Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Psychic Killer (1975)

The ability or power to perform acts of vengeance through astral projection would be quite desirable to anyone who had an ax to grind.  Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t use this power for acts of murder or violence but maybe something embarrassing for my enemies.  For example, a depantsing of one of my foes in a public place.  That would probably bring me satisfaction.  If one were more bloodthirsty and felt their enemies deserved death for what they had done, you could potentially make a pretty interesting film from that premise.  Psychic Killer from 1975 attempts to tell a thrilling story from this idea, but unfortunately the idea is the only thing interesting about this movie in the end.

Psychic Killer is an early example of the slew of psychokinesis horror and thriller films that were being made during the 70’s and early 80’s.  Psychic Killer even came one year earlier than Carrie, which is the film that launched this sub-genre into popularity.  Unlike Carrie, Psychic Killer fails to generate any sympathy for the suffering protagonist, Arnold Masters, played by Jim Hutton.  Hutton does his best with what he’s given, but after the first act his character spends much of the movie sitting in a chair as his unseen spirit does the violent deeds.  The film also fails at being an effective proto-slasher.  Psychic Killer and Patrick, from 1978, share a lot in common.  With the exception of one kill, Psychic Killer simply doesn’t deliver when it comes to a good murder sequence like Patrick was able to do three years later.

We’re introduced to Arnold Masters as he awakes from a nightmare and attempts to escape from an institution for the criminally insane.  He claims he’s innocent of killing the doctor who treated his now deceased mother.  Masters holds a very strong grudge against those who incarcerated him and those he feels neglected his mother prior to her death.  Masters befriends another imprisoned patient who, with the help of an amulet, teaches Masters the art of astral projection.  After the real murderer of the doctor is convicted, Masters is exonerated and released from the institution.  He is now ready and capable of exacting his revenge on those who have caused him so much pain through his newly learned powers.

The film starts off promising.  Hutton does well early on expressing his character’s torment and we begin to get behind him.  There’s a pretty amazing dummy death in the first act and an introduction to a slimy psychiatrist who’s taking advantage of one of his female patients.  The setup of the astral projection is decent and makes for an interesting mode for revenge.  Unfortunately, when we get to the scene with the psychiatrist the film begins to slowly go downhill.  Masters chooses the psychiatrist as his first victim but there’s really no payoff with his death.  He’s killed off-screen with just a dribble of blood running from his mouth as he lies motionless on the ground.  Most of the murder sequences are a letdown.  The film doesn’t go far enough with the gore, with the exception of one scene but by then it’s too little too late, and it fails at building any suspense.

At times it didn’t seem like the filmmaker was sure what kind of film he wanted to make.  It’s setup like it’s going to be a thriller but there are no thrills or suspense.  The editing doesn’t work and the score is forgettable.  Because our killer can’t be seen stalking his victims, we’re never on the edge of our seat waiting for him to strike.  It just sort of happens.  The film doesn’t work as a horror film either due to the already mentioned lack of violence and gore.  There’s a shower scene death that’s decent but not that memorable and a death at a butcher shop near the end that’s pretty good but by then you’re pretty much checked out of the movie.  It even at times feels like the director was going for some dark comedy.  An attorney, whom Master’s blames for his imprisonment, is shown singing opera at a construction site just before he is crushed flat by a pillar like in a cartoon.  The intentional comedy falls flat and there isn’t enough unintentional comedy to save the picture.

It doesn’t help that the film is a bit confusing at times.  This should never be the case in a low-budget B-movie, such as this.  When Masters is preparing for his out-of-body experience, we get quick black and white dreamlike sequences that show a person harming Masters’ mother.  We’re not sure until later who these people are.  In the case of the lawyer, I wasn’t sure who he was and why Masters wanted him dead until I had deduced that he could be the only character left on Masters’ hit list.  Another example of this is the murder of the butcher, played by Neville Brand.  There is never a motive given for why Masters wants this character dead or how the character is linked to Masters’ mother.  It just seems like the filmmakers wanted to increase the body count and they had access to Neville Brand for an afternoon.

The psychokinesis thriller is an interesting sub-genre that has brought audiences many entertaining films over the years.  Psychic Killer has the honor of being one of the first of its kind and perhaps even inspired some of the films that would follow.  Sadly, that’s as much praise as I can give this one.  When I think of some of the most entertaining movies that could be lumped into this sub-genre, films like Carrie, Scanners, and The Fury, I’m reminded of their spectacular endings and having to pick my jaw up off the floor.  When I think back to the end of Psychic Killer, I’m reminded of its lackluster ending and having to pick my eyelids up off my face.

MVT: The premise of the film.  It had so much potential.

Make or Break Scene: The murder of the lawyer.  This scene broke it for me.  No suspense, no gore, no laughs.
Score: 4/10

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Sisterhood (1988)

Having now seen six films from Cirio Santiago, I know what I’m in for when I hit play on one of his movies.  A paper-thin plot, wooden acting, explosions, sloppy fight choreography, shoot-outs, and female nudity.  Santiago knows how to check off all the boxes for genre filmmaking.  His films are never great but I never find them to be boring or truly awful, either.  I like to describe Cirio Santiago’s films as cinematic junk food.  They satisfy when you have a craving but they’re not going to have much long lasting value.  The Sisterhood is yet another example of Santiago’s vending of cinematic junk food and that’s OKAY!  As long as you go into his movies knowing what to expect. 

The Sisterhood is a sort of mashup of the post-apocalypse and sword and sorcery sub-genres that flooded VHS rental shops back in the 80’s.   The characters’ costumes are either made up of tattered shirts and shoulder pads or capes and furs.  Most of the locations used in this film were either shot in a rock quarry or a desert location; AND the two primary modes of transportation in this post-nuclear landscape seems to be either horseback or repurposed combat vehicles.  Tropes from both sub-genres are present.  We even get some sorcery and magic powers, likely mutations brought on by nuclear fallout, and the “sisterhood” are even referred to as witches.

Santiago attempts a female empowerment angle to the proceedings, which isn’t new territory for the director.  Previous films, such as Silk and The Muthers, also showcased strong women capable of holding their own against the vicious men who act as their adversaries.  Unfortunately, Santiago’s good will and efforts towards feminism is undercut by topless shots and female characters scantily clad and dolled up with makeup.  Cosmetics are a necessity in a post-apocalyptic world?  Granted, this is a low budget genre film targeted at a specific audience and I appreciate the effort, but still, it comes off as disingenuous.  This film would actually make an interesting double with Mad Max: Fury Road as a contrast and compare exercise.

There’s little to no plot to speak of in The Sisterhood.  Basically, we follow three female characters as they travel across “the wasteland” in an effort to free their fellow sisters from slavery in a male dominated world.  As to be expected, there are plenty of battles and adventures along the way.  Obviously, this is a low budget affair.  The soundtrack, specifically, sounds like some dude banging away on a Casio keyboard in his parents basement somewhere in Ohio.  So, don’t go in expecting anything on the level of Beyond Thunderdome.  Keep your expectations mitigated and turn your brain off after you hit that play button.  A six pack of your favorite beer will likely help increase your level of enjoyment.

MVT: Cirio Santiago: He consistently does a lot with a little.
Make or Break Scene: The Sisters storm a rock quarry hideout with a tank!
Score: 6/10

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Daughter of Darkness (1993)

Ah, Category III Hong Kong cinema; How does one sell this onscreen depravity to the uninitiated?  Perhaps, determining if you’re already a fan of trash cinema from other regions of the world is the best place to start.  Specifically, films from Italy and Japan during the 1970’s & 80’s.  If you’re a fan of films such as The New York Ripper, Night Train Murders, White Rose Campus, and Rape! 13th Hour then Category III films are the next logical step in your education of trashy world cinema.

The Category III film Daughter of Darkness from 1993 is not a bad place to start, but probably not as infamous as say Red to Kill or Ebola Syndrome.  Daughter of Darkness may not reach the heights, or depths depending on your perspective, of those films but it certainly delivers the violence and debauchery that they’re known for.

Viewers going into Daughter of Darkness for the first time expecting extreme sex and violence right from the jump may be confused for the first half an hour or so, as it kind of plays out like a twisted, slapstick sex-comedy.  We are introduced to an overly animated and extremely pervy police detective played by the always entertaining Anthony Wong.  Right from the start, Wong is giving a completely over-the-top performance with extremely animated facial expressions that would make Jim Carrey blush.  When a young girl named Fong enters the police station claiming that she has discovered her entire family murdered in their home, our story is set in motion and it’s going to be a wild and shocking ride to the end.

It's during the beginning of Wong’s murder investigation where we get the majority of the comedic bits.  Wong’s character is a Chinese Mainland detective and there’s some less than subtle commentary going on with his very goofy performance.  He enters the crime scene like a bull in a china shop; walking directly through blood, posing for pictures with the bodies, and just generally disrupting the crime scene and destroying evidence.  We also get to see what an absolute pervert Wong’s character is and his fascination with breasts during these opening scenes!  The character of Officer Lui is setup as a morally corrupt buffoon but he eventually shows that he’s a fairly effective investigator and a somewhat likable character by the end.

Once Officer Lui gets around to questioning Fong about the massacre of her family, he quickly realizes that her story doesn’t add up.  At this point in the film it becomes kind of a wacky procedural with Lui getting himself into some silly situations as he interviews the locals about Fong and her family.  Lui eventually learns that a fellow police officer named Kin is somehow involved in this crime and that’s when the story starts to turn dark.  It’s discovered that Kin and Fong are romantically linked and that they had planned to run off to Hong Kong to get married and escape the abusive home life that Fong was experiencing with her family.  When Lui presses Kin on his involvement and the fact that the bullets used in the murders come from a police issued gun, Kin confesses to the crimes.  This, however, doesn’t sit well with Lui.  So, he decides to once again interrogate Fong to find out what really happened that fateful night.

Like other Category III films, such as Dr. Lamb and The Untold Story, the horrific details are told through flashback, and boy are they horrific!  Fong’s home life with her family is a living nightmare!  She is verbally and emotionally abused by her mother and siblings and physically harmed by her father (possibly step-father (?)).  Rape, incest, and torture playout on screen before we reach the ultra-violent demise of this foul family.  One can never hear the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” the same after witnessing this shocking and appalling scene.  This entire sequence is definitely where the film earns its Category III status.  The whole thing ends tragically and will leave you with a feeling of hopelessness.  No doubt, this is an exploitation film, first and foremost, but there is a halfhearted attempt towards social commentary concerning Mainland China, specifically their judicial system and the way everything concludes with the case at the very end of the film.

Daughter of Darkness is a very solid exploitation film and a prime example of what some of the more infamous Category III films have to offer.  It’s a bit uneven in terms of the tonal shift that the film makes about a third of the way through, but that’s also what makes the film interesting.  I would probably recommend something like Run and Kill or The Untold Story to those looking to dip their toe into the cesspool of Category III, but this isn’t a bad place to start either.

MVT: Anthony Wong and William Ho as the sadistic father are both entertaining to watch, but both characters are a bit one note.  Lily Chung as Fong shows a bit more diversity and really earns the MVT.  A brave performance that isn’t simply a victim in this film.

Make or Break Scene: Opening – Anthony Wong’s entrance to the crime scene.  Goofy antics amongst a bloodbath of a murder scene.

Score: 7/10

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Season for Assassins (1975)

Within the Italian poliziottesco genre, there was a sub-genre of “youth gone wild” films.  These films would typically portray the Italian youth as entitled, violent sociopaths who committed crimes out of sheer boredom.  Savage Three, Like Rabid Dogs, and Young, Violent, Dangerous are all examples of this sub-genre.  Season for Assassins is another such film, but in this film’s case there’s more focus on the loved ones of the young criminals and how their lives are impacted by the selfish acts of said criminals.

Season for Assassins focuses on the life of a young petty-thief named Pierro, played by Joe Dallessandro.  Pierro has aspirations of becoming a criminal kingpin by working his way up from the bottom of the underworld.  He and his hooligan friends are shown pulling off burglaries for small sums of money, when of course they’re not riding around Rome terrorizing those who get in their path.  The opening plays out much like the opening of A Clockwork Orange, but that’s as far as the comparisons go.  Gradually, different characters in Pierro’s life are introduced.  We learn that Pierro is a father to a newborn and that he has a wife named Rossana.  Rossana is a former prostitute who is now committed to being a mother, even though Pierro is neglecting both her and the child.  We are also introduced to Pierro’s family priest, Father Eugenio, who has faith in the young man and attempts to help Pierro stay on the straight and narrow, despite Pierro constantly brushing him off.  Finally, a third significant character enters Pierro’s personal life, a naïve, young girl named Sandra, who Pierro strikes up a romantic relationship with.  These three characters will all eventually be negatively impacted by Pierro’s selfish and destructive lifestyle.  In one particular case, the impact is fatal.

While Pierro is going around wreaking havoc, a very jaded and disgruntled police captain, played by screen legend Martin Balsam, is nipping at the heels of Pierro and hoping to finally set the right trap that catches the hoodlum.  Balsam’s character is supposed to act as the counterpoint to Father Eugenio.  Where Eugenio sees hope for the young man, Balsam sees a thug and lost cause who will inevitably hurt and/or kill several people before he gets himself killed or caught.  I suppose another parallel could be drawn from this and A Clockwork Orange in terms of the debate over whether or not criminals can truly be reformed.  Unfortunately, this question is handled rather clumsily in Season for Assassins.

It’s commendable that director Marcello Andrei attempts to construct emotional depth within the characters of his piece, but most of them still come off as one dimensional.  With the Pierro character, specifically, there’s a scene where he’s shown to be physically ill by the violent actions that he allows to occur against one of his loved ones.  However, this is the only moment in the movie where the character seems to show any remorse or humanity.  We are never given Pierro’s backstory to have a better understanding of how he got to this point in his life and potentially feel some empathy for the character.  Another problematic aspect to the film is that Andrei can’t seem to decide if he’s making a melodrama or an exploitation film.  The scenes between Pierro and his young mistress, Sandra, bounce from being honest and genuinely dramatic one minute to being sleazy and exploitative the next.  It makes for a very uneven viewing experience.

Despite these flaws, Season for Assassins is certainly worth seeking out for the hardcore Eurocrime fans.  Joe Dallessandro brings a sadistic charm to the Pierro character, which is entertaining to watch.  The character may be one note but Dallessandro plays that note well here.  Balsam’s portrayal of the grizzled, old police captain brings some class and legitimacy to the picture.  And Andrei peppers in enough violence and action to keep things interesting throughout the runtime, even if it is 10 to 15 minutes too long.  Season for Assassins isn’t going to show you something you haven’t seen before from the crime drama, but you could definitely do much worse from this ever broad genre of film.

MVT: Joe Dallessandro
Make or Break Scene: Bumper car scene – Attack on the young couple
Score: 6.5/10