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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

On the 3rd Day (1983)

... aka: On the Third Day

Directed by:
Stanley O'Toole

Douglas Hammond (Paul Williamson), stuffy and image-obsessed headmaster at the Larchfield Boys Preparatory School, and his wife Clarissa (Catherine Schell) return home from a brief trip to spend Easter weekend at home only to find the phone line dead, their cat shut up in an upstairs bedroom and the glass pane on their back door carefully removed with a glass cutter. A burglary? Nope. They find the man who broke in calmly sitting in their study. He announces himself as Jeremy Bolt (Richard Morant) and claims since he hasn't stolen anything and doesn't plan to that, legally, there's little they can do about him being there. He claims that he and Douglas both share a mutual friend: Douglas' former college roommate Joe, whom he hasn't seen in several years. The soft-spoken, articulate, well-dressed and polite Jeremy continues that he's an accountant who just got back from Australia and really just needs a place to stay for a few days while he's in town. He seems to have a plausible answer for pretty much everything, including the whereabouts of the car he claimed he drove there that is nowhere to be found, yet a certain unnerving and odd way about him nonetheless. However, since Douglas finds him “presentable enough” and he's a friend of a friend, he decides to let him stay there.






While Douglas rushes off to pick up his, uh, sexually liberated 21-year-old daughter Sarah (Sally Toft), who's been away at college and coming in for the holiday, Jeremy uses the opportunity to clue Clarissa in on the fact that he knows way more about them than he should, including that she fled her working class home in Europe and was homeless until Douglas met her, took her in and married her. Because of Douglas' obsession with “good breeding” in regards to his students, over dinner Jeremy lets them in on his own life and past, claiming to be the son of a late chambermaid whose father ran off before he was even born who managed to make something of himself regardless.

An excellent piano player, Jeremy is also a fan of punk and New Wave much to the daughter's liking. When Douglas calls it “meaningless junk,” Jeremy calls him a “musical snob” and then pulls a gun on him, gets in his face and starts screaming; a weird outburst he writes off as just a practical joke. And it's also a practical joke when he points the gun at his head, spins the barrel, pulls the trigger and falls over like he's just killed himself when the bullets are actually blanks. After that bizarre display, the startled parents decide to call it a night. Though Sarah doesn't really appreciate his sense of humor, she finds herself rather easily seduced by him and the two make love outside by the pool later that night. He's so prudent about it that he even gives her the option of soft or hard. All of the above is what the wily home intruder gets up to his very first night in the home so who knows what else he has in store for the family.






After discovering that Jeremy doesn't actually know their mutual friend, Douglas wants him out of the house right away. However, Jeremy knows some more personal secrets about him and his wife that he uses to blackmail them into staying on until he's ready to go. By the time Monday rolls around, and just in time for the town's communal Easter celebration, Jeremy  dredges up even more skeletons in the proper family's closet and things take a somewhat violent turn. The title is a biblical allusion to the death and resurrection of Jesus (“And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” blah blah blah), which the film attempts to parallel with its own characters and their changes / discoveries.






This psychological drama, which often resembles a made-for-TV movie and is somewhat reminiscent of the superior Brimstone & Treacle from the previous year, is competently done but unremarkable and the big revelation at the end is so painfully predictable you can probably guess why Jeremy is there and what his connection is to the Hammond family simply by reading my write-up of the plot. The three leads all deliver good performances, though the actress playing the daughter is awful, has been poorly dubbed over by someone else and was probably cast just because she agreed to (briefly) show her tits. During one odd sequence, a conversation is stopped cold when a little boy randomly shows up at the Hammond home to play Beethoven's "Für Elise" on piano. During another pointless bit, another boy runs out of church service because he has to take a piss. Both of these moments exist solely so the director could give his young sons roles in the film.






This is the sole directorial / screenplay credit for O'Toole, who worked mostly as a producer, including twice for this film's associate producer / DP, Alec Mills on the films Bloodmoon (1990) and Dead Sleep (1992). There seems to have been one release and one release only for this one; a U.S. VHS on the Karl-Lorimar Home Video label back in 1986.

★★

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Final Curtain (1957)

... aka: Portraits of Terror: Final Curtain

Directed by:
Edward D. Wood Jr.

Ed Wood fans are beyond help! Insulted? Don't be. I like you guys. Obsessive people, particularly those obsessed with film-related things, are my kinda people. I just don't have the attention span to focus everything on just one person. Die hard Wood fans just have to see / read everything this man ever touched and are on a constant search to unearth more and more. They rejoice at every new Wood-related film, failed TV pilot, transvestite porno paperback, behind-the-scenes photo, trivia tidbit or whatever else surfaces and do cartwheels over something as minor as finding a short reel of silent outtakes from an EW production. Because of his cult popularity, even the most useless, throwaway junk this man did is cause for celebration. If he aimed a camera at a white wall and filmed it for five seconds, then his fans really want to see that and find some kind of deeper meaning behind it. Understandably never given any kind of recognition in Hollywood, Wood's life story (WWII Army vet! Cross-dresser-with-Angora-fetish! Friend of the equally-tragic Bela Lugosi! Failed filmmaker!) is equal parts funny, sad, fascinating and inspiring. Despite trying and failing for years to get noticed and eventually succumbing to depression, sleaze and alcoholism in the process, Wood never really gave up on his quest for fame and died a penniless drunk in 1978 as a result. The Cult of Ed Wood wouldn't begin developing, however, until two years after his death and took decades to reach its peak.

Harry and Michael Medved's book The Golden Turkey Awards, which named Wood's magnum opus Plan Nine from Outer Space (1957) the “Worst Film of All Time” and Wood himself as the “Worst Director of All Time,” got the ball rolling in 1980. Once the video revolution began, many of Wood's forgotten and barely-released films became more widely available to audiences, with clips from his films showing up on specialty tapes like Sleazemania and Horrible Horror. Genre magazines and even some mainstream publications began re-discovering his work, too. In 1992, Rudolph Grey's Wood bio Nightmare in Ecstasy was released and generated even more interest in the colorful director. The biggest Wood booster of all came two years later with Tim Burton's biopic / last great movie Ed Wood (1994), which was based in part on Grey's book and painted the director in a plucky, likable, misunderstood and entirely sympathetic light. The film, which won an Oscar for co-star Martin Landau (playing Lugosi), remains the biggest endorsement for the Cult of Wood to date. Most people who see it immediately seek out one of the director's other films to see if they're really that bad. A few even get hooked on the weirdness.


I sincerely don't believe that Wood is the worst director of all time. Bad? Sure. Inept? Most of the time, yeah. One of the worst? Probably. THE worst director ever? No. His movies usually have cheap character to them, plus trademark elements that really individualize them and make them instantly identifiable. Much like the work of the oft-maligned Andy Milligan, most of his work at least feels genuine, sincere and somewhat personal. Both men really couldn't help but to weave their own preoccupations and obsessions into whatever it was they made and that's more interesting than the technically more competent but consistently generic, anonymous and utterly forgettable work of dozens of other directors I could name.




Final Curtain is one Ed Wood's short subjects that popped up long after everyone had already seen all of the director's other major work and were still clamoring for more. TV work was nothing new for the director as he'd already made commercials starting in the late 40, as well as “story-ad” films, 5 minute segments of the ridiculous Criswell Predicts (1953-61) and the failed western pilot Crossroad Avenger: The Adventures of the Tucson Kid (1953). Curtain was made to be the premiere episode of a horror / suspense anthology series titled Portraits in Terror that was never picked up. It was discovered by actor Paul Marco's great nephew, who purchased it from a collector, had the print restored and then had it screened at various film festivals, including Slamdance in 2012. Now it's on Youtube for free viewing, along with several other Wood shorts (like 1951's depressing The Sun Was Setting). Supposedly, a second episode called The Night the Banshee Cried was also filmed, but that one has yet to surface.



After giving his final performance as a vampire in a stage play, the lead actor (Duke Moore, as James “Duke” Moore) decides to stick around in the theater once everyone else has gone home. Why? Well, because some “unseen object” has been beckoning him. Since this was filmed without sound, the whole thing is narrated by a manic Dudley Manlove; who's best-know for uttering the infamous “Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!” line as Plan 9's pompous alien Eros. Here he has to deliver plenty of typically leaden / awful / awkward Wood-ian dialogue like “I know that I must find that object, even thought I don't know what it is I must seek. I also know I fear that I will find that object. This night the calling is stronger than it had ever been before. This night was to be the night I had looked forward to with fear, knowing all the time that it had to come sooner or later and there was nothing that I could do to heed that call. This was to be the night. This, the last night of our play. This night when all of the others had gone home.”






We're then subjected to numerous scenes where the actor wanders around the theater observing such exciting things as wind blowing in through the window, a cat screaming, a staircase railing and door knob that feel cold and clammy and a light bulb going out (“It appears to have gone out after many long nights of continuous use, but has the bulb burned out? Couldn't it have been that some unseen thing has probed a hole through the frosted glass to let in the infectious air?”) Random shots of things like ropes, a water cooler, pipes, rafters, lights and seats that look like “squatty little fat men” are shown over and over again and the narrator goes into the most intricate details about each, desperately attempting to make everything seem sinister.






Finally, the actor stumbles into a room where a white-wigged “vampire” mannequin (Jeannie Stevens) stands. After feeling its clothing, the voice-over then goes into a typical Wood rant passionately spooging all over female clothing: “I lift the flowing gown and caress it with my hand then rub the smooth material against my cheek. Inwardly, I know I am smiling; enjoying this new sensation.” The mannequin smiles at him and then he walks into a room and climbs into a coffin. The end. Leave it to old Eddie to make 22 minutes feel like 22 hours. If you're a Wood fan who savors his ludicrously descriptive, overwrought dialogue, strange obsessions and stock footage of lighting bolts, you may find this worth watching. To everyone else, it's just a pitiful, tedious, uneventful, poorly-done bore. Despite enjoying a lot of other Wood-directed / scripted films, I'm in the latter category on this one.







Even though this never became a series (hard to imagine why!), Wood didn't let all of the footage go to waste and incorporated bits and pieces into his Night of the Ghouls / Revenge of the Dead, which was put together in 1959 but not released until 1982 because of unpaid film lab bills. Two of the associate producers were Tom Mason, Wood's wife's chiropractor who doubled for the dead Lugosi in Plan 9, and Anthony Cardoza Jr., who went on to produce three really bad Coleman Francis movies, including the near-legendarily awful The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961).

Monday, March 28, 2016

Xiao hun yu (1979)

... aka: Return of the Dead
... aka: Siu wan yuk

Directed by:
Han Hsiang Li

When one thinks of horror anthologies certain ones immediately spring to mind like, say, Creepshow (1982). Three pioneering films in this subgenre were Richard Oswald's Eerie Tales (1919), Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921) and Leo Birinsky and Paul Leni's Waxworks (1924), all from Germany and all utilizing the familiar format of telling multiple stories and tying them all together with some kind of framing device. Though there were other early precursors to this format, like Julien Duvivier's Flesh and Fantasy (1943), the most famous early example of the horror omnibus as we know it today is the British production Dead of Night (1945), which is best known for its creepy ventriloquist's dummy segment starring Michael Redgrave. Several other portmanteaus would pop up sporadically through the 40s and 50s, like Three Cases of Murder (1955) starring Orson Welles, but this type of film wouldn't gain real traction until the early 60s when there was an outright explosion of them. Roger Corman's hit Tales of Terror (1962), featuring Vincent Price in three Poe tales, led the way and in the next few years we also got Mario Bava's Black Sabbath (1963), Robert Enrico's In the Midst of Life (1963; featuring three Ambrose Bierce adaptations including the standout Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge), Sidney Salkow's Twice-Told Tales (1963), Masaki Kobayashi's Oscar-nominated Kwaidan (1964), Ramón Obón's 100 Cries of Terror (1965), José Mojica Marins' Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968), Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim's Spirits of the Dead (1968) and many, many more.

Freddie Francis' all-star-cast DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) began a tradition at Amicus of specializing in this particular type of film, leading to numerous anthology releases from the studio into the next decade, including their most famous film: Tales from the Crypt (1972). The 70s saw many more, from the American made-for-TV movie Trilogy of Terror (1975) to the British / Canadian co-production The Uncanny (1977). Seldom making lists of horror anthologies are numerous efforts from Asia, like the rare Blood Reincarnation (1974), Fearful Interlude (1975) and this one, a three-part film from Shaw Brothers that's slightly better than some of the more famous titles in this category. The linking segment used here is similar to the one used in Amicus' Asylum (1972), where the stars have all been committed to a mental hospital because of the horrors they experienced in their respective tales. They also wonder if the head nurse (Linda Chu) is actually a ghost or not, something that is never really answered.






In our first tale, we meet the Wang family. Zhi-he (Feng Ku) is well-known for his preserved bean curd and runs the entire business out of his shop with help from his loyal wife Fang (Lai Wang) and their workers. Their grown son Xiao Bao (Luk-Wah Lau) is a nice young man who doesn't smoke, drink or gamble and works the forklift at a factory. All they really want for him is to marry a nice girl and settle down. Their simple and happy lives are all about to change though upon the arrival of family friend Mr. Hu (Chih-Ching Yang). Back from an extended trip he just took to India, Mr. Wu has some fantastic stories to tell about the people and culture. Most interesting of these tales is how he was “cursed” after being given a necklace with three monkeys on it and told that the necklace can make three wishes come true. The stipulation is that one shouldn't ask for more than they deserve or else the wishes will backfire and bad fortune will come their way. Mr. Hu used his first wish to get an 18-year-old mistress but when his wife raised hell about it, he used his second wish for peace and quiet. As a result, the mistress ran off with her cousin and the wife ended up in a nuthouse. Having learned his lesson, Mr. Hu used his third wish to come back to Hong Kong to be done with it.






The only way to get rid of the curse is to pass it along to others, so Mr. Hu hands the necklace over to the Wang's with instructions of how to use it plus warnings not to go overboard with it. All you have to do is place the necklace around your neck, kneel down, put your hands together and say your wish out loud and then you get what you want. Since the government is about to tear down their bean processing shop to build a highway, Zhi-he is thinking about making his wish for 20,000 dollars to be able to open a new shop. He half-jokingly goes through with the ceremony, along with his wife and son and then everyone goes to bed. The next day, Mr. and Mrs. Wang receive some terrible news. Their son, who appeared out of his mind all day at work, has been killed after falling into a vat of sulfuric acid and being burned beyond recognition. The insurance payout plus extra chipped in from co-workers totals 20,000 dollars.






What are a couple of grieving parents in possession of a powerful necklace capable of granting wishes to do? Of course, use their second wish to bring the son back to life. After Fang demands her husband go through the ceremony once more, a bad rainstorm begins and she's soon hearing a voice calling “Mom!” from out there somewhere... This is clearly an uncredited adaptation of W.W. Jacobs' classic short story The Monkey's Paw (with a necklace instead of the paw), which has been filmed dozens of times before and since, perhaps most notably as Bob Clark's Deathdream (1972). This version is well-acted, well-done and one of the better attempts at the story I've seen.

Story #2 begins as police, doctors and a crowd of onlookers rush to the shores of Blue Lake, where two motionless bodies lay. One of the men, Lin Kun-Quan (Wei Szu), has bruises around his neck from being strangled to death. The other, Jiang Tao (Hua Yueh), suddenly awakens, spits out water, screams, falls into a coma and is promptly taken to a hospital. An eyewitness steps forward, claiming he saw the two men hanging around the docks late at night and both were drunk. Police then begin their investigation while several flashbacks tell what happened to lead up to this point. We learn that two years prior to his death, Kun-Quan was a swimming champion and being forced into an arranged marriage by his parents, who are more interested in money than their own son's happiness. Kun-Quan is actually in love / lust with beautiful hooker Wei Meng (Wei-Ying Chen) and, sensing they'll be separated, the two go to Blue Lake and attempt suicide by leaping from a high rock into the water. He survives but she doesn't.





Two days after falling into the coma, Tao wakes with his own story to tell. He likes to drink and when he does he likes to go to Blue Lake to row around in a boat and be by himself. One night, a nude girl swims up to his boat. The two talk for a bit but get into an argument and she leaps back into the water and swims off, leaving behind a gold bracelet. The following night, Tao goes back and the two meet up again. When he mentions his friend Kun-Quan and how he attempted to commit suicide there, the young woman wonders if he has a guilty conscience about what happened and theorizes he may have tricked the girl into killing herself to be rid of her. Wanting to hear his side of the story, Tao gets back in touch his old friend, takes him out to dinner, gets him drunk and then lures him back to Blue Lake. This is an OK, albeit predictable, revenge-from-beyond-the-grave tale that will likely be of most interest for the near-constant full frontal nudity from the attractive leading lady.




Our third and final story centers around patient Da-zhi (Gwan-Tak Tai). Wealthy actress Yun-yu Xiao (Linda Chu again), who's nicknamed “Enchanting Yu” by her adoring public and rumored to be a sexually insatiable woman, passes away. The middle-aged but still beautiful Yun-yu managed to snag herself a much-younger husband in Kao Tai-Zhang (Wong Chun), who cares so much about his late wife that he's making plans to visit a whorehouse during her funeral. Local gossip has it that Yun-yu died in the middle of a sex marathon after the new hubby took some Spanish fly tablets and also that she will be buried with gold, silver and her prized pearl necklace. While out late trying to make some extra money, rickshaw driver Da-zhi picks up a woman who looks identical to the dead actress. She claims to be her twin sister and wants to visit her deceased sibling's grave. Da-zhi takes her out there and, in lieu of payment because she doesn't have money on her, she hands over a pearl necklace to hold for collateral until she can pay him back.






Upon returning home, Da-zhi's hooker girlfriend (Wai-Ling Lau), who makes extra money screwing (more like trying to screw) an elderly professor, suggests they sell the necklace to finally get out of the slums. Da-zhi goes to pawn shops and jewelers in the area, but can't get the price he wants, so he holds onto it. Good thing because he has a second run-in with Yun-yu's “sister” to give her back her prized pearls. In exchange, she'll help him win big at her father's casino. Da-zhi sells his rickshaw for gambling money, the two go and Da-zhi wins a small fortune. Meanwhile, grave-robber Da-Yan (Shen Chan) decides to break into Yun-yu's underground tomb. He cracks open the casket, takes the necklace and decides that he “might as well have some fun” while he's down there and starts getting frisky with the corpse. This results in disastrous consequences not only for him but also poor Da-zhi.






Each of the three stories are entertaining, well-filmed and fairly fun, though light on scares, suspense and violence. Actually, there's not a single drop of blood shown being spilled in this one, which is in stark contrast to the crazy Shaw Brothers horrors to come in the following decade. What does get amped up is the nudity and sex, which is made all the more evident in that the DVD packaging from Celestial tries to sell this more as a skin flick than a horror movie. There are six different nude scenes in here and two soft-core sex scenes, which are rather tame even for the time. Since all of these feature the beautiful Wai-Ying Chan or the equally lovely Linda Chu, I doubt there will be many complaints as these two show off what they got. Like many other anthologies (and the EC Comics that inspired many of these), the tales each have their own strong moral component about greed and stepping on others to get what you want.

Horror...

Or soft-core smut?

The director had a long career lasting from the 50s until the 90s and made over 20 movies for Shaw Brothers, including THE ENCHANTING SHADOW (1960) and The Ghost Story (1979). Three of his films were nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival (1962's The Magnificent Concubine won a technical award there) and three of his films represented Hong Kong for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar bid (none made the cut). He was also nominated for four Hong Kong Film Awards and won awards at the Asian Film Festival and the Golden Horse Film Festival, who gave him a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

★★1/2
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