Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Four For All (1975)

I like turkey.  Every Thanksgiving (or any time that it’s served with my family), I get chosen to carve up the bird.  It’s not that I’m especially adept at it, I believe.  I think it’s more that I’m willing to do it than anything else.  The carving itself is actually quite simple, once you understand how to take the breast off the bone, and know where to crack off the wings and drumsticks.  It can get a little messy, however.  I should probably invest in a pair of turkey-handling gloves (I assume that this is something that exists), but normally I just use a little tin foil to hold anything steady (any tips or tricks you may have would be appreciated).  At any rate, while I enjoy turkey, I don’t like gravy.  Like, on anything.  I guess this is the same proclivity that makes me dislike condiments (with the exception of possibly ketchup [or catsup, depending on where you’re from]) on hot dogs, hamburgers, and so forth.  There’s just something about gravy that turns me off, but what can you do, right?  What the hell has this got to do with Giulio Giuseppe Negri’s (credited on screen) and Yilmaz Atadeniz’s (credited as co-director on IMdB) Four for All (aka Dort Hergele aka Fighting Killer)?  Well, the film is an Italian/Turkish co-production and was filmed in Istanbul, Turkey.  But really I was just grasping at straws for an introduction this week.

Members of The Organization are murdered at the command of the villainous Joseph (I love the genericity of foreign language genre film character names, don’t you?), who wants total control of the crime world in Istanbul.  The unlikely-named Tony Tiger (Irfan Atasoy, also a co-writer on the film and a man who perhaps enjoys Frosted Flakes a bit too much) and his family are targeted soon thereafter, but Tony survives, thanks to former flame (no pun intended; when you read further you’ll understand) Olga (Feri Cansel).  Calling upon three buddies he bonded closely (perhaps intimately) with during “The War,” including Nick (Richard Harrison) a gambler, Gordon (Gordon Mitchell) a Judo expert, and Brady (Fikret Hakan) a crooner, Tony plots his vengeance.

Four for All is, first and foremost, a revenge story, and in this it is, like so very many films from Turkey, both straightforward and quite insane.  Tony certainly has good reason to be out for blood, as I think almost anyone who is tortured and whose family is ruthlessly murdered does.  But the four killers really go the extra mile for Tony.  They beat his son Nino (and I have to say here that the actors actually do throw this kid around and smack him up a bit, unless the boy was in reality an amazing stuntman, and the scene was extraordinarily blocked out, but I doubt it).  They rape his wife.  They tie Tony up, spread eagle and face down, hanging over the carnage.  Then they light his house on fire.  Now, that’s a total “goon service” package, if ever there was one.  What this all does, of course, is gives Tony a reason to go on living, a singular purpose to his now-miserable existence.  Characters like him cannot move on or find closure like normal human beings.  The retribution beast must be fed (maybe this is why his surname is Tiger?), and nothing else matters.  Olga offers him solace (kind of), and while he stays with her, there is no indication that the two ever reignite (no pun intended…again) their former relationship (and the handling of Olga throughout the film is something I’ll let you discover for yourself if you choose to watch this movie).  His friends are there for him, but Tony is myopic in his obsession.  He has to be.  He has no other raison d’etre, now that his family has been destroyed.  I think that the interesting thing about this drive in cinema is that it can end in death for the hero as easily as he can walk away from it at the fade out, but, either way, he will not emerge unscathed, and quite often, the protagonist finds that his revenge, though cathartic for characters (and audiences), ultimately is meaningless.

The film is also an Assemble the Team story, and the camaraderie between the four men (referred to directly as The Four Musketeers, though I think that reference is fairly superficial here) is heightened to an unrealistic degree (this in a film rife with unrealistic touches).  In the flashback scenes to their time in “The War” (I assume this is a reference to Vietnam [though possibly not], since all the guys are the same age then as they are in the present), the men are shown laughing and having a good old time (as you would expect of soldiers during wartime).  Nick, Gordon, and Brady are also shown running (practically skipping with glee) from different sides toward Tony (who inhabits the camera’s POV), calling out his name, because Tony is the center of the group and of this story.  This will be revisited as a visual motif when the four meet up again before and after their “mission.”  Tony stands on a silent hilltop.  As he turns, each of his friends approach from separate (yet deliberately geometric) directions.  These men are so dedicated to their bond, they actually stack hands to display their solidarity with one another (I always think of the origin story of The Fantastic Four when I see this type of visual, but that’s just me).  

Nevertheless, the film, its characters, and its structure are distinctly comic-book-esque.  The cabal of gangsters is straight out of a James Bond film.  They gather at a long table, sneer at each other, and discuss their business with the polished casualness of executives delivering quarterly budget reports.  They all dress like they were peeled off a Dick Tracy cartoon with a glob of Silly Putty (and it should be said, I believe this film may have the most magnificent collection of mustaches ever assembled under one roof).  They wallow in their cruelty, chuckling and grinning as they go about their work.  

By that same token, our heroes’ story is divided up in such a way that I was immediately reminded of the longtime structure for DC Comics’ early Justice League of America books (and others like The Sea Devils and so forth, but the JLA stands out for me and is the most recognizable to folks for our purposes here today).  In the comics, there would be a basic threat introduced (say, Starro or Despero, it doesn’t matter).  The characters would then split up and each would tackle some aspect of the peril in individual chapters before they would all gather again at the end to finally vanquish their foe.  The same thing happens in Four for All, where each of the boys tracks down and roughs up one of the four assassins (Gordon chases Bob from a Turkish bath house, Brady busts up Johnny’s wedding day, Tony lures Brahma [Brimmer? Brummer? Who the hell can tell from the various pronunciations heard in the movie] to a remote locale, Nick goes skiing in pursuit of Charlie).  Funny enough, this is one of the most entertaining aspects to the film, since it helps keep the pace moving, gives us varied setups (while still sticking strictly to a formula), and showcases just how outlandish this whole affair is.  Tony’s plan is utter nonsense from stem to stern, and no one with half a brain would agree it, but like reading an old JLA comic, it’s enjoyable nonsense, and in this I can honestly state that I didn’t mind the gravy so much.

MVT:  The action in the film is practically non-stop, and it’s all goofy fun.

Make or Break:  The classic underworld meeting that kicks off the film lays all of this picture’s cards on the table.  S.P.E.C.T.R.E. would be proud.

Score:  6.5/10

Friday, March 25, 2016

Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993)

Directed by: Christophe Gans, Shûsuke Kaneko, and Brian Yuzna
Run time: 96 minutes

This movie is an adaptation of three H.P. Lovecraft short stories, Rats in the Walls, Cold Air, and The Whisperer in Darkness. Though the word adaption does not describe what was done with the source material.  It's a loosely inspired interpretation of three Lovecraft stories to sell to a mainstream horror audience. Adaption just sounds better and is less cynical.

The wrap around story is inspired by Lovecraft's writing life.  In the wrap around,  H.P. Lovecraft goes to visit an esoteric middle east themed cult who have the Necronomicon in their possession.  Lovecraft steals the keys to the locked room where the infamous evil book is kept and starts reading the forbidden book. This leads into the first story.

The Drowned is about a heir to a creepy estate with his own personal demons goes to New England to claim the estate.  As he tours the estate with the exposition real estate agent it's revealed that his great uncle lost his wife and child. In despair, he cast God out of his home and invited any deity that could return his family into his home. Something evil heard him and sent a servant with the Necronomicon so he can bring his family back. Desperately wanting his family back, the great uncle preformed a ritual from the Necronomicon and then killed himself shortly after succeeding.

Before killing himself, the great uncle left a letter explaining everything that happened and that the Necronomicon should not be used to raise the dead.  His heir skipped everything but where the book was hidden and how to raise the dead. Being an idiot,  he raises a loved one that he lost and learns the hard way not to use the Necronomicon.

He next story is The Cold.  It opens with an investigative reporter paying a visit to the home of a doctor who no one has seen in over a hundred years.  The reporter confronts the doctor's daughter about the doctor's absence and the numerous missing people connected to the doctor's residence. Reluctantly explains in flashback how her mother was fleeing an abusive step father by hiding in the rooming house where the doctor in question also lived. The abusive step father finds the daughter and the doctor helps by making the step father disappear.

This evolves into a love triangle between the woman, the doctor, and the land lady that owns the rooming house. Things get worse when the woman become pregnant with the doctor's child. The situation gets worse and the doctor ends up dying in a gory fashion. Oh and the Necronomicon plays a role in this story because it has information on how to keep people alive cryogenics. As all texts written almost three thousand years ago have information about such things.

The Whisper opens with a high speed chase and a relationship argument. The two police officers chasing the serial killer known as The Butcher are also arguing about how sleeping together was a bad idea. Also, debating the future of their yet unborn child. This argument is put on hold when The Butcher sets up a easy avoidable trap and the police officers crash right into it. Seeing that these cops are easy prey, The Butcher pulls the male officer out of the car and drags him away.

The female officer, though injured, gets out of the wreck and follows The Butcher into an seemingly abandoned horror movie warehouse. On her search for The Butcher, she finds a weird couple who lead her into a vaguely Aztec temple that no one noticed or thought was odd that the Aztec built a temple in New England.

Overall this movie does a good job of being faithful to H.P. Lovecraft and being watchable to a mainstream horror audience. The only people I can think of who would not want to see this film are fans of the cgi heavy, PG-13 horror films with a jump scare every two minutes. It is a sold rental for anyone who wants to see a weird and gory horror film.

MVT: The attention to theme in this movie is impressive. The wrap around story is taken from Lovecraft's love Arabian Nights and middle eastern culture. The Drowned had a gothic feel and The Cold and The Whisper had the weird science fiction horror feel.

Make or Break: Yes the Necronomicon is a book full of evil and forbidden knowledge but they really did not need to shoe horn the bloody thing in every story. I am willing to believe the book has rituals for raising the dead but weird science, stories from the future and being in scene because they ran out of ideas is too much.

Score: 7.3 out of 10

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Amuck! (1972)

Greta Franklin (Barbara Bouchet) is the new secretary/transcriptionist for “renowned” author Richard Stuart (Farley Granger), who lives in a mansion on a small island off the coast of Venice, Italy.  Richard’s wife, Eleonora (Rosalba Neri) excels at delivering oeillades and hunting out on the marshes, and she takes a shine to Greta.  But Greta has an ulterior motive for taking the Stuart assignment, and it all hinges on what happened to Sally (Patrizia Viotti), Richard’s previous secretary.

Amuck! (aka Alla Ricerca Del Piacere aka Hot Bed of Sex aka Maniac Mansion [not to be confused with the video game] aka In Search of Pleasure aka Leather and Whips) is an ostensible suspense thriller directed by the late Silvio Amadio.  It all centers on a mystery, but said mystery and its surrounding story are so transparently obvious, you can almost see right through it and into several other dimensions in gazing upon it.  Richard is an untortured artist, and man, does he lay it on thick.  He literally speaks in purple prose.  Some examples: “It’s modesty that doesn’t allow me to be myself.”  “…decadent, corrupt, lost in the myriad facades of a doomed city.”  “A perfect crime is possible.  For a superior mind, of course.”  Richard truly believes his own hype, and it’s his and Eleonora’s attitudes that are the most intriguing aspects of the film.  They are the perverse elite, those so far above the throngs of plebes that they can only find pleasure in decadence and corruption.  They gather about them young turks like Sandro (Dino Mele) and the Lenny-esque Rocco (Petar Martinovitch) and unleash them to revel vicariously in their carnality.  For the men they bring into their circle, it is enough to delight in their brutish ways.  Men are allowed to do what they want, so long as it pleases the Stuarts in some fashion.  Women, on the other hand, need to be debauched and brought under sway.  They must be made to want to give pleasure for the others, who take it by will or by force.  

Richard and Eleonora play this game from similar, yet still opposite, ends.  Richard is the suave, Eurotrash, continental pseudo-intellectual.  His ardor is high-minded (witness his dialogue) and somehow stridently needy.  Eleonora appeals to the Sapphic side all women must surely harbor deep, deep down in their lower recesses (of European genre films).  She traipses into Greta’s room, while the secretary is in a state of dishabille, pretending to comfort her after a scare from the (very) abrupt appearance of Rocco on Greta’s balcony.  Eleonora drugs Greta, and the two make love.  What one would assume from this is that Eleonora is turning Greta away from a heteronormative lifestyle.  But Greta is, in fact, a lesbian, so the corruption isn’t corruption in the sense of forcibly changing one’s sexual orientation (which could equally be looked at as opening up the doors of self-discovery).  It’s corruption in a physical, sexual abuse sense.  Regardless, the scene is shot to titillate (the sex is shot entirely in slow motion), so it becomes little more than gratification of the audience’s prurient interest.

In this same way, Richard is treated as either homosexual or, more intriguingly, impotent (both equally evil in the eyes of the film).  Sure, he lays a little liplock on Greta, but he quickly demurs and backs off.  At no other time in Amuck! does Richard engage in amorous physical activity with another person, male or female.  Eleonora is the leading force of the couple.  She dominates everyone who comes into the mansion, male and female.  She is also a crack shot with a rifle, and is a far better hunter than her husband (traditionally an interest considered more masculine than feminine).  Richard does keep a gun in his study desk, but it’s a handgun (read: Eleonora has a bigger dick than Richard).  Richard thinks, Eleonora acts.  We can assume that Richard derives some form of pleasure in the sex going on all around him, but he doesn’t (or cannot) partake.  Richard, then, is submissive, weak, impotent, in character if not in physicality.

Outside of a select few moments, however, the film falls flat.  This is kind of tragic, since it has all the elements needed to produce a taut, sexy thriller.  It has good-looking (and, arguably more importantly, willing) leads.  The acting is solid, if unremarkable.  But the story has loads of potential, and Amadio insists on wasting it all.  There is no suspense to Greta’s investigation.  There is no real menace emanating from Richard and Eleonora (okay, there’s a little emanating from Eleonora).  The plot is as clichéd as a tubercular street urchin with sudden, violent coughing fits.  It’s often been said that films where the plot is bog standard may, in actuality, be trying to do something else with the material, to explore something within the confines of commonplace narratives.  But this is not the case with Amuck!.  There are certainly enough avenues the filmmakers could go down, but the narrative is about as straight a shot as driving Route 66 once you hit Oklahoma, heading West.  Sally, the whole reason any of this film occurs, is an absolute cypher.  She provides a convenient motivation for Greta to show up, she takes her clothes off a couple of times, but otherwise, she has no discernible personality (and that’s even in the scene when she’s not under the thrall of the Stuarts).  Thus, we have no reason to care if her disappearance is ever solved (regardless of the fact that there’s zero mystery to this film’s mystery).  She’s a MacGuffin but is by no means a Maltese Falcon.  Scenes meant to make an audience anxious become mere endurance tests to get to their preordained destinations.  It’s rare that there’s any tension in the film, which made my disappointment that much more pronounced.  Neri, Bouchet, and Granger all seem to be giving it their all, but it’s a little like pouring water into a bucket with no bottom.  The few sequences that actually engage stand out more because they remind one that there is so much more this film could have been than because they are especially satisfying.

MVT:  Since there’s nothing else about the film that aims high in most regards, I have to say that the sole reason to watch it is to see some naked female skin (particularly of the Bouchet and Neri varieties).  For some folks that may be enough of a sell.  For others it would be nice to have a compelling movie around these scenes, too.

Make or Break:  The duck hunt out on the marsh is surprising in that it actually maintains a bit of interest for a few minutes, but it also has a twist to it that is so implausible it made me rub my temples.

Score:  5.75/10     

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Rift (1990)

I’ve never been diagnosed as such, but I maintain that I’m actually quite claustrophobic.  I mean, I can stand in something the size of a closet or somesuch for an amount of time (the reasons for doing so don’t matter here), but once the boundaries of a space actually touch my body, I tend to panic.  I’ve been at the bottom of dog piles and felt the overwhelming urge to get out from underneath them (I think that one is more from the feeling of being crushed than anything else).  But there’s something about the idea of being stuck in a confined area in which you can’t move that sends my mind into the stratosphere.  I don’t hyperventilate or have an emotional breakdown in such situations (and let me be clear, it’s not a situation I’ve been in often).  I do, however, slip into desperation mode, and will do damned near anything short of chopping off a limb to extricate myself (of course, I’ve also never been given the option of chopping off a limb, so I can’t honestly say whether I’d give it consideration).  This is why I couldn’t work and/or live on a submarine.  I’ve toured a couple of decommissioned ones, and seeing the amount of space in which people had to exist, the reality of literally living on top of your shipmates, put the nail in the coffin of that career path for me.  Were I given the chance to go on a sub like the Siren II from Juan Piquer Simón’s The Rift (aka Endless Descent), my attitude might change.  Might.  Slightly.  The Siren II is one of the most spacious submarines I’ve ever seen this side of The Seaview from Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s still an underwater casket (in more ways than one).

Submarine designer Wick Hayes (Jack Scalia) is carted off to Norway, because his baby, the Siren I, experienced a problem, leaving it at the bottom of an undersea rift.  Joining the crew of the Siren II, which includes Captain Phillips (R. Lee Ermey), biologist (and Wick’s ex-wife, coincidentally enough) Lieutenant Nina Crawley (Deborah Adair), and PC specialist Robbins (Ray Wise), Wick heads down into the abyss (get it?) and encounters far more than just a busted submarine.

I have to believe that the filmmakers behind this opus are big fans of John Carpenter.  How else do you explain a shady federal agent named Plissken?  There’s also Skeets (John Toles-Bey), the sassy black crew member who reminded me of Nauls from The Thing.  Speaking of that film, there’s also the idea of a lifeform infecting and transforming its victims (though here simply to kill them rather than duplicate them), and it all happens with a small crew of professional people in a remote location from which there is no escape.  Carpenter isn’t the only source from which Simón borrows.  There is the reconciliation subplot between Wick and Nina (shades of James Cameron’s The Abyss).  There is the undersea beastie aspect of films like Deepstar Six and Leviathan.  There is the giant jellyfish-thing enveloping the submarine, and the crew electrifying the hull to turn it away that was used in so very many episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (not to mention the multitude of other creatures the crew encounter throughout the film).  Also from that series is the element of a secret saboteur in the service of some unscrupulous government (in this case American rather than Soviet) aboard the craft (but if you don’t realize that it’s Wise from the minute you lay eyes on him and/or just see his name in the cast, then you’ve likely never seen a film featuring Ray Wise).  It’s been said, and I believe it to be true, that all filmmakers, artists, and so on borrow and/or lift wholesale things from other filmmakers, artists, and so on.  This is nothing new, but usually there is some stamp from the borrower making such references their own.  Simón’s film wears its references right on its sleeve, and they largely play solely at face value.  There’s nothing to distinguish these citations from the originals outside of the production values and the actors involved.  Still, they come close to forming a whole, and like watching an amateur impressionist whip out his Christopher Walken imitation, they’re moderately entertaining as much for what they get wrong as what they get right.

The rift of the title refers to a few things in the film, outside of the obvious underwater crevasse.  There is the rift between Wick and the government for which he once designed.  Wick is anti-war, and, naturally, the government installed all manner of nuclear weapons systems on his precious submarine.  Plus, they’re duplicitous, lying bastards, as they always are (“He bought it”).  There is the rift between Wick and Nina.  She only wants contact with Wick through their lawyers.  He tells her to stop acting like “a spoiled schoolgirl.”  At no point does any of this relationship develop or evolve until it’s necessary to give the audience a happy ending.  This shocked me a little, because the situation is readymade for dramatic tension (just add water, so to speak).  Alas…  There is the rift between the Siren II’s crew and Wick.  Most of them blame him for the incident on the Siren I, though Wick blames the ill-advised (and bellicose, more importantly) modifications made to his design.  Phillips doesn’t like Wick overmuch, because Wick is independent and non-regulation military.  None of this goes anywhere either, until it’s time for Wick to think outside the box and save everyone’s bacon with his individualistic actions.  

Notice how all of these revolve around Wick.  Every character, every plot point, every scene exists solely to serve Wick, the independent everyman.  Sure, he designs and builds state of the art watercraft, but he has long hair, he lives in a modest home, and he’s a slob (more or less).  We’re supposed to identify with him on some level.  I suppose you can up to a point, but that point is pretty far down on the spectrum of audience identification.  Wick is more than an everyman hero (think Doug McClure in something like Humanoids from the Deep as a point of reference).  He is a super-everyman.  Despite the scant aspects of his character that an audience recognizes in themselves, there is far more that elevates him above mere mortals, and it’s not as if Scalia does modesty all that well, regardless.  As a result, I feel that The Rift works better on its exploitable elements (in this instance, some gore/gross-out effects and monsters) than it does on its human elements.  So, if you can make it through the clichés, the non-drama, and the banality enwrapping the characters, you’ll at least be rewarded a tiny amount with some icky, goopy, sanguinary moments.

MVT:  The effects shine as much as they can on a $1.3-million-dollar budget.  I was also surprised at how graphic some of them were.

Make or Break:  With the above being said, the Make is the first scene of the crew exploring the cavern where the monsters dwell.  It’s tough to not like it, especially if monsters are your bag.

Score:  6/10