Friday, August 7, 2020

Who, Me? It’s Awards Time

First, I’d like to thank the wonderful folks who double-nominated me for the Sunshine Blogger Award and my first-time nomination for the Blogger Recognition Award: Ernie Fink from Until the Lights Go Up, Paul Batters from Silver Screen Classics, and Gill Jacob from Realweegiemidget Reviews, respectively. I apologize that it took so long to acknowledge these accolades. It means more to me than you’ll ever know.

As I would imagine is the case for many, these past several months have been difficult emotionally, physically and financially, making it especially hard to stay motivated and focused. Also, as you may have noticed, I’ve refrained from further blogathon announcements for the moment. After discussing things with my blogathon partner Gill, from Realweegiemidget Reviews, we decided to postpone the next installment of the Hammer/Amicus Blogathon until next year. On the other hand, the blog is still chugging along after all these years, albeit at a slower rate. Right now, any progress is good progress.  

I’ve never been much of rule follower, so I’ve modified them for the purposes of this overly verbose appreciation post. Nah, who am I kidding? I’ve thrown them out. Instead, here are my responses to Ernie, Paul, and Gill’s questions…

 Ernie’s Questions 

1.     What topic do you blog most about?

This is a film blog, so I try to keep things as movie-related as possible. I keep an emphasis on horror and science fiction, although I’m not strictly confined to those genres. While I’ll blog about the occasional blockbuster, my mission is to discuss the movies that somehow slipped through the cracks. 

2.     Do you only blog about one topic, or do you blog about other things, even occasionally?

Movie reviews, long and short, are my bread and butter, but my blog is peppered with the occasional rant about pets in film, physical media, star ratings, or whatever strikes my fancy at the moment. 

3.     Do you have someone or something you love to write about more than others? If so, why?

Anyone who knows my Twitter presence probably associates me with Mad Love-era Peter Lorre. I’m not sure exactly when I adopted Peter Lorre (Or should I say he adopted me?) as the official Cinematic Catharsis mascot, but it was love at first fright. Why? I’m not quite, sure, but I think it might have something to do with the old TNT promos for the 100% Weird show. 

4.     Is your blogging by a schedule, or done as ideas come to you?

I try to adhere to a loose schedule, averaging a minimum of four posts per month. These normally consist of a few longer reviews and a collection of capsule reviews, Quick Picks and Pans (as of this post, I’ve done 118 of ‘em). 

5.     What subject would you never blog about? Why?

I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed a Rom Com, but I wouldn’t rule it out if the right one came along. I stray from religion and politics, and anyone who’s read my posts over the years probably knows that I have no tolerance for intolerance (see #15 of my Film TwitterSurvival Guide). 

6.     Do you get comments from your readers?

I always look forward to comments from my “regulars” as well as new visitors to the blog. Sure, there are the odd spam messages and a few irritating comments now and then, but keeping an open (albeit moderated) forum is worth it. 

7.     How do those comments affect you?

As mentioned above, I invite and enjoy comments from my readers. While most comments have been overwhelmingly positive and respectful (which doesn’t mean that my readers always agree with me), I recall a few comments (always from “randos”) that irritated me (lecturing about their take on a film). I’m still baffled by one reader who once took offense when I joked that a movie (Whisper of the Heart) had too much John Denver music. 

8.     Was there a time when you considered giving up blogging? Why?

Nope. I love doing this, and even if my output slows, I’m glad to do what I’m doing. 

9.     Has blogging led to other writing activities? Or is it the other way around?

Blogging has definitely opened doors that were closed before. I’m a semi-regular contributor to The Dark Pages newsletter, and I’m currently researching a book project, which will be a direct offshoot of my blog. 

10.  How important are pictures to your blog?

I believe screenshots and posters are essential for readers to get a taste for the movie I’m writing about. I try to keep things PG-13 around here, so even if the movie is of a more (ahem) adult nature, I purposely refrain from posting more explicit pics. I figure readers know what they’re getting into when they read one of my reviews, and can just watch the movie if they’d like to see more. Besides, there are already plenty of other places on the web if they really need to see that sort of thing. 

11.  Do you have any wisdom that you'd like to pass along about blogging?

Don’t write for other people. Write what you enjoy, and your audience will find you.


Paul’s Questions 

What British or International film would you recommend to a friend who has never seen one?

Japanese cinema continually fascinates and baffles me, so much so that I devote an entire month each year, and could probably write about it until the end of time. Here’s a handful of suggestions… Animated: Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988) or Spirited Away (2001) are simply magical gateways to the world of anime; Takashi Miike’s extensive filmography is well worth investigating. Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) is one of his most fun and accessible titles; If you’re looking for more classic fare, you can’t go wrong with Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) or Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Oops! I guess I recommended more than one.

Which classic film director do you prefer and what is your favorite of their films?

The works of Fritz Lang continue to entrance and inspire. I’m still exploring his diverse filmography, and finding hidden treasures. Any director who could make Metropolis (1927) and The Big Heat (1953) demands my attention. 

Which character actor or actress do you think would have made a great lead?

Dick Miller was a favorite of Roger Corman and Joe Dante, but rarely got his due. Although he proved he could carry a film with A Bucket of Blood (1959), he should have headlined many more. 

What child actor do you believe should have had success as an adult but didn’t?

Haley Joel Osment. After his breakout roles with The Sixth Sense (1999) and A.I. (2001), he seemed to fall into a black hole. I hope his recent appearance in What We Do in the Shadows will be the shot in the arm his career deserves. 

What film do you love, but dislike the ending?

Unbreakable (2000) always keeps me captivated with its performances and low-fi approach to superhero movies, but oh, what a corny ending. That final caption (about Elijah Price’s fate) before the end credits has got to go.   

Whose onscreen wardrobe do you covet and would like to claim for your own?

Do costumes count? I’m not much of a clothes-horse, but I think it would be a hoot to wear one of Raymond Massey’s “future” outfits from Things to Come (1936) for a Halloween costume party. 

Which original film do you think could be improved as a remake and who would you cast?

Damnation Alley. If the filmmakers stuck closer to Roger Zelazny’s 1969 novella (which has more in common with Escape from New York than the 1977 film), I might cast Michael B. Jordan or Christian Bale (played by Jan Michael Vincent in the original) as the lead, or perhaps for a gender switch, Charlize Theron. 

Which classic film actor or actress do you think would be successful in today’s film industry?

Katherine Hepburn, who often portrayed tough and savvy, yet vulnerable characters. She held her own against her contemporaries, and would easily measure up against anyone today. 

What film trope do you never tire of seeing?

Sure, it’s a tired trope, but I always enjoy seeing the hero knocked down, only to rise up to fight another day (Hey, it works for Godzilla and Gamera). 

If you could adapt a piece of classic literature that has not yet been made into a film, what book would you choose and who would you cast in the main roles?

John Kennedy Toole’s posthumous novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. After some consideration, I thought it would be amusing to cast Mark Proksch (the guy who plays Colin Robinson in the What We Do in the Shadows TV series) as Ignatius J. Reilly, and Kathy Bates as his long-suffering mother, Irene Reilly. 

Which of today’s modern actors or actresses do you think would have been successful in classic films and why? 

With his fast-talking persona and unique features, Steve Buscemi would be ideal for a 1930s screwball comedy or 1940s film noir. 

Gill's Questions

Share the reason you started your blog. 

Cinematic Catharsis started as a byproduct of completing my master’s degree. I had grown so accustomed to writing for numerous assignments that I felt I didn’t care to stop. The blog’s title refers to how movies have always been a release for me, my refuge from the rest of the world. I love watching them and sharing my thoughts. As of October, this will be my 10th year blogging, and I have no plans to stop!


Share two pieces of advice for new bloggers. 

First (and I can’t stress this enough), write about what you love. Don’t write for pageviews, Twitter retweets, or because you hope to gain some modicum of notoriety. Write about the things you enjoy the most. It’s good to have an audience in mind, but write for yourself first. I’ve seen too many blogs come and go, and the main reason cited (if the blogger decided to write an epitaph) was that it just wasn’t fun anymore. Blogging should never seem like a chore. If it seems like it’s heading that way, this is the perfect time to reevaluate why you’re doing this in the first place. So, go forth and create the kind of content you want to see! 

Second, set reasonable goals for yourself. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and no one knows when this crazy ride is coming to a complete stop. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet all your goals. One of the secrets to blog longevity is pacing yourself. Pushing yourself to post when you’re not ready is the quickest road to burnout. By all means, post on a regular basis, however many that means to you. Depending on your comfort level, you can always go up or down from there.

 Because I like to do things a little differently, I’m taking this opportunity to present The Cinematic Catharsis Hall of Fame – A rotating list of notable blogs you should check out!




Talesfrom the Freakboy Zone 


Untilthe Lights Go Up 

StatelyWayne Manor 

SilverScreen Classics 

TakingUp Room 

TheOak Drive-in 

AShroud of Thoughts 

Filmsfrom Beyond the Time Barrier 

Nuts4 R2 

Maniacsand Monsters  

Shrine of the Missing (but not forgotten)

StabfordDeathrage Shoots His Mouth Off  – Wherever you are, Mr. Deathrage, I hope you’re doing well, and look forward to reading more of your inimitable musings someday soon.



Monday, July 27, 2020

Korea Month Quick Picks and Pans

Planet of Snail (2011) At its heart, this uplifting, contemplative documentary is a portrait of two very different people who have found a common bond. Director Seung-jun Yi follows Cho Young-Chan, who is deaf and blind, and his wife Kim Soon-ho (a little person) during the span of a few days. The film provides a glimpse of their everyday lives, making the mundane seem sublime. In one scene, the simple act of changing a light bulb is made captivating, as it exemplifies the couple’s symbiotic relationship – they work together to change a fluorescent light fixture (she cannot reach the light, and he can’t see it, so she must serve as his eyes, and he becomes her hands). We gain insight about Young-Chan’s perception of the world through his vivid, poetic descriptions. He lives in rich universe of discovery, not of excluded senses. Planet of Snail works best in its quiet moments. Like observing the ripples from a pebble tossed in a pond we see how a small act can make a quiet but significant impact. In less capable hands, this film could have been exploitive. Instead, it’s a gentle reminder that we can still experience the infinite with limited sensory input, and love comes in many forms.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

The Housemaid (1960) Writer/director Ki-young Kim’s classic tale of envy, lust and murder is a truly unsettling experience. A music teacher (Kim Jin-kyu) and his family move into a new house. When the housework becomes too much for his ailing wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo), they hire a young woman (Lee Eun-shim) to be their live-in maid. Almost immediately, friction develops between the family and their housekeeper as she arouses suspicion from the children, and seduces the teacher. Before long, the power dynamic has changed, and she’s controlling the house. The Housemaid provides a tantalizing glimpse of Korean cinema before the restrictions imposed over the next few decades. It’s a bold, disturbing film, with its critical examination of domestic complacency and commentary on upward mobility. The fourth wall-breaking conclusion is a welcome respite from the grim proceedings, while providing a final challenge to the viewer.

Note: Sang-soo Im’s 2010 remake is well done, but lacks the visceral impact of the original.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD (included in the Criterion Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project boxed set)

The Piper (2015) Writer/director Kim Kwang-tae’s updated spin on the classic fairy tale uses the basic story as a departure point, with some significant updates woven into the mix. Set after the close of the Korean War, a poor wandering flutist (Seung-ryong Ryu) and his sick son (on the way to Seoul for a potentially life-saving operation) wander into a remote village infested with rats. He promises the village elder (Sung-min Lee) that he can rid the residents of the pests. After he fulfills his obligation, however, things don’t go as planned. Although I likely missed some of the allegorical/historical references, the film works on different levels with its universal themes of provincialism, paranoia and deceit. It’s an exceptional work, with a deeply disturbing ending that reminds us we’re not in Hollywood anymore.  

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

Sea Fog (2014) Director/co-writer Sung-bo Shim’s film (co-written by Bong Joon-ho, who also served as the film’s producer) is set in 1998 but based on the real-life 2001 “Taechangho Incident.” In an act of desperation, a down-on-his-luck fishing boat captain (Yoon-seok Kim) accepts a risky proposition to smuggle a group of illegal Chinese/Korean immigrants in his decrepit vessel. In exchange for a large sum of money, his crew members agree to keep their mouths shut. After an impromptu Coast Guard inspection, the story takes a disastrous turn, testing the limits of loyalty between the captain and his crewmembers. The plot thickens when a young sailor (Yoo-chun Park) falls for one of the immigrants (Yeri Han), risking life and limb to protect her from impending harm. It’s a tense, emotionally harrowing experience, made believable through excellent ensemble performances and immersive, dynamic cinematography.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy

 Moebius (2013) Writer/director Ki-duk Kim’s strange, disturbing movie (told without dialogue) reminded me a bit of a Lars von Trier film with its juxtaposition of disturbing imagery, Freudian/Oedipal themes, and dark comedy. A woman (Na-ra Lee), fed up with her cheating husband (Jae-Hyun Cho) attempts to get even with him. After a failed knife attack on her husband, she sets her sights on her teenage son (Yeong-ju Seo), severing his penis. While the son copes with his new reality, his father endeavors to find a medical solution to his son’s disfigurement. I suspect it’s a safe bet this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but anyone curious enough to give Moebius a go will probably think about it for days (even if it’s just to conclude, “What the hell did I just watch?”).

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Kanopy

Wishing Stairs (2003) This variation of The Monkey’s Paw takes place at an exclusive prep school. According to local legend, if someone ascends a nearby stone staircase and reaches the mythical 29th step, they can make a wish to a fox god. Unfortunately, as we soon discover, their wish will be granted at a terrible price. Jin-seong (Ji-Hyo Song) is envious of her friend Kim Sohee’s (Han-byeol Park) talent in ballet class. When their teacher announces only one student can gain admission to a prestigious dance school in Russia, Jin-seong takes measures to ensure that she wins the prestigious scholarship. Things get muddled midway, with the introduction of a perpetually bullied third student, but there are some genuinely creepy moments that make this worth a look.

Note: This is the third film in the five-title Whispering Corridors series.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Kanopy

The Tower (2012) In this action-disaster flick reminiscent of The Towering Inferno (1974), fire breaks out at a new luxury high-rise twin-towered apartment building on Christmas eve. A team of firemen scramble to rescue the survivors, but are hindered by the building’s shoddy construction. It’s a race against time as the structure verges on imminent collapse. The tone wavers, with some misplaced slapstick early on, before lapsing into pure melodrama. The plot shambles along in a predictable manner, with little room for meaningful characters or dialogue, but the action scenes are well done. CGI is employed effectively (a scene on a collapsing skybridge is particularly tense), depicting the destruction of a typically garish modern building. There was potential to say something more, but the story pulls its punches with regard to a clash between classes, never rising above lip service. Sadly, the wealthy developer and the pampered building occupants never quite get their comeuppance. In the end, The Tower doesn’t provide a lot of surprises, but if you’re just looking for a good, old-fashioned Hollywood-style popcorn flick with thrills galore, you won’t be disappointed. Simply turn your brain off and enjoy. Irwin Allen would have been proud.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD

Yongary, Monster from the Deep (1967) By the time Yongary emerged, many filmmakers around the world had thrown their hat in the ring to make a Godzilla knock-off. In this version, a powerful earthquake rocks Korea, unleashing a giant, oil-swilling dinosaur. The military is brought in to dispatch the fearsome beast, which has caused untold levels of death and damage to buildings. If this description sounds a little too familiar, it’s because this giant monster movie is strictly by the numbers. You can check off your kaiju bingo card with an ineffective military, a smart-ass little kid who helps as much as he creates trouble (although the “dancing” Yongary scene made me smile), and a brilliant young scientist who may have the key to stopping Yongary. The solution to the monster problem is silly and surprisingly anticlimactic. Warning to subtitle purists: The Fox Lorber disc is dubbed, with no option for the original Korean dialogue.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Terror Taxi (2000) Gil-nam (Seo-jin Lee), a young cab driver, dies in a car accident before he can propose to his girlfriend, Yu-jeong (Yu-jeong Choi). In the afterlife, he’s still driving a cab, along with several other ghosts, including a malevolent spirit who only wants to cause death and mayhem. This horror/comedy has some interesting ideas, but it never gels into a coherent story. Most of the comedy doesn’t work, and the film fails to establish any clear rules about the afterlife or how spirits interact with the living world. It also fails as a love story, due to poor chemistry between the two leads. Thanks to a meandering plot and leaden pacing, the relatively brief running time of 94 minutes seemed to go on and on. Skip it.

Rating: **. Available on DVD 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Short Take: Pulgasari

(1985) Directed by Sang-ok Shin; Written by: Se Ryun Kim; Starring: Son Hui Chang, Ham Gi Sop, Jong-uk Ri, Gwon Ri, and Yong-hok Pak; Available on DVD and YouTube

Rating: **½ 

“They’re just an army of farmers. They have no strength. Give them no leeway and attack at once.” – General Fuan (Riyonun Ri)

There are few films as notorious as the North Korean giant monster movie Pulgasari, produced by none other than Kim Jong-il. The behind-the-scenes story reads like a work of fiction, with events more fantastic than anything depicted on screen. In the hopes of improving his country’s floundering film industry, Jong-il ordered the kidnapping of South Korean director Sang-ok Shin along with his ex-wife. After several years of imprisonment, Sang-ok was appointed the head of his own film company, and given pseudo-V.I.P. status (under the watchful eye of North Korean officials). Before eventually fleeing the country, he made a handful of films, including Pulgasari. In addition to utilizing substantial domestic resources for Pulgasari, Jong-il flew in a Japanese effects crew under false pretenses, including monster suit actor Kenpachirô Satsuma (the second individual to wear the Godzilla suit). The baffling events conjure memories of the old TV commercial tagline, “But wait, there’s more!” For anyone looking for a more detailed account, a good starting point is the 2003 Guardian article, “Kidnappedby Kim Jong-il: The Man Who Directed the Socialist Godzilla,” by John Gorenfeld.

The basic story reportedly stems from a Korean folktale* but appears to share some similarities with the Japanese Daimajin movies and, of course, Godzilla. Set in 14th-century Korea, a community of poor farmers are harassed, bullied and demeaned by the king’s soldiers, forced to toil for their benefit. In a final effort of desperation, an imprisoned blacksmith creates a figure out of rice (which embodies his soul). His daughter’s blood accidentally touches the creation, bringing it to life. Soon, the beleaguered villagers discover the wee beast has a taste for iron. Before you can say “dear leader,” little Pulgasari quickly grows to gargantuan proportions, providing the might behind the farmers’ revolt against the tyrannical king.

* Fun Fact: The first cinematic interpretation was reportedly the South Korean film, Bulgasari (1962), which is now presumed lost.

 Famous Last Words

The title creature, which resembles a cross between Godzilla and a bull, starts out as a pudgy little guy, who resembles Minya if you squint (or if you heard a second-hand description of the creature from someone with glaucoma). We’re treated to some Son of Godzilla-esque (un-intentionally comic?) moments as he stumbles around like a drunken sailor. As Pulgasari grows, his appetite for iron increases. Even after he’s defeated the king’s army (Sorry/not sorry about the spoiler), his hunger for metal doesn’t ebb. Eventually, his addiction deprives the farmers of their means of support (hoes, rakes, etc…), turning the film into a sort of kaiju version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (which was published the same year this movie was released. Coincidence or not?).

Despite Pulgasari’s uneven, frequently slipshod nature, it’s easy to see it was a large-scale production. The royal palace miniatures are decent enough, and it’s impressive to see crowd scenes that seemingly included thousands (supplied, courtesy of the North Korean army). Overall, Pulgasari is a mixed bag. One of the most beguiling aspects of the film is its theme of villagers overcoming adversity, after being ground under the heel of oppression by a ruthless, narcissistic dictator. Perhaps it was the period setting or fantasy elements (depicting a mythical time), but somehow the irony was lost on Kim Jong-il, who viewed the film as a masterpiece and a source of pride. It also inadvertently casts the heroes of the story in a bad light, with the farmers’ fighting prowess and bravery hinges entirely on Pulgasari’s considerable fortitude. Enjoyment of this movie requires some cognitive dissonance on the part of the viewer, overlooking the behind-the-scenes drama, its dubious messages, and melodramatic (bordering on histrionic) performances. On the other hand, it works fine as (dare I say) silly escapist fare. It’s a curiosity piece, sure to be pondered and debated for generations to come.

* Fun Fact: If you don’t have enough Pulgasari in your life, look for the 1996 remake, The Legend Of Galgameth.

Friday, July 10, 2020

I Saw the Devil

(2010) Directed by Jee-woon Kim; Written by Hoon-jung Park; Adapted by Jee-woon Kim; Starring: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, Gook-hwan Jeon, Joon-hyuk Lee, In-seo Kim and Bo-ra Nam; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“Because these characters need to express their self-perceived power, if there were moments when it was difficult or uncomfortable to watch it’s because I wanted to show how horrible it was for those being victimized and the sense of power the monster has over his victims.” – Jee-woon Kim (excerpted from “Interview: Kim Jee-woon,” by Isaac Hudson, Cinephile UK

“It feels like a huge rock is pressing down on my chest. Big and heavy. I promised Ju-yeon that I’d make him feel the same pain. It’s not over.” – Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee)

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that was originally posted in August 2012.

Most revenge films rest on the assumption that a perpetrator of horrendous acts will be visited by some sort of (typically audience-pleasing) karmic retribution by the protagonist. I Saw the Devil subverts our expectations at every turn, denying us the catharsis of a villain receiving his just desserts at the hands of the righteous hero. The film starts off with these familiar elements: a merciless killer who crosses paths with the wrong guy. What follows seems to be a simple tale of a hunter becoming the hunted. As it progresses, however, we discover things are not as black and white as they initially seemed, with concepts such as good and evil becoming blurred along the way.

The story begins on a wintry road at night. Alone and stuck with a flat tire, Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh) calls her husband, National Intelligence Service (NIS)* agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), in a conversation that proves to be her last. While waiting for a tow truck, a helpful motorist appears out of the gloom, but something doesn’t look right. Her instincts prove accurate, but it’s not enough to save her from an awful fate. After what’s left of her is discovered in a field, the grieving Soo-hyeon takes a leave of absence, vowing to catch her killer and make him suffer along the way. Once he’s found the man responsible for the heinous crime, an elaborate game of cat and mouse follows.

* Fun Fact: The National Intelligence Service is essentially South Korea’s version of the CIA/FBI, rolled into one.

Soo-hyeon illustrates how you can’t go through a pursuit such as this without compromising yourself in the process. He doggedly hunts down the killer, Jang Kyung-chul (played with icy effectiveness by Min-sik Choi), with the intention of making him experience the same level of misery and fear as his victims. As the film progresses, he seems to take pleasure in inflicting pain, but never reaches a catharsis through his actions. His quest to absolve his guilt and grief becomes a hollow, selfish act that leaves a trail of collateral damage in his wake. When he first catches up with Kyung-chul, he could have notified the authorities, which at worst, would have resulted in a slap on the wrist for his vigilante actions. Instead, it’s just the beginning for Soo-hyeon’s vengeance, which has dire consequences for anyone Kyung-chul encounters. Despite his sister-in law’s pleas to give up his self-destructive pursuit (“I know how you feel, but I hope you’ll stop. It won’t bring her back. Whatever you do to punish him, things won’t change. Revenge is for movies.”) he continues his personal vendetta, leaving further innocent people to be murdered and assaulted by Kyung-chul.

Min-sik Choi delivers a fascinating, multifaceted portrayal of serial killer Jang Kyung-chul. The film doesn’t spend a lot of time psychoanalyzing him. Instead, we’re left to our own devices to speculate on the origins of his dysfunction. He possesses some aspects of a sociopath, but to label him strictly as such seems limiting. His distorted perceptions of others (labeling those who cross him as “crazy”) suggests more than a blanket diagnosis. We witness his distaste for paternal figures when he confronts an elderly doctor who speaks to him in a fatherly tone. Women appear to be the object of his intense scorn because he considers them controlling. As a result, he chooses young, vulnerable women as his prey of choice, as a means of achieving manipulation and power.

Despite the intense themes and grim imagery, director Jee-woon Kim infuses his film with moments of unexpected humor. In an early scene, when Kyung-chul abandons his stolen car, he flags down a motorist (i.e., another potential victim), only to discover that it’s a caravan of soldiers. In another darkly comic scene, an unfortunate cab driver is caught between Kyung-chul and another violent criminal, in a bloody battle between two predators. When Kyung-chul takes momentary refuge with another serial killer the other man regards him with reverence and awe, like a demented fanboy. These moments of pitch-black comedy make the almost unbearable content bearable, allowing us a moment to catch our collective breath.

I Saw the Devil scrutinizes revenge, exposing it as a one-way street with no easy solutions and no victors. As the film’s title implies, the devil isn’t simply Kyung-chul, but also inside Soo-hyeon, in his blind quest for vengeance. His solitary decision to catch Kyung-chul and serve as judge, jury and executioner is a Faustian bargain that can only lead to ruin, fraught with peril for anyone who stands in the way. Instead of taking the high ground with Kyung-chul, he sinks to the killer’s level, plunging further into the abyss. I Saw the Devil is a relentlessly brutal film, which doesn’t pull its punches with its depictions of murder, maiming and victimization. There is a method to the film’s madness, which doesn’t let us off the hook in the final reel. The ending isn’t the release it would be in lesser films. I Saw the Devil reminds us becoming a monster to fight a monster is an ultimately empty pursuit. When searching for evil (with apologies to The Wizard of Oz), there’s no place like home. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Short Take: Attack of the Crab Monsters

(1957) Directed by Roger Corman; Written by: Charles B. Griffith; Starring: Richard Garland, Pamela Duncan, Russell Johnson, Leslie Bradley, Mel Welles and Beach Dickerson; Available on DVD (Out of print) and Amazon Prime

Rating: ***

“We are unquestionably on the brink of a great discovery. It is not likely that the discovery will be of a pleasant nature.” – Dr. Karl Weigand (Leslie Bradley)

“I got the part of a scientist who comes ashore and the crab eats me. I also played the crab along with Ed Nelson. You never played just one role in a Roger Corman movie.” – Beach Dickerson (excerpt from How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome)

The glut of 50s giant movie monsters featured super-sized everything, from ants to dinosaurs to octopi. It was only a matter of time before we’d see gargantuan crustaceans, courtesy of Roger Corman, grace the silver screen. A group of researchers travel to a remote South Pacific island to investigate the site where a previous expedition vanished. They barely set foot on the beach* before they experience a series of strange occurrences, including powerful tremors that change the landscape. They’re stranded when their transport plane explodes, leaving them alone to contend with a terrible intelligence that has nothing but their destruction in mind. Can they find a weakness in the seemingly indestructible creatures that terrorize the island and surrounding waters? **/***

* Fun Fact #1: The remote tropical “island” was Leo Carrillo State Beach in Southern California, a popular spot for Corman films.

** Fun Fact #2: The underwater scenes were shot at the main aquarium of the now-defunct sea-life theme park, Marineland of the Pacific in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calfornia.

*** Fun Fact #3: Despite having no prior experience working in scuba gear or directing, writer Charles B. Griffith convinced Corman to let him film the underwater sequences (A shoot he described as “horrendous and chaotic”).

The giant mutant crabs * have a particularly gruesome modus operandi, decapitating their victims and absorbing their knowledge. Each subsequent human is lured into their devious trap, with the sentient crabs using the voices of the victims as bait. It might be a stretch to say that the monster crabs are frightening, but they’re one of the more unique creations from the era, with uncannily human faces (truth be told, they look like they’re hung over or stoned). Accepting the flimsy creatures (which seem like they’d collapse if you scowled at them) as virtually indestructible requires a healthy suspension of disbelief from the viewer.

* Fun Fact #4: Depending on the source, the title creatures were constructed for several hundred dollars from either fiberglass, paper mâché, Styrofoam, or a combination of these materials. According to Beach Dickerson, he coordinated movement of the giant crab with fellow cast member, Ed Nelson.

Among the co-stars is future TV castaway Russell Johnson, as technician Hank Chapman. The film hints at tension between Hank and scientists/lovers Martha Hunter and Dale Brewer (Pamela Duncan and Richard Garland), but nothing much happens (something that was clarified in the original script) between them. I’m not generally a big fan of obligatory love triangles in genre movies, but it might have added some spice to the otherwise dull relationship between Martha and Dale.  

Corman and crew deserve credit for attempting to make an enormous fugitive from a seafood restaurant seem creepy. There are a few too many scenes of characters waiting and speculating about what will happen next, and true to its low-budget origins, more is implied than shown. According to the DVD commentary, the original screenplay was longer, with more dialogue (which was wisely trimmed). As it stands, it’s a lean 63 minutes.* Attack of the Crab Monsters won’t win any awards for creature effects or acting; nor is the story quite the same caliber as its partner on the double bill, Not of thisEarth (1957). However, it deserves merit for its kooky premise and even kookier creatures, making this a must-see Corman film.

* Fun Fact #5: The TV version included additional footage to stretch out the running time, incorporating some scenes from the 1943 movie Isle of Forgotten Sins.

Sources: DVD commentary by Tom Weaver, John Brunas and Mike Brunas; How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome 

Friday, June 26, 2020

Sea Monster Month Quick Picks and Pans

The Monster that Challenged the World (1957) Technically, this isn’t a sea monster movie, since it’s set in the Salton Sea (a saltwater lake located in the Southern California desert), but I’m not going to split hairs with this one. An earthquake creates a rift on the lake floor, unleashing a deadly prehistoric creature that sucks its victims dry. The monster, which is supposed to be an ancient mollusk but resembles an overgrown centipede, is one of the more frightening creatures to emerge from 1950s genre movies. The production rises above the pack, thanks to a solid cast, including Tim Holt as a determined Navy commander, Audrey Dalton as a widow, and Hans Conried as a puzzled scientist. Also, watch for a wonderfully eccentric performance by Milton Parsons as an over-eager museum worker.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Horror of Party Beach (1964) Radioactive waste dumped in the harbor creates bloodthirsty, googly eyed sea monsters that terrorize the population of Stamford, Connecticut (Hey, I’ve been there. This is probably the most interesting thing that ever happened in that neck of the woods). True to the title, expect scenes of reveling “teens” gyrating to the tunes of The Del-Aires, and a generous helping of frivolous butt-wiggling shots. After a series of grisly (mainly offscreen) deaths, it’s up to a scientist and a determined biology student to find a way to stop the monsters before they kill again. As long as you’re not expecting Creature from the Black Lagoon, it’s a hoot.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Prime and Tubi

Slithis (aka: Spawn of the Slithis) (1978) Radioactive leakage from a nearby nuclear power plant creates a new life form, which threatens the residents of Venice Beach, California. A bored high school journalism teacher (Alan Blanchard) decides to investigate the rampaging creature. Performances range from surprisingly good (Mello Alexandria as a Quint-like boat captain) to terrible (I’ve seen police in H.G. Lewis movies that were more believable). Writer/director Stephen Traxler wisely holds back on showing too much for most of the film, providing just enough suspense to keep you intrigued. It’s a fun throwback to ‘50s rubber-suited monster movies, marred by an all-too-abrupt ending.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (Out of Print), Amazon Prime and Tubi

Blood Beach (1980) Something is lurking under the sand of an L.A. beach, gobbling up anyone that enters its domain. It’s up to a harbor patrol officer and his ex-fiancée (David Huffman and Marianna Hill) to find out what’s behind all the seaside mayhem. We don’t see the creature until the end, which isn’t a damning thing in itself. Unfortunately, writer/director Jeffrey Bloom spends too much time with the bland leads, and a whole scene is wasted with some boring secondary characters. Burt Young plays an unappealing, oafish police detective, and John Saxon (playing his superior) isn’t in it nearly enough (He has the film’s best line though, which was also its tagline: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, you can’t get there.”). Blood Beach has a fun premise that never quite delivers. It could have worked, but the tone is too deadpan for its own good, and the script should have been fleshed out with more interesting characters.   

Rating: **½. Available on DVD (Out of print) and YouTube (for the moment)

The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959) This Creature from the Black Lagoon knock-off, set on the California coast, skimps on the action, with plenty of talky scenes to pad out the thin story. A mysterious creature (looking like a cross between the Gill-man and a pig) terrorizes a coastal town. Meanwhile, a curmudgeonly lighthouse keeper (John Harmon) harbors a terrible secret about the monster, while keeping a close watch on his grown daughter Lucille (Jeanne Carmen). Our nominal protagonist Fred (Don Sullivan, of Giant Gila Monster fame) is eager to study it, teaming up with Dr. Sam Jorgenson (Les Tremayne). The film livens things up a little with a few gory bits (explicit for the time), and the monster is pretty cool, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Nevertheless, it might be worth a look if you keep your expectations sufficiently lowered.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Reptilicus (1961) Oil workers recover the tail of a gargantuan prehistoric reptile. When the tail is brought to a lab in Copenhagen, scientists discover the cells were only dormant. Somehow, the giant creature (appearing as a poorly articulated puppet) regenerates from the tail and threatens the city. Other than being (to the best of my knowledge) Denmark’s only giant monster movie, there’s not much to distinguish this by-the-numbers flick from other genre movies. There’s an extended sequence that features a tour of the city (and famous amusement park Tivoli Gardens) to stretch the running time. If this scene was intended to bolster tourism, it wasn’t very effective. On the other hand, it’s a surefire cure for insomnia. You’ve been warned.

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Tubi

Tentacles (1976) Other than speculating why an all-star cast of seasoned actors (including Shelley Winters, John Huston and Henry Fonda) would agree to do this this Jaws rip-off (besides collecting paychecks), there’s not much reason to recommend Tentacles. Based on the dialogue, the filmmakers couldn’t decide whether the title creature was a giant octopus or squid. The scenes are a collection of tedious moments that go nowhere, leading to a confusingly edited finale. Most of the characters, including the protagonist, played by Bo Hopkins, are unlikable. If you’re like me, you’ll probably be rooting for the octopus (or squid) before the movie’s over – that is, if you can stay awake long enough. Skip it.

Rating: *½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Humanoids from the Deep

(1980) Directed by Barbara Peeters; Written by Frederick James (aka: William Martin); Story by Frank Arnold and Martin B. Cohen; Starring: Doug McClure, Ann Turkel, Vic Morrow, Cindy Weintraub, Anthony Peña and Breck Costin; Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Shudder and Amazon Prime

Rating: **

“First, as far as I can tell, the species has only just appeared. But there has to be a reason that a humanoid creature evolved so quickly.” – Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel)

“He (Roger Corman) offered to all the boys, but the boys turned it town. It was a terrible script. So he offered it to me.” – Barbara Peeters (excerpt from article, “Barbara Peeters – Don’t Ask her about Humanoids from the Deep,” by Alan “Rosey” Rosenberg)

The golden age of monster movies, in the 1950s and early 1960s, featured countless damsels in distress being carried away by fiendish creatures. More often than not, the virile male protagonist (or more likely the censors) would save the day, preventing the heroine from befalling a fate worse than death. In the ensuing decades, this tired formula was freshened up for modern audiences. The heroines were no longer defenseless, and whatever was formerly left to our demented little imaginations was front and center for all to see. Executive producer Roger Corman and New World Pictures pushed the boundaries further with its oversexed, bloodthirsty titular creatures in Humanoids from the Deep.

The film’s original title, Beneath the Darkness, implied a more psychological story, with thrills that were mostly implied rather than explicit. Barbara Peeters’ film, as originally shot, was not the picture Corman wanted to make, lacking the requisite blood and guts and T&A to satisfy audiences looking for more exploitive fare. As a direct result, Corman enlisted second unit director James Sbardellati (later promoted to first assistant director) to film additional footage. The film was re-titled Humanoids from the Deep (or in some overseas markets, under the more generic title Monster), and the rest was history.

Like many Corman productions that preceded it, the crew was a virtual who’s who of Hollywood talent, before they became household names. James Horner’s*/** energetic score is better than it had to be. The makeup effects team included future effects gurus Rob Bottin (two years before his groundbreaking work for The Thing), Chris Walas (four years before Gremlins), and Steve Johnson (who also appears as a humanoid). Future James Cameron producer/partner Gale Anne Hurd (the Terminator films and The Abyss) was a production assistant.

* Fun Fact #1: Per Horner, “…Ultimately, the music was the final sort of piece of clothing on the film. So the film might be schlocky to begin with, but all the craftspeople that would put their layer on, I think were trying really hard to make the story as good as it could be…”

** Fun Fact #2: According to Horner, the filmmakers hired union musicians to play at night for non-union wages, in a studio in Venice, California.

In the Northern Californian coastal community of Noyo, there’s a feud brewing between a planned salmon cannery and a Native American reservation, led by Johnny Eagle (Anthony Peña). When Eagle stands in the way of pro-cannery fishermen led by Slattery (Vic Morrow), he’s roughed up and his house is destroyed. Meanwhile, something malevolent is lurking in the ocean depths ready to lay siege to the residents on land. After a series of attacks (particularly against lustful young people)* by the mystery creatures, Eagle teams up with charter boat captain Jim Hill (Doug McClure) and biologist Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel) to find the origin of the beasts and save the town.

* Side Note: This movie features what has to be one of the weirdest cinematic depictions of foreplay, involving a ventriloquist and his dummy (Actual line of dialogue: “Hey honey, wanna see my woodpecker?”).

What keeps the film from being good harmless fun is its unfortunate raison d'être, featuring rapist sea creatures preying on women. It’s a given that the graphic depiction of sexual assault by one person against another would never be considered entertainment for entertainment’s sake. If the perpetrator is an inhuman beast, however, the filmmakers would have you believe it’s suddenly perversely titillating (a dubious trend that continued the following year with New World’s Galaxy of Terror and its infamous giant maggot rape scene.). Barbara Peeters reportedly wasn’t pleased with the changes that Corman ordered for the film, but considering Corman’s requirement for monsters that killed the men and raped the women (see “The Making Of Humanoids From The Deep” 2010 Shout Factory DVD featurette), the odds were stacked against releasing anything resembling what she envisioned. At any rate, considering the time that’s transpired and Peeters’ subsequent disavowal of the film, we may never know what her original cut looked like.

In its defense, Humanoids from the Deep features a couple of female characters whose deeds outshine most of the males by a substantial margin (likely a holdover from Peeters’ vision), Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel) and Jim’s wife Carol (Cindy Weintraub). When Dr. Drake’s research inadvertently leads to the creation of the humanoids, she takes it upon herself to find a way to hunt and destroy them. Once Dr. Drake is introduced, Carol goes missing for a significant chunk of the movie. Carol finally has her moment in the spotlight for a climactic confrontation with the humanoids near the end, but it’s too little, too late. It’s too bad that her triumph over the beasts is undermined because we’re not sufficiently invested in her character.

The high point of Humanoids from the Deep is the effects work. The humanoid creatures* are the unlikely byproduct of coelacanths that ingested DNA-altered salmon that were accidentally released in the wild. Dr. Drake theorizes they must now mate with humans to reach their “final” stage of evolution (which puts into doubt her veracity as a scientist, since evolution is an ongoing process). The aforementioned creature effects team took a ridiculous premise and gave it their all, bringing the creatures to life as slimy fish people with enlarged heads and freakishly long arms.

* Fun Fact #3: Although we’re led to believe (through clever editing) that there’s an army of humanoids, the low budget production only allowed for the creation of three suits.

Humanoids from the Deep juggles multiple plot elements and characters, but fails to weave them together into a cohesive whole. Like several other characters, star Doug McClure’s character is severely underwritten – outside of driving his boat around, getting in a fistfight and getting the characters from point A to point B, he doesn’t really add much. The subplot about the battle between the cannery and Native American fishing ground is merely a half-hearted attempt at social consciousness.* Other than Johnny Eagle, we never see the rest of his tribe or his reservation. This could have been another instance where more was filmed but not included in the final cut, but since there’s no resolution to this conflict, this element remains little more than window dressing. The scenes added for shock value update the ‘50s monster formula, but at a price. We can accept the dubious science and gory monster hijinks, but the misogyny is less defensible. The end result is a film that wants things both ways: its strong female characters are contrasted with passive characters that exist solely for the purpose of being monster victims.

* Note: The social/ecological themes beg comparison to the 1979 film The Prophecy, which (although admittedly less than perfect) handles these elements with more thoughtfulness.

Sources: “The Making Of Humanoids From The Deep” 2010 featurette; Article: “Barbara Peeters – Don’t Ask her about Humanoids fromthe Deep,” by Alan “Rosey” Rosenberg