Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Island Claws (1980)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m not a humongous fan of seafood.  Outside of the occasional piece of salmon or Chilean sea bass, it’s just not for me.  Having said that, I did used to like going crabbing as a boy.  When my family went to the shore for vacation, my brothers would pack up the crab traps.  We had about three or four of them, and half the battle was getting the strings untangled and hooked up appropriately to close the traps.  For those who don’t know, the basics of amateur crabbing goes a little like this: You put bait in a collapsible trap (there are non-collapsible traps, too, but they cost money).  You chuck the trap into the ocean, and hopefully, it fully opens up when you do this.  You then wait.  And then you wait some more.  Then you haul the trap up, and hopefully, it fully closes when you do this.  If there are crabs in the trap, you’re in business.  If not, and the sneaky little bastards stole your bait, you re-bait the trap, and do it all over.  After a successful day of crabbing, our family would, of course, have crab for dinner.  To no one’s surprise, I never partook (I probably had a salami and cheese sandwich instead, a delicacy for which the addition of crunchy beach sand only accentuates the experience).  Outside of the waiting, I enjoyed the activity of it crabbing.  The waiting, as Tom Petty said, is the hardest part (the reason I could never do things like hunting and fishing on the regular, not that I don’t have patience, but I could sit around my house waiting for something to happen just as easily).  Now that I think about it, maybe I didn’t enjoy the activity (there really isn’t much activity to enjoy).  Maybe I just enjoyed the company.  Either way, it would be tough to catch the sort of crabs featured in Hernan CardenasIsland Claws (aka Giant Claws aka Night of the Claw), not only because they’re far ornerier than your bog standard crabs, but also because they’d be too damned big to fit in our piddly little traps.

Somewhere in Florida, Dr. McNeal (Barry Nelson, a long way from The Shining) and his team at the National Marine Biology Institute are researching ways to grow crabs bigger as a way to solve world hunger using hot water.  Enter cub reporter Jan Raines (Jo McDonnell), who spends more time hanging out with research assistant Pete (Steve Hanks) than doing any sort of reporting.  After a safety incident at the local nuclear power plant releases super-heated, irradiated water into the local area, the crabs in the area get uppity and start to act at odds with their normal patterns of behavior.

The thing that stands out to me the most in terms of themes with Island Claws is the idea of the small community at risk from the big threat.  The Institute may be in a bigger city (we’re never privy to the geography of the area), but Pete actually lives in a tiny fishing village on the coast.  Pete’s adoptive father Moody (Robert Lansing, an actor whom I’ve always felt was actually miserable under his miserable exterior, even when he’s smiling) runs the local bar, The Half Shell.  The bar is the daily gathering place for the locals to get plowed, gamble on hermit crab races, and listen to Amos (Mal Jones) strum his banjo to the accompaniment of a player piano.  In many ways, this is a Western frontier town.  There is essentially one road that runs straight through the middle, and it’s made of dirt.  Everyone congregates at the local saloon.  Most importantly, everyone knows one another and their business, almost all of which involves commercial fishing (this film’s version of panning for gold).  This tightknit community is unassuming, workaday, and mostly pleasant (if plagued by rampant alcoholism and some halfhearted prejudices).  The menace of the crabs rises up to threaten the village, but this is not a threat of the villagers’ making.  This is not vengeance from nature on humanity in general.  It is the specific targeting of this tiny town as a result of something that occurred at a place of wealth and corruption.  The power plant is the symbol for money, and one of its big muckety mucks, Frank Raines (Dick Callinan), who is also Jan’s father, is so entrenched in the cover up of the safety incident, he would even lie to his daughter about it (she being in line with the working class/pro-ecological types).  This is the big conflict taking place in the film.  It’s the struggle of the working class men against the apathetic, borderline flagitious, wealthy/corporate class.  It’s not so much that the business suits of the power plant actively want to destroy the small village.  They simply don’t care whether it’s destroyed or not, and it’s their indifference that may prove more destructive than the killer crabs themselves.

Interestingly, and again in the vein of the Western frontier town, the people in the village are not without faults, and the mindset that trickles down from the wealthy power plant structure affects them as well.  This is embodied in the subplot of a group of Haitians who arrive illegally on the shore and hide out, stealing what they need to survive.  The first reaction of the fishermen, most particularly Joe (Tony Rigo), is to protect their stuff from the Haitians, even at gun point.  Turning on this concept, once the crabs start killing and maiming beloved members of the community, the villagers blame the Haitians, and they get so riled up, an angry mob forms to corral the illegal immigrants.  The villagers feel threats coming from those who are above them socio-economically as well as from those who are far below them on that same scale.  And yet, they never storm the power plant for creating the mutant crabs, but they do go after the Haitians, because they are an easier target, even though the assumptions about them are completely wrong.

Island Claws is a Fifties giant insect movie that arrived about twenty-five years too late, but that’s also the majority of its appeal.  Its heroes are common people (even the scientists).  It takes its time building up its menace.  It gives the audience a scattering of melodrama to maintain some interest in between attack scenes and build up sympathy for the victims.  It’s a classic monster movie set up; something I love.  The big problem that arises is that the script never totally coheres all of its elements enough to completely work.  Some examples: Dr. McNeal is hardly in the film at all outside of providing some occasional exposition.  The Haitians are totally undeveloped outside of their wrongly accused refugee status, but their subplot takes up a lot of screen time.  Frank Raines appears in exactly one scene just to show us that he’s Jan’s dad and more than a little shady.  Further, the back story involving Frank and Moody doesn’t carry any emotional weight, because it’s never followed through on or refined outside of being a bomb to drop on a character (which turns out to be a dud, regardless).  Most disappointing for me was the fact that the giant crab’s ultimate defeat is pretty mundane.  I wanted our protagonists to use their heads and improvise something clever.  However, while they do improvise something, the solution isn’t so clever.  With all that in mind, I enjoyed the film as a breezy, imperfect throwback to the likes of Them! and the movies that colored a giant swath of my childhood’s monster love.

MVT:  For being on the cheap, the life-sized giant crab monster is actually impressive.

Make or Break:  The Kingdom-of-the-Spiders-esque attack on a character’s bus-home tickled my fancy, and it is effectively orchestrated.

Score:  6.5/10       

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Devil Girl 18 (1992)


I have seen very little of Go Nagai’s Devilman anime outside of the OVAs released in the late Eighties/early Nineties.  I do have, but haven’t watched any of, the anime from the Seventies (looking forward to it, though).  I also have the original Mazinger Z series, although I have to admit that I’m a bit disappointed that the US version Tranzor Z (a show I watched on television as often as possible back in the Eighties) is not available.  I’ve also never seen any of the Cutie Honey series, but I am interested (who wouldn’t be interested in a naked female superhero?).  I love Nagai’s work, however.  He melds horror with science fiction with sex in a way I find gripping.  His characters go through some serious crap, and you’re never sure who’s going to come out on the other side, even the main characters.  It’s funny that, for how much I claim to admire his work, I’ve seen such a small sampling of it, but love is like that sometimes.  So, why such a scattershot, seemingly unrelated introduction to a film like Lam Wah-Chuen’s Devil Girl 18 (aka Mo Neui 18)?  Because the film itself is scattershot and seemingly unrelated to itself.  It also has the word “Devil” in the title.

Two demons (one male, one female) escape from Hell and travel to Earth.  There they possess the corpses of a duo of criminals (also one male, one female), and set about sucking the essence of forty-nine people who are “extremes of masculine and feminine” for some purpose which you will never fully understand (but rest assured, it’s bad).  Meanwhile, Nurse May Liou is tending to the comatose (but hardly braindead) Jay Lee, an antiques dealer who has some experience with ghosts and demons (and gender identity swapping).  May is engaged to Inspector Philip Kao, who is kind of/sort of investigating the trail of bodies left by the demons.  And there’s a Taoist priest with a chubby apprentice (named, of course, Fatty) who keeps giving grief to a horny ghost who enjoys possessing young men’s’ bodies and engaging in marathon sex with prostitutes.

Possession is one of the more interesting things going on in this film, and that’s mostly due to the implications of what that means for the possessee.  The loss of control, of identity, is something truly scary.  It’s a scenario many people experience (or variations thereof) in their worst nightmares.  Of course, said possessions, particularly in films of this ilk, also imbue the victims with special superpowers.  For example, the horny ghost, while in corporeal form, has a cock the size of a baseball bat (shown by having the actor literally wave a baseball bat from between his legs, mercifully only in silhouette) and the sexual stamina of a dildo.  The demon couple have more conventional superpowers, like shooting bolts from their fists and having champion-level martial arts skills.  But in either case, the needs behind the possessions are selfish in nature.  The horny ghost can’t make love in his normal state, and he wants to feel women’s flesh.  He doesn’t think about how he bankrupts his victims with his proclivities.  The demons desire to remain on Earth, and if they don’t complete their mission, their human bodies will explode (or something).  Humans are never possessed in films purely for observational reasons.  This only makes sense, since otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story in any of them.  But we relate, because our bodies and minds are sacrosanct, and the violation of them, their possible obliteration, is horrifying on a gut level (in much the same way as the sympathy pains we get when characters cut themselves or step on a nail).

More prominent than that aspect here is the idea of the power that sex and the desire for pleasure hold in this cinematic world.  Being a Category III film (and I’m not entirely sure why, considering how staid many of the sexual components in the film are when they’re not being played for laughs), sex plays a huge role in almost every scene.  When the demons are introduced in Hell, the female attempts to entice her guard into letting her go free in exchange for sex.  The female criminal on Earth (pre-possession) seduces the only other male member of the gang right in front of her boyfriend.  May dresses in sexy lingerie and shows Philip some tit, but refuses to go all the way.  The pros at the brothel gyrate and squeeze their boobs for their clients (but mostly for the camera).  The female demon seduces a nightclub owner before sucking his essence (which is self-explanatory in its connotations) and exploding his head (also self-explanatory).  Fatty only comes into his own (more or less, but mostly less) after he tries to lose his virginity at the brothel (there’s an iron bra involved).  The big climax (ahem) involves characters engaging in sex (guess which two characters) in order to depower the demons, and this is the most important instance of them all.  The male demon steals the essence of females, the female from males.  They are separated in this aspect, as well as in their not touching each other in a sexual manner (or not that I can recall).  By joining with each other through sex, the protagonists combine their essences (they also do it on a table decorated with the yin and yang symbol, underscoring the interconnectedness of the feminine and masculine opposites), and in this unity prove themselves more powerful than the antagonists.  

And yet, for the inherent potential present in the film’s sexual features, both they, and the film on a whole, are simply wasted effort (and, to be frank, the effort doesn’t even seem to really be there, anyway).  Now, I know absolutely zero about the background of this film’s production, but I feel confident in stating that the producers got their hands on some footage from several other films and just built what story they could around it (and Godfrey Ho wasn’t even involved, to my knowledge).  To wit: while he’s in the hospital, Jay spends the whole time with bandages covering his face.  All of the scenes where we can actually see him are in flashbacks (which have sweet fuck all to do with the sex demon narrative), and at no time in these sequences does he interact with any other character from the main story.  Speaking of which, if you go into this expecting a Yukari Oshima film (as I did), prepare for disappointment.  If the actress is in a collective five minutes of this film, that would be a lot.  Sure, it’s always nice to see her, and she does get to do a little fighting, but it’s not nearly enough to raise the level of this movie even one iota.  There are also scenes clearly taken from older films that are jammed into this film just to provide a bit of cheap action.  All of which brings me to the film’s “humorous” attributes.  There’s something to be said for juvenile-level slapstick and off-color jokes, but Devil Girl 18 has some of the weakest, most groan-inducing comedic moments ever put to film.  This isn’t entirely unexpected, because the funny bone of many Hong Kong films does tend to be rather oddly misplaced, but it also doesn’t make them work any better.  Also, the way the movie shifts between the funny scenes and the more serious scenes (which are, admittedly, still pretty goofy) really made me wonder just what the fuck Wah-Chuen was going for, or if he even cared at all.  I’m positive, in his heart of hearts, only he knows for sure.

MVT:  I like the base storyline, because it had real possibilities, none of which come to fruition.

Make or Break:  When the “funny” music kicks in, and Nurse Liou is instructed to smell Jay’s breath for stinkiness (hint: it’s not he that stinks), you know you’re in for a long haul.

Score:  4.5/10

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Lord of the G-Strings: The Femaleship of the String (2003)

Directed by: Terry M. West
Run time: 72 minutes

This movie is funnier than it should be. This sex comedy is a near retelling of the Lord of the Rings as told by drunk frat boys.  It's crude, vile, unrepentant, and a funny parody of The Lord of the Rings.

Instead of  four Hobbits on a quest to destroy the ring of power, it is three Throbbits on a quest to destroy the g-string of power. Throbbits are trisexual parodies of Hobbits and the reason they are trisexual is because they will try having sex with anything once. The trio of Throbbits are sent on this quest by the drunk and lecherous wizard Smirnof and that it for anything that resembles a plot.

The rest of the movie is the trio of Throbbits wandering around in some forest and meeting a fantasy trope or obvious reference to the Lord of the Rings. A crude but amusing joke is played out and then the trio wanders on to the next joke. The jokes are funny and not in the painful cringe inducing manner that Adam Sandler and Seth MacFarlane are great at.

It is a slow but funny sex comedy. If this is your thing, you want to offend the easily offended, or you hate The Lord of the Rings movies this is a movie you want to hunt down and watch.

MVT: There is a stripper scene were both the strippers and the guys watching the strippers are trying and failing to hide how awkward the scene is. This is funny as hell to me because it sums up every story I have ever heard about strip clubs in Saskatchewan and Alberta. A place where hope goes to die and the funniest train wreck all in one place.

Make or Break: The writers not beating the audience over the head every five minutes with "This is a LoTR parody, Laugh!" made the movie much more enjoyable.

Score: 5.9 out of 10

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Sexy Cat (1973)

As I’ve stated before, I was fascinated with monsters and special effects as a child (let’s face it, I still am).  Aside from the paper monster action figures I used to construct (okay, they were drawings I used to cut out), I also made monster hand puppets.  Make no mistake, however, I was no Jim Henson, although I like to think that he would have appreciated what I was doing.  My puppets were made from small brown paper lunch bags.  I would draw some monsters (a werewolf, King Kong, et cetera) on the bags in crayon, replete with fang-filled maws, and then spend hours playing with them.  The advantage these had over the cutouts was that they were 3-D.  The disadvantage was…well, there was no disadvantage.  They were fun, and for the youngest of six children in a household where money wasn’t exactly flowing, they were another way to be creative and invent toys that simply didn’t exist and/or weren’t profligate like they are today (I would have been like a pig in shit had I been able to lay my grubby little hands on actual action figures of Sanda and Gaila from War of the Gargantuas).  I suppose that today enterprising kids can just design something on their computer and 3-D print it, and half of me envies that.  The other half of me is a little disheartened by this, because I feel that the lack of tactility, the remove of technology, robs the process of some of its magic (sort of like practical effects versus computer generated effects).  Who knows?  Maybe I’m just old and cranky (actually, there’s no maybe about it).  The point is, I got more enjoyment out of my makeshift, paper bag hand puppets than I did from Julio Perez Tabernero’s Sexy Cat.

Comic strip artist Graham hires private dick (in more ways than one) Mike Cash (German Cobos) to find a way to prove that unctuous weasel Paul Karpis (Beni Deus) stole his character (the titular feline) and made a ton of money that rightfully belongs to him.  Graham is then conveniently killed by a woman in a black leather catsuit (just like his creation).  With a live action television series for the character underway, the principals are knocked off in creative ways that mirror the plots of the fictitious storylines.  But Mike has to earn his twenty dollars per day, so I guess somebody has to eventually get to the bottom of all this.

At first blush, Sexy Cat appears to be Spain’s answer to films like Danger: Diabolik and Barbarella (there’s even a Barbarella poster on Karpis’ wall, seemingly from Jean-Claude Forest’s comic and not Roger Vadim’s film).  At this time in Europe (late Sixties, early Seventies), films featuring comic book characters (especially those of the antiheroic persuasion) were flourishing.  Films like Kriminal and Satanik featured protagonists who, like characters such as Fu Manchu and Fantomas before them, were criminals.  The major difference with the older properties is that the villains got top billing, but they weren’t the heroes; guys like Nayland Smith and Inspector Juve were.  This changed in 1966 after the Batman television series debuted (there may be a few examples from beforehand, but none I can think of off the top of my head).  My guess is that, since Europe didn’t have as robust a tradition of costumed heroes to draw from (again, very few spring to my mind at the present, but then I never lived in Europe, either), they instead turned to the wealth of costumed villains that they did have, while maintaining the kitsch of the Caped Crusader’s program and the loungy attitude prevalent in many films the world over.  Sexy Cat is in imitation of these later characters and their stories in more ways than one.  Sexy Cat is a murderess who dispatches her victims in sadistically creative fashions (a Venetian dagger, a coral snake, and so forth), and she wears a tight, sexy leather catsuit (hence, her moniker, I assume, though she does also resemble Marvel Comics’ Black Cat character to some degree).  But it’s the differences that are key.  First, the eponymous character only exists in this film; there was never an actual comic strip featuring Sexy Cat (that I know of).  Second, the character in this film doesn’t exist either; She’s a person dressing up like Sexy Cat to do nefarious deeds, more in line with the giallo tradition than the costumed antihero one.  Which brings us to the third difference: Sexy Cat in the film has no purpose other than to kill people.  She has no grand scheme or elaborate heist she needs to pull off.  She’s essentially a slasher in tight clothes.  The movie, then, is little more than a whodunit with nothing very interesting to tie any of it together (but I’ll get to that later).

The use of Pop art in the film also mimics the fashion of the time, and, for me, this and the metatextual angle that comes along with it are the interesting facets of the picture.  The film opens with paintings of Sexy Cat and various murder implements/victims (they will be seen again in the film when an artist displays them for Karpis, providing another link between art and reality; we’re watching credits produced with art that a character in the film produced for a fictitious television program [that we may be watching]).  The colors are bright and flat with no shading, and the shapes are delineated with fat, black outlines, accentuating the falseness of the images (they reminded me of stained glass on canvas in some ways).  These credits are interrupted twice with live action smash cuts, first to a wigged and masked skull cackling and then to an extreme closeup of a very fake eyeball with a skull reflected in the iris and the sound of a woman screaming.  This is an attempt to link the artifice with the actuality, to undercut the “real” world of the film with the elements of the comic book one.  It’s the essence of Pop art, this creation of “art” from common/trash/low culture images/elements.  The same can be said, to some extent, of the television series over which everyone is getting whacked.  Yet more than that, I like the idea of life imitating art and the intermingling of the two.  The comic strip character begat the television series that begat the murderer, and the three interact with each other as reflections on one another.  The comic was a commercial endeavor.  The television show is a commercial endeavor.  The murderer takes the fictitious character (from both the strip and the show) and uses her methods in real life.  That said, I thought of Corrado Farina’s Baba Yaga several times while watching Sexy Cat.  Both are adaptations of comics.  Both have metatextual components.  But the former actually succeeds in blending the different mediums and saying something about art and reality, whereas the latter just goes through the motions, again accentuating its imitation status.


All that aside, this film is hollow.  The narrative is structured around Mike interviewing various characters (some of whom he bangs, some of whom he doesn’t), and the interviewees giving out explanations and information so convoluted as to be nonsensical.  In between, we get sequences of Sexy Cat killing people and Lieutenant Cole (Mariano Vidal Molina) gesticulating and pitching epic fits of overreaction (the latter are actually kind of fun).  The problem is there is absolutely no weight to anything that’s going on.  Mike meets an actress from the television series, and they immediately sleep with one another.  After being set up to make us think she’ll play a large part in the story, she’s killed.  Mike has an interview scheduled with a character who should have important information (and who, we can assume, would likely sleep with him), but she never gets to give any of this information up (to either Mike or the audience) before being killed after proving through the brevity of her time onscreen her worthlessness to the film and its story.  In fact, that’s pretty much the purpose for which every female character in this film exists; to die violently so the camera can leer at them.  There’s nothing especially wrong with that under certain circumstances (I can vaguely recall the personalities [slim as they may have been] of most of the victims in films like Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street), but here they’re nothing more than warm bodies turning cold.  Worse, the ultimate reveal of the murderer’s identity and motivation is not only dumb but is obvious three seconds after the culprit first appears onscreen in civilian identity.  The supposed ingannation is transparent, like Mike’s libido (the only thing he seems any interest in getting to the bottom of, barring, possibly, a bottle of hooch).  Like so much else about Sexy Cat, its resolution only made me think about other, better films with similar themes.     

MVT:  The Pop art, self-reflexive bits intrigued me.  Their execution bored me.

Make or Break:  Mike interviews a woman who used to have the rights to the Sexy Cat property, and the woman talks and talks and talks so much that it finally dawned on me that everything being said meant nothing about anything, and that this applied to the rest of the film, as well.

Score:  5/10