Sunday, April 21, 2019

Unearthly Stranger (1963)

... aka: Assedio alla terra (Siege of Earth)
... aka: Beyond the Stars
... aka: Mujeres de lo desconocido (Woman of the Unknown)
... aka: Noiduttu katse (Bewitched Test)

Directed by:
John Krish

In England, Professor Geoffrey Munroe (Warren Mitchell) mysteriously keels over from a brain hemorrhage which has done some other rather unusual things to his body that can only be attributed to extremely high does of electricity... enough to power all of London, in fact. Strangely, the exact same fate has befallen select people in both America and Russia. All of the victims were scientists working for their respective country's space programs and all had been experimenting on the same exact thing: Unlocking secrets of the mind in order to telepathically travel to through space. At a British lab, scientists are working on something that may help accomplish that: TP 91, a formula that unlocks an otherwise dormant energy force we all have in our own minds. 

Lackadaisical, smarmy Army Major Clarke (Patrick Newell) is skeptical about letting all of his scientists know what has been happening around the globe for fear that they'll abandon the project. He has an argument with one of the her cohorts, Professor John Lancaster (Philip Stone), about whether to tell project leaded Dr. Mark Davidson (John Neville) or not, but Mark overhears them anyway. Thankfully he has a sexy, much-younger new wife to return home to that can help him keep his mind off things. Well, uh, maybe that's not such a good idea either.

Discovering their agency is involved in covering up the mysterious death of the former project head and keeping important things from them, Dr. Davidson and Professor Lancaster decide to team up and investigate. Prof. Munroe - the dead man - had high levels of something called trimorphonite in his system; something that is found in large doses only in space. Since he's never been to space, that poses quite a mystery, and so does that the fact that all of his research papers were burnt up in a fire. But perhaps not the mystery as the behavior coming from Dr. Davidson's new bride, Julie (Gabrielle Licudi), whom her met under mysterious circumstances while on holiday in Switzerland. 

So immediately taken with her beauty and charm, Dr. Davidson married Julie after a brief romance lasting only a few weeks. Now that they're in England, Julie barely ever leaves the house, claiming to have lived a quiet and sheltered life in her home country that she wants to continue. When Davidson returns home one night, he finds Julie lying in bed with her eyes wide open. Thinking she's dead, he feels her pulse and notices that she doesn't have one... but then she wakes up, anyway. Perhaps a previous viewing of I Married a Monster from Outer Space could have saved Dr. Davidson all of this hassle.

Because of his wife's peculiar behavior, Davidson has Lancaster over for dinner. Julie puts on the charm, but Lancaster sees her removing a steaming hot pot of casserole with her bare hands from a 275 degree oven without mitts and begins having doubts himself about who or what she is. Babies also cry when she looks at them, a whole playground full of children run inside at her mere presence and tears seem to act like acid on her face... all because "Julie" is nothing more than a host body for an alien.

Back at work, Major Clarke decides to give Davidson a leave of absence because his new wife's past cannot be traced and their top-secret work cannot be put in jeopardy. At his country home, where there's an almost-constant and unexplained humming sound, Davidson continues to work on the project and finally makes a breakthrough in his research. New formula in hand, he goes back to work and has it snatched away for safe keeping by the major, who ends up mysteriously dead himself... and the papers have spontaneously combusted in the process. Seems like the alien race don't want us humans meddling in space travel.

Well-acted, intelligently-written by Rex Carlton (with likable and enjoyable characters), entertaining, eerie and even unexpectedly witty at times, this long-forgotten British film deserves better treatment than it has received. Working with a very low-budget, the tale is told with no special effects whatsoever, but director Krish and cinematographer Reginald H. Wyer do several stylistic things to spice up the material. There's some clever camerawork, noir-ish lighting is effectively used, a framework device provokes the right intrigue at the beginning and there's a very good surprise ending. The entire cast (which also includes Jean Marsh in a supporting role as a secretary) does well, with both Neville and Licudi managing to make their characters - and the grim situation both find themselves in - very believable.

Back when I first wrote a brief review for this title, there had been neither a DVD nor VHS release, possibly because this lacked some creature to put on the cover. Thankfully, that's since been remedied by DVD and Blu-ray releases through Network Distributing (Note: My screen caps certainly don't reflect the quality of that release as I did them back in 2012 from an nth generation copy). I'd imagine most fans of vintage, smaller-scale science fiction, who have no problem with dialogue and subtext in place of expensive special effect thrills, will find this to be something of a gem.


Sunday, April 14, 2019

Tuo gu gui jian lang yan (1977)

... aka: 鼉鼓鬼劍狼煙
... aka: 譔鼓鬼劍狼煙
... aka: Warlock of the Battlefield
... aka: Zhuan gu gui jian lang yan

Directed by:
Hsing-Lai Wang

During the latter part of the Song Dynasty (which would put this sometime in the 1200s), war has ravaged rural China. Captain Chuan-Chung Yang (Don Wong), Lieutenant Tung Li (Ming Lun Ku) and some other army men are dispatched to a village where Chuan-Chung had grown up due to reports that a band of traitors have been slaughtering the citizenry. When they arrive, they find there's a whole lot more going on there, and it's a lot more insidious than they imagined. For starters, the locals are apprehensive about even discussing what's going on. In fact, nobody will, including Chuan-Chung's childhood sweetheart Yu Hua (Bao-Yun Tang), who's been tearfully awaiting his return all this time. Second, most of the villagers have already been wiped out by what the locals will only identify as a plague. They don't elaborate beyond that. The army men are repeatedly warned to leave if they value their lives but as they've been ordered by the courts to find out what's going on, and Chuan-Chung's has a connection to the area and people there, they decide to risk their lives to find out the truth.

While the village looks like any other area ravaged by war during the day, by night all kinds of supernatural horrors occur. All of the dogs in the village have gone crazy and are on the attack. There are strange, unexplainable bursts of very strong wind. Haunting noises, bangs, howling and moaning echo through the dark and all of these sinister sounds seem to be coming from a nearby battlefield. Villagers keep turning up dead with holes on their faces and necks and sometimes the bodies disappear. After witnessing much of this, Chuan-Chung discovers some of the villagers assisting a group of black-robed men secretly digging up graves... yet most of the caskets are empty. Lt. Li attempts to evacuate the village, but the headstrong young captain is determined to get to the bottom of things first.

As more people are killed, Chuan-Chung tries to get his former best friend Ah Te (Kun Li) to spill the beans but he too refuses, claiming he'll be putting his wife Shou Lan (Bao-Lien Yin) and their new baby at risk in the process. In actuality, he's a bit of a coward and scared of dying. However, when Chuan-Chung is seriously injured, Ah Te has to briefly step into a leadership position. The "plague" turns out to have been caused by a Royal Guard deserter and an evil warlock / grave robber who've managed to create an army of vampires (seen rising up from the ground zombie style in one scene) to do their bidding. After Ah Te is killed and the slow-witted, good-natured Scabby (Ko Pa), who's beloved by the entire community, is attacked, an exodus of the entire village is planned. Li takes them all to safety but Chuan-Chung, feeling responsible for some of the deaths having not pulled out earlier, stays behind to take on the bad guys. He receives some unexpected help.

I bet you never knew that there was a kung fu version of I Am Legend, did ya? Me neither until I watched this! While this unusual unknown movie is hardly a faithful adaptation, it clearly borrows a lot of ideas and inspiration from Richard Matheson's classic novel. It features similar vampire-like ghouls, people barricading themselves inside at night because that's the only time the dead attack and both war (the cause of the pandemic in Legend) and dust (which helped spread the pandemic in Legend) play prominent roles. Of course, Legend centers around Robert Neville, potentially the last man on earth, while this has more characters and a different explanation behind the cause of the plague. Being from Asia, the origins are, naturally, rooted in black magic.

Usually falsely categorized as an action movie when there are only a handful of noteworthy kung fu scenes, this concentrates much more of its time on atmosphere, mystery, character development and horror. The protagonists are well-defined and likable, there are some good character arcs and the premise about a community who've all but given up and accepted their fate finally finding the courage to fight back and band together to defeat an evil threat is enjoyable. The director occasionally indulges in some stylistic techniques. Shots of a crow picking at a corpse on the battlefield and a barking dog are tinted red, usually only brief flashes of vampire faces are shown, the camerawork is often jerky, an effect that distorts and stretches out the picture has been applied to most of the horror scenes and there's a lot of flashy, quick-cut editing. Usually these little touches work, but not always.

Unfortunately, this is prevented from being as enjoyable as it otherwise would have been by (recurring theme here!) the poor quality of the only available English-subtitled version, which to my knowledge was sourced from an ancient Hong Kong VHS release. That VHS release appears to be the only time this was ever issued on home video. The fact most of the film takes place at night and the print is very dark renders most of the night scenes next to impossible to make out. The plot is also extremely confusing at first due to the very inadequate (and sometimes cut off) subs, though if you stick around for about 30 minutes or so it (mostly) starts making sense. I'm still going to give this the benefit of the doubt and award it three stars as none of the above is the film's fault.

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