Thursday, May 31, 2012

Yotsuya kaidan (1965)

... aka: 四谷怪談 
... aka: Illusion of Blood
... aka: Yotsuya Ghost Story, The

Directed by:
Shirô Toyoda

Illusion of Blood is not unlike many other heavily moralistic Japanese 'kaidan' (ghost tales) produced during the 50s and 60s. It's set in post-war feudal times in an impoverished area where villagers are desperate for not only food and money, but also a semblance of basic human dignity in a world where the 'have nots' must degrade themselves on a daily basis in order to just survive. It involves a prideful former samurai and the ego associated with such a position as well as the pitfalls of letting pride get in the way of ones morals. And it - like dozens if not hundreds of Japanese productions from this era - is a revenge-oriented tale of a long-suffering, wrongfully killed person returning from beyond the grave to settle the score. This one was based on Nanboku Tsuruya's very popular play Yotsuya Kaidan ("The Yotsuya Ghost Story"), which was frequently performed in kabuki theatre but has also spawned no less than a dozen film adaptations, from as early as 1912. One of the definitive versions of the story was Nobuo Nakagawa's Ghost Story of Yotsuya (1959), but this one is also worth a look and has its own unique merits despite the familiarity.

Perhaps the chief drawing card here is lead actor Tatsuya Nakadai; one of the most respected and acclaimed Japanese film stars of all time. Prior to taking on this role, Nakadai had appeared as Unosuke the gunfighter in Yojimbo (1961), won many awards for his performance in Harakiri (1962) and had notable roles in numerous other films, including The Face of Another (1964) and the Oscar-nominated supernatural anthology Kwaidan (1964). His distinguished career hasn't faded much throughout the years (he'd become a favorite of Akira Kurosawa and appeared in 1980's Kagemusha, 1985's Ran and others) and he continues to act to this day. Here, Nakadai is given a good platform for his talents, giving an intense and well-modulated performance as the increasingly more unhinged samurai Iyemon Tamiya. After the death of a local warlord whom he used to work for, Iyemon has been eking out a sorry living in the slums, but poverty itself hasn't been enough to make him part with his prized samurai sword, which he refuses to sell. Iyemon is in love with Oiwa (Mariko Okada), but because of his lowly status as an umbrella maker, Oiwa's father (Yasushi Nagata) refuses to give him his blessing. In fact, he's been forcing Oiwa and his other daughter Osada (Junko Ikeuchi) into selling their bodies at a local brothel to help support the family.

Deciding he isn't going to let anyone keep him from Oiwa, Iyemon murders her father with his sword. While scouring the swamp looking for a place to dispose of the body, Iyemon runs across Naosuke (Kanzaburô Nakamura), who's in love with Oiwa's sister and has killed - and skinned off the face of - HER lover. Both men conspire together to conceal their crimes, makes it look like the work of vagrant thieves and go about their lives with the sisters. Oiwa moves in with Iyemon and eventually gives birth, but he quickly grows tired of her and the crying baby, whom he can barely support. Finding the responsibility of several other mouths to feed too much to handle, Iyemon starts sneaking out at night to romance young Oume Ito (Mayumi Ôzora), the spoiled daughter of one of the few wealthy man in the area. Oume's father (Eitarô Ozawa) promises Iyemon that if he marries his daughter he'll set him up with a nice position for another lord. The Ito family's evil nursemaid (Keiko Awaji), in conjuction with the wishes of Mr. Ito and his daughter, gives Iyemon some "special medicine" to give to his wife. The "medicine" ends up horribly disfiguring her face. Iyemon kills her, his baby and a servant boy, claims Oiwa ran off with the servant and then tries to go about his new life. But Oiwa's restless spirit has other ideas in store for all of those responsible for her death.

Though slow going, the writing and production values are competent and Nakadai does a good job pacing out his character's decent into amorality and mental deterioration; full-blown psychosis overwhelms his character by the very end. The primary characters are all strongly defined individuals and the entire supporting cast does well. There's little humor here; it's mostly grim, oppressive, murky, the lighting is consistently dark and the film doesn't play favorites (the innocent people die along with the guilty). The supernatural and horror scenes, relegated primarily to the final half of the film, are well done. One of the most startling effects takes place in the swamp, where Iyemon had disposed of the bodies of Oiwa and the servant (he'd nailed them both to a door and sunk them together). During one sequence, the door suddenly pops out of the water with Oiwa's bloated corpse on top and her face suddenly melts off to reveal the skull underneath. A few less-convincing effects (namely ones involving [stuffed] rats) don't harm the film too badly.

Never released in the U.S. on either video or DVD. However, the film was issued on DVD in the UK. The print is widescreen - though quite dark - and has English subs.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Vampire Cop (1990)

Directed by:
Donald Farmer

From the man who brought us CANNIBAL HOOKERS (1987) and SCREAM DREAM (1989) - it's OK to run away right now; I totally understand - comes this shot-on-video mixture of urban action/thriller, cop drama, horror flick and gratuitous overuse of slow motion. The first twenty-five minutes is an interestingly edited cluster of things to come. While the opening credits slowly roll out, we see people dancing in a club, a vampire making goofy strained faces and showing his fangs, the same vampire standing valiantly in foggy silhouette, a nightmare-plagued blonde writhing in bed, a teen girl getting forced at gunpoint into a thugs car and various other things. At the club a "Hot Body" bikini contest is in full swing. Two of the girls; Nikki and Danielle, agree to go back to the hotel with an older guy for 300 bucks apiece. Before the guy can even get going (but after one girl takes her top off and the other hops in the shower), there's a knock on the door. In marches German crime boss / drug dealer / pimp Hans Geiger (Terence Jenkins), who's pissed his two girls are freelancing. He shoots Danielle dead and then forces Nikki back onto the street.

Geiger and his henchman Kurt (Phil Newman) attempt to make a drug deal with an undercover agent. When they discover who he is, they shoot him dead and end up in a car chase with two other cops; Newhouse (Don Tilley) and Mr. Vampire Cop himself, musclebound blonde William Lucas (Ed Cannon). Things end with Kurt and Newhouse dead and Lucas vowing revenge against the crime lord. Meanwhile, teen runaway Traci (Morrow Faye) - a girl who was almost raped until Vampire Cop came to her rescue and killed the guy - goes to reporter and TV hostess Melanie Roberts (Scream Dream star Melissa Moore) for help. Melanie allows her to stay in her home while she's investigating the case and a string of unsolved murders where people are turning up dead with strange, bat-like bite marks on their necks are just beginning. Melanie eventually teams up with Lucas in hopes they can crack the case together. Naturally, the two end up falling in love too, though it takes her forever to put two-and-two together. Hey, she's investigating what the press refers to as "The Vampire Murderer" and finds herself dating a man who refuses to leave the house during the day, works only at night, doesn't cast a shadow in the mirror and doesn't smoke, drink or even eat!

This is a very slight improvement over the director's previous films in that it has an actual storyline, numerous locations, decent videography and a couple of actors with charisma and the ability to recite their dialogue without coming off like they recently received a lobotomy. Hunky Cannon is pretty amateurish as the title character, but Moore looks great and is appealing as our heroine, Jenkins does a great job as the bad guy and R.J. McKay is fun as one of his henchmen. There's also a fun role for "special guest star" Mal Arnold as a police lieutenant who ends up getting chainsawed. You may remember Mr. Arnold as deranged Egyptian caterer Fuad Ramses in Herschell Gordon Lewis' seminal gore flick BLOOD FEAST (1963). Can't say I'm familiar with most of the rest of the cat, but most at least seem like they're at least trying to act.

Not that this film doesn't have major problems. In fact, it's loaded with them. Farmer seems inept in the ways of continuity and making sure everything that needs to be filmed actually is filmed (notice how many times shots of police cars and exteriors of houses are spliced into the middle of scenes). Slow motion is constantly used for no good reason and we even get flashbacks to things we just saw a scene earlier but put in slow motion. I also had a big problem with how sloppy the Vampire Cop was. He bites many people - including the main bad guy - and then just leaves them there so that they'll return as vampires (and naturally be harder for him to defeat). You'd think he'd be a bit smarter after having lived on the fringes without being detected for over 100 years. Several characters who are bitten transform into vampires and are never seen again. And speaking of never seeing characters again, Geiger's henchman AND even the main character miraculously just disappear in the middle of the big finale, leaving out heroine alone with the crime boss! The last scene rips off the final scene in THE HOWLING.

Farmer financed the film and also wrote it. Tim Ritter (TRUTH OR DARE?) was an associate producer. For some reason, it was filmed in three different cities in three different states; Pensacola, Florida, Atlanta, Georgia and Los Angeles, California).


Slumber Party Massacre III (1990)

... aka: Night Light
... aka: Slumber Party Massacre 3
... aka: Stab in the Dark

Directed by:
Sally Mattison

Entry three in this popular slasher series delivers precisely what anyone who'd be inclined to watch something called Slumber Party Massacre in the first place would want to see: attractive young ladies showing some skin before getting massacred. Since each of these involved a male psycho brandishing a large, high-powered drill, the first was written by feminist author Rita Mae Brown as a spoof on the slasher cycle (though so much was changed from Brown's original script she ultimately disowned the project) and all were made by female directors, much has been made of the phallic symbolism of the killer's weapon. The "driller killer" in this third installment is a good-looking, clean cut ladies man who is unable to "perform" because he was sexually abused by his uncle as a child. And thus, his weapon is how he vents pent up sexual frustration and the only way he's able to really "drill" anybody. Mind you, none of that is carried out in a clever, amusing or intelligent way here, but the potential was certainly there for more than what any of these titles actually deliver.

Blonde beach bunny Jackie (Keely Christian) and her high school pals are playing volleyball when they notice "The Weirdo" (Yan Birch) staring at them. Brushing it off, they decide to call it a day, but one of the girls is ambushed in her car on the way out and drilled through the seat. Guess who's gonna be a no-show at the slumber party? In case you're not up on your obvious red herrings, "The Weirdo," weird-o as he may be, is just one of many utterly ridiculous and useless suspects the film introduces to us. Another is Morgan (Michael Harris), Jackie's pervy hippie neighbor, who breaks into her home while she's out and later will be keeping tabs on the girls through his trusty telescope. And by keeping tabs, I mean watching them dance and change clothes. Nope, not him either. Because both the DVD and VHS boxes and the trailer have no problem revealing who the killer is, I guess I shouldn't give two hoots about it either. It's Ken (Brittain Frye). Since Ken isn't wearing a hockey mask and doesn't have long hair, I reckon the filmmakers thought we'd be surprised to see an upstanding young man clad in a button-up dress shirt and khaki's running around slicing up half-naked chicks.

During the girls' get together, they do what all women do when they're hanging out: eat high-calorie junk food, suck down beer, gossip, listen through the door while the others are having sex and dance around topless. There are only two names amongst the cast that require singling out. The first is Hope Marie Carlton, a Playboy Playmate best known to horror fans as the naked girl in the waterbed from the fourth Elm Street film. Strangely enough, and despite appearing naked in nearly everything else she did, Hope manages to get through this film with her clothes on. The nude duties are left to an unknown actress named Lulu Wilson and (our second "name" on the cast roster) Maria Ford, a favorite of producer Roger Corman and late-night cable junkies. There's something very sweet about Ford's voice and demeanor, so she seems miscast as the "bad girl" of the group. She'd have made a much better choice for Jackie than the actress actually playing her. Either way, it's Maria Ford and she's always an asset to whatever film she's in, even when stuck wearing a wig that looks like it was dug out of Elvira's trash bin. Now back to that slumber party massacre...

While the girls are doing their thing (which is basically sitting around looking bored), a few guys sneak over wearing monster masks to scare them. Ken shows up next. When he can't perform for Juliette (Wilson) he decides to electrocute her in the bathtub instead. Not content with the usual hair dryer or radio, he instead opts for a vibrator that Juliette found in a drawer, plugged in and left sitting on the sink for no good reason. Others are killed in a variety of ways, some of them creative. Aside from the death-by-vibrator, I particularly liked the death by "House For Sale" sign. Someone else is killed with a swordfish through the mouth. Another gets his legs cut off with a chainsaw, but manages to crawl all the way back to the house from several blocks away in a matter of minutes. A pizza delivery girl (Marta Kober, of FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART 2 fame) and numerous others are drilled. None of the moronic characters are bright enough to figure out how to leave a house. They also have plenty of opportunities to take out the killer, but insist on running away any time they get him down. The psycho manages to survive attacks with a fruit bowl, table lamp and polo mallet, plus bleach to the eyes and getting shot with a harpoon. When one girl wonders why the unconscious killer is breathing funny, another hilariously responds "Well, we hit him over the head a lot!" During Ford's prolonged death scene, her "friends" stand around and watch as she pleads for her life while the killer strips off her clothes off and drills her. Gee, thanks a lot, pals!

Brainless as this all is, it's never boring. SPM3 (which was released by Concorde / New Horizons on both DVD and VHS) is fast-paced, frequently very funny (often unintentionally so - but whatever) and has plenty of blood and a high body count. I also really dig the end theme song "Twist and Scream" by Jamie Sheriff.

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