Friday, 27 March 2015

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Zatoichi & The Chess Expert
(Kenji Misumi, 1965)

Kenji Misumi’s third film in the Zatoichi series – known as ‘Zatoichi Jigoku Taki’ (‘Zatoichi’s Trip to Hell’) to Japanese viewers, despite nothing much more hellish than usual transpiring within – seems to me to be going a bit ‘meta’ on us, as Daisuke Itô’s screenplay reprises the central themes and relationships from the director’s two (excellent) earlier films, but twists them in unexpectedly cynical and downbeat directions.

Thinking about it, maybe this dashing of our hero’s hopes is what constitutes the ‘hell’ of the Japanese title, but then that's never a point the film really makes with a great force, so maybe I’m giving whoever decided on the film's title too much credit. As far as the anglophone title goes, there is indeed a chess expert, so no additional pondering required on that score.

Just as in Misumi’s Tale of Zatoichi, Ichi here strikes up a rapport with a jaded lone wolf samurai (Mikio Narita, later a regular in ‘70s Toei yakuza flicks), and their blossoming friendship, based on a shared passion for Japanese shogi chess, is presented as a dignified match of noble equals, framed in stark contrast to the undifferentiated mobs of squabbling, swinish goons who intermittently harass them. Meanwhile, a parallel storyline sees Ichi forming an accidental relationship with a nomadic woman of questionable character (Kaneko Iwasaki), with whom he shares a duty of care for an adorable child (in this case a little girl who becomes infected with tetanus after being injured in a scuffle), in a near exact reprise of the previous year’s Fight, Zatoichi, Fight!.

In contrast to the tragic humanism with which both of these storylines played out in their original incarnations however, things here are rather less clear-cut, leaving sentimental old Ichi to deal with the fact that, however much he might want to recapture the warmth he felt for his departed friends in the earlier films, neither of his new companions are quite as principled or benevolent as they initially appear.

In theory, the idea of these heady themes of betrayal, disappointment and nostalgia intersecting with the kind of deft human drama that Misumi proved himself such a master of in his earlier efforts should make for extremely engaging viewing…. which leaves me at a bit of loss when it comes to explaining why ‘Zatoichi & The Chess Expert’ didn’t really work for me at all on first viewing.

Chris D, writing in his monumental Gun & Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films, describes ‘..Chess Expert’ as the moment at which “..the series finally gets great again”, praising not only Misumi’s direction, but also Narita’s performance and “master” Itô’s script, neither of which impressed me overmuch, I’m sorry to say. Thus far, Chris’s capsule reviews of each Zatoichi installment have seemed pretty spot-on, largely chiming with my own impressions of the films, so this sudden disparity has caused me to stop for a bit of reflection before banging out the fairly negative review I had initially planned for ‘..Chess Expert’.

You know that uncomfortable feeling when you walk away from a movie screening feeling fairly dismissive of what you’ve just seen, but the contrasting voices of trusted sources who seem to have got a great deal out of the experience cause you to stop and think… maybe I was just coming at that one from the wrong angle..? Maybe it just went over my head a little as I sat there primed for something a bit different..? Well, needless to say, ‘Zatoichi & The Chess Expert’ ain’t exactly ‘Last Year at Marianbad’, but nonetheless, I’ve got a feeling it might fall into this category for me on this occasion.

I WAS pretty tired when I watched it, fighting the slow drift towards sleep for much of the run time, so perhaps the blunt and relatively light-hearted storytelling of the last few Zatoichi installments had me calibrated for something a little different from the fairly dour approach taken here. Perhaps.

Certainly, Misumi’s direction is characteristically assured, with action set-pieces, tense stand-offs and dramatic interplay all a definite cut above those seen elsewhere in the series, but I confess, the screenplay lost me pretty early on, and I found myself struggling to regain interest in proceedings, as the various characters continue to idly hang around the film’s onsen location to no very fixed purpose, whilst the who, how and whys of the various groups of waddling thugs and low level bosses half-heartedly pursuing them never quite coalesced into anything very clear or compelling. There seemed to be a bit of a dreary, low energy kind of feel throughout, with many of the usual visual gags and set pieces that Zatoichi films use to draw us into the action falling a bit flat, and the story ends, once again, with a resigned, “is that it?” kind of a shrug.

To give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this lethargy is the result of a deliberate attempt on to series away from formulaic genre melodrama and inject a certain amount of grumpy realism into proceedings. Indeed, one interesting aspect of ‘..Chess Expert’ is the greater emphasis it places upon the problems Ichi faces on account of his blindness. Of recent, our hero has proved so adept at negotiating the world around him that his disability almost seems to give him an advantage over his sighted antagonists, but here Ichi experiences a number of awkward and frustrating moments, whether bumping his head on pillars or scrabbling around on the floor for important objects, and even a few of his patented gambling tricks end up back-firing on him.

Perhaps Misumi and Itô were simply getting a bit sick of the quasi-superhuman feats that have increasingly become part of Ichi’s character, and were just trying to bring him back down to earth a bit. Whilst in retrospect I can appreciate this approach as a refreshing change and corrective, for this tired viewer who quite enjoyed the aforementioned superhuman feats, it’s nonetheless a bit of a bummer to see our hero moping around in a relatively powerless position. And, crucially, rather than replacing Ichi’s usual antics with something more interesting (as ‘Fight, Zatoichi Fight!’ managed so marvelously), the filmmakers instead seem content to follow the familiar patterns of the series, but just do everything kinda… half-heartedly?

For the moment then, I’ll reserve judgment on this one. There ARE some excellent moments here that even my sleep-deprived brain could appreciate – Ichi’s nocturnal confrontation with a gang of swordsmen amid the reeds of a muddy river would be a shoe-in for any showreel of the series’ best fight scenes, and the way the tension between Katsu and Narita is handled in the second half of the film, with each master swordsman awaiting the first sign that the other might be about to ‘draw’ whilst continuing to assume the mask of friendship, is really terrific.

But by and large… I dunno. The movie just never quite came together into anything that really grabbed me, and, just as in the previous installment, talent both behind and in front of the camera seemed wasted, with no one really sure where they were heading with this whole thing.

Perhaps then, '..Chess Expert' really is just a muddled and mediocre addition to a series whose QC standards are looking increasingly shaky by this point. Or perhaps, with Chris D’s words still echoing in my mind, I’ve got to consider the possibility that whilst I was struggling to keep my eyes open wondering who the hell these guys Ichi was fighting were again and what plot point all those meaningful close-ups of a fish-hook were meant to signify, there was actually a great wealth of dramatic nuance and subtle detail bubbling just below the surface, waiting to impress the more perceptive viewer.

Sadly, repeat viewings of any film are a bit of luxury for me at the moment, so oh well – c’est la vie. Instead, we’ll be hoping for the best as we plough straight ahead into ‘Zatoichi’s Vengeance’ (not to be confused with Zatoichi’s Revenge), which hit screens in Japan in May 1966. See you then!

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Nikkatsu Trailer Theatre # 2:

By most accounts, Nikkatsu didn’t exactly give Seijun Suzuki’s giddy post-modern gangster romp ‘Youth of the Beast’ the big push it deserved back in 1963, but clearly that didn’t stop the studio’s trailer department going to town on it in their usual understated style.

Screengrabs and sub-titles are taken from the DVD accompanying Eureka’s recent, excellent UK blu-ray edition of the film. (Please please please do ‘Gate of Flesh’ next, if you’re reading Eureka folks.)

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Gothic Originals:
The Vampire & The Ballerina
(Renato Polselli, 1960)

To us, er, ‘connoisseurs’, Renato Polselli is best known for directing some of the most deranged sex-horror films that emerged from Italy during the 1970s. From Erotic Castle Movie classic ‘The Reincarnation of Isobel’ (aka ‘Black Magic Rites’, 1973) to the appropriately named giallo ‘Delirium’ (1972) and the unspeakable ‘Revelations of a Psychiatrist on the World of Sexual Perversion’ (1974) - if mind-bending sleaze is your thing, Renato is your man. But, everyone has to start somewhere, and Polselli began his journey in ‘le cinema fantastique’ with this early outlier in the Italian gothic horror boom – ‘L'amante del Vampiro’, best known to English-speaking viewers as ‘The Vampire & The Ballerina’.

A close contemporary of Mario Bava’s game-changing ‘Black Sunday’ (which Polselli’s film beat into theatres by about three months if IMDB is to be believed), ‘Vampire & The Ballerina’ is a pretty silly film in and of itself, but nonetheless, it makes a fascinating case study for euro-horror scholars vis-à-vis the way in which it seems to accurately telegraph just about every development that would overtake the genre in the course of the subsequent decade.

From the rote formalisation of gothic cliché (the candelabra walk, the coach journey, the ancestor-painting-that-looks-just-like-the-heroine are all trotted out here in knowing, nudge-wink fashion, despite the film’s early production date), to the inclusion of titillating erotic content that prefigures the slide towards full on sexploitation that would characterise the few castle n’ candle movies still being made in the early ‘70s, ‘Vampire & The Ballerina’ has it all – not to mention the fact that, true to the spirit of decades of Italian horror yet to come, the film’s flimsy narrative seems entirely unconcerned with making what we in English-speaking territories quaintly refer to as “sense”.(1)

So: by means of a moderately accomplished opening sequence in which buxom stable maid falls victim to a be-cloaked vampire, we are introduced to our main location – that being a ballet academy apparently operating out of a well-appointed farmhouse in the middle of an idyllic rural locale.

Even by the standards of horror movie private girls’ schools, there’s not a great deal of academic discipline on display in this institution, and, once the stressful business of receiving the body of a murder victim in the front parlour and somberly mumbling about who might be responsible is dealt with, the female students soon return to their usual routine of lounging around in nightgowns and frilly undies, indulging in ceaseless nattering and giggling that, though it is only intermittently sub-titled on the Italian language print I’m watching, does not appear to portray the intellectual capacity of the nation’s young womanhood in a very positive light.

One of the girls seems to be openly carrying on an affair with school’s open-shirted lothario piano player, whilst another is romantically linked to the straight-laced son of the ‘Professor’ who seems to be running the joint. God only knows what kind of ‘ballet’ the prof is prepping his students for here, but his input chiefly seems to consist of sitting in an armchair smoking his pipe as he watches the girls perform libidinous chorus girl-style routines to ‘stripper jazz’ library cues in the middle of a carpeted living room scarcely very well equipped for ballet practice.

After several reels of this sort of thing, the aforementioned son-of-prof and a couple of the girls head off on a bit of a frolic in the beatific woodland surrounding the school and find themselves sheltering from a storm in the local shunned and abandoned medieval castle. Therein, they are surprised to make the acquaintance of a Bathory-esque Countess in dusty period clothing who invites them to dinner, and, well… you know where things are heading from there, more or less, thus allowing me to mercifully curtail the ‘synopsis’ segment of this review and move on to more important matters.

Though no actual nudity or love scenes are present, ‘erotic’ content in ‘The Vampire & The Ballerina’ is about as strong as it was possible to get in a commercially released film in 1960, with much of the run-time in the first half dedicated to footage of the girls offering titillating glimpses of their underclothes, whilst the several lengthy dance sequences see the camera concentrating almost entirely upon their fishnet-clad legs and buttocks. As is so often the case with ‘60s European cinema, most of the female cast look like they’ve been beamed down directly from some angelic modelling agency of hetero-male dreams, and, basically, there’s enough artfully presented cheesecake here to give any self-respecting lingerie fetishist a minor seizure.

Knowing as we do of Polselli’s later career, it is easy to read this movie (moreso than anything, say, Jess Franco was making at the time) as the work of a future sex film director straining at the leash in an era that prohibited him from making actual sex films. And, sadly, you can forget any idea of there being any Meyer-esque self-critique of the male gaze going on here either. Female characters remain largely undifferentiated and devoid of agency throughout, whilst Polselli’s directorial leering is just plain shameless, creating an aura of thoughtless, low level misogyny that some viewers will likely find more objectionable than that found in any number of later, more overtly explicit films of this nature.

Another way in which ‘Vampire & The Ballerina’ anticipates it’s director’s future is via the sketchy, semi-improvised plotting and general sense of narrative disintegration, which continued through most of his ‘70s output. Quite how such a minimal, undercooked storyline can still manage to generate so many loose ends and unnecessary diversions is as big a mystery as anything that’s actually transpiring on-screen, and indeed, the film does occasionally succeed in passing beyond the gates of logic into that magic realm so beloved of us Euro-horror devotees, wherein the viewer forgets what’s supposed to be happening at any given moment and simply floats downstream oblivious, drifting from one delirious set-piece to the next. Good times.

Like Paolo Heusch’s ostensibly similar Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory, I enjoyed the fairytale-like manner in which young characters keep walking into ‘the woods’, there to encounter a whole other world of dangerous new experiences, although it must be said that that metaphor loses its power somewhat given the wealth of free and easy sexuality already on offer back in the safety of the ballet school, whilst the thin story and uneven atmosphere fail to ever really achieve the level of mystery or threat necessary to sign off on such a potentially weighty theme.

And, that failure this leads us conveniently onto ‘Vampire & The Ballerina’s big downfall as a horror film – namely, the fact that whilst the ballerinas are generally present and correct, the vampire is bloody hopeless; truly one of the stupidest looking bloodsuckers ever seen on screen. Armed with a white fright wig, clownish eye make-up and a deeply crappy one-piece rubber mask, this cat looks like an amateur theatre-level cross between Grandpa Munster and Lon Chaney’s Hunchback, but without the charisma of either. The scenes in which he features are pretty much destroyed by his ridiculous get-up and cartoonish demeanor, whilst the sight of this somewhat geriatric weirdo fondling and neck-biting his lady victims is distinctly unappetizing – a total fail with regard to evoking the ‘vampire as sexual predator’ mythos that a film like this should surely be aiming for.

In between all the lightweight comedy bickering and schlocky vampire bits though, there are occasional stylish and evocative moments here that make it worth sitting things out, particularly in the first half of film, where Polselli frequently cuts away to eerie footage of tree branches blowing in the wind, running water, and other such things that serve to add uncanny sentience to the natural environment around the characters and also perhaps to reflect the oneiric, cyclical drift of the near-somnambulant storyline. Or, more likely, could just be a cheap trick to fill some space and build inexpensive ‘atmos’ by pointing the camera up or down for a few minutes after shooting a scene, but either way, it’s a nice, Franco-esque touch of the kind that I’m usually a sucker for.

(At this point, it is worth noting that the use of locations in ‘Vampire & The Ballerina’ is excellent – both the convincingly ruinous looking castle used for both interiors and exteriors and the tangled woodlands surrounding it add greatly to the film’s atmosphere.)

It is between a rush of these moody transition shots that by far my favourite sequence in the film commences, beginning as we suddenly see a somber funeral procession slowly stomping its way uphill to a weather-beaten medieval chapel - one of those strange moments often encountered in cheaper Italian and Spanish gothic horrors where, for a few brief seconds, the veneer of fantasy crumbles and we catch a genuine glimpse of the haunted, ancient Catholic Europe that was gradually disappearing with the onset of modernity at around the time these films were being made.

And, straight out of that, Polselli flips the script once more, throwing us into an absolutely terrific Hitchcock-via-Corman set piece in which we see the girl in the coffin (a victim of the vampire of course) suddenly open her eyes in a shock reawakening, as she stares upward through the coffin’s glass viewing window. Mixing claustrophobic close-ups of the victim’s anguished face with matching POV shots of the forest groves and open sky looming above her, and the mourners bending over the coffin as it is lowered into the ground, this really is a “buried alive” sequence to beat the band, and speaks well for Polselli’s abilities as a striking and innovative director, when he was in the mood.(2)

Admittedly, you could legitimately wonder why those mourners peering at the coffin don’t notice that the woman inside is now staring up at them very much alive, but hey - if there’s one thing I've learned about Polselli by now, it’s that he does not give a fuck about little details like that clouding his grand vision.

If only that kind of verve and imagination could have been applied to more evenly to the rest of the film, perhaps we’d be looking at pretty great slice of early Euro-horror here, but sadly it’s not to be, as anything involving the rubber-faced count and his vampire brides (whose joke-shop fangs are so big they can’t even close their mouths) swiftly devolves into tongue in cheek hokum, camera static and directorial vision thoroughly AWOL, dragging us back down to earth with a bump.

And to extend that metaphor, it’s unfortunate that the closing twenty minutes of ‘Vampire & The Ballerina’ pretty much nail our feet to the floor, as the pressing need to conclude the ‘story’ (which all right-thinking viewers will frankly forgotten about half an hour back) regrettably banishes mystery and delirium to the margins. A decade later, directors like Polselli had learned to just throw caution to the wind and give in to the chaos, but, this was 1960, and the powers that be seemingly demanded a happy ending, with monsters both explained and vanquished.

Beyond just the shitty make-up job on the vampires (a problem numerous other ‘60s horror directors overcame with gusto) and the iffy production design choices (the wide shot of the crypt was cool, but c’mon guys, the spring-loaded coffin lids and polystyrene skulls were a bit much), ‘Vampire & The Ballerina’s main problem I think is that it just isn’t quite willing to commit to being a full-on horror film.

All that was needed was clearly on hand in terms of talent and resources, but the half-arsed silliness that pre-dominates suggests that, despite the success of Hammer a few years earlier, the filmmakers still didn’t quite have the guts to embrace the genre the way Bava did a few months later, resulting in a campy detachment from the material that is unfortunate to say the least.

As such, the obligatory concluding chapter, in which the two male leads dutifully stomp off to the castle to confront the vampires and reclaim their womenfolk, is about as prosaic and pedestrian as such a thing can possibly be – a yawnsome recitation of the expected cliché (basically just another play-by-play re-run of the conclusion to Hammer’s ‘Dracula’), devoid of the wayward unpredictability and off-key sauciness that enlivened the earlier sections of the film. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.

Whilst far too sloppy and uneven to be considered essential viewing for anyone on earth, ‘Vampire & The Ballerina’ still manages to make for a fascinating curio as an early example of the way in which sex and horror could be mixed up to dreamy and disorientating effect, and for all its faults, it still spells eighty minutes of solid fun for those of us who covet the dizzying perfume of that particular brew. To conclude, let’s publicly mark it down as a “mixed bag”, and then get on with secretly watching it ten times when there’s no one around to pass judgment. You know where I’m coming from on that one, I’m sure.

(1) In regards to this, it is worth noting that ‘Vampire & The Ballerina’ marks the debut writing credit of the ubiquitous Ernesto Gastaldi, whose uniquely unhinged way with a typewriter went on to pretty much define the shadier quarters of Italian popular cinema for the next twenty years, in a career that ranged from L'orribile Segreto del Dr. Hichcock and The Whip & The Body to ‘Almost Human’ and ‘2019: After the Fall of New York’, taking in more landmark productions than I could possibly list here.

(2) Online reading leads me to believe that this ‘buried alive’ sequence is actually a direct rip from Carl Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’ (1932), a film I’ve not seen since I checked it out on a near unwatchable Redemption VHS release many years back, and basically remember very little about. Oh well, that’s what I get for being an uncultured swine.