Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Daughter of Darkness (1993)

Ah, Category III Hong Kong cinema; How does one sell this onscreen depravity to the uninitiated?  Perhaps, determining if you’re already a fan of trash cinema from other regions of the world is the best place to start.  Specifically, films from Italy and Japan during the 1970’s & 80’s.  If you’re a fan of films such as The New York Ripper, Night Train Murders, White Rose Campus, and Rape! 13th Hour then Category III films are the next logical step in your education of trashy world cinema.

The Category III film Daughter of Darkness from 1993 is not a bad place to start, but probably not as infamous as say Red to Kill or Ebola Syndrome.  Daughter of Darkness may not reach the heights, or depths depending on your perspective, of those films but it certainly delivers the violence and debauchery that they’re known for.

Viewers going into Daughter of Darkness for the first time expecting extreme sex and violence right from the jump may be confused for the first half an hour or so, as it kind of plays out like a twisted, slapstick sex-comedy.  We are introduced to an overly animated and extremely pervy police detective played by the always entertaining Anthony Wong.  Right from the start, Wong is giving a completely over-the-top performance with extremely animated facial expressions that would make Jim Carrey blush.  When a young girl named Fong enters the police station claiming that she has discovered her entire family murdered in their home, our story is set in motion and it’s going to be a wild and shocking ride to the end.

It's during the beginning of Wong’s murder investigation where we get the majority of the comedic bits.  Wong’s character is a Chinese Mainland detective and there’s some less than subtle commentary going on with his very goofy performance.  He enters the crime scene like a bull in a china shop; walking directly through blood, posing for pictures with the bodies, and just generally disrupting the crime scene and destroying evidence.  We also get to see what an absolute pervert Wong’s character is and his fascination with breasts during these opening scenes!  The character of Officer Lui is setup as a morally corrupt buffoon but he eventually shows that he’s a fairly effective investigator and a somewhat likable character by the end.

Once Officer Lui gets around to questioning Fong about the massacre of her family, he quickly realizes that her story doesn’t add up.  At this point in the film it becomes kind of a wacky procedural with Lui getting himself into some silly situations as he interviews the locals about Fong and her family.  Lui eventually learns that a fellow police officer named Kin is somehow involved in this crime and that’s when the story starts to turn dark.  It’s discovered that Kin and Fong are romantically linked and that they had planned to run off to Hong Kong to get married and escape the abusive home life that Fong was experiencing with her family.  When Lui presses Kin on his involvement and the fact that the bullets used in the murders come from a police issued gun, Kin confesses to the crimes.  This, however, doesn’t sit well with Lui.  So, he decides to once again interrogate Fong to find out what really happened that fateful night.

Like other Category III films, such as Dr. Lamb and The Untold Story, the horrific details are told through flashback, and boy are they horrific!  Fong’s home life with her family is a living nightmare!  She is verbally and emotionally abused by her mother and siblings and physically harmed by her father (possibly step-father (?)).  Rape, incest, and torture playout on screen before we reach the ultra-violent demise of this foul family.  One can never hear the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” the same after witnessing this shocking and appalling scene.  This entire sequence is definitely where the film earns its Category III status.  The whole thing ends tragically and will leave you with a feeling of hopelessness.  No doubt, this is an exploitation film, first and foremost, but there is a halfhearted attempt towards social commentary concerning Mainland China, specifically their judicial system and the way everything concludes with the case at the very end of the film.

Daughter of Darkness is a very solid exploitation film and a prime example of what some of the more infamous Category III films have to offer.  It’s a bit uneven in terms of the tonal shift that the film makes about a third of the way through, but that’s also what makes the film interesting.  I would probably recommend something like Run and Kill or The Untold Story to those looking to dip their toe into the cesspool of Category III, but this isn’t a bad place to start either.

MVT: Anthony Wong and William Ho as the sadistic father are both entertaining to watch, but both characters are a bit one note.  Lily Chung as Fong shows a bit more diversity and really earns the MVT.  A brave performance that isn’t simply a victim in this film.

Make or Break Scene: Opening – Anthony Wong’s entrance to the crime scene.  Goofy antics amongst a bloodbath of a murder scene.

Score: 7/10

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Season for Assassins (1975)

Within the Italian poliziottesco genre, there was a sub-genre of “youth gone wild” films.  These films would typically portray the Italian youth as entitled, violent sociopaths who committed crimes out of sheer boredom.  Savage Three, Like Rabid Dogs, and Young, Violent, Dangerous are all examples of this sub-genre.  Season for Assassins is another such film, but in this film’s case there’s more focus on the loved ones of the young criminals and how their lives are impacted by the selfish acts of said criminals.

Season for Assassins focuses on the life of a young petty-thief named Pierro, played by Joe Dallessandro.  Pierro has aspirations of becoming a criminal kingpin by working his way up from the bottom of the underworld.  He and his hooligan friends are shown pulling off burglaries for small sums of money, when of course they’re not riding around Rome terrorizing those who get in their path.  The opening plays out much like the opening of A Clockwork Orange, but that’s as far as the comparisons go.  Gradually, different characters in Pierro’s life are introduced.  We learn that Pierro is a father to a newborn and that he has a wife named Rossana.  Rossana is a former prostitute who is now committed to being a mother, even though Pierro is neglecting both her and the child.  We are also introduced to Pierro’s family priest, Father Eugenio, who has faith in the young man and attempts to help Pierro stay on the straight and narrow, despite Pierro constantly brushing him off.  Finally, a third significant character enters Pierro’s personal life, a naïve, young girl named Sandra, who Pierro strikes up a romantic relationship with.  These three characters will all eventually be negatively impacted by Pierro’s selfish and destructive lifestyle.  In one particular case, the impact is fatal.

While Pierro is going around wreaking havoc, a very jaded and disgruntled police captain, played by screen legend Martin Balsam, is nipping at the heels of Pierro and hoping to finally set the right trap that catches the hoodlum.  Balsam’s character is supposed to act as the counterpoint to Father Eugenio.  Where Eugenio sees hope for the young man, Balsam sees a thug and lost cause who will inevitably hurt and/or kill several people before he gets himself killed or caught.  I suppose another parallel could be drawn from this and A Clockwork Orange in terms of the debate over whether or not criminals can truly be reformed.  Unfortunately, this question is handled rather clumsily in Season for Assassins.

It’s commendable that director Marcello Andrei attempts to construct emotional depth within the characters of his piece, but most of them still come off as one dimensional.  With the Pierro character, specifically, there’s a scene where he’s shown to be physically ill by the violent actions that he allows to occur against one of his loved ones.  However, this is the only moment in the movie where the character seems to show any remorse or humanity.  We are never given Pierro’s backstory to have a better understanding of how he got to this point in his life and potentially feel some empathy for the character.  Another problematic aspect to the film is that Andrei can’t seem to decide if he’s making a melodrama or an exploitation film.  The scenes between Pierro and his young mistress, Sandra, bounce from being honest and genuinely dramatic one minute to being sleazy and exploitative the next.  It makes for a very uneven viewing experience.

Despite these flaws, Season for Assassins is certainly worth seeking out for the hardcore Eurocrime fans.  Joe Dallessandro brings a sadistic charm to the Pierro character, which is entertaining to watch.  The character may be one note but Dallessandro plays that note well here.  Balsam’s portrayal of the grizzled, old police captain brings some class and legitimacy to the picture.  And Andrei peppers in enough violence and action to keep things interesting throughout the runtime, even if it is 10 to 15 minutes too long.  Season for Assassins isn’t going to show you something you haven’t seen before from the crime drama, but you could definitely do much worse from this ever broad genre of film.

MVT: Joe Dallessandro
Make or Break Scene: Bumper car scene – Attack on the young couple
Score: 6.5/10

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Nothing Underneath (1985)

One of the more interesting things that the Giallo genre has going for it is its dalliances with the supernatural.  Many times, there will be a psychic or some spectrally focused aspect to the story, and these are often uncovered as being totally banal.  Just look at the opening to Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso, where noted psychic Macha Meril foresees death as water slops out of her mouth, and a raven flies over the audience.  Or look at Emilio Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, where a dead woman makes appearances as characters are knocked off, one by one.  The thing of it is, yes, typically these elements are nothing more than red herrings, but sometimes they remain unexplained.  This shifts the atmosphere of a film, because the audience knows that the killer has to be a human while simultaneously harboring a tiny mote of doubt that maybe, just maybe, they’re not.  It positions a conflict between the rational and the fantastic, generating a level of tension in its uncertainty.  So, we have siblings Bob (Tom Schanley) and Jessica (Nicola Perring) in Carlo Vanzina’s Nothing Underneath (aka Sotto il Vestito Niente) who share a mild psychic connection.  When Jessica is assaulted in Milan, her brother physically reacts in Wyoming, like Dumas’ Corsican brothers.  But Vanzina cheats this aspect in order to give us a few Killer’s POV shots.  Why would Bob be able to see what the killer sees if his rapport is with his sister, unless his sister is the killer, which she couldn’t be since she’s being stalked by the killer, right?  It’s the kind of superfluous, sloppy construction that marks this film as a low rung on the Giallo ladder.

Anyway, Bob abandons his job as a park ranger to fly to Milan in search of his sister who went missing after his vision of her being menaced.  There, he meets a bunch of fashion models and teams up with Commissioner Danesi (Donald Pleasance) to get to the bottom of things.  Meanwhile, people are being stabbed with a very large pair of scissors (I guess at this point, they should just call them shears).

Bob is a dullard hero.  He has no real personality to speak of.  At the local general store, he gets all excited because his sister finally made the cover of a fashion magazine.  Sure, we might all get excited when a family member succeeds, but Bob takes it to another level of gee-whiz-ness.  He’s not so much a fish out of water as a fish who’s never seen the stuff before.  It’s as if his job out in the wilderness has left him completely oblivious to the civilized world.  Bob is intended as an everyman, an entry into the world of high fashion as an identifier for the audience.  Unfortunately, all he winds up being is a sort of gormless yokel.  This might not have stood out so egregiously if the audience didn’t already know more about the world (fashion and otherwise) than Bob does.  The movie gives no insight, makes no revelations, about fashion, models, or anything else.  Vanzina and company portray the models and their lifestyle exactly the way it’s expected to be.  The interesting thing, if it can be called interesting, is that the film is adapted from a novel by the pseudonymous Marco Parma (actually Paolo Pietroni, editor of Amica magazine; you can guess what the mag’s focus is), and, from what I’ve read about it, is far more complex and, probably, more satisfying than the film version.  The filmmakers appear to have stripped away any of the depth or commentary present in the book to fashion (pardon the pun) a standard-as-they-come mystery.  Bob is a reflection of this, as an underwhelming protagonist in every possible way.

The world of fashion in the film is possibly meant as a cynical analogy for the apathetic carnality of people in general and the “elite” in particular.  Scumbag diamond merchant George wants cocaine and sex, and he takes these things whenever he wants them.  Women are nothing but holes for him to fill.  Money is meaningless to him, since he has so much of it.  He draws models into his web with the promise of wealth or at least a passing brush with it.  They do what he wants because he can give them what they want, and the superficiality of it all is standard fare for stories about models.  Naturally, Jessica stands out as the one who resists George and his advances.  Certainly, she’ll do coke with him, but she won’t have sex with him, and this only brings out the even bigger asshole in George.  George is the price to be paid to breathe in the rarefied air of model-dom.  Resistance is met with retaliation and abandonment.  Further, when models start getting stabbed, it can be seen as a comeuppance for their shallow venality.  Their willingness, nay enthusiasm, to debase themselves for a glamorous lifestyle is unforgivable in the eyes of the film.  It’s a moral we see constantly in stories centering on this universe, and Nothing Underneath is no different.

I think that the title Nothing Underneath is appropriate.  There is nothing underneath this film’s surface that we haven’t seen before.  To be fair, the film is slick as all get out (kind of like a fashion magazine, no?), though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it stylish.  The characters are uninteresting, and even Pleasance’s presence is not enough to elevate this material.  The central mystery of the piece is blatantly obvious (that is to say, nonexistent), and the killer’s identity is evident from the second time we meet the person.  The only aspect that does remain outside the audience’s grasp until the end is the motivation, and while it is mildly intriguing, the filmmakers still don’t do anything to make it stand out (aside from a quick sexual tease, reminiscent of the film in total).  Vanzina and his cohorts took something that screams out for an overdose of Eighties excess and gave us vapid vacuousness.  Maybe this was intentional as commentary on the meaninglessness of lives spent looking fantastic.  But the end result is as shallow as the subject is skin deep.

MVT:  The women in the film are attractive enough, though some of their clothing choices are tragic.

Make or Break:  Following suit with the film’s two-dimensionality, I’ll go with any scene where we see a little female skin.

Score:  3/10    

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Roadie (1980)

Why did the armadillo cross the road?  So Alan Rudolph could show that his film Roadie begins and ends in the state of Texas.  Here’s the layout.  Young, hyper Travis Redfish (Meatloaf) lives at his father Corpus’ (Art Carney) salvage company and makes deliveries for Shiner Beer.  Catching sight of young Lola (Kaki Hunter), a groupie-in-training, Travis finds himself swept up into the whirlwind lifestyle of a rock ‘n roll roadie.

One might think, at first blush, that this film would concern itself with the idea of the call of the open road.  But this is not the case.  Travis has no desire to go on tour with musicians.  He doesn’t feel the pull of an opportunity to live life.  The only reason he becomes the world’s greatest roadie is because his mindset is antithetical to that of those around him.  This comes from his background with his dad.  Corpus and Travis are able to rig and create all manner of contraptions to make life easier.  They have a phone booth in the house that extends itself outside if someone wants a little privacy.  Travis makes his entrance (at home and in the film) on a makeshift crane/elevator that carries him between floors.  Corpus surrounds himself with a multitude of televisions, all tuned to different stations.  The thing of it is that the Redfishes are pretty much idiot savants (with the exception of sister Alice Poo [Rhonda Bates], who is just an idiot).  To call them simple folk would be understating things.  For example, none of them can pronounce “Pomona,” though Corpus’ enunciation is the one they stick with because he’s the smartest of them (hey, I had a friend who used to pronounce “San Jose” as “San Joes,” so who am I to judge?).  Corpus installed homemade braces on Alice’s teeth.  The best illustration of the Texans’ shitkickerhood, however, is the scene where Corpus, Alice, and BB (Gailard Sartain) are eating ribs and drinking beer.  Their faces are covered in pork and barbecue sauce, and the mere idea of table manners is utterly foreign.  This tableau is a snapshot of Travis.  Roadie is basically Being There with Deliverance’s Hoyt Pollard as the protagonist.  Or maybe just a quasi-Forrest Gump antecedent minus most of the sentimentality.

At the center of the film is the mismatched relationship between Travis and Lola.  These are two extremely flawed people, neither of whose world view is all that appealing.  Travis’ instant love for Lola is amusing.  He declares that, “That’s the first woman I’ve ever known who I’ve cared for as a human being,” after seeing her for a split second.  Lola knows that Travis is into her, and she knows how to manipulate him into getting her way.  Her goal in life is to be a groupie, but first, she has to have sex specifically with Alice Cooper as a sort of deflowering ritual.  Lola delights in her sexuality, but she’s naïve in its meaning and about life in general.  Much like Travis, she wears blinders to allow for her point of view, because nothing else exists or, at the bare minimum, is less than important.  She is thrilled to inform Travis that she’s only sixteen (the grin on her face when she labels herself “jailbait” is a bit bizarre).  She picks up a box of cocaine, thinking it’s Tide laundry detergent, and has it maneuvered off her by a little old lady.  Her usefulness to rock ’n roll lies in her body, not her brains, and she’s okay with that.  At first.  

Travis resents that Lola is eager to give it up to anybody who plays a musical instrument.  He feels protective of her, but he never bothers to tell her this.  It’s easier for him to react to her and lash out as needed; all emotion, no thought.  Lola resents that problem solving comes so easily to Travis, and he is more desired by everyone in the music biz than she is.  She feels that she is meant to be a Muse, but it’s Travis who inspires others.  He powers a concert with manure and solar energy.  He fixes a feedback issue with potatoes.  Their odd couple relationship is essential to the film, but it loses interest due to their steadfastly willful ignorance.  These two are at their best when they both dig in their heels and defy each other, even though I wanted to smack their heads together many, many times.  The film, of course, resolves itself in Hollywood fashion, which not only undercuts the characters but also takes the perspective of one of them as being more “correct” than the other, when both are myopic and rather uninformed.

Any love that a viewer may have for Roadie relies on two things.  First is their desire to spot all the cameos (Roy Orbison, Hank Williams Jr, Peter Frampton, ad infinitum) and listen to some music.  In some ways, it’s a concert film, though it’s hardly Woodstock, being narratively driven as it is.  The performances are staged detours to keep the people who don’t care about the story in their seats.  Even when the characters are not at a concert, any montage on the road is accompanied by a song, using shorthand to portray bonding rather than actual bonding.

Second, and a far higher hurtle to clear, is one’s tolerance for Meatloaf.  While I admire the man’s verve, he is nigh-psychotic throughout the entire film.  Meatloaf is cranked up to a thousand, squirming his body all around, flopping his long, stringy hair thither and yon.  You may have seen Chris Farley’s impression of Meatloaf at some time or another, but let me tell you, Farley captured maybe one-eighth of the actual man’s bounce.  The thing of it is, Meatloaf does show glimmers of talent in front of the camera (and he would go on to prove that he has decent acting chops).  Nevertheless, his bug-eyed performance in Roadie is both grating and a little scary.  Whether this comes from his unfettered enthusiasm, his substance abuse issues, or a combination of both is immaterial.  It’s all there on screen, good, bad, and ugly.  There are several moments when he looks like he legitimately wants to eat whomever it is he is looking at (and I mean that in the cannibal sense, not as some crack against obese people).  The film does muster up some sweetness and charm, but it also does so after screaming in your face for almost its entire length, so it feels more like apologetic backpedaling (right or wrong) than the end game intended from the beginning.

MVT:  There is a wild amount of energy in the film.  To the point of exhaustion, but it’s there.

Make or Break:  The throwdown between Blondie and Snow White (a fictitious[?] band made up of little people) is truly glorious.

Score:  6.25/10