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.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Cutting Class (1989)

... aka: Assassinato no Colégio (Killing in College)
... aka: Cutting Class - Il ritorno di Brian (Cutting Class - The Return of Brian)
... aka: Die Todesparty 2 (Death Party II)
... aka: Filo de sangre (Edge of Blood)
... aka: Giovani omicidi (Young Murders)
... aka: Profession: Tueur (Profession: Killer)

Directed by:
Rospo Pallenberg

Brad Pitt is one of those Hollywood stars that I've never really cared much for. I've always felt he was kind of like the male version of Julia Roberts. You know, more "movie star" than actual actor. Middling talent. Limited versatility and emotional range. Severe lack of nuance and subtlety in each performance. As far as Pitt is concerned, he sometimes has his moments, few and far between as those may be, but for the most part I find his acting style overly-mannered, obvious and hammy, almost never find him believable in any role he plays and think he often stands out like a sore thumb as the weak acting link in most of the movies he's done. To make matters worse, he has a hilarious inability to do accents yet insists on doing them all the time, anyway. Directors have actually had to alter roles specifically to accommodate this in order to take advantage of his "sex appeal" and box office "star power."

When Interview with a Vampire was first announced, I was mostly concerned with Tom Cruise's miscasting and didn't think much of Pitt at the time, but ended up walking out of the movie thinking Cruise, Kirsten Dunst and most of the rest of the cast acted circles around him. I found his performances poor in everything from Meet Joe Black to Troy to Inglorious Basterds. The least said about the PG-13 zombie apocalypse movie World War Z, which became an undeserving box office hit, the better, and I know everyone loves Se7en, but I found his performance in that lacking as well and still laugh during the "shocking" finale due to his poorly-delivered anguished freak out. I think we can all list a few popular actors we just don't "get" for whatever reason and Pitt just happens to be one of mine. Nevertheless, he's the ONLY reason this film has had any legs over the years, the only reason it's received endless releases on home video and the only reason it remains one of the most viewed late 80s slasher flicks.

Jill Schoelen, she of the beautiful face, vibrant smile, long, black and refreshingly unpoofy-by-80s-standards hair, husky voice and occasionally awkward line delivery, stars as Paula Carson, a high school senior whose academic smarts don't appear to transition over to her love life. She's dating hot-tempered high school jock Dwight (Pitt), who is first seen having a laugh after almost running over a kid on a tricycle. Always with beer in hand, Dwight is a future alcoholic and wife beater who bosses Paula around, screams in her face ("Get in the car!"), never listens to her, doesn't seem to respect her wishes at all and does about a hundred other things that only a doormat with severe self-esteem issues would tolerate. Dwight's behavior becomes even more obnoxious and insufferable once Brian Woods (Donovan Leitch) reenters the picture.

Brian, a former childhood friend of Dwight's, was put in a mental institution five years earlier for cutting the brake lines on his dad's car but has recently been released. His former bestie wastes no time letting him know he no longer wants to be associated with him and he's to stay away from both him and Paula. And yet Dwight is such a putz that his "leave us alone" demands completely contradict the fact he keeps bullying (and spying on) Brian. He even breaks into the school at one point just so he can get a look at Brian's student file. Said file shows that Brian's been diagnosed as a "violent schizophrenic" and received daily electroshock treatments in the nuthouse; info Dwight and some friends use to play a cruel prank on him.

The killer's first target is Paula's district attorney / "mail order outdoorsman" father (Martin Mull), who's out mallard hunting when he's shot with an arrow. Instead of dying, Mull ends up lying in the swamp gasping for breath and then crawls around for what feels like an eternity trying to make his way back home. He's unable to talk or scream while students are there on a field trip yet seems to have no issue talking to a dog in the very next scene. I think this is supposed to funny. Interestingly enough, while Mull is barely in the movie and his scenes are pointless, he's probably the second most likable person in the film, which speaks volumes about how repellent, weird, annoying and / or obnoxious everyone else is.

Roddy McDowall has an embarrassing role as a perverted principal who sniffs dirty socks, tricks a short-skirted Paula into bending over so he can see her panties and is caught cross dressing in the theater's wardrobe department. Nancy Fish plays a bitchy vice principal who's xeroxed to death and Dirk Blocker is a loud-mouth gym coach who is impaled with a flagpole while on a trampoline, which may sound fun but is so poorly executed it's not. The math teacher is axed and the flamboyant art teacher is baked in a kiln. There's also a stereotypically weird / unkempt janitor (Robert Glaudini) lurking around who shouts "I'm the custodian of your fucking destiny!" (huh?) and cleans up blood after the murders yet forgets to tell anybody.

Seeing how most of the victims are adults, I was thinking perhaps this was intended to be cathartic for maladjusted teens wanting to see authority figures get slaughtered after being depicted in the most exaggerated, unflattering ways imaginable. Then again, there are teen victims as well, including Paula's voluptuous friend Colleen (Brenda James), who gets slashed under the bleachers along with her boyfriend after rallying the school with her panty-free cheerleading routine. So, yeah, that probably wasn't the intention at all, was it?

None of the unsavory side characters really function as red herrings as the film narrows down the suspects to just Dwight and Brian fairly early on. So, who is it? Dwight, who's controlling, insecure, prone to angry outbursts and basically just a big ol' douchebag? Or Brian, who's already killed once and may have snapped again? Better question: Will you even care? While I can't answer for you, I can answer for myself and say that, no, I never cared. Neither Leitch nor Pitt help matters as they're both terrible in this (Leitch - who curiously gave a fine performance in the previous year's Blob remake - certainly isn't helped any by the atrocious one-liners he's given toward the end), but the direction and writing are what ultimately do the film in.

While an untalented or inexperienced director can easily ruin a good script, a skilled director should be able to find various ways to improve upon or at least distract from a weak script. Pallenberg, who was best known for working on John Boorman films prior to this, is unable to do either in his film debut. That may also explain why Cutting Class was his first and only film as director. However, this appears to have always had an awful screenplay. What else can you say about a movie where a key piece of info is relayed by having a character bump into a shelf and knock off a tape recorder that falls on the ground, hits the play button and happens to be at the exact spot on the tape necessary to plant a seed of doubt in the protagonist's mind to fuel the entire third act? Development of the plot, the characters, dialogue, pacing, all of it is truly awful. And the tone is all over the place.

I saw this several times before as a kid and, though I didn't love it back then, I don't remember it being THIS bad. But, hey, at least there's one enjoyable thing to be found in this mess: the Andy Prieboy / Wall of Voodoo soundtrack, which features some great songs like "Nearer to Morning" (also featured on the same year's C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud soundtrack) and "Man Talk." So I will now add these to my New Wave playlist while permanently banishing Class to my "Never Again" pile. Thanks for at least that much, I guess.

Due to Pitt's presence (he'd start becoming a major star just two years later), this has never gone out of circulation. There have been countless VHS and DVD releases over the years, with third-billed Pitt placed front and center on the covers. Vinegar Syndrome put out a newly scanned and 4K restored Blu-ray just last year. Their release comes with interviews with Schoelen, Leitch, cinematographer Avi Karpick and the director. Not surprisingly, Pitt wasn't involved.

In Germany, it was released under the title Die Todesparty 2 ("Death Party II") as a sequel to SLAUGHTER HIGH (called Die Todesparty there). In Spain, it was called Clase sangrienta ("Bloody Class") and merely swiped the poster art from Slaughter High. A UK video release also re-used the Slaughter High art. How these two unrelated films became connected on the home video market appears to be entirely the work of Vestron Video.

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