A wondrous Arrow release this year has been the 60s Yokai Monsters trilogy (plus a CGI-using Takeshi Miike remake). Of the three original films, this one is easily the best and the only one with a nonhuman villain. Like the similar but much less fun Giant Majin trilogy, the Yokai films are all set in small rural period piece Japanese villages where local peasants are subject to the cruel whims of human oppressors, until weird folk legend monsters finally show up and kick bad guy ass. The oppression parts can get pretty manipulative, especially with the Maijin series--how much more suffering can these peasants endure until that pokey statue finally lumbers into action for the unsatisfying pay-off (at a certain level of prolonged abuse, no mere stepping on by a big stone giant is sufficient catharsis). The Yokai are more child-friendly, to a point, and scatter monster vengeance bits throughout, but only Spook Warfare--the second in the Yokai series--stacks the deck more evenly, using an ancient Babylonian vampire monster who can assume any form--and even split himself into numerous different human forms via vampire bites--instead of a cruel human landlord, gangster, or tyrant for a villain. The resulting all out brawl between this powerful demon and 100 or so different folk monsters is like if the residents of the Star Wars cantina all went over to somebody's backyard pool after closing time to drink more beers and fight the monster from A Chinese Ghost Story. Like all the best spooky movies, it occurs mostly at single night, in beautifully-lit soundstage gardens and eerie graveyards, with moody low end ominousness pulsing in the score (courtesy Sai Ikeno). It would be fine choice for brave children, never talking down to them and directly threatening them at the same time (as the vampire villain especially loves to drink their virgin blood), and "adult" kaiju fans will find plenty to groove to.
Lastly, the psychedelic warriors amongst you just need to know a wild umbrella monster with a very long tongue in appears the movie--you're not hallucinating. It's a real Japanese folktale spirit called a kasa-obake) and the way it bounces around with its wild eye and obscene tongue just may give you one one of those coveted acid flashbacks we're always hearing about but--for me at least--have never actually occurred. Either way, with so many other ghosts and goblins--even if they're more or less actors in suits-- Spook Warfare will make you rethink your lifestyle choices, in the best of ways.
Another all-in-a-single dark and foggy night wild ride movie, my favorite kind of spook show (ala The Old Dark House, The Black Raven, House on Haunted Hill, Cat and the Canary, and Something Creeping in the Dark.) In a rather ingeniously-edited overlapping open stretch along the late afternoon, we follow a pretty hitchhiker (Lisa Leonardi), a young motorcyclist, and an array of cars full of interlocked rich connivers--and the rich they marry and/or prey on--along a winding one country road through and along a moody Spanish tree-lined woods and countryside. They soon all get lost in the rural Spanish fog and thus seek shelter at the same gloomy mansion owned by creepy-sexy Evelyn Stewart (Persephone in Bava's unmissable Hercules in the Haunted World) in a town gone empty and uninhabited after a lot of rumors about vampires. Rural Spain is superstitious! Analía Gadé is the dissolute redhead heiress who is probably being driven mad by the ghost of a brutish glowing red eyed chauffeur and the old severed head in the closet gag (a shout out perhaps to House on Haunted Hill!), Figuring out the twist-upon-twist ending in advance needn't diminish the shivery pleasures to be found, especially now that it looks so damned good (thanks to an Arrow HD clean-up). Besides, after the expected twists come several more. They don't call it Murder Mansion for nothing.
I loved Bastards so much I found and followed up with this far different Margheriti war movie from just two years later. This time he's imitating Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, i.e. a much less popular war than the one fought in Inglorious. A decidedly odd but engaging epic, The Last Hunter stars everyone's favorite Brit, David Warbeck (The Beyond) as a combo Martin Sheen from Apocalypse Now and Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter, but way cooler. After his crazy friend kills himself over his AWOL girlfriend at a Saigon bar, Warbeck is sent on a mission behind the lines to find and destroy a hidden Tokyo Rose/Axis Sally-style propaganda radio station operating somewhere upriver. A big twist at the end harkens it all back to the beginning and seriously jades our hero out so that the final shot eerily anticipates the big key image of Platoon. Scrawny maniac John Steiner is the Col. Kilgore to Warbeck's Willard, holding shit down in a remote river outpost that's has a a snack machine and bar. Showing he's loco, Steiner's favorite music is his reel-to-reel of gunfire and explosions ("dig that beat!"). Tessa (Zombie) Farrow lends feminine presence meanwhile as the usual endangered but fearless photojournalist who's almost raped (Steiner's sex-starved soldiers "haven't seen a woman in months.") Luckily the crazy colonel distracts them by sending one of them across enemy lines to get him a cocoanut. Ah, the genius of command!
Ngai Choi Lam doesn't waste any time or include any filler. We're plunged into the heady melange of a devil, his young daughter (Narumi Yasuda), and ancient curses destined to be fulfilled and the sky being blotted out by inky clouds of evil when she comes to her 16th (I think) birthday and opens the gates of Hell as foretold in the prophecy. There's no time to think twice or wonder why an animatronic dinosaurs exhibit is being set up in the midst of a grand opening department store--we know it's so the monsters can come alive and battle a pair of odd couple Buddhist disciples, separated at birth by their respective Zen masters, one from Japan (Hiroshi Mikami) and one from HK (Biao Yen), now there to save the soul of the devil girl. No need to wonder why they take her to an amusement park--it's so weird little touches like stop-motion animated little creatures hiding in the trash on the Hong Kong street are like shots of joy to the heart. So we have two separately trained young monks helping to turn Satan's little girl to the side of good before her key turning moment comes--at an amusement park! We're still reeling from how cool the dinosaur department store fight was and here we are climbing up a rollercoaster (for real) to rescue a person stuck up on the track.
The only (minor) flaw I could find is perhaps that Lam is a bit too enamored of the special effects shots of a giant reptilian mouth emerging from a villain's bendable back, and the massive gates to Hell shooting up from the ground and slowly opening. Lam is so psyched for these two moments that they stretch on way too long and kill the momentum. The whole film seems to stand still while these effects slowly unfurl. But otherwise, from the get-go, it's a solid blast. HK's ultra sex symbol Gloria Yip is even along for the ride. Look out! In a lot of ways, Lam does what Tsui Hark does but better --less slapsticky and speed-addled/confusing, more fun and easy to follow, grabbing you from the get-go and never letting go. The only comparison I can think of how I felt watching this was the first time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, the perfect flow from grand set piece to grand set piece, never exhausting or confusing or boring, is hard to do but Lam does it here, and also in the equally great THE SEVENTH CURSE!
No one who loves Jean Rollin will argue that in many ways he's not the greatest horror director -- but only he brings that dark, moody sense of kinky and uniquely French decadenceHe absorbed a great wealth of decadence and poetry as a child ("Story of the Eye"-author Georges Batailles was a family friend) and it meshes with the memory of his first kiss on the beach into a miasma of work that seems like the beautiful but macabre dreams of an absinthe-poisoned aesthete--classic vampire motifs, weird twin-Alice surreal imagery violent, sudden sex and death, and--of course--that same beach. Rollin fans know that beach very well. Expect a gory and fast-paced good time and expect in vain! But if you let the slow pace lull your mind into a receptive alpha state, his macabre Baudelaire / Corbière-esque poetic monologues--often waxed direct to camera by a deep-eyed beauty holding a skull--might just beam right into your subconscious-- and there's nowhere you'd rather it beam. This is especially true if he keeps his focus on his favorite archetypal image: two mysterious young vampire girls walking around old castles or graveyards in search of blood and adventure. And he has in just this in Two Orphan Vampires a pair of amazing actresses (Alexandra Pic et Isabelle Teboul) who have a great, wondrous rapport and a line of patter that perfectly encapsulates Rollin's oeuvre in a fun, almost playful way. Soaring on each other's wings of madness across numerous times and identities, they're more in the vein of Kate Winslet and. Melanie Lynskey in Heavenly Creatures than the usual, often mute, somewhat vacant Rollin heroines. Scenes of them with their eyes glazed and Rollin's requisite big dopey hanging out of the mouth fangs are kind of dumb, but the rest is sublime.
Rollin has never been comfortable with just wholeheartedly embracing the familiar vampire tropes, and here--instead of needing to sleep in their coffin to avoid sunlight-- these girls are totally blind by day, replete with canes and dark glasses but at night they come alive with delirious evil. It's an ingenious idea and I love that there are barely any men at all. Men are often either rapist crooks or effete dreamers in Rollin films, so when the two orphan girls are adopted by a widowed (?) businessman, we cringe--will he be abusive and/or unbearable? No, he's dutiful and often absent. His only crime is he shoots one of them by mistake after they're late coming home from one of their bloody wanderings. The closest thing to a villain in the film is a guy chasing the girls after catching them in the act at a nearby graveyard.
Filmed in 1997 (we even see Pete Tombs' indispensable Immoral Tales--which includes a large chapter devoted to Rollin--proudly displayed on an altar at the ruined church) and looking very crisp and HD, it's clear this is kind of a Rollin capstone. After decades of terrible reviews and bad box office, he's now a legend, his films recognized as fine art as well as terrible trash. Older, wiser, aware of what works and what doesn't, freed from the need to deliver rote sex and violence (and maybe too old to want to anyway), he changes to a macabre sense of playfulness . These girls spin flights of fancy, remembering their past incarnations via books from the nunnery library on Aztec history and French circus magicians (but not in the irritatingly twee way of some French films), as well as the expected graveyard hauntings. On their travels, they encounter various solo-flying versions of themselves--lonely loner monster women (a bat girl who flies over cemeteries at night; a werewolf girl who hides from packs of wild dogs in misty rail yards), each hidden but radiating a strong independent presence via proud explanatory monologues, explaining why they avoid all human contact, speaks to the deadening effect of masculine energy on creative female energy more elegantly than an ocean of rapey backstories.
Best of all, there are no sudden distractions from the front-and-center female friendship--no boys come between them. In the past, Rollin often brings in a Yoko-style pretty boy to come between them, and soon one is killing the other just for trying to kill him for coming between them. We get this little outcome in Requiem for a Vampire, Fascination, Grapes of Death and, in variations in Poland's The Lure (2015) and the Canadian Ginger Snaps (2000). This intrustion fits the fairy tale archetypal motifs at work (you gotta grow up sometime!) but can have a disillusionment aftertaste (that's not why we come to le cine). Instead, well, no spoilers, but f you took the marvelous Baudelaire but shocking but strangely moving climax of another French film with a similar thrust, Don't Deliver Us from Evil and spread it to a whole film, monsieur! No growing up needed.
This incarnation of Rollin seems calmer, happier, less inclined to either moribund emptiness, callow anima pining, or slow burn destruction of innocence. The girls declarations and past life imagination borders on whimsical but stays on the dark side of fairy tales ( Grimm rather than HC Anderson) so it's OK by me. Reality is more or less forgotten--for example, though they're clearly not carrying any baggage, the girls easily produce oversize volumes of magic and Aztec history they stole from the nunnery library wherever they happen to roam, and their experiences with the other magical girls are like mythic encounters in Greek or Brechtian dramedies or Cocteau's Testament of Orpheus. In my favorite scene, one of them has shot and is dying in bed, but the other brings her back to health by vividly describing memories of ancient blood ceremonies (which they claim to have witnessed firsthand) atop an old Aztec pyramid: thousands of hearts ripped out of sacrificial bodies, enough blood dripping down the upon the pyramid steps to color the entire edifice a deep red. The actresses nail the love and transfigurative power of blood with such pure hearted bliss our whole notion of good and evil are thrown in the dustbin. Viva la mort!
PS - Make sure you watch the subtitled version in the original French. I hear the English dub is atrocious.
Special Note: There are various versions of this film, some with hardcore inserts, some with dream-like slow-mo zombie attacks demanded by the distributor (zombies were very 'in' at the time) shot by Rollin shot them as Franco was busy and didn't want them added anyway. I don't think they detract, though the hardcore sex certainly does. Either way, you can always scroll past.
My admiration for both Rollin's and Jess Franco's works depends largely on whether a film of his breaks through to me in just the right place/mood/time. Often I find them insufferable but late at night when I'm half-asleep or delirious, alone in my chambers, bust of Pallas above the door and all that--magic. Now and then though, the doors between unconscious' dream and dream cinema open, Franco knocks one home and a kind of full scale magic overwhelms me - a timelessness envelops me like molasses and I'm suffused with an enjoyable melancholic delirium, a Rimbaud/Baudelaire kind of drug-like spell where the film and I merge.
I had been sober for a year before discovering his work and was far from an instant fan. This was back when seeing his work involved renting a lot of VHS tapes from the Kim's Video--unattractive pan and scanned unrestored images or worse, terribly faded and widescreen (vs. anamorphic) DVD or VHS. The first DVDs of SUCCUBUS and KISS ME MONSTER were terrible. Half the screen was missing, colors gone. Rather than pan and scan, they transferred by just cropping off the right half of the image so we saw a lot of people in profile talking to the tip of someone's nose.
Even then, the magic could shine through in the right mood.
Ah but NOW, now it's all different.
Before I fall into hazy reverie, let me sum up by saying the films I like/love from Franco are few and far between. The man made hundreds of films and maybe ten are worthwhile: Succubus, Venus in Furs, and Diabiolocal Z get me excitedly combing my Pete Tombs and Stephen Thrower volumes for a lead on my next big fix. But even they pale in comparison to the haunting elegiac beauty--with a little sex in it--of Virgin Among the Living Dead. It's everything great about Franco and is probably the one best to show doubters who 'don't get it' . A truly nightmarish vision of an orphan innocence too bereft of parental guidance and starved for family to realize the danger she's in when she comes to her father's remote ancestral estate to hear the reading of his will. She comes to find the chateau occupied by a quintet of strange relatives. Her uncle (Howard Vernon, of course), a deranged bombshell (Carmen Yazalde) who is "one of the family" on some level Christina never quite gleans, a mute dopey but sinister servant (Franco), and the beady-eyed aunt Abigail (Rosa Palomar).
Clues arise when neighbor boy tells her the chateau has been uninhabited for years; and other locals try to warn her away. It turns out the Queen of the Night (Ann Libert--the blind bird girl from Franco's Erotic Rites of Frankenstein) is involved, holding them all - including the spirit of her father (Paul Muller) in her sway. Her father's ghost tries to warn her to leave before it's too late--but she's so starved for familial connection she can't. Anyway, she has nowhere to go. Even if they might drink her blood or attack her, she's too starved for familial connection to want to leave.
Franco's cinematography never misses a natural light uncanny effect (particularly magic hour deep shadows over faces) hinting at the unknowable uncanny nature of even von Blanc's innocent beauty. There are shots and scenes so powerful they rank among the best poetic surrealism in 70s cinema. I avoided this film a long time mixing it up in my head with Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, which I heard horrible things about. It worked out anyway. Seeing it now is 'the right time' in my decades-long international genre cinema journey.
Maybe that's why films have so much magic and why--in the end--all this paralyzing availability, this endless access to bottomless archives of films, is such a good thing. Fate is able to sometimes able to save just the right movie for just the right moment in one's life, so that art and self intertwine and annihilate each other. In a good way. For 90 minutes or so, we're truly liberated from the bondage of self.