Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cry of the Banshee (1970)

Directed by:
Gordon Hessler

Price had just scored with WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968; released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm), so production on another witch movie with the same star began the following year in October 1969. Like Witchfinder, this also tried to tenuously link the proceedings with the writings of Edgar Allan Poe in order to cash in on the highly-profitable Poe adaptations made by Roger Corman just a few years earlier. Poe's name was splashed all over the posters (some even attributed a false quote to him) and it begins with a quote from Poe's "The Bells" ("In the startled ear of night, how they screamed out their affright! Too much horrified to speak, they can only shriek, shriek, out of tune...") but in actuality this film has almost nothing to do with the author's work. Director Gordon Hessler (who'd previously made the Price films THE OBLONG BOX [1969], another film very loosely based on Poe,  and SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN [1969; released 1970]) wasn't pleased with the initial script written by Tim Kelly, so he brought in Christopher Wicking to re-write the entire thing, though both men receive billing in the credits. The music score by Wilfred Josephs was also rejected by Hessler and had to be replaced by a new one composed by Les Baxter.

In 16th Century England, Court of Common Pleas magistrate Lord Edward Whitman (Vincent Price) is overseeing the convictions, torturing and executions of witches supposedly spreading evil in the area. Just like Matthew Hopkins character in Witchfinder, Whitman is clearly just in it for his own sick pleasure. He has a young woman branded with a hot iron ("H is for Heretic!"), whipped through the streets and then secured in the village square on a rack where superstitious townspeople pelt her with rocks. While holding a lavish feast, he has the children of a dead convicted witch entertain him and his guests before killing both. Edward has recently taken a much-younger wife, Patricia (Essy Persson), who disagrees with what's going on and calls him a murderer. She's banished to her room where her stepson Sean (Stephen Chase) rapes her and she begins going mad. Alex has two other children with his first wife; Harry (Carl Rigg), who's just arrived back home from his university studies, and Maureen (Hilary Dwyer), who refuses to take part in all the witch stuff and is more interested in her romance with Roderick (Patrick Mower). Roderick was found as a little boy wandering in the woods, had been adopted into the Whitman home and has a strange calming effect on man and animal alike that may have something to do with an ancient medallion he wears around his neck. Father Tom (Marshall Jones) believes Roderick may actually be descended from witches but he's quickly silenced.

A constant howling is heard through the woods, which Edward attributes to wolves or injured dogs. Others - including Patricia - believe it's a "banshee" and the entire Whitman family is cursed to die. Sean, who uses his stature as the magistrate's son to terrorize and harass the villagers and defile the women, discovers servant girl Maggie (Quinn O'Hara) is in possession of charms and gets her to rat out a supposed real witch named Oona (Elizabeth Bergner). Alex and his soldiers descend on Oona and her barely-dressed young followers and slaughter half of them as a warning for them to stop their ways. Oona proceeds to curse Edward, his flesh, his blood, his wife, his children and his house, while praying to Satan to send "an avenger" to come and kill off the Whitman family. The rest plays out in a pretty predictable fashion. Oona gathers her surviving followers in a secret location underneath a cemetery and starts chanting and poking voodoo dolls. Sean is killed by something and villagers, thinking it's a demon dog, hunt down a rabid dog and kill it. Patricia begins to lose her mind and is slain and others in the Whitman family start being targeted. At the same time, Roderick's mysterious lineage is coming to light. By the way, the "banshee" of the title is not a banshee as it is usually defined.

Though not great, this benefits from good costuming, art direction, acting and music, as well as an effective surprise ending. Taking advantage of the then-newfound freedom from censorship, there's lots of bodice ripping and exposed breasts, too, as well as some bloody moments. Things open with great Monty Python-style animated credits courtesy of Terry Gilliam. The cast also includes the wild-eyed Hugh Griffith as a drunk grave-digger, Michael Elphick and Andrew McCulloch as two of Edward's goons, Sally Geeson (sister of Judy) and Quinn O'Hara as witches and Stephen Rea in his film debut as a villager.


Gui xin niang (1972)

... aka: 鬼新娘
... aka: Bride from Hell, The
... aka: Ghost Bride, The
... aka: Gwai san leung

Directed by:
"John H. Chow" (Hsu Chiang Chou)

While traveling through the mountains, young nobleman Yunpeng Nie (Yang "Fan" / Fang) and his tubby sidekick Dahuozi Shui (Got Siu-Bo) get lost. After briefly encountering a solemn female ghost standing by a lake, they venture deeper into the woods, stumble upon a home and basically invite themselves in to spend the night. While snooping around, Yunpeng encounters Anu (Margaret Hsing Hui), the lady of the house, sleeping nude in bed. Because he's already seen her naked and that will just damage her reputation and make her unworthy of being anyone else's wife, Yunpeng offers his hand in marriage as compensation. (Who would have guessed that courting was much easier on the single's scene in feudal Japan than it is nowadays? Screw match.com and the bars; just show your bare ass to the first available bachelor who strolls your way and he'll be forced to marry you!) Anu's pretty maid Yin-erh Wei (Ha Kong) unfortunately gets the bad end of the deal when Dahuozi stumbles upon her naked in bed. The two men and their new brides then return to their village and go through their bow-fifty-times wedding ceremonies. It isn't long after that Yunpeng realizes that his new bride isn't quite what she seems...

Anu appears shy at first, but that's only because she has no interest in meeting hubby's extended family. Once the family does lay eyes on her, the older ones immediately recognize her and run off. That's because she's actually a ghost. One of Yunpeng's aunties makes her nephew a special robe with the image of demon catcher Zhong Kui (Chang I-Fei) sewn into the back. When Anu sees it, the ghost-self projects out of her body and she's forced into facing Zhong - who grows to giant size, tries to spear her with his giant sword and then tries to Godzilla stomp on her with his giant foot - but she's able to escape and burn the robe. Anu also refuses to go to cemeteries because she claims they scare her. While at the village graveyard, Yunpeng meets up with Taoist Master Taiyi (Seung Fung), expert in Fung Shui, astrology and fortune telling. Through him, Yunpeng learns that his wife is actually a woman named Aijiao Feng who, 20 years earlier, watched her parents being slain by three men. Afterward, the guys also murdered her and, for an encore, raped her dead body. I was going to dub this "I Married a Ghost" but "I Married a Ghost Who Wants Revenge on the Slobs Who Fucked Her Corpse" has a much better ring to it.

Despite all of this new information and his new bride behaving strangely and abnormally, Yunpeng still refuses to believe Anu is a ghost. The villagers aren't so complacent and drag her off to the ocean, where they tie her to a stake and plot to either burn her to death or stone her. Village elder Uncle Yang prays to their God for advice on what to do and he materializes in the sky and reprieves Anu, so they let her free. Some of the elder village men - the ones responsible for Aijiao / Anu's murder - end up being visited by the ghost and are killed. One is strangled to death in a cemetery. Another bangs his head against a wall and falls over dead. In the film's only standout sequence, the third murderer's soul is sucked out of his body, shrunk and then becomes trapped on the ghost's paper fan, which is later burned. Master Taiyi pops back up at the end to chase the ghostess around while obnoxiously ringing a bell.

This was one of the earliest Shaw Brothers horror efforts and was made before they perfected their brand of crazy / gory genre offerings with standout films from talented directors like Chih-Hung Kuei (THE BOXER'S OMEN) and Meng Hua Ho (BLACK MAGIC). Bride does have its own dubious distinction: not only does it fail, it fails in four distinctive ways. It sucks as a drama because the writing and acting aren't very good. It sucks as a doomed romance because forced, hoary melodrama is a poor substitute for plot and characterization. It sucks as a horror film because the tone is all over the place and it fails to generate suspense and atmosphere. And, perhaps most painfully of all, it sucks at being a comedy. Dahuozi's brand of double-take, constantly-mugging comedy is about as irritating and unfunny as it gets. Not really the poor actor's fault; the gags and dialogue are just that consistently lame. Strangely enough, despite all of the genres this touches upon, it is currently listed on IMDb as being a "mystery;" one of the only things it is really not.

To add insult to injury, the special effects are also pretty poor. There's only minor wire work for the ghost flying scenes and terrible miniature people burning that look like rag dolls set ablaze (probably cause they are rag dolls set ablaze). Instead of using a make-up application for the ghost, they simply light her face green. The editing jump cuts when the ghost appears and disappears are extremely choppy and amateurishly done with seemingly no consideration for continuity. Even the various ghost-fighting methods - usually one of the more amusing angles of these Asian ghost films - are weak. This one has a flute to call forth ghosts, a peach wood sword to drive them away and other things going on but they're usually used in just one throwaway scene and then forgotten about.

Lead actress Hsing (who shows breasts and ass twice) led a pretty interesting life. She trained extensively at the New Method College, then joined the Southern Drama Group and made her debut in Shaw Productions in 1966, where she'd remain until 1973. Afterward, she married a doctor and relocated to the U.S.. Hsing wouldn't be heard from again until 1994 when she made headlines for murdering her own mother with an axe!! She spent a year in a mental institution before being sentenced to eleven years in prison and passed away in 2009 soon after being released. Director Chow Yuk-Kong (or Hsu Chiang Chou), who'd previously made The Enchanting Ghost (1970), used the alias "John H. Chow" for this one.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Night to Dismember, A (1983)

... aka: Doris Wishman's A Night to Dismember

Directed by:
Doris Wishman

Question her talent. Question her sanity. Say whatever you want about the late Doris Wishman. Like it or not, this eccentric old lady was a true trailblazer. A pioneering force in exploitation cinema, Wishman was one of the only women making nudie films in the 1960s, one of the only women making hardcore porn features in the 1970s and even became one of the first women (at nearly 70 years of age!) to make a post-HALLOWEEN slasher flick. Shot in 1979, A Night to Dismember - made in response to Carpenter's successful trend-setter according to the director herself - had a very troubled production history. In fact, never before has a troubled production history been so evident in the finished product! Thoroughly inept from start to finish, yet in such a bizarre and fascinating way, this one's so uniquely awful that it has managed to earn itself a cult following over the years. Lots of stories have circulated around about what exactly happened here. For years, sources claimed that most of the footage was destroyed in a lab fire and Wishman pieced together what was left. However, as revealed in a later Wishman interview, that wasn't quite the case. 

According to Wikipedia, "The film was nearly finished and being processed when the processing lab declared bankruptcy. A disgruntled employee destroyed footage from several films, including more than half the footage from A Night to Dismember." So why didn't she just count her losses? Wiki continues, "Wishman had pre-sold the film to distributors and was therefore forced to finish the movie. She re-wrote and even re-shot parts of the film with new actors. In 1983, the film was finally released." Not only did poor Doris have to re-shoot some of this, but she was also reduced to using outtakes and scrapped footage originally rejected from her first cut, couldn't get back the original actors so she had to hire new ones to play the same roles and had to further pad things out with footage from completely unrelated films she'd made!

The resulting mess is a delirious, jaw-dropping collection of gory murder set pieces set mostly to grocery store music and edited in a dizzying quick-cut fashion that renders nearly every single scrap of salvaged footage senseless and incomprehensible. Either this was filmed without sound or the sound was destroyed at the processing lab too, so on occasion voices were poorly dubbed in to provide bits of dialogue here and there or screaming. The majority of the story, however, is told via voice over from an off-screen narrator, who tries to rush through his lines to sync up with the fragmented scenes. "I'm Tim O'Malley. I'm a detective. The story I am going to tell you happened in October 1986 in Woodmire Lake; a small town in the Midwest." What follows is a series of bloody murders used to illustrate the madness that seems to run in the Kent family. 

Susan Kent chops up her sister Bonnie in the bathtub then falls on the axe and kills herself. Broderick Kent hires a convict to kill his wife Lola (also in the bathtub) for the insurance money, then hangs himself later in prison.  The next flashback reveals that Vicki Kent (porno actress Samantha Fox) butchered two neighborhood boys in a graveyard. Despite the severity of the crime, Vicki is released from the Brandt Hospital for the Criminally Insane after serving just five years. She goes to live with her father Adam (Saul Meth, from Wishman's Chesty Morgan double feature Deadly Weapons and Double Agent 73), mother Blanche (Miriam Meth), sister Mary (Diane Cummins) and brother Billy (William Szarka). Needless to say, things don't go so smoothly.

Billy doesn't want Vicki around because he's afraid she's going to kill again. Mary doesn't want her around either because while she was away the parents doted on her and she was able to steal Vicki's former boyfriend Frankie (Frankie Sabat) away. Both siblings take it upon themselves to drive her crazy so she'll be taken back to the nuthouse. Vicki gets bad headaches, sees flashing lights, hears voices calling her name, refuses to use silverware at dinner (and eats like an obnoxious pig), threatens to stab her dad with a fork then cackles, imagines (or does she?) bloody hands are groping her and shows other signs of slipping. Soon, someone goes around butchering everyone in sight, starting with Frankie and another of his girlfriends; who are both decapitated while having sex. After speaking ill of their family, Uncle Sebastian ("Norman Main" / Larry Hunter) and his wife Ann (Mary Lomay) are next to go. The killer hides in the backseat of their car, axes Sebastian in the face then thrusts his/her hand through the seat into his chest to rip out his heart. The psycho then runs over Ann's head with the car and chops off her fingers with an axe. For an encore, Bea Smith (Rita Rogers), an aunt in for a visit, gets her head lopped off.

While taking a peaceful walk, Vicki is attacked by a mud-covered man who rises out of the lake and chases her around. She later sees her brother washing mud off his face and discussing going to a costume shop with Mary. Speaking of Mary, the killer seems to be wearing the same clothes she wears... except it's mentioned that Vicki often wears her clothes. Not too horribly bothered by any of this, Vicki decides to treat the detective / narrator who shows up asking questions to a strip show, which is followed by a sex fantasy sequence of blurry bodies rolling around while the screen is tinted purple, blue and orange. Mary has her own orgiastic nightmare, where Billy and her parents stab her repeatedly and chop her with an axe while she moans in pleasure. Finally, the psycho decides to make his / her identity known to the rest of the family... by slaughtering them, of course. An ice pick is shoved all the way through a throat, a head is smashed in with a rock, someone is chopped up with an axe (after falling to the ground and covering their body up with a sheet for no real reason!) and another is buried alive. The final twenty minutes of people walking around in a barely lit house and in the woods getting bumped off seems to last about three hours. The detective finally informs us, "If you were wondering how I came upon all these intimate details, the Kent family had one thing in common: they all kept diaries."

Fans of strange and desperate filmmaking are likely going to get something enjoyable out of this train wreck. Some may even go so far as to spin it to be some surreal, accidental accomplishment. Others beware. There are frequent jumps in the picture and on the soundtrack. The generic, light stock music is incidentally inserted in regardless of the tone of the scene. Lips frequently move and nothing comes out. The narrator is constantly pointing out the most mundane of things, like that characters are reading newspapers and walking to the park even though we can see this with our own eyes. Several different actors play the exact same part (particularly noticeable with the brother and sister characters). Seemingly random shots of things that have nothing to do with that particular scene are inserted throughout. Parts are put in negative, shots are repeated, shots are put in slow motion and Wishman inserted footage from several of her other films to pad it out further (the full run time is just 69 minutes). There are psychedelic swirls and frequent shots of lightning, tombstones, blank walls and feet walking around. Wishman even makes time to plug one of her own films; a poster for The Immoral Three (1977) can be spotted in the basement.

Even this film's credits are completely fucked up. Listed in the cast are Chris Smith playing Sam Kent and Dee Cummins playing Vicki Todd, though neither of those characters are actually in this film. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say that both of them filled in for the characters of Billy and Mary during the re-shoot. "Norman Main" (Larry Hunter) is listed as playing Larry Todd, though he actually plays Sebastian Kent and Alexandria Cass (who - like Fox - is a hardcore porn actress) is listed as playing Nancy when she played Bonnie Kent. Other actors are credited for playing characters named Nina, Timmy, Marty, and John, though none of them are actually anywhere to be seen in this movie.

Gorgon issued a VHS in the late 80s and in 2001 a DVD release came from Elite Entertainment, which contains a commentary track from the director (who is a total kook!) and cameraman C. Davis Smith that's well worth listening to.

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