CFQ alumni celebrate classic Batman series in new book

Click to purchase
Click to purchase

Robert Garcia and Joe Desris, who wrote the cover story for Cinefantastique’s double issue on the 1966 BATMAN television show and 1990s animated Batman series, recently had their book BATMAN: A CELEBRATION OF THE CLASSIC TV SERIES published Titan Books. It’s available from Amazon.com here.

The Valdemar Legacy review

La Herencia Valdemar posterIt almost borders on amazing that The Valdemar Legacy (La Herencia Valdemar) has not been embraced as a cult item by horror fans around the globe. The Spanish production name-checks such genre icons as Poe (borrowing the name “Valdemar” from one of his stories) to Lovecraft (the alleged source of inspiration for the screenplay) to Aleister Crowley, Bram Stoker, and Lizzie Borden (all of whom appear as characters). As if that were not enough, Spanish horror star Paul Naschy appears in his final screen role, proving the monster-kid credibility of writer-director José Luis Alemán. All of that makes The Valdemar Legacy sound like a fanboy’s dream of home movie, but the film is actually a lavishly mounted affair, beautiful to watch and drenched in ominous atmosphere, with enough production value to rival similar efforts by Tim Burton and Guillermo Del Toro. Viewers eager to enjoy terrors dressed in the accoutrements of Gothic horror may have a good time, though slow pacing and a misguided ending undermine the effectiveness.
Like one of Nobuo Nakagawa’s Japanese horror film from the 1950s, (e.g., Black Cat Mansion), The Valdemar Legacy takes a modern-day story and wraps it around an extended flashback, with events in the two time sequences sharing equal weight in the narrative. The story begins in present day with Luisa Llorente (Silvia Abascal) called in to value an old mansion after a previous appraiser mysteriously disappears. Llorente discovers her predecessor’s body in the house, then encounters a ghostly presence; Llorente escapes with some caretakers, who keep her locked up. Seeking to avoid publicity, the mysterious Valdemar Foundation (which is overseeing sale of the property) brings in Tramel (Oscar Jaenada ), a private investigator, to find Llorente. On a long train ride to the property, Dr. Cervia (Ana Risueño) explains the history of the house to Tramel.
Valdemar Legacy seanceLazarus Valdemar (Daniele Liotti) and his wife Leonor (Laia) used to operate a foster home out of their house. A photographer, Lazarus raised funds for the orphanage by conducting phony seances during which he took “spirit” photographs. The Valdemars are exposed after they refuse the blackmail demands of an unscrupulous reporter. Lazarus is thrown in jail, but Leonor receives help from Aleister Crowley (Paco Maestre). In exchange for freeing Lazarus, Crowley wants the photographer to conduct another séance, because Crowley has determined that Valdemar’s fakery has inadvertently made genuine contact with the other world. The ritual goes awry, releasing a demon that inhabits the body of a corpse, leading to a conflagration at the house, and then…
Nothing.
Instead of returning to the present to wrap up the story, The Valdemar Legacy stops with a “To Be Continued…” cliffhanger, leaving the Llorente’s predicament completely unresolved. This is not only frustrating; it is mildly insulting. The Valdemary Legacy presents itself as an old-school ghost story that builds slowly to a climax, but the methodical pace fails to reward viewer patience with a worthwhile payoff.
Consequently, The Valdemar Legacy winds up feeling like one long back story – almost like the pilot episode of a television series, with subordinate characters introduced not because they will do anything interesting now but because they will show up later in Part 2. The strategy is effective in terms of igniting interest in viewing the sequel, The Valdemar Legacy II: The Forbidden Shadow (La Herencia Valdemar II: La Sombra Prohibida); unfortunately, that film is not available in the U.S. except as an import DVD and as a YouTube rental (in Spanish without subtitles).
Before its abrupt ending, The Valdemar Legacy is a visually impressive exercise in old-school horror; though few Lovecraft elements emerge (expect more in Part 2), the story is an entertaining mashup of familiar tropes and figures, enhanced director Alemán’s obvious love for the genre. The makeup and effects work are well crafted, though the computer-generated imagery sometimes reveals its digital origins. Although the script is slow to get anywhere, sympathetic performances help to hold our attention until the third-act séance finally delivers the goods,with hell literally breaking lose.

Valdemar Legacy Naschy
Paul Naschy as Jervás

There is a certain black humor in the notion that the resulting horror not only inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula; it also gave Lizzie Borden a flash of insight on how to deal with her “family problems.” These esoteric touches may not draw a wide audience, but fans should get a kick out of seeing a film clearly aimed at viewers with their knowledge base. Fans will also be happy to see that Naschy (a cult figure for his many screen appearances as doomed werewolf Count Waldemar Daninsky) is quite good in a non-scary supporting role as the Valdemar’s faithful butler.
If you want to see old-fashioned Gothic horror realized with 21st century craftsmanship, Alemán’s exercise in affectionate nostalgia feels less embalmed than Crimson Peak. A pastiche whose familiarity is part of its appeal, The Valdemar Legacy brings its cliches to life with winning enthusiasm, unhindered by any ambition to reinvent the genre. If not for the narrative missteps, it would be a real gem.
Note: The Valdemar Legacy was – but no longer is – available for streaming through Hulu.com. It can still be found on YouTube, though misleadingly labeled under its sequel’s title, La Herencia Valdemar 2 pelicula completa en español.

Tomie: Unlimited review

Tomie Unlimited posterIf you enjoy cinematic outrageousness for its own sake, you may have a good time with <strong>Tomie: Unlimited</strong>; unfortunately, the film’s real strength is buried beneath the special effects.

For those of you who do not know, Tomie is the also-ran in the Japanese creepy girl sweepstakes. If Sadako (Ring) and Kayako (Ju-on) are Dracula and Frankenstein of J-Horror, respectively, then Tomie is maybe the Wolf Man or more likely the Mummy: she is a popular favorite, but she is no contender for the crown. Although she frequently returns from the dead, Tomie is not a yūrei, bōrei, shiryō, or any other variation on the Japanese concept of a ghost; she is some kind of inexplicable mutant, origin unknown, whose body can regenerate endless copies of herself, with personality and memories intact, though often deformed physically. She is also effortlessly attractive to men, driving them into jealous rages in which they kill each other and frequently her as well. Originating in a manga by Junji Ito, Tomie has appeared in eight films and one three-episode TV series, which means she has actually made as many or more on-screen appearances in Japan as either of her rival scream-inducers*, but in this case quantity is no guarantee of quality. Her most recent effort, Tomie: Unlimited (2011; original title: Tomie Anrimiteddo) is far from a gateway drug that will hook you into the rest of the series, but it will give you some idea what the character is about.

Tomie Unlimited death
Is Tomie dead? Um, no.

The film focuses on Tsukiko (Moe Arai), an amateur high school photographer, who is jealous of Toshio (Kensuke Owada)’s interest in her older sister, Tomie (Miu Nakamura). Fortunately for Tsukiko (so to speak), her romantic pathway to Toshio is cleared when Tomie is killed in a bizarre accident: a cross-shaped piece of metal impales her while Tsukiko’s camera, dropped in panic, clicks picture after picture of the carnage.
Right about now, viewers familiar with Tomie are wondering: If the character’s origins are a mystery, how can she be someone’s older sister? Don’t worry about that right now, because the film will not bother to address the issue until much later, though in this case “address” is probably too strong a word.
Anyway, a year later, Tsukiko’s attempts to move on with her life are plagued by nightmares and by her parent’s insane obsession with the departed Tomie, to whom they sing happy birthday (complete with cake) on the day she would have turned eighteen. The celebration is interrupted by a knock on the door, which turns out to be Tomie, as good as new, her miraculous resurrection completely unexplained – not that anyone even questions her mysterious return. Old jealousies are reignited as Tomie again catches Toshio’s eye, and the familiar cycle of carnage erupts, resulting in multiple deaths and resurrections for the title character, while Tsukiko tries to navigate the nightmare engulfing her family and friends.
For its first third, Tomie: Unlimited shows promise. The situation is a monstrous joke: death is expected to create irrevocable change, which humans must learn to accept, but here, much to Tsukiko’s dismay, the change is summarily revoked as if  by a giant Reset button in the sky. The story plays like an extreme twist on the familiar drama of survivor’s guilt. Tomie’s demise has given Tsukiko a chance to get what she wants, but instead of feeling guilty over taking advantage of the opportunity, Tsukiko’s “good” fortune is abruptly terminated by the reappearance of her older sister, who immediately becomes the center of everyone’s attention, forcing Tsukiko to remain where she has always been – on the sidelines.
Tomie Unlimited head
Unfortunately, the film is not interested in exploring this idea. Tomie: Unlimited is all about creating as many mutant versions of its titular character as possible. This starts when her father goes nuts and kills her, cutting her up into pieces, all of which have the potential to regenerate, including a half-dozen faces in a box of sushi, a head which balances on a spinal cord while emerging from a wastebasket, and a caterpillar version (which tears someone in half, rendered in CGI unworthy of a bad videogame). After a while, I started to lose track of all the different Tomies, and I’m pretty sure the filmmakers did as well; at a certain point, the script seems content to have one show up whenever there’s a need for another scare scene.  Eventually, the film begins to feel like a vaudeville “variety” show in which all the different acts feature the same performer.
At this point, the gonzo gore takes over, and the film treats us to several set pieces, which are so over-the-top as to be more laughable than horrific: for example, a new Tomie grows like a pimple on a girl’s neck, so a gang of rowdy guys cut off the original head to make way for the parasite to take over; the one who actually wields the garden sheers acts as if his actions were accidental, even though they were clearly deliberate and everyone in the room is happy with the result. The result was perhaps intended to reach the giddy heights of Evil Dead II. It falls short.
Tomie Unlimited upside down face
After enough mayhem has ensued to stretch the film to feature length (in this case 85 minutes), we get one of those “it was all a dream but really not” twists, which kinda, sorta explains how Tomie is Tsukiko’s older sister (she has grown so powerful that she can impinge “on reality”). It turns out that the endlessly attractive Tomie is fascinated by Tsukiko’s outsider status, offering her a chance to merge together so that Tsukiko can finally experience what it’s like to be the center of attention.
This leads to an interesting sequence in which the new, hybrid Tomie-Tsukiko (seen only from behind) walks down the street, viewing numerous other Tomie’s engaged in happy social interaction (curiously, no one else seems to notice the exact same woman showing up in multiple locations, but may this is just another dream). Tsukiko gets to be the center of Toshio’s attention – though, true to form for Tomie, that attention manifests in grizzly fashion.
Production values and makeup effects are mostly good. The prosthetics are sometimes rubbery, but that is no doubt part of the nostalgic charm, reminiscent of ’80s horror films. CGI is variable. The performers do a fine job of registering the melodramatic reactions inspired by Tomie (adoration turns homicidal like the flip of a switch). Miu Nakamura is a highlight in the title role, insinuating and seductive, with an eerie, calm confidence that is chilling. Moe Arai manages to make us care about Tsukiko’s plight – quite an achievement in a film more focused on “anything goes” effects.
Tomie giant faceIf you enjoy cinematic outrageousness for its own sake, you may have a good time with Tomie: Unlimited, but frankly there are other Japanese gonzo gore movies that fly farther over-the-top into insanity, with a much faster pace. Tomie: Unlimited‘s real strength lies in the beguiling and sinister charm of its lead character, whose emotional predations are the real source of horror. Sadly, this facet is buried beneath latex, drowned in blood, and eclipsed by computer graphics.
Footnote:

  • The numbers might work out differently if we include foreign remakes.

Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait – review

Muoi wallpaper resize
Remember when J-Horror and K-Horror were a thing, and Asian filmmakers could barely churn out titles fast enough for Hollywood to remake them? Well, here is a relatively late  example of the form, an elegantly crafted Korean ghost story, Muoi: Legend of a Portrait (2007), which should please fans who cannot get enough of a good thing, even if this particular thing is not quite as good as the films that turned you into fans in the first place. The background landscape is new, but the familiar compositions and pictorial elements remain, enhanced with an interesting color palette, a fine sense of light and shadow, and some entertaining brush strokes; however, the portraiture is more technically proficient than inspired: unable to render its subject in compelling detail, the finished painting is a beautiful pastiche but no masterpiece – interesting enough to peruse in a gallery but not enough to purchase and admire for a lifetime.

Yun-hee (An Jo) hopes to write a book based on the legend of a haunted portrait.
This is the Night Gallery.

The story has Korean novelist Yun-hee (An Jo) desperately trying to come up with material for a new book before a publishing deadline runs out. Fortunately, Seo-yeon (Ye-ryeon Cha), an old friend who moved to Vietnam, has run across a fascinating legend about a haunted portrait; unfortunately, Yun-hee’s previous book used thinly disguised and possibly embarrassing material based on Seo-yeon’s life. Hoping that Seo-yeon never realized the connection, or perhaps never even read the book, Yun-hee heads to Vietnam and begins investing the legend of Muoi (Anh Thu), a woman who died after a horrible betrayal and whose vengeful spirit was contained in a painting . The writer begins having nightmares, fueled by a combination of her research and residual doubt about whether or not Seo-yeon is really unaware of having been exploited in Yun-hee previous book.
In the manner of good Korean horror films, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait relies on subtle brushstrokes to gradually reveal hints and portents, until finally the accumulation of detail resolves into a clear picture of the horror lurking in shadows behind the foreground characters. The problem is that those characters are not worthy subjects: they are too shallow to be intriguing, and the attempt to creature mystique through Chiaroscuro lighting only reveals how obvious their “secrets” are.
Seo-Yeon (Ye-ryeon Cha) is incredibly happy to see the "friend" who betrayed her.
Seo-Yeon (Ye-ryeon Cha)

Yun-hee’s dreams may indicate she is victim of a guilty conscience, but she actually seems completely remorseless; her concern is only about having her betrayal discovered, not about atoning for it. Seo-yeon, on the other hand, is so preternaturally congenial that viewers immediately suspect she is faking it; the visuals and the narrative identify her so closely with Muoi (both of whom suffered betrayal horrible enough to inspire revenge) that, if you’re wondering whether Seo-yeon’s attempt to help Yun-hee is really a cover for a hidden agenda, all signs point to an emphatic YES!
The problem is exacerbated by a narrative gambit that the screenplay fails to pull off. By structuring the story around the relationship between Yun-hee and Seo-yeon, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait misfires, building to a confrontation so climactic that the story seems concluded – although, in fact, it is this sequence that finally unleashes the vengeful power of Muoi from the portrait. What should have been the climax – the film goes on to paint the screen red with blood in a satisfyingly horrific rampage of revenge – instead feels like an extended epilogue.
Yun-hee wakes up from one of her scary dreams.
Yun-hee (An Jo)

This epilogue lasts just long enough to make one realize that it could have been the main body of the film: the script could have begun with the deaths and had Yun-hee tracking down the legend of Muoi’s portrait not simply to earn a paycheck but to put a stop to the murders. With the threat active throughout the proceedings, dread would have evolved naturally, instead of being artificially injected through Yun-hee’s dreams. As it stands now, the film is punctuated with the world’s least suspenseful countdown, with calendar dates periodically flashing on screen to let us know that the traditional date upon which Muoi takes revenge is approaching – even though the story has given us no reason to think Muoi is currently targeting anyone and, in fact, we are clearly told that her spirit is helplessly trapped in the portrait.
Without this kind of ongoing threat, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait relies on a vague sense of anticipation (what – if anything – is Seo-yeon up to?) coupled with Yun-hee’s quest to discover the truth about Muoi. The later is a bit contrived and even clunky. At one point, Yun-hee randomly questions people on the street – a pointless endeavor, considering that she does not speak Vietnamese; however, the screenplay provides a lucky coincidence that rewards her efforts.
Muoi12
Flashback to betrayal

Fortunately, the actual revelations of the Muoi’s history is intriguing enough to sustain interest, and it climaxes with a truly heart-rending double betrayal, first in life and then in death: the first drives Muoi to suicide; the second traps her soul in the portrait before she can seek justice against those who wronged her. The film then tops this with a parallel betrayal in the more recent past, which is ghastly enough to prime viewers for the supernatural settling of scores that eventually transpires. You will guess where the film is heading long before it gets there (once you learn that Muoi has a reputation for rendering vengeance on behalf of those willing to pay her price, the big plot revelation is relatively obvious), but you will be glad to follow along anyway.
Like a lesser work in an established artistic movement, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait is more interesting when considered within the context of its predecessors (e.g., as in 1998’s Ring, we have a female writer tracking down the legend of a ghost that strikes with clockwork regularity). Enhanced with lovely location work in Vietnam (apparently a first for this kind of film), Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait attempts to create an interesting variation on established conventions; even though it fails to equal the masterworks it emulates, it does understand and exploit the power of the familiar stylistic devices, rendering a new work that reminds us of why we enjoy the genre. Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait will not win many converts to the movement, but the already initiated may find it worthy of a brief perusal.

The Lady Vampire review

The Lady Vampire nightclubThis movie has everything – well, almost everything. It has a dwarf; a mute bald-headed assistant; an old lady who shows up at the beginning of the story, looking young; another old lady who shows up at the end of the story looking old; a bunch of other ladies immobilized like mannequins on display; and an artistic Japanese vampire who dresses like a European count and turns savage by the light of the full moon. About the only thing the film lacks a Lady Vampire, but you can’t have everything.
The Lady Vampire (original title: Onna Kyuketsukiaka) is one of many horror films directed by the prolific Nobuo Nakagawa during a fertile period that lasted from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. Unfortunately, The Lady Vampire serves to prove that even the talented Nakagawa could not hit a home run every time; at least he doesn’t totally strike out. Though the story is a jumble of mis-matched elements, the film is enjoyable in bits and pieces, thanks to the familiar stylistic tricks and narrative devices.
Things get off to an intriguing start when a taxi carrying reporter Tamio (Keinsosuke Wada) seems to run over a mysterious figure that appears out of nowhere – only to find no body lying on the road. The non-collision slows Tamio down so that he arrives late for the birthday celebration of his girlfriend Itsuko (Junko Ikeuchi), who cuts herself instead of her cake. Though the wound is slight, it seems like an ill omen to her father Shigekatso (Torahiko Nakamura), who recalls the time his wife mysteriously disappeared twenty years ago. The recollection seems slightly prophetic when, coincidentally, the mysterious figure from the road shows up and turns out to be Miwako (Yoko Mihara), Shigekatso’s wife and Itsuko’s mother – and she has not aged a day since her disappearance.
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While Miwako recuperates, too incoherent to explain her decades-long absence, Tamio and Itsuko go to a museum, where they see a semi-nude painting the strongly resembles Miwako. Though they do not notice, an elegantly dressed stranger (Shigeru Amachi) overhears their conversation. Later, the stranger orders his dwarf assistant to steal the painting and deliver it to Miwako. The painting jars her memory: on vacation long ago, she fell under the spell of an artist, who turned out to be a vampire. Flashing further back, we see that the artist was a samurai who became undead hundreds of years ago, after he drank the life’ blood of his beloved, a member of the Amakusa clan, a sect of Japanese Christians, rather than let her fall into the hands of the Shogun’s conquering army. The vampire, who preserves his immortality by drinking the blood of Amakusa’s descendants, promised her immortality. Eventually, she escaped, and now the vampire (who currently signs his paintings Shiro Sufue, though he otherwise goes by the name Nobutaka Takenaka) wants to find her again.
Lady Vampire collageMeanwhile, we see that Shiro/Nobutaka, despite his well-coiffed appearance and fancy apparel (including the no-vampire-would-be-caught-undead-without-it cloak), has a werewolf-like reaction to moonlight, which turns him into a bestial blood-drinker who attacks women like a violent thug. Despite living in an apartment right next to a recent victim, he manages to avoid the slow-moving police long enough to kidnap Miwako and take her back to his lair: an underground castle. The police follow, along with Tamio and Itsuko. Apparently tired of Miwako, Nobutaka kidnaps her daughter and offers the same immortality deal he previously offered her mother. Tamio and the police arrive; a wild melee ensues, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing, and eventually the young couple walk away to safety.
For most of its short running time, The Lady Vampire comes across like the Japanese equivalent of the Mexican horror films that would start appearing a few years later: it resembles an assembly of clichés from classic American horror movies, filtered through the cultural eye of some competent technicians intent on manufacturing a successful pastiche with a touch of local flavor. The black-and-white photography is nicely done; the mystery is intriguing; the whole thing seems like good fun, but…
After the initial setup, the story goes nowhere fast; the human characters wander around somewhat cluelessly, while the vampire puts his plan into effect. But even his plan is unnecessarily protracted: once he knows Miwako’s whereabouts, why not kidnap her immediately instead of going through the trouble of getting the painting to her – which turns to be simply a plot device to jog her memory, so that the film can fill in the back story via flashbacks? Consequently, The Lady Vampire ends up treading water during its middle section, while the audience waits for someone to do something, with only Nobutaka’s occasional vampire outbreaks to rev up the proceedings.
The Lady Vampire womenThe Lady Vampire is further hampered by its confusing mix of elements, best exemplified by the title itself: Shiro/Nobutaka never turned Miwako into a Lady Vampire, leaving her continuing youthful appearance somewhat puzzling. The enigma is exacerbated by his mannequin-like collection of women, embalmed in eternally youthful perfection; these are women who previously rejected Shiro/Nobutaka’s overtures – a fate that may befall Miwako as well – but the process by which they are immobilized is never explained, and considering that we see only half a dozen, we have to wonder whether that meager blood supply was enough to sustain him for centuries. This image of embalmed former wives/lovers standing at attention seems borrowed from the 1934 Universal Pictures horror film The Black Cat, in which Boris Karloff’s character had a similar collection of ex-wives; elements like this suggest that the writers of The Lady Vampire were tossing in genre motifs at random, out of a misplaced sense of obligation – such as the lunar transformations, which haphazardly mixes vampire mythology with lycanthropy.
Eventually, the unanswered question mount too high. Why was the vampire hanging out in the museum at exact time that Tamio and Itsuko happened to see his painting – was he hoping that Miwako’s relatives would just happen to show up and reveal her location, or is he just an egotist with an eternity to admire his own work? Why does the moon send Shiro/Nobutaka on a rampage? What the hell is the crazy ritual Shiro/Nobutaka performed on Miwako, thumping her breast with the base of a large candelabra? Why does Shiro/Nobutaka, after going to such trouble to retrieve Miwako, suddenly give up on her and go after Itsuko instead? If Shiro/Nobutaka requires the blood of Amakusa descendants to survive, why do we only see him drink from random victims when he wolfs out during the full moon?
Even when the script attempts to answer questions, it proves mostly lip service. I am willing to accept that, having lived several hundred years, Shiro/Nobutaka could have picked up a dwarf assistant somewhere along the way; however, the film randomly introduces two other servants, a bald henchmen, who provides a little extra muscle, and a withered old crone, who looks as she wandered in from Black Cat Mansion (which Nakagawa made a year earlier) and whose sole function is to utter prophecy of doom to explain why things go so wrong for Shiro/Nobutaka. She claims that that Shiro/Nobutaka is somehow angering the God that protects the Amakusa family, which I guess explains why the moonlight at the end suddenly ages him instead of simply turning him into a monster. Though I enjoy the idea that the old crone sees the Christian God as just another polytheistic deity, I have to wonder why Yahweh took so long to put the hammer down on Shiro.
I also have to wonder whether we’re supposed to assume that Shiro/Nobutaka became a vampire specifically because he drank Christian blood from his lover all those centuries ago – and does that also explain why he appears mostly in the guise of a Western-style vampire instead of a more indigenous species?  (I guess this is as good a place as any to point out that script pretty much makes up the vampire rules to suit itself: Shiro/Nobutaka walks in daylight, drinks wine, and casts a reflection; we never hear exactly what it takes to destroy a vampire, but in the end he is dispatched by rather prosaic means.)
In spite of all this, why does The Lady Vampire remain watchable? Two factors:

  1. The story unfolds in a manner that pulls us into its mysteries (even if those mysteries remain frustratingly unfulfilled).
  2. Nakagawa knows how to deliver the genre elements you want to see in a film titled The Lady Vampire.

Like 1958’s Black Cat Mansion (based on a source novel by Sotoo Tachibana), The Lady Vampire wraps its story in three layers: present day, flashback to living memory, and flashback to history. This provides a sense of peeling away layers of the mystery moving deeper into the past, before returning to present day to see how the echoes of history reverberate in modern times. Unfortunately, the technique works less well here: in Black Cat Mansion, the historical flashback was the emotional core of the story; in The Lady Vampire, the much shorter flashbacks serve more as exposition, which do little to engage is in the outcome of Nobutaka’s pursuit of Miwako.
Fortunately, we still have Nakagawa’s visual skills to pull us through. The oddball mix of Western and Japanese genre elements  is visually enjoyable, with some interesting variations on the expected: for example, instead of a fly-eating Renfield, this elegantly cloaked vampire has an ugly, misshapen assistant – but a dwarf rather than the more traditional hunchback.
Lady Vampire car sceneOne of the eccentric joys of Nakagawa’s horror films is that, though the supernatural elements are rooted in tradition and history, these elements often manifest in a modern context, creating an interesting clash of sensibilities (often underlined by jazzy soundtrack music). Typically, The Lady Vampire begins with an opening credits sequence playing over the dashboard of a car, whose journey will soon be interrupted the unexpected reappearance of Miwako. From this opening scene of the ghost-like figure nearly run over, Nakagawa establishes a supernatural atmosphere the overlays the entire film; the buildup to the revelation of Miwakos’ return (including a service bell ringing in a room closed for decades, followed by a long walk, illuminated by fluttering candles, into the room) is a classic bit of anticipation. The sequence stands on its own as a mini-gem of low-key horror in the Japanese tradition, enhanced with striking images, such as blood from Itsuko’s cut finger dripping blood on her own birthday cake – an unsubtle omen that jabs the eye with its impact.
Equally effective is Shiro/Nobutaka’s first moonlit vampire transformation. In the manner of Horror of Dracula (1958), The Lady Vampire presents its immortal blood-drinker in two guises: refined and savage. The jarring transition afflicts not only the character but also the film itself, which goes from the more refined uneasiness of a traditional Japanese ghost story to outright brutality. Shiro/Nobutaka’s attack upon a maid plays like a vulgar rape scene, with an emphasis on the helplessness of the victim. After filming the facial change with a subtle lighting effect (a la the 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which used tinted filters to gradually reveal makeup otherwise invisible on black-and-white film), director Nakagawa plays with our visual expectations, keeping the camera mostly focused on the floor, where we see feet and shadows, as if to keep the violence just out of frame – but then he breaks the expectation with a jagged insert shot of the vampire savagely goring the maid’s throat, before tossing her on the bed to finish her off.
The Lady Vampire nightculb rampageShiro/Nobutaka’s later outbreak in a nightclub is even more extreme: a ramped-up rampage with multiple victims, it plays like an action set-piece and like a precursor to the later body-count attacks of monsters like Jason Voorhees (though of course without the explicit gore). The craziness of the sequence, with spectators standing in slack-jawed stupefaction while the vampire runs around unimpeded, has a go-for-broke quality, with the last couple victims gratuitously thrown in just for good measure. Unfortunately, even here, the narrative is confusing: Shiro/Nobutaka is exposed to moonlight because his dwarf assistant hurls a bottle through a tinted window. Did the dwarf do this on purpose – and if so, why? – or did he just get carried away while blowing off a little steam?
Nakagawa and his cinematographer also do a fine job with the vampire’s lair, initially visualized in flashback as a black void, housing only necessary props: a painting on an easel, a couch where Miwako reclines naked (arm strategically placed, of course), a mirror behind which the vampire’s previous brides stand motionless. We get a better look during the third-act daylight scenes, when the underground castle appears like a bundle of expressionistic angles and shadows, and Nakagawa, ever the master of the tracking shot, uses the twisted corridors to make us feel as if we are entering a netherworld fantasy-land of the imagination.
Sadly, Nakagawa’s directorial skills desert him when the wild melee erupts in the castle. Tamio and Shiro/Nobutaka run around fighting, while Itsuko is pursued by the dwarf, while the police rush in to assist. Because the sets are limited, the characters retrace their steps several times, crossing paths while pretending not to be able to catch each other. The overall effect is a bit like watching a horse race in which all the jockeys have taken bribes and are trying to let the other horses outrun them.
Is that age makeup, or did the actor fall face-first into a mud puddle?
The climax (after aging in the moonlight, Shiro/Nobutaka seemingly commits suicide by walking into a pool of water and drowning) is not only a rather unusual demise for an undead being; it is also anti-climactic and visually uninteresting. (The troweled-on age makeup and the ridiculous white fright wig hardly help.) As if to compensate, the old crone blows up the castle, providing a little pyrotechnic excitement.
Yoshimi Hirano’s photography and Haruyasu Kurosawa’s art direction provide ample atmosphere throughout, enhanced by Hisachi Iuchi’s music. Amachi cuts a dashing figure as the vampire, though he over-does the evil sneer a bit. The rest of the cast is adequate.
Lady Vampire posterThe Lady Vampire is historically significant not only as Japan’s first full-blown vampire film but also as an early example of a vampire in a modern setting; also, Shiro’s longing for his lost love prefigures the reincarnation plots of Dark Shadows and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as well as the romanticized depiction of vampirism in many later films.
Aesthetically, The Lady Vampire does not rank among Nakagawa’s top-tier efforts (Jigoku, Ghost Story of Yotsuya), but it does contain individual sequences that rank among his best work. If you are a fan of old-fashioned black-and-white vampire movies, and you are seeking something beyond the acknowledged classics, you might want to tap this vein.

Mansion of the Ghost Cat review

An atmospheric and well-executed genre piece from Nobou Nakagawa, Japan’s equivalent to Terence Fisher.
Ghost Cat MansionIf Japanese director Nobou Nakagawa is known at all in the U.S., it is because of Jigoku (1960), an art-house perennial and the recipient of a Criterion Collection release on DVD and streaming services. This might lead western audiences to view Nakagawa as a highbrow artiste, but in truth the director had a successful career in the 1950s and 1960s as a director of modestly budgeted horror films, appealing to general audiences by presenting familiar genre tropes with a sense of impeccable craftsmanship.  The closest American equivalent from the era would be Roger Corman, but England’s Terence Fisher and Italy’s Mario Bava also come to mind: all three took material that could have been conventional in other hands and turned it into something remarkable.
A perfect example of this is Nakagawa’s atmospheric and intriguing entry in the Japanese Bakeneko or “Ghost Cat” genre, Borei Kaibyo Yashiki, known in the U.S. as Black Cat Mansion, though the title is sometimes translated as Mansion of the Ghost Cat (perhaps because, although a black cat is seen beneath the credits,  the ghost cat itself is definitely not black). The story follows a Japanese couple who, for the benefit of the wife’s health, move from the city to the countryside, where they take up residence in an old mansion, which doubles as their home and as a clinic. Unfortunately, the mansion turns out to be haunted by a malevolent spirit, which seems to be targeting the wife.
Inquiries reveal that, hundreds of years ago, the mansion was the scene of a ghastly crime, when a brutal lord murdered a samurai and raped the samurai’s blind mother, who committed hara-kiri after charging her pet cat with seeking revenge (“Lap my blood, and imbibe my hatred!”). After the mother’s death, the cat transformed into a humanoid spirit, killing off all members of the household, including the servants. Back in the present day, we learn that the tormented wife is a descendant of one of those servants – in effect, an innocent victim of a vengeful “grudge” that is not very discriminate about its victims.
tumblr_no7ndbefYJ1ta52dfo1_500The narrative of Black Cat Mansion is wrapped in three layers, including two levels of flashback. We start in the present, with Dr. Kuzumi (Toshio Hosokawa) roving through the corridors of a city hospital late at night while a black cat meows outside, reminding him of the time he and his wife (Yuriko Ejima) moved to the haunted mansion. This takes us to the events concerning him and his wife, which in turn leads to the extended flashback regarding the history of the mansion. The movie then returns step by step to the present, first to the story of Kuzumi and his wife at the mansion, then to Kuzumi at the hospital.
The symmetrical structure neatly organizes a story that might otherwise have seemed stitched together to achieve feature length (though only barely, at 69 minutes). We get a sense of going deeper and deeper into the past, like peeling back a proverbial onion to reveal an elusive mystery. The back-the-the-present structure also provides a sense of finality to climax that is a bit vague in its details (we know what happened, though why is not precisely clear – at least not to Western viewers relying on subtitles).
Nakagawa presents the material with several stylistic flourishes that transform the genre material into a distinctive form of popular art. The wraparound segment begins with the camera drifting past an unexplained scene of a body being wheeled through a darkened hospital hallway like a ghostly funeral procession – which Dr. Kuzumi’s voice-over totally ignores, as if his thoughts are too preoccupied to bother noting the weird visual flashing before our eyes. Totally unrelated to the narrative, the scene serves only as visual warning sign, an omen of the supernatural horrors to come.
black-cat_crow1When Kuzumi and his wife arrive at the mansion, the scenery is straight out of the horror movie playbook, right down to the ominous raven perched atop a branch of one of the many wild plants apparently reclaiming the land from the disused property. Nakagawa films the scene in a simple, elegant long shot, slowly tracking to follow as the front gate is opened and the characters enter; the effect is to make the audience feel as if they, too, are crossing a borderland into a different world, a slightly dreamy landscape where anything can happen. The effect is punctuated when the extended take is broken by a single insert closeup, as the wife sees a mysterious woman within a side building – only to find that the ghostly figure is gone when Kuzumi comes to see.
As effective as these touches are, the present day footage is a bit methodical in its buildup, as the ghost’s presence becomes gradually more intrusive, entering the premises, killing the family dog (off-screen), and eventually attacking the wife. Black Cat Mansion truly comes to life when it enters its extended flashback: the uncanny creepiness of the present day scenes are replaced by a overtly horrific melodrama that is more full-blooded and colorful – quite literally so, as the present days scenes are shot in blue-tinted black-and-white, while the period footage is in color.
Nakagawa immediately captures a convincing sense of a household living in fear of its temperamental master. There is an awful sense of inevitability as the events build to the murder and rape, reaching an emotional crescendo as the blind mother begs the pet cat to be her avenger, then takes her own life, after which the cat dutifully licks up the dead woman’s blood. The revenge that ensues is bizarre to say the least, with the actual cat soon replaced by a human with cat-like features, who sows mayhem and discord, leading to the deaths of not only the guilty lord but of innocent victims as well.
black cat mansion 2The makeup of the Ghost Cat appears slightly absurd to modern eyes, but it works well enough in longshot and shadows; some of the best scenes feature the character silhouetted against translucent screens. The action uses some simple camera tricks to create bizarre imagery: jump-cuts and reverse motion imbue the vengeful cat with supernatural powers. The matter-of-fact impact of these simple effects adds a touch of low-key believability to the otherwise unbelievable scenes.
SPOILERS: With the back story filled in, the film returns to the events at the mansion, where the wife suffers a final attack before the hiding place of the murdered samurai’s body is revealed. Black Cat Mansion then returns to the opening scene at the hospital, where Kuzumi’s wife appears and asks to adopt the cat we heard meowing earlier. The return to normalcy offers a refreshing sigh of relief after what came before, but the wraparound feels a bit like the opening and closing footage of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which used a similar structure to stitch a happy ending onto what had been intended as a pessimistic story. How did Mrs. Kuzumi survive the final attack, which apparently left her dead? Was the ghost cat exorcised by the revelation of the hidden body? Apparently so, but the film is not saying for sure. Viewers simply have to accept the ending as if emerging from the depths of a nightmare, back to a waking world where the past truly has been laid to rest, and life can go on with no residual fear of innocuous felines. END SPOILERS.
Black Cat Mansion is not a masterpiece that will sway the uninitiated. It is, however, a fine example of well-executed genre material, handled with serious intent and dedicated craftsmanship. Fans of old-fashioned horror looking for something beyond the standard list of classics should be satisfied, as should anyone with an interest in cult Japanese cinema, especially cineastes seeking the roots of modern J-horror (for example, with his feline yowl, Toshio from the Ju-On films is clear descendant of the ghost cat genre). Even cat lovers may get a kick out of the lengths to which a beloved pet will go to right the wrongs inflicted on its master and mistress. A dog may be man’s best friend; a cat, however, is a ruthless undead avenger.

Tetsuo: The Bullet Man review

tetsuo-the-bullet-manTwo decades after TETSUO: THE IRON MAN, writer-director Shinya Tsukamoto returns to the franchise that he last visited in TETSUO II: BODY HAMMER. The results should please fans eager for another helping of science-fiction body horror, featuring a hapless human transforming from mere flesh and blood into a mutant metallic hybrid, but despite the addition of an American lead and English dialogue, there is little to draw in first-time viewers not already bewitched by the strange spell that Tsukamoto weaves (o r rather welds).
This time out, Anthony (Eric Bossick) is an American salary-man living in Tokyo with a Japanese wife (Akiko Mono) and their son, Tom (Tiger Charlie Gerhardt). Anthony’s father Ride (Stephen Sarrazin) seems peculiarly concerned with the health of Anthony and Tom – a concern that seems mysteriously related to a lifelong admonition that Anthony should never lose his temper. (Fans of the Incredible Hulk, take note.)
Anthony’s eternal calm is put to the test when Tom is deliberately run over by a mysterious driver, known only as the Informant (Tsukamoto himself). Tom seems to take longer to die than one would expect; briefly, his shattered body seems to be retaliating against the car from below (it’s hard to tell with all the shaky camer work). Yuriko is outraged that Anthony doesn’t want revenge, but that changes when a delivery man turns out to be an assassin who attempts to kill Anthony, provoking his body to begin mutating into a misshapen Terminator-like weapon that blows away his opponents.
Eventually, it turns out that Ride was involved with an experiment to create cyborg weapons; after his wife Mitsue (Yuko Nakamura) dies, he created a cyborg duplicate, by which he sired Anthony. Since then, he has worried that Anthony (and, later Tom) could transform into weapons if their anger was aroused. The Informant has been deliberately attempting to provoke this transformation, for vaguely expressed reasons of his own (echoing the first TETSUO film, he tells Anthony to use his love to destroy the world). Anthony must choose between embracing his new power to kill the man who killed his son, or restraining his anger for fear that once unleashed it will lead to uncontrollable destruction.
I fear that my summary has made TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN sound more coherent than it intends to be. Tsukamoto’s directorial approach here is to shoot everything with a bouncing hand-held camera, then splice the footage together with as many micro-cuts as possible, to create a deliberately disorienting experience. The visceral impact is undeniable, but it is also exhausting, making the film feel much longer than its 71 minutes. At a certain point, you want to say to the screen, “Yeah, I get it; let’s move on, okay?”
Consequently, narrative progression is obscured: audiences are not so much watching the story of Anthony’s dilemma as experiencing a delirious surge of sensory impressions that simulates in the viewer’s mind the confusion that must be afflicting Anthony. The revenge story is further weakened by a plot structure that focuses mostly on revealing the mysterious back story of Anthony’s situation, through flashbacks, narration, and glimpses of documents.
The hyper-kineticism pays off in the action scenes, and the final act is interesting an an over-the-top AKIRA kind of way, which maybe sees Anthony resolving his dilemma of whether or not to kill the Informant (SPOILER: Anthony’s new metal body absorbs the Informant, who vows, “You don’t want me inside you – you don’t know what I’ll do” – a threat that remains unresolved by the closing credits, which see Anthony somehow returned to a normal life with a new son.)
Tetsuo Bullet Man 7Stylistically, Tsukamoto has forged a new metallurgic spectacle with all the white-hot alloys and burning sparks of a foundry running at twice full capacity. It’s crazy enough that those willing to embrace that madness should have a deliriously good time. Just don’t expect much in a way of deeper exploration of themes from the previous films. This is mostly more of the same – just louder, slicker, and hotter than before.
TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN (2009). Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto. Written by Tsukamoto, Hisakatsu Kuroki. Unrated. 71 minutes. Cast: Eric Bossick, Akiko Mono, Yuko Nakamura, Stephen Sarrazin, Tiger Charlie Gerhardt, Prakhar Jain, Shinya Tsukamoto.

Laserblast: The Paramount Vault – Science Fiction & Horror on YouTube

i-married-a-monster-from-outer-space-everett
Parmount Pictures recently created a new YouTube channel, The Paramount Vault, which streams free films from the studio’s library. Along with clips from classic titles, there are approximately 150 full length movies. Of course, these are not premium titles but lower end stuff for which services such as Netflix might not be inclined to pay licensing fees. However, there are some horror and science fiction films that might be of interest to cult movie enthusiasts and completists: THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, THE SPACE CHILDREN, CONQUEST OF SPACE, THE DEADLY BEES, CRACK IN THE WORLD, BENEATH, THE SENDER, etc.
The Paramount Vault divides its titles into playlists. You can find science fiction films here and horror films here.
Films worth checking out include I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (an tense little thriller despite the title); THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (a gore-filled sequel to the cult original); IN DREAMS (Neil Jordan’s psychic thriller); and SHANKS (an oddity starring mime Marcel Marceau). And of course fans of ’80s cheese from Cannon Films should get a kick out of MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.
Note: The Paramount Vault YouTube channel is not to be confused with the Paramount Pictures YouTube channel. The former is a library of archival titles; the latter offers trailer and promotional videos for Paramount’s upcoming releases.

Shaun the Sheep Movie – review

shaun_the_sheep_ver4Despite some forays into computer-generated animation (Flushed Away, Arthur Christmas), Aardman Animations remains committed to the art of stop-motion, as evidenced by their most recent theatrical release, 2015’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, which sees the company struggling but ultimately succeeding at expanding their television series a feature film. The movie lurches to a shaky start, as if uncertain how to stretch its concept to full length, but after a wobbly first act, the narrative hits its stride and runs smoothly to a successful finish, delivering delightful entertainment on the way.
Personally, I was dubious about the potential of a Shaun the Sheep movie. I preferred the title character when he played a supporting role in his debut, A Close Shave, the Oscar-winning short subject starring the lovable characters Wallace and Gromit. The Shaun the Sheep television series moved the character to center stage, but there was not necessarily that much distinctive about the little fur-ball. Sometimes he was the one coming up with clever schemes, but other times he just happened to be the one swept up by the zany antics (i.e., in the first episode, he is dragged around by a hungry, high-speed goat, trailing behind like a water-skier). The show shifted the setting from town to country, placing Shaun on a farm run by another human-dog combo, the Farmer and his Sheep Dog (amusing but no match for Wallace and Gromit). A typical 20-minute episode consists of three unrelated segments, each telling a mini-story. The series cleverly eschewed dialogue, relying only on grunts, bleats, and exclamations (even from the Farmer), but the stories tended to be more juvenile in their appeal than Aardman’s best work. I will admit to being thoroughly charmed by “Who’s the Mummy” (which despite its title is not a horror movie spoof), which had Shaun bedeviled by a quartet of freshly hatched chicks who imprint on him (they resemble tribbles with tiny beaks, and they were so ridiculously cute that I had to laugh in spite of myself). Nevertheless, the question remained: could the format of 6-to-7-minute segments be stretched to full narrative length?
Shaun the Sheep Movie begins with a recreation of the show’s opening title sequence, portraying Shaun, the other sheep, the Farmer, and his dog getting up in the morning; the joke is that this sequence, which repeats weekly on the series, is repeated multiple times in the film, creating an immediate sense of an endless, boring routine, which ultimately motivates Shaun to break that routine by fooling the farmer into sleeping in late, so that the sheep can have a day off. It’s just enough of a narrative tidbit to set up a situation in which the sheep can get into some hi-jinx; basically, it’s little more than what one would see in an average episode, and it initially seems as if the script is simply going to string together several such episodes until they fill the minimum necessary running time. Things start to feel a little desperate when a camper-trailer (in which the farmer is sleeping) rolls down the hill and into nearby city, creating an excuse for one of those action-packed high-speed chases that Aardman does so well (e.g., The Wrong Trousers with Wallace and Gromit); one almost gets the feeling that Aardman is stumbling into DreamWorks Animation territory (in which an extended, gratuitous action set piece is de rigueur in the first twenty minutes of any film).
Fortunately, all of this is just preamble – a messy first act setting up the fun to follow. Once the Farmer awakens in the city, the story moves smoothly from one development to the next, and the script never again seems to be padding itself unnecessarily. The Farmer suffers amnesia, but he recollects enough of his skill with a pair of sheers (originally used on the sheep) to become a successful barber; Shaun and the other sheep, meanwhile, find that the farm doesn’t run so well without the farmer, so they embark on a mission to rescue him, which is complicated by an officer from animal control, who is every bit as threatening and efficient (but a lot less unpleasantly designed) than the one in Madagascar 3).
For its second two-thirds, Shaun the Sheep movie is pretty much a non-stop delight, in which the comic set pieces (such as the sheep disguising themselves as humans to thwart the animal control agent) are effortlessly blended into the narrative. As always, Aardman provides state-of-the-art stop-motion, effortlessly realizing sequences traditionally difficult to achieve in the medium (e.g., splashing water, quickly moving objects). Not all of these tour-de-force moments are high-octane highlights; some are just amusing throw-aways, such as the delightful sequences in which the sheep lull the Farmer into falling asleep by jumping one by one over a fence. The basic joke (counting sheep puts people to sleep, right?) is only mildly funny, but the visual execution augments the humor by having the sheep ever so subtly go into slow motion as they reach the peak of their jump, the floating effect enhancing the hypnotic quality upon their intended victim.
Shaun the Sheep: angry dog prisoner
Unlike many of their computer-generated competitors, who sometimes don’t know when to modulate the animated anarchy, the Aardman team know when a simple sight gag is as entertaining as a technical tour-de-force: during a stint in jail, the sheep inmates are continually perturbed by the silent stare of an angry dog in the cell opposite; the joke is that his expression is exactly the same every time the camera cuts to him (which means of course that the animators could save time by not animating the figure). The recurring images eventually pays off with a punchline I won’t spoil, except to say that it explains the character’s total lack of movement.
In a world filled with CGI blockbusters that seem to tell the same tale over and over (little guy achieves his great destiny and/or a sense of belonging), Shaun the Sheep Movie offers a pleasant change of pace. The tactile quality of stop-motion puppetry grounds the visuals – not in reality, exactly , but in a sense of physicality that enhances the sight gags and set pieces; the narrative delivers unpretentious fun without trite lessons about letting go or finding inner self.
I don’t think I will ever love Shaun the Sheep as much as I love Wallace and Gromit, but to my surprise the little lamb’s feature-film debut is actually better than the disappointing Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Shaun the Sheep Movie improves on the television series, providing the kind of stop-motion delights that should amuse adults whether or not they have children.

The Bloody Judge (1970) review

Poster art with the film's original foreign title.

“You are all condemned, for crimes against king and kingdom, to hang… to dangle until you are but dead, to be then cut down still alive, to have your entrails drawn out and thrust into your own mouths, to be further hanged, then quartered like the carcasses of beef you are. You number five hundred, but even if you were five thousand, the execution of this sentence would be just before God Almighty… and may He have mercy upon your souls.” – Lord George Jeffreys.

There is perhaps no more enduring mystery in the world of cinema than the cult reputation of Jesus Franco. Certainly, no filmmaker ever did less to earn more respect from people who should know better. A purveyor of exploitation trash, Franco is viewed as a talent who transcended genre obligations and meager resources, and Exhibit A in his case is The Bloody Judge (original title: Il trono di fuoco), a 1970 production that sees the director for once working with something like a reasonable budget. Sadly, this means only that Franco’s usual cinematic shortcoming are elevated to the level of garden-variety incompetence.
Like 1966’s Psycho-Circus, The Bloody Judge is one of Christopher Lee’s non-horror “horror” films – which is to say, it has enough genre trappings to capitalize on the actor’s status as horror star, but these elements are simply window dressing on a story  that is really something else:  a wanna-be historical epic of political intrigue, upheaval, and warfare. (This misrepresentation of the film as a horror-thriller was compounded in the U.S., where the release was irrelevantly re-titled Night of the Blood Monster.)
Lee plays Judge Jeffreys, a real-life historical character, who is initially seen presiding over the trials of accused witches, who are tortured to extract confessions. Just when viewers think they are seeing Lee’s version of Witchfinder General (1968), the narrative shifts: the witch-hunting turns out to be a gratuitous sideshow; the remaining running time focuses on political foes seeking to overthrow the current regime in England, and most of the people before Jeffreys’ court stand accused of treason. At times, Jeffries seems less like the lead character than a Greek chorus, delivering exposition to explain action taking place elsewhere, though he does occasionally take some action to squelch the uprising.  In short, this is another one of producer Harry Alan Towers’s scatter-shot scenarios (he co-wrote the story as “Peter Welbeck”) and also an example of a modestly budgeted film that couldn’t afford to keep its star around for the duration of production, resulting in a fragmented, unfocused mess, which abandons its most interesting idea to waste time on secondary characters.
Misleading poster art for the original U.S. release.Strangely, there is an interesting idea at the heart of the film – well, not at the heart, but pulsing in one of the outer arteries, blocked from circulating throughout the rest of the system. Though Jeffreys is presented as a merciless judge in public, he privately frets about the severity of the sentences he hands down, continuing in his work only because he believes it is his duty before God and Country, regardless of his personal feelings. This leads to a nice confrontation wherein Lord Wessex (Leo Genn) admonishes Jeffreys, wishing that for once the judge would see one of his abominable sentences carried out, so that his abstract justifications might be tempered by a collision with the awful reality.
In a nifty bit of accidental art, Wessex’s admonition rings true precisely because The Bloody Judge belongs to that breed of exploitation film which, for reasons of budget and schedule, keeps its star well segregated in his own little portion of the film, never allowing him into the torture scenes, which seem to have been filmed separately, with an eye for inclusion on a country-by-country basis, depending on local audience preference for depraved debauchery. Thus, Jeffreys truly does seem completely oblivious to the horrors inflicted because of his judgments.
At the conclusion, Jeffreys – arrested and in jail, awaiting the sort of punishment he has handed out to others – looks out his cell window and for the first time beholds an execution – a sight which provokes a heart attack in the previously stolid judge, who collapses, gasping, “You were right, Wessex. I never knew!”  It’s a strangely affecting moment, well stage and acted, evoking pity for a character who bestowed so little pity on others – a hint of what The Bloody Judge could have been, had its focus remained on the title character.
Sadly, the film spends just about as much time on this dramatic arc as I have spent describing it here; the impact is considerably diluted by the rest of the movie, with its political machinations, espionage, warfare, attempted rapes, aimless brutality, and torture scenes forming a bloody stew of mismatched ingredients.
Had these other scenes been executed with aplomb, their inclusion might have been forgivable, but often they are simply absurd. One “highlight” features Lord Wessex’s son visiting an oracular woman living in a cave: she vaguely warns him of “danger” but neglects to mention that, not sixty seconds previously, the king’s men were in the cave searching for him and are presumably still outside waiting. When he leaves, he almost literally walks right into their arms. (Of course, how young Wessex managed to get past them and into the cave is a question best left unasked, because the film will not bother to explain it.)
Franco admirers cite the mid-film battle sequence as an example of what the director could achieve, given decent resources, but the result is not exactly David Lean in scope; it looks more like a competently executed second-unit scene, whose moderate impact is undermined by foreshadowing that completely oversells the event: a character refers to an army “10,000 strong,” which – even allowing for hyperbole – is laughably wrong. What we see looks more like 50 men on horseback, fended off by half a dozen unsupported canons. Photographing the same horsemen from three or four different angles doesn’t make them seem like 150 or 200 men; it makes them look like the same men photographed from three or four different angles.
Even worse, the geography of the battlefield is so haphazardly presented that it’s never clear why the horseman ride directly toward the canons instead of simply circumventing them and attacking from behind. A few do ride up from behind, but the editing quickly obscures this, in order to keep the scene going, because it’s clear that, even with their small numbers, the horsemen could easily overwhelm the cannoneers  while they pause to reload.
As if this were not bad enough, midway through the sequence, Franco violates the 180-degree rule, switching to a 180-degree reverse angle, so that the cannons suddenly seem to be firing from left to right onscreen instead of right to left. Viewers cannot tell whether the canons have been re-aimed in the opposite direction or whether there is a different battery of canon. Confusion is aggravated by the fact that the cannoneers’ uniforms change from blue to red, and they seem to be shooting at other soldiers in red uniforms. A triumph of cinematic mise-en-scene, it ain’t.
As lame as these cinematic stumbles are, they look like exemplars of cinematic form compared to the torture scenes, which pretend to be the physical manifestation of Jeffreys’ harsh judgments but feel more like gratuitous torture porn. The allegedly serious intent is hardly enhanced by the presence of actor Howard Vernon as the chief torturer Jack Ketch: his skinny frame, dressed in a black-hooded costume, suggests a reject from a Monty Python sketch.
Bloody Judge DVD artSome of this footage was omitted in the 84-minute version of the film released in 1970, but it’s been lovingly restored in the 103-minute version currently available on DVD and streaming services. The key sequence involves Mary Gray (Maria Rohm), an accused woman who has caught the eye of the judge, who summons her to his quarters. For reasons the film never explores, Ketch does not immediately bring her from the torture chamber as ordered; he has a little fun with her first, apparently unconcerned that his boss might be a little impatient.
Ketch’s “fun” consists of shoving Mary into a cell with a tortured woman, who is either unconscious or dead, and then waiting to see what Mary does. Literally, he gives no orders, forces her to do nothing. Instead, she takes the initiative on her own, kissing and licking the other woman’s wounds. In the liner notes for the DVD, Tim Lucas calls this scene “incredible, transgressive erotica,” but a more accurate description would be risible nonsense. What is presumably supposed to register as horrible humiliation and degradation instead reads as silly soft-core foreplay, as actress Rohm exhibits neither reluctance nor revulsion. It should go without saying that none of her subsequent scenes show any hint that the character has been scarred by this experience, because it is precisely the kind of scene intended to be included only in versions of the film released to specific countries that want a little extra schlock (a theory supported by the fact that, unlike the rest of the film, the restored scene is dubbed in German, with English subtitles – suggesting that the footage was never intended for English-speaking countries).
If this is the evidence that’s supposed to prove Franco’s genius, I remain unconvinced, but in spite of its manifest shortcomings, The Bloody Judge did keep me watching until the end, if only for the benefit of seeing Lee in a mildly interesting role in a historical film. The Bloody Judge lacks the class and craftsmanship of the Hammer Film productions that made Lee famous, and the Jeffreys lacks the iconic stature of Lee’s Count Dracula, but at least the villainous judge is given a tiny note of interest. (Fortunately for Lee, the actor would appear in a high-class period costume piece a few years later, The Three Musketeers.) Apart from Lee, The Bloody Judge has little to recommend it to anyone who has not already succumbed to the dubious allure of Franco. It’s beautifully shot but inept in storytelling and execution, and even its sleazy excesses are more laughable than shocking. This Judge has been weighed on the scales of cinematic justice and found wanting.
THE BLOODY JUDGE (Original title: Il trono di fuoco [“The Throne of Fire”]; also known as NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER, 1970) Produced by Arturo Marcos, Harry Alan Towers. Directed by Jesus Franco. Written by Enrico Colombo, Jesus Franco, Michael Haller; story by Harry Alan Towers, Anthony Scott Veitch. Cast: Christopher Lee, Maria Schell, Leo Genn, Hans Hass Jr., Maria Rohm, Margaret Lee, Howard Vernon. 103 minutes.