Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Butterfly Murders (1979)

Fong (Siu-Ming Lau) narrates the backstory of where the martial world stands (all we need to know is that there was some ruckus, we’re currently in the “Quiet Period,” and there are now seventy-two forces who control the martial world, the only one with which we need to concern ourselves being the Ten Flags Clan led by Tien [Shu Tong Wong]).  After the murder of a paper mill owner prompted by a counterfeit copy of Fong’s memoirs, The Ten Flags are summoned to Shum Castle, where Lord Shum (Kuo-Chu Chang) is hiding in fear for his life.  It seems some flagitious ne’er-do-well is using poison butterflies to off people, and it all ties in to a secret deep beneath the castle’s surface.

The Butterfly Murders (aka Dip Bin) is Tsui Hark’s first feature length film following his graduation from The University of Texas and his return to Hong Kong (I always remember his anecdote [I believe from an issue of Fangoria] where he was filming a dance or ballet class as a student, and his teacher pointed out to him that the shadows the dancers cast were more visually interesting than the dancers themselves; that is, a different way of looking at cinema).  The film itself is chock full of jump cuts and a storyline that assumes we’ll catch up to whatever is happening onscreen (and, yet again, we have to look at this as being, one, partially a cultural thing with how the Chinese construct and engage with film, and two, possibly something caused, at least in part, by the editing that happened oh-so-often after a foreign [but especially Chinese] film left its director’s hands and traveled abroad).  

And yet, this disjunctive quality aids in bolstering the mystery element of the film.  The Butterfly Murders, in many ways, is very much an “old dark house” movie.  Disparate guests with nothing in common are invited to an unexpected place.  Said place is hauntingly barren and forbidding.  Said guests are embroiled in a mystery which could cost them their lives.  There are secrets and twists that appear to come out of nowhere but do, in fact, have explanations.  There are hidden chambers which house aspects of the truth.  There’s an odd butler-y character in the form of Chee (Hsiao-Ling Hsu), who is deaf and muter but also far better looking than most cranky, old cinematic butlers I’ve seen.  The only thing really missing is the raging tempest outside (though the sky in the film always looks overcast, and you could look at the swarms of butterflies as being the storm which keeps everyone cooped up).  The three main characters, Fong, Tien, and Green Shadow (Michelle Yim) play detective, piecing the puzzle together.  

Since Fong is our audience perspective character, he plays the primary investigative role.  He questions people but generally keeps out of things, observing and processing the goings-on as a scholar/scrutineer does.  It’s he who will actually learn a lesson from the story, and, as he would pass it on to his eventual readers, Hark passes it on to the viewer.  Fong chronicles tales of the martial world from what he has experienced in it and is highly regarded for this.  This story is yet one more of these yarns, and it unfolds partly as a folk tale and partly as an accounting of what actually happened.  Fong’s memoirs are valued because he is known as one of the great storytellers of his time, and the falseness of the writings being foisted off at the film’s opening is important because it’s telling us that the reality crafted in the writing of guys like Fong is valuable as historical documentation and as fashioning of the world in which everyone who isn’t a scholar/author lives.  Flashbacks take us from the main story to spice up the proceedings, give us backstory, and show us that there are common legends in this world.  Therefore, we get the two clowns robbing a grave who are attacked by the butterflies as well as several shots of the aftermath of Magic Fire’s (Eddy Ko) wrath.  

This world is supported by myths and legends as surely as ours is by science and nature.  This is why the heroes of this world have supposedly magic powers.  And yet, the filmmakers very clearly show us that these abilities are a combination of skill and gadgetry.  For example, Magic Fire can’t actually control and create fire.  He is a master of pyrotechnics and explosives.  Similarly, Thousand Hands has all manner of sharp, pointy objects he can hurl en masse with pinpoint accuracy.  His moniker has nothing to do with him having a thousand hands (though that would have been kind of neat to have seen).  It’s a simultaneous aggrandizement and de-mythologizing of these special people.  Fong’s writing creates larger than life characters, while Hark shows us that there are real world explanations for their gifts.  But in the end, the martial world of the film will continue to be colored by and filled with Fong’s point of view, not Hark’s. 

Oddly enough, for a film set in the martial arts world, there isn’t a ton of fighting in it.  Actually, I should append that.  There is a decent amount, but it takes a while to get to any of it, and, to be perfectly honest, you can tell that Hark was still very much an enthusiastic novice (as an analogy, you almost need to ask yourself whether you’re interested in seeing Salvador Dali’s artwork from when he was four years old; personally, I would leap at the chance).  For as many interesting shots/visuals we get there are just as many, if not more, that are so undisciplined in angle and movement, you almost can’t tell what’s going on, and the editing is as choppy as a prep cook.  Nevertheless, it’s this sense of experimentation that turned Hark into the filmmaker he would become in a very short span of time.  Additionally, the director seems to rein it in a sizable amount as the film rounds third base while ramping up the more fantastical components, and this is when the movie became most satisfying for me.  Yes, you have to work with the film (arguably against it) to make heads or tails of it at the outset, but both the journey and its destination are worth it.

MVT:  The mystery facet keeps the film together and even gels with the rest as it moves along.

Make or Break:  If you can’t make it through the film’s first ten minutes, it won’t be for you.  I loved the challenge of it (as a Western viewer) and where it led.

Score:  7/10                 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Metempsyco (1965)

You don’t hear a lot about guinea pigs these days.  In the pantheon of house pets, they just don’t rank all that high, which is kind of a shame, because I think they’re pretty nifty.  They’re easy to take care of, they’re cute as buttons, and they’re fairly even-tempered.  My family had one back when I was young.  Her name was Petunia (get it?), and I used to push her around on my cheap, plastic skateboard (back when the activity was still called “sidewalk surfing”).  If I remember correctly, she only nibbled on my fingers a few times, but I didn’t mind.  People love their bunnies, their dogs and cats, even their regular pigs, but the guinea pig is all but forgotten these days.  Maybe they got a bad reputation for their ability to be mistaken for rats, as they do in Antonio Boccaci’s Metempsyco (aka Tomb of Torture).  That said, they just don’t bring the chills like you might think they would.

Anna Darnell (Annie Alberti) is dragged to her physician father’s village in order to keep her from going insane (this makes sense to someone somewhere).  The village’s dilapidated castle plays home to cranky dowager Countess Elizabeth (Flora Carosello) and the horridly disfigured Hugo, who enjoys torturing and murdering nubile young women in the dungeon/tomb that comes standard in places like this.  Anna just so happens to be the spitting image of Elizabeth’s sister, the missing Countess Irene (also Alberti), which deeply interests (kind of) Raman (Adriano Micantoni), the Countess’ former fiancé.  And things go from there.

The title Metempsyco is a shortening of “metempsychosis,” which is a fancy word for reincarnation, and for once in an Italian genre film of the time, it actually corresponds to the context of the narrative.  There’s the obvious mentioning of the resemblance between Irene and Anna by every character, but Boccaci also handles the duality of the character in a strong visual manner.  Irene appears as a mute specter frequently in mirrors that Anna peers into.  The countess is a presence looming over Anna, possessing her body, as well as an ominous harbinger of the physical danger Anna is in and a representation of the possible madness that imperils her mind.  Irene even appears a few times outside of reflective surfaces, so she becomes more physical than just a rumination on what’s inside Anna.  There’s even a dream sequence that’s both eerie in its disjointedness and telling as a flashback to Irene’s fate, and it directly draws a line between the two women, linking them on a spiritual level as something shared from life to life.  

As all cinematic ghosts are, Irene is the past sin on which the film’s plot turns.  We find out rather quickly exactly what happened to her (it’s pretty inventive), leaving only the mystery of who was involved in it (which is no real mystery at all) and how the film’s characters must deal with this.  Obviously, Irene can’t or won’t go away until her life and death have reached full closure.  Likewise, the deformed Hugo is the ugly, corporeal secret of this past that continues to harm the people of the village.  The past is, in fact, more important than anything happening in the present, because it informs every motivation of every character in the film (one could argue that this applies to all fiction, but I feel that it’s more pointedly true in Metempsyco and films like it).  Until this is dealt with, no one can move on.

Similarly, the castle and its inhabitants, in fact the whole village, simultaneously embody opulence and rot.  We’re shown this from the film’s start.  It opens with an establishing shot of the castle exterior, looking the worse for wear.  We then get a POV shot (heavy breathing included) of the castle’s interior, the finely woodworked doors, the various large busts, the bookcases, etcetera.  This cuts to a skull hanging in blackness, and the camera tracks in on a human eyeball in its socket.  It then switches back to the POV shot, and we now get a “rat” (one of the aforementioned guinea pigs) crawling on the fireplace’s mantle.  This bastion of finery is decayed, just as Irene’s corpse is.  It is beauty and ugliness combined.  In this same manner, you have the beast Hugo who captures, strips, tortures, and kills a couple of snooping girls (in a Psycho-esque prologue of some length).  In this village, beauty is threatened and must be destroyed.  Elizabeth, not an ugly woman, per se, is given a stern iciness which drains what comely attributes she may have once had, and her all-black ensemble only adds to her forbidding mien.  She may be wealthy, but she’s practically dead inside.  Anna’s arrival is a threat to the fetidness of the locale as well as being the reincarnation of Irene’s allure, so she is in turn threatened.  The castle is old affluence consumed by its greed and turned monstrous.

Lust and madness are also intertwined in the film.  Elizabeth’s lust turned to envy of Irene, driving her to madness and murder.  Anna struggles against some vague genetic insanity, but she beds down with gormless reporter George (Marco Mariani).  This does nothing to stave off her mental instability and seems to exacerbate it.  Raman lusts for Anna the same as he did Irene, driving him to act the stalker throughout the film.  And then there’s Hugo who is clearly psychopathic and indulges his cravings for female flesh in erotic murderous fantasies.

There are some surprises to be had in Metempsyco, primarily stemming from the lurid quality that informs its plot.  Death is brutally delivered by more than one character with shocking starkness.  There’s no actual skin on display, but both consensual sex and rape are presented as a matter of course.  Oddities are left unexplained or only partially explained, augmenting the nightmarish ambiance of the film.  Yes, the plot is as well-trodden as the cobbled streets of Pamplona and as enigmatic as a stapler, but it all works because of its macabre disarray.  This is pure pulp served up with a heightened gloom that makes it all the more nasty.  It’s a shame Boccaci didn’t direct another film (and only wrote a total of four), because he clearly had the sensibilities to be one of the more inventive and intriguing filmmakers of Italian genre cinema.  Plus, he was unafraid to try passing off guinea pigs as rats, and you have to admire that kind of moxie.

MVT:  The atmosphere of the film is infused with elderly gothic trappings and modern pulp perversity, blurring the two together admirably.

Make or Break:  The prologue showcases everything there is to love about the film.

Score:  6.75/10     

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Horror Hospital (1973)

Hospitals are innately scary for those not involved in the medical profession (I’ve probably done this exact intro before, but a little self-plagiarism never hurt anyone).  Here’s a place where the human body is parts of a machine, a place where blood and innards are routinely let free from their skin prisons.  People go there when they’re in pain, and part of the anxiety of the place is that they don’t know whether or not they’re going to experience still more pain during the healing process.  Moreover, there is the fear of not knowing what’s ailing you until some nebulous diagnostic process is complete.  Is that stomach pain just gas, or do you have inoperable cancer?  Of course, doctors and nurses care about the people they see, but there’s also a necessary aloofness they adopt by necessity that only adds to the unease of being in one of these places.  And then there are the multitude of insane doctors of the cinema who want to ravage your body, experiment on you against your will, build monsters out of corpse pieces, and so on.  Admit it, you may like the guy who comes around a couple times a day to read your chart and prod you with sharp metal things, but deep down you’re pondering if he’s simply browsing over you like the headlight section of an auto parts store.  Medicos like Dr. Storm (Michael Gough) in Atony Balch’s Horror Hospital (aka Computer Killers aka Doctor Bloodbath aka Death Ward #13 aka Mad House aka Frankenstein’s Horror-Klinik) go a step further, disguising their misdeeds under the guise of spas, rehabs, etcetera, where pain and torture is the last thing on the minds of his unwitting victims (quite literally).  Which reminds me, I’m due for a few booster shots.

Jason (Robin Askwith) is a young songwriter fed up with pretty much everything in groovy London and stressed to the gills.  Responding to travel agent Mr. Pollack’s (Dennis Price) advert for a cheap getaway, Jason heads off for Dr. Storm’s “health hotel.”  Along the way, he meets up with Judy (Vanessa Shaw), who is on her way to the same place to find her Aunt Harris (Ellen Pollock), a former whorehouse madam.  Things turn suspect pretty fast once the budding young couple arrive at the estate, as they are placed squarely in the sights of the nefarious Storm and his twisted cohorts.

Horror Hospital is very clearly modeled on Robert Fuest’s superlative The Abominable Dr. Phibes.  This is evident right from jump street, as the film opens with Storm and his diminutive henchman Frederick (Skip Martin) sitting in the doctor’s car waiting for a couple of escapees to stumble by.  Storm is dressed in a natty black ensemble which includes a wide-brimmed fur hat.  The car has a couple of blades that pop out of the sides to decapitate the youths (I still can’t figure out exactly how, because the blades appear far too low to accomplish such a task), dropping their melons into handy burlap sacks located just past the blades.  The oddities pile up, as there is a silly putty monster who occasionally snags a new victim.  The water tap in Jason and Judy’s room runs red with blood (“Don’t forget to brush your teeth,” Frederick’s ominous line to the two is one my brothers and I imitated for a long time after we first saw this film way back when).  Storm’s “computer killers” are always in composed order, the settings they are in organized tableaux.  The doctors in both films are crippled in some fashion (Phibes can’t speak without aid of a gadget, Storm is wheelchair-bound), but are also hiding very gruesome secrets behind their surface infirmities.

Horror Hospital doesn’t have the visual imagination of Fuest’s opus, however, and Gough plays Storm in much straighter fashion than Vincent Price’s Phibes.  What Balch’s film does instead is amps up the salacious elements.  Real raw calves’ brains are served for dinner.  Shaw gets naked a few times, and her character hops into bed with Askwith’s pretty fast under less than romantic circumstances (and difficult to understand since Jason’s as magnetic as a sheet of paper).  Pollack, an overtly predatory gay character, casts his eyes to Jason’s crotch (the camera follows suit) and “hints” at the fun the two of them could have.  There is blood all over the place in the film, as well.  Aunt Harris used to run a brothel and has settled nicely into the role of Storm’s primary aide (a flesh trade of another sort).  And let’s not forget the malevolent dwarf who lives to taunt Storm’s guests.  This is a black comedy with a sleazy, populist bent, interested in giving the crowd what it wants served between two thick slices of wry.  It’s a grand guignol filled with trashy, modern sensibilities.  If the two films were adult magazines, Phibes would be Penthouse and Hospital would be Hooker (and, hey, we know there’s a place for both, right?).  

Horror Hospital deals with youth culture in an interesting way.  As we’re introduced to Jason, he’s watching a band he wrote a song for do it a disservice, and he loudly vocalizes this to the crowd around him, going so far as to call the band’s singer a “faggot.”  He greets Judy by telling her he’s totally not going to rape her (easily one of the most charming opening lines I’ve ever heard) then proceeds to mooch food from her.  Jason is a snotty little ball of attitude who believes the world owes him something, and he’s not above sticking his thumb in the world’s collective eye to get it.  Judy is played more innocently as she almost immediately opens up completely to Jason with doe-eyed earnestness.  That she becomes romantically involved with Jason aligns her with Jason’s world view, and so she must be punished along with him.  In fact, all of Storm’s patients are young adults.  He is taking vengeance on the young and able-bodied out of self-pity for his own condition, making them his slaves and removing their troublesome individual identities (in essence, he’s the ultimate grumpy old man).  Naturally, the tables will be turned on Storm and company, and this presents us with a validation of the cocky perspective of the Jasons of the world.  Simultaneously, their willingness, even eagerness, to use Storm’s appurtenances against him states that they finally become like him (as all youth eventually molts, transformed into the establishment it railed against for so long).  The insanity of Storm’s world is contagious and a valuable educational tool for the harsh reality that young people need to learn in order to not only survive but dominate.

MVT:  The film has a terrific pulp, camp sensibility that helps it transcend its shortcomings with something odd or creepy around every corner.

Make or Break:  The opening sweeps you into the film’s world handily, and, like Frederick is bade by his master, makes “a clean job of it.”

Score:  7/10