Monday, October 16, 2017

Octoverride '17: Blacula (1972)



Blacula. This little 1972 Blaxploitation horror movie has quite a reputation for its name alone. Black Dracula, essentially. Directed by William Crain, a black director with a few other Blaxploitation movies to his credit, along with several tv shows, including some episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard, and with a screenplay written by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig, the movie starts out strong.

Campy, but strong.

In 1780, Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall, the Future King of Cartoons on Pee-Wee's Playhouse) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) are on a diplomatic tour of Europe and end up in Transylvania. Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) patronizes them and constantly needles the prince about race until Mamuwalde tries to leave, and Dracula captures him, turns him into a vampire, and buries him in a coffin in his castle because Dracula is an asshole. Oh yeah, and Dracula dubs Mamuwalde “Blacula.”

Because Dracula's an asshole.

Fast forward to the 70s and an interracial gay couple of interior decorators buy up a bunch of stuff in Dracula's castle, including Mamuwalde's coffin. They're goofy, and definitely campy, but they're also innocent of what's about to happen, so there's definitely sympathy for them when they inadvertently ship Blacula to Los Angeles and awaken him and get killed.

After that, it slows down pretty hard. A doctor, Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) begins investigating the deaths and turns into this movie's Abraham Van Helsing. Meanwhile, Mamuwalde runs into Tina (Vonetta McGee again) who's a dead ringer for his long-lost love and he chases her, getting run over by a taxi, and exsanguinating the sassy black cabbie lady as consolation.

Then it turns into a slow build of Dr. Thomas figuring out Mamuwalde is Blacula, and his allies trying to save Tina and stop a vampire outbreak across the city. There's a fun scene of a photographer developing a photo of Mamuwalde that he doesn't show up in (before she gets eaten by Blacula, of course), the vampire Cabbie waking up in the hospital and charging down character actor Elisha Cook Jr (from The Maltese Falcon) that's actually kind of spooky, some vampires in cheap capes get thrown into cardboard boxes, and a bunch of extras dressed like motorcycle cops get killed.

There's really not a whole lot to the movie, actually. It borrows heavily from the classic Bela Lugosi Dracula plot while throwing in the love story angle from Boris Karloff's The Mummy. That's fine, its just very pedestrian. The cast is fine, the effects are low budget, and it would be rather forgettable if not for one thing: William Marshall.

Marshall anchors and elevates the movie above its shortcomings by bringing a sense of tragic gravitas to the character. His rumbling bass voice helps too, along with his Shakespearean background. He's more sympathetic than Dracula traditionally is, and despite running rampant across LA for several nights, his death at the end of the movie is handled with a lot of dignity. After he is denied love one last time, he chooses to walk out into the morning sunlight. Marshall makes a scene where he walks up a flight of stairs and falls over dead into something not goofy. That's some real talent there.


Blacula occupies a kind of middle ground of averageness in the Blaxploitation genre. Its inoffensive, competent enough and mostly forgettable. I do, however, recommend it for William Marshall's performance as Mamuwalde. That's worth seeing.



Monday, October 09, 2017

Octoverride '17: The Thirsty Dead (1974)


The Thirsty Dead AKA Blood Hunt AKA The Blood Cult of Shangri-La is a 1974 American-Filipino co-production shot on location in the Philippines. It was directed by Terry Becker, an actor with a few TV episode directing credits. This was the only movie he directed. The story was written by Becker and Lou Whitehill (another actor) with the screenplay by Charles Dennis (another actor, who's done a lot of voice-over work in recent years).

It begins with a long establishing shot of a harbor, then a dancer entertains a bunch of sailors in a sleazy dive bar before her set ends and she goes back to her dressing room to listen to exposition radio discuss a rash of women being kidnapped and because this is 70s schlock, she fantasizes about being taken as a white slave to Hong Kong. This is Claire (Judith McConnell) and sure enough, she herself is soon captured by mysterious people in dark robes. After the credits, another woman, Laura (Jennifer Billingsley) turns down a marriage proposal and goes home alone so she can be kidnapped by the same monk-lookin guys. She wakes up half-drugged in a sewer and tries to get away, doesn't, and is taken by boat into the jungle with another girl, Ann (Fredricka Myers). They get dropped off with Claire and a local girl, Bonnie (Chiqui da Rosa) and are then escorted through the jungle by some bored-looking men in loincloths to a hidden cult.

The cult is led by Ranu (Tani Guthrie) with religious services by Baru (John Considine) and his giant silly collar. They worship a head in a red plastic box called Raul. At least, I think its Raul. The audio of the version I watched was terribly muddy and difficult to understand. Doesn't matter. Raul's only in one scene anyway.

The four women arrive and Laura is singled out by Baru because Raul mentioned her name as part of a something-something prophecy and Baru painted a portrait of her thanks to a prophetic dream he had of her because he's a lonely weirdo and so they can throw in a weak romance plot.

An IMMORTAL lonely weirdo, as it turns out. This cult is kidnapping attractive young women so that they can harvest their blood and mix it with leaves from a local jungle plant with remarkable healing properties and the resulting cocktail extends their life and youth. Interestingly enough, the cult uses the leaves to heal up their wounds so they don't die. Those “rejected” by Raul eventually turn into withered and crazy old people who get locked away in a cave.

Anyway, Baru tries to woo Laura over to his side and while she has some attraction to him, she's horrified by the cult's practices. The conversation goes “What right do you have?” “We are the chosen ones.” Rinse. Repeat.

Claire, on the other hand, likes the idea of being young and immortal and not being the one who's blood is being drunk. This leads to some half-assed tension and the four girls escape into the jungle, wander aimlessly for a while, then get caught and brought back.

Laura wins Ranu over to her side, and with his help escapes again and frees the rejected ones, who predictably turn on their masters. Claire decides she wants to stay, Laura tries to force her into escaping with the group, Claire tries to run away, takes a wrong turn and falls down into a spike pit and dies. Good job missing the point of why forcing people into doing things they don't want to is bad, Laura.

Anyway, the three girls escape with Ranu, and he leads them toward the exit, only they pass the “Ring of Age” which borders the cult's territory and he rapidly starts aging because we needed fake drama introduced at the last minute. The slave revolt is put down and the three women barely escape their pursuers by reaching a road and flagging down a passing jeep.

The movie ends with police searching the jungle with helicopters while a police lieutenant who was investigating the disappearances (Vic Diaz, who I only mention because he was a prolific actor in the Philippine horror movie industry of the 70s) tells Laura that they can't find any trace of settlement on the mountain, not even with helicopters. Meanwhile, Ranu looks at the futile search through a telescope and has a good laugh.

The biggest problem is complete lack of tension in the movie. After getting captured in the beginning, most scenes revolve around “how will the girls be able to escape?” and until the finale, the answer is “they can't.” Everything reverts back to them being captured without much trouble and more scenes of them talking about escaping. Bonnie has a deadly snake crawling at her feet! Never mind, it leaves without any fuss. Ann's bloodletting wound opens up! Never mind, somebody used one of the magic healing leaves to fix it. Its dreadfully boring.

The moral conflict of “We are the chosen ones!” versus “You don't have the right to do this!” feels like a bad episode of Star Trek. The cult's silly robes, propensity for interpretive dance, and soundtrack all add to that feel.

Is there anything good? Well, its got a talking head in a box. That counts for something. The character of Claire, while being a two-dimensional turboslut, is at least entertaining to watch and McConnell has scene-chewing fun with the role, which can't be said about the rest of the cast. That's really about it.

Ultimately, its a boring movie with a paralyzing reluctance to move its own plot forward.


Absolutely not recommended.


Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Octoverride '17: Varan the Unbelievable (1962)


This is going to be shorter because there's not a whole lot to 1962's Varan the Unbelievable, which is a heavy re-edit of a 1958 Japanese kaiju movie, Daikaijû Baran, directed by the father of Godzilla himself, Ishirō Honda.

This version, directed by Jerry A. Baerwitz, features scenes of an American Naval officer, James Bradley (played by character actor Myron Healey) and his wife Anna (Tsuruko Kobayashi) and some support staff. Its a joint US-Japan project looking into a water desalination experiment, and the saltwater lake they've chosen happens to have a giant monster lying dormant at the bottom.

The monster wakes up and if you've seen the original Godzilla or even Gamera, you know what happens. Monster wanders around destroying things, military tries and fails to stop it, some model buildings get destroyed, and then the scientists come up with a solution eventually that kills the creature.

Its all quite dull, and the editing job does it no favors, though the American cast isn't awful by any means. It just lacks all sense of weight and purpose. Its going through the motions.

I will say that the monster costume for Varan/Baran/Bara-dagi. Varan is essentially a giant Iguana who stomps around smashing nicely detailed sets.


The chop-job does it no favors though, and I would like to see Honda's original version at some point, but this version?


No. Its dull and forgettable.


Monday, October 02, 2017

Octoverride '17: Fangs of the Living Dead (1969)



After a long absence, the Octoverride is back, though I can't promise it won't be nothing but wall-to-wall schlock this year.

1969 brought us today's piece of European Horror Schlock. Fangs of the Living Dead AKA Malenka AKA Malenka, the Vampire's Niece AKA Malenka: La Nipote del Vampiro AKA Malenka: la Sobrina del Vampiro AKA The Vampire Girl. Yeah.

This one's going to have SPOILERS because there's not much else to discuss.

It was an Italian-Spanish co-production that tapped into the then-popular horror plot of “Young(ish) person inherits an old, spooky castle in a town of weirdos and travels there, encountering HORRORS” much like in Horror Rises From the Tomb.

Here, we are introduced to Sylvia Morel, played by Swedish model and actress Anita Ekberg. Sylvia has no job or background to really speak of, but she receives a letter from an uncle that she's inherited the family estate in Walbrooke (which is in some vaguely Carpathain region). She decides to go there and fill out the necessary paperwork two weeks before her wedding to Dr. Piero Luciani (played by Gianni Medici as “John Hamilton”). He's not thrilled about the idea, but their mutual friend and incredibly Italian comic relief sidekick Max (César Benet as “Guy Roberts”) sees no harm in it.

Sylvia arrives in Walbrooke, stops for a drink in a local tavern run by sisters Bertha (Diana Lorys) and Freya (the strong-jawed Rosanna Yanni, who was also a producer of the film). We get hints that Bertha is ill with anemia before the Count's coachman and goon, Vladis (Fernando Bilbao) arrives to drive her to the castle.

At the Castle, Sylvia learns that her uncle, the Count Walbrooke (Julián Ugarte), is a weird recluse with perfect hair and an obsession with Sylvia's grandmother Malenka, who looked just like Sylvia and was played by Ekberg in an overly long flashback sequence. Sylvia also meets Blinka (Adriana Ambesi as “Audrey Ambert”), who lives in the castle, dresses in lingerie, and gives off a rapey vibe when she tries to sweet talk Sylvia into leaving her room. The Count drags Blinka out of Sylvia's room and starts whipping her in the dungeon, where its revealed to Sylvia that Blinka is a vampire. And so is the Count.

The Count wants Sylvia to call off the wedding because “Something Something Family Curse,” and he starts manipulating her to try and turn her into a vampire.

Piero & Max arrive to find out what's going on and they speak with the innkeepers. Bertha is in some kind of relationship with the Count and dies the next day from bite wounds. She rises from the grave, and it all comes down to a climactic showdown in the castle's dungeon where the Count chains a shirtless Piero to a cross and explains that he's trying to drive Sylvia into thinking she's a vampire so she can be declared insane and the Count can then claim the inheritance. Then Blinka and Bertha get into a catfight, which buys Sylvia (who had been pretending to be under the Count's power) enough time to free Piero, who then does the unheroic thing of stabbing the Count with a flaming torch, which then prompts the Count to age rapidly into a papier-mâché skeleton, which then burns up in a pretty decent scene.

Its my understanding that there are two endings to the film. The first, follows the “hoax” plot to its conclusion, and the shorter one for American audiences, which features the burning vampire skeleton. Not having seen the first ending, I still prefer the idea of vampires trying to run an inheritance fraud scheme, mainly because its more original. “Supernatural Goings-On Were All A Hoax To Drive Someone Insane For Money” is a much more cliché plot twist than people realize. 

So what's good about it? Honestly, not a whole lot. There are some fantastic and atmospheric shots, usually in the castle crypt, and the twist of “inheritance fraud vampires” is wonderfully goofy. Other than that, the movie is ill-paced with frequently bad acting, especially during reactions to scares. The biggest star of the film, Anita Ekberg, was a major beauty icon in the 50s and early 60s, even having a major role in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, but there's little allure in a middle-aged sex symbol playing a character that feels written like they're in their early twenties.

Not recommended. 



Saturday, September 23, 2017

Beat-Em-Up to a Pulp



So a recent Twitter conversation randomly shifted to the lost genre of Beat-Em-Up games.

Aside from nostalgia for pumping quarters into Final Fight at the Pizza Hut my Grandpa would take me to after school for a personal pan pizza, I managed to beat the arcade version of the game this year.

Its simple, even for its genre, but it still holds up. The SNES exclusive Final Fight 3 adds a ton of features, like more playable characters, combos, the ability to dash, and even a super move meter.

Then epiphany hit. Beat-em-ups are, at their core, pulp adventures.

A group of individuals numbering between one and at most six take to the streets to right a wrong. The world, or at least the city, needs saving. A lot of times, its the female love interest who gets kidnapped and its up to the hero and his friends to save her (Streets of Rage 2 remixes this by having it be one of the male protagonists of the first game be the one kidnapped).

Double Dragon establishes the hero's motivation with maximum efficiency. A woman (Marian) is surrounded on a street by a mean looking gang. One of them walks up to her, slugs her in the gut, throws her over his shoulder, and carries her off.




Mission Start. Ten seconds of backstory is all you need to know. Action, romance, and morality (because good dudes don't sucker punch women and carry them off).

Or take Final Fight. The newly-elected mayor of Metro City gets a call from the Mad Gear gang. They've kidnapped his daughter Jessica to extort his cooperation.

Since the mayor is Mike Haggar, the response is swift and decisive. He strips off his shirt and personally takes to the streets to suplex and pile driver anyone who gets in his way. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that he's a former professional wrestler. And this predates Jesse Ventura's governorship.

Sounds insane, right? Sure, but its memorable, and Haggar's design, moveset and moustache are so iconic that he's the poster boy of the franchise and the only one to be playable in every Final Fight game. He's even made it into two Marvel Vs Capcom games.



Joining him are Cody, Jessica's boyfriend and the heroic everyman-type of protagonist, as well as Guy, Cody's friend and a ninja (because 1989), who has no emotional investment in the proceedings and only joins in because its the right thing to do.

Technological limitations had an effect on storytelling back then, but even so, that works for Beat-Em-Ups, which boil the story down into the minimal background required to invest you into going from left to right across a screen and literally beating everything you meet into a pulp.

You want a deep story? There's lots of RPGs to scratch that itch.

You want to play through an action movie? Memorable character designs that fit into gameplay archetypes taking on the world? Killer soundtracks? Eating fully cooked turkey you found in wooden crate?

Don't actually do that last one.




Hell yeah, its pulp.  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Legends Never Die: Han Solo's Revenge



Han Solo at Stars' End was published in early 1979. The sequel, Han Solo's Revenge followed in late 1979. Whereas Stars' End ended up a prison break story, this turns into almost a James Bond style adventure/mystery.

It begins with Han and Chewie (and the droids Bollux and Blue Max) operating a movie theater on a desert planet for easy credits. Unbeknownst to them, they've accidentally created a religious experience for the desert natives by showing a documentary of a water world. The scheme ends in a hurry when they try to show a different movie and they're back in space, desperate for cash.


The solution comes in a simple, lucrative smuggling operation. One catch: Han finds out it involves running slaves. Han & Chewie are rogues, but they absolutely refuse to get involved with any slavers. The immediate situation resolved, an angry Han Solo sets out to find the slavers and get the money they still owe him.

To that end, Han runs into one Fiolla of Llord, a beautiful, idealistic and resourceful woman who's also a Corporate Sector Assistant Auditor-General trying to track down the very same slaving ring. Meanwhile Chewie has his hands full dealing with a persistent skip tracer named Spray, who shoves his way onto the Falcon, intending to repossess it once all the shooting stops.


Shootouts on a luxury spaceliner, planet hopping, a bomb on the Millennium Falcon, a high speed swoop bike chase scene five years before the speeder bikes of Return of the Jedi, and an encounter with Gallandro, the deadliest gunslinger in the Corporate Sector, if not the entire Galaxy.

Much like Stars' End, Revenge runs at a rapid clip of action sequences, betrayals and more action sequences. Comic relief is also strong, as Bollux and Blue Max continue to provide their mix of competence and comedy, while Spray becomes an amusing foil for Chewie.


The real standout is Fiolla, one of the first genuinely memorable Expanded Universe female protagonists and love interests for Han. (Jessa from Stars' End counts too, but she's only there at the beginning and end of that story). Resourceful, witty, and occasionally naive in contrast to Han's practical cynicism, she's great. If one were feeling woke, it could be pointed out that she is a non-Caucasian female hero in a Star Wars story from 1979 and it was no big deal because the franchise was always diverse, but that would shatter the narrative.

She's also a genuinely good cop, which makes a strong contrast to the hard edge the Corporate Sector Authority had in the first book. Tyrants like Viceprex Hirken aren't the only employees in the Authority, which adds a nice layer of nuance.


I absolutely recommend Han Solo's Revenge for fast-paced scum and villainy action, adventure and romance. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Movie Review: Robin Hood (1991)



So you're probably already aware of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves which is an entertaining but ultimately mediocre and hollow movie with a great soundtrack and a damn entertaining Alan Rickman performance.

But also released in 1991 was another Robin Hood movie. Directed by action veteran John Irvin and written by Sam Resnick and John McGrath. McGrath was a veteran TV writer but this is Resnick's only film credit on IMDB. The cast is full of veteran actors, but the biggest name a modern viewer will recognize is a young Uma Thurman in her Post-Baron Munchausen, Pre-Pulp Fiction early 90s period.

Robert Hode (Patrick Bergin) is the Saxon Earl of Huntington and friend Norman Baron Roger Dauguerre (Jeroen Krabbe). Things go sour when Sir Miles Folcanet (Jurgen Prochnow AKA the guy from Das Boot) arrives and arrogantly starts throwing his weight around. He's here to marry Dauguerre's niece Marian (Uma Thurman), but that's not why Robin rebels.

Much the Miller (Daniel Webb) is caught poaching and Robin stands up for him, preventing Sir Miles from blinding the peasant. During his trial, words get heated, pride gets insulted, and Robin punches his way out of the castle and becomes an outlaw with his kinsman Will Scarlett (Owen Teale). They hit upon the standard beats of the river fight with Little John (David Morrissey), the attempted thievery on Friar Tuck (Jeff Nuttall), Marian running off to join Robin disguised as a young man. All against the backdrop of Prince John's regency during King Richard's imprisonment.

So why is this “The Good 1991 Robin Hood movie?”

Tone.

It gets the spirit absolutely right. There's no way that an early 90s medieval movie would ever reach the joyful spirit of The Adventures of Robin Hood, but while the costumes and sets feature lots of browns and washed out lighting, the spirit of the movie is deeply earthy. Characters sing (not elaborate musical numbers, just little ditties as they go along). There's some swashbuckling. There's trick shooting. There are glimpses of historical awareness, though they muddle together All Souls' Day with the Lord of Misrule tradition that belongs to Christmastide or the Merry Men getting powerful Welsh longbows about a hundred or so years before they became truly dominant in English battle tactics.

These are legitimate mistakes, but there's an attempt at verisimilitude and not something so nakedly absurd as the Ewok Village or Celts or a Moor traveling the 12th Century English countryside because he has a Wookiee life-debt like in Prince of Thieves.

Then there's the romance. Marian is great here as a strong-willed and very court-savvy young woman with a sharp tongue. She has no interest in Sir Miles, and is charmed by Robin's benevolence and hot-blooded heroics. Even when she goes tomboy, she's still a girl in disguise and not simply an action movie character with boobs. This Marian's actually kind of bad in a fight, but still manages to get some good shots in. Compare with Prince of Thieves Marian who starts off the movie showing off her sword skills but becomes useless in the climactic fight scene. 

Robin himself is great too. There's no “You killed my father/betrayed my King, I need revenge!” motivation. He's just a proud, hot-headed nobleman with a rigid sense of morality who commits to his actions. Not quite Erroll Flynn heroic, but definitely channeling him.

Jeff Nuttall's Friar Tuck is also interesting. Nuttall was a major figure in 60s counterculture and artistic movements with an anarchic streak. Here he plays Tuck as a thoroughly shady character: evicted from his monastery for murdering another friar, he now travels the countryside selling chicken bones as saints' relics. Its an interesting thought behind why a man of God would go around with a band of outlaws, but Tuck's postmodern shadiness contrasts hard with Robin's straightforward heroism.

Straightforward heroism is the order of the day here. Robin is good, Sir Miles is bad (but not “consorting with sorcery and trying to rape Maid Marian” bad), and the two spiral toward a deadly confrontation before a legitimately earned happy ending.


Besides Men in Tights, this forgotten little gem is the best Robin Hood movie made in the last thirty years or so. Highly recommended.