Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Geung si sin sang (1985)

... aka: Jiang shi xian sheng
... aka: Mr. Stiff Corpse
... aka: Mr. Vampire

Directed by:
Ricky Lau

Almost completely eschewing European and American vampire mythology, this Hong Kong horror-comedy (which was a huge hit in Asia) is a fresh and entertaining take on the subgenre. Set primarily in and around a mortuary, wise Taoist priest Master Kau (Ching-Ying Lam, also the film's action director) and his associates keep busy trying to make sure the dead stay dead. His young apprentices; handsome but immature Chou (Siu-hou Chin) and the entirely goofy Man Choi (Ricky Hui), are still novices when it comes to battling the undead and are constantly getting themselves into sticky situations. They seem to be doing a good job keeping the peace in their village until wealthy Mr. Yam (Ha Huang) decides he wants to move the corpse of his father after a fortune teller predicts it will bring him prosperity to do so. The old corpse ends up coming to life, kills Mr. Yam (who will return to life himself) and then hides out in a cave getting stronger by feeding on rats. If that's not enough to deal with, Man ends up getting infected by vampire toxin and Chou ends up attracting the attention of a beautiful female ghost / succubus named Jade (Pauline Wong), who seduces him and threatens to suck out his life force.

Instead of attractive, seductive, cultured bloodsuckers, the ones here are entirely monstrous and have about as much in common with zombies as they do vampires. They have a rotting corpse-like appearance, have been resurrected from the dead and can transform others into the undead with as much as a scratch. They can also fly, hop and fight, have long blue fingernails and hate seeing their own reflections. Forget about stakes through the heart, sunlight, garlic and crucifixes, because you'll find none of that here. The arsenal of vampire fighting methods includes chicken blood (which - when dotted on their forehead - can freeze a vampire in its tracks), black ink (which - when applied to caskets - can keep the dead inside, and also can be applied to strings to electrocute them), incense (for appeasing the dead), yellow paper (which is attached to a vampire's head to keep them standing in place), snake venom sacks (which - when mixed with other ingredients - helps heal vampire wounds) and uncooked sticky rice (which removes vampire toxins from one's body after infection and also decreases a vampire's power upon contact). You can also hold your own breath to keep them from attacking you.

In addition, the film also introduces some new techniques in dealing with ghosts, such as rubbing eucalyptus leaves on your eyes to acquire the ability to see a ghost's true face and using a special dagger powered up with moonlight to fight them off. During one outrageous scene where Master Kau is fighting the succubus Jade, she uses her ponytail to strangle him and then detaches her own head while he headless body continues to fight. There's also a compass-like gadget that helps determine where invisible ghosts might be lurking.

Sometimes the comedy (which relies heavily on slapstick) is a bit strained, but a surprising amount of it actually does works and there are several hilarious moments and many more infectuously silly ones. The cast acquits itself well and the main characters are either likable of funny, with Lam's composed portrayal as the smart, vampire-fighting Master the perfect counterbalance to some of the more aloof characters. The film also delivers in a big way on action. There are brilliantly-choreographed fight sequences spread throughout the film. Hell, almost every stick of furniture is destroyed inside the mortuary during the final ten-minute confrontation with the main vampire! The make-up work and special effects are solid, the period setting is vividly captures, the cinematography is bold and colorful and the stunt work is excellent.

The cast also includes Moon Lee (under the name Choi-fung Li) as Mr. Yam's make-up obsessed daughter Ting-Ting (who sparks the romantic interest of both of Master Kau's assistants and even her own cousin; a police officer played by Billy Lau), Wah Yuen as the main vampire menace and Anthony Chan as another Taoist priest who controls a mini-army of obedient vampires. Many of the actors returned in other films in this series (though playing entirely different roles).

Because of its popularity in the East (it was nominated for eleven Hong Kong Film Awards), Mr. Vampire was followed by many sequels (each directed by Lau); the highly disappointing MR. VAMPIRE II (1986), MR. VAMPIRE 3 (1987), MR. VAMPIRE 4 (1988 aka Mr. Vampire Saga) and MR. VAMPIRE 5 (1992; which was released under the titles Chinese Vampire Story and Mr. Vampire 1992). In addition, there was MAGIC COP (1990), which was the unofficial Part 5 in the series, as well as another unofficial series consisting of New Mr. Vampire (1987 aka Kung Fu Vampire Buster) and New Mr. Vampire 2 (1987; aka VAMPIRE VS. VAMPIRE).

The DVD was released in 2001 on the Hong Kong Legends label.


Survival Earth (1985) (TV)

... aka: Survival 1990

Directed by:
Peter McCubbin

Hamilton/Ontario-based Emmeritus Productions was founded by former TV host Lionel Shenken in the early 80s and spit out film after film during a five-year reign of terror lasting from about 1984 until 1989. In that time, the studio put out an impressive 30+ films. Well, impressive until you actually sit through one of these things. Based on what I've watched thus far (the pallid horror anthology GREEDY TERROR, the serial killer psycho-drama BODY COUNT and this one), I'd say most people are going to be rightfully appalled suffering through these cheap, talky, poorly acted and anemically produced efforts, each of which have public access TV production values (i.e. were shot with camcorders). Amazingly, Shenken managed to get his home grown Z movies out to an international audience via pre-package sales to both video and television. Some of these titles even popped up on American cable TV, and quite a few were released here on video. SURVIVAL EARTH (also released as Survival 1990, despite the fact the film is actually set in 1996) is one of those films.

The Earth is in trouble, judging by the opening stock footage flurry of rioters, pesky politicians, nuclear power plants, grumbling skies and finally, an atomic blast which we assume kills off much of Canada's population. But, rejoice. There are survivors. John (Jeff Holec), a bearded former high school history teacher decked out in a blood-spattered shirt and cut-off blue jean dukes a little too short for comfort, and Miranda (Nancy Cser), his blonde, loincloth-clad, amnesiac "mutant" girlfriend. In this film, a "mutant" is simply someone whose memory was wiped clean after "the fall;" not something that would require the filmmakers to provide any sort of special make-up application. During the course of their five-year courtship, John has taught Miranda how to talk and read, has caught her up on the times and has somehow transformed his hot blonde clean slate into a sassy, defiant feminist in the process. The two live in a house, which is actually just the crumbling remains of a house... that has no roof. Yes, no roof. What they do in the Canadian winter in anybody's guess. Every once in awhile, the duo have to whip out their firearms to protect their territory from crazed, marauding "vandals" who roam in the woods.

The comfy living situation is threatened by the arrival of Simon (Craig Williams), a disciplined, clean-cut former army cadet who shows up at their home with rifle in hand. Simon doesn't make a good first impression by cooking and serving them their pet dog Corridge for dinner, but he does turn out to be an OK guy after all and everyone becomes fast friends. The men sit around discussing their former lives before the apocalypse. Miranda bitches because Jeff's always reading passages from his W.G. Yates poetry book and pining for a past she can't even remember (he even wears the key to his "brand new 1986 Honda Civic" around his neck). Meanwhile, someone is lurking in the woods, watches Miranda bathe in a stream and seems to be ready to strike at any moment. Did I mention that John's father was a research scientist working on the duplication of cellular structure (i.e. cloning)? Yeah, whoever wrote the script (the director, star Williams and Gina Mandelli) decided to throw that out there about an hour into the film.

Even though we were shown an atomic blast at the beginning of the film, we learn that the apocalypse was actually caused by a financial meltdown, which led to a disbanding of the army, government and military, which led to chaos, anarchy and eventually armageddon. The film makes mention of things that sound cool in theory (such as cannibalistic mutants taking over the cities), but we never actually get to see any of these things. In fact, this movie is little more than three mediocre actors sitting around in a "house" or walking around in the woods talking, talking and talking some more for about 80 minutes. All of the talk is punctuated by a badly choreographed fist fight, a few grenade explosions, some very brief nudity during Miranda's skinny dip and an axing, plus two clumsy action scenes with our heroes shooting at the vandals.

I happen to love post apocalytpic films, even slower, more contemplative ones... but this near-plotless camcorder cheapie won't be cutting anyone's mustard. I don't believe any of the Emmeritus films have been issued on DVD and I doubt they ever will be. The three I've seen are all more than welcome to disappear off the face of the Earth.

The VHS copy I slogged through was from the British label Visual Entertainment.


Runaway Nightmare (1982)

Directed by:
Michael Cartel

A pair of worm ranchers; Ralph (director / writer Michael Cartel), who enjoys how quiet and predictable the desert is, and Jason (Al Valletta), who's looking for some more excitement out of life ("I just wish something would happen... anything!") are out shooting their rifle and getting some sun when the the bored one finally gets his wish. They see a couple of guys burying a large box, dig it up and open it. Inside is an attractive, still-living blonde (Sijtske Vandenberg), so the duo decide to take her back to their house. Soon after, a bunch of "delicious women" and "their rugged girlfriends" show up armed with rifles, kidnap them and take them back to their hideout, threaten to brand them with a hot iron and keep them prisoner in a dark, cold room. The leader of the cult, Hesperia (Cindy Donlan), punches one of the guys out when he tries to leave and uses a trick gun to blow the head off an opponent during a duel. "Oh wow, man, her heads all gone." The females decide whether they want to sacrifice the guys or make them members of their commune, and decide on the latter, but first the men have to take the "test," which basically involves hanging by their arms and legs from a pole and having sex with two of the women.

Hesperia decides to let the men join because they need help fighting "the syndicate," who have stolen a suitcase full of platinum (?!) from them. The women also apparently make money transporting guns and bombs across the border. Jason starts liking the set-up and access to all the women, while Ralph wants to try to escape. Jason suspects that "Maybe their problem is they've been away from men too long" but actually, only a few of the women are actually sane, and one of them is conspiring to run off with a top secret nuclear weapon (!) once they steal it from a mob warehouse. The entire time some of the women (including one who practices witchcraft and another who may actually be a vampire) try to shoot, stab, strangle or hang the guys in scenes that I believe are supposed to be funny.

This movie has, bar none, the absolute worst acting I've ever seen in any film. In what may be a first, not a single line uttered in this film sounds believable. Not one. Even the worst actors out there usually have a moment here or there where what comes out of their mouth sounds somewhat natural and unaffected, but not here! It's difficult to tell whether the dialogue was dubbed in later or not, but much of it seems improvised on the spot and people are constantly stumbling over their lines; using frequent "uhhh"s to try to string sentences together. At one point, the comic relief chubby girl (who giggles uncontrollably and has a major crush on poor Ralph) mumbles "I mean, you know, I mean, I mean, it's awareness, you know what I mean? I mean, I mean, I know what life means. That's what, that's life." The plot makes about as much sense as that sentence, including the introduction of a barrel of toxic waste at the very end up which apparently transforms the worms into the size of hamsters (which we don't even get to see). One of the main characters ends up in a straight-jacket at a nuthouse and suddenly transforms into a vampire!

I suppose some might find this God awful film amusingly inept, but I got bored with it very quickly. The plot somehow manages to be thin and senseless at the same time, the dialogue is atrocious (and irritating), there's next to no violence and the frequent below-the-neck shots of T&A were clearly added to the film later on (they were shot on video and use the same actress over and over again) in an attempt to give viewers something worthwhile to look at. Fail.

Surprisingly enough, some of these actors did go on to do some other things. Both male leads and Vandenberg had already appeared in the barely-released mafia-themed crime/drama BITTER HARVEST (aka Naked In My Grave). Cartel also had a small role in the drive-in hit PETS (1973), Donlan was in SCHIZOID (1980) with Klaus Kinski and Valletta appeared in SOLE SURVIVOR (1982), which was supposedly the precursor to the later hit FINAL DESTINATION (2001), and the terrible shot-on-video slasher HOLLYWOOD'S NEW BLOOD (1988). Two of the cult members; Jody Lee Olhava and Karen Stride appeared in the bizarro sex comedy THREE WAY WEEKEND (filmed in 1978 and not released until years later). Stride also played one of the titular bloodsuckers in the horrible horror-comedy VAMPIRE HOOKERS (1978), with John Carradine.

Most interesting of all is Georgia Durante, who started out as a model, went on to create her own stunt driving company in Hollywood, released the acclaimed autobiography The Company She Keeps and now works as an anti-domestic violence advocate and motivational speaker. Interestingly, Durante herself was immersed in mob culture early in her life (she worked as a mob driver and was married to an abusive businessman with Syndicate ties). One wonders what hand she may have had in the mafia subplotting here.

Never released to DVD, this one has rightfully fallen off the map after its initial VHS release through All Seasons Entertainment.


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