Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Devil's Man (1967)

Destro was easily my favorite of the G.I. Joe cartoon characters.  Here was a guy who wasn’t afraid to wear a high-collared, padded jumpsuit.  He had cool weapons, including wrist rockets attached to his metal gauntlets.  He was, per the original file card by comic book writer Larry Hama located on the back of his action figure’s packaging, an unknown.  He had no name other than Destro, no one knew where he came from, and no one (with one exception) knew what he actually looked like.  It wasn’t until later that he got a name (James McCullen Destro) and a place of birth (Scotland).  Whether these things were known or not at the time of the character’s creation, he works better (as most things do) with the mystery intact, in my opinion.  He had one of the best cartoon voices this side of the original Starscream and Cobra Commander (both played by Chris Latta), especially since, at least retroactively, he was a white Scottish fella with a black man’s voice (the great Arthur Burghardt).  Kind of reminds me of Darth Vader in that regard.  Plus, he got to bang The Baroness, the leather-constricted, Eastern-European-accented femme fatale who undoubtedly launched many a young boy on their way to puberty (she was the only one who knew Destro’s actual identity at the time; a small club to be a member of, to be certain).  More than all that, Destro wore a shiny, silver mask at all times in public (and, I like to imagine, sometimes in the boudoir) and it would even move with his mouth when he spoke; that’s some flexible metal.  He was like a luchador without the tights (for better or worse), a badass baldy with a penchant for destruction and mayhem, and if you saw him coming, you were as good as dead.  The Professor (Giancarlo Cianfriglia) in Paolo Bianchini’s The Devil’s Man (aka Devilman Story) also wears a metal mask, though his looks more like one of the robots from the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death, just without the molded hair.  He also doesn’t have wrist rockets, and there’s nary a Baroness-esque figure to be found.  More’s the pity.

In an ultra-abrupt prologue, some guy escapes from a desert lair.  Next thing we know, we’re watching a bunch of planes landing in Rome.  On one of these ubiquitous Pan Am flights is Professor Becker (Bill Vanders) and his daughter/assistant Christine (Luisa Baratto), who are there for some top-secret meetings and such.  Becker goes missing, and this is the cue for Mike (Guy Madison), a two-fisted journo, to enter the picture.  Together, Mike and Christine set off to locate Becker and stop the villains in their tracks.

The Devil’s Man is essentially two films in one.  The first of these is a hardboiled private eye story, wherein Mike isn’t afraid to get his knuckles dirty to get the info he needs.  He’s squarely in the Mike Hammer mold: tough, cynical, and an opportunistic manipulator.  When he’s introduced in what I’ve taken to calling a “meet cruel,” he completely ignores Christine and any of the panic or horror she’s experiencing and instead inspects a crime scene for clues (Bianchini points these clues out to us by having the camera zoom in on them as Mike discovers them).  Later, he blatantly uses Christine as bait, unbeknownst to her.  He’s not above hanging a guy out of a car to extract information from him, either.  In other words, Mike’s a prick, but this type of character has a certain sort of appeal in how forthrightly prick-ish he is.  At least he’s honest about it.  Christine is a damsel in distress, pure and simple.  She exists in this film to give Mike someone to kiss and rescue.  The funny thing about the mystery angle of the film is that, while we’re given clues along with Mike, we’re not given any context to connect them together.  It’s like a jigsaw puzzle missing the corner pieces: you still get the picture, but it’s just a little bit harder to put together.

The second half of the film is a gonzo, Eurospy, science fiction narrative that livens things up a bit (but only a bit) with some interesting elements.  In line with the Professor’s personal visual aesthetic (and, by extension, his modestly budgeted super-science laboratory), is the facet of the loss of humanity.  His big plan is to create human robots (more or less).  This, of course, means that any personality his subjects had before experimentation vanishes.  Like the Professor’s expressionless facade (which hides, but we are never shown, a horribly disfigured face, thus matching the inhumanity on the interior to both of his exteriors [flesh and metal]), there will be nothing left in his subjects, living machines with no free will.  As he states, “Science goes far beyond physical desires.”  He also tells Christine that she must “surrender [her] will to [his].”  For the Professor, the human brain is so imperfect that he is even willing to further dehumanize himself by planting a mechanical brain in his own body.  There’s a bit of a sleazy component added to all this when Mike is tempted with the possibility of sex with Yasmin (Diana Lorys), an experimentee who is now simply a sex slave.  After refusing, Kew (Luciano Pigozzi), the Professor’s greasy little assistant, suggests that he will gladly have his way with her later.  The film’s villains may believe in “science at all costs” and the obliteration of individuality, but their motivations are rooted much more in the very human desires lying at our base levels (namely, sex and power).

For as intriguing as The Devil’s Man threatens to become, it’s overall execution deprives it of any real impact or enjoyability.  It’s sloppy in its editing, its story is contrived as all hell, and the lead characters come off as flat jerks rather than compelling people (or even compelling archetypes).  Its few moments of brilliance are wasted by remaining largely undeveloped, sparking a smattering of ideas and then dropping them just to get to the end.  As a curio, the film should be a seen as an extremely minor point in the Eurospy constellation that tries to mix things up a bit, like oil and water.  Nevertheless, it’s by no means essential, and it may very well leave you with the same blank expression as the one on the Professor’s visage.

MVT:  The pulpier elements spice things up a little bit, but it could have used a dash more of these along with some complimentary flavors.  It’s an okay stew that could have been a great stew.  Now I’m hungry.

Make or Break:  There’s enough travelogue footage, especially once the characters get to Africa, to kill what pacing the film has not only by constantly being cut to but also by feeling like the exact same shot over and over again.

Score:  5/10    

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Blood Sorcery (1986)

On a pitch black night in Burma, two guys, Li (Ying-Chieh Han) and Au Yeung (Hoi-San Kwan), flee from a bunch of torch and arrow-wielding villagers with a jade statue they’ve stolen.  Yeung escapes with the help of the god whose icon he’s pilfered (who is never given a name), but Li isn’t so lucky (though Yeung does get an arrow to the thigh).  Cut to Hong Kong, where Mak Long (Jason Pai Piao) loses his wife due to impotence after some noisy body smooching.  Doctor Au Shau (Alan Chan Gwok Gwong), son of Yeung, comes upon Mak bleeding mysteriously from his leg, and the two discover that they have more in common than they might have expected (namely a certain village in Burma and its vengeful Wizard [Feng Ku]).

Ling Pang’s Blood Sorcery (aka Xiong Zhou) is a supernatural revenge film with enough interesting elements to make it worth a watch, but it’s also enough of a mess to make it largely unsatisfying.  The revenge angle stems from dishonor, both personal and societal.  Yeung stole a statue that had value to the villagers as a symbol of their deity.  It has a spiritual meaning for them, whereas it has only a monetary value to Yeung (something which never comes to fruition anyway, as the statue comes to have a spiritual meaning for Yeung as well).  On the other side, Mak has transgressed against the Wizard in a personal way.  While on leave in Thailand, he visited the Wizard’s bar (they moved from Burma; I don’t know what their livelihood was there), and he met Lina (Git Ling Fung), the Wizard’s daughter.  After a drunken, impassioned evening rolling in the hay (as it were), the two vowed to get married, but Mak got shipped elsewhere and seemed to forget completely about Lina until now when it’s become inconvenient for him.  Not only has the Wizard’s daughter been jilted, but she’s also been left with a bun in the oven, and the whole affair is a source of dishonor for the Wizard and his family.  Despite this, Mak’s intentions were true when he pledged his love for Lina, who begs her father to call off the curse he’s placed on Mak.  Now, most normal people would simply move on and maybe give Mak a sock in the eye if they were to ever see him again, but honor trumps all for the Wizard.  Once it’s lost, it cannot be regained, except through blood.  Similarly, Yeung won’t allow Shau to marry his sweetheart, Shuk Fong (Jo-Jo Ngan), because she has to prove herself to the old man (at least this was what I discerned; maybe you’ll see something different).  The father/child/marriage situations parallel each other.  The Wizard wants Mak to prove himself by being a normal, decent man.  Shuk will have to prove herself by standing with Yeung against the Wizard.  The fantastic needs the ordinary as the ordinary needs the fantastic.

Blood and decay, then, are the symbols of shame, dishonor, and corruption.  Both Yeung and Mak have wounds on their thighs that bleed profusely at any given moment.  Yeung now resides in a wheelchair, we can assume from this wound (and it’s intriguing that Yeung’s initial leg injury was inflicted physically before it became a chronic condition, while Mak’s wound simply appeared as a result of black magic).  His and Mak’s dishonor links them through a very specific condition, and in a very specific bodily location.  The trouble spot on their thighs correlates (maybe just in my mind) to the acupressure point SP-10 or the Sea of Blood (or Xuehai).  This point supposedly invigorates and/or cools the blood (amongst other things).  Therefore, that it is the site of such massive blood loss has some meaning as to how the actions of these men has thrown their bodies and spirits into disarray.  There is also a lot of worm imagery in the film (as there seems to be in most Chinese Horror films).  These worms crawl around and wriggle forth from the leg wounds, swimming in pools of blood, and looking generally very gross.  They are the interior rot of Mak and Yeung’s bodies and souls, being as closely related to corpses as worms are (and they will appear later in the film in that precise role).  Comparably, the Wizard is physically corrupted by the magic he uses to corrupt others.  When performing a ritual against his enemies, his hair suddenly becomes long and white, and he sprouts large fangs.  He literally becomes a monstrosity when doing monstrous things.  By that thinking, neither victims nor revenger have any claim to a moral superiority.  They are equals sunk to their lowest levels.

Though Yeung, Mak, and certainly the Wizard believe in magic, Shau doesn’t (or doesn’t want to), so he tries to find scientific methods of treating Mak.  It’s the classic science versus the supernatural trope of many movies dealing with magic, yet here it doesn’t play as one might expect (or maybe it does).  Outside of watching Mak hemorrhage blood and worms, Shau makes no real effort to get to the root of the issue (the answers basically fall in his lap) and no real headway in curing it once he does discover the condition’s source.  Shau is ineffectual in the face of magic, thus he is ineffectual as a hero.  Shuk, a nurse at the same hospital, crosses the divide between the natural and the supernatural.  In an inversely proportional way, Lina mirrors Shuk.  Lina’s desire is to become a mundane wife, to move away from magic.  The two women cross paths headed in opposite directions.
Blood Sorcery is a difficult film to follow (completely not helped along by very literal subtitles), but we’ve seen this before in genre films from Hong Kong, so it’s not only expected, but it’s also part of the charm (or at the very, very least it’s not a complete deterrent).  Scenes stop abruptly in mid-action with no resolution before being thrown into the next inexplicable scenario.  The characters are flat and uninteresting.  The reason to watch the film is to see how wild it gets with its visuals and situations.  By that measuring stick, I’d say it makes it a little past average.  You won’t see anything here you haven’t seen before, done better, or done more coherently.  I guess in that way, it’s a lot like porn, huh?  And like porn, it does its function well enough.

MVT:  The more colorful images (both gross out and mystical) are the entirety of this film’s existence.

Make or Break:  The sight of the first ball of worms squirming in blood soup.  Too sickening for some, not sickening enough for others.

Score:  5.5/10   

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Black Tight Killers (1966)

Hondo (Akira Kobayashi), a battlefield photographer, meets cute with Yoriko (Chieko Matsubara), a stewardess, and the two decide to spend some time together.  Little does Hondo know that Yoriko is wanted by no less than four nefarious groups (three of them straight up gangsters plus the titular ninja team) for information she may have in regards to her father and his legacy.

Yasuharu Hasebe’s Black Tight Killers (aka Ore Ni Sawaru To Abunaize aka Don’t Touch Me I’m Dangerous aka If You Touch Me Danger) is a film that I’m sure people would claim owes a ton to the work of Seijun Suzuki, especially Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter, if they didn’t know any better.  Thing is, Drifter was released the same year as this one, and Branded was released the following year.  But the films do bear a striking resemblance in terms of style, if not necessarily in their approach to narrative.  Black Tight Killers is much more traditional in story structure like the more nailed down rock ‘n roll used in the film while its aesthetic is pure artsy freestyle jazz (also used in the film).  This combination makes the film a little more approachable than some of Suzuki’s more outré work.  Black Tight Killers is a hepcat’s action fantasy with Kobayashi (one of Nikkatsu Studios’ “Diamond Guys”) as its ginchy ring leader.  The film is full-on garish excess most of the time, experimenting with form and directly applying art to create a unique cinematic world (something which was very much on the rise in Japan at the time, I believe).  For example, the rear-projected background in a night driving scene is tinted dark blue, but when the car enters a tunnel, it changes to orange-yellow.  A street at night (filmed on a set) is nothing but black silhouettes of buildings, the only details the bright neon signage of the clubs that litter the city.  A dream sequence becomes an extended fantasy sequence, as Yoriko is chased across sets decorated with nothing other than the saturated colors of their boundaries.  

This unorthodox approach gives way to a more exploitative fashion in the actual narrative.  The gangsters are the kind that George Reeves’ Superman would have burst through a wall to thwart.  They’re all ugly as sin and mean as wolverines.  They tie up, strip, and torture the women in the film at several points.  One female is chained up and painted silver (the paint will suffocate her, of course).  One female is chained up over a pool of water and wired with electrodes.  You get the picture.  More than these, however, it’s the Black Tights who have the wildest moments imaginable.  Their form of Ninjitsu is idiosyncratic, to say the least.  They employ weapons such as razor sharp tape measures (yes, really), ninja chewing gum bullets (yes, really), and 45 RPM records that they hurl like shuriken (yes, really).  Their actual physical techniques extend to voice impressions, the requisite kicking, punching, and thigh chokeholds, as well as something called the Octopus Pot technique, about which I will say no more so you can discover its glories for yourself.  Hasebe combines forthright action tropes with the more abstracted artistry of this universe, and the two produce a quasi-freeform union that carries the film along nicely.  This marriage is, very arguably, no better displayed than in the death scene of a character towards the film’s end.  As the character dies, a pool of brilliant blue paint pours into frame on the ground below, not only an artificial representation of said character’s blood, but also a statement that this character is as much a work of art as any of the ultra-stylized settings we’ve seen.

So let’s discuss some of these characters.  Our male lead, Hondo, is part womanizer, part man of action, all casual attitude.  He’s intended to be a groovy daredevil, but his charms are so slight, he’s practically a non-entity.  Even more of a cipher is Yoriko, a quintessential damsel in distress.  She has no personality to speak of except that she loves Hondo for some inexplicable reason (this does have a nice payoff at the end, but it’s a bright spot on a dull polish job), and her secret is what drives the plot.  Fused together, the leads barely provide enough interest to buoy the film above drowning level.  The gangsters, as previously mentioned, are the standard issue thugs we’ve come to know and loathe from movies of this time and place.  They are skanky, underhanded, and visually striking.  And that’s about it.  The real core of the film is the Black Tights, yet even they are hardly distinguishable from one another except in the looks department (my favorite is Natsuko [Kaoru Hama], but that’s neither here nor there), partially because they dress the same (down to the Red Star Lilies they all wear on their leather coats), partially because none of them really has a personality to differentiate one from another (while they each get individual scenes to alternately antagonize and fall in love with Hondo, the only one of these that stands out for very specific reasons is the one with Akiko [Akemi Kita], but all of them are more situation-based than character-based).  They have a purpose.  This, to my mind, is the point.  The Black Tights aren’t meant to be different people but one (moreso than the indistinct villains), a sort of gestalt representing where they came from, and that representation represents the demarcation between noble and ignoble, in light of certain events.

In all honesty, Black Tight Killers is nothing to write home about if taken strictly on the virtues of its story.  It’s as by the numbers as these things get (with the very slight exception of old coot Momochi’s [Bokuzen Hidari] underserved Ninja Research Society).  The action is fairly well-handled, though some of the hand-to-hand stuff involving the Black Tights looks like they’re playing rather than fighting (come to think of it, that might not be such a bad idea).  Truly, the film lives or dies on its style, and in that department, it excels.  Whether they’re dancing at one of the local go-go clubs or picking fights with guys twice their size, the Black Tights exemplify the Swingin’ Sixties in Japan about as well as any other pop-art-influenced film does.  The chances Hasebe takes as to how he tells his tale (actually, one based on a Michio Tsuzuki novel, but why quibble?) are what sets the film apart marvelously, like the bright orange flowers of the ninja femmes set off the basic black leather canvases of their apparel.

MVT:  The eponymous ladies are both the show and the showstopper.

Make or Break:  If you can’t make it through the dance sequence playing behind the opening credits, you won’t like this movie.  If you do like it, you’ll know you’re right where you need to be.

Score:  7/10