Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Nove ospiti per un delitto (1977)

... aka: La morte viene dal passato (Death Comes from the Past)
... aka: Neun Gäste für den Tod (Nine Guests for Death)
... aka: Nine Guests for a Crime
... aka: Un urlo nella notte (A Scream in the Night)

Directed by:
Ferdinando Baldi

Here's yet another murder-mystery obviously inspired by a novel you may have heard of written by an author you may have heard of. The name Agatha Christie ring a bell? We'll just call this one Nine Little Indians. This actually has quite a bit in common with Mario Bava's earlier giallo / mystery 5 Dolls for an August Moon (1970). Both are set on an island in a swank house, involve a bunch of rich, backstabbing types, feature money as a primary driving force of the characters and feature a killer amongst them bumping everyone off. While not completely awful, 5 Dolls was one of the worst films Bava ever made. We'll see how this one fairs. Things open with a rather intriguing flashback as four guys (we only see their legs and feet) spy on a couple making love on the beach. The men then startle them, shoot the guy multiple times (including once in the face) and bury him alive in the sand. After they leave, the victim's hand emerges from the sand and his fingers twitch before a frame freeze, which could mean either he's just taken his last dying breath or perhaps he has somehow managed to survive the attack.

We then meet a group of nine people aboard a yacht who are heading to an uninhabited Mediterranean isle for a two week vacation. On the island, almost hidden among the rock cliffs, is a large stone vacation home owned by the old and filthy rich Uberto (Arthur Kennedy). Uberto's much younger trophy wife Giulia (Caroline Laurence), his sister Elisabetta (Dana Ghia) and three of his grown children plus their spouses are the “nine guests” of the title... and seemingly none of these people can stand one another!

Son Michele (Massimo Foschi) has a wife named Carla (“Flavia Fabiani” / Sofia Dionisio) and sums their relationship up best by confiding to Giulia that “Aside from being frigid, she's also stupid.” Michele and Guilia are actually lovers themselves; something both the father and wife seem to know about yet never mention. Youngest son Lorenzo (John Richardson) is saddled with a nasty piece of work named Greta (Rita Silva), who parades around naked and uses her husband's impotence against him by screwing pretty much anyone available and then flipping it all around on him because he's not a “real man.” Finally, daughter Patrizia (Loretta Persichetti) is a drunk, an all-around Debbie Downer and a shrill clairvoyant whose poor hubby Walter (Venantino Venantini) has to keep in line as she hysterically shrieks out comments like "Blood! Blood!" and “You can smell death in the air!” One of the biggest laughs in the film is her going on an intense rant about how she can hear seagulls on this bird-less island and how those are actually the souls of men who have died at sea and he just rolls his eyes and walks away.

The thoroughly unlikable characters gripe, scowl, screw around and plot against one another, little realizing that someone wearing a black diving suit has already killed the two sailors who brought them there, hidden their yacht and disabled their smaller boat, effectively stranding them. And then they start dying one by one... There's death by gunshot, stabbing, drowning, smothering with a pillow, strangulation, decapitation, being pushed off a cliff onto rocks, getting burned alive and, the bloodiest bit by far, being shot through the neck with a harpoon gun.

The best mystery movies keep you guessing, provide unforeseen plot twists that are plausible within the film's narrative and manage to undermine your expectations and surprise you by the end. This one does none of that. It's one of those movies where everyone potentially has a motive to kill (as is usually the case when an inheritance is involved) yet one possibility seems so obvious from so early on that you're positive that's not where they're going... until they do. Predictability ends up relegating this mostly to the travelogue category as this features some breathtaking scenery in Sardinia. Any time the action moved outside I found myself more interested in looking at the water and rocks than reading the subtitles.

This also has a decent amount of T&A with every actress (aside from the older aunt) doing at least one nude scene, sometimes multiple ones. I've seen comments from some reviewers noting that the male cast members are fairly well known yet the females aren't. I think that all boils down to this being shot at the tail end of the giallo cycle. Most of the actresses who'd made a name for themselves in the 60s and early 70s were now (gasp!) over the age of 30 and thus likely deemed “over the hill” for a film that insists on romantic pairings of men in their 40s with women in their 20s. I guess it at least makes some sense when shallow rich guys go for a young gold digger who only wants money, but seeing how the rich daughter picks for herself the oldest guy of the bunch, this is just another case of cinematic daddy complex.

Aside from working as associate producer / unit manager on Bava's excellent THE WHIP AND THE BODY (1963) and directing the sleaze-fest TERROR EXPRESS (1980), this was the only time the director ever dabbled in the genre. His biggest success of all was the 3D western Comin' At Ya! (1981), which is often cited as the film that kick started a brief early 80s 3D craze. Baldi and his crew even got to make another 3D film; the adventure Treasure of the Four Crowns (1983), though that one flopped. I don't believe this was ever officially released in the U.S., though the German company Camera Obscura issued a DVD in 2014 with English subtitles.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Ling huan xiao jie (1988)

... aka: Lady Vampire
... aka: Miss Magic
... aka: Miss Magic Spirit

Directed by:
Fung Hak-On

At a small film studio, a director (Teddy Yip) and crew are shooting some kind of period action / horror / samurai swordsman epic. When they're not busy gambling away their pay, some of the immature extras play a prank on obnoxious fellow extra and "fatso" Billy Tung (Billy Lau, doing his usual mugging routine) by pretending to be hopping vampires, leading him to humiliate himself by confessing that he's never had a woman (“I'll shoot you with my virgin pee!”) Unbeknownst to any of them, but a real ghost (Lau Chin-Dai), a nice, friendly one at that, is actually haunting the grounds. Studio janitor Uncle Fok (Fat Chung) knows about her and interacts with her. Earlier, he'd found her bones in the mountains behind the studio and had them buried. However, even a proper burial hasn't brought her peace and she's still hanging around. The ghost girl idolizes the studio's star actress Jenny (Petrina Fung), but encounters with the starstruck ghost, brief and innocent as they may be, drain Jenny of her energy so Uncle Fok frowns upon it.

A frequent presence on set is Wong-Ngan (Pauline Wong Yuk-Wan), who's married to studly film star / martial arts expert Wai-Keung Chiu (Norman Chu); a man who has a bad habit of (really) beating the shit out of the extras during action scenes. Wong-Ngan is just a wee bit insecure in their marriage, paranoid he's fooling around behind her back and had previously tried to kill herself by drinking antiseptics and slitting her wrists multiple times. Wai-Keung, who's doing an all-night shoot, promises to be home at 8am so they can have breakfast. However, there is no overnight shoot. He just wants to go out with his buddies to get some drinks. Wong-Ngan catches him there, slaps Jenny in the face, is slapped back by Wai-Keung and angrily storms off. When a drunk Wai-Keung returns home later that night he discovers his wife has hung herself. The fact she put on a red dress beforehand means that she'll be back.

After the funeral, Wai-Keung doesn't seem the least bit upset (“Wives are like clothes... I can buy new clothes.”), but he soon will be once his former wife's vengeful spirit returns to settle the score. She doesn't waste any time taking over Jenny's body and sends her out to try to kill him. The friendly studio ghost opposes her and Uncle Fok, who's not just skilled as a janitor but also at exorcism and swordfighting, expels the ghost from her body. Jenny is taken to the hospital, while Uncle takes Wai-Keung to an old lady spirit medium (Chan Lap-Ban) who does some kind of ceremony with incense, spell paper and eggs with faces drawn on them that allows the angry ghost to speak to her husband through her. Convinced he and Jenny were having an affair, the unreasonable ghost proves herself to be immune to reason and promises to kill them both.

Wai-Keung attempts to appease the spirit by putting some of her favorite things around their home but when that doesn't work he goes to “ghost buster” Priest Troublesome (Peter Chan Lung) for help. They rig up his apartment to trap the spirit inside (using “magic powder,” a spell paper lamp and contaminated perfume) and then Wai-Keung's left alone to stab her with a magic dagger. None of that works and she ends up attacking him in the parking garage (by starting up and moving the cars herself) and then blowing up his car with him inside. But now that he's gone to join his wife in ghost world, she still won't be content until the innocent Jenny is dead, too.  Uncle Fok comes up with a plan to get her soul out of her body and trap it in paper so that Wong-Ngan thinks she's dead. He can then return to the spirit to her body once the ghost is gone.

After successfully separating Jenny's spirit from her body, Fok prepares Billy and four of his pals to do battle with the ghost but their trick backfires. Wong-Ngan gets into a heated battle with both Fok and the good girl ghost from the movie studio, which ends with one of the guys (Tai Bo) being forced to eat Jenny's spirit paper containing her soul (otherwise it'll be burned and she'll be dead for good), which makes him pregnant. Wong-Ngan leaves but she'll be back so Fok sends for reinforcements. Ghost expert Master Wong (Bill Tung Biu), who's “sometimes” crippled and in a wheelchair but only when he wants to be (?), and his little apprentice Wai (Ho Kin-Wai, from the Mr. Vampire sequels) show up to help during the final battle.

This movie is the poster child of a 5 out of 10, or a C grade, or a 2 out of 4 as my ratings go. Nothing about it is terrible but there's also not much about it that really stands out either. While it does an admirable job balancing the comedy and action, the plot and all of the ghost fighting techniques are overly familiar, right down to a strange infatuation with virgin urine. We are even shown the little boy pissing into a bowl so it can be poured down some poor guy's throat to drive out the evil spirit at one point. (The boy is the only virgin left in the room after Billy gets raped in a coffin by a horny old female ghost in a cemetery). Also setting things at a film studio and not using that platform to take a few humorous digs at these kinds of films seems like a wasted opportunity. The best this really has to offer are some surprisingly well-executed special effects of spirits splitting and hopping in and out of bodies.

The director, who passed away earlier this year, is best known as an actor (he directed just four films but acted in over 150) and is the son of screen veteran Fung Fung, who also acted, directed and worked as a stuntman and action choreographer during his long career. The leading lady is Fung's daughter / the director's sister, who was a popular child star in the 1960s and likened to Hong Kong's answer to Shirley Temple. Despite receiving top billing, she doesn't really get much to do here and is covered with a sheet during the entire finale.

Currently with just six votes on IMDb, this isn't the easiest of such films to find nor is it really worth the effort. There's no DVD release anywhere to my knowledge but there was a subtitled VHS from Ocean Shores back in 1988 and likely a VCD release also.

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