Thursday, April 26, 2012

Short Film: The Cliché Family in Televisionland (USA, c. 1965)

Here's another forgotten oddity found on the Internet Archive about which relatively little seems to be known. The person who uploaded it assumes that: "This outrageous parody of the prototype 'commercial' family was apparently made as an in-house joke by one of the largest producers of television commercials. Their clients would have never seen this gem, which parodies products as well as the people that buy them." 
MPO Productions, the firm that made the film, was founded in 1947 by Larry Madison, Judd Pollack, and Paul O’Hare "as a production film company established to create high-budget public relations films for major corporations." As TV established itself, MPO did likewise in the field of TV commercials; among the fondly remembered and still recognized commercial characters to grace the TV advertisements they produced in their Manhattan production center are Little Speedy Alka Seltzer, Mr. Clean, Ajax's White Knight and Folger's Mrs. Olsen. MPO, however, sold its film studios to Screen Gems in 1974 and moved into the field of videotronics where, as MPO Videotronics, the firm is still active today.
The director of The Cliché Family in Televisionland is unknown today, as are the identity of the two Cliché kids, the minority girl, the bathtub babe and, perhaps, Mrs. Cliché herself. Some sources list her as the actress Betty Garrett (23 May 1919 – 12 February 2011), of  Trail of the Screaming Forehead (2007 / trailer), but we for one don't see a true similarity between the two actresses (back then, all housewives sort of looked the same – sort like all Wal-Mart shoppers do today). What is for sure, however, is that Mr. Cliché is Roger Price, the co-creator of Droodles and Mad Libs – a simple name search under Google images verifies his identity. 
The Cliché Family in Televisionland is a rather biting film at times – its swipe at the whiteness of the cliché TV family is great – and even manages to sneak in a little T&A at one point, so you might not want to watch this at work. What is remarkable is how most of the clichés presented still exist today, if only dressed in newer clothing.
The first couple of minutes of the film are a bit shaky, but after the initial flaws in the film stock, the remainder of the film is of decent quality.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

R.I.P.: Jonathan Frid

Jonathan Frid
December 2, 1924 – April 14, 2012

"I don't play a vampire. I play a man with a secret."

In the world of horror and sleaze film, Jonathon Frid actually played a very miniscule part. Indeed, his film roles can be counted on one hand. But the Canadian stage actor is nevertheless an integral part of pop culture for his iconic role as the vampire Barnabas Collins in the ABC supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows, which ran for over 1,200 episodes from 1967 to 1971. His character, like the show, has never completely disappeared from the collective pop culture psyche of the States, and even people who have never seen the original soap know who Barnabas Collins is, even if they don't know the name "Jonathan Frid." He was, you could say, the first sexy, romantic vampire of modern horror. (We specify "male" for we are of the opinion that the first "sexy / romantic" vampire in Western culture actually appeared in Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla which, of course, was adapted by Roger Vadim in Blood and Roses in 1960 (full film / trailer), and she was a babe. Likewise, though Christopher Lee's Dracula also had a carnal sexuality about him, he was in no way a love-torn Romanticist.)
John Herbert Frid was born December 2, 1924 in Canada; according to Wikipedia, he served in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II. Following the war, he graduated from McMaster University in 1948 and then studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. In 1954, he moved to the United States to study at the Yale School of Drama, where he received a Master of Fine Arts in 1957. Dark Shadows Online says that throughout those years he appeared in stage and radio productions, some early Canadian Broadcast Corporation TV programs, regional theater and on television and Broadway. In 1967 he started on Dark Shadows, on what was supposedly to be a 13 week gig.
After Dark Shadows ended, but for an odd film project he concentrated on stage projects, both as an actor and director. In 1994, he finally left NYC and returned to Canada to live in semi-retirement. Frid, a "life-long bachelor" who refused to discuss his private life with the press, died at the age of 87 of natural causes on April 14, 2012, at Juravinski Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario.

Dark Shadows
Episode 1 – aired 27 June 1966:
Dark Shadows, a daily Gothic soap created by Dan Curtis, aired weekdays on the ABC television network, from June 27, 1966 to April 2, 1971. About six months after it began broadcasting, the unprecedented step was taken to introduce ghosts, a first for daytime television. In a last-effort attempt to resurrect the flagging ratings, the character of Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) was introduced; a 175-year-old vampire, he was in search of both blood and his lost love, Josette. The show soared in popularity and he became the lead anti-hero of the soap. Dark Shadows also featured werewolves, zombies, man-made monsters, witches, warlocks, time travel, and a parallel universe. The matriarch of the Collins Clan, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, was played by the Joan Bennett. (Bennett, whose last screen role was in the classic horror film Suspiria [1977 / trailer], began her career in the Silents and is found in numerous other classics, including three US Fritz Lang film noirs, The Woman in the Window [1944 / trailer], Scarlet Street [1945 / full movie] and Secret Beyond the Door... [1947 / full film].) Introduced in B&W, Dark Shadows went color with the August 14, 1967 episode. Gold Key published a comic book based on the show, 'Marilyn Ross' – no better known as William Edward Daniel Ross – wrote 32-odd Dark Shadows novels (and there were other publications by other authors, too), inspired two feature-length films in the early 70s (see further below), and even enjoyed a prime-time weekly drama remake in 1991 starring Ben Cross as Barnabas (assisted by no less than Barbara Steele, Jean Simmons, and a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
Closing credits with the classic Dark Shadows theme:

House of Dark Shadows
(1970, dir. Dan Curtis)
In 1970, while Dark Shadows was still on the air, the show's creator and producer Dan Curtis (director of such fun stuff as Burnt Offerings [1976 / full film / trailer], Trilogy of Terror [1975], and Bram Stoker's Dracula [1974 / trailer]) brought out this film version which used many of the plot elements already used in the soap (as well as the original characters and actors) but gave the events a breakneck speed and a much better production – and made Barnabas very much an evil vampire, which allowed for an ending rather different than that of the soap. The film was dissed for a long time, but over the years it has gained rather a fan following, of which we are part. Blood and bites and stakings and deaths are the common occurrence after the merciless Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) rises from the grave and searches for a cure so he can marry the woman who resembling his long-lost fiancée Josette (Kathryn Leigh Scott); when the cure goes wrong, he loses all restraint. House of Dark Shadows is Gothic, but it is anything but camp – or funny – and, a true vampire film with scares and surprising twists, it is well worth watching as one of the best vampire films of its time.

Night of Dark Shadows
(1971, dir. Dan Curtis)
OK, neither Barnabas nor Jonathon Frid took part in this film, the sequel to House of Dark Shadows, but the original plans did call for him to. But by the time production had started, the soap had been canceled and Frid was ready to try (unsuccessfully, in the end) to separate himself from the icon that he had become. The plot this time around was based loosely on the "parallel time" storyline once used in the soap and brought back the other anti-hero of the show Quentin Collins (David Selby) and the young and sexy Kate Jackson (of Satan's School for Girls [1973 / full TV film]) as Tracy Collins; the currently available version is the edited 94-minute version – the 129 original director's cut is still awaited. To quote The Terror Trap: "A solid sequel to director Dan Curtis' House of Dark Shadows. […] Quentin (Selby) finds himself the last of the Collins family, and so he and wife Jackson move into the old Gothic mansion. But no sooner can the couple call the estate home than they find themselves haunted by the vengeful ghost of a dead witch (Parker). Perhaps not as (consistently) powerful as its progenitor, Night still has a few good scares and is worth a watch both for Jackson's film debut and Lara Parker's creepy portrayal of ghostly Angelique Collins."

The Devil's Daughter
(1973, dir. Jeannot Szwarc)
Jeannot Szwarc, the man who helmed such masterpieces as William Castle's Bug (1975 / trailer / full film), Jaws 2 (1978 / trailer) and the infamous Supergirl (1984 / trailer), directed this prime example of 1970 TV horror that seems to divide the viewing public. In this Rosemary's Baby (1968 / trailer) inspired TV flick, Frid plays the mute (!) chauffeur of Shelley Winters (who also made Cleopatra Jones [trailer] that same year). Kindertrauma, one of our favorite blogs, says "Exhibiting all of the subtlety of a monster truck jam, Shelley Winters owns this sub-par, supernatural TV movie by bulldozing over anyone with the misfortune of sharing screen time with her." To make a long story short, after the death of her mom (played by Diane Ladd), the young and attractive Diane Shaw (Belinda J. Montgomery Silent Madness [1984 / Japanese trailer / full film]) comes to the realization just who her daddy is. DVD Drive-In says the film is "one of the better horror TV movies you've never seen" and that "there are still some surprising twists which tie everything together during the climax." In regard to the acting, unlike Kindertrauma they are of the opinion that Shelley Winters "proves to be a superb character actress as usual." Frid, in turn, "does a good job of executing his sympathetic character through facial expressions." The entertaining cast also includes Joseph Cotten (who was in Soylent Green [trailer] that year, too) and Lucille Benson (of Private Parts [1972 / trailer]); The Devil's Daughter was remade in 1997 as The Devil's Child.
Full film:

(1974, dir. Oliver Stone)
TV spot:
Aka Queen of Evil. Oliver Stone's true directorial debut, a good seven years earlier that his other horror film The Hand (1981 / trailer), about which he is at least willing to speak if asked (he has basically disowned Seizure and, having bought back the rights to it, is sitting on it to prevent a DVD release). The great cast includes Martine Beswick (of Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde [1971 / trailer]), Troy Donahue (of Lust in the Dust [1985 / trailer]), Mary Woronov (of Night of the Comet [1984 / trailer], Hervé Villechaize and, of course, Jonathan Frid in his last film role – not only of note, but in total, up until his guest appearance in the 2012 remake of Dark Shadows. According to Wikipedia, Mary Woronov later claimed that the film was partially financed by gangster Michael Thevis, in an attempt to launder money. Canuxploitation has the following to say about the film: "Oliver Stone's mostly unseen directing debut was made in Quebec [...]. It sounds like pure lunacy, and it is. But not the fun kind of lunacy, more like your weird uncle who always forgets his prescription. The plot involves Jonathan Frid as a struggling writer named Edmund who keeps having the same weird dream in which a dwarf, a big mute executioner and a Vampira/Elvira clone (named 'The Queen Of Evil') kill his family and a bunch of house guests. In totally unrelated news, Edmund's family is expecting a bunch of house guests. Things get weird when the three evil characters kill a few peripheral characters, then advance on the house where they hold everybody prisoner and force them to compete in games against each other. Seizure's main problem is that is flogs the 'Is it real? Is it a dream?' ambiguity to death." The website Dangerous Minds says that "The surreal plot is loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968 / trailer)."

Dark Shadows
(2012, dir. Tim Burton)
It seems almost a joke to put this film on Frid's career review, but it is the last film in which he makes an appearance – alongside former Dark Shadows cast members Lara Parker (of Race with the Devil [1975 / trailer], David Selby (Larva [2005 / trailer]) and Kathryn Leigh Scott (Parasomnia [2008 / trailer]), Frid spent three days at Pinewood Studios in June 2011 filming a cameo appearance in a ball scene held at Collinwood Manor, which means you probably won't notice any of them. Burton's version of the Gothic soap is obviously far from serious, which is sure to piss off a lot of people, but we'll go see it – it features too many of our favorite actors (Johnny Depp, Eva Green [of Franklyn (2008 / trailer)], Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter) and, to tell the truth, if we totally ignore Planet of the Apes [2001 / trailer], we've always found something to like in all Tim Burton films. In any event, Frid died ten months after filming his cameo – may he Rest in Peace.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Die Beauty / Du Sköna (Sweden, 2010)

Now here a cinematic oddity that definitely does not deserve the total obscurity in which it wallows. Have you ever heard of it? No, we're sure, and neither had we – we ended up watching it only because it was on a self-made DVD given to us by a friend, sandwiched between the French zombie flick The Horde (2009 / trailer) and the US American B-film Skyline (2010 / trailer). We figured, with a title like Die Beauty, it would surely and merely be more of the same – but we were more than wrong. The commonality and placement of Die Beauty with those two better-known trash films is comparable, we would say, to a horny hetro 20-year-old naked male stoner sandwiched between two 50-year-old naked alcoholic bull dykes. In other words, while all three probably don't have much money and are entertaining on their own, they don't really mix as a trio… 
As it is, we are unsure whether the "Die" in the title is the English verb for "to expire" or the German feminine definite article, "die" (as in: die Frau or die Beauté); indeed, one of the main characters of the film is German prostitute, so it could be that the title is less "Croak You Beauty" than "The Beauty"… for that matter, no one beautiful dies in this film, and those who do die, we would be hard placed to even call handsome. Asshole might be the term we would use, for each and everyone of them.
As revealed above at the top, Du Sköna is a Swedish film – and yes, it comes with subtitles – but unlike a few other recent, decent Swedish films (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2009 / trailer] and Let the Right One In [2008 / trailer]), it is doubtful it'll ever be remade in English by Hollywood. And, like the much better-known US American animation film from 2008, Sita Sings the Blues (2008 / full movie / trailer), it is a creative commons production. (Yep, Die Beauty was allowed to be on that DVD, even if the other two films weren't.) So if you wanna see this one, you can probably find it easy enough, but you're gonna have to use a few brain cells and read while you watch. Rest assured, however, it'll be worth it. 
Well, then again, maybe not if you're not a fan of art films. You remember, long ago, when most towns had some ragged-edged movie theater that would show obscure, impossible-to-follow films in foreign languages that had no real start or real end? Like, dunno, The Valley Obscured by Clouds (1972 / trailer) or Black Moon (1975 / trailer) or even the fabulously nightmarish Possession (1981 / trailer)? Probably not, if you're under 30, but Die Beauty / Du Sköna is very much such an art film, although one that owes much more to decidedly less arty films like  Alex van Warmerdam's The Northerners (1992 / trailer) or Bent Hamer's Kitchen Stories (2003 / trailer) or even Anders Thomas Jensen's Adam's Apples (2005 / trailer) than to anything as over-the-top as Possession or even Franco's Virgin amongst the Living Dead (1973 / scene). 
In other words, the events that occur are presented naturalistically and as if they were a normal as apple pie, but there is nevertheless an underlying bizarreness that shifts the events into mild surrealism. Like the classic art films of the in-retrospect decidedly open and flexible 1970s, Die Beauty / Du Sköna, aside from having subtitles, sort of defies interpretation and logic and traditional narrative (i.e., start-middle-end) and instead just sort of meanders along for intriguingly peculiar 83 minutes that occasionally even make you laugh – and definitely leaves you scratching your head at the end, totally unsure about what the fuck you just watched.
Which isn't to say that Die Beauty / Du Sköna isn't a disturbing film, for it is. It is just that its disconcerting tendencies are often well balanced by its general quirkiness and dryly surreal humor. The general events involve a circle of pubescent red-headed girls and a pubescent blond who wishes not only that she too were a redhead but that she would one day see a dead body. Their mothers are mostly ciphers, but the husbands and men are all but for one (two, perhaps, if you count the undertaker) total assholes. And in this dull, little town next to a lake, the (male) bodies begin to pile – that is, they would if the nice guy didn't keep disposing them at the bottom of the lake. (But for one woman, you never ever actually see the women kill anyone, but the indications are there that they are indeed responsible, if not actually in cahoots. And while we know for sure that one father, the absentee father, is in Africa, the wife nevertheless also adds him to the lake in a way by removing all his African artifacts from their house, bagging them, and tossing the bag into the lake – drowning him, so to say, in absence.) And amidst it all, a German-speaking prostitute whose only friend is the young blond girl and who would like to do nothing more than change her career… 
It would seem that small-town Sweden is a simmering pot of dissatisfaction and alienation where emotion is not shown and inaction hides unspoken hate. Everyone in the town – and particularly the little girls – seem to wish that things would change in one way or another, and as the filmmakers themselves say on their blogspot, "if you wish for something hard enough..." Underscored by a fabulous soundtrack that we wish we could get somewhere, Du Sköna weaves an oddly hypnotic web. It is, in truth, so idiosyncratic and individualistic that it is a love it or hate it film, and undoubtedly it is easier to hate because it is so defiantly non-mainstream. But if you open your mind and go with the flow, you just might find that its strange – if uncomfortable – magic carries you along. We thought it great, one of the oddest, most original things we've seen in a long time, featuring a surprisingly memorable cast of truly excellent child actors who often speak volumes without even saying anything. (The undertaker's lonely daughter is worth a horror film all of her own.) 
Yes, Die Beauty / Du Sköna is without a doubt an art film – but, damn it! It's a good film, too.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Fear of the Dark (Canada, 2003)

German trailer:

"There's nothing there in the dark that's not there in the light."
Dale Billings (Kevin Zegers)

Whether or not you think this flick sucks donkey dick or not depends on what exactly you are looking for in a horror film. Supposedly Fear of the Dark has a PG-13 rating stateside, but if Fear of the Dark deserves a PG-13 rating, then the films that instigated that rating – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984 / trailer) and Gremlins (1984 / trailer), respectively – should be rated X. Fear of the Dark is a horror film for kids – and we don't mean the child inside, we mean real, live (pre-pubescent) kids; anyone older will not find it scary at all, and might even find it total smegma.
Nevertheless, Fear of the Dark is sorta based on a relatively clever idea. It assumes that there really are evil things in the dark, there really are evil things in your closet and under your bed and beneath the stairwell, but that the evil things can only get to you as long as you are afraid of them and believe that they can hurt you. Thus, for most of the film, the preteen Ryan Billings (Jesse James of The Darkroom [2006 / trailer] and The Butterfly Effect [2004 / trailer]) is the one afraid of the dark, 'cause he knows, he believes, the things – rejects from John Carpenter's retarded Ghosts of Mars [2001 / trailer] – are out to get him; only later, once the scary occurrences of the dark and stormy night that he and his older brother Dale (Kevin Zegers of Wrong Turn [2003 / trailer], The Hollow [2004 / trailer] and the excellent Transamerica [2005 / trailer]) are at home alone during a blackout, does Dale slowly realize that the evil things that his brother is so terrified about are real!
As a kiddy horror film, the most blood it features is that found on a cut fingertip, and there is of course no gore or skin (but then, had it the later it would have been kiddy porn, not kiddy horror). The nominal third young one of the film, a young lady named Heather (Rachel Skarsten of Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer [2007 / trailer]), is a contrived presence at best and totally unnecessary, and actually undermines the theory of the film (that you have to believe to be haunted) by being confronted by demonic versions of her phobia (dogs) without ever actually having the chance to begin fearing the things in the dark. (If she can simply be confronted by demonic versions of her fears, why can't everyone? Then Dale – and everyone else in the world – should have been terrorized long before his younger brother turned his belief into the real.)
The film does manage to establish some good mood, but it is often subverted by stupid twists and unbelievable developments – but then, it is hardly believable that Ryan would ever have made it to his twelfth year in the first place if always confronted by the things in the dark. True, he is an inexplicable walking Wikipedia when it comes to knowledge about the evil things and how to survive them, but like Wikipedia, his knowledge is dangerously faulty at times: at one point, he states as a fact that they can't hurt you if you're under the covers, but in a later scene the evil things literally shred a feather bed comforter which looks as if someone is beneath it – had Ryan not been under the bed for a change, he would have been mincemeat.
The acting is variable, the parents – Eric (Charles Powell of Screamers [1995 / trailer] and The 8th Plague [2008 / trailer]) and artist Sandy Billings (Linda Purl of Crazy Mama [1975 / trailer], Visiting Hours [1982 / trailer] and The Perfect Tenant [2000 / trailer]) – are so sugary sweet perfect that viewer gets diabetes whenever they appear on screen, and there are more unintentional laughs than real ones, but as a kiddy film Fear of the Dark not only taps that primal fear of the evil thing under the bed but offers an adequate (if shaky) explanation that could possibly make the film scary (and nightmare inducing) to the younger set.
There is a scene in the film in which the evil forces keep changing the TV back to Sam Rami's The Evil Dead (1981 / trailer) no matter how often Ryan changes the channel. As an adult – or even a mildly discerning horror fan – if you're looking for horror, you're better served re-watching that film than by watching Fear of the Dark. But, if nothing else, Fear of the Dark is a mildly tolerable introduction to horror for the young ones, if you have any, though it might be too Nickelodeon for the ones with training bras and peach fuzz.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Bao chou / Vengeance (Hong Kong, 1970)

Vengeance is yet another relatively unknown Shaw Brothers film from production company's Golden Age directed by one of their most prolific directors, Cheh Chang, the man responsible for some of the firm's most popular wuxia and kung-fu films, including Crippled Avengers (1978 / trailer), Five Deadly Venoms (1978 / trailer), The One-Armed Swordsman (1967 / trailer) and Five Element Ninjas (1982 / trailer / film).
Chang, who has more than a hundred films under his belt, can list both the great John Woo and Quentin Tarantino as fans—and, indeed, visual and/or plot references to Vengeance can be found in both Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol I (2003 / trailer) and John Woo's The Killer (1989 / trailer), if not in other films of theirs as well. Tarantino's knowledge of the filmmaker naturally comes from his encyclopedic familiarity with obscure films and filmmakers, but Woo's connection is much closer: in his early years, he worked as assistant director on many of Chang's films, including Boxer From Shantung (1972 / trailer / full film), The Water Margin (1972 / trailer) and The Blood Brothers (1973 / trailer / full film).
Vengeance is rather something different from what one normally expects to see when popping in a DVD of prime Shaw Brothers. This is already obvious from the opening credits which, underscored by a soundtrack that could well be the theme song to some hardboiled US crime film from the 50s, consist of high-raster, B&W photos reminiscent of newspaper crime photos like those of Weegee or cheap true detective magazines. Set in an unnamed Chinese town in 1926—in other words, well within "modern" times—Vengeance features absolutely no braided ponytails or long, stringy white beards but, for that, still features such common themes as loyalty, honor and revenge. Added to the mixture are some top-class great fight scenes, copious amounts of blood, and (in the digitally re-mastered version we saw, at least) wonderfully chromatic colors occasionally interspersed with—a rarity for Hong Kong films of the time—darker, shadowy and high-contrast scenes that are never muddy. That the film owes much of its overall aesthetic sense and story to the classic film noir of the US is obvious within the first five minutes, despite the obvious (and for westerners, exotic) setting in a Chinese theater.
Vengeance is one of those films that opens with one tale and that suddenly flips to another. A good 20 minutes is spent on stage actor and master fighter Kuan Yu-Lou (Ti Lung of A Better Tomorrow [1986 / trailer] and A Better Tomorrow II [1987 / trailer]), a proud and jealous man, who's married to the beautiful but two-faced Hua Cheng-fen (Ping Wang of The Chinese Boxer [1970 / trailer] and Five Fingers of Death [1972 / trailer]). Among others who vie for Cheng-fen's affections is the local crime boss Feng Kai-shan (Feng Ku of The Flying Guillotine [1975 / trailer] and The Web of Death [1976 / trailer]) who, following a violent confrontation with Kuan Yu-Lou, has the actor violently and bloodily killed—something that hardly bothers Hua Cheng-fen, a hardened and heartless fem fatale well befitting a classic film noir film.
It is at this point that the true story of the film begins, for Kuan Yu-Lou's murder does not sit well with his brother, Kuan Hsiao Lou (David Chiang of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974 / trailer) and Return of the Deadly Blade (1981 / scenes), who returns to town to avenge the death of his brother. Driven with an intense need for Vengeance—hence the title—he lets nothing distract him from his goal, not even his rekindled relationship with Hua's sister (Yen-ching Ou of The Golden Sword [1969 / trailer]).
Vengeance—like Kuan Hsiao Lou—barrels along like a bulldozer towards its unavoidable Hemingwayesque ending, only pausing occasionally for the necessary scenes of romance needed to convey the depth of feelings that the star-crossed lovers have for one another and, more often, for Kuan Hsiao Lou to smoke a cigarette. The rest of the time, it is pretty much non-stop slicing, dicing and breaking bones as one well-choreographed fight scene follows the next and the bad guys—and all their minions—die one by one.
Imagine, if you can, a Shaw Brothers film scripted by, say, Donald E. Westlake or Jim Thompson or any given excellent but forgotten and unknown writer of hardboiled crime. Indeed, one film that immediately comes to mind is one of Mel Gibson's more entertaining films, Payback (1999 / trailer), which is based on a Westlake novel. But unlike in Payback, in which the main character's desire for revenge has nothing to do with honor or loyalty and everything with money, the main character of Vengeance seeks only to make those who killed his brother pay for their deed—with their lives. In the end, despite his "noble" intention, the single-mindedness with which he pursues his goal makes him as morally questionable as all those he kills—and like them, he too pays for his deeds. Vengeance leaves the viewer wondering whether the price Kuan Hsiao Lou's pays is worth it, but one never doubts that Kuan Hsiao Lou himself believes that it is.
Vengeance, an unknown and unique Shaw Brothers film that is well worth watching—look for it.
The whole film in Chinese without subtitles:

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lifeless (Germany, 2011)

The debut film of Ralf Möllenhoff, the man behind Lifeless, was a Super-8 zombie flick entitled Dead Eyes Open (trailer) that Troma picked up and regurgitated upon the world in 2008; when reviewing that flick, DVD Verdict was forced to admit "I was raised to believe that if you can't say anything nice, you shouldn't say anything at all. The problem here is that, in the case of Dead Eyes Open, I wouldn't be able to write a review."
I was raised the same way, but was also taught to stand up and say it openly and loudly when served shit instead of Shinola – but sometimes I really can't help but wonder if it's worth the time to do so. Hell, I already wasted about 88 minutes of my life watching Lifeless; do I really want to waste more time writing about it? Well, any excuse that keeps me from doing the dishes is a good excuse...
Lifeless is an aptly named "movie", for it is truly lifeless – no tension, no scares, no sense, no anything, other than 88 minutes worth of boredom in the form of eternal close-ups, endlessly repeated shots, IKEA candle chandeliers, meandering dialogue, nonsensical plot, and illogical action development. While in general A Wasted Life admires people that attempt to make something from nothing, the hope is usually that they actually make something; in this case, it is a case of from nothing came nothing.
Lifeless is set in Croatia, and as filmed by "director" Ralf Möllenhoff, it looks very much to be a vacation project shot in part in Croatia and then padded by scenes shot at home later, with Germany standing in for Croatia. And indeed, Lifeless is a vacation project: according to the German website Splash Movies, in an article positive enough to make one think the writer got a hand job from somebody, it is revealed that the "underground filmmaker" Möllenhoff was offered, by his uncle, the free use of the latter's vacation house in Croatia for two weeks; the two weeks turned into three as Möllenhoff filmed the location shots of his extremely underdeveloped screenplay, taking over the lead role himself. (Indeed, he seems to have also been his own cameraman, as most of the endless close-ups shots of his face as he stumbles around relay the feeling of him using one hand to hold the camera in front of him as he is walking.) If Möllenhoff fares better as an actor (than as a director or screenplay author), it is only because all the other hobby thespians that populate the movie are even more guilty than he of giving wood a bad name; he seems better only by comparison.
Möllenhoff wanders through the movie as Allan Poemah – get the reference? – a historical writer who has taken a house in the Croatian mountains with his family so as to work on his new book, but as he sits there reading one sunny day both his wife and child disappear. The police aren't too interested, as they have enough crime to deal with in the city – but they do warn him that them thar hills be dangerous. Möllenhoff sleepwalks around and stumbles upon a wall-up cathedral, secret underground tunnels, an ax-yielding neighbor and stories of blood-drained bodies; the police discover a rotting cadaver with bag full of drugs in its stomach, but that scene is only included so that the film can have some gore – in fact, with exception of the killed cat and a snacked-on arm, little of the gore of the film really seems to belong.
Allan meets an Italian named Joe Amato – get it? – who has left Venice 'cause he thinks all the gondolas are in mourning (an untranslatable in-joke that refers to the German title of Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, "Wenn die Gondeln Trauer tragen" [trailer], which translates to "when the gondolas are in mourning"); Joe gets a knife through the head for standing around, but who knows by whom or, really, why. Will Allan find his family? Will he ever get excited about anything? When will filmmakers stop adding dream sequences just to pad the running time? Do all Croatians know how to chop up a body wrapped in bloody white sheets without actually cutting the sheet? Does Sarah Palin swallow or spit? Why does one testicle usually hang lower than the other? Who was the first person to call a dingleberry "dingleberry"? – These and other relevant questions are sure to flit through your mind as you doze off in front of Lifeless.
Nice soundtrack, though.
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