Thursday, 31 July 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Zatoichi & The Chest of Gold
(Kazuo Ikehiro, 1964)

The first of four Zatoichi films released in 1964, ‘Zatoichi & The Chest of Gold’ opens with an emblematic combat sequence staged against a black studio background, with our hero dispatching a small army of anonymous opponents in a manner reminiscent of ‘technique demonstration’ openings that later became a staple of Chang Cheh’s ‘70s kung fu epics. As it turns out, this striking introduction foreshadows the bold, pop-art-inflected style that characterizes much of director Kazuo Ikehiro’s first Zatoichi assignment, doing a great deal to liven up what might otherwise have been a fairly routine addition to the series.(1)

Once again, we meet Ichi here as he trudges toward some remote locale to pay his respects at the grave of a man he inadvertently killed a year earlier. Before he gets there though, he is reluctantly drawn into a wonderfully joyous rural festival. Initially steeling himself to silently pass by, our hero finds his feet involuntarily tapping to the beat, and before we know it, he’s caught by the boogie, enjoying the hospitality of this community of impoverished hill country farmers, and even taking his turn beating the festival drums, adding yet another skill to his impressive repertoire of hidden talents as he grins serenely at the sounds of celebration around him, temporarily at peace with the world.

Once Ichi eventually reaches the grave that ostensibly brought him to this area, we are for the first time able to actually place a Zatoichi adventure within a historical timeframe, as he reads aloud the inscription on his victim’s headstone. Add a year to the no doubt accurate Westernised date given in the subtitles of this Criterion edition, and we can pin the events of ‘Zatoichi & The Chest of Gold’ down to 1843, whatever good that may do us.

For any Japanese history buffs in the audience, I guess it will prove helpful in determining whether or not the epic battle that we subsequently see recounted in flashback is meant to represent an actual historical conflict. Either way, it’s a startling accomplished sequence, presented entirely in slow motion with all the mud, blood and chaos of a Kurosawa set-piece, as Zatoichi, apparently skirting the edges of the conflict, accidentally cuts down the fleeing soldier he is now mourning.

As is often the case with these films (and ‘60s chambara/yakuza films in general), much of what follows as Ichi becomes involved in the furore surrounding a misappropriated chest containing the farming community’s tax payments may strike Western viewers as rather meandering and overly complex, with more characters and competing interest groups than are really necessary for such a caper, and little to really hook us into the unfolding drama.(2) Such drawbacks (if indeed you see them as such) eventually matter little though in the face of some of the most kinetic and thrilling filmmaking the series has seen thus far – for that is where the meat here really lies.

If preceding films in the series have essayed a gradual shift from character-based drama to more generic, action-movie plotting, then ‘..Chest of Gold’ takes this trend one step further. Whereas in Zatoichi On The Road, the female lead was used as a macguffin to drive things forward, here the scriptwriters do away even with that pretense altogether and have the characters chasing hither and thither after an actual chest of gold, whilst Zatoichi operates in full-on invincible hero mode throughout, his occasional moments of pathos and catharsis arising solely from yet another brilliant performance by Shintaro Katsu, whose highly physical and apparently impulsive acting style by this stage seems to supercede the need for any prompting from the script.

From what little I’ve read about Katsu’s personality, it seems that these kind of earthy, crowd-pleasing action movies were very much to his taste, so who knows, maybe a pure entertainment like ‘..Chest of Gold’ spurred him on toward an even greater level of gusto than usual? Anyway, the star’s exuberance is more than matched by the talent behind the camera, as Ikehiro frequently goes all out with dramatic, gliding camera movements, elliptical cutting, extreme high and low angles and blurry ‘motion’ effects, creating an almost cartoon-ish sense of fast-moving mayhem that nonetheless slows down to allow for some wonderfully lyrical passages of cinematic imagery, as an array of unusually good sets are matched up with real rural locations, allowing DP Kazuo Miyagawa to create some of the most beautiful cinematography yet seen in the series. No small boast, given how exquisite some of the preceding films looked, but no surprise either really, given that Miyagawa had already manned the camera for such storied figures as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujirô Ozu.(3)

The fight choreography also takes a real step up in this installment, as Ikehiro and ‘fight scene director’ Shôhei Miyauchi orchestrate skirmishes that are more bloody, convincing and sustained than anything we’ve seen previously, making a deliberate effort to overcome the “Zatoichi spins round, everybody dies” cliché with a more dramatic and fragmented approach that both reflects the prevailing influence of Kurosawa and Kihachi Okamoto and also preempts the emerging aesthetic of the spaghetti western with its use of crash zooms and similar visual ‘full stops’. This comparison is further emphasised by Ichirô Saitô’s music, which, though it can’t compete with Akira Ifukube’s wonderful scores for previous installments, nonetheless comes across as appropriately brash, with mariarchi-like volleys of brass perfectly complementing the breathless pace of the action.

Stand-out scenes come thick and fast through the first two thirds of the film, but perhaps the most impressive is the mid-movie set-piece that sees Ichi going off-road as he retreats from Kunisada’s mountain hideaway (see footnote # 2) with an orphaned child strapped to his back, breaking through the line of lantern-bearing swordsmen who are hunting down the outlaws. This sequence has a real epic feel to it, with the jagged angles of the forest scrubland and the bright, moving lanterns combining with exceptionally good night-for-night photography (or a creditable set-bound approximation thereof) to great effect. One particularly stunning establishing shot shows us a bucolic, moonlit landscape looking toward a line of distant, rolling hills across a lake, empty and silent. Returning to the same shot a few minutes later, we see the glowing orange lanterns of the soldiers stretching out across the far side of the lake in a long line, heading toward our hero and his allies. Incredible stuff.

Zatoichi’s main opponent in ‘..Chest of Gold’ is a scarred, whip-wielding warrior played by Katsu’s real-life brother Tomisaburô Wakayama, who is deliberately made up to ensure that he looks very different from his previous appearance as Ichi’s brother in Tale of Zatoichi Continues. A preliminary encounter between the two in a gambling house proves another of the film’s highlights, with the not inconsiderable macho swagger of the pair and Ikehiro’s bold cutting and framing again serving to raise what could have been a wholly routine Zatoichi scene into something far more memorable, as Wakayama’s character clears the table and challenges Ichi to cut a coin in half in mid-air.

The brothers’ inevitable climactic duel proves a slightly awkward adjunct to the movie proper, appearing as it does after all the major plot threads have all been neatly tied up and the farmers’ tax money returned, but, although fought for no other reason than to satisfy the fighters’ egos and the viewers’ expectations, it is still an enjoyably unconventional take on the usual samurai showdown, with Wakayama charging into view on horseback, initially snaring our hero with a rope and dragging him through the dirt – an image that once again brings us back to the inadvertent spaghetti western comparisons.(4)

Whilst ‘..Chest of Gold’ certainly packs in everything contemporary viewers might have expected of a Zatoichi movie though, it also introduces a few additions to the formula that might have taken fans aback a bit. In particular, we’re treated to a few scenes of surprisingly bawdy humour, one of which sees Ichi inexplicably popping up from beneath the water whilst a lady is taking a bath, whilst a later scene finds him being discretely ‘serviced’ by a rather unattractive prostitute (the joke being that Ichi, as a blind man, is unable to object to her physical appearance, despite repeatedly making jokes about how bad she smells).

As you might well imagine, this is all a lot saucier than anything we’ve seen in series thus far, and it could easily have proved rather puerile too, were it not for Katsu’s natural charm and comic timing, which serves him especial well here, making these awkward encounters somewhat more forgivable than the Benny Hill-esque disgraces they might have become in the hands of a less capable actor.

In fact, women are sidelined pretty much entirely in ‘..Chest of Gold’, with the aforementioned comedy scenes representing Ichi’s only real interactions with the fairer sex, thus making this the first Zatoichi film that doesn’t even try to develop any compelling female characters.

The ballsy female outlaw character portrayed by Reiko Fujiwara in the previous film must have gone over well with audiences, because another variation on that character appears here (she’s the lady Ichi surprises in the bath), but sadly she doesn’t get to do much, and recieves very little screen-time. The same can be said of the entirely unremarkable ‘virtuous sister of the man Ichi slayed’ character, who seems to exist solely to make Ichi feel a bit guilty in the film’s first half, and to dutifully receive the returned gold at the end.

The fact that Ichi, who has previously been so impeccably chivalrous in his romantic conduct, ends up knocking about with a prostitute (albeit inadvertently) says much about the extent to which the emphasis of the series has shifted since the rather dour and high-minded tone of the first few installments, and a brief but unmistakably salacious torture scene further suggests that ‘..Chest of Gold’ drifting closer than ever to the realm of pure exploitation.

I must be starting to sound like a stuck record when it comes to writing the concluding paragraphs to these Zatoichi reviews, but, whilst I ended last month’s post prophesizing that the level of quality maintained by the series couldn’t possibly last, I’m happy to report that the search for a Zatoichi movie that is anything less than wholly satisfying viewing continues apace. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that ‘..Chest of Gold’ was one of the best ones yet. In terms of storyline, it may be the silliest and least substantial Zatoichi yarn to date, but for pure entertainment and visual spectacle it’s hard to beat – a witty, fast-moving genre flick with great action, bold direction, superb cinematography, surprisingly elaborate production values and a hell of a good showing from Katsu. Top stuff, to coin a phrase.

Ikehiro was back at the helm for ‘Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword’, which hit cinemas a mere four months after this this film’s release, in July 1964. Can one of the distinctive directors on the series to date make it a double KO? Here’s hoping.


(1) Beginning his directorial career at Daei in 1960, Ikehiro already had ten features to his name before ‘..Chest of Gold’, and he continued to direct prolifically for the studio (including work on two more Zatoichi’s) until its collapse in 1970, after which he went free-lance for a few years before, sadly but inevitably, making the move to TV, where he worked until his apparent retirement in 2003.

(2) A particularly confounding moment for non-Japanese viewers to get their heads around here comes when Ichi visits an exiled bandit leader played by Shogo Shimada. The excessive length of this meeting, the fealty our hero pays to Shimada, and the level of melodramatic emphasis given to a situation that seems largely irrelevant to the film’s central plot – all of these things struck me as pretty inexplicable, until I learned (courtesy of Chris D’s write-up in Gun & Sword) that Shimada’s character is actually Chuji Kunisada, “the famous yakuza Robin Hood”, a well-known folk hero who has appeared in dozens of kabuki plays and movies. Of course, if I'd been paying attention, I would have recalled that Chuji's exploits were recounted in a song performed during the festival sequence at the start of the film, but regrettably, I'm an idiot. Anyway, domestic audiences would no doubt have been well aware of Chuji's legend, and thus prepared to treat the meeting of Kunisada and Zatoichi with appropriate gravitas.

(3) Seriously, check out this guy’s CV. I’ve not done the math, but I bet he appears on the credits of more Criterion-released / Sight & Sound-listed films than anyone else who ever lived.

(4) Though comparisons to spaghetti westerns are inevitable when Western viewers come up against films like this one, we should bear in mind that they are of course totally inappropriate, given that, by my reckoning, ‘Zatoichi & The Chest of Gold’ was in cinemas cinemas before ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ even began shooting. And, given that film’s obvious debt to the Japanese tradition, it should be pretty clear which way the general path of influence was travelling in this period, even if the vast majority of chambara and yakuza films never made it beyond Japan.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Penguin Crime Time / Weird Tales:
The Dain Curse
by Dashiell Hammett
(Penguin, 1966 / originally published 1929)

In general, I feel that the design policy on Penguin Crime paperbacks became far less aesthetically interesting when they began moving toward photo covers from the mid ‘60s onwards. Anyone who has spent time pulling green spines off shelves in British bookshops over the years will no doubt be familiar with those woeful ‘70s editions that just feature ‘still life’ arrangements of handguns, wedding rings, wrist watches and so on posed on somebody’s bedside table.

(Just personal preference I suppose, but god, I hate those covers so much - just looking at them makes me drift into a state of utter boredom, despairing at the tiresome litany of stock detective story props. Such a total contrast to the thrill and mystery generated by the earlier, more modernist / abstract artwork covers I’ve previously shared on this blog…)

Before that nadir though, some of the earlier forerunners of the photo cover were extremely good. William Haggard’s Slow Burner is one of my all-time favourites, and I’ll also make an exception for this startlingly lurid presentation of Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Dain Curse’, wherein Penguin quite uncharacteristically seem to be going all out to sell it as a horror story, complete with bloody knife, thinly veiled boobs and the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth back cover copy you’d be more likely to find on a New English Library horror cheapie from a decade later.

For whatever reason, I skipped over ‘The Dain Curse’ when I made my way through Hammett’s novels in my youth, so when I picked up this edition and learned that it allegedly features the father of hard-boiled fiction mixing up “slaughter” and “hoodoo” in “bizarre, cult-riddled shapes”, I had no choice but to drop everything and read it straight away. Mission accomplished for the ’66 Penguin design team then, And I mean, even if the promises of the cover turn out to be complete hooey, Hammett is always worth reading, right?

And, well… what a peculiar book this is. I was unaware of its episodic publication history when I began reading, so I’ll admit that it came as something of a surprise when the story boiled over into a blood-curdling melodramatic conclusion on about page 45, then promptly started again from scratch in the next chapter following a dry, expositional wrap-up. After this, it swiftly became obvious that, though presented as a continuous novel, ‘The Dain Curse’ actually consists of a number of interlinked short stories, following the same group of core characters through a series of black-hearted capers and genre exercises, with the bad-ass first person narration of Hammett’s nameless Continental Op character holding things together whenever the inter-story continuity gets a bit frayed around the edges (because when that guy tells you what’s what, you tend to believe him, if you want your jaw to remain intact).

Thus, it proves no surprise therefore to discover that ‘The Dain Curse’ was originally published in four monthly instalments in Black Mask magazine, from November 1928 to February 1929. The earlier ‘Red Harvest’ was also published this way of course, but whereas that story functioned well as a self-contained novel (insofar as I remember anyway – it’s been a while since I read it), the connecting tissue linking the stories in ‘The Dain Curse’ is much sketchier, leading to a rather rambling, uneven feel, with a pulpier tone than that found in Hammett’s other full length works.

Heading straight for the index in my long unread copy of Diane Johnson’s ‘The Life of Dashiell Hammett’ (Hogarth Press, 1984), I learn that Hammett himself didn’t seem to hold a high opinion of ‘The Dain Curse’, later describing it as his “silly story”, and losing interest in it almost immediately when he began working concurrently on what became ‘The Maltese Falcon’. It also seems that the book only saw print as a stand-alone volume after editor Harry C. Block had repeatedly pleaded with Hammett to further revise his manuscript, politely presenting the author with a list of ‘recommendations’ that included increasing coherence between the different episodes, eliminating minor characters and digressions entirely and significantly reworking the character of the heroine. To be honest, all of these issues remain pretty problematic in the version that was eventually published, so god knows what kind of a mess things must have been in when Hammett initially submitted his manuscript three revisions earlier.

This all goes some way toward explaining why ‘The Dain Curse’ is by far the least celebrated and least widely read of Hammett’s five novels, I suppose, but it also goes without saying that the book’s awkward narrative flow, which renders it quite hap-hazard and unsatisfying as a detective story, still allows for frequent outbursts of exceptional writing and sheer strangeness that led me to enjoy it quite a bit.

Predictably enough, my favourite part of the book was the second quarter, originally published in Black Mask in December 1928 as ‘The Hollow Temple’. To my surprise, this segment, which seems to have inspired the entirety of Penguin’s design for the book, does indeed see Hammett taking a detour into full-blown horror territory, delivering on the promise of the back cover copy in spades (if only for the space of twenty-something pages).

So, simply put, pages 63 to 98 of ‘The Dain Curse’ represent the most awe-inspiring chunk of weird/pulp prose I’ve read in years, incorporating a reclusive religious cult who pump narcotics through the air-con in their guests’ rooms, secret passages and encounters in the darkness with both sap-wielding thugs and terrifying spectres, a bullet-proof Satanic messiah presiding over a sacrificial altar, and yes, a hypnotised, bloody knife-cradling heroine in a diaphanous nightgown.

Despite the more esoteric subject matter, Hammett’s prose is, as ever, full-blooded and razor-sharp (more literally so here than usual), and the fact that he suddenly begins ploughing through all this in the midst of what is ostensibly a detective story makes it all the more remarkable and unexpected. The passage in which the Continental Op finds himself apparently wrestling with an amorphous, shape-shifting ghost, taking chunks out of the fucker ‘til it *bleeds*, is absolutely staggering – as perfect a realisation of somebody’s “hey, imagine if Dashiell Hammett wrote for ‘Weird Tales’” daydream as could be wished for, rendered with a James/Blackwood-esque descriptive power that no amount of “it was all just knock-out drops and a light show” back-pedalling can sufficiently account for.

It is intriguing to realise that Hammett was clearly an admirer of the genre he is wading into here – he even throws in a cheeky name-check for Arthur Machen - and not even ‘The Hollow Temple’s concluding chapter, in which the rational explanation for everything that transpired is rather awkwardly and tediously outlined, can dampen the memory of the blood-splattered, opium-frazzled power of these pages.

Whilst I’ve always been a fan of Hammett’s work, not to mention the brave stands he took on his beliefs in later life, discovering this full strength detour into weirdsville increases my admiration for him even further. So if, like me, you’ve previously skipped ‘The Dain Curse’ on the basis that it sounds like some kind of fuddy-duddy missing jewels stately home whodunit that nobody seems to rate as much as his other books, now might be as good a time as any to correct that omission, especially if you can track it down with one of the numerous great covers it has inspired over the years.

To that end, let’s conclude with a few I grabbed off the internet; apologies for the low res of some of the images – apparently the standing of this novel remains so low that no one has even much bothered with any decent cover scans. (And yes, James Coburn played the Op in a 1978 TV version – good casting.)


Thursday, 17 July 2014

Nippon Horrors:
Ghost Cat of Otama Pond
(Yoshihiro Ishikawa, 1960)

Thus far in this ‘Nippon Horrors’ strand, we’ve been looking at movies that are either modern style, Western-influenced horror films, or else just lunatic one-offs of one kind or another, but it is of course impossible to gain an understanding of Japanese horror without examining the more traditional k(w)aidan tales that comprised by far the most prolific category within the genre prior to 1970. And if we’re talking kaidan, then before long, we’ll be talking kaibyo, aka bakeneko, aka GHOST-CATS - a subject that the movie-going public in Japan apparently couldn’t get enough of, with a catalogue of titles stretching right back to the dawn of cinema.

If I started trying to run down the folkloric roots of these ‘ghost-cat’ stories, we’d be here all day, but needless to say, specific ghost-cat legends pertaining to such locales as Okazaki, Arima and (most pertinently in this case, perhaps) Kasane Swamp go back at least a few hundred years, and formed a cornerstone of the canon of supernatural kabuki plays, woodcuts and novels that fed straight into the earliest Japanese fantastic films.

Although most of Japan’s silent-era films are now lost, surviving records indicate that the Okazaki ghost-cat legend alone was filmed three times prior to 1917, once by the esteemed “father of Japanese cinema” Shozo Makino no less, whilst the first example of the ‘cursed wall’ variant, which appears to incorporate elements taken from Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ into the mix, appeared as early as 1918.

I have heard Kiyohiko Ushihara’s 1938 production ‘Ghost Cat: Haunted Shamisen’ referred to as the earliest surviving Japanese film to include fantastical elements, and, after the war, the 1950s seem to have heralded an unprecedented boom in ghost-cat pictures, with a few representative examples including ‘Ghost Cat: Cursed Wall’ (Kenji Misumi, 1958), ‘Cat Monster of Ouma Cross’ (Bin Kato, 1954) and ‘Ghost Cat of Yonaki Swamp’ (Katsukiko Tazaka, 1957), as picked from a list comprising many, many more titles.

Given all this, it is slightly ironic that by far the best-known ghost-cat movie in the West is Kaneto Shindô’s arthouse-horror classic ‘Kuroneko’ (‘Black Cat’, 1968), a film that domestic audiences must have seen as a nostalgic summation of a set of clichés endlessly reiterated over the course of the preceding fifty years, rather than the wild novelty it may have appeared to foreign viewers.

So, the Japanese like their ghost-cats – this much we know. Insofar as I can tell from online reading, the plots of these movies seem standardised to the point of complete uniformity, but I probably shouldn’t draw too many generalisations until I’ve at least seen a few more of them. So as such, let’s jump in entirely at random with ‘Ghost Cat of Otama Pond’, selected for no other reason than that I happen to have a copy, and watched it last week.

A relatively late entry in the ghost-cat cycle, this 1960 Shintoho production was the directorial debut of one Yoshihiro Ishikawa, striking out on his own for the first time after a lengthy spell working as assistant and co-writer to horror specialist Nobuo Nakagawa, on such films as ‘Black Cat Mansion’ (1958), ‘The Woman Vampire’ (1959) and ‘The Ghost of Yotsuya’ (1959) (hopefully we’ll get around to those here at some point). Like Nakagawa’s films, ‘..Otama Pond’ seems notable for combining a traditional kaidan storyline with techniques borrowed from contemporary Western horror films, and, unusually for a 1960 genre picture from the cash-strapped Shintoho, it makes great use of colour photography too.*

Things begin in the present day, where we join a neatly-attired couple in western dress who are in the process of getting lost amid a network of narrow, woodland paths in an area we later learn is “known for its thick fog”. They are en route to the man’s parental home, to seek his father’s blessing prior to their marriage, but unknown forces seem to be endlessly drawing them back to the same swampy-looking pond. “If we arrive after dark, my father won’t let us marry”, the man says. A curious notion, but, well.. let’s move on.

Right from the outset here, the atmosphere is incredibly spooky, with massively ominous, droning music (composed by Chumei Watanabe) and authentically muddy-looking, claustrophobic sets used to represent the woodland locale. It is difficult to pin-point quite how the film succeeds so well in creating a genuinely unnerving effect from such stock elements, but nonetheless, it does. Even the thunder-claps seem scary, and when was the last time you felt that whilst watching a horror film?

Of course, frequent cutaway shots to a mewling black cat lurking in the trees help, and when the couple eventually take shelter in a derelict house, despairing of finding their way out of this nightmare before morning, the woman drifts off into a tormented fever after encountering a terrifying vision of a white-haired witch archetype who will need no introduction to those familiar with Kurosawa’s heavily kaidan-inspired ‘Throne of Blood’. (The shot in which the witch appears to ‘reel in’ her fainting victim in slow motion is wonderfully sinister.)

Extensive use is made here of anti-naturalistic, Bava-esque gel lighting, with inexplicable green and red glows lurking around every corner, and indeed, just like the protagonists of a Western gothic horror film, this couple – their clothes and behavior coding them as ‘modern’ and ‘rational’ – seem to have found themselves trapped in a world that is entirely ruled by the more macabre elements of antiquity. (Even the doctor they track down the next morning immediately starts rabbiting on about ancient curses, and chooses to treat the lady’s fever by means of an elaborate Buddhist exorcism.)

Also recalling a Western gothic, it is our characters’ previously obscure family history that eventually proves responsible for subjecting them to such a weird fate… as gradually becomes clear when the doctor begins narrating the story which, via flashback, will comprise the majority of the movie’s remaining run-time.

Back to the days of the Shogunate then, where we find a pretty standard star-crossed lovers vengeance story unfolding, played out in a rigidly formal yet beguilingly beautiful manner. The lovers’ final meeting is a particular highlight in this regard, taking place against a nigh-on apocalyptic sunset in a desolate wasteland, creating a suitably expressionistic backdrop to their doomed farewell.

Interestingly, the in-fighting between the lovers’ rival clans here adds a slight twist of populist politics to the mix – something that seems to be a reoccurring theme within ‘ghost-cat’ stories. Viewers of ‘Kuroneko’ will recall that that film incorporates a pretty strident critique of those who propagate conflict to line their own pockets, and here, the catalyst for the destruction of the benevolent family comes when their patriarch publically speaks out against unfair taxes leveled by the corrupt local magistrate - thus prompting said magistrate and his evil brood of cronies to do away with him and his family in as disproportionately violent and generally dastardly a fashion as can be imagined.

As soon as the good family’s martially gifted son (the male portion of the star-crossed lovers) departs to pursue a career in Edo, the vultures descend, and, as is standard procedure in these supernatural vengeance stories, the family home is set ablaze and the patriarch and elderly grandmother cruelly murdered, whilst the noble daughter/sister chooses to kill herself with a hairpin (that ever-useful accessory of the virtuous Japanese maiden) when kidnapped and threatened with rape by the intruders.**

All of this is already somewhat grimmer business than you’d be liable to see in a Western film from 1960 not entitled ‘Black Sunday’, and, when the noble son returns home to learn of the destruction of his family, he meets his downfall by way of an unusually intense and sinister sword-fighting set-piece, full of bloody wounds, bulging eyes and jagged, kabuki-like choreography.

With ominous, post-massacre shots of blood red skies (echoing both the house-fire and the blood spreading across the waters of the pond where the bodies are dumped), and unspeakably eerie, metal-scraping fiddle music, the combined consequences of all of this villainy amount to strong stuff indeed, designed to have us almost crying out for the ghostly retribution we know is on its way.

And thankfully, it’s not wasting any time getting here, either. Following their crimes, the clan of baddies is almost immediately subjected to such a tirade of hair-raising supernatural phenomena, it’s a wonder they don't immediately go insane and flee straight for the nearest fortified town. Nocturnal visits from reanimated corpses, bleeding walls, ghostly tolling bells, sake turning to blood, giant cat silhouettes and unearthly red glows projected against screen-doors, sleep-walking possessed daughters, gory-lock shaking Macbeth-like phantoms, and even a floating yokai fireball pitching in for the conclusion.

Of course, we all know from the outset that it’s curtains for the villains, but the filmmakers have a heck of a lot of fun getting us to that point, realizing all of the above with a great deal of ghoulish skill and visual imagination, and even managing to generate some surface level tension, despite the fateful inevitability of the scenario now in play.

As seen in ‘Kuroneko’, but perhaps not in earlier versions of this story (or so I would imagine), the vengeful ghost-cat actually takes on solid, humanoid form here too, appearing as a werewolf-clawed half-woman, half-cat monster who turns up in one memorable scene to chomp the head off a passing snake and generally put the wind up the surviving characters even further. Curiously though, this furry cat-monster appears only briefly, and fails to return for the film’s finale, so I can only assume that the filmmakers must have decided that the costume just looked too silly, and minimized its use. It IS pretty silly, to be fair, but speaking as a lifelong fan of outlandish horror movie nonsense, I was still disappointed that we were denied any scenes of full-on, Paul Naschy-esque werecat mayhem. Oh well, you can’t have everything I suppose.

Lacking though at may be in furry-clawed grappling however, the conclusion here is certainly anything but underwhelming – in fact it is an desperate maelstrom of blood-letting, cat-hissing, limb-hacking carnage, incorporating strobe speed cutting, all kinds of goofy spook manifestations and howling super-imposed cat-faces. Whilst it may be far more orderly than the equivalent scenes of madness in Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s legendary ‘Hausu’ (1977), we’re definitely somewhere in the same ballpark here, tonally speaking.

I many ways, ‘Ghost Cat of Otama Pond’ seems poised at a transitional moment in the development of Japanese horror. From 1960 onwards, the popularity of kaidan films seemed seems to have plummeted (at least if we can judge from the quantity of films produced in the genre), with only Shindô’s more prestige productions really flying the flag for the form by the second half of the decade, leaving Japanese horror flailing around in a bit of a no man’s land, mainly resulting in the kind of occasional one-offs and stylistic cross-overs that we’ve looked at previously in this review strand.

As such, a film like ‘..Otama Pond’ can perhaps best be viewed as an attempt to keep the kaidan train rolling by adopting something of an east-meets-west approach, grafting Western techniques and aesthetics (lightning flashes, gel lighting, hairy monsters) onto a highly traditional, folkloric narrative. The extravagant use of colour is interesting in this regard, with the concentration on deep reds and luminous greens causing ‘..Otama Pond’ to completely lose the trademark ‘bone-chilling cold’ evoked by many older kaidan films, instead moving toward a kind of sweaty, hot-house fecundity that prefigures the kind of colour horror films that would begin to emerge from Italy just a few years later.

Given its era, I was also surprised how thickly the film lays on the horror business. At a time when many Asian (and indeed European) ghost stories were more inclined to go for the ‘softly, softly’ approach, padding out a few minutes-worth of spooky goings on with acres of convoluted plotting and dialogue, Ishikawa really goes all out for scares, throwing everything at his disposal into trying to freak his audience out, and dedicating probably about two thirds of the eventual run time to supernatural creepery of one kind of another. (Needless to say, I approve.)

The stiff presentation of the story here may feel more like a formalised re-enactment of an ancient legend than an engaging piece of human drama, but nonetheless, the extraordinary variety of macabre visuals and the general sense of marauding, out of control terror help make ‘Ghost Cat of Otama Pond’ a hugely rewarding experience for fans of early ‘60s horror, presenting a cocktail of thrills, weird imagery and atmosphere that matches up to the very best of the Italian gothics. By which I mean, I really liked it. A definite two paws up in the cat-related horror movie sweepstakes.


* Less than a year after this film was released, Shintoho – a studio initially founded by renegade Toho staff following an industrial dispute, and renowned for the creative freedom it allowed its filmmakers – declared bankruptcy and promptly ceased to exist, the earliest casualty of the slow decline of the Japanese studio system through the ‘60s and ‘70s. Notably, the commercial failure of Nakagawa’s ambitious horror epic ‘Jigoku: The Sinners of Hell’ (1960) is often seen as a key factor in the studio’s demise.

** Whilst it is of no importance to the film’s narrative, those of you who, like me, enjoy shouting “NINJA!” at your TV sets at every opportunity may wish to note that the baddies initially creep up on the good family dressed in traditional ninja outfits. So there ya go. NINJA!

Friday, 11 July 2014

Franco Files:
Mädchen im Nachtverkehr /
‘Girls of the Night Traffic’

Of the innumerable sex comedies and caged women exploitation pics produced by Erwin C. Dietrich’s Switzerland-based Ascot/Elite productions during the 1970s, most prove fairly dismal viewing (to my tastes at least). The presence of Jess Franco and Lina Romay on the payroll did at least lead to Dietrich’s company names appearing on a handful of masterpieces and the occasional slice of out-of-nowhere weirdness though – and in the latter category, 1976’s ‘Mädchen im Nachtverkehr’, rather awkwardly translated as ‘Girls of the Night Traffic’, proves a case in point.

This certainly wasn’t one of Franco’s more personal projects for Dietrich – indeed, there seems to be some controversy over how much of it he was actually responsible for, with Dietrich taking credit as writer and co-director on IMDB – but I think that the oddball humour and general garish surrealism found within makes Jess’s contribution clear, adding interest and a sense of campy enjoyment to what would otherwise be a pretty forgettable shot-in-a-week softcore(ish) quickie.

Taking place in a bouncy comic-book world of guilt-free sex and commerce, the story here is thin bordering on non-existent, and centres upon three happy hookers (the only one of whom I recognise is Franco regular Kali Hansa), who lounge around naked on a big bed in their shared flat, recalling stories of adventures with their more unusual clients. I can’t speak for the way the girls’ banter scans in the original German, but the English fan-subs on my copy have them spouting some of the most mystifyingly overwrought double-entendres I’ve ever encountered in a motion picture;

“He rooted around in the belltower. It was sensational.”

“He modestly asked me if I would perform the trumpet angel for him. Why not?”

“I won’t do shock treatment with you. I’ll do ‘shell-seeking’, that’s easy.”

What does it all mean? Don’t tell me, I think I’m happier not knowing.

One brief vignette sees Hansa servicing a Dr. Hichcock-like character who has her reclining in a coffin previously occupied by his late wife, on what looks like an empty, black-draped sound stage, whilst funereal music drones on in the background. The sheer unexpectedness of all this renders it quite fun, and things take a further turn taking a turn toward the bizarre when the man appears to introduce his penis as “mein gondola” and begins shouting “gondola! gondola!” as he thrusts away once the inevitable action commences. Inadequately translated German slang, or just random weirdness? Again, I think I’m happier not knowing.

Meanwhile, another of the girls makes a date with the always slightly terrifying Eric Falk, who here presents an even more unwholesome presence than usual as a sexually inexperienced and apparently mentally deficient foreigner, who says things like “if it not cost too much, I make love, yes?” This is not quite so much fun, but, um…. ok.

Back at the shack, a lengthy sequence of sexy banana eating and sapphic frolics ensues (“honestly, we never get bored”, says someone), until the film suddenly plunges headfirst into the depths of Franco’s erotic-fantastique imagination for a positively dream-like sequence in which one of the girls suddenly finds herself trapped in a bamboo cage amid a set-bound jungle, before the other two approach in military uniforms (presumably recycled from Barbed Wire Dolls, or some similar picture), and things proceed in much the kind of direction you’d expect... until the scope of the scene widens out to reveal that this is actually a stage act being performed in some totally bizarre jungle-themed neon nightclub!

A trademark Franco trick of course, but used to maximum reality-trashing effect here, giving the impression that we’re suddenly adrift in the void, roaming through one of the innumerable such rooms that must be continually operating in the director’s mind.

In a subsequent flashback demonstrating how the girls fell into their current occupation, one of them is seen tootling away on a saxophone, practicing in the hope that she won’t lose her current job in a brass band – another self-referential wink to the mere handful of weirdoes whom one assumes might have been following Jess Franco’s career back in 1976 – before Hansa’s character barges in on the pretext that she’s a burglar trying to rob the place!

Introducing the third member of the trio, we cut to yet another thoroughly goofy vignette in an artist’s studio, where girl # 1 is trying her luck as an artist’s model and attracts the attention of the artist’s daughter/lover (her precise role is deliberately left a bit vague, as if the filmmakers hit on the icky incest theme but didn’t quite want to go all the way with it, or else just forgot or something).

 “It’s nice painting her thighs, when one is used to yours”, says the leery, pencil-moustached artist at one point, and once again, an avalanche of questionable euphemisms add a whole extra layer of strangeness here. “One always looks forward to the opening of a theatre”, says one of the girls when the fella unzips his pants, “but be gentle on the hero, he’s suffering from stage fright”. The camp factor is pushed even further by cut-away close ups to the guy’s paintings, which are absolutely HIDEOUS – air-brushed monstrosities full of fawns and dewy eyed sheep… just wonderfully absurd.

Toward the end of the film, a rather unsavory storyline emerges that kinda anticipates scenarios which were re-used for 1977’s superior ‘Die Sklavinnen’ (aka ‘Swedish Nympho Slaves’), in which the girls are kidnapped one by one by a swinging couple and sold on to Eric Falk’s character (see, I TOLD you he wasn’t to be trusted!), who is working for a cadre of Islamic white slavers who hang out in a smoky Turkish restaurant where some intense-looking musicians choogle away day and night on sitar and tablas (because India, Turkey – close enough, right?).

Here, in a turn of events that ranks pretty high on the list of “scenes you’d be unlikely to see in a motion picture nowadays”, the malevolent, fez-wearing Turks pound away doggy-style at their bored captives whilst yelling allegedly comedic variations on Muslim prayer mantras. The whole thing is so stunningly tasteless it’s kind of extraordinary, to be honest. Indefensible, undoubtedly, but at the same time, the knowingly ludicrous, slapstick presentation leaves it only a stone’s throw away from the kind of outrages a young John Waters was perpetrating at around the same time on the other side of the Atlantic.

If you’ve got a strong enough exploitation-stomach to shrug off a few light-hearted Islamophobic rape scenes though, the rest of ‘Girls of the Night Traffic’ remains 60-something minutes of utterly stupid, frivolous fun – the kind of sex flick that constantly objectifies the female body (that sort of being its core purpose, after all), but without ever feeling the need to get cruel or gross about it, and that slings random elements and jarring, inexplicable diversions together seemingly at random, with no apparent rhyme or reason, leaving us completely in the dark re: what’s coming next.

Though in essence the film is perhaps only marginally sillier than the innumerable hours of Germanic softcore nonsense that emerged from the ‘70s, we can assume that Franco at least was fully aware of the ridiculousness of the project he was involved in, and my guess is that he was deliberately ramping up the camp factor here as far as he possibly could, leading to the kind of movie where you can almost hear the cast & crew cracking up off-screen at the kind of nonsense they’re being paid to create.

On the downside, Francophiles should note that the film suffers from an absolutely chronic lack of Lina, which immediately loses it a point or two in the ‘Kink’ category (who knows, maybe she was visiting family or something on the week they made this one?), but that aside, if you are the kind of person who would even contemplate acquiring and watching a film like this in the 21st century, then god knows, you will probably enjoy it.

Kink – 3/5 
Creepitude – 1/5 
Pulp Thrills – 3/5 
Altered States – 2/5 
Sight-seeing – 0/5

Friday, 4 July 2014

Franco Files:
La Muerte Silba un Blues /
‘Death Whistles a Blues’

NOTE TO READERS: having recently posted several truly epic Jess Franco reviews that ended up sprawling across a fairly untenable word-count, and with over thirty Franco films potentially awaiting review (god help me), I thought I’d best shake things up a bit, in an effort to present a greater variety of the director’s work, before I (and more to point, YOU) start to lose interest entirely. As such, I’ve decided to go to work on what will hopefully be some shorter reviews, sticking the section-headers and ratings I’ve previously been using at the bottom of the post, in order to instead present a single block of (hopefully slightly more concise) text. Hope that’s ok with everyone?

Though often dated to 1964 (or even 1966, when it was re-released in France under the title ‘O77: Opération Sexy’, in a dubious attempt to jump onboard the Eurospy craze), ‘La Muerte Silba un Blues’ (‘Death Whistles a Blues’) actually dates back to 1962, and it appears to have been Jess Franco’s immediate follow-up to his first breakthrough in the international movie market, The Awful Dr. Orlof.

Largely unseen in the modern era prior to the emergence of a fan-subbed Spanish TV-rip I found floating around on the internet last week (and seriously, GOD BLESS the hard-working, multilingual movie obsessives who are able to anonymously bring us this sort of treasure on a semi-regular basis these days), this modest crime thriller has been rather overlooked by Franco fans, and is usually only mentioned in reference to the oft-repeated anecdote about how Franco got the job working as assistant director to Orson Welles, when the latter arrived in Spain to shoot ‘Falstaff’ (aka ‘Chimes at Midnight’) in 1965.

The story goes that Welles had somehow got hold of Franco’s name, and asked his Spanish backers whether he might make a good assistant. They attempted to dissuade Welles, telling him that Franco was a useless hack (a reputation that apparently proceeded him even this early in his career), and, just to prove their point, they arranged to screen one of his films. Unfortunately for them, the film they chose was ‘La Muerte Silba un Blues’, which contains a number of stylistic nods to Welles’ own work. His ego perhaps tickled by this, Orson apparently liked the film so much that he immediately offered Franco the job, and invited him on a memorable “getting to know each other” location-scouting road trip, much to the chagrin of his producers.

The way that that working relationship ended is another story for another day, but, returning to the film at hand, it is easy to see why Welles might have been impressed. ‘La Muerte..’s script may be forgettable b-picture nonsense, and its performances strictly average,* but there is nonetheless a real sense of visual style at work here, with striking compositions, fine black & white photography and smooth, gliding camera movements in evidence throughout. In purely technical terms, it finds Franco at the absolute top of his game, working on a level that will prove quite a shock to those who know him primarily for his sloppier ‘70s and ‘80s work.

Following a sketchy opening that sees a pair of bohemian gun smugglers meeting a sticky end at a police check-point on their way into a city that purports to be New Orleans, we are ushered into a Golden Age Hollywood style nightclub scene that really takes off once Franco's camera begins to concentrate on the band (including Jess himself on sax, if I’m not mistaken), who are playing some pretty rollicking ‘50s style be-bop.

The way this sequence is edited, intercutting tight shots of the musicians with expressionless close-ups of glamorous onlookers making eyes at each other, strongly recalls similar scenes in Venus In Furs, a film that seems to have benefited from the use of more than a few re-fried riffs from this one. (I mean, if you’re taking notes here, ‘La Muerte..’s opening credits play over the image of a lonesome trumpet player laying (apparently) dead on a beach, even though the events pertaining to this circumstance subsequently move us forward, rather than backward, in time.)

Next we move to a bird-like aerial crane-shot panning in over a swimming pool towards a man reclining on top of a diving board – just a few seconds of the film, and of zero narrative import, but a pretty breath-taking bit of stylistic extravagance in terms of what you’d expect from a low budget film in 1962, and it’s hard to imagine Orson sitting through it without immediately deciding that he’d found his man.

Much of what follows is the kind of standard Euro-decadence business that was big at the time in the wake of ‘Le Dolce Vita’, with yachts, swimming pools, nightclubs, beautiful ladies, endless parties, and travelogue shots of places that REALLY don’t look like anywhere within easy reach of New Orleans. The details of the plot-line are fairly standard programmer stuff really, so I shan’t bore you with the specifics.

As usual in his thrillers, Franco is having a lot of fun here with genre tropes, but without hitting the pastiche too heavily. The scene in which the trumpet-player (who survived his earlier scrape on the beach, it transpires) is run-down by a car outside the night-club, his smashed horn at his side, has a wonderful sense of pulp poetry to it, and some shots later in the movie perfectly capture the ‘beach houses & Venetian blinds’ essence of ‘40s L.A. noir, without ever rubbing it in our faces or turning it into a joke. I get the feeling that homages to specific shots from movies of that era are frequent, but I’m too dumb and scatter-brained to definitively place any of them, so instead I’ll just sit back and enjoy.

The most welcome surprise in ‘La Muerte..’ though isn’t its technical acumen, but its pacing. Somehow or other, this one manages to almost completely avoid the stretches of procedural padding and ‘down time’ that weighed heavily on just about every subsequent thriller or detective story Franco attempted. So whilst we might not really give a hoot about the story or characters here, it’s hard to deny that there is always *something* happening on screen to maintain our interest - and furthermore, it’s often happening at great speed too! (Some of the action sequences and car chases are even under-cranked to lend them extra velocity – a pretty startling occurrence, given the sort of languorous drift we’ve learned to expect from later Franco productions.)

Events frequently veer off into totally random digressions, showcasing a great deal of garrulous, somewhat charming humour. But, rather than serving merely to pad out screen-time (as might have been the case in a later film), some of these sequences, such as the one in which the hero engages in an arm-wrestling showdown with a couple of guys in a waterfront bar, absolutely explode with life – exhilarating bits of romantic-realist cinematic business that momentarily take the film completely outside its hum-drum generic trappings, recalling the kind of thing you might see in a ‘50s Fellini movie, and suggesting the presence of a young, live-wire director straining at the leash to make ANY kind of film.

For the finale, Franco even stages a chaotic masked ball in a vast, baroque ballroom, as the gun-toting characters fight their way to a showdown through a haze of streamers and confetti, elbowing aside throngs of outlandishly costumed revellers – an overwhelming visual spectacle that the director would recreate almost exactly a few years later in his decidedly strange eurospy effort ‘Lucky The Inscrutable’ (1967).**

The presence of a much remarked upon “Lina” amongst the central characters (the other cast members say her name a lot) initially seems positively eerie, coming a full decade before Franco began working with the much-missed Ms. Romay… until that is, we remember that it was Franco who chose Romay’s screen-name for her in the first place, stealing it from a slightly known Mexican actress and jazz singer, no less. Given this movie’s jazz theme, the pre-existing Lina Romay may have already been on the director’s mind when he threw the script together, and so, as is ever the case in the endlessly self-referential and culturally aware world of Franco, things come full circle in the end.

Francophiles will be equally unsurprised to learn that the millionaire bad guy in ‘La Muerte Silba un Blues’ is named Radeck, or that, in a final reel twist, the heroic undercover police detective turns out to be none other than one Alfred Periera (perhaps making his first screen appearance?).

Despite lacking just about all of the surface level trademarks of the Franco’s later oeuvre (no sex, no horror, no dreamy weirdness), those in the know will instantly recognise ‘La Muerte..’ as a Jess Franco film. Not just the character names, but also the scene set-ups, plot developments and camera angles - even the hair & make-up choices - all seem to cast uncanny echoes into the future, reminding us of tropes that would turn up again and again in his later career, their origin(?) in this film lost or barely acknowledged. Even the ‘Roof Blues’ itself, which plays a significant part in the film’s storyline, will sound distantly familiar to Franco fans; though perhaps not instantly recognisable, it is a melancholy melody that I’m sure I remember reappearing in some form on the soundtrack to many of his other movies.

Overall, I found ‘Death Whistles a Blues’ to be a wonderful surprise. Though its boilerplate script and self-consciously ‘minor’ ambitions stop it from ever attaining the level of a capital letters GREAT MOVIE, it is nonetheless one of the most technically impressive and unpretentiously entertaining films Franco made during the ‘60s, and probably one of the best thrillers or crime films he *ever* made, so it is a shame that circumstances have seen it more or less lost to history as a footnote to a footnote in the big book of obscure movie-making anecdotes. Given the film’s aforementioned lack of sex, horror and strangeness, the low-ish scores awarded to it below do not really reflect the extent to which I enjoyed it, and I would certainly encourage curious fans, or those who enjoy off-beat ‘60s genre movies in general, to track it down.

Kink – 2/5
Creepitude – 1/5
Pulp Thrills – 4/5
Altered States – 1/5
Sight-seeing – 3/5

* No big names or Franco favourites are present in the cast, but some IMDB clicking reminds us that much of the supporting cast from ‘..Dr. Orlof’ reappears here, including Perla Cristal, Conrado San Martín and María Silva, thus lending weight to the idea that the films were made at around the same time.

** And there was me thinking that 'Lucky..' ripped off the opening to George Franju's 'Judex', released a year after this film...