Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom (1973)

What’s the allure of people in uniforms?  Men and women alike share this attraction, the most common cliché (to my mind) being police officers (though I’m sure soldiers and fire fighters get some loving from both sides as well).  I think the draw comes partially from the barriers society has between work and play.  Picking up a police officer off the clock is one thing, but getting them to drop their official duties for some nookie is a formal transgression that amps up the erotic, “naughty” aspect of the tryst.  Men, being pigs, expand their horizons on this fetish.  This is where the classic French maid and (especially) schoolgirl outfits come into play.  Maybe it’s the amount of leg showing from underneath the short skirts.  Maybe it’s the power play of seducing/corrupting young, nubile co-eds.  Maybe it’s a fantasy of older men to reaffirm their sexual attractiveness to young women and stave off obsolescence.  Maybe it’s none of that, maybe all, maybe more.  Any way you slice it, the schoolgirl trope is, and likely always will be, with us as a sexual pipe dream (pardon the pun).  Certainly, the Japanese have embraced, run with, and jumped off the cliff of this proclivity, and they sure aren’t shy about taking it to extremes.  All one needs do is have a gander at Noribumi Suzuki’s Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom (aka Kyofu Joshikoko Boko Rinchi Kyoshitsu), wherein student Michiyo (Emi Jo) is tied up in the school’s science lab while other students in red surgical masks slice her breasts with a scalpel and drain her blood before dropping her off the school’s roof.  And this is only the film’s first few minutes.

Three young troublemakers, Noriko (Miki Sugimoto), Razorblade Remi (Misuzu Ota), and Kyoko (Seiko Saburi), are sent to the School of Hope for Girls where they run afoul of the resident Disciplinary Committee headed by sadistic student Yoko (Ryoko Ema).  Naturally, there are people higher up pulling the Committee’s strings, and Noriko hatches a plan to take them all down for very personal reasons.  And then Reiko Ike shows up as a rival gang member to further obfuscate Noriko’s scheme.

Lynch Law Classroom is an example of the Pinky Violence genre, one not necessarily exclusive to Japan in terms of its elements but absolutely in the refinement and expansion them (Plus, I believe that the actual term Pinky Violence refers only to Japanese product, the same way that Poliziotteschi refers to crime movies made in Italy).  I won’t pretend to know all the ins and outs, the highs and lows of the Pinky Violence genre, but here’s what I do know based on my relatively narrow experience.  These films all feature strong females as their protagonists (and they are usually members of, if not leaders of, a girl gang).  There is commonly another girl gang whom the protagonist has to fight with and/or gain the respect of (though this element is many times more of a subplot that will have to be resolved after the big finale, much like in the vast majority of the Zatoichi films).  They all feature yakuza on whom the protagonist typically wants to take revenge for the death of some loved one.  More than these, the Pinky Violence genre, holding true to its name, highlights sex and bloodshed, often in the same scene.  Women are routinely bound up and tortured with everything from knives to genital trauma to cigarette burns, and those are probably some of the tamer means.  Sex is plentiful with lots of groping, breast gnawing, butt shots, and so on, and lesbian loving gets almost as much screentime as straight, so fair play on that.  Toei Company, Ltd, the studio that produced a vast array of the more popular Pinky Violence films including this one, had the genre down to a formula, and damn it all if they didn’t do it extremely well.  Granted, some are better than others, but the same can be said for Universal’s classic monster movies of the Thirties through the Forties. 

The women in these movies are in no way, shape, or form shrinking violets, nor are they afraid to get their hands dirty.  Noriko is a badass of the first order.  When she is caught trying to boost a car, she immediately throws down with both the car’s owner and the cops who arrive on the scene.  Remi doesn’t bat an eye at taking on a gang of thugs who harass her in her little cowgirl outfit.  Kyoko gives a “helping hand” to the trucker who gave her a lift, causing him to run into a cop and wreck his vehicle.  She’s pretty blasé about the whole affair, and that’s the thing about the tough girl characters in this genre.  They are cold as ice, all business, and taking no shit from anyone.  They are, for all intents and purposes, the same generic characters as are given us in just about any Yakuza film you could hit with a dart, the only difference being their gender.  This means that honor and revenge play a huge part in the proceedings, and this film is no exception.  Noriko is at the school specifically to avenge the murder of her friend and lieutenant, and it’s this touch of humanity that demarcates the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.  The male yakuza in this film couldn’t care less about other people, even the ones in their own organization, but Noriko and her friends share a bond that goes beyond that of mere association.  Hence, despite the lengths to which they are willing to go, the cruelties in which they will partake, Noriko and company are compelling and likeable as protagonists.

There is also a strong theme of hypocrisy in the guise of decency flowing through Lynch Law Classroom.  The local juvenile delinquent cop writes up Michiyo’s murder as an accident.  Vice Principal Ishihara (Kenji Imai) runs the Disciplinary Committee, and his sole concern at this juncture is making sure that the school’s Twenty-Fifth Anniversary, which includes a visit from local Chairman Shigeru Sato (Nobuo Kaneko), goes smoothly.  The Committee follows Ishihara’s orders explicitly in order to maintain their own power and privilege.  Ishihara is engaged to teacher Toshie (Yuko Kano), but he’s only involved with her for her family’s wealth.  Further, he’s completely okay with pimping her out to meet his ends.  Likewise, every other man in a position of power, from the Mayor to the Chief of Police, is corrupt to the core.  They all leap at the chance to have an orgy with a bunch of schoolgirls.  The appearance of respectability is all-important, hiding the immorality that lies in their hearts.  The protagonists, by contrast, are exactly what they are on their face.  Their lack of hypocrisy and pretense is what sets them apart from and above the other characters.  They are true to themselves, take it or leave it, and in much the same way, so is this film and (I’m assuming a bit here) every other film in this genre.  Personally, I’ll take it.

MVT:  The thoughtful way the film combines sleaze with craftsmanship and makes it all work.

Make or Break:  If the opening scene doesn’t put you off, you’ll be along for the ride.

Score:  7.5/10 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2011)

It’s fair to say that you’re going to see just as much, if not more, adulation for Ray Harryhausen in this review than in Gilles Penso’s documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan.  My first love as a monster kid was the 1933 version of King Kong followed closely by Toho’s Godzilla films, so stop motion animation was already one of the greatest things in the world for me (though my love for men in rubber monster suits ran a tight second).  Seeing Harryhausen’s Sinbad films was like eating your favorite food, and every time you did it was liking eating it for the first time all over again.  The thing which links Harryhausen with Eiji Tsuburaya, who pioneered the effects for the Godzilla franchise (which was directly inspired by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), beyond the tactile, expert care and craftsmanship put into the work is the sense of wonder that these films embody and instill in the viewer.  You cannot look at these pictures and not feel awe to some degree or another.  These are paced stories with fantasy elements that are brilliant in their technical virtuosity and their ability to spark the imaginations of young and old alike rather than just deliver spectacle (though they do this as well).  

Harryhausen’s films are simple without being simplistic, hewing to the pulp traditions from which they sprang: something happens, people are pulled into these events, people discover extraordinary things/obstacles they must conquer/overcome, people conquer/overcome them.  It’s as meat and potatoes as you can get, but this is the groundwork which supports the elements that Harryhausen adds.  The clash between the mundane and the exotic is what fuels these films and makes them compelling, something I believe guys like Stephen King took to heart (it’s been postulated that his stories are so popular because his protagonists are the type of people who buy their underwear in a ten-pack at the local K-Mart, something with which I agree).

Pensco’s film mixes a chronological overview of Harryhausen’s work with comments and opinions from a host of luminaries of fantastic cinema (Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson, Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren, James Cameron, Joe Dante, to name just a few).  It is formulaic in structure, feeling a bit more like a featurette on a disc than a strong doc in its own right.  For example, as we move from film to film, we get the year of its release, a shot of the original poster art, footage of the original theatrical trailer, and then some discussion on it interspersed with shots from the movie along with what I feel is the real cream of this film: copious amounts of archival footage and photos, showcasing behind the scenes activities, concept and storyboard art, and animation tests.  And yet, the formula works for what this film is.  This isn’t documentary in the tradition of Frederick Wiseman or Errol Morris.  We’re not following a day in the life of a Harryhausen production or investigating the depths of the man’s soul (man, what would those films have looked like in regards to this subject?).  Instead, here we’re given the opportunity to share in the adoration of a film pioneer and vicariously bond with the professionals he inspired.  We’re never told about the hardships of Harryhausen’s life, the conflicts he ran into in the course of his career.  We simply drift along on a scenic tour through his achievements.  Consequently, this, and docs like this, appeal to both novices and acolytes alike.  It’s as much overview as it is fanboy gushing.  Something for everyone, so to speak.

There are also hints at deeper conversations going on throughout the film.  Harryhausen is credited with being the person who influenced how we, as a society, think dinosaurs moved.  This points to a truth (or a perceived truth) inherent in all of Harryhausen’s performances (and they are performances; each of his characters, and any animator’s, are a performance from the animator as they, to paraphrase the words of Henry Selick, take the journey with their characters from first frame to last).  I found it interesting that the filmmakers never talked about Harryhausen’s signature shoulder roll in this regard, which just about every single character of his capable of doing so did, but that’s a small quibble.  Likewise, the issue of auteurship comes up.  I believe it’s Joe Dante who raises the fact that something like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is never discussed as a Nathan Juran film.  Cinephiles, of course, recognize that Harryhausen didn’t technically direct these films.  Nonetheless, they are his, in part because his was the driving vision behind them and in part because the technical demands of his craft insisted upon a level of control if the live action and the animation were to meld together onscreen.  As John Landis avers, he is the technician as auteur.  

Naturally, this all leads to the inevitable CG versus Stop Motion conversation, and Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan peppers this across its runtime.  As you can imagine, the vast majority of people, even those who work extensively with CG, are very clear in their preference of Stop Motion over CG.  Personally, I agree with guys like Tippett and Muren who know that there is an unnatural fluidity imposed by the nature of CG.  Gilliam and Steve Johnson perfectly sum up CG’s lack of charm.  Gilliam calls it cold, while Johnson elaborates that CG puts the audience at a distance from the effects/film, because you know precisely how it was done, whereas Stop Motion is like a magician who you know has tricked you but you can’t figure out the means with which it was accomplished.  Relating back to the discussion of auteurship, Muren states that there are no longer many films of singular vision due to the massive budgets and the size of the animation departments.  In other words, individuality has been more and more bred out of special effects films, and homogeneity has taken over.  Ironically, and in one of the film’s more humorous (to me, anyway) moments, James Cameron hypothesizes that, if Harryhausen were still working, he would absolutely be using CG and not puppets, as it’s the newest, most streamlined tool in the special effects arsenal.  This is followed by Harryhausen stating that he would still use puppets, as he finds it unappealing to sit and push buttons in order to get an image onscreen.  For me, this sums up the difference between an artist of Harryhausen’s skill and a technocrat like Cameron (don’t misread this: I have a great amount of respect for Cameron and his work, but he has always been more about technological advances than anything else, in my opinion).  It’s ruminations like these that stayed with me beyond the joy of reveling in the filmography and accomplishments of one of cinema’s greatest creators.

Arrow Films’ bluray is typically lush and loaded with extras, including unused interviews with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Peter Lord, and Rick Baker, outtakes from the interviews used in the film, Q&As with the man himself, a commentary track with the filmmakers, and more.  Whether you love Harryhausen’s work or have never seen a single one (I honestly don’t know how that’s conceivable if you consider yourself a lover of cinema, but whatever), you owe it to yourself to get on this film.

MVT:  The archival material makes this something special.

Make or Break:  Admittedly, the opening title cards/intro felt a little amateurish, but I don’t think they’re anything that will put off viewers enough to skip out on this paean to a cinematic genius.

Score:  7.75/10       

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Saturday the 14th (1981)

I really can’t stand the word “panties.”  I get that British folks call underwear “pants,” and I assume this is the feminine variation of that, but it just bugs me.  Some words just sound wrong to me, and I avoid saying them.  The same can be said for certain foreign words that can only be properly pronounced by adopting an accent I don’t have, and I can’t decide if I sound like more of an ass pronouncing it like some haughty continental jerk or just some low grade ugly American.  Back to the point, I think the reason why I don’t care for the aforementioned word is the “-ies” at the end of it.  Maybe it makes it just a little too dainty for me.  Maybe it augments the bilabial and alveolar aspects of its pronunciation beyond my breaking point.  Either way, I usually strain to elude the word’s usage.  Daughter Debbie (Kari Michaelsen, perhaps best known for her work on the Nell Carter sitcom Gimme a Break) spends some of her onscreen time in Howard R Cohen’s Saturday the 14th in her undies, and I must say that these moments and her bathing scene are what have stuck with me all these years since this film came out (hey, I would have been about eight years old).  For better or worse, they’re still a highlight in a film that’s not as godawful as it could be but also isn’t nearly as good, either.

Vampires Waldemar (Jeffrey Tambor; is it possible the creators were making an oblique reference to Paul Naschy’s Waldemar Daninsky character, even though that one’s a werewolf not a vampire?) and Yolanda (Nancy Lee Andrews) get screwed out of the dilapidated house that they simply must buy for some nebulous reason (okay, it’s to lay their hands on the Book of Evil hidden inside), because it has been willed to John (Richard Benjamin) who immediately moves his family into it.  Will there be strange goings on?  You betcha!  Will hilarity ensue?  Well…

The movie starts off with a credit sequence that involves some of the worst animation possibly ever committed to film.  It tells the “story” of a bat (replete with cool shades) who repeatedly flies into a tree outside the house until he dies and gets dragged under the ground by a pair of hands.  Ho.  Ho.  The rest of the film’s humor teeters between not bad (but definitely not gutbusting) jokes and true groan-inducers.  For example, after hearing a scream, John suggests maybe it was an owl.  Wife Mary (Paula Prentiss) lifts the window shade, revealing a fake bat smacking into the glass and confirms that it is, indeed, an owl.  Her delivery makes this pleasantly amusing.  This joke is then driven into the ground by being repeated like a catchphrase, beating this dead horse into glue. John is constantly bewildered by things going on around the house, like who washed the dishes, and he keeps bringing this up as if repeating it will somehow make it funny.  Tambor is his usual dry, tense self, and he and Severn Darden truly make the most of the premise, delivering signature performances that stand out for how much they work (in fairness, Prentiss does a good job with what she’s given, as well).  When asked if he and Yolanda have children, Tambor retorts with, “As often as we can.”  It’s the humor that doesn’t “mug” to the audience that works best.  Son Billy (Kevin Brando, who for some reason reminded me of the kid from Troll 2) is the smartest member of the family.  After being in the dark upon their entrance to the house, the lights mysteriously come on.  John asks where Billy was, and he says he was fixing the fuse box.  The comedy is just hit and miss enough that it never elevates the film, but it never drags it down.

The film is not a parody of a specific horror franchise (as is suggested by the title) or trope.  Instead, it’s a story told with horror elements.  One of the more interesting facets of this narrative is the concept of legends coming to life.  The Book of Evil contains photographs of various creatures (who took them is an enigma never explained), and as each page is turned, the monsters in the pics disappear from the page and appear in reality.  Monsters already exist in this world, but I have to wonder if they all initially sprang from the Book’s pages?  There is some evidence of this being the case later on in the picture.  This connection between the creation of fiction and the creation of reality is intriguing, as it is in films like I, Madman, though it’s not played up here as much as it possibly could have been (then again, the Book is nothing more than a MacGuffin and a means of explaining the appearance of the monsters, so you can’t really blame the filmmakers for not going all deep on this aspect).

One of the other reasons that the film both succeeds and fails, and in fact, one of the reasons why it’s as engaging as it is, is the relationship between violence and humor.  As has been postulated for a long time, the link between Horror and Humor stems from the same primal core of human beings.  Both attempt to elicit extreme physical reactions from an audience (screaming for Horror, laughter for Humor), and both have a way of being very individualized to a specific viewer.  The way that Saturday the 14th mixes the two is odd.  There are scenes that are shot and edited to be particularly horrific, with nary a chuckle in sight.  For example, Mary is attacked by a bunch of bats in the belfry (get it?), and they draw blood, leaving her injured and shocked.  A monster is shot in the head, and it bleeds.  A rather realistic severed head is mistaken for a roast in the refrigerator.  Conversely, there are broad comedy elements that strike like a pie in the face.  A giant, three-fingered rubber glove is discovered in relation to the washing of the dishes.  The family lawyer chokes to death while talking about the curse on the house.  The film is such an oddity in the balancing (or non-balancing, if you like) of its tones, it charms more for its ambitions than for its successes.

MVT:  Darden and Tambor shine when they’re onscreen.  The monster makeups are cheap but appealing, as well.

Make or Break:  The title credits may break some viewers’ will to go on (with the film, at any rate).

Score:  6.5/10