Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gou hun jiang tou (1976)

... aka: Bewitch Tame Head
... aka: Black Magic, Part II
... aka: Revenge of the Zombies

Directed by:
Meng Hua Ho

If you're in the mood for some crazy, gory, anything-goes, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink nonsense, you really can't do a whole lot better than Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers Productions. In the opening sequence, a bunch of topless girls swimming have their fun interrupted when an alligator gobbles one of them up. A grey-haired black magic practitioner steps in, uses his powers to call the gator forward, catches it on a hook and then guts it! The film then cuts to an unnamed "Tropical City," as a married couple; Dr. Zhongping Qi (Ti Lung) and wife Ciuling (Tanny), arrive in town to visit their friends; Dr. Zhensheng Shi ("Lin Wei-Tu" / Lam Wai Tiu) and wife Margaret (Lily Li). There's been an rise in mysterious illness and death in the area. Dr. Shi wants answers and needs Zhongping and his wife to help him. Patients have been coming into the hospital with all kinds of grotesque maladies, including pulsating, puss-oozing "human-face sores," skin ulcers and worms under the skin that Dr. Shi attributes to black magic. His friends however are both highly skeptical of the existence of anything supernatural, but they'll soon learn they don't really know jack.

The man responsible for creating all of the turmoil is Kang Cong (Lieh Lo), an evil, knowledgeable and very powerful sorcerer who uses a magical ring and his "Tame Head Sorcery" powers to get both money and sex. All he needs to do to kill, mutilate or possess someone is construct a wax figure of them and then find a way to get some of their blood. Kang lives in a huge mansion with his Siamese kitty cat, a mute butler and a bunch of hooded, eyeless zombie servants. Behind a hidden door and down some stairs is a secret dungeon where he conducts all of his dirty business. He keeps a bunch of corpses on slabs that can easily be revived and controlled if he hammers a steel spike into their head. One of his biggest cash cows is Miss Hong ("Liu Hui-Ju" / Terry Liu), who was 98-years-old when she died, but is turned into a beautiful woman once she's spiked. Miss Hong dances in a sequin bikini at a nightclub and has many male admirers, some of whom will pay big money to get Kang to cast a love spell for them. Danian (Frankie Wei) is one such guy. He pays 5,000 dollars to get Kang to make Miss Hong love him, which ends up backfiring when his gold necklace reverts Miss Hong back to corpse state in the middle of making love. When Danian demands his money back, Kang casts a spell on him that makes his hair and fingernails fall off before melting his face.

Kang may look about 30, but he's actually over 80-years-old. So what's his secret to eternal youth? Why a steady supply of human breast milk, of course! Kang decides he'd like his donor to be Margaret, so he poses as a flower delivery man to get a blood sample (pricking her finger with a rose thorn) and casts his spell. Late one night, Margaret rises out of bed in a trance-like state and moseys on over to Kang's, where he shaves off her pubic hair (!), burns it and creates an elixir that makes Margaret start lactating. The two also have sex. The next day, Margaret finds herself 9-months pregnant, is taken to the hospital for an emergency c-section and a dead mutant blob baby is removed. Somehow, this fails to convince Zhongping and his wife that black magic exists. And so does a trip to a cemetery where they exhume Danian's body and discover it's filled with worms. Our heroes next senseless move involves going to the evil sorcerer and having him cast yet another love spell. The spell works, finally proving to our Doubting Thomas that black magic does indeed exist, but by then they find themselves in way over their heads.

Eventually, Zhensheng and Margaret both join the ranks of Kang's undead army and Ciuling is possessed, leaving just Zhongping to take on the bad guy. Thankfully, a white haired witch doctor (the guy from the opening sequence) shows up long enough to beat the evil out of Ciuling with a dead rabbit and give Zhongping a magic amulet to fight off Kang. Before dying, he also plucks out his own eyeballs and has Zhongping eat them to give himself the ability to see through walls! The climactic battle between Zhongping and Kang is pretty crazy, with lots of fighting, lots of zombies, gore, fire, attempted zombie rape and much more.

Frequently stupid, jaggedly edited at times, stuffed to the seams with various plot complications and sometimes downright confusing, this immediate follow-up to the previous years BLACK MAGIC (which was made by the same director / writer / producer team and featured many of the same actors) is still good, brainless fun. It's colorfully - sometimes very stylishly - photographed, fast-paced, tasteless and often highly imaginative... and there is a ton of gore. Some of the special effects have dated badly; such as a fight on top of a cable car, some time lapse face melts, Pepto Bismol-looking blood but, meh! Who really cares? Certainly not anyone interested in checking out a mid-70s Asian horror flick.

The film was released theatrically (with some violence removed) in the United States as Revenge of the Zombies; a title it retained for its initial VHS release. The Image DVD version (titled Black Magic II) is a very nice-looking, uncut print.

Aside from the Black Magic films, director Meng Hua Ho also made the The Oily Maniac (1976), the cult favorite Goliathon aka The Mighty Peking Man (1978), The Psychopath (1978) and The Rape After (1986).


Las mujeres panteras (1967)

... aka: Panther Women, The

Directed by:
René Cardona

Crime has run rampant in their city and a professor friend (Jorge Mondragón) has just been murdered by someone or some thing, so it's up to Las Luchadoras (The Wrestling Women); Loreta Venus (Ariadna Welter) and The Golden Rubi (Elizabeth Campbell), to put a stop to it. Joining them in their quest are macho police captain Arturo Diaz (Eric del Castillo), his cowardly comic relief sidekick Leocadio (Manuel Valdés) and mysterious, masked male crime fighter / wrestler El Ángel, who has an A on his fire-resistant cape and all kinds of special gadgets to use. Their main adversary is evil witch Satanasa (María Douglas) who hides out in a cave with her minions and uses black magic to resurrect a scary-looking, skull-faced zombie. Satanasa is also involved with local gangsters and presides over a cult of panther women. One of those panther women, Tongo (Yolanda Montes), is a nightclub performer who periodically transforms into a silly-looking were-woman monster (or would that be cat-woman monster?) complete with razor claws, plastic fangs and pointy ears. In one scene, she even eats a poor little girl's pet bird. Eventually, a wrestling match is organized with Loreta and Rubi facing off against two of the panther women, who transform into monsters mid-battle, then kidnap the little girl and take her to the zombie's lair. Only an ancient sword can stop the undead menace.

A middling follow-up to DOCTOR OF DOOM (1962), WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY (1964) and She-Wolves of the Ring (1965; a drama that won't be covered here), this juvenile little horror-adventure was made by the same team (director Cardona, producer Guillermo Calderón and writer Alfredo Salazar) and follows the same formula of the first two films very closely. Though some of the names (and actors) have changed, the film contains the same female wrestler characters, same detective and same goofy, bumbling sidekick found in the others. There are three separate wrestling bouts, gun fights and fist fights, plus a lengthy (and not very exciting) car chase. The cave / crypt sets are pretty good (there's even a cool flame-throwing panther statue), though the makeup is highly variable (the panther women look ridiculous, but the zombie looks pretty good).

The cast has a few interesting faces, and many familiar ones. The pretty, Amazonian Campbell was born in the United States but was fluent in Spanish and became a star in Mexico thanks to her appearances in many of these Luchadoras films. She was usually cast alongside Lorena Velazquez, who must have been busy when they made this one since Welter (the female lead in THE VAMPIRE and its sequel, The Vampire's Coffin) plays her role here. Professional dancer Yolanda Montes, who was also born in the U.S. and sometimes billed as just "Tongolele," isn't much of an actress but she looks pretty cool with her large eyes, exotic bone structure and a trademark white streak in her hair. She's go on to play a voodoo priestess in SNAKE PEOPLE (1968), one of the much-hated final films of Boris Karloff, and other such roles.

Nathanael León, who has a minor role as the facially-scarred gangster Cain, would also go on to appear in other Luchadoras, Santo and Neutron action-horror hybrids, as well as make an appearance in several of the movies John Carradine made south-of-the-border in the late 60s. Ángel Di Stefani, who plays Eloim the zombie, had previously appeared (also in full-makeup) as the mummy Popoca in the Aztec Mummy series. Male lead del Castillo remains an extremely prolific actor in his home country, having appeared in over 300 films and television shows since the late 50s. Whoever played El Ángel isn't credited, though that was a common occurrence in these films since Mexican wrestlers often hid their identity.

Unlike the first two films in the series, The Panther Woman was never officially released in America, and thus was never dubbed or subtitled. It also hasn't made its way onto R1 DVD yet, which is a bit peculiar considering the previous entries have something of a cult following here in the States. The version I watched (an OK, though somewhat dark-looking, print) came from a television broadcast on the Spanish-language movie channel "La Pelicula Clasico," whose annoyingly big logo was in the top right hand corner the entire time. I don't know much Spanish, but the film is easy enough to follow even if you don't.

The five-part series concluded with Wrestling Women vs. the Killer Robot (which featured a whole new cast and wasn't released in America either) in 1969.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Sommarens tolv månader (1988) (TV)

... aka: Twelve Months of Summer, The

Directed by:
Richard Hobert

It's wintertime in Sweden and there's a foot or more of snow on the ground. But somewhere hidden amongst the snow-covered trees and a thick blanket of fog that completely surrounds it is a small area of ground with complete summer-like conditions; sunshine, bugs, green vegetation, rainbows and a warm temperature. It's something a group of government scientists have been working on, or "climate improvement" as they phrase it; an attempt create 'perfect' summertime weather year round. But from the opening credits, we know this oasis amongst the frigid conditions isn't quite right, as a man is seen fleeing from the area in horror. He's taken back to the lab and assessed by doctors, who are perplexed at his condition. From the man's perspective, he's speaking lucidly, but to everyone else's ears what's coming out of his mouth is gibberish; almost a brand new language. And the same goes for how the victim's brain processes what everyone else says. The man's brain has been completely altered, or as one of the doctors puts it, "You could say it's like he's typing on a keyboard where the keys have been switched."

The condition is similar to something called aphasia; where cells in the left hemisphere of the brain have been atrophied, but the man's condition is a brand new phenomena, as there's no physical damage. It seems that tampering with mother nature has unleashed a dangerous 'psychic power' that penetrates and manipulates the senses. Prolonged exposure to the force leads to hallucinations, suicidal thoughts and the inability to differentiate between reality and imagination. Thankfully, the force has been contained within the test area for the time being, but the scientists are starting to become worried. They immediately evacuate all of their personnel, but decide they need to do more research into this phenomena before they decide their next actions. So what better thing to do than lure six lowly construction workers there under fall pretenses?

Tempted with a ten times higher than usual salary upon completion and free access to whatever goods they want while they're there (including booze, smokes and even hookers), they're able to easily get their guinea pigs. Hard-working high school drop-out Roger (Hans Mosesson) wants to build a better home that his wife Vanja (Bergljót Arnadóttir) and their little girl Emma can be proud of. Lars (Göran Stangertz) has a very pregnant girlfriend and would like to retire from hard labor and open up a bike shop. Kalle (Eddie Axberg) dreams of financing a marathon run across Europe. And so on. The men are blind-folded, taken to the secret site where they're to stay within the test area for an entire year (if they leave they don't get paid) and are given instructions on what they're supposed to be building one small section at a time, but are never given a complete diagram of it. They've also been given just a vague description of the strange, powerful psychic phenomena occurring there. In other words, they're told if they see something strange, to not freak out. It'll pass. Little do they know, but they're constantly being monitored with video surveillance, and it isn't long before each of the men start behaving strangely and begin suffering from troubling hallucinations, leading to insanity, violence and even death.

Throughout the course of this smart, thought-provoking film (which runs 2 hours, 10 minutes), many interesting and varied questions are raised. Would it really be worth it to go a whole year without seeing your loved ones to possibly improve the remaining ones? Is doing something you're not comfortable with ever worth the money? And naturally, the comment on how those at the top manipulate, use and then discard those in the working class to line their own pockets; little caring about the long-term effect on those 'beneath' them, is a subject that's as relevant today as it was in 1988. Hell, with how business and politics operate (at least here in the U.S.), it's probably even more relevant today than it was 20+ years ago. Throw into the mix undertones about how it's never a good idea to exploit, manipulate or underestimate the power of nature, and this film stands as a potent warning to mankind. We better learn how to respect one another and the environment... or else. The film manages to accomplish its goals and say what it wants to say without ever being too overt or preachy.

The premise is fascinating and original, the acting and dialogue are both good and the lead characters are all very well-defined. The film also manages to be quite eerie at times, without ever resorting to cheap shock tactics. The test area, which is lined with hundreds of enigmatically numbered signs that constantly make one question just what those numbers stand for (and also give the test site a prophetic, almost cemetery-like feel), is a great example of successful cost-effective art direction to generate mood. The film also ends on an effective, subtly apocalyptic tone.

I must say, it's a damn shame we live in an age where a movie as good as this one isn't even available on VHS or DVD, yet millions can be conned into spending 20 bucks to add something as pathetic as M. Night Shyamalan's somewhat-similarly-themed big budget turkey THE HAPPENING to their home movie libraries. Sadly, Sommarens tolv månader has not been publicly shown since it aired on Swedish TV in 1988! There are rumors of a copyright dispute between the filmmakers and the TV network who broadcast it being the reason why it's been held up for so long. As of now, you'll have to settle for poor quality bootlegs (which someone at least took the time to subtitle) to see it.


Stark Fear (1961)

Directed by:
Ned Hockman

An early entry in the "I Married a Nutcase' psycho-drama genre, this low-budgeter was filmed independently in Oklahoma. Ellen Winslow (Beverly Garland) is saddled with a raving loony of a husband. For his birthday, she decides to pick up some sexy black lingerie, a cake and a gift, in hopes it will spice up a marriage that has been on the rocks in recent months. Gerald (Skip Homeier) is pissed off she's out working for a living and supporting them; accusing her of having an affair with her boss, Cliff Kane (Kenneth Tobey). He breaks a picture of her, demands she quit her job, calls her a cheap little tramp, informs her he wants a divorce and pours his drink over her head. Ellen kicks him, takes off and goes to stay with her reporter friend Ruth (Hannah Stone), a nosy but well-intentioned spinster. A day later, Ellen receives a call from Gerald's boss, who informs her that her husband hasn't been showing up for work and if he doesn't come in soon he's going to get fired. Ellen hits the town trying to find him, along the way discovering that she didn't even really know the guy and their whole marriage has been nothing but a lie.

From a female friend of Gerald's (whom she's never met before), Ellen learns that her husband is actually from a small backwoods town in Oklahoma (he had told her Pennsylvania) and learns the name of his supposed best friend, Harold Suggett, a man she's also never met or even heard mentioned. Ellen travels to the town and meets up with Harold; a drunken, slovenly womanizer whose wife is threatening to kill him if she catches him cheating on her again. Gerald eventually shows up, threatens Ellen ("Have you ever seen a woman with her nose cut off?") and drives off in her car. One thing leads to another and Ellen ends up getting dragged into a graveyard and is beaten and raped on top of Gerald's mothers grave (!) by Harold while her husband stands by his ma's tombstone, smokes a cigarette and watches. Understandably feeling a bit defeated by this point, Ellen returns to Oklahoma City, returns to her job working for Cliff and eventually finds herself being drawn to him. Unfortunately, with unresolved issues from her past, she feels unable to move forward into this potentially healthy relationship.

Often listed on the horrorographies of stars Garland and Tobey, this just partially (and barely) qualifies as a genre film, but it's an interesting, somewhat edgy and sometimes surprisingly nasty little film dealing with such topics as sadomasochistic relationships, codependency, suburban violence, childhood trauma and various issues important to females during the time. Gerald's sadistic, perverse behavior is predictably traced back to having a mentally ill mother (whose name also happens to be Ellen Winslow), but the film is most fascinating when dealing with Garland's character as she evolves throughout the film.

Apparently once just your typical housewife, Ellen is driven into the workforce by her own husband's complacency. Once there, she finds herself being objectified both at her job (where she's the subject of gossip by co-workers and object of lust by her male superior) and at home (where she's dealing with her mentally unhinged, deceitful husband's attempts to guilt her back into subservience). On her quest to locate her husband, she has to endure - and eventually overcome - various hurdles set in her way by men; leering stares, not being taken seriously, getting jerked around by the arm, being passed around at a party (where she must resort to violence to protect herself) and eventually the ultimate dehumanization; being raped. Though she's able to ultimately prevail, Ellen is never painted as a faultless heroine or superwoman, either. The character has moments of self-doubt and internalized blame where she wonders what kind of a person (and wife) she has been or if she's done enough to help her obviously very sick husband. The film really stands as a testament to women just starting to break out of the June Cleaver mold of the 1950s and their struggles to gain back their independence, be able to stand on their own two feet and balance a hectic career life with a happy and healthy married / family life.

Garland had a long career in both film and on TV, and became fairly well-known in the 50s for playing tough, strong and resilient females in horror and sci-fi films (when few other actresses were doing so). Perhaps these characters weren't even always written that way, but Garland always played them that way and brought strength and passion to these roles, which is precisely why they're still remembered to this day. STARK FEAR may actually be one of the best and most fleshed-out characters she's ever played. It's certainly a good showcase for her dramatic talents, and thankfully she's in almost every scene. (Ironically, Garland said in several interviews that this was her least favorite of the films she has made! She also claimed the director stormed off the set and her co-star Homeier finished directing the film.)

Fellow sci-fi star Tobey unfortunately doesn't fair quite as well. His laid-back stoicism was fine for the heroic roles he played in the 50s, but he comes off as extremely one-note in this one. Hell, he barely even registers an emotion when Ellen suddenly slaps the shit out of him! Homeier is a bit stiff himself, but he's adequately loathsome, and Stone registers nicely as Garland's supportive, helpful and sometimes bluntly honest friend.
Production values are very shaky. The score is forgettable and the photography is ordinary. No one has bothered re-mastering it either (and I doubt that ever will happen since the movie was barely released), so there's lots of fuzz and grain in certain scenes. The film is also jumpy at times and is missing many (presumably damaged) frames.
The film was nearly impossible to find for years, but has been issued on DVD several times in recent years; from Hollywood's Best, Retroflix and others. Alpha double-billed it with W. Lee Wilder's FRIGHT (1956).

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Murder Weapon (1989)

Directed by:
David DeCoteau

Whoa, brother. This is a weird one. Pig-tailed Dawn (Linnea Quigley) drinks milk, strips and kills her sister after she has sex, then sneaks into the bathroom, jumps in the shower with her sister's boyfriend and kills him, too. She goes to a nuthouse, makes a best friend out of the equally-troubled Amy (Karen Russell) and the two blackmail their way out of a mental institution by sleeping with their psychologists (one is played by Carol Burnett Show regular Lyle Waggoner). Now on the outside, these two man-hating mafia princesses (!) stop taking their medication and invite six slimeball ex-boyfriends over to Amy's large country home for a party where they're systematically slaughtered in very gory ways by a gloved, leather-clad mystery killer. Is the psycho one of our extremely troubled leading ladies? Is it one of their disgruntled or insanely jealous former ex's? Is it one of the pissed-off head shrinkers out for revenge? Is it a mob hit meant to snuff out Amy because she's just inherited a ton of money from her recently-deceased gangster father? Unfortunately, the identity of the killer is accidentally revealed during the very first murder scene when you can see the top of their head as they swing a sledgehammer!

You might presume this is just another forgettable 80s slasher movie, but you'd presume wrong. MURDER WEAPON actually manages to stand out from the pack. It's so amazingly inept, badly-paced, written, edited and acted and has such super-bloody but utterly unrealistic-looking death scenes that it almost takes on this unintended surrealistic quality after awhile. There are numerous long, drawn-out flashback sequences between the girls and their shrinks (one lasts almost ten whole minutes!), which are filled with ridiculous dialogue and are set in unfurnished rooms which are either completely black or completely white. In these, Dawn reveals that she was molested by her mobster father as a child and may have set a fire that killed her entire family. Even though she's not quite ready to be released back into society, Dawn manages to get her shrink - Dr. Gram (Lenny Rose) - on tape raping her during their hypnosis sessions and is able to weasel her way out. During Amy's session, she reveals that she suffers from nightmares, has always been in abusive relationships, threatens to get revenge on the staff once she gets out, says going to a dogfight turned her on and claims that she loved going hunting with her ex because she liked butchering the animals. Immediately after admitting all of this, her doctor tells her she's finally ready to join the "real world" (!?)

Interestingly, where so many slasher flicks have killers that target women, this one actually has a killer that targets men. And all of the guys are brainless horn dogs, cokeheads, complete jerks or just really, really irritating. One of them is lured into the basement and has his head repeatedly smashed in with a sledge hammer. In another scene, a hand goes completely through a guy laying in bed, rips out his heart and then shoves it into his mouth! There's a face blown apart with a shotgun (causing the victims tongue to fall out), a broken bottle jabbed into a neck, a throat slashing and someone gets set on fire. During one of the therapy sessions, Amy makes special mention of an ex-boyfriend who was physically abusive toward her... and then the filmmakers turn around and present this guy as our hero at the very end!

Quigley is easily the most entertaining of the cast members because of her enthusiasm and effortlessly campy line delivery. She also produced the film, has several songs on the soundtrack and gets naked three times. If you've watched many 80s B-movies, you'll also probably recognize some other cast members. Stephen Steward played porn star "Chucky Long" in the silly VICE ACADEMY (1988); which also starred the two female leads here). "Damon Charles" is better known as Eric Freeman; the Santa Claus killer in the insanely bad cult favorite SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 (1986). Many of the other (including Quigley) also appeared in DeCoteau's terrible action movie AMERICAN RAMPAGE (1989). Mike Jacobs Jr., Rodger Burt (both from DeCoteau's LADY AVENGER), Victoria Nesbitt (LINNEA QUIGLEY'S HORROR WORKOUT) and Richard J. Sebastian (DREAM A LITTLE EVIL) round out the cast. David Barton (with assist from J.R. Bookwalter and others) did the bloody make-ups. The wardrobe is credited to, uh, Wilma Rubble and Betty Flintstone.

Released to VHS by Cinema Home Video (in a very misleading box that makes this look like some girl-power action movie); this potential bad movie cult classic has yet to get to an official DVD release.


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