Thursday, May 28, 2015

May Quick Picks and Pans

Bound by Flesh (2012) This fascinating documentary by Leslie Zemeckis tells the sad, bizarre story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (some may recall them from the Tod Browning classic, Freaks), who were sold into a form of legalized slavery. Born at the turn of the 20th century in England, their circuitous path led them to the United States, where they were showcased like royalty, but failed to reap the benefits of their success. Although the twins eventually won their emancipation from their adoptive parents, their victory was short-lived, followed by a lifetime of exploitive managers and career missteps. It’s essential viewing for anyone interested in the history of sideshows or stories about the indomitable nature of the human spirit under adversity.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

WolfCop (2014) After all the positive buzz about writer/director Lowell Dean’s horror/comedy, I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down by this blatant attempt to create a new cult classic. Leo Fafard stars as Lou Garou, a lazy, alcoholic sheriff’s deputy in a corrupt one-horse town. His life changes for the better when he acquires the ability to change into a werewolf, and uses his lupine powers to help fight crime. Unfortunately, the comic elements are more hit than miss, most of the characters aren’t three-dimensional enough to care about, and the story leads to a plot twist lifted from Hot Fuzz. I applaud what the filmmakers were attempting on such a meager budget, but I wish more time had been spent on the script. If you’re into cheap thrills with a few laughs thrown in, it might still be worth a look.  

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

Honeymoon (2014) In this low-budget horror directed by Leigh Janiak, bland 20-something newlyweds Bea and Paul (Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway) spend their honeymoon in a secluded cabin. One night, Bea wanders off into the woods and vanishes. When Paul finally locates her, she doesn’t appear quite right. The rest of the film is spent uncovering the mystery about what happened to her during those lost moments, as Paul begins to suspect she may not be the same person. The deliberate pace, obviously meant to convey a slow burn, is tedious rather than suspenseful. Honeymoon meanders to an ambiguous conclusion, prompting one to question if aliens or supernatural forces were involved. By that time I ceased to care.

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

Space Station 76 (2014) I hated this movie – not for lack of talent behind or in front of the camera, mind you, but for the opportunity the filmmakers squandered. Director/co-writer Jack Plotnick starts with the kitschy premise of a ‘70s concept of the future, focusing on the dysfunctional crew of a space station. But what could have been a fun exercise in retro sci-fi/comedy is undone by a relentlessly depressing tone. The script, credited to five individuals, lacks any heart, with the heavy bits outweighing the light moments by a substantial margin. 1970s hit songs and polyester apparel can’t diminish the misery of the characters’ lives, dominated by marital discord, clinical depression, attempted suicide, death of pets, and parental mind games. Perhaps this uneasy mix of retro comedy/drama with fanciful elements could only have been handled by Wes Anderson or Jared Hess, but in the hands of Plotnick and crew, it’s a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Why the extra half-star, you might ask? There are a couple of funny bits with a robot therapist spouting tired aphorisms that made me chuckle, and it was nice to see Keir Dullea in a cameo. These fleeting moments do little to excuse the unpleasant experience of the rest of the film, however, or mitigate the cognitive dissonance I felt, thinking about what could have been, versus the atrocity I was actually watching.

Rating: *½. Available on DVD

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Carnival of Souls

(1962) Directed by Herk Harvey; Written by: John Clifford; Starring: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger and Herk Harvey; Available on DVD.

Rating: ***½

“We used black and white film and we were naïve enough to hope for the look of a Bergman film and the feel of a Cocteau.” – Herk Harvey (excerpt from Criterion DVD commentary for Carnival of Souls)

“I didn’t so much invent the story and write it as much as I did write the story and see what I had invented.” – John Clifford (ibid)

Some movies enjoy a second life, long after they were originally written off. In the case of Carnival of Souls, not only did the film gradually gain hordes of ardent admirers after a limited (and disappointing) theatrical run, but it left an enduring legacy that continues to be felt in horror cinema today. Like a zombie rising from the grave, it took on a second life, establishing a new genre precedent for its convergence of low and high-art aesthetics.

After making numerous educational films for Centron Corp, director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford decided to try their hands at feature filmmaking. Both took time off from their regular duties to shoot the film, on a shoe-string budget of $30,000. Filming took place in Lawrence, Kansas and Salt Lake City, Utah, where the climax takes place. Harvey originally envisioned doing a series of films, but Carnival of Souls would prove to be his sole theatrical outing.

Due to the miniscule budget, Harvey and his tiny crew relied on existing locations for many scenes, including an early sequence in an organ testing room. In this case, the filming location determined the central character’s profession, as a church organist. The main attraction, however, is the eerie, abandoned Saltair resort, sitting on the edge of the Salt Lake in Utah. Once a prime destination for vacationers at the turn of the 20th century, the once grand tourist resort had gone to seed by the ‘50s. The derelict midway takes on an ethereal, otherworldly quality. The crumbling walls and creaky floorboards of an immense dance hall becomes a tomb, only fit for ghosts to inhabit.

Candace Hilligoss turns in a frustrating, enigmatic performance as the film’s nominal protagonist, Mary Henry. She’s the lone survivor of a disastrous road race, when the car she and her friends are occupying careens off a bridge and sinks in a river. She manages to pull herself out of the water, stunned but intact. Mary spends the rest of the film walking in a perpetual haze, as she lapses in and out of lucidity. After her near-death experience, she accepts a job in another town. Despite her skill, she doesn’t see her calling as a church organist, but instead comments “…a church is just a place of business.” She’s not out to re-invent herself as much as run away from her past, and continue to keep others at arms’ length. In one scene, she comments to a doctor, “I don’t belong in the world. Something separates me from other people.” Although her character is difficult to connect with as a viewer, many of us can identify with her feelings of isolation and alienation, exemplified by her frequent separations from reality. In a shot that evokes Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho, or Inger Stevens in the Twilight Zone episode “The Hitch-Hiker,” she drives into the night to an uncertain future. She’s a lost woman, haunted by a pallid apparition* only she can see. She’s inexplicably drawn to an old, moldering pavilion. She wanders the empty carnival grounds, at once looking for something she’s lost, but unable to make the vital connection. The filmmakers don’t supply many clues about her motivation – Is her dissociative state a result of trauma from her automobile accident or something else?

* In a decision based on “ego and economics,” Harvey played the ghostly man who relentlessly pursues Mary.  

Audiences didn’t pay much attention during Carnival of Souls’ first go-round. It received a relatively limited release, mainly in the South, on a double bill with the Lon Chaney, Jr. flick The Devil’s Messenger. But thanks to nightmare-like imagery and an ambiguous story, it’s built a solid cult following over the years. Harvey and Clifford, by accident or design, created a horror film for the arthouse crowd, but were nevertheless amused by the numerous interpretations over the years. While the film doesn’t quite possess the same power to surprise modern audiences (anyone who’s ever seen an M. Night Shyamalan movie will likely see the ending coming a mile away), what remains is a grim portrait of a limbo world between the living and the dead (Although I must admit, spending purgatory in an old amusement park wouldn’t be so bad as long as the rides worked).

With all due respect to Carnival of Souls’ cult classic status, it’s a trifle underwhelming, perhaps more famous for the films it inspired (notably, the superior Night of the Living Dead) rather than the original product. It’s a creaky boat, hampered by an unsympathetic lead, unlikable supporting characters (especially Mary’s oafish neighbor, played by Sidney Berger) and a languid pace. But faults aside, it’s impossible to dismiss the film’s influence on the horror genre. The filmmakers did so much with so little, and it’s commendable that Harvey and company left so much purposefully vague. Compared to many other horror films from that era, or contemporary horror films for that matter, it was a bold step to retain an air of ambiguity throughout. Carnival of Souls boasts some impressive cinematography, memorable location scenes, and still possesses the power to creep us out.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Classics Revisited: The African Queen

(1951) Directed by: John Huston; Written by James Agee and John Huston; Based on the novel The African Queen by C.S. Forester; Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull and Theodore Bikel

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *****

“He may have no common sense – he may be irresponsible and outrageous. But he is talented. He ain’t where he is for no reason. And you’d better watch him. And learn a few things.” – Katharine Hepburn on working with John Huston (from The Making of The African Queen, or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, by Katharine Hepburn).

“I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating.” – Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn)

Due to some last-minute complications, I was unable to participate in last year’s edition, but thankfully host Margaret Perry was gracious enough to extend an invitation for this year’s Great Katharine HepburnBlogathon. As regular followers of this blog and my Twitter account will know, I suffered a recent setback, but I’m determined to come through this time around. I’m excited to discuss one of my favorite Bogie movies, not to mention the inimitable lady of the hour, Ms. Hepburn.

The African Queen is an uncanny adventure, as well as an unconventional love story, set in the heart of Africa. Filmed on location in the Belgian Congo and Uganda,* the exotic locale adds a level of veracity to the story. Naturally, utilizing such a remote, unforgiving location didn’t come without a price. The cast and crew had to contend with numerous annoyances and hardships, including parasites, dysentery, unforgiving Technicolor cameras, and at one point, a sunken boat. Hepburn chronicled the problematic shoot in her book The Making of The African Queen, or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. While it’s not quite the tell-all one might expect, given the title, it’s a delightful read nonetheless. According to Hepburn, she wasn’t impressed with the screenplay when director John Huston presented it to her,** but fortunately for moviegoers, she cast aside her misgivings and agreed to do the film.

* Fun fact: Robert Morley never set foot in Africa for his scenes. Instead, a double was used for his character’s location shots in Uganda, while Morley filmed his scenes with Hepburn and Bogart in England.

** Per Ms. Hepburn’s memoir, “It seemed to me utterly dull and I kept falling asleep over it.” (ibid)

Set in 1914, at the beginning of World War I, the story opens in a village where Rose Sayer (Hepburn) and her uptight reverend brother (Robert Morley), work as missionaries. When German troops run the villagers out of their huts and set fire to their village, Rose’s brother, a broken man, becomes ill and dies. With nothing left to carry on her church’s mission, she employs riverboat skipper Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) to provide safe passage away from the devastated village. It’s at this point, when the film’s real story begins. The bulk of The African Queen focuses on the two principal characters, Rose and Charlie, as their uneasy chemistry proves opposites attract. Animosity gives way to affection, as they endure the travails of the tumultuous river, including perilous rapids, hippos, crocodiles, and enemy sharp-shooters.

Hepburn’s prim and proper Rose provides a perfect foil for Bogart’s irascible Charlie. She’s not about to take things lying down, hatching a far-fetched scheme to destroy the Louisa, a German gun ship that’s patrolling Lake Victoria. Despite Charlie’s (frankly reasonable) protests that they’re out-numbered and out-gunned, she remains adamant about doing her part for the war effort. Rose is the portrait of an independent woman with unshakable ideals and an indomitable spirit. While she wins Charlie over to her cause, her emotional defenses erode, and “Mr. Allnut” gradually gives way to “Charlie.”  

Bogart’s Charlie represents a radical departure from the rough-and-tumble, hard-boiled roles of many of his previous films. He’s lazy, unkempt, and uncultured, with a fondness for gin. He has Rose pegged as a “crazy psalm-singing, skinny old maid,” who values business first, with pleasure a distant second.   He’s a man who embraces his baser nature, whereas Rose believes that people are put on Earth to rise above nature. Charlie chooses the path of least resistance, contrasted with Rose, who prefers to go against the grain if it aligns with her ideals. In many respects, however, he’s the Bogie we’ve come to know and love. He’s someone who exists outside of the system, and doesn’t care to get involved with the rest of the world’s disputes. But, much like Rick in Casablanca, or Harry in To Have and Have Not, it only takes a good man (or woman) to push him in the right direction, and convince him otherwise.

The unsung star of The African Queen is the titular river boat,* a rickety, temperamental old vessel, held together with spit, rags and luck. It’s one of the most memorable nautical vehicles in film history (alongside such notable examples as the U-96 in Das Boot, the Orca in Jaws and title craft in Titanic). Allan Gray’s playful score provides a perfect accompaniment to the chug-chug of the African Queen’s engine, evoking images of Rose at the tiller and Charlie coaxing it down the Ulanga River.

* If you feel a sense of déjà vu while on vacation in the Magic Kingdom, you’re not crazy. The boat from this film was the inspiration for the boats in Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise” ride (Source:

The African Queen’s (Minor Spoiler Alert!) screenplay took liberties with the book’s downbeat ending, but most viewers probably wouldn’t fault co-writers James Agee and John Huston for choosing not to have the protagonists come to the end of their arduous voyage, only to see their hopes dashed. Just when you think their goose is cooked, fate intervenes to provide an audience-pleasing conclusion. But it’s easy to excuse this deus ex machina plot device when the scene that precedes it includes one of the film’s funniest lines. The African Queen is an adventure for the ages, and a romance – a true classic in every sense of the word.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

April Quick Picks and Pans – Hong Kong Month

Return to the 36th Chamber (1980) The sequel to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but in this case, it’s a good thing. Instead of continuing the story of San Te and his goal to bring the art of Shaolin Kung Fu to the common folk, the story follows Chao Jen-Cheh (Gordon Liu, who played the hero in the previous film), a con-man with a fake Shaolin monk routine. When the owners of a textile mill use strong-arm tactics to intimidate their workers, an uprising is staged and subsequently crushed. The workers encourage Chao Jen-Cheh to stop acting like Shaolin Kung Fu master and learn how to practice the real deal from the monks in the 36th Chamber.

Return to the 36th Chamber features some impressive set-pieces, and (of course) spectacular fight scenes. What sets this film apart from its predecessor, however, is how it subverts the audience’s expectations based on the original film. Instead of being a straightforward Kung Fu revenge flick, it self-consciously satirizes Kung Fu revenge flicks. Mr. Liu takes time to poke fun at his character from the previous film, with an elaborate parody of the arduous training scenes.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Mr. Vampire (1985) This lively entry in the hopping vampire sub-genre combines equal measures of Kung Fu action, comedy and horror into an irresistible stew. Director/co-writer Ricky Lau does a great job balancing each genre element, while generating a genuinely creepy atmosphere. We follow a stern mortician (Ching-Ying Lam) and his two inept assistants (Ricky Hui and Siu-Ho Chin) as they attempt to keep the dead in their coffins. Mr. Vampire features some inspired comedic moments as the main characters attempt to evade the undead in various forms. In one scene, the protagonists hide their breath from a vampire by breathing into a tube. In another sequence, one of the assistants begins to turn into a vampire, and his pals attempt (with middling success) to reverse the process.

Rating: ***½.  Available on DVD

Winners & Sinners (1983) Director/co-writer/co-star Sammo Hung introduced Hong Kong audiences to the “Five Lucky Stars” series with this comedy about a group of small-time criminals who get mixed up with some big-time counterfeiters. Jackie Chan appears in a supporting role as a dedicated but bumbling cop. Since Chan is in it, be prepared for some spectacular stunts, including a car chase on roller skates, and an unbelievable sequence when he rolls directly under a tractor trailer. Outside of Chan’s antics, however, much of the plot meanders, providing a flimsy excuse for one hit and miss comic scene after another. It’s an uneven formula, but it’s tough to ignore Winners & Sinners’ good-natured spirit.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Black Magic (aka: Jiang Tou) (1975) An entertaining mixture of sorcery, revenge and sleaze from the prolific Shaw Brothers that lives up to its name. When a wealthy socialite catches her husband with another woman, she hires a witch doctor to kill the lovers. So begins a cycle of spells and counter-spells, as a ne’er do well employs a shaman to win the new widow’s affections (and fortune), and she in turn has designs on one of her young employees. The sorcery flies left and right, as we try to guess who will be left standing. Good, trashy fun.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Evil Cat (1987) A centuries-old cat spirit jumps from body to body, leaving a legacy of death and well... evil. Only a line of masters stand between the malevolent feline and world domination. The latest master is determined to stop the spirit’s reign before his death. Evil Cat suffers from uneasy horror elements and awkward attempts at humor, but the biggest offender is uneven pacing. It’s a fun premise, sloppily executed, resulting in a lackluster, forgettable effort.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Crippled Masters (1979) This tasteless exercise in Kung Fu-sploitation showcases two individuals with real disabilities (Jackie Conn and Frankie Shum) – one man is missing arms, while the other has under-developed legs. Together, they form an unstoppable fighting force against a tyrannical kingpin. It would be easy to write off the movie because of a poor-quality DVD with a pan-and-scan image and atrocious dubbing, but even if it had been presented on a pristine Blu-ray with a director-approved transfer, nothing would have improved the reprehensible premise or contrived, sub-par fight scenes. Watch it if you must, but I accept no responsibility.

Rating: * ½. Available on DVD