of his own tailor-made phony bills, folded just so. This of course brings him to the attention of Mead’s higher-ups in the biz, represented in the first instance by an even more shady technician operating out of the back of a Hollywood photography lab.

 Though beautifully rendered by Alton, the assorted scenes of back-stabbing and thuggery which follow, including much procedural details concerning the origins of printing plates and the grading of paper etc, prove less than scintillating, as O’Keefe and Ryder gradually work their way through the ranks toward the head honchos of the counterfeiting racket, one of whom, to our considerable surprise, turns out to be… a dame!

Played by Jane Randolph (whom you may recognise as the “Alice” character in both ‘Cat People’ (1942) and its sequel), ‘Miss Simpson’ is admittedly only ‘secretary’ to the actual Big Boss (who keeps a low profile behind a locked door), but she still seems to be largely in charge of day-to-day operations, and finding a woman in a position of authority in a film as unrepentantly masculine as this one is such an unexpected development it feels almost deliberately perverse.

In fact, it’s curious to note that whilst the two female characters in ‘T-Men’ are only on screen for probably about five minutes in total, they are both interesting, unconventional figures, playing important roles in the movie’s criminal infrastructure whilst failing to conform to the expected demands of either ‘love interest’ or ‘femme fatale’ archetypes.

It’s possible that the inclusion of these characters was simply the result of a compromise between the film’s producer(s) and writer / director, allowing ‘T-Men’ to include at least some kind of female interest without diluting the film’s procedural / quasi-documentary framework by resorting to rote romantic/domestic interludes - but whatever the case, they certainly make for an interesting addition to the drama, and allow the movie to play a lot better for modern audiences than it might have done as a 100% male affair.

Once the stentorian voiceovers and Treasury Dept bullshit is all out of the way meanwhile, the legit parts of John C. Higgins’ script (‘suggested from a story by’ ubiquitous Hollywood ideas-woman Virginia Kellogg) may not exactly sparkle with verbal wit, but they do at least include enough blunt, hardboiled shop-talk to keep me entertained. (“What’s the matter, ya gettin’ the whim-whams?”, a fellow hood asks O’Keefe when he seems reluctant to embark on a murder assignment.)

Brilliantly, the character played by Jack Overman (a distinctive actor with somewhat Asian features who also appeared in both ‘Brute Force’ and ‘Force of Evil’) answers to the name of “Horizontal”, whilst other rough coves on our identity parade of a cast list include “Moxie”, “Chops” and “Shiv Triano”. If you’re a fan of good ol’ Hollywood tough guy shtick in fact, you can count ‘T-Men’ as pretty essential viewing.

The real star of the show though is of course mid-century America’s foremost poet of men in dark hats walking down shabby hotel corridors, John Alton, whose distinctive work on ‘T-Men’ single-handedly elevates the film from a fairly routine caper to a true masterwork of noir visual style.

Working a few years later on ‘The Big Combo’ (which I reviewed here), Alton famously managed to create both an airport and an opera house out of little more than a few strategically placed spotlights, some smoke and a few bit of wood and corrugated iron. Here though, he and art director Edward C. Jewell seem to have had slightly more at their disposal (including the use of real locations), and the results are often little short of extraordinary.

Few of the era’s DPs were able to add a sense of routine tough guy business quite as well as Alton does here. Throughout the film, underlit faces loom out of the shadows like horror movies ghouls, framed by beams of rusted steel or rotten wood, whilst tormented victims of beatings sprawl gigantically in the foreground of low angled shots, as groups of sweaty, behatted goons artfully cram themselves within the 4:3 frame as if they were stuck in a lift with a single flashlight.

Meanwhile, authentic downtown alleyways, gas towers and waterfront loading zones are all picked out exquisitely by Alton’s minimal, high contrast lighting, allowing his trademark looming silhouettes and distorted shadows to lend perhaps an even greater degree of expressionistic angst to the film’s visuals than he managed to conjure up back on the sound stages.

In an inspired touch, the film’s conclusion takes place aboard what appears to be a decommissioned cargo ship from whence the bad guys handle the manufacture of their counterfeit dough, and the lighting Alton manages to apply to this vessel is, as you might imagine, pretty remarkable.

Transforming the deck into a chaotic cat’s cradle of light and shadow within which harried, hunched figures dart, weave and fall through the final few minutes of climatic action, Alton seems to directly mirror the overlapping layers of urban disorder seen earlier in the film, in a number of daytime shots taken through reflection-clogged shop windows. Perhaps T-Men’s most distinctive visual motif, this sense of unfathomable chaos presents a disturbing contrast to the resolutely linear tale offered up by the film’s script.

Though it would be a stretch to call it a superior, or even particularly inspired, example of the form, ‘T-Men’s best passages nonetheless capture the absolute essence of the proletarian gangster-noir aesthetic that would define many of the most powerful examples of Film Noir to emerge from Hollywood through the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.

Certainly, the level of visual imagination on display in the film remains pretty astonishing. Both in purely technical terms and as a seamless fusion of the realist and fantastical strains of crime movie aesthetics, Alton’s work cements it as a key exemplar of the genre’s trademark atmospherics, irrespective of it’s sadly all-too-obvious drawbacks as a narrative movie entertainment.

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