Wednesday, August 30, 2017

8 Man After (1993)

It’s been a while since the original 8 Man disappeared.  Now, psychotic criminals dubbed Cyber Junkies are grafting cybernetic parts and weapons onto their bodies and running amok.  Private dick Hazama (Jurota Kosugi) finds himself embroiled in this conflict between humans and cyborgs while searching for a missing scientist.  And just in the nick of time, 8 Man returns, but is he the same man he was before?

8 Man was created in 1963 by Kazumasa Hirai and Jiro Kuwata.  It jumped from manga to anime to live action and back again.  Originally aimed at kids, the character moved more and more into violent vigilante territory, and that’s where 8 Man After lands.  The first thing that pops out to the viewer while watching this movie (actually a collection of four OVA episodes edited together) is that it hews very closely to Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (other hyperviolent cyborg anime, notwithstanding).  The initial 8 Man was a cop like Murphy.  Mr. Daigo fills the Dick Jones spot, and his Bio Techno company mirrors OCP, in presence, if not specificity.  He even has a scale model of the utopian city he wants to build on top of the scummy city that currently surrounds him.  After Hazama is killed in a violent altercation with a criminal (the film’s Clarence Boddicker), he is transformed into the new 8 Man.  The violence itself is incredibly bloody, and the villains are all out of their minds (though here there is no sense of humor about any of it).  8 Man has flashbacks to his past life as a normal human and the trauma that he suffered.  There are a handful of 8 Man POV shots in Heads-Up-Display style that waver as he fights against his urge to kill.  Sachiko (Mika Doi) is the Officer Lewis character but only in the sense that she’s female.  She was the wife of the first 8 Man and is the ostensible romantic interest for Hazama, but, oddly enough, both of these roles are hardly explored at all in the story.  In fact, most of the elements that make this interesting (those that are different from Robocop) are barely touched on.  

Directors Sumiyoshi Furakawa and Yoriyasu Kogawa and company felt it more important to focus on the livelier aspects of the premise (read: the violence), though there are still things here to talk about other than its mimic origins.  One of the biggest, for me, is the idea of violence as a way of life.  This is a world steeped in violence on both sides of the law.  The first time we meet Hazama, he is causing a ruckus at Bio Techno and leading the company’s security guys on a merry chase through the streets (which ends abruptly).  There is a shootout between the cops and a Cyber Junkie at a market, and the bodies of innocent bystanders lie around the scene in pools of blood.  Tony, 8 Man’s nemesis, rips open Sachiko’s blouse and pokes her throat with his arm blade, causing a trickle of blood to flow down between her breasts and soak into her bra.  8 Man doesn’t just defeat or incapacitate his enemies.  He literally tears them apart.  With his super speed, he slashes at their arms and legs, disabling them.  Then, he squeezes their cybernetic extremities until they explode in geysers of blood and metal.  Intriguingly, this concept of ingrained cultural violence is best exemplified in the football sequence (ironically, the part I like the least because the subplot that it follows up on is superfluous and a little irritating, and I just don’t care about sports, anyway).  The local team is loaded up with cybernetics and drugs (an anti-rejection number that has the unintended/intended consequence of making its users go batshit).  They not only destroy their opposition but also turn on the audience, tearing into them.  They are inflicting violence on the people who came to watch violence, turning the spectators into unwilling participants.  There is no escape from violence in the world of 8 Man After, directly or indirectly.

There is also the concept of the corruption or failure of good intentions.  The cybernetic parts were originally developed to help people.  They were meant to be prosthetic replacements for amputees.  But instead of new limbs for misfortunates, they became a go-to enhancement for violent criminals so they could rule the streets.  Now, they can shoot bullets from their palms, missiles from their backs, and rockets from their knees, and the drugs they have to take to maintain their grafts only enhance their madness.  O’Connor, the missing father that young Sam hired Hazama to find, is one of the cyber-football players.  He sees this as a last chance to make it big and provide for his boy.  Instead, he becomes a demented cyber-thug, even striking his own flesh and blood.  Though Hazama doesn’t exactly volunteer to become 8 Man, he wants to do good as the cyborg.  However, his emotions are a drawback for him.  According to the Professor who created him, Hazama’s feelings “contaminated” the 8 Man cybernetics, and Hazama himself is considered a “system failure” that makes 8 Man go berserk, the same as those he opposes.  He is the anti-rejection drug with the horrible side effects.  To be more efficient, more obedient, he must lose his identity to the 8 Man, become a synthesis of the two rather than one who changes into the other.  The road to Hell is paved with good intentions and robotic body parts.

The animation in 8 Man After looks very good, and the action sequences shine.  The central conflict of the story is compelling, and there are more than enough crazy things to maintain interest (like a talking brain in a jar, say).  The main problem is that the narrative is overly convoluted.  This is compounded, I’m assuming, by its original episodic nature.  By that, I mean that it is too willing to develop various subplots that don’t tie into the main story strongly enough, are dismissed before being satisfyingly tied up, or are poorly integrated in terms of pacing, forgetting what the core story is about.  In my opinion, this would have worked better as a tightened down, ninety-minute feature rather than a sprawling, four-episode series.  Still, it’s entertaining, and I enjoy watching it from time to time.  You might, too.

MVT:  The 8 Man is nicely designed and animated, and it’s fun seeing him do his thing.

Make or Break:  The introduction of hip, young Sam may push some folks over the edge.

Score:  6.75/10       

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Calamity (1976)

I have always meant to try my hand at sculpting.  I still might.  The closest I ever came would likely have been either assembling monster models as a kid or painting tiny Dungeons and Dragons miniatures with a toothpick (a paintbrush just seemed too unwieldy for my chubby, little fingers), and, yes, I know that neither of these comes even close to the orbit of actual sculpture.  I think I would like to try doing mini-maquettes or mini-busts of different characters or maybe just full-size busts.  Stuff like the Creature from the Black Lagoon or the Hulk or something.  Stuff that’s in my wheelhouse.  None of that enigmatic modern art sculpture for me (maybe if I’m feeling lazy).  There will be growing pains, to be sure.  After all, I have zero experience sculpting anything, unless you count using Play Doh, but that was some time ago and nothing to write home about.  Time would also be a huge factor, since I don’t have enough of it to do the things I like to do now (like sleep, eat, and so forth, and you should see the hoops that have to be jumped through to get these reviews done on the regular), but I’m sure there are those who would also say that the time should be made for it (like time is a sheet cake or something).  I think I would likely stick to clay, as sculpting in mediums like stone or wood is (A) less forgiving/fixable, and (B) I would be less likely to inflict grievous bodily injury to myself with chisels, etcetera.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll sculpt the most perfect statue of General Guan Yu, like Uncle Chao (Yu-Hsin Chen) does in Hung Min Chen’s Calamity (aka Zhan Shen aka War God aka Kuan Yu Battles with the Aliens), and it will come to life and defend the Earth.  But in all likelihood, I’ll just wind up throwing out stuff I think turned out like crap.

Martians land in Hong Kong and give humanity an ultimatum: Die on your feet or live on your knees.  No human steps up, so Uncle Chao’s statue takes matters into his own hands.

Calamity is a film whose existence was ineluctable.  By that same token, that it exists at all is nothing short of miraculous.  Considering the levels of insanity to which the Japanese Tokusatsu genre climbed by this point (and, it can be argued, all of Japanese genre cinema), it was only a question of time before someone came up with this idea of giant gods battling Brobdingnagian Martians (and very well may have much earlier than this).  This is the sort of film where “space scientists” work in science fiction labs and call themselves “space scientists.”  Where Martians come in trios like the Three Stooges.  Where nothing is impossible, including Guan Yu inhabiting a wooden statue and becoming a real god, like Pinocchio (or Jet Jaguar, take your pick), because nothing in this world is improbable.  For example, Chao-Chun (Ming Lun Ku) creates a laser/heat gun that can melt steel, but no one ever thinks to use it on the aliens (or if they did, they either dismissed this idea straightaway or I just missed it).  Yes, this is a world of fantastic imagination, but it’s more like the cover version of a Tokusatsu film than one in its own right.  Is it in the realm of reason to criticize Calamity for this photocopy quality when so many of its Japanese counterparts do the exact same thing?  I would suggest yes, because those Japanese fantasy films of the Moiré Pattern Effect variety are just as bland and characterless.  What’s good for the goose…

The film also deals with science versus religion.  Uncle Chao believes with all his heart (bolstered by the imaginary, remembered voice he hears from the photo of his dead wife) that Guan Yu will possess his statue if the god deems it perfect.  Bear in mind, this is before the Martians land, so one has to wonder what Uncle Chao’s end game is prior to the invasion?  Maybe he feels that too many people have turned away from the gods, like his son Chao-Chun.  Maybe he’s just fulfilling the promise he made to his wife, and that’s all.  Either way, it’s science-minded Chao-Chun who is forced to accept a deity into his mode of thinking.  Chao-Chun even says, “There is no power of god in the world,” so you can see the lines of demarcation drawn clearly (sort of).  Likewise, the Martians belong to the realm of science or, to be more precise, science fiction.  They are technology and machinery incarnate.  They even have electronic BEM eyes that light up.  Guan Yu must teach them the lesson that gods are no laughing matter (take that how you will in this context).  

By that same token, this conflict reflects the struggle between traditionalism and modernity.  Uncle Chao carves wooden statues using nothing but his chisels, his hands, and some elbow grease (by the way, he is functionally blind with Glaucoma, making his efforts even more preternatural).  He knows that there is value in taking the time to do things by hand and do them right.  Apparently, his whole life has been a progression toward the perfection of his craft, a quasi-Nirvana.  Chao-Chun uses scientific tools, largely automated, and he even adds in the science fiction go-to of radiation (in another experiment [this one involving bees] which goes nowhere).  He laments the hard path scientists have to trod (“If everyone was like you, we’d still be primitive”), because it has to be worth it.  According to this film, however, not so much.  Guan Yu is, naturally, the most traditional of traditional symbols, and the Martians the ultimate symbol of contemporary man (even though they’re not human).  They, like Chao-Chun, have a hard time grasping how tradition can be so powerful when it’s so archaic.  And this is why they fail or are useless to the film’s narrative, such as it is.

It’s not unfair to ask how the special effects in a special effects film fare.  So, how do they fare in Calamity?  Sadly, not so well.  Aside from a handful of decent matte shots, they’re pretty threadbare across the board.  The miniatures are as simplistic and undetailed as it’s possible to be.  The Martians look bad (in an Irwin Allen television show sort of way, but cheaper), especially when compared to the rather ornate Guan Yu costume.  But these things could be forgiven if the action worked or if the story had some interesting ideas or tension or characters.  But it doesn’t.  The Guan Yu versus aliens scenes are essentially the same moves repeated ad nauseum.  Further, the human characters contribute nothing (the exception, of course, being Uncle Chao).  There is even a hellion biker girl character who has nothing to do other than ride through tunnels and dance to Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” (I’m almost positive the song rights were procured for its use here), and that’s just wasteful.  The most calamitous thing about Calamity is that it’s entirely constructed of window dressings without the windows.  The filmmakers knew the notes but not the tune.

MVT:  the giant monster battles, though they are repetitive to the point of lethargy.  

Make or Break:  By the middle of the final battle of the giants, you’ll just want it to be over.

Score:  6/10    

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Headhunter (1988)

Surely, I’ve mentioned before that my favorite episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker is “Horror in the Heights.”  The story centers on a rakshasa, a Hindu demon who appears to its victims as the person they most trust before ripping them to shreds, and it was written by Jimmy Sangster (screenwriter for such Hammer classics as Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein).  The story works because (A) the monster is unique, especially for American television, both then and now, (B) there are enough murders and interactions with solid character actors (Phil Silvers, Murray Matheson, and so on) to keep the pace up, and (C) Kolchak, as played by Darren McGavin, is an interesting, colorful guy whom we want to follow, and we learn a little something about him in this episode that fleshes him out just a little bit more.  The rakshasa costume isn’t anything great, basically a stocky guy in a hairy suit, but I love it because I have an affinity for hirsute monsters (King Kong, Alpha Flight’s Sasquatch, etcetera).  The villain in Francis Schaeffer’s Headhunter is also a shapeshifter, and the film had (I’m assuming) a larger budget than any given number of episodes of Kolchak.  However, it also suffers from a terrible script and a lead performance that is, at its best, grating.  Plus, the only hair on the monster is its quasi-skullet.

A Nigerian demon named Chikati Tumo (I could find no reference to him as part of any mythology/religion, so I’m guessing screenwriter Len Spinnell made him up, but you never know) immigrates to America to kill people who don’t believe in him (he is going to be very, very busy, and let’s just never mind that killing everyone diminishes your pool of worshippers).  Hot on his trail is Detective Pete Giuliani (Wayne Crawford) and Pete’s partner Kat Hall (Kay Lenz, who almost convinced me she wasn’t embarrassed to be in this).  And that’s about it. 

This film is not, sad to say, an adaptation of the 1984 novel of the same title written by Michael Slade (actually the pseudonym for a collective of writers).  That book also concerned a serial killer, and it had some supernatural elements and a police procedural aspect, but, even clocking in at over four hundred pages, it is likely better paced than this film (full disclosure: I haven’t read the book, but from the reviews of it I’ve seen, it has to be better than this movie; HAS TO).  To give you an idea of how scattershot and oblivious to the need for story flow Headhunter is, I’ll describe some of its longer passages (hopefully, you’ll be as bored by this as I was watching it).  After a brief introduction in Nigeria, we’re introduced to our main characters as a drunk Pete breaks into Kat’s place, busting up her nookie with boyfriend Roger (John Fatooh).  Pete’s wife has taken up with her girlfriend, and we get a nice, long scene of the two of them bickering while Pete packs his shit and moves out.  From the very start, the filmmakers show that they’re less interested in the genre facets of the film, as the emphasis on this situation proves, despite the fact that we won’t see Pete’s wife again until the film is almost over (and still I wanted to knock their heads together).  This plot thread carries over into the police station, where Pete whines and moans, and Kat puts up with him like a real trooper.  There are also plenty of scenes where, alternately, Pete ponders why he and Kat never fooled around and/or he plays third wheel to Kat and Roger’s love life.  Did I mention this film is about a demon who beheads people?   

Next, setpiece scenes work when there is a sense of momentum building to a solid payoff.  That is their raison d’etre.  The central setpiece in this film consists of Kat and Pete wandering around a trainyard for what feels like a good third of the entire runtime.  And it’s all for nothing.  By “nothing,” I mean, we learn nothing, it leads to nothing, and nothing even remotely worthwhile occurs during the whole sequence.  At one point in the film, Pete spots Sam (Sam Williams), who they’ve talked to about Chikati Tumo, and he suddenly treats Sam like a suspect for absolutely no reason.  Pete chases Sam through a meat plant before getting chucked (get it?) out a window and into a dumpster (the sight of Pete soiled with dumpster meat juice is an apt visual metaphor both for the character and the movie).  A very small section of the film focuses on the actual murders, but they all feel the same, and they’re all edited confusingly.  Not good for a film sold on the premise of a demon who chops the heads off people, but I’m pretty sure I mentioned that, already.

Pete, as the lead character, spends the whole film in one of two modes.  Half the time, he’s engaged in miserable self-pity which leads to no self-realization or character growth.  It’s just a whine-a-thon.  The other half of the time, he’s screaming at everyone around him.  Sure, the two can be seen as being interrelated, but neither is played with enough nuance (or any nuance at all) to do anything but alienate the audience.  While a fellow cop goes on and on about sexual conquests, Pete opines, “What happened to romance?”  At one point, he barges into a hardware store, frantically searching for anything to use as a weapon.  An understandably concerned store associate tries to help him, and Pete shrieks (I am not making this up), “I want…SOMETHING!  SHUT UP!”  Crawford’s performance is the type that makes one want to reach into the screen for the sole purpose of throttling the living shit out of his character.  He plays every single moment like he was the amp head in This is Spinal Tap (although, arguably, Crawford may, in fact, go up to twelve).  Lenz, by contrast, does her level best to be a professional, though it’s just not enough to save the film.  Nevertheless, it’s baffling that her character would put up with a guy like Pete for too long before shooting him in a non-vital organ (maybe she knows it would just give him something else to bitch about).

Headhunter leans heavily on other films, but it also doesn’t build on them at all, or try to make the references into something of its own, or do them all that well.  There is a scene where a Pentecostal pastor is baptizing a Nigerian woman in a pond.  Chikati’s machete appears in the water and moves in like the Great White from JAWS (thank God, Schaeffer didn’t do anything to the John Williams score).  When he strikes, the pastor loses his mind in a flurry of cursing and running.  I suppose this was meant to be funny.  It isn’t.  It’s dumb.  Whenever the demon strikes, it is heralded by hurricane winds and a dense fog.  The camera takes on the monster’s POV, but it’s nothing more than Evil Dead’s Raimi-Cam, just poorly executed.  The filmmakers also decided, inexplicably, to intercut scenes from 1959’s The Hideous Sun Demon into this film as it plays on a nearby television.  I can only guess that the reason for this is because both films deal with “demons,” though one is literal and the other is not.  What I do know to a certainty is that you should never include in your film scenes from another film which is infinitely better than yours.  Especially when that film is junk, too.

MVT:  The concept is okay, but it would be done, in a manner of speaking, far, far better in Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil some four years later.  Go watch that film, instead.

Make or Break:  The domestic squabble that opens the film is just brutal and a solid sign of things to come.

Score:  2/10