Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973)

Hey, kids!  Do you remember the Werewolf television series?  Well, you should.  It aired on the Fox Network from 1987 to 1988, and I have to say that it was one of my favorite shows when I was young.  The basic premise is that a young man, Eric (John J. York), is bitten by his lycanthropic friend, and after killing his buddy goes on the run from the law.  He quickly discovers that the only way to release himself from his curse is to kill the first werewolf who infected all the other people leading up to him.  The villainous monster of the piece was played by Chuck Connors, and he’s a salty ship captain with an eyepatch named Janos Skorzeny.  Also on Cord’s trail is a bounty hunter named Alamo Joe (Lance LeGault), who is a picture of badassery.  The creature design was done by Rick Baker (just in case you thought a program from the Eighties would look horrible in that department).  What was also interesting about the show is that each episode was only thirty minutes (I assume to keep production costs down), and the overall tone was very dark for the time.  Connors became something of a holy terror behind the scenes and had to be written out at the end of the first season (you can read all about it here:, but the series didn’t survive to a second season, regardless.  The show was supposed to be released on DVD some time ago, but due to music rights (scuttlebutt is Mike and the Mechanics were the reason, but I’m not totally certain of that) and the lack of separate sound tracks to remove the offending tunes, it never came to fruition.  The ironic part is that you can watch the entire series now on Youtube (and you should) with all the music intact, so it just goes to show that sometimes you shouldn’t hold out too much on some things because it will come back around to bite you in the ass (or something).  Would Nathan Juran’s The Boy Who Cried Werewolf have been better had Robert Bridgeston (Kerwin Matthews) been bitten on his derriere?  The world may never know.

Divorcee Robert and his son Richie (Scott Sealey) head on up to their mountain cabin, and while waltzing through the woods, Richie is attacked by a werewolf.  Robert gets bitten (on the arm, in case you wondered) but manages to kill the monster.  And now Richie’s life is in danger whenever the full moon rises.

This film plays fairly fast and loose with Hollywood’s lycanthropic lore (which was mostly invented by Curt Siodmak, writer of Universal’s 1941 The Wolf Man), hewing closer to age-old folklore.  Consequently, we get things like the idea that a werewolf can only be killed by wolfsbane, being beaten with silver (the only thing that really harks back to the classic film tradition), or a stake through the heart (huh?).  There’s also the theory that a lycanthrope’s index finger becomes longer than their middle finger while in human form (using physical traits to spot a werewolf is something which was also done during the various witch hunts in our world’s history).  But the one that’s actually intriguing is in werewolfism’s ties to the occult.  One of the early myths is that a person can become a werewolf through allegiance to Satan and/or sorcery.  Robert’s physical wounding, then, constitutes a wounding of his soul.  Yet he didn’t ask for this; he displays no evil traits as we’re introduced to him.  He has no seemingly nefarious machinations in his head aside from getting his career-loving ex-wife Sandy (Elaine Devry) to come back to him and become a more traditional housewife.  

The concept of spirituality is strong in the film and is embodied in a quasi-serious/semi-humorous way by Brother Christopher (the film’s screenwriter Bob Homel) and his followers.  They set up a hippie/Jesus commune where he espouses such platitudinous vagaries like “God is not dead.  Man is not sick.”  Robert cannot approach the “pentagram” the youngsters form (more like a hippie version of “Ring Around the Rosie,” just to make things more offbeat).  He physically cannot approach this “holy” activity or the cross that stands in the middle of the hippies’ campground.  Later, Brother Christopher tries to exorcise the devil from Robert, and the filmmakers play it ambiguously as to whether the preacher actually has the power of God at his fingertips or it is just the timing of the oncoming sunrise.  It’s an interesting way to intermingle a traditional werewolf story with the occult/Satanic movies that were becoming popular at that time (and would come to its apex in some people’s opinion with the release of The Exorcist one month later).

In line with the grim tone set up by its facets of mystical fatalism, the movie portrays the relationship between Richie and Robert in a dour fashion.  Robert loves Richie, and at the start even tells him that he’s “the sole blessing in [his] life.”  Robert is willing to do things mandated by psychiatrist Dr. Marderosian (George Gaynes) in order to help Richie deal with the fact that he witnessed his father kill a man/werewolf.  But that said, Richie becomes Robert’s murderous focus when he transforms.  He seems to have a mad-on for his child, a sub-conscious desire to kill him and get him out of the way so that he can reconcile with Sandy (never mind that Richie didn’t, by all appearances, have anything to do with their breakup, but Richie gets to live with Sandy back in the civilized world and Robert does not).  Richie says that he remembers the way things used to be, but more importantly, he notes that he used to listen to his parents fight.  In this way, Richie and Robert’s relationship is verisimilitudinous to some degree.  There are unspoken resentments but also a genuine love.  The animosity that arises when Robert changes is a physical manifestation of these domestic tensions.  This makes Richie the hero of the piece, if you choose to look at it that way (it is, after all, titled The Boy Who Cried Werewolf, not The Man Who Cried Werewolf, and while we’re on the subject, the film has zip to do with the fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” except for the fact that Richie tells everyone within earshot that a werewolf is prowling the hills).     

It’s with this in mind that I have to address the film’s biggest weakness.  Sealey’s performance is of the precocious, über-whiny variety.  He delivers every line of dialogue like he’s just been grounded for a month and always at the top of his chalkboard-scraping voice.  Children in genre movies generally come in one of two varieties.  They are either mini-adults (if not in mannerisms than certainly in resourcefulness) or such unrealistic innocents that they simply become targets for the audience’s derision.  According to IMdB, Sealey only ever acted again in an episode of Emergency!, and I can’t help but think that his chops never got refined much past that.  If you can get over his performance, though, I think The Boy Who Cried Werewolf has something to offer to the more forgiving Horror fans of the world.  Not much, but something.

MVT:  I love the monster makeup in this film, courtesy of one Tom Burman who also worked on Halloween III, Happy Birthday to Me, and other genre favorites.  It got some derision (if I remember correctly in Famous Monsters of Filmland) for resembling more a cuddly domestic canine than a ferocious wolf, and there’s some truth to that.  But I still love it (maybe because of that).

Make or Break:  The first attack on Robert and Richie sets the tone for the film.  It also gives us all of the good and the bad of the movie in one fell swoop, so you’ll know pretty swiftly whether you’re in or not.

Score:  6.5/10

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Devil Came from Akasava (1971)

AKADer Teufel kam aus Akasava
Director: Jess Franco
Starring: Fred Williams, Soledad Miranda, Horst Tappert

Jess Franco is a looming monolith that casts a long shadow over the cinematic landscape, a monolith constructed purely out of sheer force of volume. This Spanish-born director, who has worked in Spain as well as Italy, France, Germany, and on occasion, the United States, made roughly seventy-three million films. If you break down the cinema of the world based on number of productions per nation, Jess Franco alone qualifies as a sovereign film-producing state. Like any good European cult film director, Franco has worked in every genre conceivable, and perhaps more than a few you of which you wouldn't want any conception whatsoever. There's really no effective way to describe Jess Franco to the uninitiated. He is something they will simply have to discover on their own, in small bits and pieces, perhaps completely unaware of the fact that they are learning things about Jess Franco, until the day they wake up and realize they understand him, though they may not like him, and they certainly won't be able to articulate their comprehension to others. If anyone tries to puzzle you with one of those Zen koans, your reply should be to simply show them a Jess Franco film.

Coming out in 1971, The Devil Came from Akasava (which is based on a story by mystery writer Edgar Wallace) was a bit late to jump the Eurospy bandwagon of the 1960s, which Franco had previously entered with his thoroughly ridiculous and highly entertaining Danger! Death Ray. Still, when a movie is this utterly strange, we can forgive it showing up to the dance a little late, especially since it shows up looking like Soledad Miranda clad in silver boots and a see-through black tunic.

Our action, if you want to call it that, begins in the fictional country of Akasava, where a geologist discovers the fabled Philosopher's Stone that can turn any metal into gold. The only problem with the stone is that exposure to it causes one's face to fry. Oh, and it also turns you into a zombie. So, right away, we're going to have zombies, spies, and Soledad Miranda striptease performance art? I guess you can see why Franco has his admirers. No sooner has the geologist found the stone than he is getting shot at. He manages to deliver the stone to Doctor Thorrsen (German cult movie mainstay Horst Tappert, who would work with Franco on a regular basis during the 1970s), but it isn't long before someone show sup to off the assistant geologist and steal the stone. Then Thorrsen himself mysteriously vanishes while, at the same time, back in London, a mysterious man is lurking behind the curtains in Thorrsen's office, just long enough to kill a man sneaking in to try and crack a safe. How's that for intrigue?

It's enough to get sexy British intelligence agent Soledad Miranda assigned to the case, and like any good female operative, she ascertains that the best way to approach the case would be to travel to Akasava and immediately get a job as a stripper in one of those arty, weirdly-lit strip-jazz clubs that only exist in Jess Franco films yet exist in every Jess Franco film. Here is the first, most noticeable, and most enjoyable of Franco's reoccurring obsessions. It kills the man to go ten minutes without inserting a performance art striptease at a jazz club full of swirling lights and candy colors. He should have made a Bollywood film, because he shares the same affection for cutting to the musical number and the hot dancing girl, regardless of whether or not it has anything at all to do with the scene before or after it, or with the movie in general. Though these scenes were often gratuitous asides, it's obvious that Franco (himself an avid jazz fan and musician) adores them. They are shot and choreographed beautifully, and Franco's taste in groovy sixties cocktail lounge jazz is impeccable. I've certainly had worse times at the movies than watching Soledad Miranda dance (if you want to call it that; it's more a series of stylized poses -- "voguing," I suppose) while breezy lounge music from some of Europe's most accomplished composers of swanky bachelor pad music go wild.

Miranda teams up with Fred Williams as Rex Forrester, a detective from Scotland Yard, who all things considered, seem a little out of their jurisdiction operating in a fictional African nation, but jurisdictional squabbles are really the least of anyone's concerns in a movie with magic stones, Lugers, zombies, and avant-garde jazz-strip clubs. Together, at a very languid and meandering pace, they get around in one way or another of working on the case at hand, tracking down Thorrsen and recovering the stone.

Like most Franco films, The Devil Came from Akasava walks to its own idiosyncratic beat, and it takes its sweet time getting anywhere, allowing Franco to linger on whatever catches his fancy. Luckily, more times than not, that's Soledad Miranda. Franco populates his film with a cast of experienced B-movie actors, all of whom turn in exactly the performance you expect from a band of such professionals -- which is to say, some are good, and some are just weird. Besides, Soledad, the real star of the film is the zoom lens, which Franco employs with almost gleeful abandon, zooming slowly, zooming rapidly, on any and every thing that happens to catch he camera's eye. It gets disorienting after a while, as the mere act of walking down a hallway seems to justify Franco zooming in and out. The end result is that a rather run-of-the-mill trashy James Bond knock-off like The Devil Came from Akasava becomes suddenly hallucinatory. Creating a dreamlike atmosphere is the primary goal in many European cult films, but while we expect it from a vampire or zombie or ghost film, seeing the same technique applied to a straight-forward spy thriller is really odd. Pleasant, though, and along with Soledad Miranda, it's that quirky approach to filmmaking that saves an otherwise dull spy film from going on the scrapheap.

The action, when it does come, is pretty clumsy and not the least bit thrilling. The espionage isn't particularly engaging, either. But the film appeals to me never the less, perhaps because I can sympathize and relate to Franco's weird pacing and personal quirks. There are times when I simply can't struggle through one of his films, but The Devil Came from Akasava is much breezier, eye-catching and fun, helped in large part by Franco's dwelling on Soledad Miranda, a goofy spy plot, and some really good Euro-lounge cocktail music, which gets better when it's employed at really inopportune times that should be tense and exciting save for the breathless "la de do za zu!" female vocals accompanying the action.

Make or Break: I hope you like long, arty stripteases to cocktail jazz and featuring a stunningly beautiful woman, because this movie is going deliver them.

MVT: Soledad Miranda. She possesses not just the beauty but also a hypnotic charm and an incredible array of pop-art outfits.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Blackfire (1985)

On a bright, shiny day during the Vietnam War (let’s assume it’s set during the Vietnam War for the sake of sanity), an elderly fisherman is accosted by the Viet Cong.  Luckily, Sergeant Frank Johnson (Romano Kristoff aka Ron Kristoff) and his elite team of commandos are hiding in the water, and they rescue the old man (who also happens to be working with the U.S.).  After destroying a probable P.O.W. camp (without actually checking for P.O.W.s beforehand), Frank’s team is decimated with the exception of Frank and Jim (Jim Gaines).  The two buddies are sent in an advisory (read: training) capacity to the fictitious (as far as I know) South American Island of San Sebastian, and aside from running afoul of their new commanding officer, Captain Fidel Salcedo (played by Ray Vernall, and the character is seemingly named at least partially after Juan de Salcedo, one of the conquistadors who helped colonize the Philippines for Spain in 1565; of course, this is strictly guess work on my part), Frank also finds out that there are some shady dealings happening most nights on the base.

One thing that stands out almost immediately in Teddy Page’s (aka Teddy Chiu) Blackfire is this concept of outsiders (like, say, Americans and Spaniards) intruding on/invading a small territory (like, say, the Philippines) and exploiting the local people and resources for their own ends.  So, we have Captain Salcedo and Luis Sanchez (Tony Carreon), the older plantation owner who also just happens to be a criminal kingpin.  Not only does Sanchez ostensibly harm the local folks (plantations not being known for great working conditions, though I believe his is no longer operating strictly as one), but his nefarious business dealings hurt the world outside (people looking to get heavy ordnance on the sly not being known for their good intentions toward their fellow man).  But this idea of invaders extends to the “good guys” in the film as proverbial “ugly Americans,” too.  Within the first few minutes of the film, the term “gook” Is dropped several times.  Now, this is something expected in films dealing at all with the Vietnam War from a soldier’s perspective, but the word really stands out here for some reason.  It doesn’t feel casual.  It feels pointed.  Maybe it’s the post-dubbing.  Later, Jim muscles in on a woman at a local watering hole, brushing off the man she’s sitting with (who is not her actual boyfriend, I might add) as a yokel and therefore beneath him.  Again, we expect horny guys in bar scenes to do dumb things, but Gaines carries himself with (what I thought was) a sense of arrogance that makes Jim (and by association the American troops) stand out in an unsavory way.

Another theme running parallel to this notion is one of power and corruption.  Sanchez has money (whether he earned it via the plantation or the smuggling is unclear [and immaterial]).  Money buys power.  Power corrupts.  But this is a two-way street.  Salcedo has power by outranking everyone else on his base.  Once one reaches a position like that, it only takes the temptation of money for flawed men to become evil men (we can discuss nature versus nurture some other time).  Jim and Frank are lower in rank, so they are powerless in terms of what they can accomplish within this closed system.  They can try to reach someone higher up than Salcedo, but first they would have to get past Salcedo and Sanchez’s minions, who are (assumedly) lesser in rank than Frank and Jim but corrupted by the same money and power which corrupted those above them.  Then they would have to convince whomever they can get to that their allegations are on the level (it’s easier than one might think, if this movie is any indication, but still…).  Salcedo and Sanchez’s immorality reaches further into the roots of San Sebastian, where even the prison system is set up only for purposes of torture and problem disposal (we can guess at the behest of people like Sanchez and Salcedo).  It’s the sort of prison where the warden wears an eyepatch, and the guards laugh maniacally whilst dispensing pain and degradation.  One would almost think only sociopaths work in prisons.      

Interestingly, Blackfire sets up Frank to be a sort of spiritual warrior.  He has “dreams” (read: flashbacks) to his time as a youth with his ninja master grandfather (yes, really).  Set up in the classic, cinematic pattern, his Ninjitsu skills come to the fore as Frank finds himself in physical peril.  What’s more, he must be at the critical moment of said peril in order to activate his expertise.  It’s kind of like how special branches of the military are trained.  It’s not that they have so many seemingly insurmountable things thrown at them in order for them to know how to deal with each situation, because that would be impossible to accomplish.  No, they are pushed the way that they are so that when they find themselves in a crisis situation, they don’t pause to think, only to act and/or react (or at least that’s what I learned from watching The Unit).  Because Frank has these special abilities that his fellow soldiers don’t possess, he is alone even in a group.  He may lead a crack team of fighters into combat, but he is separate from them (he even uses a crossbow in the opening sequence).  This is why he lone wolf’s it while trying to get information about Salcedo’s scheme.  Even Jim is ultimately kept separate from Frank.  First, when Jim suspects his friend of being a villain (Frank is inherently untrustworthy despite what feelings of camaraderie Jim may feel for him and because of his oddness), and second, when Frank goes off solo to the final confrontation with Salcedo.  Frank opened this can of worms.  Frank has to close it back up.  Or shoot it full of lead.

This film is as simple as simple gets, in case you missed it, and like a great deal of films that came out of the Philippines, it’s dearth of scriptwriting and thespian skills shines through.  As Nancy (Chantal Mansfield aka Charlotte Maine) tries to break a computer code, she flings her head into her hands after each failed attempt, as if her dog has just been killed.  Every line of dialogue is delivered in the flattest, most declarative fashion possible.  Our hunky star is basically a slab of meat who bellows several times like Reb Brown in the classic Strike Commando.  A major plot point could never be revealed in real life, because it would bring massive repercussions down on all the major characters.  But there’s the thing.  The other half of what Blackfire is composed of (action scenes, in case you needed to guess) delivers surprisingly well.  The explosions are huge, the fire fights are tense and clearly blocked, and Kristoff is not afraid to tackle the role’s physicality; something he does quite well.  Obviously, this is no Full Metal Jacket, and Kristoff is no Gielgud, but for a straight ahead Action film, this one hits the spot just enough.  And then blows that spot up real good.

MVT:  The action is what it’s all about, and the action is about all you’ll get.

Make or Break:  The opening siege of the P.O.W. camp brings enough spectacle to keep almost any Action film fan in their seat. 

Score:  6.25/10