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Day of the Panther, 1987

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As Australian Kung Fu movies go, Day of the Panther is… the one I’ve seen.

It’s bland. Not atrociously bad. Not especially good. Just sits there. Clichés, tropes, a few marginally decent fights, nothing else.

Begins with a voiceover from William Anderson (John Stanton) telling us about how he was the first Westerner ever to be inducted into the “ancient and secret order of Panthers”, a Chinese kung fu cult, and how his daughter Linda and JASON BLADE! (coughcoughcough) became only the second Westerners ever to etc., etc.

The face of Special Branch's (second) most cunning agent

So the Panthers, seemingly centered in Hong Kong, studiously ignored westerners for over a hundred years. Curious, as HK was a creation of the British Empire, and so much of its success was dependent on both western trade and western culture. The Triad gangs got started partly because groups of Eurasian men felt that they could not be accepted in either culture (this is gross oversimplification, before somebody complains). Yes, Chinese culture was (and continues to be, in some ways) highly xenophobic and resistant to any outside influence. (This is why China does not practice capitalism, but capitalism “with Chinese characteristics” — because to just take it as is would be to admit that Chinese culture is not superior to everything else, everywhere, in every way; but add “Chinese characteristics”, and you’ve instantly made it better, and Chinese.) Still, kung fu was no secret, and even “secret societies” took in a few westerners (of the right sort, of course) long before the 1960s. So what were the Panthers doing all that time? I think I have now given this more thought than the writers did.

The induction ceremony is a hoot. The actor playing Anderson clearly speaks his Chinese phonetically, and whoever coached him didn’t get across the idea of tones very clearly. Or at all. (I couldn’t even tell if he was supposed to be speaking Cantonese or Mandarin. That’s sort of like not being able to tell if he was trying to speak French or Italian.) The actress playing his daughter has, alas, the sort of face that just doesn’t look intelligent; she spends the ceremony looking befuddled. JASON BLADE! (Edward John Stazak, whose only IMDb credits are this movie and its sequel), in comparison, is reasonably credible here. The amount of smoke arising from his forearm as he brands himself(!), though, is not.

Careful - skin bronzer can be flammable!

Turns out JASON BLADE! and Linda are also special agents for Her Majesty in some form; apparently police, though it’s not especially clear (the most precise naming we get is “Hong Kong’s Special Branch”; Special Branch of what is never explained). They’re partners, and work undercover together, and Dad’s voiceover ends with saying “Then came the night that would ultimately change all our lives,” and you just know that Linda’s going to achieve “hungry ghost” status before the second act begins.

I mean, she’s the daughter, the partner, a girl, she doesn’t get the backward-looking voiceover, and her name’s not JASON BLADE!. Why they didn’t name her Dead Meat and have done with it, I don’t know.

Granted, the movie doesn’t kack her immediately, and in fact gives her a lengthy action scene in which she defends herself ably — I had been fully expecting that, despite her Panther training, she was going to fold, as girls in western kung fu movies frequently do. But no, she fights off three or four assailants in an extended sequence, killing at least two of them, and only dies when caught off guard by another man, who knifes her while she’s in a defenseless position.

On the other hand, she does die because she didn’t do what JASON BLADE! told her to do, which was to sit tight and wait for him. No, she had to go out on her own, “investigating”, and because she didn’t follow the dictates of the masculine (but babyfaced) hero, she pays the price of all expendable characters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In “Hong Kong” (adequately impersonated by a few sets in Perth, Australia, and some stock establishing shots in the beginning — although the stock shots don’t really scream “HONG KONG!”, they could be HK from unusual angles, or they could be Perth), Linda and JASON BLADE! sneak into a Chinese restaurant (of course!) and take pictures of a drug deal going down between an irritating, doughy-faced Aussie and a couple of old Chinese men. They’re discovered, pursued, and lose the camera (into a pot of noodles; one wonders if Jackie Chan saw this movie at some point before making Crime Story, though probably not, and he did a lot more with the gag than anyone on this movie even thought about), and while all the bodyguards are pursuing them, the doughy-faced Aussie, whom we’ll come to know as Baxter (“Baxter”? The best name they could come up with for the head henchman was Baxter!?), blows away the two older Chinese men, taking both the money and the drugs and hightailing it to the airport.

If you hadn’t already worked out that this movie is shallow, this sequence does the math for you. First, the dialog amongst the criminals while Linda and JASON BLADE! are taking pictures is banal and repetitive in the extreme. Most of it was clearly looped in later, and there is little purpose to it, other than to establish (five or six times) that Baxter wants to pay only five hundred thousand dollars. He does finally get bargained up to six hundred and they hit an agreement. The agreement is for an ongoing deal. The Chinese Triads (not so named, but one presumes) will supply Baxter and his organization with drugs every two months for six hundred thousand.

(Side note: Was HK really a central distribution point for drug running? I mean, okay, maybe for getting drugs into the mainland, but to Australia? Wouldn’t it be more practical to deal directly with drug producers in Thailand, and elsewhere? Again, I’m thinking about this more than the writers ever did.)

Then JASON BLADE! and Dead Meat Linda are discovered, and Baxter whips out a silenced pistol, shooting his suppliers: one in the forehead, the other in the neck.

The cunning, the sheer reasoning power, RADIATES off her, doesn't it?

So, okay, there was a security breach, but come on! The breach was exposed by the Triads. Is it really a good idea to whack your suppliers? I can’t imagine other suppliers are going to line up to deal with you after that. “Yeah, Mr. Baxter, we know you blew away your last business partners, but it was understandable — after all, they very helpfully exposed a couple of police who were spying on the deal, and you were mad, and people do things when caught off guard that, under calmer light, they wouldn’t; we’re sure you’ve learned an Important Lesson here, and have no worries about any such incident ever happening again.” Further, it is clear that the Australian operation needs steady supply, not a one-off deal. (The movie, on the other hand, only needs the one-off, so this action makes sense in terms of the plot, in a meta sort of way.)

There are no consequences to the killing off of these two old, apparently powerful triads. Once dead, they and their organization never affect the story again. (OK, there is one piece of throw-away dialog telling us that the killings started a Triad war in Hong Kong, but this makes little sense other than as a way of excusing the total lack of consequence within the story.)

So, yes, not the deepest, most thought-out movie of all time.

Linda pursues Baxter to Perth, while JASON BLADE! remains in Hong Kong, so that Linda can be killed off cleanly. No, really, there’s no actual reason given for him to stay behind, it’s only so that his partner can go off alone, die stupidly, and give him motivation for the rest of the movie. She calls him (on his 1987 car phone!) (which actually just looks like they put a store-bought regular corded phone into the car, and tried to shoot it so that it looked like it was part of the not-luxurious car’s standard equipment) to tell him that she’s followed the target, but not sure where the consignment of drugs is, and that the local cops are apparently clueless (oh, if she had only lived long enough to find out!). JASON BLADE! tells her to lay low, he’ll fly into Perth tomorrow and join her, but she doesn’t want to lose track of the bad guys, doesn’t promise much, and hangs up.

"Jyson Blide, spayking ta ya voia cah fahn!""Hmm.  Mah pahtnih's abaht ta dai.  Wunda wattai feel abaht that?"

The sequence where Linda meets her demise is actually kind of impressive. Somebody gave a damn about this movie, and it shows here, if nowhere else. The (rather extended) pursuit through, over, and around a warehouse by three menacing hulks in animal masks (the first one we meet is a very hairy gent in a pig mask, and we even get a couple of POV shots from inside the mask, complete with echo-y breathing foley) is intercut with JASON BLADE! arriving in Perth. And while the sequence is longish, it doesn’t flag. The fighting isn’t hugely impressive, but neither is it embarrassing. They milk the abandoned warehouse location for LOTS of action gags. Nothing huge or spectacular, but it never gets too repetitive. JASON BLADE!’s arrival is spliced in at just the right moments, counterpoints the action going on elsewhere, and establishes a few things.

First, he’s being watched. By two Aussie cops. Who are our film’s Odious Comic Relief, with supersized emphasis on the “odious”. One of them is like Ned Beatty from Superman: The Movie, only without one ounce of Beatty’s talent, comic timing, or the John Williams-scored humorous tubas in the background. The other one I have no convenient analogy for, he’s such a boring stock straightman. Flinders is a by-the-book idiot who thinks that wearing a fedora in 1987 qualifies as “plain clothes” and will help him blend in and not be noticed. He gets flustered and angry at his partner’s incompetence, while he’s not noticeably better himself. And again, no talent or knack for timing are apparent in his performance.

"Okay, which one of us gets to be Jerry Orbach?"

The only saving grace with regard to these two twits is that the director, editor, and producers did not fall in love with their komedik stylings. They are a part of the movie, and never just vanish, more’s the pity, but there are no extraneous scenes of them doing their schtick that serve no other purpose. What is in the film is there because removing it would harm the logic of the story (such as it is).

Second, from the OCR’s dialog, we gather that JASON BLADE! is a well-known Triad assassin.

Er, what?

It’s a necessary piece of business, but it’s handled so badly that they might as well not have done it.

The local drug lord, it comes to pass, has lots of police and judges in his pocket (though we never see any of these, we’re only told about them). So JASON BLADE!’s status as a top member of Special Branch is known only to one member of the Aussie police (as we’ll find out later), and his cover story is that he’s a Triad assassin, because the Kowloon Triads owed him a favor(!!!).

At no point does any of this make one damn bit of sense. JASON BLADE! always goes under his own name. (Because, you know, his name is JASON BLADE!, which is just too frakking cool not to use, right? Right?) Yet (almost) nobody knows who he really is. Dead Meat Linda was under an assumed name, so that the local cops wouldn’t know she was Anderson’s daughter right away. (Did I neglect to mention this? After Anderson left HK Special Branch, he retired to Perth and now owns a fitness center. Also a very Chinese-style home that is more like a mansion, or at least a compound, than a house. Retiring from Special Branch nets you a good bit more than a gold watch, I guess.) Everybody seems to know about the “secret” order of the Panthers, and to know that JASON BLADE! is one of them, and also that Anderson is one (it doesn’t seem clear if anyone figured out that Linda was, or not; at first, it goes unmentioned, but later in the movie, the cops do seem to know, yet nobody ever really cares), and don’t put it together that they’re pals and working together. It only works if you don’t think about it at all, and accept that this sort of thing just happens in these sorts of movies. JASON BLADE! is who he is, everybody knows who he is, but nobody knows what he is, except when they do, until it becomes necessary for him to be “revealed”.

And here we are, almost 1500 words into this review, and I haven’t even really gotten to the bad guy. It ain’t doughy-faced Baxter, he’s the henchman. No, the bad guy is… Richard E. Grant!

OK, it’s not Richard E. Grant, but wouldn’t you say he looks uncannily similar? An aged, eerily skeletal Richard E. Grant? I couldn’t stop thinking it anytime he was on screen. This guy is possibly the best actor in the production. He’s not good, but he gives a performance, and seems to have had fun hamming it up, while knowing when to dial back and let quietness be menacing.

The other way you know it isn’t Richard Grant is that at no point does he recite Hamlet to zoo animals in between slugs from a wine bottle. Probably just an oversight, though.

This main bad guy, whom everyone knows is the main bad guy, is named ZUKOR. Probably because "Snidely Whiplash" was already trademarked. And you want to know how truly evil he is? Not only does he run drugs, not only does he control Perth’s prostitution trade and illicit gambling rings, not only is his name ZUKOR… no, the capper is when we’re told that he even makes money from his legitimate businesses!!! Yes, it is stated in such a tone that we are meant to understand that this makes Zukor much worse than he otherwise would be.

Sigh. I only wish I were joking.

But JASON BLADE!, Real Man of Genius, has a plan.

He’s going to ask Zukor for a job.

He saunters into one of Zukor’s cover businesses, a boat dealership, and insults Zukor, Zukor’s salesmen, the business, and the hired muscle.

Then, once the hired muscle try to throw his carcass to the curb, he beats the ever-loving snot out of them.

Every single one.

(Except Baxter, who’s out “taking the Trans Am for a spin”; I cannot possibly make this excuse lamer than the movie does.)

Then he walks away, telling Zukor over his shoulder where he’s staying, and that he’d like work as a bodyguard.

Again, in this action scene, there is evidence that at least a couple of people involved in the production gave a damn. The fight scene is choreographed, and the choreography includes taking the camera and shot composition into consideration. It is, as with the earlier scene with Linda, reasonably impressive, once you account for the obvious limitations of the production. Clearly, they did not have a huge budget, an extended shooting schedule (especially as this was shot back-to-back with the sequel), or the most experienced crew ever.

I’ve left out something. See, Anderson didn’t just have a daughter, he has a niece, too. One who’s a ton cuter than his own progeny, and instantly hits it off with JASON BLADE! (but of course). There’s no actual chemistry between the two actors, and the attraction is not earned at all by the story. They meet, exchange a few words, she’s gone for a few scenes, then she all but throws herself on top of him.

But, back to where we were, more or less. JASON BLADE! is pulled into police HQ, and the big guy on precinct knows who he is, or believes him without a shred of proof, it’s not too clear which is the case. The get a little exposition out of the way, then JASON BLADE! departs, gets a call at his hotel, and is told by Zukor himself that a boat will pick him up.

This leads to more komedy.

JASON BLADE! is picked up by Baxter in an inboard pleasure craft. (To the tune of intensely uninspired synthesizer music. This sequence is the most Miami Vice part of the movie, and it’s bad.) His two tails, Beatty-clone and Flinders, decide to get a boat to follow him. They, of course, requisition a komikly tiny fishing boat with an outboard motor. And they don’t just get it and use it, no. They bumble into it, they bumble over which direction to go, they bumble starting the motor, they bumble it into going backwards, because going forwards wouldn’t be komikal, and…

Do not attempt this at home, these men are profeshinul komedians.

Somehow, I managed not to shove razorblades into my eyeballs or do violence to my computer or the DVD. Don’t ask me how. The bits showing the bumblers are short, but intensely painful.

So JASON BLADE! gets to Zukor, who asks him if he likes the party. “Is that what this is?” he “quips”. Zukor laughs, “You’re sharp, Blade. I like your style.”

May I just point out that somebody got paid to write that. That somebody, in fact, was probably very, very proud of giving action hero JASON BLADE! the action hero name JASON BLADE!, and then doubly proud of coming up with that “clever” little exchange.

I need a drink.

(Whoever put “I like your style” in there ought to have been staked to the ground, naked, near an anthill, his face and nether regions coated with honey. Or at least had his payday reduced drastically.) (Given that no-brainer cliché line, let me assure you, the potential viewer, that at no point in this film do the villain and the hero exchange the almost-as-hoary lines “Is that a threat?” “No. It’s a promise.” That, I guess, would not be JASON BLADE!’s style.)

So Zukor gives him a task: deliver a parcel to a particular place, and pick up a briefcase in return. JASON BLADE! asks what he’ll be carrying, and Zukor proves that he doesn’t trust JASON BLADE! at all by telling him that the parcel has smack, the briefcase has five hundred grand. You get no points for guessing that both of those are lies.

Baxter isn’t happy with this setup. This is his sort of task, and JASON BLADE! seems to be moving in on his turf. Oh, what drama! Oh, what pathos!

JASON BLADE! drives to a warehouse to make the exchange (followed by the Komikal Kops), but it’s a setup. The briefcase contains mostly cut paper, not money. So a fight ensues, of course. As the fight goes on, the Komikal Kops try to get into the warehouse, but the door is locked! So, as only happens in bad action movies with delusions of komedy, just as JASON BLADE! finishes wiping the floor with his adversaries and leaves, the Komikal Kops komandeer a forklift and krash through the warehouse wall. (They don’t know how to run the forklift, as if you didn’t already know.)

The Kops get to arrest a bunch of bruised, battered, barely-conscious thugs, and JASON BLADE! stalks back to Zukor all pissed, because he wasn’t told what the deal really was. (The Kops get the package and realize that it’s corn starch, so it was a bad deal from every direction.) Zukor laughs it off, saying it was a test, and that JASON BLADE! has now earned his trust. After all, he could have just waltzed off with the drugs and/or the money.

And even though there’s a chunk more plot to go, I am tired of recapping it. So, cut to the end, because there is something odd about the climactic fight scenes.

JASON BLADE! does not, repeat does not, square off against Zukor. The final fight is between JASON BLADE! and Baxter the head henchman. Anderson gets to chase after Zukor and hold him at gunpoint. The mentor takes on the head baddie, and the hero gets the henchman.

Man, that’s weird. And there was no especial reason for it, either, except that the actor playing Zukor would pretty clearly shatter with just a punch or two, so an actual fight wouldn’t be believable. But still, little or no confrontation, Zukor just gets handed off to the mentor character, who you would think would want revenge on the guy who actually killed his daughter, Baxter.

Nope, it was just a muddle. In any proper action movie, the protagonist is the one who resolves the conflict and deals with the root of the problem. That’s the reason he’s the protagonist — it’s his problem, he has to deal with it (or fail to do so). And the root of the problem here is definitely meant to be Zukor. So, we the audience already have a hard time identifying with JASON BLADE! because, really, there’s not much character there, and his only motivation is his partner’s death (and the actor has about two expressions, smirking and grinning). And then, at the climax, where we’re supposed to be rooting for him the most, he’s not the guy who solves the problem. He beats on the guy who actually killed his partner, sure, but henchmen can be replaced.

It’s just unsatisfying.

The end credits make a promise common to 1980s cheese-fests: “Jason Blade will return in Strike of the Panther!” Before I checked the IMDb preparing this review, I assumed this was fully in that tradition, meaning that no such movie ever got made.

(The example that leaps immediately to mind is the remarkably good The Sword and the Sorcerer, which promised at the end that its hero, Talon, would return in Tales of the Ancient Empire. That movie never got made, although Albert Pyun lensed another movie under that title this year [2009], I’m not entirely clear how direct the connection is going to be. Plus, it’s Albert Pyun, who has made precisely one good movie in his career, namely The Sword and the Sorcerer.)

But I was wrong. Strike of the Panther was, apparently, shot back to back with this feature. And given one or two of the IMDb user reviews, I’m now keen to track down a copy. This movie is comprised of banal, tired cliches pasted together with hoary genre tropes, with little or nothing to recommend it. The sequel, if the the reviews are to be trusted, is certifiably insane.

It’s actually rather interesting to look through the cast and crew list on IMDb and see who continued or went on to a productive career from here, and who didn’t.

As noted, the star, Edward John Stazak, never worked again outside of this film and its sequel. And that makes perfect sense. He can fight, but outside of the combat scenes, his expressions run the gamut from naive grin to smirk. His (highly inappropriate) aviator sunglasses show more range.

The Many Smirks of Edward John Stazak:  Happy The Many Smirks of Edward John Stazak:  Angry The Many Smirks of Edward John Stazak:  Wary, Yet Amused

However, the villain, Zukor, has a longish list of credits.

One half of the OCR duo only did these two movies, while Hat Guy started with this movie, and launched a respectable little acting career.

The mentor character, Anderson, had a respectable career both before and after.

Anderson’s niece, Gemma, whose only asset here is that she’s moderately attractive, also went on to a respectable career, including a recurring role on Xena: Warrior Princess.

The director has done lots of work.

The actor playing Baxter has a much sparser resume, one other acting role in the 1990s, but also did stunts on a few other films.

The woman who played Linda didn’t do much acting (understandably, I’m sorry to say), but did do more stunt work, though not a large amount.

This movie came to me as part of Mill Creek Entertainment’s 50 Drive-In Movie Classic pack. The sequel, alas, is not included on the set, nor any other that I have. It’s on my list, though. Somewhere far below every Criterion Kurosawa disc, well below Sword of Doom, and a little above Showgirls.

OK, maybe a notch or two below Showgirls. But on the list, even so.


Written by [IMH]

2 July 2009 at 5:20 pm

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1920

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This is a silent movie (of course, given the year), and as such will be of limited interest to most people. However, it is worth seeing at least once.

The main reason to see it is John Barrymore’s performance as the two titular characters. While saying that he pulls off Hyde without benefit of makeup is absurd (the shape of his head changes, fer pete’s sake!), it is nevertheless a marvel of performance. And he does effect the first transformation in a single shot, using only ACTING! to transition from one to the other. It is a bit overwrought, but it is also impressive, because you have no trouble believing that there are two completely distinct characters.

The other reason, if you have a taste for ladies, and especially if you have a taste for ladies of this period, is Nita Naldi, who has a small role as the woman who tempts Dr. Jekyll to explore his evil side.

The copy of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on the Mill Creek collections is slightly truncated and, from what I understand, some bits of the film are, in fact, considered lost completely. However, given that it is not only Public Domain, but also silent, the condition of what I watched was pretty good.

The story follows the book and adds to it. The additions are not as successful as they might be. They attempt to “explain” Jekyll a bit more. He is, you see, a totally self-sacrificing altruist, the very model of sainthood. And his motivation in devising the drug that effects the alteration is that he wants to give into temptation without “staining his soul”. (Oy.)

The moral theory of the film is about what you would expect from the time it was made, if you assumed that it was scripted by a temperance union or the like. “Good” is pure and unremitting self-denial, and any pleasure of the flesh is “evil”. The surrender to temptation in even the smallest degree is doom, and nothing else. Insofar as its premises, the film is a horror-show without any need of an on-screen monster.

However, taking that into consideration, Barrymore’s performance is excellent, particularly in the closing scenes, when his Jekyll works feverishly to isolate himself from everyone and everything he loves in order not to harm them. (And, as noted above, his Hyde is remarkable as a physical performance — the two characters are completely different.)

Worth seeing? Yes, at the very least simply for Barrymore. It’s not the best silent horror film (I would say that Nosferatu takes that prize if you watch it in context, or the Lon Chaney-starring Phantom of the Opera if you want something without experiments that failed the test of time), but it is definitely worth watching.

The Alpha Incident, 1977

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Suppose you were in charge of a government operation. The purpose of that operation, for the moment, is to transport some hazardous material cross-country, without drawing attention to it. Suppose further that you don’t have much knowledge of how dangerous (or not) this material might be. And that it came from Mars, on the Viking probe. And, just for the sake of argument, you can’t send it by air, because the altitude and pressure changes may act as a catalyst for it.

So, how would you go about sending it and ensuring that it didn’t cause anybody any trouble?

If you said you’d send it locked in biohazard containers, and make sure nobody on the ride had the key, and further make sure that you send along more than one guy (like, oh, say, an army squadron) to watch over the stuff so that the stupid hick of a train engineer can’t go poking around when the single guard is asleep, then congratulate yourself — you are smarter than this movie.

It’s not that this is the worst movie I’ve ever seen, nor even the worst one this Spook-a-Thon. Heck, it probably doesn’t break the bottom five, given that I’ve watched not only The Beast of Yucca Flats, but also a slew of Poverty Row cheapies. It’s just that the premise of The Alpha Incident depends so much on stupidity, and there’s so little actual story once the premise takes hold, that I couldn’t help focusing on it.

At least, I couldn’t help it when the girl was offscreen.

It is, if you haven’t noticed, a low-rent knockoff of The Andromeda Strain. But where Andromeda followed a group of scientists during four tense days in a top-secret underground complex while they tried to figure out what the heck they were dealing with and how to stop it, The Alpha Incident follows five people stuck in a room in a rural train station as they wait for scientists to figure out what the heck they’re dealing with and how to stop it.

And none of the people is very interesting. First, there’s the hillbilly engineer, played by “Buck” Flower. He’s a real actor, and a real annoying one the few times I’ve noticed him. Now, in this case, that’s sort of the point. He’s a guy who can’t shut up, can’t take a hint, and basically gets himself a big honking Darwin Award before the movie’s half over. And when he did, I almost cheered, so happy was I to see (well, “hear”) him die. But that leaves another bombastic, obnoxious talker in the station, and two taciturn men (one of whom was once Mike Hammer — Ralph Meeker, whom I only really know from Kiss of Death), and the girl.

Ah, the girl.

She is believable as a small town girl. Attractive, but not perfect. But, um. Well, she’s one of the prime reasons some men refer to bosoms as “racks”. Not stupendously large (though certainly not small), but impossible to ignore. And while there’s no frontal nudity, she does change, which we see from behind and a bit to the side, and she wears no bra. And she jiggles. So, yes, while she was onscreen, I could distract myself from the total lack of story. (She also gets a bit of story and backstory, too, more than the other characters do. It’s not especially satisfying, but hey, an effort was made.)

There are all kinds of logical lapses in the film, and you can’t help noticing them, because the “story” isn’t a story at all. It’s a bunch of people sitting around, trying to stay awake (if they sleep, they die), and… waiting. And then, in the end… well, I’ll just say that this is a 1970s film, and has a Romero-esque conclusion. Or, put another way, don’t get to liking anyone too well in the film (not that any of them are likeable), because none of them are coming home for dinner tomorrow.

I got all the way through it. But it sucked.

The Bloody Brood, 1959

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I’ll bet you didn’t know that Peter Falk was a badass.

This film was interesting, and would make an excellent companion piece to Roger Corman and Charles B. Griffith’s Bucket of Blood. They were produced the same year, a continent apart (Bucket in Los Angeles, Brood in Toronto), and both examine the beatnik life in a very critical way. But their approaches are different. Corman’s is the better movie, but this has the best single performance.

And let me make clear that this is a crime film, and not a horror film. I didn’t know that going in, but it made for a nice palate-cleanser considering how much horror I’ve gorged on this month, and how I still have a fair bit to work through.

The Bloody Brood begins with some very Saul Bass-style titles, with jazz playing under, very definitely pinning the film to its era. Then the story begins.

“The Digs” is a beatnik cafe, lorded over by Nico, a very reserved, very intelligent man in a decidedly non-beatnik suit. (In fact, there is only one stereotypical beatnik in the whole movie, and most of the other characters are remarkably well individuated.) Nico is played by young Peter Falk, and damn is he good. You will see no glimmer of Columbo here. He is cool, observant, and just about always in control. Falk underplays the role, using stillness to viscerally convey Nico’s intelligence and power.

In the opening scene, an old man enters the cafe and sells Nico a newspaper. As the old man is leaving, he collapses and seems to be having a heart attack. Everyone else in the cafe (including the owner, I think) asks Nico what they should do. He looks down on the old man, and says that they should enjoy the show, that a real death would be very entertaining, a “kick”. The old man struggles to say something, and Nico asks him what his last words will be, but he dies before he can get anything out. “Too late,” Nico says.

The next night, at a party, Nico tells the tale about the fine entertainment of the old man dying, and everyone seems quite amused. After that, he gets one of his friends aside, a TV director, and convinces him that they should commit a murder — “Death is the last great challenge to the creative mind.” A knock at the door to the apartment (whose owner is out of town) reveals a messenger boy trying to deliver a telegram. After he marks the telegram as “unable to deliver”, Nico invites him in. Seeing a voluptuous young lady inside, he allows himself to be convinced, and the door closes behind him.

The movie now shifts to Cliff, who gets a call from his brother. The messenger boy. Who is calling from a payphone, and who is in intense pain, and in fact drops dead during the call.

At the hospital, Cliff goes a few rounds with Officer McCloud, who initially tries not to tell the man how his little brother died. Eventually it becomes clear — bro ate a hamburger filled with ground glass, which ripped his guts apart.

Cliff then vows to avenge his brother, no matter what, and McCloud the cop pretty much helps him, unofficially, while warning him to be careful.

I don’t want to give away more of the story, because this one is actually good. The plot clips right along, and it never really gets boring. There are no idiot decisions made, either, nothing to serve the writer’s convenience. The only hiccup was in the final act, the last six or seven minutes, when it felt like a scene or two got skipped, leaving at least one offscreen event incredibly unclear (two characters who were supposed to have been killed show up, much the worse for wear, and factor into the climax).

The reason that this movie is inferior, story-wise, to Corman’s film, is that it starts with the assumption that bohemian life is inherently evil, or at least its participants are intensely naive and easily manipulated. The viewpoint character, after the opening sequences, is a complete “square” who has no interest in the lifestyle, and whose introduction to it is from the most prejudicial angle possible. (It killed his brother, after all.)

A Bucket of Blood, contrariwise, focused on Dick Miller’s nerdy cafe waiter, who was simply dying to find acceptance by the beatnik crowd. He wants in, and gets it almost by accident. His character’s position within the story was brilliant, laying bare everyone’s pretensions and blindnesses as the story proceeded. It asked some very interesting questions about not only the bohemian life, but about the nature of art, both in its creation and its critical reception.

The Bloody Brood, on the other hand, doesn’t really ask any interesting questions. The square who wanted into the alternative lifestyle, the lead girl, is a secondary character in the story, and she gets in and out of that lifestyle cleanly. Cliff has no interest at all in the lifestyle of people who mock his life without knowing a thing about him. Can’t blame him, but the story poses nothing interesting in a thematic sense. It’s a pretty straight crime picture, with the revenge element, and doesn’t take any chances, storywise.

Which is not to say that it’s bad. It’s not. And, technically, it is a more accomplished film than I remember Bucket being. The locations are populated well, the extras all seem like people in the scene, rather than performers. The camera work, while not ostentatious, is complex in a way you don’t expect in an obviously low-budget movie. The camera moves from medium to close up to wide in a single shot, and does that more than once, but it’s never flashy, it’s all in service of the story.

And, as I indicated above, Peter Falk’s performance is nothing short of amazing. He’s got the role where everybody in the film is supposed to follow him. Usually, with that kind of role, the performance doesn’t live up to the expectation. But here, the way Falk plays it, you never doubt for an instant that people would follow him. He is both monstrous and mesmerizing. It’s an impressive job.

Gammera the Invincible, 1966

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Ah, Gamera.

One of the major joys of Mystery Science Theater 3000 was the onslaught of Gamera movies (dubbed courtesy of Mr. Sandy Frank) in the third season. I saw every one they did, and have since seen at least one Gamera film that eluded them (the dubbing of that one provided, somewhat more competently, by American International Pictures).

But this, the first release of the first Gamera film to the American market, is a wholly different thing. It goes the Godzilla route, adding in American actors in scenes of no use to the plot at all. The only really good actor, Brian Donlevy, looks embarrassed — at least in those moments when he doesn’t seem to be daydreaming. This was strictly a paycheck gig for him, I’m sure, and it looks like his scenes were done in a day. The other American actors fare even worse, although I do have to say that the actual dubbing is pretty good.

Gamera, if you don’t know, is a giant flying turtle (the “flying” part is a big reveal in this movie, so I just spoiled you; sorry) who, rather than attacking Japan, usually protects Japanese children from other giant monsters that are attacking Japan. The seed for that formula is planted here, but it has not sprouted.

Not long after Gammera the Invincible begins, some soviet fighter jets stray into US territory near the arctic, and one crashes, accidentally detonating the atomic bomb it was carrying.

Now, okay, incredibly dumb things happening in a Gamera movie ((At least in the original run of Gamera films — there was a reboot of the series in the 1990s which was, apparently, spectacular. )) is more or less par for the course, but still. Flying near enemy territory that’s thinly populated (at best) with a LIVE FREAKING NUKE? What would be the point? Disrupting the Iditarod? Okay, anyhow.

The detonation awakens Gamera, who comes from a past age of the Earth, according to the dubbing he comes from the Precambrian Era(!!!). First, there is no way anyone could possibly have established a possible date of origin, given how little chance anyone has to study the big shell-guy. Second, nobody remarks at all on what consequences such a dating would have for evolutionary theory. A turtle the size of a small town would be, to put it mildly, just a tad more dispositive than a pre-cambrian rabbit.

Anyway, Gamera flies around the world a couple of times (getting mistaken for a flying saucer), and meanwhile, the movie follows the intimate drama of a young boy (not named Kenny, amazingly) who lives in a lighthouse with his sister and father, and has just been made to set free his beloved pet turtle.

The seed for the “Gamera is a friend to all children” theme is planted when Gamera messes up the lighthouse, and not-Kenny ends up hanging from a railing near the top, as the whole structure is about to crumble. Gamera saves the boy, gently putting him back on the ground. Not-Kenny decides that Gamera is really his best friend, and persists through the rest of the movie, even though he’s not really involved in it, he and his family just observe the rest of the goings-on.

Since Gamera keeps mucking up infrastructure, and is resistant to shells and missiles (not to mention that nuke that simply woke him up and put him in a sour mood), a plan is put in place to…

OK, remember how that nuke being armed was silly? Hang onto your hat, because this really, really outdoes that.

They entrap Gamera in the cone of a (gigantic, apparently) rocketship, and shoot him off towards Mars.

Everybody’s happy, Gamera’s still alive for a sequel, the end.

You’ll notice that I’ve only used the title’s spelling in the title, and otherwise have referred to Gamera with one “r”. I don’t have any real justification for that, except that every other Gamera movie does it that way, and I did not see this first.

Even as Gamera movies go, this wasn’t all that entertaining. No other monster, the Kenny is a subplot, at best (and a maudlin one). No funky kaiju Olympics. No Gamera theme music (though that might just be for this release; the original film may have the theme, and I don’t remember whether the Sandy Frank dubbing had it or not). It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t all that satisfying either. It was, at best, cinematic comfort food, since I do love the other Gamera flicks, but it was low-grade even by that standard.

The Wasp Woman, 1959

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Produced and directed by Roger Corman, but without a script by either Richard Matheson or Charles B. Griffith. That should be enough to tell you, assuming you are a bad movie lover, more or less what level this movie is playing at.

If not, then allow me to clue you in. It means that the movie is probably entertaining, but in not good in any respect.

And that’s almost right, on both counts.

It’s almost entertaining, insofar as it’s a Roger Corman monster movie. Except that the monster movie scenes are the least interesting in the film. And they clash, rather badly, with what has gone before.

And it’s almost not good, except that the central performance is subtle, nuanced, and remarkably well-played. (It’s also actress Susan Cabot’s valedictory movie role.)

As The Wasp Woman opens, Dr. Zinthrop is visited in his office on a bee farm by an accountant from the company that owns the farm. The accountant rebukes the doctor for not performing his job, finding better ways of extracting queen bees’ royal jelly. Dr. Zinthrop counters that he has made some (frankly amazing) discoveries about the uses of royal jelly from queen wasps ((No, queen wasps do not make royal jelly, so the entire movie is premised on a mistake. )), and demonstrates them. The accountant, despite having evidence of a product that could make his company insanely wealthy (the royal jelly has kept a dog a puppy, while its sibling is full grown), fires Zinthrop for failing to do his job.

Then we get to see a board meeting of Janice Starling Enterprises, headed by Miss Starling herself (Susan Cabot). For the last quarter, revenues have been falling, and she wants to know if anyone knows why. They all do, but only one boor says it, and bluntly — since removing herself as the face of the company’s products, the public no longer trusts them. Starling tells them that nobody can be young forever, not even herself, but no solution is offered.

Miss Starlin, of course, has a possible solution, which she is meeting Dr. Zinthrop about. He demonstrates his discovery (changing a guinea pig into a rat [?!?]), and she signs him on, under the condition that she be the first human subject of his experiments.

And I pause in thumbnailing the plot here to point out a few things that this movie does differently than you might expect.

Dr. Zinthrop is no mad scientist. He has morals and scruples and a conscience. He is wary of using human subjects as yet, and instead of pushing the pace of his experiments forward, he does his best to reign in. He also is a perceptive man — he accepts Janice Starling’s word and handshake, saying that there’s no need for a contract, because he sees that she is a good woman. He sees beneath her surface, almost instantly, in a way that the people who have worked with her for twenty years never have.

Janice also is not an out of control capitalist megalomaniac. She is trying to save her company, and there is, at no point in the movie, an intimation that her clinging to youth is narcissistic. She is the one who crosses the boundary that leads to her becoming a monster, but she does it out of desperation, to protect the company she has spent her life building, not because she is shallow.

Once the monster movie aspects kick in, it becomes far less interesting. For one thing, the monster outfit is ridiculous. It’s a head mask and a pair of gloves (and black bodystocking, I guess). The gloves are obviously gloves, the head mask is obviously a head mask, and it is in no way, no how convincing. Plus, people keep disappearing, yet nobody gets really curious about where they might have gone. I had the impression that she kept hiding the bodies, but given that there’s dialogue early on about queen wasps devouring their mates, that might have been the intended inference. In which case, it’s nonsense on stilts, because she doesn’t gain an ounce — and one of the folks she kills is Bruno Ve Sota ((Who, if you are not a bad movie nut like me, was an actor who easily massed twice what Ms. Cabot did, if not three times. )).

Oh, another nice touch — it’s left completely ambiguous whether Starling has any knowledge of her monsterly activities. She seems to know something, but it could just be that she’s doing the math, rather than actually remembering her homicidal acts.

All in all, this is substandard Corman, but it has some very interesting stuff going on in it. Can’t recommend it, but I enjoyed it more than I probably ought to have.

Murder Mansion, 1972

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A bunch of people get lost in the fog, and somehow all end up at the same dark, mysterious, not very large mansion, which overlooks a graveyard near an abandoned village. They spend most of the time rehashing (or flashing back to) their personal lives, and some of the time getting stalked and killed by apparent zombies, or possibly vampires.

Murder Mansion is, in essence, a Gothic expliqué. It does manage to imbue the proceedings with a fair amount of mood and spookiness, but not much else. The characters are more or less interchangeable, the women, while stunningly attractive (mostly), don’t doff kit at any point, there is little forward momentum to the narrative, and, once the expliqué kicks in, it epicly fails to actually explain things. Like: how did those behind the proceedings manipulate everyone, independently, into getting lost, but all in the same exact area? If the explanation were supernatural, then that would make sense. But it isn’t, so it doesn’t. At all.

The opening manages to be moderately interesting, as it is done without any dialogue. A guy who looks like Elvis Costello in his hairier moments tries to run a motorcyclist (who, in his goggles, looks a bit like Zalman King from Trip with the Teacher) off the road, and they contest for a pretty young hitchhiker. The whole bit runs nearly nine minutes, but until the end, it’s wordless.

Not much to say about this one beyond that, alas. It wasn’t wretched, but at the end, all I could ask myself was “why?”

Written by [IMH]

23 October 2008 at 10:39 am