Director: Leslie H. Martinson
SBS recently announced that they’ve purchased the 1960s Batman TV series, which announcement comes… unfortunately timed to coincide with the death a few days earlier of series star Adam West. Not SBS’ fault, I’m sure, cos I’ve no doubt the negotiations to buy the series would’ve begun some time before West’s passing (I don’t think you just casually do that sort of thing even these days), but still. Anyway, to warm us up for the series ahead of it starting next month, they gave us the movie tonight, which I may not have seen since, well, the 1980s, which was probably also the last time I saw the series (I have the latter on DVD but haven’t watched it yet)… Basically the film was produced as a sort of introduction to the series (filmed after the first series had completed shooting), but then the series launch date got moved way ahead of its original schedule so the film had to be held back, rendering it a bit useless for its intended purpose. Still, on its own terms it’s a huge lot of fun… I know the series copped flak for years for being an exercise in camp rather than evincing the pulp grittiness of the original comics, but let’s face it: the comics by that time were hardly masterpieces of noir, even before the CCA neutered comics generally in the 50s, DC were taking their own initiatives to tone Batman down within months of his first appearance and wouldn’t toughen him up again until the 70s. So the film is really just of its time in that respect, and it knows the basic strangeness of the whole superhero/supervillian narrative and it runs joyously with its own ridiculousness; everyone involved hits the right comedic pitch (the bomb scene is an outstanding setpiece), and West’s ability to keep a straight face is genuinely admirable at times. Much fun, and though I’ve got the series on DVD like I said, I’ll probably watch it on TV anyway…
Director: Koreyoshi Kurahara
This film only runs an hour and a bit, but damn it felt like it was a lot longer somehow, and I can’t work out why. I’ve only seen one Kurahara film previously (I am Waiting, from the Eclipse “Nikkatsu Noir” set); this finds him rather more solidly established at Nikkatsu a few years later, and evidently somewhat more confident with his story… Here we have a tale of two men working at a bank, one, Takita, who’s basically got where he is by marrying the boss’ daughter, and is now a manager about to move from his little regional branch to the big city home office; and the other, Nakaike, his underling who he’s always stepped on, and who’s apparently never had much spine or ambition to advance himself like his boss and former friend. But Takita hasn’t exactly behaved spotlessly, and when a small-time hoodlum shows up with evidence of his wrongdoings, well, complications ensue.
And they keep ensuing in somewhat unexpected fashion, too, which is quite nice; Kurahara’s got solid control of his material, it’s interestingly filmed in lovely monochrome ‘Scope, the noir atmosphere is all over it, acting is really good (Ko Nishimura is particularly fine as Nakaike, who turns out to be rather more than he initially appears)… I just can’t explain that feeling of it being a lot longer than its 65-minute duration, cos I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the pacing; it doesn’t try to cram too much business in, it doesn’t spread too little material too thinly… I never really felt that it was dragging or anything. Whatever. I still liked it well enough, it’s a good B-picture. Certainly not complaining about it.
Director: William Friedkin
I must say, Cruising may be a bit of a failure but it’s one of the most fascinating failures I’ve ever seen. This was about as controversial as mainstream Hollywood cinema got in 1980, as detailed at some length in the film’s Wiki entry, so I won’t get into its vicissitudes too much here. Holy SHIT, though. This was actually a cinema viewing, a digital presentation at Golden Age in Surry Hills, convened by young Mr Chris Elena, up-and-coming local filmmaker, and the look of utter confusion on Chris’ face at the end of the film was worth every cent. I haven’t seen such a “what the fuck did I just watch” look on another person’s face since I showed my friend Nick Death Bed (which I’ll be showing Chris soon as well).
Cruising is notorious, among other reasons, for having had some 40 minutes cut from it to satisfy the MPAA’s requirements for an R-rating. Friedkin has said that material was basically just more gay club scenes that may or may not have made a difference to the film (depending on which interview you read). Whatever, though, there’s definitely a feeling of stuff missing and post-production fiddling, too many jagged edges that didn’t just feel like stylistic decisions, and that go somewhat beyond the avowed intentional ambiguity of the film’s ending. There did seem to be a sort of disjunct between the first part of the film (up to the interrogation scene) and the second part in which Pacino’s undercover cop reckons he’s finally latched onto the killer he’s been pursuing; the feel of this latter part is somewhat different to that of the first.
Once Chris could say anything about the film at all, he made what I thought were some astute observations, one, that the film wasn’t homophobic (as it was widely condemned for being at the time) but it certainly was misguided—personally I felt there was something kind of tabloidesque about the film’s understanding of the milieu it depicts, that it was basically well-meaning but not terribly intelligent or subtle—and two, that much of the film actually plays like a horror film, particularly the first half. Which I would go along with. As I said, it’s not exactly a success as such—too lumpy and weird to really be able to fully defend it—but the more I think about it, the more I think I respect it despite that (though I do think the big-screen viewing made me feel better disposed towards its oddness than a TV viewing might have done). However much its ambitions may have been frustrated, at least it clearly had some beyond merely ghoulish exploitation. And whatever else may be said for or against it, I can’t think of any film of this sort with anything like that moment in the interrogation where the giant, near-naked black guy abruptly steps in and thumps Pacino, a genuinely astounding moment of “what the fuck did I just watch” almost as surreal as the fact that STEVEN SPIELBERG OF ALL PEOPLE was considered as director at one point…
Director: Lucio Fulci
So, at last I come face to face with one of the nastiest of the video nasties (yes, I know it wasn’t an actual nasty, SHUT UP), and possibly the late Lucio’s most notorious film… which is quite something when you look at some of the films he’d made before it. Ripper saw him stepping away from the supernatural and back into the murky waters of the giallo, and I don’t think there were many gialli murkier than this; by this time the slasher film (which was, of course, heavily influenced by the giallo) was in the ascendant and Fulci seemed determined to respond to that, and go further in the process (did any American slasher have a killer with… you know… THAT voice?). And it’s very much one of those films whose censorship history precedes it; it was banned here until 2005, and it was famously escorted out of the UK after James Ferman refused to even look at it… even now there’s that one scene which the BBFC still won’t allow to pass uncut.
To be sure, Ripper lives up to its rather horrible reputation in a lot of ways; you can argue about the extent to which it is or isn’t misogynistic—the Shameless DVD has an interview with Fulci’s daughter, who says it isn’t, and co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, who says it is but disavows responsibility for it being that way—but I don’t anyone would deny that it is, basically, hugely unpleasant. Maybe some of his previous films are a bit more spectacular on the gore front, but the general vibe of Ripper makes its violence seem so much worse and so much nastier (and that final scene of the little girl in the hospital crying for her daddy—the killer—who’s never going to answer her call because, you know, he’s dead by that point is, somehow, far more disturbing than anything in Fulci’s undead quartet). Like Cannibal Holocaust, it’s well-made enough that I can’t just dismiss the film as a repugnant piece of shit conspicuously lacking in redeeming features, which is what most critics seem to do. It’s good enough that I can’t just, you know, pretend it’s not. Equally, I also can’t pretend I actually liked it as such; indeed I’m not sure when I last saw a film quite so reluctant to ingratiate itself with the viewer, who it almost seems to hate at times. Well-made, but determined to be unloveable, and it surely succeeds on that count…
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
I recall this film drawing quite a lot of hype and praise a few years ago, and of course, being me, I never got around to actually seeing the film to decide for myself if it was worth that praise. With SBS2 showing it tonight as part of their “ultraviolence” series, though, the opportunity presented itself and I decided it’d be remiss to pass it up (particularly since, as of this writing, it’s on the 1001 Movies list, although given the attrition rate of more recent films that may not last [update: gone as of the 2016 edition]). I knew practically nothing about it, too, beyond the fact it was supposedly an action film of some description directed by the guy who made those Pusher films and starring Ryan Gosling, and that apparently the latter played a character with no name and not much more dialogue. Which proved to be the case… with the possible exception of the “action film” bit. Apparently the film was originally planned as a big Hollywood blockbuster, and I probably imagined (insofar as I thought about it at all) that’s what the film indeed was. Except it’s not, really… somewhere along the way the thing went from a big-budget major film to a comparatively cheap ($15m, or a lot less than these things tend to cost nowadays) indie job, and the end result is about as relatively understated as films of this sort probably get. I say relatively because, well, SBS ran it in their “ultraviolence” series for a good reason. It may be less heavy on the big flashy action than most Hollywood films of its ilk (and most of its viewers probably expected), but JESUS FUCKING HELL CHRIST when it does come to the outbursts of violence, Winding Refn surely delivers (most notably the elevator head-stomping), and the general underplayed tone of the film just makes them feel that much nastier. I’m not 100% convinced the film is quite the masterpiece some think it is, but it certainly was rather more interesting than I’d kind of thought it would be…
Director: David Cronenberg
According to Wikipedia this was Cronenberg’s biggest commercial hit to this point in his career, returned something like $15m on a $3m budget which was fair business… seems also to have been his most straightforward film so far too (though I can’t judge that as I’ve not seen much of his earlier work, just his first two short features and Fast Company, which is… unrepresentative). One thing that is hard to deny, though, is that the film is, rightly or wrongly, known for that one scene, and that one understandably infamous special effect. What surprised me when I first saw the film a few years ago, though, was, well, how not a horror film it otherwise was until you get to the climactic showdown… if anything, Scanners is really more of a conspiracy thriller with a SF undercurrent, involving telepaths created as a side-effect of a pregnancy drug; ConSec, a company dealing in weapons and security, is using these scanners for its own purposes, and finds itself opposed by a rogue scanner (Michael Ironside) basically out to rule the world with the “scanner underground” he’s creating, leading ConSec to send out their last scanner (Stephen Lack) to stop him. Except Lack’s good guy is more like Ironside’s bad guy than he realises… Ironside is fine as Revok, and I just wish the film had used him a little bit more than it did; Lack is more problematic as Vale, because he is, well, kind of lacking. Apparently he is and was better known as an artist than as an artiste; either way he doesn’t exactly bring much in the way of screen presence, does he… I wouldn’t be as harsh as the IMDB commenter suggesting he should’ve got a Razzie for his work, but equally I’m not sure I side with his defenders saying Vale was supposed to be a flat character; it’s a thin line between flat character and just flat acting and I think Lack lands on the wrong side more often than not. He’s a weak link in a film that was already kind of ordinary, and which I think wouldn’t be particularly remembered if it weren’t kind of overshadowed by the exploding head business that the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to…
Director: Robert Fuest
I only discovered tonight that Robert Fuest was actually a set designer before he took up directing, and suddenly the two Dr Phibes films made more sense… And I also found it made inadvertent sense to follow Heavy Metal with this, still the only film anyone’s made of a Michael Moorcock novel, because on checking the latter’s IMDB credits, I found him listed as a songwriter for the other films (BOC’s “Veteran of the Psychic Wars”). Also because, well, it’s about as perplexing as Heavy Metal too… Actually, it’s a fascinating lesson in marketing when you compare the two trailers; I’ve obviously seen the American one included in the Drive-In Delirium many times (that “Cosmic Carnage” section is one of my favourites), which makes it look like some… I don’t know, psychedelic comedy about the end of the world, or something like that. (The American release title—The Last Days of Man on Earth—kind of adds to that.) However, the British trailer on the British DVD posits it more as some sort of spy action thriller, which is actually more what it’s really like, though the apocalypse element does kind of play into things too… basically you could view it as a Bond film (star Jon Finch actually got offered that part before it went to Roger Moore), only fucked; the plot involves some sort of experiment started by Jerry Cornelius’ father before his untimely death, and Jerry has to find some microfilm that will bring it to its proper completion. The only problem is going to be getting it back from his drug-addled psycho brother without getting killed… Apparently Moorcock took three years to find a publisher for his novel (which I’ve not read) because every other publisher he approached said it was too weird; I can imagine the film’s producers having similar conniptions (apparently it started its release life as the top half of a double bill before quickly getting pushed to the bottom). To be sure, it’s a pretty relentless exercise in style over substance, perhaps a little too in love with its own up-front 70s hipness, but it’s strangely compelling for all that. Style over substance needn’t be a bad thing when it’s done this well…
Director: Charles Brabin
Another one of those films whose presence on the Top 500 Horror list strikes me as tenuous at best, but eh. It’s on the list so it counts for the ICheckMovies horror challenge this month, and IMDB classes it as horror too, and it’s in that Warners/MGM box of 30s horror I scored recently, so I’m watching it anyway. As I mentioned the last time I reviewed a Fu Manchu film here, even back in the 1910s when they first appeared the Fu Manchu stories were recognised as basically racist, and this film was similarly condemned in its day too; it was still contentious on reissue in the 70s and had some minutes cut for several years (although the DVD restores those bits). It was actually produced by Wm. Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan company (who released through MGM), and given that Hearst’s papers had been among the chief peddlers of the “Yellow Peril”, it kind of makes sense he’d be behind this… Anyway, this time round, Fu is in search of the relics of Genghis Khan, with which he will inspire millions of those inscrutable easterners to rise up against the west, kill the white man and take his woman (one of the lines cut from the film in the 70s), etc… Boris Karloff is the yellow peril in this film (making his first actual speaking horror role), and he plays him as the somewhat cartoonish supervillain I suppose Fu really is; given that Fu also has a laboratory of high-level pseudoscience machinery, I’m surprised he doesn’t just use that to threaten the world and inspire his followers that way… it’s not like Genghis’ mask and sword actually seem to confer more than symbolic power. Still, even if I’m not sure it’s horror as such, it is fairly entertaining in its somewhat racially insensitive fashion, pulp adventure of the sort that time specialised in. Resolutely old-school in many ways, but rather fun if you can look past some of those old-school ways…
Director: Gordon Parks
One of the relatively few films on the Drive-In Delirium list that also appears on the 1001 Movies list, but then it is a pretty important one, pretty much birthing the blaxploitation trend. Maybe not quite the first of its kind as such, but the defining example of it nonetheless, and an epic hit (something like $13m box office returns on a $500,000 budget) that ensured a whole lot more of this sort of thing would (and did) follow in its wake. And though black audiences were no doubt the primary target, white audiences seem to have responded to it just as strongly. Cos damn, who, black or white, wouldn’t want to be as cool as Shaft? Rocking a mean trenchcoat, getting laid with conspicuous ease, unfazed by and unafraid of anything, all the things I can barely even aspire to… It apparently did cop some criticism in the day for basically just being a fairly classical crime thriller, only with a black detective hero—presumably on the thesis that all stories about black people should be about the problems they face, because black people are problems more than they are people—but surely that was kind of the point of it, i.e. to show a black person as a success, not just a menial figure or comic relief, and lording it over white authority to boot… And even though the plot—one group of crooks muscling in on another’s territory and the complications that ensue therefrom—goes back to the 30s gangster films, the potential race war that could result from the white Mafia going up against black hoods is a lot more of its time and the classic gangster film would hardly have gone near it. Anyway—the story is hardly the point; the point of Shaft is Shaft himself, this being of effortless cool embodied so splendidly by Richard Roundtree with magnetism to spare. It really is one of those films where a lesser central performance could harm the film badly, and yet Roundtree just nails it somehow; not bad for what was effectively a debut film role. And the Isaac Hayes score is just the icing on the cake, isn’t it, also perfectly right for the images it accompanies. Terrific entertainment.
Director: Piers Haggard (& Tobe Hooper?)
I put the question mark next to Hooper’s name, cos he was actually the original director of this film, and stayed attached long enough to feature in the initial advertising for it. But a bit over a week into the shoot he was gone from the production, replaced by Piers Haggard making one of his relatively rare forays away from television; Haggard claims none of Hooper’s footage is in the film, which may be the case, or it may not. At any rate, it seems to have been a not terribly happy shoot; Haggard apparently said the black mamba was the most pleasant “actor” on the set, and the antipathy between the characters played by Oliver Reed and Klaus Kinski (who seems to have been instrumental in driving Hooper from the production) was matched by their off-screen mutual loathing, which I suppose carried over into their performances. Venom is essentially a hostage thriller, in which Kinski’s European terrorist colludes with Reed’s chauffeur to kidnap the young son of the family Reed works for; needless to say things don’t go to plan—because this is a film and they never do—but there’s a particularly special complication this time… the boy is an animal nut who’s just collected a new snake for his menagerie, but he doesn’t realise the shop he’s got it from has fucked up and, instead of the nice harmless house snake he requested, they’ve given him a black mamba, which is only one of the most dangerous reptiles on Earth. Perfectly understandable mistake, I’m sure. Can police inspector Nicol Williamson’s Scottish accent and bad attitude prevent things getting any worse? Venom, it may be said, is built on a somewhat ludicrous premise, but Haggard mostly plays it reasonably straight; the snake’s-eye view shots are pretty much the only time the film goes for knowing silliness. Whether this was the best approach to the material I don’t know, maybe it should’ve been played more for preposterousness. The whole thing does culminate in a genuinely amazing death scene for Kinski which is kind of worth watching the whole film just for that moment; maybe if the whole film had been on that level we’d be talking about a classic of some kind rather than an admittedly generally effective thriller.