Thursday, 21 June 2012

Force of Darkness (1985) Alan Hauge

Well then. This is a curious little thing. On the one hand, Force of Darkness has a plot propped up on a bit of nonsense that goes echoes beyond fantasy and into dark waters of real life, making for a queasy twinge of offence in the head and bad taste in the belly. It has the whole madman is possessed by demon or demons set up, a psychiatrist character who appears briefly and seems intended as a wishy washy figure whose science is impotent. And a fundamentalist christian character who seems posed as the films pillar of spiritual strength and guidance. So there's the notion of fundamentalist religion having a more useful grasp on mental illness than the actual mental health profession, which would be funny were it not for the fact that even today some people still believe this, and such belief has fulled multitudes of abuses ranging from straightforward negligence right up to torture and homicide. So some aspects of Force of Darkness had me hating it. But then on the other hand the most interesting character in the film (and the only likeable or remotely nuanced one) is a New Age monk type standing against fundamentalist belief and instead drawing on various disciplines in his efforts against evil. And he happens to be the brother of the pyscho at large, so the film gets to bring in ideas of sibling opposition. Brothers, both afflicted by painful childhood, one killer who remains a victim cursed by the simplistic demons that he will not let go, and one a warrior of peace, leaving behind simplicity to embrace complex notions. The situation is mirrored by the other siblings of the film, these male and female. Gloria, made victim through her embrace of New Age solutions to a problem (hypnotherapy for smoking), and warrior Tom, an actual man of war and simple as they come. And instead of chequered past the reason for their opposition, plain old gender stereotyping. And the cap on this assemblage of characters is the first victim, Gloria's fiance and hypnotherapist, who appears within moments to not be the most principled of individuals, and goes by Ron Hubbard II. Now I suppose there's an outside chance that this wasn't intended as a jab at the pulp writer responsible for Scientology, everyones favorite science fiction based cult and pyramid scheme. But I don't think that's likely, really. What I get from all of this set up is that even though there's a great streak of bullshit in this film, there's a level of thought here that even if skeletal still raises interest a few notches beyond the average contempoary urban fright thriller. Setting all this aside, Force of Darkness really is an average mid 80's fright thriller. Neither plot, ideas, characters nor action are developed, there's no real gore and the violence is roughly TV movie level, maybe just a notch above in a scene or two. It works as fairly solid entertainment though, with a brisk pace, some effective jolts and rather creepy scenes filmed at Alcatraz. And Mel Novak does a quality job as bedevilled maniac Conrad, relentless, demented and rather chilling. The end is anti-climatic, but not ruinously so, and the overall effect is of a rather average late night time filler with a few bright spots. So I guess that's what my summation will be. Average late night time filler with a few bright spots. See it if you must, but don't strain yourself if you don't have to.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Street Hunter (1990) John A. Gallagher

I don't tend to watch a whole lot of action cinema. Well, not a whole lot of action films that don't include either quality kung fu or deranged and excessive violence. I probobly wouldn't have bothered with Street Hunter as it doesn't have a reputation for either and doesn't evidence anything to make its reputation unfair, but it does have stupidity to spare and not the gauche, tiresome stupidity of a film made for millions with an IQ a millionth of said millions, but an offbeat cool, gritty stupidity that manages to be consistently amusing and watchable instead of depressing and dull like a lot of action stupidity. Actually Street Hunter is kinda lousy as an action film, being of such low budget that the action consists of little more than a good deal of people getting shot and a couple of lame explosions. But at least there are some bloody squibs for the people being shot and a lot of big budget action films of the time didn't really bother with that, so there's a plus. The cast is what really makes the film entertaining. Undervalued should have been a big name star Steve James has one of his few lead roles as the heroic bounty hunter Logan Blade, he's tough, he's cool and he takes shit from no fool. He's even socially conscious, concerned with the education of underprivileged youth. And a decent screen fighter to boot, though he only has a few occasions to show of his physical prowess he makes good use of them. On the side of evil is John Leguizamo in a hysterical early role as a loud mouth upstart drug dealing jive turkey, his trash talk constantly undermined by his obvious weakness. And the always awesome Reb Brown is a villain for a change, a soft spoken psycho mercenary with an obsession for historical war and victory and no tolerance for bad discipline. He acts like he has a serious role in a serious film and as a result is pretty interesting as well as being as badass as you'd expect (it's Reb Brown, so pretty fucking badass). And Valarie Pettiford makes for a better than average token girlfriend character, throwing herself into the cliches with agreeable gusto. I'd say as a mindless action film this is a little overlong and underpowered to carry a kick with the best of 'em, but it sure ain't half bad if you drop your standards down a mine shaft or two and then sit down with a bottle or two of your preferred tipple. That's what I did at least. So on those terms if not necessarily others, recommended from me...

Nurses Sex Journal (1976) Chusei Sone

So, here's another one of Nikkatsu's more serious and sensitive outings. Well, when I say serious and sensitive I don't mean that exactly, more that Nurses Sex Journal aims for more of a dramatic feel around the sexy times, its characters exist beyond mere cyphers and the plotting is a bit more advanced than the assualt/rape/rinse/repeat/ season to taste with rope bondage/piss play/hot wax dripping that makes so much pinku cinema such deliciously decadent entertainment. Here lovely young nurse Akemi is noticed spying on a young mobster and his girlfriend who live across the road, and upon discovering that her brother is in need of an expensive operation for unspecified malady she accepts the young mobsters offer of entry into prostitution, despite her being engaged. Characters wind and wander in a loosely plotted progression of events, Akemi is drawn into her new career despite misgivings, her relationship with her neighbour disturbs his girlfriend, her brother stays sick and is comforted by the friend who first brought him in for treatment, a fellow who it is implied speeded him into illness and is himself a bit of a sleazebag. Everyone is flawed in some measure but all are rounded, no heroes or villains, just people caught in a swirl. There's humour, pathos, kink and even the odd surprise (like an unexpected scene of rather frank homoeroticism), there isn't much of a compelling drive to the plotting but the film works in general just by being interesting viewing. And though things can appear a bit aimless, they are underpinned by a somewhat moving observation, mirrored symbolically in Akemi's job working in a blood transfusion clinic. Sex and money as sad vampire hungers, drawing people together with little joy or pity, pursuits that ultimately serve little more purpose than their own preservation, no real use at all to those caught in the web. Its thought provoking stuff and less "fun" than many of its genre, but good stuff anyway. Except that is for the ghastly presence of genital censorship, here presented chiefly in the form of bobbing oval blobs. Which is at least different to the usual, and for some reason kinda funny to me. Maybe because at one point it appears as though the effect was achieved by manually waving a colored in black oval over the naughty parts, attached to an uncovered handle both cut out of a transparency. The ovals shake around as well, adding to the impression. I wonder if in the credits somewhere there's a listing for "Censorship Stick Wielder Man"? Or maybe "Master Cock-Blocker!"? Also at the end theres an appearance of a socking great rectangle reminiscent of the technique that ruined Woods Are Wet, but fortunately it only happens once and but the end the whole affair has headed for bleakly comic implosion anyway. So I guess altogether this is pretty decent stuff. It's audience I suspect will be rather limited by its sober approach, but as a fan of character drama as well as cheering sleaze I thought this one a pretty solid 70 minutes or so, certainly never dull. So like, a fair thumbs up from me but don't expect anything like Hasebe or Ohara style stuff.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Dark August (1976) Martin Goldman

Watching Dark August I was rather reminded of Stephen King's Thinner. Both have a city slicker type, a little arrogant, a little entitled, accidentally killing a female relative of an elderly conjure man. Both men are cursed, and both seek radical action after friends and loved ones are drawn into their circle of danger as the supernatural grips tighter. It's hardly an innovative or original set-up of course, but still nice to see that sometimes even those highly vaunted as imagineers draw deep at the wells of tradition. Dark August is it must be said the better of the two, a strange regional item that could never be mistaken for anything other than a late 70's piece, setting about its events with simplicity, a flair for the strange and unnerving talent for shocks, where Thinner was more a heavy handed mix of Twilight Zone karma, theatrical grotesquery and boorishness masquerading as depth.  Though not without flaws, perhaps most notably that an entire interesting potential plot strand is brought up and set down in the minute or so it takes for the main character to have a fractious phone conversation, Dark August is in fact one of the better obscure horrors I've seen for a while, the sort of film that really deserves a DVD release to unleash it upon audiences of today. Key to its power is direction, interesting angles and a skill with both stillness and hand held excitement, the latter deployed in short sharp bursts that tend to sneak up and jab you right in the guts so you near-most double up from the intensity. And the quieter moments layer up the atmosphere nicely in between the jolts, many meaningful stares, creepy figures seen or half seen, flashbacks and disorientations building upon each other with hot uneasy effect. Star J.J. Barry (who co wrote the interesting script with director Martin Goldman) is a decent everyman, he has a touch of the overdriven to him but is generally likeable, suggesting realistic depth to the character though the writing is generally plot driven. Carolyne Barry is quite lovely as his girlfriend, a warm and pleasant lady for whom one cannot but help wish safety. Highlight though is William Robertson as the silent staring villain of the film, a seething vicious menace rarely far from eruption. Kim Hunter is quality also as the white witch of sorts who lends her help, a kind and pragmatic lady mixing new age christianity with more arcane rites in the service of good. This is the second late 70's horror I've seen in a week or so with a dash of new age christianity helping against more esoteric evils, I guess people figured the great bearded dude in the sky was cooler back then. There are probobly complaints to be made about muddled theology and the normalisation of christianity as a cure all for evils, but I won't make them because I can't really be arsed, also the film delivered in the all important oddball freakout stakes so I was left pretty pleased, with the ending especially fine. Also there's a wee bit of blood and even brief nudity bolstering up the shock side of things, though the film was a PG in the States back in the day it's certainly harder hitting than the majority of PG13 fare of more recent times. I expect the audience for this will be limited to obscure horror junkies like myself even though it could easily score with wider audiences who can appreciate a well crafted spook show at any level. Well recommended from me then, and perfect for a summers night.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Black Rose Ascension (1975) Tatsumi Kumashiro

I've long enjoyed films about film making and makers. The mechanisms exposed make a double image, the art we see reflecting off it's artifice and vice versa. And really, what better subject than pornography, the art of flesh wrought to make illusion as real and seductive as possible. Black Rose Ascension, a rather atypical outing from Nikkatsu takes a pornographer and his travails as its subject and does a rather fine job of gazing within makers cape to find not golden conjurer but sad human, pink and precarious. Shin Kashida plays said pornographer, on the lookout for a new leading lady after his intended falls pregnant. For some reason I wouldn't have thought being with child would be an impediment to being an adult star in Japan, but then sadly I'm not Japanese. Anyhoo, he finds a new star in the troubled Ikuyo (the always lovely Naomi Tani in a rare relatively un-exploitative role), then falls in love with her and surprisingly, things don't entirely go wrong. Which is not to say that everything goes right, but the sadness is less cynical or mean than many, and is tinged with a certain unforced wistful yearning and touching beauty. The characters here are restrained and human, some very much flawed like the director, but all shaded to an interesting degree of reality. The locations and direction contribute to this reality, cable cars, girders, water and beach, wooden dwelling hanging on a wall, interior shots cramped and clustered while exteriors gaze on the actors often from afar, while many of the pinku Black Rose Ascension places its characters and their works and dreams as fragile pieces very much part of the general urban bustle, a sense always that forces without may be as important as those within. It's slice of life cinema really, quite some distance from what one might expect of a Nikkatsu film with Naomi Tani and a role for fellow pinku star Terumi Azuma. Sleaze hounds may well be put off then, though there is sex and nudity and moments of meanness they are never gratuitous or particularly eyebrow raising, just part and parcel of the world on show. Now, as slice of life cinema goes this isn't terribly sharp, at least not to these eyes (those more fully versed in the genre or the mid 70's Japanese milieu may differ), it isn't exactly the most impactful or notable of films. And yet it stays charming in the memory, and stretches out such as to provide some lingering food for thought, some scraps that linger pleasant in the eye.  It has almost something of the US indie drama to it, albeit thoroughly different in details and lacking any great pretensions. Good food for when richness feels to gauche then, and a recommendation from me.