Friday, 26 June 2009

(or, a quest to briefly understand Japanese animated television before I waste too much time), Part # 4

Apologies for the delay in continuing this series; I was without a home internet connection for a while whilst moving house, and was unable to watch the videos. But my thanks to Paul for allowing us to pick up where we left off and continue our tour through the confounding heart of contemporary Japanese culture. So head back here to refresh your memory if needed, and otherwise, on we go!

16. All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku


PAUL’S COMMENT: The 'all-purpose-cultural' bit is (so the internet tells me) a poor translation of a Japanese word used to mean 'the commercial superiority (new and improved nature) of post WWII products in Japan'. It is a comedy about a powerful cyborg with the brain of a cat - hence this strange allusion to white-goods.

BEN’S COMMENT: This was definitely my favourite title from the original list. I pictured it as an anime equivalent of ‘Front Row’, wherein All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku would attend film premieres, interview theatre directors and discuss the shortlist for the booker prize… in-between fighting giant cyborg worms, or something. The opening sequence fails to reveal much about the show’s actual content, so I’ll keep on pretending it is like that, if that’s ok.

17. 'Otome Wa Boku Ni Koishiteru' (The Maidens are Falling in Love with Elder Sister)

Episode 1, part 1, english sub.

PAUL’S COMMENT: Strange. Very strange. One of the few in this list that I have watched at any length. As I've mentioned, it is an example of a show that is quite like others, quite generic, however this one has a strange pedigree. It arose from an explicit 'dating sim' computer game that was found to be popular for the story, rather than the graphic content and, hence, was cleaned-up, re-released and eventually turned into this anime series. (While not common, the change from producing explicit material to family-friendly material does happen in Anime and Manga - however, not usually does such a product change its nature, so much as a creator improves their status). It is about a boy who, abiding by the wishes of his late mother's will, goes under-cover as a girl in order to attend an all-girl school. Now, if this was done in the West, you'd never hear the last of this lad being a lad - that would be the locus of hilarity. However, strangely in OWBNK, the boy becomes indistinguishable from the girls by the second episode, or thereabouts. It is also insidiously Christian: whereas # 8 will never let you forget the religious credentials, OWBNK seems to reek of Christianity while almost never mentioning it. It is a strange program.

However, this is one, perhaps slightly more interesting, unit in a popular genre over which cultural confusion reigns supreme. The genre (I'll call it 'girl-love', though the Japanese can call it 'Yuri') founds this show, and many others, including some others in this list. In Japan (as I understand it) girls can watch a genre of cartoon called 'Shojo', which involves girls taking the lead in plots of romance and action, which end in personal growth and empowerment - they are 'sensitive' but not always girly. Young girls also (and please forgive me if I'm wrong about this), are generally allowed to have 'crushes' on, and even romances with, other girls, based on admiration of their power and femininity. Whilst not common, it is understood to be something that can happen in childhood, like imaginary friends, and is referred to as a Class S Relationship.

If you are following this, you can see how shows about all-girl's schools where all the girls have romances with each other might be seen in outside Japan as 'a bit strange', but fairly comprehensible within Japan. Hence the 'girl-love' genre, combines S relationships with empowerment and growth (sometimes with the interruption of a cross-dressing boy in their ranks, who often loses masculinity surprisingly quickly to blur the issue). What makes things even more confusing than this is that this 'girl-love' genre is often deliberately mixed-up with the more unsavoury 'school girl lesbians' take on it, where things tend to go further than kissing and blushing, and where the sexual elements are used to draw in viewers (see discussion on 'fan service', under # 18, below), rather than any sort of real story. For those not from Japan, it is difficult to tell the two apart.

BEN’S COMMENT: “Looking pretty isn’t just a temporary thing”, says the theme tune, ominously. More psychedelic, massive-eyed school-girl insanity. Why on earth was it this mother’s dying wish that her son cross-dress in order to attend an all-girl school..? Was she some kind of radical gender equality activist, or did she just want to fuck with everybody’s head? Enquiring minds want to know.

18. Penguin Musume Heart

Episode 1, Part 1, English Sub:

PAUL’S COMMENT: Notable because it aired entirely online, so I'm informed by the internet. Perhaps this would be a good point to introduce the term 'fan service' (as this is basically 'knowing' parody of other animes, with fan-service provided). The term refers to using girls without their cloths, and other sexual (or more dubious) lures to 'service the fans' and increase ratings. Fans, however, are quite wise to this strategy and, hence, 'knowing' little cartoons like this. However, there are some cartoons that border on pornography through addition of fan service. (There are some cartoons that ARE pornography, but that's a different essay and not one for me to write: too many Demons involved, so I'm told).

BEN’S COMMENT: More school girls. Sexy ones this time, it seems. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on at any point in this clip, but I confess it’s highly enjoyable. I like the animation, it’s funny. About two thirds of the way through there’s some kind of truly insane credit sequence featuring another bubblegum punk-pop song that has to be seen to be believed. I was all ready to complain about the complete lack of penguins until that point, but OH, you just wait…

19. 'Ai To Yuuki No Pig Girl Tonde Buurin' (Pig Girl of Love and Courage)

PAUL’S COMMENT: Almost no trace on Youtube. A parody of 'magical girl' series, especially Sailor Moon.

BEN’S COMMENT: You’ve got to love a culture in which “magical girl series” is an established genre rather than a unique entity. This is…. well, it’s a pig-girl of love and courage alright. Looks like slightly older anime that most of the ones we’ve been looking at today? If this were live-action, the camera-man would deserve a restraining order for the number of gratuitous anatomical close-ups he crams into 30 seconds.

20. Hayate the Combat Butler

Episode 4, part 1, English sub. (ep. 1 is missing)

PAUL’S COMMENT: Seems to be a comedy.

BEN’S COMMENT: “Hayate the Combat Butler”? Fantastic! Unfortunately, Hayate seems to be one of those drippy, floppy-haired anime dreamboat types rather than a wisecracking robot Jeeves dispensing kung-fu justice, but still. So, in short order: a sweet little health warning telling kids not to sit too close to the TV and to get some exercise, a whole lot of tedious fourth wall breaking self-referential humour, a foul-mouthed albino tiger, some teenage angst. “This is the super combat battle story of a boy who fights, risking his life for a girl”, it promises, but fails to deliver. We do get some great English subtitles to the theme song though; “Let’s run and kick up dirt, like the whimsical wind!” Quite.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Simon: King of the Witches
(Bruce Kessler, 1971)

A drab urban park during a torrential downpour. Light from an odd-looking globular lamppost splutters on and off. The camera pans down to the entrance to a huge, concrete drainage system, where a scruffy-looking, bearded guy in his late-20s skulks in an army surplus overcoat.

Turning directly to the camera, he addresses the audience:

“My name is Simon.

I live in a storm-drain.

When it rains, most people stay in.

But I go out.

Some people call me a warlock.

But I really am one of the few, true magicians.”

Thus begins a film I’ve wanted to watch ever since I saw the poster reproduced in an edition of Michael J. Weldon’s indispensable Psychotronic Encyclopaedia of Film. Weldon’s capsule review may have been lukewarm (“Ads claimed ‘he curses the Establishment’. The psychedelic trip plot confuses the audience.”), but from the name alone I knew that, good or bad, this was likely to be my kinda movie.

What I was expecting, I suppose, was some typically OTT late ‘60s exploitation fare, perhaps mixing up elements of black magic, post-Manson hippie cults, Mondo-Hollywood sleaze, counter-culture kitsch, biker movies and so on. Something totally stupid but thoroughly enjoyable, in the same ballpark as, say, ‘I Drink Your Blood’, ‘Riot on Sunset Strip’, ‘Werewolves on Wheels’ or ‘Blood-Orgy of the She-Devils’.

Isn’t it a great feeling when a film fails to meet your expectations, but at the same time totally surpasses them?

Because the one thing I wasn’t expecting from ‘Simon, King of the Witches’ was the possibility that it would actually be a really good movie, and a decidedly unusual and imaginative one at that.

Managing to avoid being nailed down to any of the aforementioned exploitation sub-genres whilst still having some fun with their attendant imagery, what we have here is in fact a well-executed oddball black comedy, and perhaps the only film ever made in Hollywood to consider the day to day life of a magician in a sympathetic, non-horror movie fashion.

As his opening monologue suggests, Simon (Andrew Prine) is indeed a down-at-heel warlock, plying his trade from a Los Angeles storm drain. He’ll do charms, sigils and tarot readings for cash, but is chiefly concerned with his own magical destiny – to ascend to the realms of the higher powers and unlock their mysteries.

Such ambitions don’t count for much though to the LAPD, who pick Simon up on one of his nocturnal wanderings and, unimpressed by the various occult paraphernalia he has about his person, throw him in the cells to do a stretch on a vagrancy charge.

Whilst inside, Simon meets Turk (George Paulson), a teenage street hustler who subsequently becomes his sidekick and wouldbe acolyte. Turk introduces Simon to the circle surrounding Hercules (Gerald York), a decadent aristocrat who seems to enjoy hosting endless parties for other jaded hippie socialites. Hercules bears an unhappy resemblance to a young Michael Winner, and is basically a bit like the immortal Z-man Barzell from ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’, only without…. well, y’know…. without all that Z-man stuff.

It’s at one of Hercules’ dos that Simon meets Linda (Brenda Scott), a quietly enchanting young lady, and their mutual attraction is immediately obvious. Only, wouldn’t you know it? She’s the D.A.’s daughter.

By this stage, Simon has managed to hussle some cash for mystical services rendered to Hercules’ crew, and, perhaps realising that his storm drain isn’t the most girl-friendly pad, he decides to upgrade to a basement (“I ain’t prejudiced - I hope you’ll be very happy here Rabbi”, says the landlord when Simon scrawls a chalk pentagram on the door before moving in).

The basic set-up thus established, Simon and Turk proceed to get caught up in a vaguely episodic succession of fast-moving scrapes and shenanigans, as Simon instigates a magical battle by putting a curse on a guy who wrote him a bum cheque, as the pair memorably tangle with a coven of witches led by artist and former Warhol superstar Ultra Violet, and as Simon seeks to perfect the sex magick rite needed to charge the ‘effluvial compressor’ that will give him access to the realm of the gods – a process that Linda doesn’t seem terribly impressed with, needless to say.

Such antics inevitably attract unwelcome attention from the police and the D.A’s office, and the film’s final act is instigated when they try to frame Simon for possession of narcotics, causing him to miss the window during which he might literally ‘enter the mirror’ and ascend to the higher realm. Enraged, Simon vows vengeance against the earthly powers that be. And so, yes, I suppose he does actually “curse The Establishment”, with cataclysmic results.

Predictably enough perhaps, ‘Simon..’ was a big fat flop at the box office and, prior to the current Dark Sky Region 1 DVD release, hasn’t subsequently benefited from much of a cult revival. Marketed as a horror movie that it blatantly isn’t, the film failed to reach it’s target audience of college kids and hippies, and, blessed with enough violence and nudity to ensure an R-rating but not enough to satisfy a grindhouse crowd, it presumably proceeded to baffle exploitation audiences with it’s esoteric, anti-establishment humour and a morally ambiguous hero whose motivation centres around a vaguely-defined quest to access higher spiritual realms.

According to the cast & crew reminiscences in the DVD extras, first-time screenwriter Robert Philpenny actually WAS a self-professed warlock who led some kind of magical group in Hollywood, and based the screenplay partially on his own experiences. As such, it’s admirable that he managed to bypass the high-strung pretensions of many magical types and wrote the film as a comedy, happily taking the piss out of himself and his practices, whilst still managing to capture a sense of the skewed perspectives and odd solipsism of such a lifestyle that seems far more authentic than any of cinema’s usual plethora of Satanists, loons and witchdoctors.

That said, building up a ‘master of the dark arts’ as a sympathetic protagonist for a movie could have proved a difficult task, and in this respect it is Andrew Prine who totally carries the film, giving a startlingly good performance as Simon. Never quite pinning the character down to one easily identifiable trope, he instead moves seamlessly between portraying a lovable, wise-cracking loser and a powerful and charismatic seeker after truth, without any notable disjuncture. There’s little in the script to endear Simon to an audience, what with his eccentric, lonesome ways, his manipulative control over others and his almost total lack of concern with the material world, but somehow Prine manages to convince us that he’s a real decent guy - easy-going, well-meaning and fun to be around. He provides a hugely engaging screen presence, making the best of a potentially challenging role, putting on a real goofy charm whenever Simon is called upon to pause whatever he’s doing to shake his fist at the sky and curse the gods, or to deliver absurd, straight to camera declarations of intent. It’s surprising given his obvious strengths here that Prine didn’t see more action as a leading man in his career - sadly Grizzly (1976) is about as good as it got for him subsequently.

The film’s plotting is episodic and a bit scattered, but that’s fine by me, and it more than makes up for it with a wealth of zany set-pieces and some genuinely witty dialogue. Having watched so many films recently where script and characterisation have been a mere formality, it’s a joy to watch a movie that actually succeeds in being intentionally funny.

Much of the humour is actually pretty risqué for 1971 too, with skits involving orgone theory, magical masturbation and a bad case of priapism. Many films in the late ‘60s purported to be “a comedy for the permissive generation” and the like, but ‘Simon..’ is one of the only ones I’ve seen that actually takes such boasts at face value, introducing subject matter that goes well beyond the comfort zone of the reassuringly old fashioned sexist chucklefests that most of the studios turned out in the guise of ‘liberated comedies’.

Most surprising of all is the sequence in which Simon decides that his sex rites with Linda have failed because using someone he actually had feelings for has distracted him from the main goal, and thus sets out to recruit a predatory homosexual who was hassling Turk at a party in her place. The characterisation of the gay guy is as offensively stereotypical as you might fear (an of-it’s-time flaw that also afflicts one of my favourite films of all time, Richard Sarafian’s ‘Vanishing Point’), but nonetheless, try and name me another Hollywood-produced film from ANY era in which the hero’s moment of triumph comes when he screws a guy up the ass in order to charge a magical artefact!

A final nail in the coffin of ‘Simon..’s prospects as a commercial release is provided by the film’s pro-drug, anti-cop stance and it’s gratuitous use of trippy visual effects, just at the moment when such concerns were starting to fall out of favour in mainstream culture as the grimmer realities of the ‘70s took hold. Magical attacks are represented as queasy balls of fluorescent light that pulse in the middle of the screen like processing faults, not dissimilar to The Prisoner’s ‘rovers’, and the film’s extravagant, Simon-enters-the-mirror finale is rendered by the same team responsible for the trip sequence in Kubrick’s ‘2001’, mixing similar op-art effects with wicked use of time-lapse photography, multiple exposure and every other trick in the book, all of which is a strange and pretty awesome way of visually representing the vague, metaphysical goings-on.

All things considered, it’s easy to see why star, director and scriptwriter all effectively “never worked in this town again” after they cheerily submitted this little number to the distributors. But, in the here and now, ‘Simon..’ is tremendously enjoyable - yet another misunderstood gem languishing in night-haunted obscurity that dearly deserves to be reevaluated as the rebellious, funny and deeply bizarre work it is. Fans of strange cinema are unlikely to be disappointed.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Youtube Film Club:
Meshes of the Afternoon

I will retrospectively include my posts on Space Is The Place and Manos: The Hands of Fate in this series, and, obvious point though it may be, isn’t it wonderful how so many cinematic artefacts, short films in particular, that have been sought out and fetishised over the years, available only to the select few via bootleg tapes, extortionate, limited edition DVDs or metropolitan art cinema screenings whilst their reputation grows and mutates based more on hearsay than actual viewing, are now available to all at the touch of a button?

It is in that spirit this we present Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ (1943), a work whose beauty and importance will hopefully speak for itself.

Watch on full screen with the lights off.

Banal as it may be to say so, I’ve had a crush the size of the alps on Ms Deren ever since I read her extraordinary book Divine Horsemen as a teenager. An incredible woman, a fearless artist, filmmaker, researcher, thinker, writer…. and so on. Just watch the damn thing anyways.

Part # 1:

Part # 2:

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Your Fun Guide to Undead Templars
Part #3: Worse Films Happen at Sea

And so, we reach 1974’s ‘El Buque Maldito’, often screened to English-speaking audiences under the hedging-its-bets title ‘Horror of the Zombies’, ‘The Ghost Galleon’, or the slightly more specific ‘Ship of Zombies’.

This third ‘..Blind Dead’ movie, you’d have to admit, has a pretty cool premise. And I’ll bet it already sounded pretty cool when the production team got together to pitch some ideas around for the next Templar movie. “Ok, so how about we set the whole thing out at sea, and the Templars have their own ghostly galleon that emerges from a supernatural fog to prey upon becalmed sailors”, somebody must have said. “That sounds amazing!” the producers or financial backers must have responded, their minds filled with the promise of swashbuckling zombie/pirate action, “let’s do it!” And Amando de Ossorio must have sat back with a deep sigh, and contemplated the practicalities of actually making a workable zombie ghost ship movie on a Spanish b-movie budget. His thoughts must have then turned to the comfort of whatever material rewards the success of his first two movies had brought him, and the fact that his little horror franchise was now sufficiently well-established that whatever garbage he turned out would be distributed to fleapits, drive-ins and the like around the globe in a variety of butchered prints with misleading titles, whether or not it was actually watchable being a moot point.

And he must have just thought well, fuck it, and made an executive decision not to even bother getting out of bed for this movie if he could possibly help it. For, whilst I may have been unfairly snarky about the previous two movies in places, they’re masterpieces compared to this one. (It sure had a great poster though, huh?)

A total failure as a film it may be, but so strange is the manner in which it fails that in it’s own way it’s almost fascinating, a thoroughly lifeless excuse for a zombie caper inexplicably torpedoed by masses upon masses of needless, confusing exposition that almost takes over the movie from the poor old Templars.

Clearly this film’s creators learned nothing from the more surrealistic excesses of ‘70s Euro-horror, as exemplified by their countryman Jess Franco. So you want some girls in bikinis bobbing about in a boat in the middle of the ocean…? Well, JUST PUT THEM THERE, for christ’s sake! Bring the zombies, and we’ll ask questions later. This shit doesn’t have to make sense!

But such wisdom is lost upon de Ossorio and co, who chase their own tails through the whole first half of ‘Horror of..’/’Ghost Galleon’/whatever, trying to explain and legitimise their batty, convoluted storyline, and at the end of all that it STILL doesn’t make much sense. “Yeah, maybe”, I can imagine Amando sneering, “but now I’ve only got forty minutes left to fill and I’ve barely spent a peseta!” Fair enough I suppose.

So the plot – and I’m not looking forward to typing all this – centres on a feisty (yes, I’m afraid so) young model, who is trying to break her roommate / best friend into the modelling business, by getting her a contract with an exclusive agency. Roommate vanishes with no prior warning, after dropping hints that she’s landed a big job, and Feisty goes to complain to the head of the agency, and to see what’s up. When she arrives, she runs into this sleazy character who’s apparently some kind of well-known industrial mogul / international playboy type. And so our heroine stomps about petulantly, demanding answers for so long that everybody seems to assume she’s part of the furniture, and they start discussing their sinister, top secret conspiracy regardless of her presence. To wit: her roommate and another model are currently afloat in a motorboat in the middle of the ocean. This is part of an elaborate publicity stunt on behalf of Mr. Mogul, who wishes to reap the benefits of the attendant publicity when two pretty, bikinied girls are daringly rescued whilst modelling his company’s exciting new range of motor-boats! But of course! Makes sense, doesn’t it? Except for… well, except for the fact that it’s about the stupidest thing I ever heard.

Such a ludicrous plot device might have been just about passable if it were mentioned in passing in a more exciting film, but the sheer amount of time this movie spends arsing about with the ins and outs of this guy’s moronic scheme is almost a deliberate insult to the audience’s intelligence, although quite how far you’d have to go to successfully insult the intelligence of a guy who’s watching a bunch of movies about poorly animated skeletons menacing semi-clothed women and then wasting his time writing voluminous tracts about them on the internet, who can say.

Anyway, everybody at Mr. Mogul’s secret HQ seems to be treating this caper with the utmost seriousness, and tempers are frayed when the girls disappear off the radar, and report back by radio to say that they’re immersed in a mysterious fog and are unable to find their way out. Cut to the life-raft, where they’ve also caught sight of a creepy-looking old-timey galleon cleaving out of the fog, and the-girl-who’s-not-the-roommate decides to go and board it in search of help.

Meanwhile, Mogul and Head of Modelling Agency go to consult this science guy working for the coastguard, who initially rubbishes all their baloney about mysterious fogs, but when they mention some specifics on the galleon, he becomes extremely excited, telling them all about the legends of the evil ghost-ship and how he’s dedicated his life to studying its appearances etc. etc. His performance is hilariously OTT, momentarily livening things up. Mogul decides, well, Christ, we’re not getting any sense out of this guy, so I’m going to jump in my yacht to go rescue the girls. Science guy is all like, oh, please, please let me come with you, I’ve been waiting all my life for this moment, and oh, by the way, we’re all DOOMED, and we’ll never return alive. Sure, sure, the more the merrier, says Mogul, and so he, the modelling agency lady, the nutty professor, our feisty heroine and a couple of other characters for luck all set out on the yacht to get this shit sorted out.

Phew. In a certain sense, I almost respect the laziness Amando de Ossorio demonstrates with regard to every other aspect of this film, but I fear he missed a trick in not just replacing the opening half hour with a title card reading “Right, this is basically a remake of ‘Tombs of the Blind Dead’, ON BOATS.” Indeed, many of the film’s scene set-ups and character relationships seem to be directly recycled from the first movie.

And so it goes on. Sadly, the directorial flair and gleeful morbidity that de Ossorio brought to the proceeding films is nowhere to be seen here, as scene after scene is rendered with fixed camera, poorly focused long shots. Stripped of their horses and their medieval surroundings, the Templars, when they finally emerge, are a shadow of their former selves. With little in the way of interesting editing or atmospheric FX on hand to hide their essentially cheapo nature, their showing here must rank as one of the crappest gangs of cinematic zombies on record as they trundle around listlessly, arms stuck out straight in front of them in a thoroughly silly fashion.

Once everybody is trapped on the galleon, the film takes on a repetitious, Scooby-Doo-like ambience. Very, very slow Scooby-Doo, mind you. Scooby-Doo on ketamine, maybe. On and on it goes, as various combinations of characters traipse back and forth, back and forth across the same three wobbly ghost-ship sets, the whole thing seeming to drag on endlessly to no particularly satisfying conclusion, and indeed no conclusion at all in my case, as, I confess, I fell asleep for real this time, dreaming of unconvincing ghouls forever stalking poorly dubbed, barely recognisable characters across creaky pirate ships, in some self-sustaining nightmare of eternal boredom. This film is so mind-numbingly slow-paced in fact, even during scenes of distasteful, sleazy violence, that in places it feels as if they’re actually trying to make some kind of point about the banality of evil, as aptly demonstrated by the clip below:

There’s a fourth ‘Blind Dead’ film, mystifyingly entitled ‘Night of the Seagulls’ (boy, that’ll really pack ‘em in). Apparently it follows the further adventures of the Templar party-boat, as it comes to shore in a remote fishing village, where, I think it is safe to assume, our errant Knights probably chase around yet another bunch of scantily-clad girls, like the cadaverous Benny Hills they’ve been reduced to.

I’ve not yet seen ‘Night of the Seagulls’. I have no plans to attempt to see it, or to try to track down a copy. But nonetheless, I have no doubt that it's tale will be unfolding in front of my tired eyes before too long, whether I like it or not. Pity me.

Or rather, don’t pity me, it’s my own stupid fault. I could have spent the time trying to come up with something worthwhile about Godard or Louis Malle, or about some genuinely good forgotten masterpiece. But I didn’t. Instead I wrote this, using far more words than is strictly necessary to write a ‘comprehensive’ guide to a four film cycle of dubious merit, despite the fact that I fell asleep halfway through the third film, and didn’t really pay much attention through parts of the second. Perhaps these lapses can themselves be seen as critical judgements, or at least as honest reflection of my own personal engagement with this odd series of films? Clearly I would have been kicked out on my ass had I tried to submit all this to even the most sloppy of print publications, but, such is the glory of the internet age that I can do whatever I like, safe in the knowledge that perhaps four, maybe even five, people will have read this far. And it is they who should truly be pitied. I mean, at least the girl who got tied to a rack and stabbed by a skeleton in ‘Return of the Evil Dead’ hopefully got paid for her troubles.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Your Fun Guide to Undead Templars
Part #2: Templars On The Town

Clearly I’m far from the only one who thought ‘Tombs of the Blind Dead’ has a certain something, as apparently it cleaned up at the box office on it’s original release to such an extent that de Ossorio was straight back in ’73 with a bigger budget (relatively speaking..) for a more ambitious sequel that cast it’s net wide in an attempt to overcome the backwoods simplicity of it’s predecessor. All the Blind Dead films have been lumbered with about ten alternate titles, so it’s probably not worth speculating as to why this one is most widely known as Return of the Evil Dead in the English-speaking world, a decade too early to have cashed in Sam Raimi’s series. It seems somebody out there liked giving these movies needlessly vague, catch-all English titles, despite the hook provided by the cool and distinctive ‘Blind Dead’ moniker. I’m sure they had their reasons.

Regardless, ‘Return..’ sees de Ossario trying his hand at a variety of contemporary horror tropes, with decidedly mixed results. First off, he gives us more history this time around, beginning with a couple of impressively garish and gruesome medieval flashback sequences, allowing for some prime historical sadism much in the spirit of Michael Armstrong’s ‘Mask of the Devil’ (1970), as we get to see a lively example of what the living Templars used to get up to behind closed doors, and also bear witness to the local flaming torch-wielding mob’s decision to burn out their eyes before staking them, that they may be blind before god and unable to find their way back from hell. Good luck with that!

(Funnily enough, the similarities to the Armstrong film are perhaps more than coincidental, as it seems the first two ‘Blind Dead’ movies were actually released in America at some point as ‘Mask of the Devil’ parts IV and V, despite having almost nothing else in common with said British/German witchhunter movie; quite what unlucky motion pictures masqueraded as parts II and III, god knows. It’s hard to take any of this seriously though once you consider that apparently somebody once gave ‘Tombs..’ an outing as ‘Return to Planet Ape’! Please tell me that was just a case of some mixed up film cans...)

Anyway, after this promisingly gnarly opening, the action moves to the present day and promptly stops resembling anything that could remotely be called ‘action’, as a bunch of characters and plotlines are introduced, each more tedious, inconsequential and poorly executed than the last. Maybe the lifeless English dubbing on my copy is to blame to a certain extent, but the exposition/human interest scenes in this movie are just excruciatingly bad, and just seem to go on, and on, and on.

In brief though, it seems that ownership of the Templar monastery has fallen into the hands of some foolish city folks who want to restore it as a tourist attraction, or a hotel, or something. The monastery now seems to be in the vicinity of a small town, where the locals have a big celebration every year to commemorate their ancestors’ success in blinding/killing the knights. Quite how this squares up with the fact that the monastery was stuck in the middle of wilderness where nobody dared set foot in the first movie, who knows, but then I guess since that film ended with the Templars all steaming off to enjoy some bloody hi-jinks in Madrid or wherever, it’s probably best not to dwell on such details.

And so there is much toing and froing between the guy with the hotel scheme and the local mobster-affiliated bigwigs for us to sit through, and there’s also this other plotline about this sinister freakish/retarded/whatever guy (I know, I know… but whatcha gonna do?) who seems to be the caretaker of the local church (shades of ‘Dracula Has Risen From The Grave’ there maybe?). He meets a preeeetty lady from the city who rescues him from a bunch of ignorant locals who are giving him a hard time, and as a result he does what comes naturally to any young chap who’s just met a pretty lady, and heads down to the creepy cemetery to unleash the power of the undead Knights Templar in the mistaken belief that they’ll give him some sort of power or dignity, or something. Or, no, actually I think maybe he spies on the lady making out with some guy in the graveyard, and unleashes the Templars in anger? Or maybe the Templars just turn up for the hell of it? I don’t know. I definitely remember there was a really boring non-sex scene in the graveyard. I suspect I may have fallen asleep for a bit. And why not, eh? It’s not like anyone’s paying me to memorise the plot details of stupid movies just to I can summarise them for your benefit, y’know.

Anyway, one way or another, the Templars are back, and as you might expect things subsequently pick up a bit with a few scenes taken directly from the playbook of the first movie, as our boney chums get straight off to business, besieging the house of a woman who’s busy cheating on her husband with some swarthy, moustachioed fella. In places things are just as atmospheric as the first movie, and the scene where the Templars are shown lumbering through a modern dwelling for the first time, slowly closing in on their screaming victim accompanied by an incredibly sinister monotone synthesizer hum, is genuinely nightmarish, prompting a psychotronic disjuncture of filmic reality, as the normality-up-to-this-point of the movie is subjected to a relentlessly inept descent into brooding, tacky, bizarro monster-vision. The filmmakers seem to imply that the lady is being punished for her adulterous ways, but more out of automatic, Hammer-derived habit than in order to make any particular puritanical/misogynistic point. Mindless, artless horror trudge at its grinding, unsettling best. And strangely enough, she even survives, copping a trick directly from one of the proagonists of the first film, as she steals a zombie-horse and gallops off to warn the other characters. I guess that’s about as close as a ‘Blind Dead’ movie gets to feminism.You go girl!

Also great is the scene where the night-watchman in this glass-fronted [gatehouse? barracks? Train depot? – whatever] watches in horror as the Templar army crests the hill in front of him for a full slo-mo battle-charge, picking up the phone to put a classic “uh, boss, you’re not gonna believe this, but..” phonecall through to the town’s corrupt mayor before they break through the glass.

Of course, the reason these few characters were off on their own and subject to early attack is that everybody else is off in the town centre, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Templars’ demise with a big party (I know historically speaking it should be more like the six-hundred-and-somethingth anniversary, but by this stage who cares?). So naturally it’s only a matter of time before the Templars arrive, ploughing straight into the middle of the festivities and doing their best to – yes, you guessed it - kill everyone. Let it be said that, regardless of what crummy movie they may end up in, I like the way these guys do business. No poncing around in the shadows pursuing mysterious, occult ends or marching back and forth brainlessly for these filmic fiends! No, they just want to fucking kill you, and everyone else, as quickly as possible please, no more no less. I seem to remember in ‘Tombs..’ there was a suggestion that they seemed to like chewing on young ladies flesh in order to vampirically sustain their unholy existence, but that seems to have largely gone out of the window here.

Some of the more heroic partygoers fight back against the attackers with pitchforks and dynamite(!), and disappointingly they even achieve some success against the previously implacable menace, but they’re outmanoeuvred and, um, out-eviled I suppose, by their undead assailants, and so mismatched bunch of surviving characters eventually make a getaway, zooming off in, hilariously, a little mini-moke-styled red buggy thing, to hide out in the church. From thereon in, the film becomes a rather lapsidaisical homage to ‘Night of the Living Dead’, as the characters hang around inside bickering and the Templars lurk outside like morbidly decorative gateposts, offering little in the way of threat or narrative momentum as they wait for the living folks to emerge. And inevitably, they’re picked off one by one thanks to their own idiocy or greed. You know the score.

This being the ‘70s though, you’ve got to love the way the men all strut about in donkey jackets smoking an endless succession of cigars and smirking all the time, leaving the women to sit around and fret about how, y’know, they’re all stuck in a medieval church surrounded by murderous zombie knights. There are a few really effective moments in this section of the film, and the greedy mayor’s grizzly demise is particularly enjoyable, but basically things grind to a halt leading up to a disappointingly lame cop-out ending. In fact, the whole NOTLD set-up exemplifies the odd inconsistency that seems to typify de Ossorio’s direction throughout these films, as 10% exciting, intelligently staged Templar-attack is married to 90% plodding, pointless TV soap stuff. Still, all in all, ‘Return of the Evil Dead’ makes for an entertainingly goofy, catch-all ‘70s horror with some memorable moments, if you can make it through the patches of abject tedium.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Your Fun Guide to Undead Templars
Part #1: A Classic, of a sort!

It was a dark moment recently that found me trolling the internet for reviews, to ascertain whether or not the third part of Amando de Ossorio’s ‘Blind Dead’ series was worth watching from a streaming video site. The internet’s consensus was an overwhelming ‘NO’, but, of course, I watched it anyway. Or tried to. More on that later though. Point is, whilst skim-reading write-ups on Imdb or Amazon or somewhere, I noticed that some broadly negative commentator had reluctantly described the first film in the series, 1971’s Tombs of the Blind Dead as “a classic, of a sort”. YES, I thought; what a perfectly concise summation of this particular work, and it's odd appeal. It is not, you see, a film which any but the most mush-brained horror junkie could straightfacedly call “a classic”. But a classic, OF A SORT? Oh man, that just nails it.

You see, in conventional terms, ‘Tombs..’ is clearly not a great film. In fact, it is almost entirely lacking in any of the qualities – such as, say, entertainment value, narrative interest or excitement, cinematic craftsmanship, humour, charm, originality, emotional resonance or the attempt to communicate something meaningful – that a modern cinema-goer may expect of a motion picture.

But, nonetheless, amongst viewers well-versed (‘mired’, if you will) in the world of ‘70s European horror, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who does not exhibit a certain fondness for, perhaps even a weird devotion to, ‘Tombs of the Blind Dead’, together with a joyous acceptance of the knowledge that it is our sorry fate to spend time watching the film and all it’s increasingly lame sequels at some stage, whether we actually intend to or not.

Enjoyment of a ‘..Blind Dead’ movie is in fact, I would venture, a crucial “beyond the threshold” moment for any budding fan of this kind of cinema. Previously, you might have been able to kid yourself that you’re just watching this one movie cos Mario Bava directed it, or cos it’s notably crazy or imaginative or funny, or cos of the awesome production design, or because somebody told you it was good. But when de Ossorio’s Templars start strutting their lumbering, bloodthirsty stuff on your fuzzy TV screen, and you find yourself reacting not with disdain or morbid curiosity but with simple, honest-to-god PLEASURE – that my friend is when it’s too late; the grinding, artless machine of lurid Euro-horror is feeding you imagery, and you are happy and comforted by its presence.

Not that ‘Tombs of the Blind Dead’ is terrible by any means. After all, it’s classic, of a sort! By my own warped standards in fact, it’s pretty good.

The first thing to note is that in the early ‘70s, Spain did not really have much in the way of a tradition of horror/exploitation filmmaking (well, aside of Jess Franco I guess, but it’s probably wiser to view him as a random lunatic terrorising the wider continent with a movie camera than as a symptom of any local film industry), so ‘Tombs..’ was a pioneering work in it’s own way, and as such it exhibits a kind of naïve, ground level primitivism that’s rarely seen in Western European films.

The human plot-line, such as it is (I’ll be saying “such as it is” and “or something” quite a lot in the reviews that follow, so try not to let the repetition bother you), revolves around some models and their boyfriends, who are fed up with lounging around in bikinis in Madrid or wherever, and head off to… some other place I suppose, on the train. During the journey, one of our heroines gets very upset at some kind of adulterous shenanigans going on between the other characters, and jumps off the train when it stops at a signal in the middle of the countryside, stomping off into the wilderness to make her own way home. Naturally it’s an evil, abandoned part of the countryside that causes the superstitious train crew to shudder and cross themselves and refuse to get off and chase after her…. but c’mon, you knew that already.

And if you’re thinking that maybe Girl # 1 finds her way to the ruins of a medieval monastery where she takes shelter for the night, and if you suspect there are a lot of creepy tombs with weird inscriptions, well right again!

I’ll bet you also know that her pals all sit around at their destination feeling guilty after her mutilated body is subsequently discovered on the train tracks the next morning, and that they do some research on the monastery, pick up some cronies and go back there to investigate. And from thereon in it’s all gravy.

The idea and execution of the undead Templars is, even a cheap Spanish horror-hating cynic would have to admit, pretty cool. At some stage, the various forces behind this film must have got together and thought, ok, horror – so, shall we make a Dracula movie, or a Frankenstein movie, or what? And they must have decided, no, let’s do something new, something that reflects our national culture. Given the terminally derivative state of horror/b-movie culture, this is a decision you’ve got to applaud, regardless of your thoughts on the results. Ok, so in practice they’re essentially zombies, but at least they’re slightly different zombies.

During my final year studying history at university, I specialised in the Later Crusades, so as it happens I know (or at least think I know – it’s all buried somewhere in the back of my brain) a bit about the historical Knights Templar, vis-a-vis their withdrawal from active duty as interest in crusading waned during the 14th century, and their eventual, notorious persecution and ‘trial’ at the hands of Philip IV of France and the politically compromised Pope Clement V. Word to the wise is that effectively the accusations levelled against the Templars were abject nonsense, and Philip stitched them up in order to steal their land and other assets for the French crown, using the bad reputation that had surrounded the Order since they were rumoured to have deserted their Christian brethren during the fall of the Holy Land as the excuse he needed. But nonetheless, the imaginatively grotesque variety of blasphemies attributed to the Templars by their accusers (they were said to have worshipped Satan by kissing the ass of a giant black cat, to have indulged in sodomy and eaten the flesh of children etc etc.) live on in infamy, imbuing the Order of the Temple with a fame and a position in popular culture and conspiracy theory that lives on to this day, as witnessed by the likes of The Divinci Code, etc.

Not that you are liable to learn much about this from watching ‘Tombs of the Blind Dead’ however, largely because the script seems to have been written by a caveman. I don’t know whether or not legends of vengeful Templars emerging from the grave hold much of a place in Spanish folk culture, but let’s assume they do, because the film seems to expect that viewers will know what the hell is going on, much as vampire films assume you already ‘know the rules’. Which is just as well, as I wouldn’t relish getting a lengthy history lesson from any of the wooden, monotonal characters in this picture. Inevitably there’s a brief section in which Girl#1’s friends consult a rambling old professor before undertaking their journey back to the monastery, but it’s handled pretty painlessly, and that’s yer lot.

Say what you like about the rest of the film though – the Templars themselves are AWESOME, rising from their graves in mossy skeletal form clad in rotting cowls and armour, rearing up on their black-shrouded, zombie horses and setting out for blood. (What, did they bury them with their horses? – no fool, they’re summoned by evil magic , or something!)

Given the obvious budgetary constraints, the way de Ossorio handles these “Templars Ho!” sequences is incredible, extracting a palpable atmosphere of black magic and otherworldly threat from the material at hand through a combination of queasy slow-mo, cavernous fog, trippy lighting and an unnerving, disjointed soundtrack of distant, pitchshifted Gregorian chanting, tremolo-laden shrieks, slo-mo galloping hooves and creaking, lumbering graveyard atmospherics.

The sound design is amazing throughout the film actually. Speaking as someone who is always trying to find some good horror movie atmos to sample for musical projects and mix CDs, ‘Tombs..’ provides a motherlode of thoroughly creepy, music-free sequences filled with FX-laden creaks, footsteps, metal-on-stone scrapes, cackling monster-chatter and aforementioned chanting – I swear, I’ve grabbed about twenty minutes worth of ‘needle drops’ from this movie. For instance, there’s this one bit where I think one of the characters is being hunted down by the Templars whilst another dozes off listening to kinda light jazz musak on a portable radio, and there’s a moment where character #1’s bloodcurdling scream hits just as the scene changes, and blends into a crescendo in the radio music, creating an amazing sort of “BLLLLEEEEEEURUUURGHHHDiddle-de-dee” sound. So cool.

Anyway, sound-geekery aside, my point is, unlike much of the rest of the film, somebody really put a lot of effort into these Templar sequences, and it paid off – they’re superbly effective, even letting you temporarily forget that you’re still watching a movie that essentially relies on shots of semi-clothed models slowly backing away from the camera in ‘fear’ as technicians wave some groping, disembodied skellington arms in front of the lens. Because that’s what seems to happens next, time after time, with minor variations throughout all these movies.

The other thing that’s awesome about this movie is the ending. And I’m gonna talk about it, so if you’re don’t want it spoiled, look away now and I’ll join you again at the start of the next review. Ok? Good.

Basically, our final girl finds herself fleeing across the fields with the Templars in hot pursuit as the dawn breaks. Suddenly it’s daytime, and she’s found her way back to the railway line, where a passing train stops so that the concerned crew can take her onboard. Which is how a movie like this ends, of course. We’ve been watching the damn thing for 80+ minutes, and now the sun is out, the eerie atmosphere has vanished and she’s back amongst her fellow humans in the civilised world, scarred by the memory of her ordeal. Roll credits, right? Well, WRONG, as it happens, cos here the Templars ride on over the hill, board the train and proceed to kill everyone, before presumably truckin’ off to the bright lights of the big city to cause further havoc! One of the film’s final shots is of a screaming child splattered with the blood of her slaughtered parents! Holy fucking shit!

Now, I don’t know how you would be apt to respond to such a sequence dear reader, but, jaded punk that I am, I think at this point I probably leapt from my seat, punched the air and exclaimed “awesome! I love this movie!”, or words to that effect. As a total demolition of horror movie convention, it is gleefully, crudely, obviously perfect.