Monday, August 8, 2022

The Night of the Werewolf

The Night of the Werewolf Spanish Poster

(1981) Written and directed by Paul Naschy (as Jacinto Molina); Starring: Paul Naschy, Julia Saly, Silvia Aguilar, Azucena Hernández, Beatriz Elorrieta and Pilar Alcón; Available on Blu-ray (Part of the Paul Naschy Collection) and DVD (Out of Print) 

Rating: ***½ 

“The movies I was making not only reflected my spirit and personality, but was the result of a series of circumstances that surrounded the peculiar country of Spain. The Wolf Man created by the English or Americans, like Larry Talbot, had nothing to do with Spanish culture. I guess that’s why my fans are people who know my movies and have been subconsciously affected by all of this, by a very special country that has always been in conflict, which is Spain. This is reflected in my work.” – Paul Naschy (excerpted from a 2002 interview)

Werewolf

Over the course of his career, Paul Naschy* earned a well-deserved reputation as the Spanish Lon Chaney, portraying a variety of boogeymen, including Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, and of course, a werewolf. Arguably his best-known character was the eternally doomed Polish nobleman/lycanthrope Waldemar Daninsky (a role he played 12 times). ** The Night of the Werewolf (aka: El Retorno del Hombre Lobo) represented a return to familiar territory, blending old-fashioned Hammer-style gothic atmosphere and pools of blood, with a sprinkling of sex and nudity* for good measure. 

* Fun Fact #1: Jacinto Molina adopted the moniker “Paul Naschy,” in an effort to make his name more marketable to international audiences. According to the prolific actor/filmmaker he chose “Paul” after seeing a picture of Pope Paul VI in a newspaper, and the surname “Naschy” was based on Hungarian weightlifter, Imre Nagy. 

** Fun Fact #2: By comparison Lon Chaney Jr. only played his signature role, Lawrence Talbot (aka: The Wolf Man), five times. 

*** Fun Fact #3: According to Naschy, horror filmmakers were allowed to slip by the persnickety Spanish censors, provided all of the supernatural mayhem took place in a different country.

Erika Revives Elizabeth Bathory

In the film’s prologue, set in 16th Century Hungary, we witness a tribunal, where Countess Elizabeth Báthory (Julia Saly) and her confederates are punished for their sadistic crimes against humanity. Compared to her cohorts, Báthory receives a veritable slap on the wrist, confined to her chambers for the rest of her life, while her accomplices are sentenced to death. Most notable among the doomed, is Polish nobleman Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy),* who moonlights as a werewolf (under the control of Báthory, he preyed on hundreds of villagers). But (Surprise!) death isn’t the end for Báthory and her troublesome troupe. Skip forward several centuries, when diligent archeology student Erika (Silvia Aguilar) is hot on the trail of the site that houses Báthory’s not-so-final resting place. Erika, whose ambition is only matched by her ruthlessness, strangles her mentor (Narciso Ibáñez Menta) and takes his amulet, which holds the key to bringing the evil countess back to life. Meanwhile, a wealthy collector and his lackey unwittingly bring Daninsky back to life by removing a silver cross from his chest. If Erika’s previous exploits weren’t enough to convince you of her malevolent intentions, she brings along two of her nubile colleagues, Barbara (Pilar Alcón) and Karen (Azucena Hernández), just so she can sacrifice them. Proving how cutthroat the field of archeology can be, Erika suspends Barbara’s body above Báthory’s crypt, puncturing her neck. In return for Erika’s loyalty, the newly revived Báthory bites her number one fan in the neck, adding her to the ranks of the undead. 

* Fun Fact #4: Unlike Elizabeth Báthory, don’t bother searching for Waldemar Daninsky in the history books. Naschy derived his venerable character’s name from Polish weightlifting champion Waldemar Baszanowski.

Werewolf

Since Naschy is the star of the movie, we’ll conveniently forget about all those murders that occurred several hundred years ago, so he can emerge as the nominal hero. In an early scene, he comes to Erika and her friends’ rescue when they’re ambushed and assaulted by bandits. 300 years of slumber haven’t dulled Daninsky’s impulse to settle the score with Báthory and stop her growing league of vampire minions. To reinforce Daninsky as a sympathetic character, there’s a brief poignant moment (paralleling a shot in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast) in which the werewolf regards his reflection in a pool of water with contempt. Karen plays Beauty to Naschy’s Beast, whose unconditional love for Daninsky can set him free.

Bathory vs. Daninsky

Julia Saly seems to be having a blast as Elizabeth Báthory, and why not? Along with her vampire henchwomen, she’s a formidable opponent for Daninsky – a force of nature to be reckoned with. Compared to Báthory, goody-two-shoes Karen couldn’t be anything but bland. The closest thing to a tragic figure is Mircalla (Beatriz Elorrieta), Daninsky’s live-in caretaker. Although persecuted by the villagers as a witch (half of Mircalla’s body is horribly scarred from an attempt to burn her), she’s a force of good, protecting her benefactor and Karen from harm. She scarcely hides the fact that she’s also in love with Daninsky, but no thanks to her hideous appearance, she remains squarely entrenched in the friend zone (Yeah, so much for “It’s what’s inside that counts.”).

Vampire Attack

Despite some creaky elements, recycled from countless other monster movies, The Night of the Werewolf never fails to entertain. It’s the equivalent of cinematic comfort food, packed with the usual trappings we’ve come to expect from modern gothic horror: a tortured protagonist, a shadowy castle shrouded in fog, comely women clad in diaphanous nightgowns (carrying an unwieldly candelabra, no less). If one ignored the movie’s origins, it could almost be confused with a Hammer production (if Hammer played fast and loose with their properties). It’s an irresistible blend of trashy and sublime that hooks you in from the first reel. Who wouldn’t want to see Elizabeth Bathory and her vampire horde versus a werewolf, in a struggle for ultimate power? It’s the historical smackdown we so richly deserved, if reality hadn’t denied us.

 

Sources: “Paul Naschy: Interview with the Werewolf,” 2002 Blue Underground interview; Paul Naschy wiki 


Wednesday, July 27, 2022

South America Month Quick Picks and Pans

 

The Aerial Poster

The Aerial (aka: La Antena) (2007) If Guy Maddin took a wrong turn in Winnipeg and ended up in Buenos Aires, he might have concocted something like this. Writer/director Esteban Sapir’s whimsically dark fantasy recalls the style of the Canadian director, but has an energy all its own. The predominately silent black-and-white film, takes place (appropriately enough) in a city that’s lost its voice. A faceless singer and her eyeless son (who inherited her vocal gift) are stalked by a ruthless millionaire, who wants to exploit them for his own devious ends. It’s up to a lowly TV repairman and his estranged wife to save the day. The Aerial may not be the easiest movie to find, but worth seeking out. 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD (Region 2)

The Beast Must Die Poster

The Beast Must Die (1952) Not to be confused with the 1974 Amicus movie carrying the same name, this delectable slice of Argentine noir from director/co-writer Román Viñoly Barreto captivates from start to finish. Felix Lane (Narciso Ibáñez Menta), a writer of murder mysteries, plots a murder of his own when his son is struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver. He befriends a glamorous actress (Laura Hidalgo), who could be his only link to the driver, Jorge Rattery. Guillermo Battaglia is excellent in the role of unscrupulous (and aptly named) businessman Rattery, one of the most despicable characters in noir. The story, told mostly in flashback, illustrates how everyone around Jorge wanted him dead. It’s an emotionally devastating, beautifully acted, meditation on the weight of loss.   

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

 

The Wolf House Poster

The Wolf House (aka: La Casa Lobo) (2018) This visually inventive, profoundly unsettling Chilean film by co-directors Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León employs a variety of animation techniques to tell its melancholy tale, steeped in metaphor and mythology. After fleeing a religious cult, Maria tries to make a home for herself, with two pigs in tow. The nightmarish images are purposely rough around the edges, adding to the tumultuous feel, making no attempt to hide the artifice of the animation. It’s a soul-wrenching portrait of abuse, and the terrible cycle that perpetuates. 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD, Kanopy, Shudder and Tubi

 

Bacurau Poster

Bacurau (2019) The tiny village of Bacurau suddenly falls off the map, leaving the residents vulnerable to the sick machinations of a corrupt local politician and a group of bloodthirsty mercenaries (led by Udo Kier). The film starts with a mystery, as people are prevented from entering or leaving the town. As secrets are slowly revealed, the mystery gives way to a standard revenge flick, with shades of The Most Dangerous Game. Even if it falls somewhat short, Bacurau features some excellent performances by Kier and Sonia Braga (who plays one of the village elders), and an interesting depiction of rural Brazilian life, making this well worth your time. 

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

 

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands Poster

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976) Sonia Braga stars as the title character, married to two-timing ne’er do well Valdomiro (José Wilker). When Valdomiro unexpectedly expires, due to another round of debauchery, Dona Flor is on the lookout for new husband material. She eventually settles for mild-mannered pharmacist Teodoro (Mauro Mendonça), and his promise of domestic stability. But a trivial thing like death doesn’t end things for her first husband (who’s only visible to her), who frequently returns for some amorous attention. Now, Dona must reconcile her mixed feelings for Valdomiro’s lecherous ways and Teodoro’s kind but dull personality. It’s well-acted, albeit a trifle overlong, and one has to question the dated premise that Dona has to choose at all between two less-than-stellar prospects. 

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

Hellish Flesh Poster

Hellish Flesh (aka: Inferno Carnal) (1977) Brazilian shock pioneer José Mojica Marins (who also wrote and directed) stars as Dr. George Medeiros, a scientist (studying what, I couldn’t tell you) and doting husband. Unfortunately for Medeiros, he doesn’t realize that his wife Raquel (Luely Figueiró) has been sleeping with his friend Oliver (Oswaldo De Souza). The two lovers scheme to get rid of Medeiros by throwing acid (which has been conveniently sitting in an open flask above his work desk) in his face, followed by a laboratory fire. Naturally, Medeiros’ disfigurement doesn’t stop him from plotting his revenge. It’s cheaply made, with a twist that isn’t much of a twist, and there’s nothing particularly original about the plot, but it’s marginally diverting. 

Rating: **½. Available on DVD (Out of Print)  

 

Los Decentes Poster

Los Decentes (aka: A Decent Woman) (2016) Belen (Iride Mockert), a repressed 32-year-old woman takes a job as a live-in maid at an exclusive gated community. She soon discovers just beyond the immaculately trimmed hedges and rolling golf course, lies a nudist colony. One day, she decides to throw caution (and her clothes) to the wind and join them, finding a new-found freedom in her covert lifestyle. The first two-thirds provide an interesting, subtle satire on a clash of cultures and values, with ample commentary on the haves and have nots. Unfortunately, it disintegrates in the third act, with a surprise (and tasteless) twist that undermines the rest of the film. Close, but no cigar.    

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Kanopy

 

Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind Poster

Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind (1978) Writer/director José Mojica Marins, working with next to no budget, cobbled together this half-baked horror film, with a surprisingly unique premise. A psychologist goes off the deep end, hallucinating that he’s being tormented by Coffin Joe His colleagues try to bring him out of his trance, bringing in the actor who played Coffin Joe (Marins as himself) in an attempt to bring him out of his trance. The interesting meta theme pre-dates Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare by several years. Unfortunately, it’s padded out with multiple scenes from previous Coffin Joe movies. The seemingly endless repetition of the same shots makes this one a chore to watch. For Coffin Joe completists, only. 

Rating: **. Available on DVD

Friday, July 15, 2022

Man Facing Southeast

 

Man Facing Southeast Poster

(1986) Written and directed by Eliseo Subiela; Starring: Lorenzo Quinteros, Hugo Soto and Inés Vernengo; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating ****½ 

“I’m more rational than you. I respond rationally to stimulus. If someone suffers, I console him. If someone needs my help, I give it. Why then, do you think I’m crazy? If someone looks at me, I respond. If someone speaks, I listen. You have slowly gone mad by ignoring those stimuli, simply by looking the other way. Someone is dying and you let him die. Someone asks for your help and you look away. Someone is hungry and you squander what you have. Someone is dying of sorrow and you lock him up so as not to see him. Anybody who systematically behaves this way, who walks among them as if the victims weren’t there, may dress well, may pay taxes, may go to Mass, but you can’t deny he is sick. Your reality is terrifying, Doctor.” – Rantes (Hugo Soto)

Rantes

How do we separate the mentally ill from the sane, and is there such a thing as “normal?” Writer/director Eliseo Subiela raises these questions, and many others, with his nuanced parable Man Facing Southeast. Thematically, his film shares many aspects of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by way of The Man Who Fell to Earth but transcends those notable titles, largely thanks to Hugo Soto’s extraordinary, otherworldly performance as the enigmatic inpatient Rantes. Subiela based the character (and the film’s title) on an incident from his old neighborhood, where a strange man spent hour after hour standing stiff and motionless, while staring blankly into space, facing a southeasterly direction.* Man Facing Southeast was filmed in a real-life working institution, Borda Hospital,** located in Buenos Aires. 

* Fun Fact #1: Subiela later learned that the man from his neighborhood was a former psychiatric patient who fell in love with one of the nurses. When he was discharged from the hospital, he would stand vigil, pointed towards her apartment window (until she eventually moved away). 

** Not So Fun Fact: Prior to working on the film, Soto already had an intimate knowledge of Borda Hospital, as it was the same institution where his father had once been committed.  

Rantes and Dr. Denis

Dr. Julio Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros) is a psychiatrist at the end of his rope, burned out and devoid of passion, after seeing one patient too many swallowed up by the system. Likewise, his personal life is in tatters. Currently divorced, he only sees his kids intermittently. Denis spends his lonely hours at home playing his saxophone and watching home movies, ruminating over what was, and might have been. His life suddenly takes an unexpected turn when a new patient enters his life, seemingly from nowhere (during the latest headcount, there’s one extra individual among the patient roster). Rantes who claims to be an advanced form of holographic projection from outer space, stands in the hospital’s courtyard for hours, pointed southeast so he can (in his words) gather transmissions. Supposed extraterrestrial origins aside, Rantes exhibits a certain magnetism – many of the patients are drawn to him, finding comfort in his presence (even the doctor’s kids seem entranced). The new patient becomes a source of frustration for Dr. Denis, who’s convinced there must be some diagnosable form of mental illness, even though he can’t determine what it is. Based on this assumption, the doctor resigns himself to searching for holes in Rantes’ outwardly airtight argument. The third major player is Beatriz (Inés Vernengo), who visits Rantes at the hospital, and whom he refers to as “The Saint.” They share a connection and a past, although the details are sketchy. Dr. Denis thinks her presence could be the key to Rantes’ origin, as well as a possible cure, although her past proves to be as shadowy as Rantes. 

* Fun Fact #2: Soto’s appearance as a Borda resident was so convincing that the guards confused him for a real patient, and tried to prevent him from leaving the premises.

Rantes in Pathology Lab

Hugo Soto’s intense, measured portrayal of Rantes is the heart of Man Facing Southeast.  He’s presented as a tragic, Christ-like figure, who cares for the downtrodden. Despite his keen observations, and empathetic behavior toward the marginalized patients the staff routinely ignore, he confides that he can’t feel. At times, we’re unsure who’s the doctor and who’s the patient. Rantes’ insightful questions cut to the quick (“Why do psychiatrists lean back when they listen to patients? Do they fear it’s contagious?”). When Dr. Denis tries to assure his patient of their equal ground, it prompts Rantes to ask, “…Why do you wear the uniform of the sane and I wear the uniform of the insane?” Rantes continually challenges the doctor, pushing him to the limit of his definition of mental illness. In an early scene, Rantes questions where the “magic” resides: What is the spark that creates prodigious intelligence, or love, or the impetus to create beautiful music? This parallels a later scene when the patient, working as an assistant in a pathology lab, pondering a dead lump of tissue that was once a living human brain, picking apart its creases in a futile attempt to unlock its secrets.

Rantes Conducts an Orchestra

Music, in one form or another, plays a vital role throughout the film. Pedro Aznar’s* haunting, ethereal soundtrack adds greatly to the mystique that surrounds Rantes. The combination of conventional instruments (piano, flute, saxophone) and electronic sounds, evokes the chaotic, yet elegant labyrinth of his mind. Rantes’ spirited, flawless playing of the hospital church’s organ serves as a contrast to the emotional emptiness he feels inside. Music also provides the backdrop for a much-needed moment of levity in an otherwise somber, introspective film, as Beatriz, Rantes and Dr. Denis attend a concert in the park. In the middle of a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (aka: the appropriately named, “Ode to Joy”),** Rantes butts in, taking over for the conductor. The audience members dance and sway to the orchestra, under Rantes’ direction, while in the nearby hospital, his fellow patients parade around the facility, absorbed in a trance of ecstatic revelry. To the viewer, it implies that not only can he receive signals, but transmit them as well. Alas, to the hospital’s obstinate director, it’s the final straw. 

* Fun Fact #3: Surprisingly, Aznar was not Subiela’s initial choice. Scoring of the film was already underway when the composer approached the director, entreating him to hear a tape of his version. One listen convinced Subiela that Aznar was the right guy for the job, which left the director with the unenviable task of firing the talented composer he originally hired. 

** Fun Fact #4: The orchestra members refused to play the piece again, so Subiela and his crew could get a shot from a different angle. Instead, they were forced to edit in a tight shot of Rantes conducting, since the orchestra had already left.

Beatriz visits Rantes

Denis is left with a dilemma: either Rantes* is insane or an alien. Because Rantes claims he’s from another planet, the psychiatrist concludes there must be something wrong with him. It’s impossible to accept the prospect that he’s an alien, because it would shake up everything that he believes to be true. To concede Rantes is not insane would only be an admission of his own insanity. Rantes tells Denis that the same thing is going on at psychiatric hospitals around the world, with similar patients to himself. At one point, the doctor almost indulges his curiosity, but pulls away at the last moment, because it’s easier to accept the former proposition. If it was mental illness and delusion, as Dr. Denis and his supervisor contended, what was Rantes’ crime and whom was he hurting? The short answer is that he was an embarrassment that needed to be suppressed. The director’s decision to ultimately drug Rantes (rationalizing that he could turn violent any moment) is more political than ethical. In the end, he’s more worried about saving face than the common good, and in his endeavors to maintain the status quo, he extinguishes the very thing that makes Rantes so special. 

* Fun Fact #5: Cinematographer Ricardo DeAngelis wanted to illustrate Rantes’ genius through the progression of light on his face. By using a single light source, dangling just out of the frame the viewer could see the reflection in actor Hugo Soto’s eyes. As the film progressed, DeAngelis found ways to diffuse the light, to show the vibrancy gradually dissolving from Rantes.

Dr. Denis, Rantes and kids

For the most part, Subiela sidesteps a definitive answer about whether or not Rantes is human. We simply accept the reality of his present situation. The film tips its hand slightly when we see a couple of instances that appear to be telekinesis, but that only opens more questions. Was this something that Rantes achieved, or was it only something he imagined? Does it matter what he is? Ultimately, we are all responsible for Rantes’ eventual fate. Society tends to value conformity, and pigeonholing everyone into neat categories. If they don’t fit in, they’re sick. Rantes’ only crime was being unlike everyone else. As a species, we abhor ambiguity. We fear and despise anyone who defies categorization. It’s often much easier to go with the simplest explanation, because it doesn’t challenge us. Besides the obvious theological analogy, the story mirrors the fable of the Golden Goose. Rantes is a gift to humanity that’s wasted – something too good and pure for this world. Man Facing Southeast will linger in your mind and conscience, long after the final credits roll.

Sources for this review: (Fox-Lorber Blu-ray extras) Interview with Eliseo Subiela (2016), Interview with Hugo Soto (1993), Interview with Ricardo DeAngelis (2016)


Wednesday, June 29, 2022

June Quick Picks and Pans

Filibus Poster

Filibus (1915) Demure Baroness Troixmonde moonlights as calculating master criminal Filibus. And if that’s not enough, she also appears as the dapper, mustachioed Count de la Brive. Valeria Creti’s triple-threat characters crosses genders and societal expectations as she stays one step ahead of Detective Kutt-Hendy (Giovanni Spano). While she hatches a scheme to pin Filibus’ recent thefts on the detective, she (under the guise of Count) woos his sister, Lady Leonora (Cristina Ruspoli). Troixmonde is assisted in her stealthy pursuits by a loyal team of henchmen, who keep her dirigible constantly at the ready. 

This immensely enjoyable tongue-in-cheek romp recalls the exploits of Arsène Lupin, and its DNA is seemingly embedded in the films of Karel Zeman and Hayao Miyazaki. The only bad thing is that it will definitely leave you wanting more, as it was the one and only filmed adventure for Filibus. 

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

 

The French Sex Murders Poster

The French Sex Murders (1972) In director Ferdinando Merighi’s lively mystery/thriller, set in Paris, Inspector Fontaine (played by Bogart lookalike Robert Sacchi) investigates a series of murders in a brothel. After the prime suspect dies in a gruesome motorcycle accident, it’s anyone’s guess who the real killer is. The impressive cast includes Anita Ekberg as a madam, along with giallo mainstays Howard Vernon, Rosalbo Neri and Barbara Bouchet. Sure, the elements are nothing new, but it’s an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (Out of print) and Tubi

Midnight Special Poster

Midnight Special (2016) Alton (Jaeden Martell), an eight-year-old with uncanny powers, becomes the unwitting object of a tug-of-war between his parents and unscrupulous parties who want to exploit him for their own ends. Roy (Michael Shannon) tries to protect his young son from harm while evading the FBI and members of a doomsday religious cult (Sam Shepard plays their charismatic leader). Midnight Special starts with an intriguing premise (which owes more than a little to Starman), but it suffers from uneven pacing and two-dimensional characters. At times, the story appears unpolished, raising many questions that remain frustratingly unanswered. The film boasts solid performances by Shannon, Kirsten Dunst (as his estranged wife Sarah), Joel Edgerton (as his best buddy Lucas), and Adam Driver as a government analyst with a soft spot, but it could have been something so much more. 

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

 

Murder Mansion Poster

Murder Mansion (aka: La Mansion de la Niebla) (1972) This tepid Spanish mystery from director Francisco Lara Polop owes much to the haunted house movies of yesteryear. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a mismatched bunch of fog-bound travelers are forced to spend the night in an old mansion, but someone (or something) wants to kill them. It’s too talky for its own good, with a creaky plot that would have seemed old hat a half-century before. The big “surprise” is right out of any given Scooby Doo episode (if you added homicide), and there’s little to no chemistry between the dull and/or unlikeable leads. Do yourself a favor and see The Cat and the Canary (1927) instead.

Rating: **½. Available on Tubi 

 

Monday, June 13, 2022

Day of the Animals

Day of the Animals Poster

(1977) Directed by William Girdler; Written by William W. Norton and Eleanor E. Norton; Story by Edward L. Montoro; Starring: Christopher George, Leslie Nielsen, Lynda Day George, Richard Jaeckel, Michael Ansara, Ruth Roman, Jon Cedar and Paul Mantee; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ** 


An Artsy Shot

Daniel Santee (Michael Ansara): “Mr. Moore, he’s trying to tell you there is no answer. No fair, no unfair. We just accept.” 

Roy Moore (Paul Mantee): “Accept?” 

Professor MacGregor (Richard Jaeckel): “Accept.” 

Roy Moore: “Well, why don’t we just kill ourselves and be done with it then?” 

Professor MacGregor: “Maybe we will. Maybe we already have.”

 

Puma Watches the Hikers

Big thanks to Pale Writer and Dubsism for hosting the Second Disaster Blogathon, covering depictions of calamity in its myriad forms on the big screen. This week, I’m looking at the ecological disaster movie Day of the Animals (1977).

Director William Girdler is probably best known for the entertaining 1976 Jaws rip-off, Grizzly, and his befuddling swan-song The Manitou (1978), completed before his untimely death in 1980.* Smack-dab between these cinematic wonders, Girdler jumped on the bandwagon of seemingly endless environmental disaster flicks with Day of the Animals.** Forget about a rogue shark or a grizzly. Instead of one species with homicidal ideation, what if all the animals unanimously decided to kill us? With a kitchen-sink premise like that, how could you possibly go wrong? Well, let’s see…

* Not-So-Fun-Fact: Girdler was killed in a helicopter crash, while scouting locations in the Philippines for his next film, The Overlords.

** Fun Fact #1: Day of the Animals was shot on location in the mountainous Northern California towns of Murphys and Long Barn, treating us to some truly gorgeous scenery.

The Hikers Assemble

After human industry has dumped countless tons of fluorocarbons into the atmosphere for decades, Earth’s fauna have had enough. The ozone layer is compromised, admitting an increased emission of ultraviolet rays. This in turn upsets the natural balance, somehow causing animals to go haywire. What’s the science behind all this, you might ask? Who knows? Just when this environmental crisis has reached its apex, a group of unsuspecting tourists embark on an excursion to the mountains with minimal food and no weapons. Their peaceful hike soon turns into a trail of terror* when they realize they’re being stalked by the resident wildlife.

* Fun Fact #1: Poor Susan Backlinie (who plays beleaguered hiker Mandy Young) can’t catch a break in these rogue animal flicks. Before she was mauled by a wolf in Day of the Animals, she became the first victim in Jaws (1975).

Paul Jenson

The characters are a typical mixed bag of personalities, each with back stories that could probably be described in one sentence. Modern audiences accustomed to Leslie Nielsen’s amiable but bumbling comic persona, established in the ‘80s and ‘90s, might be in for a shock with his aggressively loathsome character, Paul Jenson. The combative, racist (and in one scene, rapey) New York ad executive bullies everyone around him, trying to tackle nature as if it were another business conquest. On the plus side, if you ever wanted to see a bare-chested Nielsen wrestling a grizzly, now’s your chance.

At the Campsite

 It's all fun and games until nature attacks.

The rest of the one-note cast includes Lynda Day George as TV news anchorwoman Terry Marsh. Her character’s main motivation seems to be deflecting the clumsy advances of the group’s rugged but ineffectual leader, Steve Buckner (played by her real-life husband Christopher George). This movie isn’t earning any diversity points for Michael Ansara’s stereotype-laden portrayal of Daniel Santee, a Native American guide.  Although he’s visibly irritated by Jenson’s racist barbs, he ends up making a joke about scalping someone in a later (cringeworthy) scene. Clueless, single, middle-aged mom Shirley Goodwyn (Ruth Roman) seemingly exists to whine and complain about roughing it in the wilderness. After his wife Mandy is killed, Frank Young (Jon Cedar) takes a traumatized little girl* under his wing (while alternately yelling at her). Of all the actors, Richard Jaeckel does the best with an underwritten role as Professor MacGregor, creating a surprisingly nuanced character. 

* Fun Fact #2: If the girl (Michelle Stacy, listed in the credits as “Little Girl”) looks familiar, she appeared a few years later in Airplane! (1980), as a precocious young passenger with this infamous line.

Mandy Young Meets Her Demise

You might reasonably ask why the environmental phenomenon only seems to affect animals and not humans. After all, we’re just fancy animals that have learned to walk erect, hold tea parties, and earn useless college degrees, right? Well, this is where the movie’s premise stretches to the breaking point. Apparently, some but not all people succumb to the effects. It’s established that the effect is greater at higher altitudes due to stronger exposure to ultraviolet radiation. If so, why do most of the animals seem to disappear, outside of a plot-convenient bear attack, when half of the hikers decide to hoof it to higher ground? Did the movie’s animal handlers take the day off?

Deadly Rattlers!

One of the cornerstones of genre films from the ‘60s and ‘70s was that there wasn’t always an explanation for everything. A little ambiguity added intrigue to the story, leaving the viewer to reach their own conclusions. In The Birds (1963) no cause is attributed to the avian onslaught. Likewise, in Phase IV (1974), no specific reason (other than some vague cosmic occurrence) was given for the consistent coordinated effort among insects. In both cases, however, the attacks are relentless and calculated. Alas, there’s no such luck in Day of the Animals.  

An Owl Watches Menacingly

 "Give a hoot. Watch Grizzly instead."

Of course, none of these quibbles are a deal-breaker, but the movie’s biggest infraction is that for most of Day of the Animals’ running time, it’s dreadfully boring. There’s nothing wrong with trying to build suspense, as long as it’s leading somewhere. Unfortunately, we’re treated to interminable shots of various critters giving our hapless adventurers the stink-eye, with little payoff. We spend an inordinate amount of time waiting around for animal attacks, and when they do occur, they’re nothing special. The first attack doesn’t occur until we’re almost 30 minutes into the picture, when a wolf mauls a woman in her sleeping bag, then inexplicably leaves. Instead of something that’s visceral and savage, she walks away with a few cuts and abrasions (hardly the opening scene from Jaws). We’re left with a movie that could have, at the very least, been 90 minutes of brainless fun. Instead, it’s merely yawn-inducing.

 

Sources: Jon Cedar interview (2011), “Day of the Humans: Paul Mantee” (2011)

 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Short Take: Tears of the Black Tiger

 

Tears of the Black Tiger Poster

(2000) Written and directed by Wisit Sasanatieng; Starring: Chartchai Ngamsan, Stella Malucchi, Supakorn Kitsuwon, Suwinit Panjamawat, Arawat Ruangvuth and Sombat Metanee; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

The following review is part of the Foreign Western Blogathon, hosted by Debbie V. from Moon in Gemini, looking at a traditionally American genre through a different lens.

 

Dum and Mahesuan

“The movie harks back to traditional knowledge, like old herbs we used to boil and drink, which now come in capsules. Like our film, we mixed it with modern film language for a current audience. If it was just an old movie, nobody would be interested. We just borrowed its form, techniques, and combined it with contemporary film language.” – Wisit Sasanatieng 

Over the years, many talented foreign filmmakers have tinkered with a genre that was once regarded as the exclusive domain of Hollywood, to create something simultaneously familiar and completely new. A successful reinterpretation of the Western requires more than simply changing the location or shuffling the actors, but changing the cultural perspective, by utilizing familiar conventions as a launching point rather than a destination. One such example is the Thai Western mash-up, Tears of the Black Tiger, a melodrama about star-crossed lovers that infuses the familiar tropes of American Westerns with Thai sensibilities. Setting his film in post-WW II Thailand, writer/director Wisit Sasanatieng blends old-fashioned and contemporary elements, resulting in something uniquely classic and post-modern.

Rumpoey

Dum, aka “Black Tiger” (Chartchai Ngamsan), the film’s antihero protagonist, lives outside the law yet adheres to a strict internal moral code. He works as an enforcer for the ruthless crime boss, Fai (Sombat Metanee), becoming his right-hand man (much to the irritation of fellow outlaw Mahesuan, played by Supakorn Kitsuwon, who formerly occupied that vaunted position). In a flashback, we witness how he meets the love of his life, Rumpoey, the high-born daughter of a local governor. The young girl goads peasant boy Dum into taking her out on a boat, where they discover a sala (a sort of Thai gazebo) floating amidst the lily pads. At that moment, they vow to make this their meeting place. Events take a near-tragic turn when they encounter a trio of bullies, and she nearly drowns in the ensuing scuffle. When he eventually returns home with her near-lifeless body, he’s severely punished by his father (who works for her father). Flash forward 10 years, and the adult Rumpoey (played by Italian-Colombian actress Stella Malucchi) is betrothed to Police Captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth). Instead of sharing his joy, she only feels empty, as her heart belongs to Dum.

Dum vs. Mahesuan

Contrasting the rather conventional story of lovers separated by rigid class roles, is a delightfully unconventional pastiche of styles. Sasanatieng draws as much upon glossy Technicolor Hollywood cowboy dramas as gritty “spaghetti” Westerns to play in his cinematic sandbox. One scene illustrates via instant replay how Dum is the quickest gun in Thailand. He’s so skillful that he intentionally aims his pistol, so the bullet ricochets off the interior of a cabin to hit his mark. In another scene, he squares off against a rival gunfighter, accompanied by a surreal painted background.  

Dum and Rumpoey

Tears of the Black Tiger owes much of its distinctive look to post-production visual trickery. The footage was initially shot on 35 mm black-and-white film, transferred to tape for digital editing (including the addition of color), and finally transferred back to film. Many of the colorful scenes feature vivid pinks, reds and greens, while in one sequence, set at a train station, the hues are purposely muted, with digital scratches applied to mimic archival footage. In another scene, when Rumpoey and Dum are seated in the back seat of her chauffeur-driven car, the foreground remains in color, while the projected background through the car windows is in black and white.

Rumpoey and Dum

Sasanatieng frequently plays with the artifice of motion pictures, favoring striking visual compositions and willfully anachronistic depictions over any pretense of realism. While the bandits ride horses and dress in traditional (albeit stylized) cowboy garb, the film remains firmly rooted in the mid-20th century, as they fight the police with machine guns, bazookas and hand grenades. The soundtrack is also a mix of old and new, filled with musical interludes (consisting of vintage Thai pop songs alongside new interpretations by contemporary artists). Tears of the Black Tiger at once celebrates the joy of filmmaking while a streak of a melancholic fatalism runs throughout. According to Sasanatieng, “Thais believe that destiny leads us down the right path,” which ultimately informs the inevitable path the plot must follow. It’s a self-aware exercise in style steeped in Eastern and Western tradition, making this an unforgettable experience. 

 

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Space Month II Quick Picks and Pans

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun Poster

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) In this intriguing live-action venture from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (of Supermarionation fame), scientists discover another planet on the opposite side of the sun, which has remained undetected until now. The U.S. and Europe launch an arduous joint mission, only to discover a duplicate Earth (with everything reversed). The movie has a funky ‘60s future aesthetic, and features some excellent miniature model/effects work by longtime Anderson-collaborator Derek Meddings. It has a solid cast, but it’s hampered by an unsympathetic lead (played by Roy Thinnes). Also, not exploiting the possibilities of a second Earth seems like a missed opportunity (Even if it was populated by duplicate people, why wouldn’t the events unfold in a divergent manner?). It’s still a fascinating concept, though, well worth a look.

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

Solaris Poster

Solaris (2002) Writer/director Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film (adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel) is a brooding drama, short on spectacle but long on introspection. Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a psychologist, sent to a deep space station orbiting a planet with unusual properties. He soon discovers how unusual Solaris is, when his dead wife suddenly returns. But is it really her, or only a simulacrum, based on his skewed memories? It’s a slow-moving, somber experience that could have benefited from some humor, as well as science fiction elements that were more than window dressing. Soderbergh does a respectable job with the material, but the overall effort seems restrained to the point where it doesn’t embrace the genre as much as tolerate it.

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

Life Poster

Life (2017) A soil sample containing a living organism from Mars is brought on board the International Space Station, with predictable results. The crew members (supposedly the best and the brightest) make stupid mistakes, as they’re picked off one by one. If you can get past the less than original premise, it’s entertaining enough, and the alien creature is pretty cool – just don’t think about it too much. If nothing else, I have to give the filmmakers credit for the gutsy ending. 

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

Meteor Poster

Meteor (1979) America and the Soviet Union reluctantly combine forces to stave off certain destruction from a five-mile-wide chunk of rock, hurtling towards the Earth. Sean Connery and Natalie Wood lead an all-star cast of actors who are more talented than this by-the-numbers effort deserves. Released at the tail-end of a glut of ‘70s disaster movies, Meteor was a notorious flop for Samuel Z. Arkoff and American International Pictures.* The $16 million investment was the most expensive production to date for the low-budget film company, but it’s hard to see where the money went. Compared to the high standards set by its contemporaries (Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), the special effects aren’t very special. Yawn.

* Fun Fact: The filmmakers used an avalanche sequence (borrowed from the eponymous 1978 film), which was produced by rival (and former business partner) Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. According to Corman, one review that criticized the overall quality of the effects, lauded the avalanche as the one high point. 

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

The Ice Pirates

The Ice Pirates (1985) Robert Urich stars as Jason, the leader of a ragtag bunch of space pirates who plunder freighters for their payload of water – which has become a precious commodity in the galaxy. Things get complicated when Jason falls for a beautiful princess (Mary Crosby), while his crew try to stay one step ahead of an evil empire. It’s not a bad premise, but the execution is clumsy, and the jokes never rise above sophomoric levels (“Space herpes,” anyone?). It’s notable for the supporting cast, including Angelica Huston and Ron Perlman, who went on to bigger and better things. 

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

Spaceship

The Creature Wasn’t Nice (aka: Spaceship; aka: Naked Space) (1981) Writer/director/star Bruce Kimmel probably shouldn’t have juggled so many roles for this unfunny Alien-influenced spoof. The bored crew of a deep-space mission, led by Captain Jamieson (Leslie Nielsen), pick up some goop on an alien planet, which turns into a voracious monster. Despite a talented cast (featuring Cindy Williams as the ship’s morale officer, Patrick Macnee as a scientist with divided loyalties, and Gerrit Graham as an oversexed crewmember) Kimmel can’t save his film from itself, with limp gags and bad songs galore. It’s not the easiest movie to find, which is probably a good thing.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

Creature Poster

Creature (1985) In space, no one can hear you sigh. American and German teams race to an alien planet to plunder untold riches at an ancient archeological site. Unfortunately for them, a nasty extraterrestrial has other ideas. The only saving grace is the presence of Klaus Kinski (for maybe five minutes of screen time), to liven things up a bit in this otherwise pedestrian Alien rip-off.  

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

Mars Needs Women

Mars Needs Women (1968) Tommy Kirk plays Dop, the leader of a Martian expedition to bring back five young women to help repopulate the species. How hard could it possibly be to fulfill their mission? Apparently, it’s a Herculean task for the inept extraterrestrials, who wander about aimlessly, stumbling around a strip club, ogling a flight attendant, and bumbling into a hotel. Yvonne Craig (who apparently had nothing better to do at this point in her career) stars as a biologist, and unfathomably falls in love with Dop. The “Martians” walk around in wetsuits, and carry a speargun for a weapon (I’m guessing writer/director/producer Larry Buchanan had some old scuba gear lying around). The goofy premise should have been played for laughs. Instead, it’s all deadpan, which only makes the proceedings more unbearable. 

Rating: *½. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime