Monday, July 18, 2011

Serpiente de mar (1984)

... aka:
... aka: Hydra - Monster of the Deep
... aka: Monster of the Deep
... aka: Sea Serpent, The

Directed by:
Amando de Ossorio 

I would say that this seems to have time warped in from the 1950s, but I don't want to insult the far superior giant monster films from the 1950s in the process. An American military plane is having issues with their bomb mechanism. To try to prevent those pesky Russkies from getting their mitts on the top secret weapon, they're instructed to simply drop the bomb into the ocean and go on their merry way. After doing so, the atomic blast awakens a vicious sea beast that appears to be taking a nap on the ocean floor before it's revived. Soon after, local fisherman in a nearby Spanish fishing village have been reporting that most of the fish in the area seem to either be dead or have a strange, radioactive glow. One of the boat owners gets desperate enough to hire Captain Pedro Fontán (Timothy Bottoms) - a recovering alcoholic with a not-so-great reputation - to take a crew out to sea to try their luck. On their trip, they're attacked by the monster. It sinks the boat and several men get gobbled up. Pedro, along with his first mate Lemaris (Jared Martin) and a few others make it back to safety in a lifeboat. 

Unfortunately for Pedro, Lemaris harbors a long-standing grudge against him because he blames him for his brother's death during a shipwreck. Lemaris denies the presence of the sea monster and gets the others to follow suit. During a trial, Pedro loses his captain's license and is set to go to court facing criminal negligence charges. Things aren't much better for Margaret Roberts (Taryn Power), who witnesses her drunken friend Jill (Carole James) get eaten alive by the beast. No one believes her either and she's locked up in a Portuguese nuthouse. Some time passes and Pedro (now on the run from the authorities) somehow learns of Margaret's ordeal and goes to Lisbon to help her escape from the asylum. The two hide out in the area while plotting to prove the existence of the beast. They meet up with cranky but helpful marine biologist Timothy Wallace (Ray Milland), who believes their story and wants to help. Learning of another survivor of a similar attack, the trio rush to a hospital, but they're too late. The man has already been smothered to death by a pillow by his irate boss (Jack Taylor)! 

Lemaris also shows up in the area hoping to hunt down Pedro and get revenge. Instead, he bears witness to a night watchman (Víctor Israel) getting set on fire and then eaten by the monster, which prompts a change of heart. Strangely, Lemaris acts like he didn't see the monster earlier in the movie as it attacked and killer several of his buddies, but oh well. Things lead up to an exciting (not!) finale where our heroes toss Molotov cocktails at the monster from the sidelines and then... simply let it swim off to safety, without even informing the authorities OR proving its existence to anyone else. Uhhh... 

Director Amando de Ossorio (credited as "Gregory Greens" in the anglicized credits) has a decent reputation in horror circles because of his sometimes-admired (but in my opinion, overrated) Blind Dead series. He had also made Fangs of the Living Dead (1968) with Anita Ekberg, THE LORELEY'S GRASP (1973; which also involved a sea beast, but this time a sexy one played by Helga Line), NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS (1973), Demon Witch Child (1974) and others. This is by far the crappiest thing I've seen from him. Don't get me wrong, some of the other films listed above are also duds, but they're not outright incompetent. This one actually IS and it skims by almost entirely on unintended chuckles. 

One of the most obvious issues is that the film is horribly paced. It just torpedoes ahead, totally skipping over what one would assume should be key plot elements. None of the dialogue is interesting or humorous, the cliché-ridden plotline is utterly void of anything new or fresh, the acting by most is horrid or horridly wooden (though this is likely because of the atrocious - and goofy! - English-language dubbing), the musical score is an annoying, by-the-numbers cloning of John Williams' famous Jaws theme and, by the time the film is over, one gets the impression they ran out of time or money or both to come up with a satisfactory conclusion. There's nothing worse than a film leading up to something, only to have that something be nothing

The special effects are the sole saving grace of the film. Don't get me wrong, they too are awful, but they're also kind of cute and oddly entertaining to watch, anyway. The sea monster, designed to look like a giant snake, is laughably visualized with giant ping pong ball eyes and what appears to be wings. It has also been aptly described as looking like a giant sock puppet by many viewers. The fx team created both miniature models (used when the monster destroys large structures or transports) and a scale model (used for close-ups of the the cast thrashing inside to simulate being eaten). Over the course of the movie, the monster destroys several boats, a lighthouse, a helicopter (it headbutts it, making it flip over and explode) and a bridge. It even almost blows itself up at the very end when a train's last car (marked "ARAL"... and why no caboose?) comes loose, falls into the water and blows up. And yet our "overgrown worm" lives to see another day, anyway. 

Showing up briefly in the film are Gérard Tichy (from Bava's Hatchet for the Honeymoon and many others), Charly Bravo, José Canalejas, Pilar Alcón and Bernabe Barta Barri. Director León Klimovsky (who had made some very enjoyable Euro-horrors back in the 1970s and really has a much better track record than de Ossorio, though he's not as well-known) also appears briefly as a doctor. It has been released several times on VHS in the U.S. (the first issuing was from Lightning Video), but there's no DVD release as of yet. The original release title of this Spanish / U.S. co-production was Serpiente del mar, which basically means "The Sea Serpent," which was also the U.S. release title. It was also released as Hydra in other markets. By any name, it's pretty bad but enjoyable for a generous smattering of unintended laughs.


Hua pi (1966)

... aka: 畫皮
... aka: Painted Skin, The

Directed by:
Fong Pao

In this slow and somewhat typical, though worthwhile Hong Kong ghost tale, you'll find solid storytelling, good acting, several good horror sequences and a strong moral to the story. Actually several morals to this particular story. During a pleasant framing sequence that bookends the actual tale, modest writer and "collector of weird tales" Mr. Pu (Sek Lui) has just finished his latest manuscript "The Tales from Liao Chai;" which is a huge success with those in the village. His doctor friend shows up at his home with the good news that he's become famous and the two men, along with a servant boy, sit down for some wine. The doctor then tells him a ghost story he's just heard; one that he hopes his friend will consider writing, which is then visualized for us.

The story deals with Chun-wen Wong (Kao Yuen), a wealthy man who lives in a nice home with his mother (Tung Ngai), brother (Maan Saan), wife (Chen Juan-Juan), young son and some servants. The family is well-off but Chun-wen, a scholar and budding writer, has still been failing his exams and can gain no legitimate title despite having all the enthusiasm in the world. His problem? He depends far too much (and spends way too much) on fortune-telling and horoscope readings than he does actually studying. In other words, he wants wealth and success without actually having to work hard for it. His brother, a successful military man with political aspirations, is about to go away on duty, but warns his brother before he leaves that he can only rely on himself, not faith or Gods or spirits. A traveling fortune teller informs Chun-wen to go to the northwest of the village to the crumbling Kuei Hsing Ko Temple of Literature. There, he prays to a goblin-looking idol and promises that he'll rebuild the crumbling temple if he's granted the good fortune of passing his exams.

Immediately afterward, Chun-wen encounters Mei-hiang Chang (Zhu Hong), a beautiful, weeping woman dressed in white hiding out in the rubble. She runs off, but later shows up at Chun-wen's home. She claims she's from an area over a thousand miles away and ran away on her wedding night after her evil stepmother set her up in an arranged marriage with an ugly merchant. She also claims she's trying to locate her father, who's the Provincial Education Officer in charge of the rural examinations... the same one Chun-wen is having an impossible time passing. Chun-wen, who locks himself in a gated garden house away from his family for his one-month period of study, allows Mei-hiang to stay there for a month in agreeance that she'll pull strings to help him pass. It isn't long before Mei-hiang successfully seduces Chun-wen. He begins to ignore his family, becomes pale, weak and sickly, and rapidly loses weight. That's because the mysterious lady is actually some kind of ghostly, seductive succubus bent on getting her hands on her new lover's heart.

Mei-hiang claims to be oblivious to the fact that Chun-wen is married and has his own family. When she "finds out" he is, she threatens suicide, claims he "ruined" her (i.e. took her virginity), then tries to force him to chose between his wife and her. A weakened Chun-wun is almost coerced at one point into poisoning his wife's tea with arsenic, but Chun-wen slaps the cup out of her hand at the last minute. After her plans there fail, Mei-hiang uses her supernatural powers to lure a male servant into the wife's bed; arranging for Chun-wen to see them sleeping together. Though the wife and servant both proclaim their innocence, Chun-wen throws her out and plans to marry Mie-hiang. The wife attempts to hang herself out in the woods, but her brother-in-law stumbles onto the scene just in time to save her. He goes home and does a hilariously out-of-nowhere effortless leap over a ten-foot wall and then attempts to stop Mie-hiang before she is able to destroy the entire family.

Like many other vintage Asian ghost tales, the one's about 75 percent melodrama and 25 percent horror, and it isn't really going to appeal to certain viewers out there. However, if you don't mind a slow build, this does repay us for our patience by coming up with some great off-the-wall moments at the finale. There's a great sequence where the witchy Mei-hiang lures the sleepwalking servant into the wife's bed, as doors and curtains open and close by themselves along the way. When Chun-wen and his brother see Mie-hiang's true self they see a hideous, wrinkly, blue-faced, fanged old woman, who uses a painting to create her beauty. After she is sliced in the face, she simply covers up the wound on the painting and returns to "normal." During another standout sequence, Mie-hiang (in ugly form) sprays a stream of blood out of her mouth to knock a sword off of the wall, then rips out a human heart with her claws. Good use is also made of shadow throughout the film.

While I did see a haggard print of this rare film (which at least had English subs), it doesn't seem like it would be quite as visually opulent as some others in its category even in restored form, though I could be wrong. The story is also quite set bound, with the majority taking place in just one home. What is recommendable and commendable here is the nicely-turned script and fine acting. The actress playing Mie-hiang seems to be having a great time playing her deliciously evil role. The framing sequences are also nicely done, with writer Mr. Pu finding the relevance and philosophy in the ghost tale: "We have never seen a ghost, but there are people around us who behave like 'ghosts.' They fool people with their good looks. Careless ones will be devoured by them. Keep alert to keep away from them."

I'm not aware of an official VHS or R1 DVD release for this one.

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