Sunday, 2 January 2011

A Serbian Film (2010)

Ah, what better way to start 2011 than with a look at the most controversial film of 2010, Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film, due for imminent release in the UK in a version shorn of four minutes at the behest of the BBFC – an utterly pointless act in the current age of almost universal availability by fair means or foul and also a dark and depressing reminder of the board’s power and ability to decimate a director’s vision under a woefully misguided conviction of protecting our tender sensibilities from the corrupting influence of a work of fiction.

The story is a simple one – porn star Milos (Srdjan Torovovic) has retired from the sex film industry and is living with his wife and son, funded by his dwindling savings from his time in the business. He is contacted by (still-in-the-business) Laylah who indicates that “artist philosopher” Vukmir is willing to offer Milos a bumper payday that will effectively set Milos up for life for one last job. His curiosity piqued, Milos meets Vukmir who expresses that he works for selected clients, producing “naked art, truth, real people, real situations and real sex with a serious script.”

Provided with a lengthy contact that he is told he does not need to read and lacking a script in order to elicit a more honest performance Milos soon finds himself thrust (pun intended) into a series of scenarios that increasingly disturb rather than arouse. Milos’ disquiet at Vukmir’s willingness to involve his own adolescent daughter results in him seeking the assistance of his cop brother Marko. Asked to try and obtain some information about the mysterious Vukmir and his crew, Marko advises that Vukmir is a child psychologist who does not appear to have made movies previously.

Further appalled by Vukmir’s practices, Milos notifies the director that he is no longer willing to remain involved in his production. After ranting about their homeland now being “a victim” Vukmir screens some footage for Milos of a new genre of film-making. Repulsed by what he is shown, Milos leaves immediately.

Waking up at home covered in blood and with his wife and son missing, Milos returns to Vukmir’s now empty villa. Unearthing a video camera and with the assistance of a batch of recordings Milos manages to piece together the horrifying chain of events that lead to the ultimate discovery of the fate of his family, Vukmir and even his brother!

Probably the most intriguing and divisive film since Martyrs, A Serbian Film is one that demands your attention. It adheres to a simple three act formula; introduction, participation and conclusion, the final act unspooling by way of flashback sequences. It’s an extremely well made, effective and taut film (especially in its’ full version) that is likely to be lazily labelled as ‘torture porn’. The subject matter certainly pulls no punches although I would have thought that anyone watching the sanitized BBFC approved version is going to find the impact significantly diluted. If I had to level one criticism, it could be said that the film’s professionalism works a little against the film and I feel that some of the onscreen atrocities would have had greater impact if there had been some ‘shaky-cam’ footage, ala Cannibal Holocaust, Cloverfield, the torture sequences in Emanuelle in America or even the August Underground/Mordum movies.

Rob Bewick

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

A Belated Happy Christmas (from me and Bobbie Bresee!)

When I was a young lad the Bobbie Bresee vehicle Mausoleum was always a guilty pleasure. How could you not enjoy a film that includes a scene where Miss Bresee is about to get down and dirty when her boobies become possessed and sprout teeth!

Anyway by the end of the 1980's I was beavering away on my own long-forgotten cut-and-paste fanzine when I was put in touch with Bobbie Bresee and we exchanged some correspondence including Christmas cards! I've recently found those cards (more like signed Christmas promo shots) and thought I'd share 'em even if they're a coupla days late!

Maybe I'll get round to reviewing Mausoleum someday - it'll also give me an excuse to post a few more Bobbie Bresee promo pics that I also rediscovered.

Rob Bewick

Monday, 27 December 2010

Blood and Roses (1960)

Apart from Bram Stoker's Dracula the most frequently adapted or acknowledged vampire tale must undoubtedly be Sheridan le Fanu's Carmilla. The inspiration for Hammer's Karnstein trilogy - The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil (along with many other films including The Blood Spattered Bride, Daughters of Darkness and Vampyres), the story had also previously provided the basis for Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses, the director's 1960 vehicle for his then wife, Annette, as well as a young and fresh faced Mel Ferrer.

Set in (then) present-day Italy, the film's central character, Carmilla Von Karnstein, is the last surviving member of the Karnstein dynasty. A dead ringer for her long dead ancestor Millarca Karnstein, Carmilla is desperately in love with her cousin Leopoldo despite his engagement to her closest friend Georgia. As Georgia and Leopoldo's wedding day approaches, a fireworks party is held in the Karnstein grounds. Detaching herself from the celebrations, Carmilla finds herself wandering around near the old abbey and when a stray firecracker detonates an unexploded World War II bomb, Millarca's tomb is disturbed and her dormant spirit is free to once again enter the world of the living through the body of Carmilla.

It's not long before the ghostly image of Carmilla, wearing the dress of her ancestor, is spotted roaming the nearby countryside at night. Carmilla struggles through the days, complaining that she is always short of breath, is constantly tired and that the sun burns her. Not only that, but she seeks nourishment through blood, turning her attention towards Georgia before seducing and biting her in an atmospheric dream sequence that ends when Georgia wakes screaming!

Shortly afterwards a servant girl is found dead and suspicion begins to fall upon Carmilla. Seeking sanctuary at the tomb of Millarca, Carmilla is thrown and impaled upon a fence post after roaming too near to a controlled explosion. But as Georgia and Leopoldo fly out for their honeymoon the voice of Millarca intones that she still lives on…

Despite focusing more on eroticism than horror, Blood and Roses remains an elegant and stylish tale of vampire blood lust and predatory lesbian desire. Trimmed significantly upon its' original release, much of the excised footage remains unseen to date. Although Hammer Films had by that time firmly established themselves as the standard bearers of Gothic horror movies, it would still take that studio the better part of a decade to create a film that was so overtly sexual within the context of a horror movie.

Anyone wishing to check out Blood and Roses for themselves will find their options severely limited. To the best of my knowledge the only legitimate version of the film ever made available is the aforementioned truncated, 73 minute version, which was released on cassette by Paramount in the U.S. several years ago in the dreaded extended play format. As if that wasn't bad enough, the film is presented full screen with a fairly dull mono soundtrack. Whilst there are also slightly differing French and Spanish television broadcasts floating around on the ‘fan’ circuit a fully restored and remastered DVD release would be as alluring as Millarca Von Karnstein herself!

Rob Bewick

Friday, 29 October 2010

The Ebola Syndrome (1996)

The year 1986, the place, Hong Kong. Kai (Anthony Wong) is caught committing adultery with the wife of his boss and after being beaten and pissed on, his boss decides to castrate Kai with a pair of scissors! Kai suggests that he carries out the grim task himself and seizes the opportunity to escape after killing his boss, the wife and a henchman leaving boss’ daughter Lily the only survivor, Kai being interrupted before he can set Lily alight after dousing her in petrol. This will not be the first time that Kai’s need for quick and easy sex is to land him in trouble…

Fast-forward ten years to South Africa and we catch up with Kai who is now employed in a restaurant in Johannesburg. His current employers know of his crimes and his illegal immigrant status, using the same to keep Kai poorly paid, aware that he cannot complain to the authorities about his treatment. Particularly scathing of Kai is the owner’s wife, Ling, who taunts and abuses him at every available opportunity. Still highly sexed, Kai listens in on his employers having sex and on one occasion goes down to the kitchen and cuts himself a chunk of raw meat to pump into whilst earwigging!

By a remarkable coincidence, Lily (who is now an air hostess) visits the Johannesburg restaurant with some friends. Thinking that she recognises Kai as the man responsible for the murder of her parents, she reports matters to the local police who dismiss her claims.

During a trip into the bush to purchase pigs from the local Zulu tribe, Kai and his employer notice that many tribe members are either dead or dying, open sores covering the bodies. Despite the risk of disease, the pigs are still purchased and Kai and his employer set off on the return journey. Kai crashes the truck and after arguing with his employer, wanders off, stumbling across a female tribe member who is in some obvious physical difficulty. The opportunity for quick and easy sex rather than assistance is the only thing on Kai’s mind. Things start to go wrong as soon as Kai gets in the saddle as his oblivious partner starts to spasm and vomit. Quickly zipping himself up again, Kai returns to the truck not mentioning his encounter.

Kai quickly falls sick, unaware that he has now contracted the deadly Ebola virus and Ling decides to use the opportunity to get rid of him. Before her plans can come to fruition however, Kai pulls himself together and murders Ling, her husband and a cousin. After helping himself to the restaurant takings and serving up his victims in African buns, Kai decides to return to Hong Kong. Meanwhile, we learn about the crippling effects of the Ebola virus, with a death rate of 100% within four days and which can be passed on by any contact with bodily fluid from a carrier of the disease. Unaffected carriers are one in a million. No prizes for guessing who our one in a million is.

Back in his homeland, Kai carries on having unprotected sex with a group of prostitutes and his old girlfriend Har as the Ebola virus spreads through the city. With the assistance of Lily and the South African police, who are now well aware of Kai’s past and his status as a virus carrier, the Hong Kong police are able to locate Kai in an attempt to stop any further spread of the Ebola virus. Not that Kai is going down without a fight…

Anyone who enjoys the myriad of reprehensible characters that Anthony Wong seems to specialise in (The Untold Story, A Lamb in Despair, Rape Trap) will find plenty to keep them entertained here. Wong is perfectly cast on the role of overweight sleazeball Kai and the film is thankfully without the episodes of slapstick style humour that marred previous Wong outing The Untold Story. Any laughs – and believe me, there aren’t many – are usually as a result of Wong’s outrageous facial expressions as he goes about his business. Director Herman Yau has confirmed that certain scenes were trimmed of gore but that footage no longer remains available, effectively meaning that current releases are probably as complete as we’re ever likely to see. That said, The Ebola Syndrome remains well worth a watch should the opportunity arise.

Rob Bewick

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Best of Sex and Violence (1981)

For some reason I’ve always been a sucker for trailer tapes, despite the fact that most compilations usually have some gibbering idiot spouting inane and cringeworthy dialogue between handfuls of teasers for exploitation schlock, the vast majority of which probably never made it past the drive-in or the grindhouse. The Best of Sex and Violence certainly continues that fine tradition with genre veteran John Carradine delivering some of the worst quips this side of Dennis Norden whilst introducing a cosmic cavalcade of celluloid insanity. In other words, 28 frenzied bursts of three-minute mayhem!
Although focusing more on soft-core shenanigans than hard gore violence, there are still more than enough examples of deranged and delirious cinema on show to please any exploitation fan. There are trailers for flicks focusing on bra-burning, man-bashing girl gangs (Bury Me an Angel, The Manhandlers and Truck Stop Women), bawdy adult interpretations of children’s classics (Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Fairy Tales), whacked out fantasy movies (Beyond Atlantis and The Twilight People) and even bank robbing heist hounds (The Doberman Gang).
By far the most familiar titles represented here are those that received an initial release here in the UK as part of the early Eighties video boom. These are predominantly horror titles, consisting of such fare as Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (complete with barf bag in the interests of health), The Boogeyman (“He hurt bad children and did terrible things to their mummies”) and I Spit on Your Grave, which hints that the film was based on fact and repeats the error found on virtually every piece of packaging or advertising world-wide that “five men were cut, broken, chopped and burned beyond recognition.” Just to confuse matters even more the trailer shows only three hapless victims!
The real gems of the tape however are four blaxploitation trailers tucked away at the end. All are narrated in great rhyming couplets that never fail to raise a smile. The first, for Dr Black and Mr Hyde warns “Give him no sass or he’ll kick your ass!” the remaining trio are Rudy Ray Moore vehicles, two of which star his Dolemite character, Dolemite and Human Tornado (pronounce Human Torn-ada) when the main man himself tells us that “I got a dong as big as King Kong!” Forget Fred Williamson as the King of Blaxploitation, Rudy Ray is the man!
The John Carradine segments sandwiched between handfuls of trailers make for depressing viewing, considering the quality and wealth of his experience within the film industry. Obviously shot towards the latter part of Carradine’s career, our host, ever the professional, stumbles on bravely by regurgitating extremely banal dialogue that no doubt looked good on paper, but sounds tired on film. Just to put the boot in on old John, his sons Keith and David are paraded before the camera towards the end for Carradine to suggest that “I don’t really have to do this, both of my sons are working” to which one replies “maybe not after this!” Many a true word spoken in jest. A director’s credit is given to Ken Dixon, although whether sticking a static camera in front of someone whilst they talk can be classed as direction is debatable.
Nowadays the art of the trailer seems to be long forgotten. Thankfully The Best of Sex and Violence takes us back to a time when the trailer was not just an excuse to speed through the actual feature in three minutes, introducing characters and revealing plot twists. It also serves to remind us of an era of exploitation film cinema the likes of which we are unlikely to witness gain. A veritable cornucopia for trash aficionados!

Rob Bewick

Friday, 22 October 2010

Basket Case (1982)

"The tenant in room 7 is very small, very twisted and very mad"

Made nearly thirty years ago and shot in and around the renowned Times Square, New York on a shoestring budget of $35,000, Basket Case – despite looking dated and cheap – manages to overcome those obstacles by virtue of its sheer absurdity and outrageousness. If anything, the film seems quite at home amongst the seedy setting of grindhouse cinemas, low rent hotels and the human flotsam that inhabited those environments.

In the most simplistic of terms, Basket Case is a tale of a boy and his brother. Or rather, a tale of one particular boy, Duane Bradley who was born with a twin brother (Belial) attached to the right side of his lower torso. Considered a freak by the boys’ father, who blames Belial for his wife’s death during childbirth, Belial is surgically removed from Duane’s side by a pair of quack doctors and a veterinary surgeon at the age of twelve and is thrown out with the trash post-surgery. After being rescued by Duane and nursed back to health, Belial shares a telepathic link with his brother, along with a desire to exact a frequently messy and bloody revenge upon those involved in their separation.

Keeping it in the family, their first victim is their less than doting dad who is cut in two by a band saw when investigating strange noises in the basement! Following the death of their father, the boys are taken in by a matronly aunt who cares for them during their adolescence. After the passing away of their aunt, the boys head out to the bright lights of the big city to conclude their retribution and all goes according to plan until Duane becomes smitten with doctor’s receptionist Sharon.

Despite attempts to deter Sharon from continuing with their blossoming relationship – at one point Duane screams at her “It’ll never work” and “I don’t want him killing you” – matters develop, eventually forcing Belial to take matters into his own hands. In a last ditch attempt to repair the increasingly fractious brotherly bond, Belial rapes and murders Sharon.

Although Belial means well in his own twisted little way, Duane unsurprisingly fails to see the potential benefits of his brother’s actions and after a struggle in their hovel of a hotel room, both fall to their death from the window. Or do they?

“What’s in the basket?” is the question on everybody’s lips throughout Basket Case. The answer is the burger-chomping, inarticulate and feral creature that is Belial. Despite his human origins, Belial is all beast. His razor teeth and talon like nails/claws make swift work of those responsible for his enforced separation from Duane and subtlety is certainly not one of Belial’s stronger points. Within the opening five minutes Dr Lifflander has huge gauges ripped through his face. Dr Needleman is next and is torn apart at the waist and finally Dr Kutter ends up with a face full of scalpels, one of the most recognisable images from the film.

A life long fan of low budget exploitation movies, Basket Case saw director Frank Henenlotter pinning his influences clearly to his sleeve, the film being inspired by and dedicated to the splatter movies of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Kevin Van Hentenryck’s vacant portrayal of Duane shows all the flair of a Lewis stalwart (i.e.; not much) and I’m in no doubt he would have carved himself a niche as an exploitation icon had Basket Case been made fifteen years or so earlier.

Henenlotter’s close relationship with Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney resulted in the latter’s company issuing what remains the definitive presentation of Basket Case on home video, boasting a new film-to-tape transfer of the film, audio commentary from Henenlotter, producer Edgar Ievins and actress Beverley Bonner, out-takes and behind the scene footage, art gallery, never before seen photographs, numerous trailers, television spots, radio commercials and more! Several lacklustre sequels have done nothing to damage the reputation or dilute the effectiveness of Basket Case and the film stands firm as a classic of low budget, splatter cinema and remains a testament to the warped vision of Frank Henenlotter.

Rob Bewick

Sunday, 10 October 2010

My Bloody Valentine (1981)

“Cross your heart and hope to die”

Residents of the quiet mining town of Valentine Bluffs are busy with preparations for their first Valentine’s Day dance in twenty years. A dark cloud has hung over the date and town since the events of two decades previous when a methane gas explosion at the Hanniger Mine killed six workers. The only survivor, Harry Warden, spent six weeks trapped underground before being rescued. Unfortunately for Harry the experience drove him insane and he was committed to a nearby asylum. On the first anniversary of the accident Harry escaped to wreak a murderous revenge upon those whose negligence had caused the explosion.

Whist the majority of the town welcomes the impending celebration the Mayor is conscious that the celebrations will rekindle dark memories of the past and he fears the worst after receiving a human heart wrapped inside a valentine gift box. The accompanying card reads “From the heart comes a warning, filled with bloody good cheer, a reminder what happened, as the fourteenth draws near”. Shortly afterwards dance organiser Mabel is discovered dead seemingly boiled alive in one of her own tumble driers!

Eager to postpone the dance but without causing alarm to the townsfolk, the Mayotr and Police Chief suppress the truth behind Mabel’s demise and announce that the dance will be cancelled as a mark of respect. Meanwhile back at the asylum, there appears to be no records for a patient named Harry Warden…

Disappointed with the cancellation of the dance a group of miners decide to hold their own celebrations on site in their staff room. Despite protestations from the Mayor’s son TJ (who has recently returned to the town to discover girlfriend Sheila has taken up with rival Axel) the gang gets the party started. Tensions between TJ and Axel inevitably boil over and an annoyed Sheila joins a group heading off to explore the mine shafts, unaware of the fully garbed miner that is making short shrift of amorous partygoers with his pickaxe! Has Harry Warden returned to exact a terrible revenge upon those foolish enough to celebrate Valentine’s Day or is there another motive for murder? Is TJ the killer, upset at Sheila affairs with Axel? Does Axel have murder in mind, fearing TJ’s return and his displacement in Sheila’s affections? Could it be practical joker Howard? Or bitter bartender Hap? Or even the jittery Mayor?

Ably directed by George Mihalka My Bloody Valentine is a thoroughly enjoyable slasher movie. Although hardly breaking new ground (even by 1981’s standards) I still found the eerie isolation of the mine shafts, subtlety enhanced by Paul Zaza’s atmospheric score, to be an effective setting with several memorable sequences and killings – surely the yardstick by which any good slasher is measured!

My Bloody Valentine is a film with a substantial history on home video. Prior to cinema release the numerous death scenes were trimmed to satisfy the MPAA however the film was still presented with a dreaded ‘X’ rating - a rating synonymous with pornography and usually meaning a commercial kiss of death due to the substantial number of theatres that would not accept X rated movies. Further cuts were made to secure a lower rating and that truncated version was the only one available worldwide on tape, laserdisc and later DVD with Mihalka alleging the film had been trimmed by some nine minutes. When a proposed European DVD release was vetoed by Paramount at the turn of the century it looked as if gorehounds would never get to behold what had become one of the Holy Grails of stack and slash cinema. However, in early 2009 prior to the release of the 3-D remake Paramount surprised everyone and finally issued a Special Edition DVD that reinstated the cut footage! Well worth digging out!

Rob Bewick

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Body Count (1986)

"The woods are alive with the sound of screaming"

Summer camp proprietor Robert (David Hess) is convinced that his site is built upon an Indian burial ground that was cursed by a vengeful shaman. His fears appear borne out when local teenagers Rose and Tom are murdered one night by a crazed knifemen who is never caught – the maniac actually being revealed as Robert’s young son Ben!

Fifteen years later and Ben is returning home from a spell in the army when he is picked up by Tony, Sid, Sissy, Tracey and Carol. As thanks for the ride he offers them the opportunity to stay at his old folks’ campsite. Arriving simultaneously at the site are Scott, Sharon and Dave who plan some hunting and fishing. The gang are welcomed by Robert’s wife Julia after he has tried to warn them off by explaining that the camp is closed and the bodies tart piling up faster tan you can say “derivative uninspired nonsense”!

Robert is plainly the prime suspect – his anger at Julia for her dalliance with a local cop providing an all too obvious motive – although it comes as a huge surprise (except the audience) when the killer is eventually shot and unmasked as Ben! Of course as well as the pre-credits unmasking of Ben we also have the benefit of a flashback sequence of young Ben stumbling upon his mother having sex with her cop lover and being warned not to tell his father lest he involves the shaman! Well, I suppose it’s as good a reason as any…

Whilst he may have proven himself the undisputed king of the cannibal chow down, Ruggero Deodato proves that he is no slasher supremo. Body Count really is 84 minutes of ridiculous hokum that manages to reduce stalwarts Hess, Charles Napier and Ivan Rassimov to ineffective bit parts. Hess in particular is wasted, vastly underused but acting over–crazy, tortured by his wife’s infidelity and obsessively setting traps for the wandering shaman. Matters are not helped by a series of jumpy edits and a lack of continuity, Ben telling his new friends that the unsolved murders took place twelve years ago. Another great continuity gaffe has Tracey trooping off to the shower block after a spot of outdoor aerobics (this was the Eighties remember!) and although broad daylight when she arrives at the block, it’s pitch black by the time she manages to take her top off!

Deodato appears oblivious to the fact that a slasher film is often only remembered by the quality of it’s death scenes. Given the ferocity of the violence in Cannibal Holocaust and Cut and Run, it’s sad to report that the killings in Body Count are relatively tame and uninventive, several looking like they’re from a job lot of cut price Fulci flicks one resembling the “knife through the back of the head and out of the mouth” as favoured in House By The Cemetery. What’s even more astounding is that there’s a quartet of scriptwriters attached to this tosh! The only saving grace comes courtesy of a pounding score from former Goblin man Claudio Simonetti.

IVS Video originally released Body Count in the UK with cuts totalling 14 seconds, the rear cover boasting a “thrilling climax guaranteed to make even the toughest squirm”. Anyone wanting to check out the “predictable climax telegraphed within the first ten minutes” can do so courtesy of a fully uncut German DVD from E.M.S.

Rob Bewick

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972)

Produced by the Toei Company in 1972, Shunya Ito’s directorial debut Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is a demented twist on the women-in-prison genre that was a significant influence of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies.

Betrayed by her bent cop boyfriend Sugumi who set her up to infiltrate a drug cartel that he was collaborating with, Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji) finds herself doing a stretch after a failed attempt at revenge on Sugumi on the steps of police headquarters. Her single-minded determination to escape and exact revenge on Sugumi becomes her sole reason for existence. Abortive attempts at escape infuriate the prison authorities as well as Matsu’s fellow prisoners who are punished for her misdemeanours, including food rationing and what is referred to as The Devil’s Punishment (which just seems to be digging holes, filling them up and then having to re-dig them!)

All attempts to break Matsu fail - whether being chained up in solitary, having hot soup poured over her face, being beaten and sexually abused by the guards or seduced by female prison guards posing as prisoners! She stoically and silently keeps her mind focused on the only thing that will bring her satisfaction – the death of Sugumi!

Tiring of their treatment at the hands of the sadistic warden and his guards the inmates revolt, led by Katagirl who has by now been solicited by Sugumi to kill Matsu in exchange for her freedom. One of the prisoners’ demands is for Matsu to be delivered to them and once inside the warehouse Matsu is hogtied, suspended from the ceiling, viciously beaten and burnt by a spotlight that she is also sexually violated with!

Finally escaping from the prison in the confusion caused when the prison guards storm the warehouse to end the siege Matsu makes her way to Tokyo, ready for her showdown with Sugumi!

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion was made at a time when the Japanese film industry was developing a style of cinema that incorporated high levels of sex and violence that would become renowned as pinky violence. Meiko Kaji was no stranger to such cinema having starred in several of Nikkatsu studios Alleycat Rock series before playing Matsu on three further occasions and graduating to the titular role in the Lady Snowblood films. Uttering no more than half a dozen lines of dialogue throughout the movie Kaji’s iconic portrayal as the ice maiden assassin that would kill you just as soon as kiss you is a benchmark of Japanese exploitation cinema.

At less than 90 minutes Ito’s debut effort is a fast moving and brutal movie that speeds through the essential ingredients of a classic women-in-prison flick. But not only will you find copious nudity, gratuitous shower scenes, lesbianism and girl-on-girl violence in Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, you’ll also discover Ito’s flair for directing some mesmerising and almost psychedelic set pieces, including Matsu’s pre-prison flashbacks and Masaki’s pursuit of Matsu in the prison showers culminating in the stabbing of the governor! And if you think this is a crazy film, just wait til you’ve checked out the sequel – Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41!

Rob Bewick

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Combat Shock (1984)

"Soldier of Misfortune"

The American dream has turned into a living nightmare for Vietnam veteran Frankie Dunlan. Living in a dilapidated apartment with his overbearing, pregnant wife Cathy and mutant baby (deformed as a result of chemicals Frankie was exposed to in the `Nam) things can’t really get much worse for Frankie. But they do. Receiving an eviction notice in the post after discovering that the toilet is broke and with his wife’s nagging that he is a failure ringing in his ears, Frankie leaves home one morning determined to change his dire circumstances.

Unfortunately for Frankie sympathy and assistance is most definitely not at hand. He is beaten by loan shark Paco and his thugs for falling behind with his payments, hassled for money by junkie friend Mike and disregarded by the desk jockey at the labour exchange (in an office resplendent with Dawn of the Dead and Frank Zappa posters for added professionalism!)

Reluctantly contacting his estranged father Frankie comes up against another dead end. Not only does his father not initially believe that the caller is his son having been previously been advised that his son died in Siagon three years ago, his father is no longer the rich, successful businessman that Frankie remembered. After telling Frankie that he is now “waiting to die” and that there is “too much time and too much pain” between them his father hangs up.

Frankie decides that his only prospect of a swift improvement in his circumstances is by turning to crime although Frankie’s hapless day continues as he is caught in the midst of a bag snatch by Paco and his cronies and is given his second beating of the day. Dispatching his assailants courtesy of a handgun that has fallen from the snatched bag, Frankie comes to his own skewed conclusion that his war is not over, it’s just the battlefield that has changed and he returns home to save his family in the only way that he knows how…

Shot completely on Staten Island, inspired by the displacement and disillusionment of returning war veterans and originally released as American Nightmares, first time director Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock is as downbeat and bleak a movie as can be imagined. Forget the likes of Seven and Taxi Driver as examples of grim cinema, Combat Shock is the real deal as unimaginable misery drips from virtually every frame. And despite the abject misery, no one could have been prepared for the sheer nihilistic brutality of the final moments.

After failing to garner any initial interest Combat Shock was picked up for distribution by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz’s Troma Productions and “sexed up” to coin a phrase of our times! Following approximately ten minutes being trimmed from the running time and the insertion of some stock Vietnam War footage Combat Shock was unleashed on the public with a completely misleading trailer that promised thrills and spills in the vein of Rambo, Commando and The Terminator! Needless to say punters found that the sum did not match the anticipated parts and the theatrical run was brief and returns disappointing.

Fortunately redemption for Combat Shock wasn’t far behind courtesy of enthusiastic word of mouth, festival appearances, bootleg VHS tapes and rave reviews in virtually every cut-and-paste fanzine at the time! Here in the UK it was one of those `must see` movies and was a resounding success at the Splatterfest fest in 1990. For this viewer Combat Shock, along with Jim Van Bebber’s Deadbeat at Dawn and John McNaughton’s Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer (which also played the aforementioned Splatterfest), stand tall as giants of 1980’s US independent cinema.

Combat Shock has now received what is surely its’ definitive presentation as an extras packed two disc extravaganza as part of the Tromasterpiece Collection. Not only are there interviews with director Giovinazzo, brother Rick (whose role as Frankie was his only acting job as well as providing the music for the movie) but also a bunch of short films, music videos and an all new 30 minute documentary including contributions from McNaughton, Van Bebber, Scott Spiegel, Richard Stanley and Roy Frumkes. Best of all however is the inclusion of Giovinazzo’s original cut sporting the American Nightmares title. Absolutely indispensable.

Rob Bewick

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Giant Leeches (1959)

This black and white 1959 Roger Corman produced quickie concerns the diminishing members of a community in the Florida Everglades courtesy of a couple of over-sized, human-hungry giant leeches!

No one believes drunk hick Lem when he reports witnessing something inhuman in the swamp. It’s not until two moonshine swilling good ole boys go missing while looking for the bodies of store owner Dave Walker’s wildcat wife Liz and her lover Cal (previously thought to have been murdered by Dave after he discovered their affair, Dave’s guilt seemingly established by his subsequent suicide) that there’s more to the bayou than meets the eye! A cursory search by wildlife warden Steve Benton reveals nothing and his girlfriend’s father Dr Greyson has the far better idea of sticking some dynamite into the swamp to see what happens! Steve’s not happy about blowing up the swamp as it’s his duty to protect the aquamarine life within although he hasn’t yet been hit by the realisation that there’s actually no life in the swamp (that nugget of information is supplied to Steve by another minor cast member). Despite Steve’s protestations Dr Greyson goes ahead and launches some explosives into the swamp and the bodies of the missing, bar Liz, float to the surface. Autopsies show that the corpses have been drained of blood and that the victims have been dead for far less than the time they’ve been missing. Thinking that Liz may still be trapped in an underwater cave Steve brings in an associate and armed with some diving equipment gear, a bendy harpoon and a snug fitting pair of trunks he heads into the swamp…

Like Them and many other late 1950’s genre films the cause of the problems are man-made – in this instance atomic energy from nearby Cape Canaveral, although that explanation is just thrown in mid-conversation towards the end of the film. Unfortunately the print used for the DVD that I watched was dreadful to say the least. In fact it was worse than dreadful, it was a fucking abomination. The majority of night time scenes were a mish-mash of undistinguishable blocky grey pixellation that made me yearn for the days of watching 5th generation NTSC to PAL video conversions! I was tempted to turn it off within minutes of the start but was glad I persevered. Whilst the poor picture quality may have helped disguise what is surely a couple of dodgy looking dime store leech costumes, I’d have liked the opportunity of actually seeing something when the camera panned across to the water and the music took a sinister turn! Fortunately the special effects weren’t spoiled but that’s because there isn’t any (unless you include underwater photography as a `special effect`!) Daytime and indoor scenes were slightly improved but the general poor quality means that the review is illustrated by the box artwork rather than screencaps! Still, for a quid I can’t grumble too much! Dialogue was mostly distinguishable although occasionally muffled. I particularly enjoyed the Sheriff’s comment that Steve was “looking for bad trouble” – if anyone can give me any examples of “good trouble” them I’m more than willing to hear them!

The Giant Leeches (also known as Attack of the Giant Leeches and Demons of the Swamp) is an enjoyable and energetic little romp that is just about timed right at a brief 71 minutes. Whilst the cast will be lucky to break above a dozen there’s enough hammy acting and hysterical dialogue to keep the B movie fan in everyone happy.

Rob Bewick

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Salo (The 120 Days of Sodom) (1975)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final movie made before his brutal murder in November 1975 was a complete contrast in every way to his three previous movies – The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights. Those three films, often referred to as Pasolini’s trilogy of life, were a celebration of innocent sexuality. With Salo (based on the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom) Pasolini took that innocence, buggered it to death, burned the body and pissed on the corpse…

The plot of Salo is a simple one – four dignitaries (Duke, Bishop, Chief Magistrate and President) abduct a bunch of adolescents, hole up in a sprawling chateau in the province of Salo towards the end of the Second World War and spend several days being aroused by tales told by a trio of local whores before indulging their debased sexual urges and ultimately embarking up a final wave of sexual mutilation and execution.

Whilst many movies lose their power to shock over time, Salo has lost none of it’s intensity in the 35 years since it was first unleashed. Broken down into four episodes (ante-inferno, circle of mania, circle of excrement and circle of blood) the dignitaries exercise their power and dominance over their meekly accepting detainees by regularly molesting them, forcing them to satisfy their impulses and desires, treating them like fettered animals and holding a banquet with a main course of human faeces. By the conclusion each dignitary takes the role of distant voyeur whilst the remaining trio torture and kill a number of their captives in the courtyard.

Often mistakenly referred to as pornographic, Salo contains virtually constant full frontal male and female nudity (the teenagers are rarely clothed) but whilst uncomfortable to watch it certainly doesn’t stray into hardcore or XXX territory and is certainly more art film than porn. Salo is one of those movies that sharply divides opinion and it’s not hard to see why with copious episodes of sodomy, urophagia and coprophilia. A gruelling film that has no moments of respite or humour, regularly soudtracked by the atonal drone of overhead bombers!

Anyone wishing to visit (or re-visit) this tour-de-force of a movie need look no further than the phenomenal double disc blu ray presentation released in the UK by the BFI transferred in high definition from the original 35 mm negative.

Rob Bewick

Monday, 30 August 2010

Survival of the Dead (2009)

Survival of the Dead is the sixth entry in George Romero's Dead series (following Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead). Whilst the first three movies are held in considerable high regard by fans and critics alike, the duo of films preceding Survival of the Dead (Land... and Diary...) have been met with unfavourable and often hostile reaction. Can the latest entry into horror's longest running franchise buck the downward spiral?

The events of
Survival... takes place approximately four weeks after the initial outbreak of the dead returning to life and is set on or around Plum Island off the coast of Delaware. The island is principally populated by two Irish families, the Muldoons and the O'Flynns, whose warring patriarchs Semaus Muldoon and Patrick O'Flynn, have found their recent opposition of views about how to deal with the dead to be the latest in a long string of disagreements. Muldoon hopes to replace the desire to eat human flesh and utilise the dead around the island's homes and farms whilst O'Flynn prefers plain old simple extermination!

After being forced to leave Plum Island by Muldoon, O'Flynn launches an internet campaign (as Captain Courageous) inviting survivors to join him on Plum Island - a simple ruse to bring unsuspecting folk down to his boatyard lair where he robs them of their money and valuables.

It doesn't take long for a handful of awol National Guard to discover Captain Courageous and the apparent safety suggested by
Plum Island. Led by Sarge Crocket, the soldiers are those that held up the group of amatuer movie makers from Diary of the Dead, now accompanied by an annoying youth that seems to appear out of nowhere during an early exchange with a group of woddsmen!

Returning to Plum Island with the soldiers, O'Flynn rekindles hostilities with Muldoon which inevitably leads to a final and bloody shoot out with the added complication of a stable full of the living dead!

Whilst there are some interesting ideas raised in
Survival of the Dead (principally the islanders reaction to outsiders - in this case the dead taking on the role of `outsider`) the execution is sadly lacking and to these eyes and ears the film came over as a poor man's Day of the Dead only set on a farm rather than a military compound. One of the most important `characters` in a Romero Dead movie has always been the location, usually restrictive, isolated - Night's house, Dawn's mall, Day's underground facility, Land's tower block and even Diary's van/house - and the open fields of Plum Island just don't elicited that sense of remote seclusion. The main characters are thinly sketched out and dialogue often cliched. By 30 minutes I wasn't really bothered who was going to survive and who was going to end up as zombie chow. Although containing some decent gore shots there also seems a proliferation of CGI effects that are unconvincing. There are flaws that you could sail O'Flynn's ferry through - wifi internet accessibility and electricity a month after society has ground to a standstill being just two.

It's hard to put a finger on how or why Romero seems to have lost his bite with the living dead.
Land of the Dead was a crushing disappointment and whilst I found Diary of the Dead did improve slightly on a second viewing it still falls well short of expectations and there was enough in the film to make me want to rewatch it - something I didn't get from Survival... It's also easy to forget that Day of the Dead wasn't initially well received upon release but it did gain in reputation over time. I can't see that happening with Survival... Maybe at 70 Romero has just lost his hunger.

Rob Bewick