Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Shocking Dark (1989)



I’ve often said that, if I was ever rich enough, I would move to Venice, Italy to live out the remainder of my days (it’s usually either this or buying my own island/small country).  I’ve done no research into the place, unless movie viewing counts.  It just looks like the kind of city that would appeal to me.  There are no cars to run you over or blare their shitty music at all hours of the day and night (maybe they do that by gondola?).  It has a quiet, rustic quality to it while also being just modern enough for my taste.  This is why it works so well as a horror film setting (witness: Don’t Look Now).  Its silence, its narrow, mazelike streets, and its floating, sea-worn characteristics are both peaceful and unsettling.  I tend to think, based on its location, that there is likely a large rat issue, so that wouldn’t be fun, and I’m sure that the salty, ocean air plays hell with the architecture and metal plumbing (thank God for PEX).  Still, I imagine that the positives would vastly outweigh the negatives, so all I have to do now is become a multi-millionaire.  Not even a toxic cloud over Venice, like in Bruno Mattei’s Shocking Dark (aka Terminator 2, aka Aliens 2, aka Alienators), could deplete my desire to live there.  The genetic mutations might be a sticking point, though.
An S.O.S. is received from some underground scientific/military bunker.  Operation Delta Venice is activated, and the Mega Force (Hal Needham should sue) of Space Marines are called in to investigate and retrieve the head scientist’s diary (automatically assuming that everyone is dead or about to die).  Joining the cosmic grunts are Sam Fuller (yes, really; played by Christopher Ahrens) and Sara Drumbull (Haven Tyler), a fellow scientist.  And then the rest of the plot of Aliens plays out with a smattering of The Terminator.
There is an earnestness present in the best of trash cinema.  Even at its most mercenary, even when you can almost hear the conversations behind the scenes about blatantly ripping off popular films for the sake of quick box office (possibly the progenitor of the current pass/fail attitude towards opening weekend sales?  Maybe), junk movies often still contain an openness that appeals in part because they are taken or given in “as-is” condition.  They are the runts of the litter, the dog or cat with an overemphasized underbite or other physical imperfection that plays to our sympathies and fondness for things that may need a little more love than others.  This is part of the reason why it has become so fashionable to like “Bad Movies” (and something which most intentionally “bad” or throwback films don’t seem to grasp), the line between intent and result.  Most filmmakers don’t set out to make bad movies.  Yet, when the reach of a film exceeds its grasp, it becomes fodder for mockery (right or wrong).
In films like Shocking Dark, no one bats an eye at the inanely wrongheaded actions of the characters or the dialogue that wouldn’t even make it into a comic book (and this is coming from a longtime devotee of the comic book form).  To wit: Two of the Marines enter a room, walk a couple of steps, and stop.  Koster (Geretta Geretta) turns to Kowalsky (Paul Norman Allen), and pulls a photo of how Venice used to look out of her pocket.  They both pine for a moment, and then Koster gives Kowalsky the picture, stating that she has a lot more.  Hopefully, in her other pockets.  In generic terms, this scene is meant to flesh out the characters a bit, to spark in the audience a desire for these people to make it to the film’s end.  Instead, it plays like an awkwardly inserted scene that kills a bit more time so the film can reach feature length.  There are a couple of video presentations that are just like any other dull, corporate video presentations except these ones are for evil exposition (because if you’re going to do something highly illegal and unethical and immoral, you should keep some evidence of it on video).  And sample some of this dialogue.  “Let’s get out the KY so we can shaft him real good.”  “What bastards.  They’ve done it.”  “We’re the computer.”  And so forth.  This is all done with the straightest of faces, and you just know that Mattei and screenwriter Claudio Fragasso (he of the infamous Troll 2) felt genuinely proud of their accomplishments.  Too bad that what accomplishments this film does achieve were done so three years earlier by James Cameron and have nothing whatsoever to do with this film’s writing and/or direction.
To say that this film is derivative is like saying that the Big Bang was a historical event of note.  Shocking Dark doesn’t just follow in the footsteps of Aliens.  It stomps in them.  The Space Marines are the same ballbreaking hardasses.  Koster is Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez character with the exception that she LOVES taking potshots at her mates’ ethnicities (there are many references to Italians and grease; Again, you can almost hear Fragasso and Mattei grinning).  Fuller is a representative of the Tubular Corporation (I can’t imagine this world being bereft of other corporations with names like Radical, Gnarly, and Totally), and his reason for being there is sneaky and underhanded.  There is an android who nobody can guess is an android, even though he acts like an android from the very start.  There is a young girl, Samantha (Dominica Coulson), who has managed to stay alive on her own, and she connects with Sara in a maternal way.  The monsters wrap their victims in cocoons for later feasting.  There are some deviations from Cameron’s template, but they’re so blatantly and haphazardly tossed off, they trigger nothing so much as incredulity.
I guess I could get over this film’s swindling of its audience if it were competent.  After all, how many art forgeries are there that we still enjoy based on the assumption that they are the originals due to their technical quality?  But no, Shocking Dark is painful in its lack of originality.  It doesn’t try to do anything more interesting than evince thoughts of better films.  This is a copy of a film done with tracing paper, getting the shapes and placement right (mostly), but completely fucking up the details.  There are endless scenes of people walking through factory corridors.  When they do stop for some action, it’s shot and edited in the exact same way every time, with the exact same result, and presaging more endless walking through factory corridors.  My Dinner with Andre had more shot variety than this film.  The thing which completely flattens any chance of a good time, however, is that the characters all seem extremely depressed.  Not so much because of the situation their world is in, but because of the situation that the actors are in.  Namely, Shocking Dark.       
MVT:  James Cameron’s script by way of Claudio Fragasso, such as it is.
Make or Break:  The break really depends on how long you can stand watching Aliens filtered through store bought marinara sauce.  Personally, I’d prefer a homemade pesto, but whatever.
Score:  2/10

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Prisoner Maria: The Movie (1995)



Prisoner #206 (in a clear homage/ripoff of the Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion series), the titular Maria (Noriko Aota), is employed by her warden to take out bad guys.  Meanwhile, an insane doctor gets involved with Taiwanese gangsters in a scheme to control the minds of people for fun and profit.  Who will Maria’s next target(s) be?

Yes, Shuji Kataoka’s Prisoner Maria: The Movie follows in the footsteps of Toei’s fantastic, Meiko-Kaji-starring franchise.  It also owes tons to the films of John Woo (and just about every action film director to come out of Hong Kong), Luc Besson’s Nikita, the Pinky Violence and Women with Guns genres, and comic books in general.  Given its title, I don’t know if it is an adaptation (I could find nothing regarding this information, but then my fluency in Japanese is crap), however two manga writers worked on it (Keiji Nakazawa and Shigeru Tsuchiyama).  The problem is that this film takes all of these elements, regurgitates them across the screen, but adds nothing of its own.  It can be argued that its more bizarre elements are what distinguish it, and that’s a fair statement.  Yet, the film is so disjointed, wanting to be so stridently unoriginal, that it becomes little more than a pile of hand-me-down clothes, more disappointing to sift through for its sameness than any gems that may hopefully be hidden at the bottom (one can only own so many “vintage” Hawaiian shirts or whatever; this point is, of course, up for debate).  The first scene has Maria pulling a hit on a gangster which involves a nice throat-slashing, a great many bullets, and camera angles that make you want to stand on your head.  Maria sequesters herself in her concrete apartment when she’s not sequestered in her concrete cell.  She has a mini-arsenal under her bed that she seems to be proficient in, although in practice she’s not nearly as smooth as we expect her to be.  She meets a cop, Igarasi (Tetsuo Kurata), with whom she naturally falls in love, despite their being at cross purposes.  And so on, and so on.  If this is an adaptation of a manga or a novel, it’s less like a side by side comparison than like staring at a stack of pages which may or may not be in order, but the result would be the same.

Prisoner Maria is an absolute sleazefest, but rarely to any effect other than being skanky.  For example, a young serial killer ties up a woman in his home operating theater.  He cuts her clothes off with a large hunting knife.  He runs the blade across her breasts and crotch.  He sucks on her nipple for a second.  Then he slices her torso open, and we get to watch the life fade from her eyes.  Fair enough.  This scene works in setting up the level of evil Maria must oppose.  Compare it with the scene where the Taiwanese gangster kidnaps a brother and sister.  Before taking them away, he has his men haul out some anonymous Taiwanese woman, and the baddies double team her in front of everyone.  Why?  The victims already know what’s in store for them.  This is sleaze for the sake of sleaze.  I guess there’s a place for that, but as I was watching the film, the word “gratuitous” kept flashing across my mind.  To me, then, it’s more distraction than necessity, either as genre or narrative requirement.  After all, formless pornography is readily available elsewhere, even back in the 90s when this was made.  Surprisingly, Aota’s sex scene is chaste.  Considering the film it’s surrounded by, this sticks out like a sore thumb.  Perhaps its modesty is meant to highlight some emotional involvement between the two characters.  Unfortunately, their chemistry is more like a sparkler than a roman candle.

Male power trip and rape fantasies clearly make up the film’s raison d’etre.  Maria’s warden plays like the Niles Caulder of the story.  He emotionlessly flings Maria into situations with little-to-no information.  He withholds and/or just doesn’t update his operative with new data that would facilitate her work and reduce the risk level to himself.  He coerces Maria’s participation by keeping her from her son (who doesn’t seem to miss his mother at all, when we do get to see him).  In other words, the warden is a dick who can’t even bring himself to work in his own self-interest.  The other men in the film who are not Igarasi exercise control over women, by will or by force.  Women are meat to them, and their white slavery/prostitution/mind control racket confirms this.  There are very few women in this movie who aren’t bound, gagged, or drugged at some point or another.  Dr. Kito’s mind control experiments are the ultimate display of this desire to erase women’s minds and keep their bodies as literal receptacles for sex.  He believes himself to be God (that’s not an analogy), forming and casting off people as it pleases him.  

Despite the surface differences between the bad guys and Igarasi, he is just as much of a male power fantasy, simply tilted toward the more benevolent end of the spectrum.  He’s clearly smarter than Maria (but the way she’s written, just about everyone is), since he effortlessly follows her trail and tracks her down.  Worse than that, for as talented as Maria is supposed to be, and for as good as Aota looks all kitted out in her leather hitwoman outfit, she’s given very little opportunity to kick some male chauvinist/misogynist ass.  She gets thrown around and has the tables turned on her almost constantly, her victories occurring more by accident than skill and planning.  To that point, Igarasi shows up more than once in the nick of time to save her bacon, robbing her of any true sense of empowerment, and it’s only through his largesse that she escapes in the end.  Like every other woman in the film, Maria is just another object to be used.  Prisoner Maria: The Movie thwarts every moment for its protagonist to shine until one begins to wonder why she’s the protagonist at all?  Possibly because she’s not meant to have agency in this world, a powerless cog that thinks she’s the motor driving her life?  Her disenfranchisement and oppression are inescapable.  She’s serving a life sentence as a prisoner in more ways than one.  I’d like to believe that this is what the filmmakers were going for, as it would bestow the film with a darkly cynical outlook on the unchanged place of women in a male dominated society, given the illusion of power and hope to keep them in their place.  But from the evidence of the film’s construction and prurient attitude, I tend to think the people behind this just didn’t care about the film and its characters.  So, neither did I.

MVT:  Aota shows some talent, and she has the potential to carry an action film.  She just doesn’t get her shot to do so here.

Make or Break:  The first female victim’s torture and death is about as blatant a sign post for what this film is as you can get, for better or worse.

Score:  5/10

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Demonoid (1980)



The first and last time I got stitches was before I hit double digits.  I was bitten by a dog (which wouldn’t be the last time), and had to get four sutures in my right bicep (when you’re that age, it’s not a lot, but it sure as hell feels like it).  Since then, I’ve had injuries to my hands that I probably should have had stitched and didn’t, because that first time was more than enough for me.  While working at a fast food restaurant in my teens, I was hauling a box of shortening up from the basement, and my hand got caught on the hook end of an electrical junction box cover.  While working on a dryer, I split a knuckle open.  While removing a water valve from a washer, I gouged another knuckle on the same hand.  To this day, I maintain that the actual bone was bifurcated, but since no doctor was consulted, I guess we’ll never know.  Needless to say, I’m sure these injuries will come back to haunt me in short order, as I can already feel how arthritis is and will set in on my joints (not good for someone who works with their hands).  If you’ve ever stared at your hands for any length of time (like Felix Unger did in the “Odd Monks” episode of The Odd Couple), you really do discover what a marvel these appendages are.  They are one of the hardest parts of the human body to draw, too.  The things we can do with them are amazing, and, more often than not, we truly do take them for granted (until, of course, we are without their use, partially or in total).  I wonder, then, why, for as “important” a purpose as he has and as much work as he has to accomplish in a given day, Satan would cut off his left hand and send it to Guanajuato, Mexico, as he does in Alfredo Zacarias’ Demonoid (aka La Mano Del Diablo aka Macabra aka Demonoid: Messenger of Death)?  You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone. 

Visiting her husband Mark (Roy Cameron Jenson) at their Mexican mine, Jennifer Baines (Samantha Eggar) uncovers a chamber previously used for Satanic rites.  She and her husband remove a tiny “coffin” shaped like a human hand from which escapes the titular Demonoid (no one calls it that in the film; it just sounds neat).  The avaricious anatomical appurtenance proceeds to wend its way through a series of victims, all the while setting its sights on the woman who freed it (this becomes a rather perplexing point, as the entire film could have been about thirty minutes long, realistically).

Aside from telepathic/telekinetic heads/brains-in-tanks, the most filmed disembodied human limb has to be the hand (I know of no film where an evil foot attacks people, and even the penis got its own cinematic sojourn in Doris Wishman’s The Amazing Transplant).  Whether they are grafted onto some hapless sap or scuttling about under their own steam, hands just have a greater visual appeal than any other body part.  Plus, they’re really good for strangling (and crushing skulls from the evidence presented here; I had to resist saying “on hand”).  What the idea of a lone hand causing malfeasance does is brings up a discussion about accountability.  If the hand is attached to a person who then turns to evil (Mad Love, Hands of the Ripper, The Hands of Orlac, etcetera), we, as an audience, have to consider whether the flagitiousness is located in the hand or in the person it wields.  If it’s all in the hand, then the person abrogates their role in any villainy.  They are no more than another victim or a fall guy.  This additionally raises the question of where consciousness resides; in the mind, in the spirit, or in every part of the body (the last two being easily tied together)?  Like the alien in John Carpenter’s The Thing, maybe every microbe has an instinct for survival.  This is fine for straight forward horror/monster movies.  You have the good guys, you have the bad creature.  You don’t need any more.  

However, if we deem that the evil is inside the person and not the part, we have more possibilities to work with, a more nuanced premise.  Now, it’s the person struggling with the evil within them, the transplanted appendage being just an excuse for them to exercise their darkest desires.  We can even postulate that, even if the hand or whatever is, indeed, evil, its influence brings out the worst in its host rather than working strictly toward its own purposes.  In this sense, the chicken and the egg come into existence at the same time.  In Demonoid, we can say that Mark always wanted to blow up his mine with all his workers in it.  We can say that he always wanted to run away from his wife and head out to Vegas.  We can say that Father Cunningham (Stuart Whitman) always wanted to attack a woman.  They simply never had the stones/opportunity to do it.  Even when the Demonoid does things after its host has apparently died or is moribund, we can still say that the person’s psychosis is so deep-seated that they do these things subconsciously in order to keep their mental narrative going.  Bear in mind, I am in no way saying that the hand in this film isn’t its own thing.  We see it do plenty while unattached to anyone, and it clearly has an agenda (though said agenda is unclear; does it want to rule the world?  To just get joined up with Jennifer?  To play Craps until it runs out of money and credit?).  But we can still consider its host’s responsibility in the proceedings, the same as if they were being controlled by the “injecto-pods” in Zontar: The Thing from Venus or somesuch.  Just something to think about, I suppose.

What I find special about this film is not that it’s especially well-written or well-shot or well-acted (though all three jobs are performed competently enough).  Rather, Demonoid is mindful of its mindlessness.  It knows that the premise is silly, but it plays it straight.  It disregards the common theme in films like this of a crisis of faith (sure, Father Cunningham has a few scenes regarding this dilemma, but they never develop into anything all that important, and the idea of the power of God defeating in the power of Satan never plays out except on a surface level).  The filmmakers understand that all they have to do is say that this is Satan’s hand without any other background information and let it ride.  There is a gleefully grimy aura on the film.  It is utterly unafraid to go for the gore, and said gore is usually accompanied by/women with copious amounts of cleavage.  The big “shock” ending is as predictable as that of an EC Comic.  The film stands there in front of the viewer, warts and all (but especially warts), and it couldn’t care less if you believe in it.  It believes in itself.

MVT:  The serious/not serious attitude allows the film to keep going and drag you along with it.

Make or Break:  The vague prologue that kind of sets up the story but is really just a small showcase for some tits and blood.

Score:  7/10