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.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Perjanjian Terlarang (1990)

... aka: Forbidden Agreement

Directed by:
B.Z. Kadaryono

A torch-carrying mob of villagers march to a witch doctor's home, where he's in the middle of doing some kind of ceremony with a topless woman. He leaps out through the roof and tries to escape, but he's caught, beat to a bloody pulp and then thrown into a lake. Next up, we're treated to a montage featuring two teen couples on motorcycles driving around on the beach and being mushy in a canoe. And then we meet three other guys with pantyhose over their heads, who break into a mansion. After doing her nightly prayer, a servant woman is slapped and then karate chopped unconscious. After admiring her jewelry, the wife is pushed down and hits her head on the corner of a table. After counting his money, the man of the house is beat over the head with a chair.

Just as the thieves are walking out with a briefcase filled with money, a TV, stereo and jewelry, daughter Murti (Sally Marcellina) and her martial artist boyfriend Yusman (Johan Saimimi) arrive home. Though Yusman is able to fight them until they run off, the family's problems go much deeper than a few robbers roughing them up. The once-rich father - Murdali (Wendy Wijaya) - has been having major financial problems. After paying off only a portion of his debt the family's money is now completely gone.

Murdali makes the mistake of accepting help from Juragan Hamid (Mawardi Harland), a wealthy criminal who's willing to barter for goods. Unfortunately, the "goods" he wants are Murti's. Backed into a corner, the father goes along with it, and the passive mother (Tien Kadaryono) asks her to sacrifice for the family, but Murti refuses as she's in love with Yusman. The two lovebirds go on another romantic canoe ride on a lake, slash their wrists and make a blood pact to symbolically marry even if everything else is out of her control. Some of the blood drips into the water and awakens the same evil sorcerer - Mbah Jagaraga (El Koesno) - from the opening scene.

While Murti's changing clothes, the sorcerer's ghost enters her bedroom and then takes over her body. And what's the first thing a presumably heterosexual male would do inside an attractive woman's body? If you answered touch it, you would be correct. But then he jumps into her bed, starts making out with a body pillow and puts on a sheer nightie to go seduce the boyfriend, so I don't know. As Yusman gets ready to climb into bed with her for a literal red light special as a photo of a teased-hair Jon Bon Jovi is right behind him, the spell is broken because the female servant starts reading from the Koran a few doors down.

Juragan sends his thugs (the pantyhose robbers) to collect Murti. She's chloroformed, kidnapped and locked in a bedroom. Juragan then goes to the father with a contract that will alleviate his debt in exchange for Murti's hand in marriage. And he signs it... right in front of Yusman! "Dad of the Year," he ain't. When Juragan returns home and tries to rape his new "wife," he accidentally kills her instead and then has his thugs sink her corpse in the lake. Since the body-jumping spirit was already in her a few times already, he reenters and sends her on a killing spree that includes punching through a stomach, smashing a guy against a tree with a jeep and impaling a guy on a fence. An exorcist (Arman Effendy) is finally called in to put her soul to rest.

If you're looking for seemingly endless set-up with minimal payoff, then here's your movie! The first hour is mostly dull and talky soap opera punctuated with a few fight scenes. All of the clumsy and ineptly edited horror scenes then get crammed in at the end. I wish I could say they're worth waiting for. Same goes for the anticlimactic exorcism scene, which features fireballs, wire work and a scarf used as a weapon, but is over before it even has a chance to get good. They don't even bother with any make-up on the possessed Murti and instead make her hair smoke and drench her with red light. On the plus side, there's a decent widescreen print of this available instead of the usual awful VCD with a blurry picture and jacked up aspect ratio.

The sets (especially the hospital rooms where many of the scenes take place) are hilariously cheap. Pictures of Billy Idol, George Michael and Debbie Gibson have been ripped out of magazines and then taped to the lead female's walls while her big macho hero boyfriend has a poster of Boy George (!) hanging by his bed.

In addition to being a prolific TV actress, Marcellina (sometimes spelled with one "l") was also the heir to Suzzanna's "Queen of Indonesian Horror" throne. By my count she appeared in around 20 horror / mistik films over an 8 year span (late 80s to mid 90s) and most feature her as some kind a possessed seductress. Unlike Suzzanna, who frowned upon nudity and overt sexuality in her films, Marcellina accepted that part of the job as she knew it would help the film's distribution. She even produced and wrote many of her own starring vehicles, and even some movies she didn't even appear in, which wasn't at all common back then.

The director made at least 13 other genre films: Ingin Cepat Kaya (1976, "Wishing to Get Rich Quick"), Guna-guna Istri Muda (1977, "A Young Wife's Witchcraft"), Pembalasan Guna-guna Istri Muda (1978; "Revenge of a Young Wife's Witchcraft"), Kutukan Nyai Roro Kidul (1979; "Curse of the Ocean Goddess"), Tumbal Iblis (1981; "Sacrifice for Satan"), Nini Towok (1982), Bisikan Setan (1985; "Satan's Whisper"), Kuburan Angker (1987; "Eerie Cemetery"), Lenyapnya Ilmu Misteri (1988; "The Vanishing of Mystery Science"), Wewe Gombel (1988), Putusnya Jaring Laba-laba Merah (1989; "Snap of Red Spider's Web"), Sengatan Laba-laba Merah (1989; "Sting of the Red Spider") and Pawang (1995; "Animal Tamer"). I'm still weeding through all this stuff so there may even be others.


Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Jû jin yuki otoko (1955)

... aka: 獣人雪男
... aka: Beast Man Snow Man
... aka: Half Human
... aka: Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman
... aka: Monster Snowman
... aka: S
... aka: S-Project

Directed by:
Ishirô Honda

Due to several factors, Jû jin yuki otoko ("Beast Man Snow Man") is one of the most difficult Toho productions to find in its original form. For starters, it was pulled from circulation by the company itself because it contains what they feel is an offensive depiction of native villagers as dumb, inbred, dirty and deformed, which some feel could be seen as a jab at either the indigenous Ainu People or the burakumin, an outcast group descended from workers in "impure" or death-related trades. As a result, this has never been given TV, VHS and DVD distribution over the years like most of the rest of Toho's horror / fantasy / science fiction output. Second, the full version of the film was never released here in America in English. Instead, it ended up in the hands of producer Robert B. Homel, who hired director / editor Kenneth G. Crane (THE MANSTER) to create a new version. Crane scrapped over half of the original footage and partially replaced that with around 20 minutes worth of new scenes starring John Carradine and Morris Ankrum. Narration (by Carradine) was added and the original Masaru Satô soundtrack was also replaced by a "new" generic canned music score and sound effects.

To give you an idea of how much was actually cut, the original film runs about 94 minutes while the U.S. version (titled Half Human) runs just 63. That's 30 minutes shorter, not even accounting for everything else that was cut to make room for the new scenes. Doing the math, that leaves about just 45 minutes of the original film in the U.S. release. The Half Human cut was released theatrically in 1958 by Distributors Corporation of America (DCA), who also handled a re-cut / shortened / English-dubbed version of Toho's RODAN (1956) as well as Ed Wood's infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). It usually played on the bottom half of a double bill with Monster from Green Hell (1957).

Reporter Kodama (Yasuhisa Tsutsumi) shows up at a remote train station to look into a mysterious "recent incident" that occurred in the mountains. He's directed to a shaken student named Takeshi Iijima (Akira Takarada). Feeling he can't even adequately put into words what's occurred, Takeshi hands the reporter a bunch of notes taken by one of his ill-fated peers, which start out describing "a terrifying incident unparalleled in human history" and then make mention of a "monster." We then go into flashback mode to see just what the friend was talking about...

Five members of a mountaineering / alpine skiing club from Towa University are spending their New Year's holiday on the slopes. Among them are Takeshi, lone female Michiko (Momoko Kôchi) and Michiko's older brother, Takeno (Tadashi Okabe). After a long day of skiing, everyone decides it's time to head back to the lodge except for Takeno and another student, Kaji (Akira Yamada), who want to visit a local named Mr. Gen first. Soon after, there's a terrible blizzard (the worst seen there in years), followed by a massive avalanche (ditto). And then there's a scary phone call to the lodge, with screaming, gunshots and some kind of animal noise coming from the other end. Nakata and Kaji never make it back to the lodge. A search party later finds Gen's place ransacked, strange footprints, patches of fur and both Gen and Kaji dead. But still no sign of Takeno.

Deciding to wait until the spring thaw to look into matters more thoroughly, an expedition is put together by Takeshi and Michiko in hopes of finding her brother. Having analyzed the fur and determining it doesn't belong to any known animal species, zoologist Koizumi (Nobuo Nakamura) accompanies them, along with a number of others, including Michiko's younger brother Shinsuke (Kenji Kasahara) and lodge owner Mr. Matsui (Akira Sera). After they head out, the local hired guides refuse to go any further once they learn the final destination is going to be Garan Valley as no man who's gone there has ever returned. Several bad omens, including finding a mutilated bear and one of their men being injured in a rock slide, solidify their decision to get the hell out of there. The rest of the expedition forges on without them.

While everyone's asleep, the "beast man" (a human-sized man-in-a-suit abominable snowman) finally makes its presence known. The creature is especially fond of Michiko and can't resist trying to touch her while she's asleep in her tent. When Michiko wakes and screams, Takeshi takes off after it in the dark and falls down an embankment. Little does he or the rest of the science expedition know, but there's a rival expedition nearby that's been keeping tabs on them the entire time. The evil Oba (Yoshio Kosugi), carnival owner and boss of rare animal peddlers Oba Incorporated, hopes to find and capture the creature before they can. They stumble upon Takeshi lost in the dark, beat him and leave him for dead. He's rescued and taken back to a village by defiant native girl Chika (Akemi Negishi), who's torn between loyalty to her people and wanting to experience the "civilized" world.

Once Chika's fellow villagers find out what she's done, they're enraged. She's chastised for breaking the rules and is slapped, pushed down and even beaten with a stick by the white-bearded Grand Elder (Kokuten Kôdô) of the tribe. As for Takeshi, they tie him up with rope and dangle him over a cliff, where he hangs around as patient vultures circle waiting for him to croak. The tribe worship the Beast Man as their "Mountain Lord" and bring offerings of fresh meat to the cave where he lives. Beast Man also happens to be a single father with a young son. As for the mother, she likely died after eating poisonous mushrooms found inside the cave, along with the rest of their kind.

Oba and his group capture both the baby and adult creatures, which ends in tragedy. People and vehicles get hurled over a cliff, an entire village burns to the ground, many of the peripheral characters die and Michiko finds herself being kidnapped and dragged back to the cave by the lonely monster, where a bubbling lava pit factors into a demise or two. As with many older creature features, the Beast Man is feared at first but is basically just misunderstood and becomes more sympathetic as the film progressives. King Kong (1933) comparisons are pretty much unavoidable as this shares too many similarities to even mention.

This was Honda's genre follow-up to the legendary Gojira (1954) so it's a shame it's suffered the fate it has. With its outdoor location photography at picturesque locations and elaborate sets, it very well could be a lovely film, visually-speaking. We just don't get to experience any of that as the only available print of the full Japanese version is blurry, dark and murky. Also, the monsters look great in stills taken during production (see below) but the lack of detail in this substandard print doesn't showcase them well at all. Regardless, I suppose we should still be thankful someone leaked this or else we'd only have the Half Human version to go on. Because of the film's public domain status, a lot of bootleggers are now selling the original Japanese version (using the Half Human or The Story of the Abominable Man titles) but all use this same print.

So, what about the unflattering depiction of the natives in the film? Well, they're unkempt, smeared with dirt, dressed in animal hide scraps, don't appear to be very intelligent and hate big city folks to the point of trying to kill one for no real reason. I've seen offensive portrayals of basically every ethnic or minority group under the sun in films no one even bats an eyelash at, but I'm never on board for censorship nor the decision to hide this title from the public eye. For starters, intent is important. The tribe is never named (at least not on the subbed version) and, even if one could connect them to an existing group, that doesn't mean any of that was intentional. In fact, I laugh at the very notion due to Honda's consistent empathetic treatment toward, and virtual hero worship of, monsters. And who is more of a societal outcast than a monster? Honda also typically has scientists, intellectuals and blue collar types all working together using their skills to stop whatever menace they face. If he ever has anything negative to say about anyone it's the corrupted elite and (perhaps most especially) greedy industrialists. I flat out refuse to believe he'd intentionally slander a marginalized group of people who face systemic caste discrimination in this film as that's wholly out of character for him.

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