Tuesday, March 5, 2019

House of Traps (1982)



As film fans, we all discovered our favorite directors as we’ve navigated through a sea of movies and each one’s specific filmography.  It usually starts with one amazing film and afterwards we must seek out the rest of this person’s output.  This is followed by a domino-effect of knocking off one great film after another until you reach the more obscure and less than perfect films released.  Selfishly, we want to turn our friends and family onto these filmmakers so that we have someone to discuss their work with, but also to take some credit for turning them onto great cinema.  Additionally, we want them to have the same thrilling experience we had when we saw these films for the first time and have them thank us for the recommendation.  That’s why when attempting to convert our friends to liking what we like, we always give them the best of the best.  It’s too risky to give them one of our favorite filmmaker’s lesser efforts if we intend on them continuing on with the rest of their works.  For instance, if you were trying to convince someone that they should check out the work of Brian De Palma you probably wouldn’t have them start with Raising Cain.  Not a bad film, but it likely won’t knock their socks off.  The masterworks should take priority over all others.  The flawed films should be explored once they’re hooked.  In the case of master martial arts filmmaker, Chang Cheh, his 1982 film, House of Traps, falls into the latter camp.  By no means a bad film, but rather one that should be seen once all of the classics have been viewed first.

Potential viewers of House of Traps should know one thing going in; the plot to this film is convoluted as hell!  We are quickly given the back story to a family feud that has raged on for generations.  The information dump is so quick that we as viewers are a bit confused if the current state of the feud is over greed and the desire for power or simply revenge.  A prince is planning a revolt against his uncle, the emperor, and anyone who wants to join the revolution must break into the emperor’s palace and steal one of the empire’s priceless valuables as a way of showing devotion to the cause.  Anyone who joins the rebellion signs a contract which is kept, along with the valuables, in the titular House of Traps.  This is when things begin to get complicated.  Numerous characters come in and out of the story, there are several double-crosses, and we’re not sure if we’re supposed to side with the prince who’s leading the rebellion or the emperor who has dispersed spies to infiltrate the enemy and learn the mystery of the House of Traps.  Because the plot is so confusing and Cheh is giving us perspectives from both sides of the feud, we’re given a lot of exposition and scenes of dialogue that I can only assume is an attempt to keep the viewer up to speed on everything that’s going on.  It makes for a frustrating watch, especially if you’re just looking for a kung-fu film that’s light on plot and heavy on fight sequences.  It’s best to just let the movie wash over you and not get too caught up with the overly-complicated plot.

There’s still plenty to like with this Shaw Brothers’ production, despite the confusing storyline.  House of Traps has the usual production value that makes these films so charming and what one comes to expect from the Shaw Brothers if you’re already a fan, especially of their kung-fu films.  You get the colorful costumes, stagey set design, awesomely fake facial hair, bright-red blood, excellent fight choreography, supernatural abilities, cool weapons, and cool characters with cool names like the Black Fox.  Most importantly, the movie has the House of Traps and it sure delivers on its promise.  The multistory house has three levels of potential death within it for all those who attempt to take back the emperor’s valuables and the rebellion’s list of supporters.  The ground level has guards hidden behind a sliding wall (How do they occupy their time waiting behind that wall the whole time?) and spikes that rise from the floor.  The second level has trapdoors and the third and final level has a spiked cage and one more surprise that I won’t disclose, as it’s not revealed until the finale of the film.  It’s a very cool set that’s utilized three or four times throughout the runtime and each time it is we learn more about the secrets that the House of Traps has in store.

House of Traps finishes on a high note with amazing fight sequences and plenty of bloodletting.   The very end is comedically ironic, immediately following all of the carnage that has just taken place.  It left a smile on my face and made it easier to forgive the convoluted plot.  It should be noted that this film features the Venom Mob in one of the group’s last films together.  If I were trying to turn a friend onto Chang Cheh’s films, or just classic kung-fu films, this isn’t where I would have them start.  The Five Deadly Venoms or The One-Armed Swordsman would definitely be a better option to begin your education on Chang Cheh, the filmmaker.  For those of us who’ve seen our share of martial-arts films, this is solid and definitely worth a watch if you’re a fan of the Shaw Brothers’ aesthetic.

MVT: The actual house of traps, of course!

Make or Break Scene: The first introduction to the house of traps.

Score: 7/10

Monday, February 25, 2019

The People Who Own the Dark (1976)



More than fifty years on and the influence of Night of the Living Dead can still be felt in modern day filmmaking.  Certainly, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend novel came first and was a source of inspiration for George Romero and other filmmakers to adapt the story.  It’s pretty apparent, however, that NOTLD had a larger and more direct influence on genre-cinema following its release.  There must be a countless amount of films that were either influenced by or shamelessly ripped off from NOTLD and the range of their quality is as wide as Romero’s influence on the horror genre.  The People Who Own the Dark is an example of a film that wears its influences on its sleeve but does enough different to stand out from the rest of the imitators.  Clearly, it takes as much from Omega Man, a more direct adaptation of I Am Legend, as it does from NOTLD, but the Spanish setting and distinct touches made by director León Klimovsky give this film its own identity.

The film is slow to get out of the gate.  We’re introduced to each of the characters one by one as they go about their day-to-day lives.  Each of the characters are preparing to attend a party later that evening, hosted by a pair of wealthy socialites.  The location of the party takes place at a hillside castle in rural Spain.  The castle setting adds to the gothic mood of the film and works perfectly once the siege starts to occur.  I should mention that I watched the 82 minute US cut of the film.  The Spanish release, apparently, runs 94 minutes with additional scenes of dialogue.  Even at 82 minutes, the film does feel slow at times.  Especially for the first act, when all of the characters are being established and the introduction to the party occurs.  If you stick it out through the initial setup, I think most will get something out of the remainder of the film and be glad they stuck with it.

Director León Klimovsky’s subtext and social commentary within this genre-film begin to reveal themselves once we learn exactly what kind of party is taking place.  It seems these members of the social elite have a taste for decadence and have arranged a masquerade party where they may indulge in their most animalistic desires with the female partygoers, who turn out to be paid prostitutes.  Anything goes, as long as it’s out in the open in front of the rest of the guests.  Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut definitely came to mind as this scenario played out.  Before any kind of orgy can breakout, the castle starts to shake and the partygoers believe they have just experienced an earthquake.  The partygoers return from the cellar to discover all the housemaids who remained on the ground level are now blind.  After a trip into the local village where it’s discovered that everyone on the earth’s surface is now blind, the partygoers realize they’re dealing with something much worse than an earthquake.  It’s deduced that a nuclear explosion has occurred and the survivors must leave the area to avoid any fallout.  They decide to return to the castle but not before one of them turns paranoid and stabs one of the blind villagers.  This act of violence triggers the socialites’ gradual demise and sets up Klimovsky’s commentary on class division and unrest between the working class villagers and the wealthy elite.

This is the point in the story where it starts to feel like a real horror film.  The blind villagers swarm the castle much like the zombies in NOTLD trying to enter the farmhouse.  In some ways, the situation in The People Who Own the Dark feels more terrifying than NOTLD.  Because the threat are actual people and not undead, shuffling zombies, the danger that the partygoers find themselves in feels more real.  To add to this, the blind mob work together and are able to strategize as how to besiege the castle.  They come through the ceiling, they’re able to drive cars, they start fires, and they’re capable of using firearms.  This makes them feel more threatening than any braindead zombie.  As is usually the case in these kinds of films, characters start turning on one another as the situation turns dire.  Spanish cult film star, Paul Naschy, is amongst the cast playing a Harry Cooper type character.

I certainly don’t want to spoil the ending of this film, but let’s just say that it’s bleak as hell!  There’s an excellent use of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony during a bus ride at the end of the film.  As I’ve discovered more of these Spanish horror films from the 60’s and 70’s, my appreciation for their quaintness and leisurely paced storytelling has really grown on me.  The first act of the film could certainly stand to move more briskly but the third act finishes so strongly that I was able to overlook that.  The Spanish horror films from this era would be a nice bridge from some of the Hammer horror films that came out of England in the 50’s and 60’s to the more extreme horror films produced in Italy during the 70’s and 80’s.  On the surface, The People Who Own the Dark may look like just another adaptation of I Am Legend.  Personally, I think director León Klimovsky brings enough originality and subtext to the production that it makes for an interesting viewing experience.

MVT: León Klimovsky

Make or Break Scene: The bus trip with Beethoven’s 9th playing on the radio.

Score: 6.75/10

Monday, February 18, 2019

Hit List (1989)



If you’re a child of the 80’s and had an obsession with movies, you know what a wondrous place the video store was at the peak of the video rental boom.  Walking through aisles of VHS covers and having those lurid covers tantalizing your preadolescent mind was quite an experience.  It almost gave you a feeling that you were somewhere you shouldn’t be.  The VHS sleeves for movies like Zombie, I Spit on Your Grave, and Driller Killer will forever be imprinted on my brain.  Then there were the odd or curious looking box art.  The ones that had you guessing what they were about and what type of movies they were.  Films like Happy Birthday to Me or The Exterminator had interesting but somewhat ambiguous covers.  If it weren’t for them being shelved in a specific section of the store, you weren’t sure what you were in for.  One such film, for me anyway, was Hit List.  The image of the car running over a man always piqued my curiosity.  Was this a horror film?  An action film?  What was it?  Once I discovered it was directed by William Lustig and involved a psychotic hitman played by Lance Henriksen, I had to track it down.  And the fact that this movie remains available only on VHS makes it that much more curious.

Essentially, Hit List is a crime-thriller with flourishes of action and horror.  After a gangster is arrested for drug trafficking, he’s forced to turn state’s evidence and testify against his criminal boss.  The mob boss, worried that his lieutenant will rat him out, decides to put a hit out and ensure that no testimony is made; except that the hitman makes a vital error and goes to the wrong house during his assassination attempt.  After disposing of a man and woman he assumes are federal agents providing witness protection, he kidnaps a boy he believes to be the son of his target, whom he can’t find anywhere in the house.  This sequence of events sets in motion the revenge / rescue angle of the film and will make up the majority of the runtime going forward.

Jan-Michael Vincent plays Jack Collins, the family man whose son has been kidnapped, wife attacked, and friend murdered during the home invasion.  Collins is hell-bent on rescuing his son and finding the person responsible for turning his life upside down.  In order to make this happen, he’ll have to recruit the help of the gangster turned informant and intended target, Frank DeSalvo, played by Leo Rossi.  DeSalvo has his own vendetta to settle, now that he knows his boss (Rip Torn) tried to have him whacked.  Together, Collins and DeSalvo will have to fight off mafia thugs, elude the police, and battle a highly trained killer in order to save the kid and win the day.

Just like his prior films, Lustig’s cast for Hit List is made up of recognizable character actors.  Lance Henriksen, Leo Rossi, Rip Torn, and Charles Napier, who plays the lead FBI agent, are all familiar faces to movie fans and they all do a solid job in their respective roles.  Henriksen and Torn, in particular, are a lot of fun in their over-the-top performances as villainous characters.  The only issue with the cast is the leading man role, played by Jan-Michael Vincent.  Most will probably know Vincent from the TV show, Airwolf.  According to a 2008 interview, Lustig states that Vincent was drunk during the shooting of the film and it’s pretty apparent from the moment he steps onscreen.  He seems to struggle delivering his lines and I think you can even see him have trouble staying upright in some scenes.  In addition to this, he just simply can’t emote the grief that is necessary for his character.  When it’s explained to him that his wife is in a coma and that she has lost their unborn child, Vincent’s reaction to this soul-crushing news seems more appropriate for someone who has just been told that their favorite flavor of ice cream has been discontinued.   Lustig does his best to limit Vincent’s dialogue and shoot around his embarrassing performance, but there’s only so much you can do when your leading man is a disaster.  Jan-Michael Vincent almost sinks this entire film.  Fortunately, the rest of the cast brings it and a strong third act saves this movie from being a dud.

In that same interview, Lustig admits that he needed work and that this project was a director for hire job.  It definitely has that feel when compared to his earlier efforts, such as Maniac and Vigilante.  Hit List doesn’t have the same grit or nihilism that those films had.  Also, this film was shot in sunny Los Angeles instead of the rough streets of a pre-Giuliani New York City, where Lustig filmed his previous movies. This gives Hit List a more polished aesthetic, overall.  Still, Lustig delivers on the violence and action set-pieces, especially in the finale of the film.  There are a few memorable sequences that occur within the film.  There is a scene where Henriksen slips into a prison like a ninja and assassinates a potential witness after he takes out the prison guards.  There’s a fun shootout that takes place in a laser tag arena.  And there’s the standout car chase that eventually leads to a crazy sequence where Henriksen’s character is hanging from a truck as he tries to kill the driver.  I don’t want to spoil the end of this wild scene, but let’s just say that there is truth in advertising in regards to the VHS box art for this movie.

Nobody would claim that Hit List is one of Bill Lustig’s best films; including the director himself.  It doesn’t have that grindhouse feel of his earlier films and it doesn’t have a screenwriter like a Larry Cohen to inject some social commentary into the film, as he did for Maniac Cop.  And it certainly doesn’t help that your leading man is blotto through the film’s entirety.  Lustig and the supporting cast manage to somehow save this movie from being a complete disaster.  It’s a testament to Lustig’s skills as a director that he was able to salvage this film from what must have been a difficult shoot and turn in a decent action-thriller.  It may not be a cult classic, but Hit List deserves better than to linger in VHS obscurity.

MVT: The supporting cast of Lance Henriksen, Leo Rossi, Rip Torn, & Charles Napier

Make or Break Scene: The action packed finale!

Score: 6/10

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Hide and Go Shriek (1988)



When you’re a horny teen desperately looking for a place to party, you’ll go anywhere you can to pound cheap beer and try to score with your boyfriend or girlfriend.  God knows how many odd locations I’ve gone to all in an effort to escape parental authority and take part in some juvenile behavior with my closest friends.  The group of teens in the late period slasher, Hide and Go Shriek, choose, of all places, a furniture store to party at.  After store hours, of course!  Now, we never had a furniture store available to us, but I’m certain my friends and I would have jumped at the chance to drink and get wild in such a place.  So, this location doesn’t seem like an odd setting for a slasher movie to me.   Luckily, my friends and I were never stalked and chased by a psychopathic killer through our party spot.  The same cannot be said for the kids in this film; and if that’s the tradeoff for getting to drink and screw in a furniture shop after hours, then you can have it!

The group of kids in Hide and Go Shriek are made up of your stereotypical teens in slashers.  We have the prankster, the creep, the nerd, the slut, the virgin, and the couple in love.  Being that it’s the late 1980’s, we also get some amazingly bad fashion and hairstyles!  The clothes are mostly baggy and loud.  One character is even wearing a pair of dinosaur earrings!  As expected, the hair on the female cast is BIG and the males are a mix of mini-mullets and spiked hairdos.  One of the male characters seems to have modeled his look after the 80’s fictional character, Max Headroom.  The character even wears his sunglasses in doors…at night…Big Corey Hart fan, this guy.  The cast that make up the teens are mostly unknowns.  The only face I recognized was Sean Kanan, who plays John.  Most will know him from The Karate Kid Part III, as “Karate’s Bad Boy” Mike Barnes.  There is really only one cast member that stands out from the rest and that’s Bunky Jones, but I’ll come back to her later.

The film opens with an anonymous character applying makeup in the mirror.  In the next scene, the character is shown picking up what may or may not be a transgender prostitute and later murdering the prostitute in a back alley.  It’s quickly established that there’s a killer on the loose and we’re not certain of their gender.  Clearly, an attempt to keep us guessing who the killer is.   We’re then introduced to our group of teens and then we’re off to the furniture store for some post-graduation partying!  As odd as this location may seem for a party, it does make for a great setting for a slasher film.  Because it’s after store hours and the teens want to avoid drawing any attention to the shop, the interior of the store is dimly lit, creating a lot of shadows.  There are also several mannequins spread about the store which keeps the viewer guessing as to whether or not it’s the killer.  When the killer does arrive on the scene we get POV shots of the killer lurking about and peeping in on the teens as they strip and get down to business.  This all adds up to a pretty unnerving setting which makes for some genuinely creepy moments.

Slasher fans who expect their slashers to be bloody and gory shouldn’t be disappointed with this one.  When the killer starts attacking the teens, the film doesn’t shy away from the gruesome details.  There are two standout deaths in the film.  One where a character is impaled onto an art sculpture and the second being a decapitation by freight elevator, thanks to some early special effects work from Screaming Mad George.  Some may feel that the body count isn’t high enough.  Personally, I found there to be enough stalking and slashing to satisfy my needs as a fan of the slasher sub-genre.

Hide and Go Shriek is not without its issues.  Firstly, it’s a darkly lit film.  Too dark, in some scenes.  I realize it’s intended to be dark so that the killer can hide in the shadows, but it can be difficult at times to make out what exactly is on screen.  I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to watch this on VHS back in the day.  Also, after the initial setup, the film drags a bit until the killer begins to attack the group.  The group of teens work within the tropes and trappings of the slasher genre, but individually they’re not that interesting.  The actors are mostly serviceable but no one really standouts until the final act and that is when Bunky Jones, playing Bonnie, gets her moment to shine.  Once Bonnie discovers the mutilated corpses of her friends, she comes completely unraveled.  Bunky Jones’ portrayal of a teenage girl who is terrified beyond belief is one for the ages.  Some may find all of her shrieking and whining to be shrill and overbearing.  I, however, found her performance to be a highlight of the film and I appreciated that she swung for the fences with her depiction of the hysterical Bonnie.  Her reading of the line “I DON’T UNDERSTAND!” has to be heard to be believed.  Highly entertaining.

I don’t think anyone would claim that Hide and Go Shriek is a top-tier slasher.  Not even the hardcore slasher fans.  It is, however, a solid entry into the sub-genre with several entertaining moments scattered throughout the runtime.  It has an eerie setting, bad fashion, gory murder scenes, overacting, unconventional moments, and an ending that reaches giallo levels of absurdity.  This film doesn’t attempt to reinvent the genre, but it does enough different to make it a memorable watch and not come off as just another disposable slasher, which there were more than enough of during this period.

MVT: Bunky Jones.  She goes for it in the final act!

Make or Break Scene: The reveal of the killer.  This will likely make or break the movie for you.

Score: 6.75/10

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Psychic Killer (1975)


The ability or power to perform acts of vengeance through astral projection would be quite desirable to anyone who had an ax to grind.  Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t use this power for acts of murder or violence but maybe something embarrassing for my enemies.  For example, a depantsing of one of my foes in a public place.  That would probably bring me satisfaction.  If one were more bloodthirsty and felt their enemies deserved death for what they had done, you could potentially make a pretty interesting film from that premise.  Psychic Killer from 1975 attempts to tell a thrilling story from this idea, but unfortunately the idea is the only thing interesting about this movie in the end.

Psychic Killer is an early example of the slew of psychokinesis horror and thriller films that were being made during the 70’s and early 80’s.  Psychic Killer even came one year earlier than Carrie, which is the film that launched this sub-genre into popularity.  Unlike Carrie, Psychic Killer fails to generate any sympathy for the suffering protagonist, Arnold Masters, played by Jim Hutton.  Hutton does his best with what he’s given, but after the first act his character spends much of the movie sitting in a chair as his unseen spirit does the violent deeds.  The film also fails at being an effective proto-slasher.  Psychic Killer and Patrick, from 1978, share a lot in common.  With the exception of one kill, Psychic Killer simply doesn’t deliver when it comes to a good murder sequence like Patrick was able to do three years later.

We’re introduced to Arnold Masters as he awakes from a nightmare and attempts to escape from an institution for the criminally insane.  He claims he’s innocent of killing the doctor who treated his now deceased mother.  Masters holds a very strong grudge against those who incarcerated him and those he feels neglected his mother prior to her death.  Masters befriends another imprisoned patient who, with the help of an amulet, teaches Masters the art of astral projection.  After the real murderer of the doctor is convicted, Masters is exonerated and released from the institution.  He is now ready and capable of exacting his revenge on those who have caused him so much pain through his newly learned powers.

The film starts off promising.  Hutton does well early on expressing his character’s torment and we begin to get behind him.  There’s a pretty amazing dummy death in the first act and an introduction to a slimy psychiatrist who’s taking advantage of one of his female patients.  The setup of the astral projection is decent and makes for an interesting mode for revenge.  Unfortunately, when we get to the scene with the psychiatrist the film begins to slowly go downhill.  Masters chooses the psychiatrist as his first victim but there’s really no payoff with his death.  He’s killed off-screen with just a dribble of blood running from his mouth as he lies motionless on the ground.  Most of the murder sequences are a letdown.  The film doesn’t go far enough with the gore, with the exception of one scene but by then it’s too little too late, and it fails at building any suspense.

At times it didn’t seem like the filmmaker was sure what kind of film he wanted to make.  It’s setup like it’s going to be a thriller but there are no thrills or suspense.  The editing doesn’t work and the score is forgettable.  Because our killer can’t be seen stalking his victims, we’re never on the edge of our seat waiting for him to strike.  It just sort of happens.  The film doesn’t work as a horror film either due to the already mentioned lack of violence and gore.  There’s a shower scene death that’s decent but not that memorable and a death at a butcher shop near the end that’s pretty good but by then you’re pretty much checked out of the movie.  It even at times feels like the director was going for some dark comedy.  An attorney, whom Master’s blames for his imprisonment, is shown singing opera at a construction site just before he is crushed flat by a pillar like in a cartoon.  The intentional comedy falls flat and there isn’t enough unintentional comedy to save the picture.

It doesn’t help that the film is a bit confusing at times.  This should never be the case in a low-budget B-movie, such as this.  When Masters is preparing for his out-of-body experience, we get quick black and white dreamlike sequences that show a person harming Masters’ mother.  We’re not sure until later who these people are.  In the case of the lawyer, I wasn’t sure who he was and why Masters wanted him dead until I had deduced that he could be the only character left on Masters’ hit list.  Another example of this is the murder of the butcher, played by Neville Brand.  There is never a motive given for why Masters wants this character dead or how the character is linked to Masters’ mother.  It just seems like the filmmakers wanted to increase the body count and they had access to Neville Brand for an afternoon.

The psychokinesis thriller is an interesting sub-genre that has brought audiences many entertaining films over the years.  Psychic Killer has the honor of being one of the first of its kind and perhaps even inspired some of the films that would follow.  Sadly, that’s as much praise as I can give this one.  When I think of some of the most entertaining movies that could be lumped into this sub-genre, films like Carrie, Scanners, and The Fury, I’m reminded of their spectacular endings and having to pick my jaw up off the floor.  When I think back to the end of Psychic Killer, I’m reminded of its lackluster ending and having to pick my eyelids up off my face.

MVT: The premise of the film.  It had so much potential.

Make or Break Scene: The murder of the lawyer.  This scene broke it for me.  No suspense, no gore, no laughs.
Score: 4/10

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Sisterhood (1988)



Having now seen six films from Cirio Santiago, I know what I’m in for when I hit play on one of his movies.  A paper-thin plot, wooden acting, explosions, sloppy fight choreography, shoot-outs, and female nudity.  Santiago knows how to check off all the boxes for genre filmmaking.  His films are never great but I never find them to be boring or truly awful, either.  I like to describe Cirio Santiago’s films as cinematic junk food.  They satisfy when you have a craving but they’re not going to have much long lasting value.  The Sisterhood is yet another example of Santiago’s vending of cinematic junk food and that’s OKAY!  As long as you go into his movies knowing what to expect. 

The Sisterhood is a sort of mashup of the post-apocalypse and sword and sorcery sub-genres that flooded VHS rental shops back in the 80’s.   The characters’ costumes are either made up of tattered shirts and shoulder pads or capes and furs.  Most of the locations used in this film were either shot in a rock quarry or a desert location; AND the two primary modes of transportation in this post-nuclear landscape seems to be either horseback or repurposed combat vehicles.  Tropes from both sub-genres are present.  We even get some sorcery and magic powers, likely mutations brought on by nuclear fallout, and the “sisterhood” are even referred to as witches.

Santiago attempts a female empowerment angle to the proceedings, which isn’t new territory for the director.  Previous films, such as Silk and The Muthers, also showcased strong women capable of holding their own against the vicious men who act as their adversaries.  Unfortunately, Santiago’s good will and efforts towards feminism is undercut by topless shots and female characters scantily clad and dolled up with makeup.  Cosmetics are a necessity in a post-apocalyptic world?  Granted, this is a low budget genre film targeted at a specific audience and I appreciate the effort, but still, it comes off as disingenuous.  This film would actually make an interesting double with Mad Max: Fury Road as a contrast and compare exercise.

There’s little to no plot to speak of in The Sisterhood.  Basically, we follow three female characters as they travel across “the wasteland” in an effort to free their fellow sisters from slavery in a male dominated world.  As to be expected, there are plenty of battles and adventures along the way.  Obviously, this is a low budget affair.  The soundtrack, specifically, sounds like some dude banging away on a Casio keyboard in his parents basement somewhere in Ohio.  So, don’t go in expecting anything on the level of Beyond Thunderdome.  Keep your expectations mitigated and turn your brain off after you hit that play button.  A six pack of your favorite beer will likely help increase your level of enjoyment.

MVT: Cirio Santiago: He consistently does a lot with a little.
Make or Break Scene: The Sisters storm a rock quarry hideout with a tank!
Score: 6/10

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