An atmospheric and well-executed genre piece from Nobou Nakagawa, Japan’s equivalent to Terence Fisher.
If 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.
The 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.
When 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.
The 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.
An atmospheric and well-executed genre piece from Nobou Nakagawa, Japan’s equivalent to Terence Fisher.
Two 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.)
Stylistically, 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.
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.
Despite 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.
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.
“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.
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.
Some 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.
With a title like Psycho-Circus, not to mention the presence of two Count Draculas (Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski), fright fans will probably expect this to be some kind of lurid horror-thriller filled with circus acts gone horribly wrong (lion tamers mauled, knife thrower’s assistant stabbed) along the lines of 1960’s Circus of Horrors (stock footage from which appears here). Unfortunately, Psycho-Circus is horror-in-name only; though it features a circus, there is nothing psychotic about it. Based on a story by Edgar Wallace, the film is more of a mystery-crime-melodrama, more accurately represented by its original title, Circus of Fear. Taken on its own terms, the film is a passable time-waster, though just barely.
The plot kicks off with the nicely staged robbery of an armored car in broad daylight, abetted by one of the security guards. The stolen loot is hijacked, however, when one of the robbers is killed while trying to deliver the money to an accomplice at the circus. This sets up two mysteries: (1) Who was supposed to get the money; and (2) Who actually got the money? Unfortunately, the film is concerned with the mechanics of its gimmicky mystery plot that it forgets to ask, let alone answer, the most important question: Why should we care about the answers to Questions 1 and 2?
Misleading artwork for the re-titled version of the film.
This is a consequence of a typically fragmented script by producer Harry Alan Towers (writing under his Peter Welbeck pseudonym), which follows different characters in different plot threads, without ever winding them into a tight skein. There’s no central protagonist or point of view, and the interesting bits must fight for attention with scenes that drag the pace to a crawl: the police attempts to solve the crime are interrupted by criminal attempts to track down the loot, which in turn must give way to behind-the-scenes melodrama at the circus. Though the anticipated circus carnage never takes place, eventually suspects and witnesses start showing up with knives in their backs, but that’s so obviously a red herring for the knife-thrower that you almost wonder whom the film thinks it’s fooling.
Credit the scattershot approach to a combination of convoluted mystery plotting and more pragmatic concerns: a British-West-German co-production, Psycho-Circus is proto-Eurotrash cinema, a genre in which the need to satisfy investors from different countries outweighs the needs of the narrative. German money? Get German actor Klaus Kinski in there for a few scenes, whether or not he adds anything to the plot.
One intriguing bit involves Lee’s character, Gregor, the lion-tamer, who goes through most of the film wearing a mask, supposedly to hide scars inflicted by one of the beasts in his act – or is he really a criminal hiding his identity? Is he the man to whom the loot was supposed to be delivered, or did he purloin it to finance his escape, now that a dark secret in his past seems to be catching up to him? There might have been a fascinating film to be made that focused on these aspects; instead, these tiny threads are twisted and knotted with less interesting strands.
Despite star billing, Lee is just one of the ensemble. At least his voice is distinctive enough to register while his face is hidden, and when he is finally unmasked he manages to generate a little pathos for a character who is a bit shady. Leo Genn is decent as the Scotland Yard detective on the case, but Kinski gets little to do except skulk around suspiciously.
Production values are okay; direction is competent but unremarkable. The film could have benefited from more robust handling to push it out of the German krime territory and into the giallo genre; a little stylized violence would have gone a long way toward enlivening the drab plotting. The story winds up with one of those scenes in which the detective assembles the suspects to reveal the murderer’s identify. If you’re a fan of that kind of who-dunnit hijinx, it might be worth your while to sit through this one to the end.
Though the revelation of Gregor’s face is withheld until late in the British film, the trailer gives it away.
Credits: Produced by Harry Alan Towers. Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey. Screenplay by Harry Alan Towers (as Peter Welbeck) based on Edgar Wallace’s novel The Three Just Men (uncredited). Cast: Christopher Lee, Leo Genn, Anthony Newlands, Heinz Drache, Eddi Arent, Klaus Kinski, Margaret Lee, Suzy Kendall, Skip Martin. 90 minutes.
In cults circles (especially among fans of Italian horror cinema in general and director Mario Bava in particular), THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM is probably the most (in)famous alternate film version in existence – a complete do-over of Bava’s excellent and ethereal LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973) with added scenes of (you guessed it!), exorcism and all that entails: bile, vomit, and profanity. What may make HOUSE OF EXORCISM unique among alternate versions is that (as its producer Alfredo Leone is fond of pointing out) it actually has a separate copyright date, distinguishing HOUSE OF EXORCISM as a separate film unto itself. The irony here is that, if HOUSE OR EXORCISM holds any interest at all (a position seriously open to debate), that interest lies not on the merits of the film itself but on its relationship to LISA AND THE DEVIL.
The original is an atmospheric, ambitious work, filled with suggestion and ambiguity about a tourist named Lisa (Elke Sommer) who loses her way and ends up in a chateau with a strange family, who seem to recognize her as someone named Helena. Is she a reincarnation of a dead woman, or are these the ghosts of the past? Is Leandro (Telly Savalas) simply a butler, or is he an incarnation of the Devil, tormenting Lisa by making her relive events of her previous life over and over? In the manner of many such movies, which combine artistic aspirations with genre obligations, it’s not a fully satisfying experience in a conventional sense, and it’s sometime hard to determine whether the questions lingering over the narrative are a part of an intricate puzzle box or simply a matter of sloppy screenwriting. Fortunately, the film bravura visual qualities pull you into its weird world, so that any puzzling plot developments become part of the dreamlike experience.
Apparently this was too much for U.S. distributors, who passed on LISA AND THE DEVIL after it was completed in 1973. Hoping to get some return on his investment, Leone went back and shot more footage (apparently directing the additions himself) featuring Sommer and Robert Alda as a priest. The result was THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM, which was released in Italy in 1975 and in the U.S. in 1976 – a film that mimics THE EXORCIST (1973) only close enough to remind viewers how inferior the ripoff is.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM begins with a much more bombastic opening music cue, beneath a completely revised opening credits sequence, with graphics emphasizing crosses against garish red backgrounds. After that, there is some attempt to simulate the visual style of the original, and the new footage blends relatively seamlessly at first (though sharp-eyed viewers will note that Leandro is shot only from behind to disguise the absence of Savalas). In the added scenes, instead of simply losing her way and hitching a ride that takes her to the chateau, Lisa suffers some kind of fit; taken to a hospital, she exhibits signs of possession, so Father Michael (Alda) performs an exorcism, which more or less lasts the rest of the film, with footage from LISA AND THE DEVIL intercut like flashbacks or dreams.
The possession scenes pilfer THE EXORCIST’s bag of tricks, adding little new and nothing worthwhile. There is some stunt work with a contortionist that’s halfway creepy and some belabored attempts to use adult nudity and innuendo show the evil spirit tormenting the priest with his guilty feelings over an affair from before he took to the cloth; a particularly risible moment occurs when Father Michael’s dead girl friend materializes to seduce him – in a room whose walls are covered in puke (it doesn’t help that the hospital set, where the exorcism takes place, looks more like a toolshed). Like almost every other film that followed in the wake of director William Friedkin’s version of William Peter Blatty’s best-seller, HOUSE OF EXORCISM eschews any attempt at grappling with its subject matter in a realistic way, instead simply serving up a bunch of recycled cliches like so many obligatory genre elements: Lisa contorts, pukes, and levitates on cue because that’s what happens in a film with “exorcism” in the title – but it’s all gratuitous mayhem, with no thematic underpinnings.
There are a few transitional bits to visually justify cross-cutting between the two narrative threads (i.e., as Lisa wanders lost in a scene from the original, the camera zooms in on a broken pocket watch, before cutting to a closeup of someone looking at his wrist watch in the hospital to which Lisa has been taken in the new footage). However, the logical connection between the two threads remains elusive. In one early addition, a repairman, working on a mannequin for Leandro, notes that Lisa looks exactly like Helena, suggesting that Leandro plans to “use” her tonight, instead of Helena – presumably in the drama about to unfold at the chateau. Later in the hospital, the possessed Lisa declares to no one in particular, “You won’t use me in your games tonight!” The implication seems to be that the scenes in the chateau represent events that the spirit of Helena is somehow avoiding by possessing the body of Lisa. Or something like that…
What is mildly interesting is that the film eventually feels some obligation to spell out, however incoherently, what is happening. In between hurling profanity and invective at Father Michael (“Don’t break my balls, priest!”), Helena, speaking through Lisa, offers a sort of running commentary on the events in the chateau, spelling out not only what is happening but also why. In a sense, she becomes the Greek Chorus, explaining the story to the audience.
The completely unexpected result of this is that HOUSE OR EXORCISM emerges feeling less like a ripoff of THE EXORCIST and more like DAUGHTER OF HORROR, the re-release version of DEMENTIA (1955), which added narration to clarify a nightmarish scenario that was originally intended to perplex audiences with its dreamlike surrealism. Is this enough to make HOUSE OF EXORCISM interesting, even if not worthwhile? Not really. The explanation proffered by HOUSE OF EXORCISM makes little sense. Unlike DAUGHTER OF HORROR, whose narration may actually have enhanced the movie, providing answers that did not feel tiresome or trite, HOUSE OF EXORCISM does not emerge as an intriguing alternate version; its exposition simply reminds us that we would have been better off watching LISA AND THE DEVIL and figuring things out for ourselves.
In HOUSE OF EXORCISM, Helena is speaking in the past tense about things she has experienced, but she also insists that these events at the chateau are taking place again tonight, though it is not completely clear how that could be possible without her participation. Are we to assume that Helena and Lisa’s spirit have traded places and that Lisa is now in Helena’s place, trapped in some kind of limbo where the events of the past repeat endlessly? If so, the explanation is unsatisfying – why should Lisa suffer for Helena’s sins? As elusive as the original film was, the implication ultimately was that Lisa and Helena were the same, and the events in the chateau represented her past – perhaps another lifetime – catching up with her.
With this element obliterated, the ending pushes Lisa aside to focus on Father Michael as he travels to the chateau to exorcise the house itself. Why? No particular reason, except perhaps that placing this new character in the setting from the old footage would forge a slightly stronger link between the film’s two narrative threads. This leads to a relatively uneventful climax in which the priest wanders around the building, assaulted by wind and threatened by snakes, while shouting to cast out the devil.An abruptly edited flash of lightening seems to show him going up in a puff of smoke, but by that time viewers are past caring.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM is, top put it bluntly, an abomination. Back in 1975, when there was no other way for U.S. viewers to see LISA AND THE DEVIL in any form, there may have been some justification for the existence of HOUSE OF EXORCISM; now, however, the film is nothing more than a historical footnote, a curiosity for Bava fans who want to see the their idol’s masterpiece bastardized into one in a long line of EXORCIST ripoffs. As understandable as producer Leone’s intentions were (was it better to leave the film unseen in a vault or get it on the screen in some form?), HOUSE OF EXORCISM takes Bava’s intriguing original and spoils it with crude vulgarity. If you really want to see a marriage of LISA AND THE DEVIL and THE EXORCIST, rent both of them and watch them back to back.
THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (1975). Produced by Alfredo Leone. Directed by Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone (as Mickey Lion). Written by Mario Bava, Alberto Cittini, Alfred Leone, Giorgio Maulini, Romano Migliorini, Roberto natale, Francesca Rusishka. Cast: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina, Alessio Orano, Gabriele Tinit, Kathy Leone, Eduardo Fajardo, Carmen Silva, Franz Von Treuberg, Espartaco Santoni, Alida Valli, Robert Alda. Rated R. 92 minutes.
We’ve just finished Halloween, gained an extra hour on the proverbial space time continuum and El Nino is going to hit Southern California with inclemency worse than Sharknado 4. What more could possibly make So-Cal the place to be? As nature warns Pacific Coast residents to buy flood insurance, San Diego announces the arrival anon of the 16th Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF), which will flood the city with 130+ films from 20 Asiatic countries over a 10-day period, November 5-14. Of note, SDAFF is now considered to be the largest showcase of Asian cinema on the West Coast and this year’s festival is featuring some far out fantastical films.
Though Korean American Lee Ann Kim, the Pacific Arts Movement and SDAFF’s founder and executive director, has parlayed more of the SDAFF’s film programming into the hands of artistic director Brian Hu, in this time of more correct eating habits, she’s become somewhat of a cinematic vegetarian. Kim tranquilly analogizes, “My involvement in the festival is that there are so many ingredients in the salad and I’m basically the dressing…once it’s tossed, it tastes fantastic. I connect the dots and make sure that people have the right resources and right direction.”
One of this year’s directions is the heralded return of SDAFF’s love affair with fant-Asia films, the only festival this year that will deliver movies wrapped in a glorious array of genres that is sure to rock your soul, craze your brain and increase your blood pressure to 150/freaked out. To me, the ultimate in fant-Asia is cutting edge period piece, martial arts extravaganzas, and what better film is there to begin the fant-Asia aspect than with a movie in the running for an Academy Award for best foreign language picture, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin (2015). Other times this has happened for kung fu films is with King Hu’s Come Drink With Me (1966), Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013). The difference being for Taiwanese auteur director Hou, is that he received the Best Director award at Cannes this year for Assassin, as accolade-giving critics worldwide have averred that it’s not your typical wu xia epic.
With Taiwanese roots and in his fifth year with SDAFF, Chinese American Hu gleefully elaborates, “In the past we’ve tried to show martial arts films that promote different kinds of artistry, like special effects, wire work, use of 3-D and of course fight choreography. So we can see how these filmmakers are thinking when it comes to this genre and how they can do something innovative with it.
“Audiences will watch this film because it has such a bad-ass title. Yet it’s a film that’s daring as it almost has no action, almost no dialogue, almost no story, but it has an incredible amount of visual beauty and powerful ways of developing characters through peeking at them. As you watch it, you get a feeling that this is probably what it looked like during the Tang Dynasty and what it was like to spend 10 minutes with someone from that era. Martial arts films are typically wall-to-wall action, but Assassin reminds us that action happens in the context of loneliness, sadness and social pressures that lead you into a dark corner. Hou says that assassins get in there really close, kill, then get out of there and that’s it. No posing. This is what makes this a beautiful film.”
Sounds to me like the fights are what we used to see in old Akira Kurosawa samurai films and in the Shaw Brothers auteur director Chu Yuan’s kung fu classics of the 1970s. If you’ve seen Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962), the big finale duel is one simple sword-slashing strike to his opponent’s heart.
Yakuza vs. Zombies pretty much samuraizes what to expect with the Xtreme Japanese film Deadman Inferno or as it is called in Japanese, Z Island. Z stands for Zeni, a place where opposing families of yakuzas, promiscuous karate teen girls, a dorky doctor, a reggae-rocking angler and a castaway cop all attempt to Gilligan Island around running zombies…and in a nutshell, zat is zee problem.
Hu shares that it’s been a while since SDAFF has screened this kind of film mainly because the genre is clichéd, extremely misogynistic and they just kept piling up to the point that their novelty wore off. “However,” he joyfully reveals, “Deadman is hilarious and touching, because it’s about a family coming together because of zombies and they’re all forced to stand up for each other. In regard to this genre of films, there’s a lot of funny and random humor in Deadman and it’s also the film you’ve been waiting for. It’s not as ultra violent like past productions but it gives you all the kicks you need.”
According to Hu, Asian cinema isn’t always known for sci-fi fantasy film, so what happens is that fantasy now seeps into other genres. The Japanese film Whispering Star is about a delivery-robot who goes all UPS (Unidentified Person in Space) and browns from planet to planet dropping off packages for human clients. Roosting behind her intergalactic console like a delivery pigeon waiting to send messages via tweets, delivery fem-bot fantasizes about the world of humans, so close in parallel dementia, yet so far apart in space and far away in each others memories.
Then there’s the Korean romantic fantasy Beauty Inside that poses the scenario; imagine waking up every morning with a different face and then imagine falling in love with somebody, only to know that their first impression will be the last. It’s Groundhog Day (1993) meets 50 First Dates (2004). The Korean comedic fantasy Wonderful Nightmare spices with Heaven Can Wait (1978) gimchi when a city’s top attorney dies in an accident, but is given a second chance at life if she can trade places with an ordinary mother for one month.
Hu posits, “Whispering Star is really an art film that uses sci-fi to express it’s own idea of humanity. Beauty Inside is a Korean romantic comedy, which these days are a dime a dozen, but they use a fantasy scenario to liven up the genre. It’s a high concept, geek gimmicky set up and asks the question, if you’re a different face everyday, how can you go on a second date? Yet it’s such an achievement in direction because the director had to orchestrate so many performances as one character and make them seem like one character by so many different actors…man, woman, old and young…and then make us feel that we are watching the same person. It’s an incredible way of having us empathize with a certain perspective of love and how we as the audience spend time with a character that must ask herself, ‘Can I fall in love with someone that has a different face every day.’ To have us empathize with this kind of romantic possibility is so brilliant.”
Korea strikes again with a body switching Heaven can Wait (1978) thematic device in Wonderful Nightmare, with a Seoul twist where Gangnam Style is perhaps more popular that Chubby Checker’s The Twist. And speaking of music let’s not forget Japan’s Love and Peace. Hu chimes in, “This film converges on the rock operas of the 1970’s and ’80s…there’s something very sci-fi-ish with David Bowie, and this film evokes all of that with it’s Japanese sensibility of fraudness. Yes, it has talking turtles, cats and all kinds of other things that can talk too. It’s a lot of fun, it’s bonkers, and has great music. Director Sion Sono wrote the songs himself and it’s something he’s wanted to do for decades.”
Finally, three and a half fant-Asia films on the fringe. Directed by Vietnamese American Viet Nguyen, the comedy horror thriller Crush the Skull is about a couple in love that needs some fast cash and thus they break into a house that has no exit, no cell phone reception and no explanation for the torture pit they discover. Hu smilingly shares, “It’s seriously scary, wickedly off-kilter, and the funniest Asian American film in years.”
Don’t look now, but Iran explodes into the festival with director Ali Ahmadzade’s surreal loose comedy where fantasy and sci-fi seep into the film in a highly unusual way…it’s a blast but not a bomb. Atomic Heart is about two drunk party girls trying to drive home after a big night on the town who fail miserably as laced with Farsi trash talking, they have a zany run-in with a Saddam Hussein look-a-like but a saving run-out with a George Clooney doppleganger. It’s a culture that’s out of our minds and world, but a film that gets into our hearts and soul.
Beware the oleo…wait that’s butter…I mean the olio of the experimental, hybrid documentary of Daniel Hui’s Snakeskin that spreads contemporary and future Singapore like margarine on toast. With a queer eye from a 2066 cult member surviving guy that melds with a Malay cinema actress, the Shaw Brothers studios, and enforcers, and exiles/ghosts, and activists…oh my, who are all ineptly but affably infantile, Snakeskin may rattle your thoughts and constrict your mind so much that I recommend you take an anti-hissss-tamine to the theater.
And finally the Filipino film Swap, which is not so much a fant-Asia film as it is a suspense thriller that is a must see for filmmakers looking for something uniquely edgy with cinematic savvy not often seen in film history. Hu explains, “This is a weird story. As it turns out, in one night I was watching two Filipino films both of which were single take movies. One wasn’t successful but with Swap, something new was happening here. There’s been single take films but this one is full of flashbacks and dream sequences. You can only imagine how the actors are rapidly changing clothes off screen and getting sets ready on the run. The filmmakers will be at the festival and we all want to know how many takes did it take to get it right. The crazy thing is, Swap is based upon the director’s own history of being a kidnapped baby back in the ’80s.”
Fearless festival leader Kim adds, “How does this experience of being kidnapped as a child manifest it’s way into such a film? You have to say to yourself that these artists, don’t just do it for fun but do it because they have to do it…they have to do it.”
For information regarding films, dates and times, and how to get to their respective venues please visit http://festival.sdaff.org/2015/. One neat thing that SDAFF has, and it’s something that no other film festival in the world does, is that there will be an interactive booth from Saturday, November 7 through Monday, November 9, where filmgoers can get a free Chi Reading for their health and well being.
Kim’s final words, “Over the years, I’ve noticed that our audiences, like life-changing, inspiring and uplifting stories. Who doesn’t? They do well at the festival and that tells me that we have the right audience because our organization is not only here to entertain and inspire, but to also build a more passionate society, and part of that is to give inspiration, and to expose audiences and open their minds to more new experiences. I’ve been through multiple generations of people here at Pac-arts and I’m grateful for this work, and I believe I’m in the right place at the right time right now. The people that we have here are so special to me and this festival is our love letter to the community.”
Fans of THE WALKING DEAD can experience their favorite moments from Season 5 – live! – at Universal Studios Hollywood, where the annual Halloween Horror Nights is running from now through November 1, on weekends and some weekdays. Check out the video.
For the first time ever, Cinefantastique has made a movie: CHRONICLES OF THE LIVING DEAD, co-produced with Mindset Films. As you might guess from the title, the new documentary chronicles the making of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). New interviews with filmmakers Russ Streiner and John Russo combine with vintage clips of George A. Romero provide a lively look back at the seminal film that unleashed the zombie apocalypse genre on an unsuspecting public.
Even if you think you know everything there is to know about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, you may be surprised at how much fun there is to be had watching CHRONICLES OF THE DEAD. If you don’t believe us, just check out the two embedded clips.
Russ Streiner discusses filming the Washington footage in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) in this clip from CHRONICLES OF THE LIVING DEAD, co-produced by Mindset Films and Cinefantastique.
CHRONICLES OF THE LIVING DEAD is available in the September Horror Block from Nerd Block. Each monthly horror block contains 4-6 frightening collectibles and a t-shirt – a $60 for a $19.99/month subscription.