She-Devils on Wheels (1968)

Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis

RIP HG! The passing of the gorefather at the ripe old age of 87 would never have made Big News anyway, I’m sure, but he was even further obscured today by the presidential “debate” in the US. I noticed, though, and to mark the occasion I pulled this off the shelf… I saw a quote by Lewis earlier today about how he always viewed filmmaking as business and pitied anyone who called it an art, and, well, no one will ever call his films “art” (at least not with a straight face), especially not this. And yet, while watching it, I kind of felt like you could actually read an aesthetic of sorts into this and, indeed, other films of his. It really just isn’t a matter of Lewis not knowing how to make films, and really is about, you know, breathtaking contempt for how “normal” films are made. This film screams “FUCK YOU!” at conventional niceties of filmmaking like style, cutting, etc, even more than Lewis’ films usually do. It’s like Lewis knew what most filmmakers would do, and he could’ve done so himself, but he actively refused to do it.

Anyway, apparently this was his biggest box office hit, cashing in on the biker movie trend. Lewis’ particular twist is that his gang is all-female, and they basically race to see who’s going to have first pick at, well, which of their male hangers-on they’re going to fuck that night. So it’s really about female sexuality and female strength (they wallop a male gang in a fight that ends with the girls literally pissing on them), albeit scuppered, as Lewis notes in the DVD commentary, by such considerations as, you know, censorship regulations that still prevailed before the MPAA ratings system was imposed six months after this came out, cos he wanted to release it as widely as possible, which meant, well, not actually directly showing the pee-fest, and indeed no nudity, none of the overt lesbianism you might’ve expected, things like that. This is ripe for remaking free of those constraints, with more violence, actual nudity, girls on girls, etc, and things like, well, adequate budget, technical skill (the sound is particularly terrible here), and acting (cos the girls were hired mainly for their bike riding abilities)… you know, like an actually good film, which, let’s face it, this isn’t really. But it’s still kind of fascinating as an artifact of the period, perhaps more so in its curious way than some of its contemporaries…

Yakuza Apocalypse (2015)

Director: Takashi Miike

The current challenges at the ICM forum are action films and Japanese cinema, plus there’s an ongoing challenge for films from this decade. This film handily ticks all three of the boxes, which was, to be honest, possibly the main reason I watched this… I’ve not been enamoured of Miike before, but, admittedly, I’ve only seen three of his films (plus his segment of Three Extremes) and that’s not quite enough to form a serious opinion on someone with a hundred directorial credits on IMDB, but I also know two of those films I disliked (Audition and Ichi the Killer—can’t remember what I thought of Katakuris, which is the third full Miike I’ve seen) are among his best regarded, so… Anyway, I don’t think this really endeared me to him any further. It’s a genre mashup of the sort he evidently likes, being essentially a yakuza movie with vampires. The top yakuza in this particular town just so happens to be undead, yes. Unfortunately he’s not indestructible, as we find when some never fully identified other organisation sends specially armed assassins to wipe him out. But! He manages to pass on his powers to his lieutenant, who doesn’t really know how to use them and inadvertently creates a plague of other yakuza vampires. And that’s about as much of it as makes sense; around that point Miike seems to have decided coherence be damned, cos I’m buggered if I can work out exactly who’s on what side and why anything in particular is happening… By the time the main villain—a martial arts master in a giant frog costume—is introduced, there’s obviously no going back, until it culminates in an ending that could most charitably be called not really an ending. The whole thing is undeniably looney, but equally the madness almost never feels anything but contrived and forced, and the film is so enervatingly long that it becomes kind of insufferable long before said non-ending. So yeah, another not-exactly-a-hit for me with Miike. At some point I suppose I may find something in that filmography I like, but I’m not hurrying to find out…

Megaforce (1982)

Director: Hal Needham

And this kind of combines aspects of the last two films in a way, particularly the way it loudly screeches exactly when it was made… also, it was a co-production with Golden Harvest—part of an attempt by Raymond Chow to break into the US market in the early to mid 80s—and it was also kind of an attempt at a family-friendly action flick that would have a good deal of shit blowing up but no one actually getting killed. The real difference between Needham’s film and TS’s though, is the cost; apparently it cost something like $20 million as opposed to the far smaller sums spent on those films… wherein lay the problem, though, cos it only made back about $5m (whatever else may be said against Deathcheaters, it evidently did good box office) thanks to competition from other big films like that second Mad Max film. And it was a critical bomb, too, which got three Razzie nominations, a BOMB from L. Maltin, and to this day still scores 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Needless to say, a planned sequel did not happen.

Actually, what it felt like to me was a rather long pilot for a TV series in the vein of The A-Team; it’s a fairly comic book plot, with one country attacking another and Megaforce—a sort of G.I. Joe/Action Force kind of multinational “phantom Army of super elite fighting men whose weapons are the most powerful science can devise”, as the opening text—being brought in to deal with them. That’s about it. It’s a jumped-up TV show. It plays like one, sounds like one, even the opening credits feel meant for a TV show somehow (even though TV in 1982 was still 4:3 and not 1.85 widescreen). And one thing it somehow doesn’t really feel is expensive; that budget would now be worth about $52 million, and, well, it’s hard to see where all that went (sure as hell wasn’t on blue-screening). Pretty good explosions, I’ll grant it, but even so.

The Man from Hong Kong (1975)

Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith

And this was the logical follow-up to our last film. By all accounts it was a far less happy experience making this than Deathcheaters was, mostly on account of imported Hong Kong star Jimmy Wang Yu; in the scene at the martial arts academy where TS plays one of the guys going hammer and tongs against Wang, well, the blood may have been fake (transcendently so throughout the film), but the punches weren’t… Whatever, the film is great, of course; it was the mid-70s, Australian cinema was resurging nicely and Hong Kong action cinema’s international renown was on the rise, so uniting the two seemed like a good idea, even if the leading man was an obnoxious shit, and even if the not altogether casual racism expressed in some scenes makes for not altogether comfortable viewing in our allegedly more enlightened times. The plot is simple enough, a Hong Kong inspector is brought to Sydney to question someone who turns out to be connected to crime kingpin George Lazenby, who obviously has to be taken down with as much violence as $450,000 could buy in 1975 (and that was a surprising amount); by this time TS had cut his teeth on an assortment of documentaries, and his first fiction feature displays a certain skill for widescreen carnage. Obviously dated in a lot of ways—I mean, just look at the soul-blasting amount of orange in Lazenby’s lair where he and Wang have their final duel, and the classically 1970s not wholly naturalistic post-sync sound—and prone to a certain, I don’t know, larger than life-ness in some of the acting (hello Ham Keays-Byrnes!), but an awful lot of fun; if you were going to do a sort of Bond-style action knockoff with an Asian twist in those days, this was the way you’d do it.

Deathcheaters (1976)

Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith

After that bit of faux Trenchard-Smith the other night, let’s have the real thing now, and one that could actually benefit from a modern remake… You know how they say you should never remake a film unless it wasn’t up to much in the first place and could potentially be improved upon? Deathcheaters is exactly the sort of thing they mean. Very cheap (apparently $150,000-odd, which was certainly worth something in 1976 but still not a lot), very cheerful, fairly cheesy, and potentially an enormous hit if given to the right people to redo. TS says in the DVD commentary he set out to make what he describes as a “whimsical” film, an action comedy that’d be family-friendly (indeed, the film succeeded in scoring a G rating, as opposed to the R rating Man from Hong Kong earned the previous year), with a sort of semi-camp tone of the sort you found in TV programs like The Avengers. I think it’s fair to say this intention does come through in the finished product, in spite of, let’s be honest, a number of problems, the biggest of which is probably the opening chase (jumping from Kurnell to Northbridge to Warringah Mall) and the abseiling down the Hilton Hotel; it makes for such a good opening 20 minutes or so the rest of the film can’t really live up to it. Plus, although it does tick along at a fair enough pace, the film does take longer than necessary to get to the point—our two heroes (Grant Page and John Hargreaves), Vietnam vets turned stuntmen, are hired by a mysterious government figure (Noel Ferrier) to “acquire” certain papers belonging to a Filipino crime lord—and nowhere near enough on the mission (we never actually see said crime lord or really know much about him). And at the time there seems to have been some fuss over TS using actual Vietnam War stock footage in a couple of flashback scenes when the war was still, you know, a fresh memory. Still, it’s kind of fun, kind of charming, and the film communicates the enjoyment the people making it clearly had; plus the original will always have one advantage over any putative remake, namely the 70s fashion… that shirt Page wears at one point with the gigantic puffy sleeves is as jaw-dropping as the stunt work.

Turkey Shoot (2014)

Director: Jon Hewitt

I was surprised to see Turkey Shoot listed in the TV guide for tonight, even more so when I saw it was a remake and not the 1982 film, and I was particularly surprised to see Jon Hewitt was the director… somebody’s come a long way from cheap shot-on-video vampire flicks made with the fascist pseud Wolstonecroft, hasn’t he? Hewitt’s avowed intention was to remake the Trenchard-Smith film for what he described as “a relatively undemanding international audience”, but minus the irony and the camp and to make it realistic instead, and in the process he seems to have mostly actually remade The Running Man… As in the original, it’s the nearish future and we have a sort of far-right government ruling things, albeit this time with the novelty of a war in Africa in the background (featuring Roger ward’s moustache as a Libyan dictator); our hero is a disgraced Navy SEAL accused of massacring innocents in the course of same, who gets the opportunity to play for a pardon on a reality show called Turkey Shoot, by pitting himself against a legion of people trying to kill him.

GODDAMN, I don’t think I’ve seen a locally-made film since Harlequin that was so vague about where it was supposed to be set (cars with left-hand drive but Victorian rego plates?). Funnily enough, that film was also produced by Tony Ginnane and had, well, issues when it came to the actors’ wobbly accents (Nicholas Hammond is particularly shaky)… but the accents are the least of this film’s problems. The whole thing really is just cack-handed—particularly the attempts at satire on reality TV and the state of modern warfare—and its cheapness is screamingly obvious in almost every way; can’t find an actual budget for it, but it just looks cheap and tatty from start to finish. I don’t know, I get the feeling that somewhere along the way there’s been producer trouble, and that Ginnane’s long-standing interest in the “relatively undemanding international audience” was greater than Hewitt’s, as well as the latter’s interest in subtext. And it’s just no fun, unlike the original Turkey Shoot, and that’s probably the worst thing about the new one. Sometimes a bit of cheese actually lifts things surprisingly high…

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013)

Director: Shion Sono

I haven’t seen a film this ludicrous in I don’t know how long, and for the most part I do mean that in a good way. Don’t know that much about Shion Sono, but a two-hour film seemed like an easier way in than a four-hour one like Love Exposure (which I’ve had for years but never found time to watch), so I went here. Surprisingly complicated to sum up, but broadly I suppose you could call it a yakuza film about filmmaking. It starts out more or less as the story of a young group of guerilla filmmakers who call themselves the Fuck Bombers, shooting on 8mm and always dreaming of the day when the god of cinema will look kindly on them and send a big break their way. Fast forward 10 years, though, and they’re still dreaming… But then we start focusing more on the yakuza, with two gangs about to go ballistic, and with one of the gang leaders more preoccupied with making a film starring his daughter. Suddenly the Fuck Bombers are about to have a 35mm massacre to shoot…

That just summarises events without really describing how they actually play out; narratively it’s quite dense stuff that takes some time and effort to untangle, and I’ve said nothing about the advertising jingle that recurs throughout cos, frankly, I don’t know how to describe it. As I said, there’s something ludicrous about the entire thing, and the film knows it; basically it’s an extremely warped comedy that’s fairly self-aware and plays for its laughs accordingly, with digital “blood” in the climactic carnage whose deliberate blatantness is kind of magnificent, and a riotous clash of acting styles. I can actually kind of envisage Jean-Luc Godard making a film like this 50 years earlier, though somehow I can’t imagine it being as much fun as this. Or as batshit.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Director: John Carpenter

Rewatched this very late last night for the first time since… I don’t know, probably the mid-90s, at which time I wasn’t overly impressed by it. I have, of course, since learned that pan and scan VHS was no fit way to watch John Carpenter’s films, and watching a decent anamorphic DVD of this one made me appreciate it rather more. This was his avowed combined knock-off of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, an attempt to make a western whose budgetary limits ($100,000, apparently) meant he couldn’t make a “proper” one so he updated the Hawks film to a 1970s police precinct about to be closed down… except this time the gang attacking the station don’t want to break someone out alive, they want him dead. I mean, if a gang kills your daughter (a scene which is still pretty startling) and then you kill one of said gang members, they’re probably going to want to kill you back…

It’s interesting that the film makes such a point of the gang being multiracial, cos that kind of takes the edge off the fact that the gang is, frankly, something of a characterless mob otherwise, much like Romero’s undead, and similarly it’s interesting that Carpenter’s other major cue from Romero was evidently the choice of a black actor in the lead role (and another one in a secondary role). But otherwise it’s Carpenter’s own skill on show, and he demonstrates a pretty ruthless efficiency; although the set-up to the siege situation takes longer than it really should, once shit starts happening, GODDAMN. I kind of wish this has been his breakout hit (it did well in Europe but much less so at home) rather than Halloween, cos we might’ve been saved the slasher film glut that the latter gave birth to. Then again, Assault might’ve just engendered its own flood of dodgy clones, so who can say…

Outrage (2010)

Director: Takeshi Kitano

After a number of years away from the yakuza film, Kitano finally went back to it with this somewhat curious exercise in avowed “popular entertainment” as opposed to the more obtuse arthouse business of his last few films. And yet Outrage is still pretty obtuse stuff itself, in its own way, more so even than some of his earlier work… The story is simple enough, basically you have a yakuza clan “sworn father”, Sekiuchi, who dislikes how one of his underlings, Ikemoto, has become chummy with another mob who aren’t part of the family, and he orders this other syndicate be dealt with. In turn, Ikemoto passes on the dirty work to his own underling Otomo (Kitano himself) and his gang. Whereupon business between them and the Murase gang gradually escalates, until the problem turns into internal issues within Ikemoto’s syndicate.

All of which sounds possibly more exciting than it actually is; Kitano’s actual storytelling method is to chop all this up into a lot of very short scenes (lots of varying aggressions back and forth between the various parties), which makes the viewing experience kind of jarring, and, at least for me, not terribly easy to follow at times, trying to work out who’s doing what to whom and why. At least I’m not the only one, though, and maybe another viewing will make it seem straighter. But I can see it being difficult to summon up the will for that second viewing, though; while the film’s somewhat remote tone does make the scenes of violence harder-hitting (don’t think I’ll forget that dentist scene in a hurry), it also makes the film in general kind of hard to engage with, with little sense of where if anywhere it’s going, and the characters don’t really help; only the fact that Kitano himself plays Otomo marks him out as the film’s major figure. I’ll hunt out the sequel, which looks like it might offer some actual payoff for this film’s set-up, but I can’t say I particularly like Outrage by itself.

Gate of Hell (1953)

Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa

At a time when Japanese cinema was just starting to gain worldwide renown, Kinugasa had a veritable international hit on his hands—award winner at Cannes and the Oscars among others—albeit one whose success apparently perplexed him; he was dissatisfied by the film owing to studio interference and what he thought was a weak script. But! Gate of Hell has one inarguable factor on its side, and that’s colour. Early 50s Eastmancolor, and oh my. If Eastman could never entirely compete with Technicolor (apart from convenience), it could certainly put up a worthy fight in the right hands.

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Gate of Hell is set against a historical uprising, the Heiji rebellion of 1160 in which the dominant Taira clan were attacked by the Minamoto clan while the former’s leader was on a pilgrimage. In the course of this, our rather dubious “hero”, the provincial warrior Morito, emerges; he’s rather a rough diamond, and even his good deeds during the uprising are shadowed by association with his brother, who joined the other side. It’s his obsession with Lady Kesa, however, a lady-in-waiting who he rescues from the chaos at Kyoto, that really draws attention; not just for the idea of a rustic chap like him wanting to marry nobility like her, but also because, well, she’s already got a husband. Like that’s enough to stop him, of course…

All of this is played quite nicely (particularly by Kazuo Hasegawa as the initially heroic-seeming but really kind of creepy and unpleasant Morito), but I can kind of understand Kinugasa’s reservations about the script; it makes for nice semi-film noir business in a historical setting but there’s also not really enough of it to fill 90 minutes. Still, you can make an argument that the film is as much about its use of colour and design as it is the story (that Oscar it won for costuming was well-deserved), and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I do tend to give a pass to films that are visually interesting if the story is a bit lacking. Gate of Hell is pretty much the sort of thing I mean by that.