Sunday, August 4, 2013

Fukushû suru wa ware ni ari (1979)

... aka: Vengeance is Mine

Directed by:
Shôhei Imamura

It's a dark and snowy January night in 1964. While in the back of a police car sandwiched between two detectives, Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) takes time out from singing to note that "Life sure ain't fair." One of the officers corrects him by adding that it's also not fair to the five people he has killed. This one small, brief moment manages to brilliantly capture the essence of the man we'll be getting to know a little more about over the course of the next two and a half hours. Not equipped with traits such as empathy and compassion, and not kept in check with things like loyalty to family or fear in God, Iwao's life is a life about one thing: Himself. Nothing supersedes his own needs and desires, and if you happen to get in his way of him getting what he wants, then too bad for you. When Iwao and the detectives arrive at the police station, they're greeted by the press and an angry, threatening mob of people. The authorities have a hell of a time getting Iwao to cooperate. He's more concerned with keeping up his hygiene and staying out of the cold than giving a confession. After all, if they think they know what he's done and who's he done it to already, why does he need to rehash it? Iwao had been on the run for 78 days prior to his capture. We then go back in time to see the events leading up to a nationwide manhunt for Iwao.

In 1938 while WWII was underway, the navy showed up to lay claim on his family's fleet of fishing boats. A very young Iwao, already showing signs of being of a short-tempered sociopath with a violent streak, attacked a sailor and called his father Shizuo (Rentarô Mikuni) a "weakling" for not fighting back. Forced to sell out, the family used the money to relocate and open a hotel; the Goto Inn. Iwao's formative years were mostly spent in a reformatory in an ill-fated attempt to straighten him out. By 1946, he was serving his first prison term for stealing an American jeep. Not knowing what to do with him, Shizuo and his sickly wife Kayo (Chocho Miyako) set up an arranged marriage to Kazuko Omura (Mitsuko Baishô), figuring he may settle down with a wife and children to support. Hardly. Despite Kazuko and two young daughters now in the picture Iwao's criminal activities continue. Not surprisingly, Iwao proves to be a terrible husband. He's abusive, extremely cruel and has no issue being unfaithful. He also doesn't seem the least bit interested in his kids. The one thing that drives him is money, and he'll do anything to get it, which soon lands him another 30 months in prison for fraud.

While his son is in prison, Shizuo goes to Kazuko and begs her to give his son another chance and return to the family's inn. Reluctantly she agrees, but only because she's fallen in love with her father-in-law and vice versa. Because Kayo is very ill (she has a weak heart and other medical problems) and Iwao is useless and always locked up, Shizuo and Kazuko have become highly dependent on one another over the years, though they've never acted upon their mutual attraction. Shizuo is even kind enough to arrange for a friend to come make love to the lonely Kazuko while her husband is locked up. And that's perfectly fine with Iwao. Once he's released from prison, he uses the information as just another way to make some money by blackmailing his wife's one-time lover and threatening to kill him and burn down his house if he doesn't come up with 100,000 yen. After receiving that, Iwao claims he's finally going to go straight with a job at a PR company but even that is just a guise to swindle more money. Only this time, Iwao viciously stabs two men to death in the process and is forced to flee the city. A manhunt is now underway. Wanted posters with Iwao's face are plastered up everywhere and he's a frequent fixture on the news. The hangman's noose awaits if he's captured.

Iwao adopts various aliases and false identities, claiming to be lawyers and professors, in order to fleece money out of more vulnerable victims, while frequently hopping around from city to city to avoid capture. Along the way, he murders an aged lawyer simply because he wants a cheap place to stay and strikes up an odd relationship with Haru Asano (Mayumi Ogawa), a prostitute and hotel owner, and her gambling-addict mother (Nijiko Kiyokawa), who'd spent time in prison herself for murder. Haru has an older "sugar daddy" who pays her mortgage and has no issue slapping her around and raping her in front of her mother, as well as a younger lover, who ends up running off and getting married to someone else. So damaged by life, so desperate for love and companionship, Haru decides to let Iwao hide out in her hotel even after finding out who he really is, with tragic consequences.

This is a fascinating, compelling, insightful, extremely well-made, brilliantly written (Masaru Baba adapted the novel by Ryuzo Saki; which is said to be based in part on real-life serial killer Akira Nishiguchi) and directed look inside an unfeeling criminal mind. Many moments are grueling, uncomfortable and / or disturbing to watch, but it's also often very funny and all nicely balanced out with black comedy. I'd be hard pressed singling any one person out in the cast, as all of the actors are exceptional in their respective roles. The only thing that didn't quite work for me was the very last scene.

Though it didn't really seem to get its due outside of Asia at the time, Vengeance ended up sweeping many of the awards in its home country. It was nominated for 12 from the Awards of the Japanese Academy and won for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography (Shinsaku Himeda), Lighting (Yasuo Iwaki), Screenplay and Supporting Actress (Ogawa). It also won many other Asian film awards. The DVD is from the Criterion Collection.

La señora Muerte (1969)

... aka: Death Woman, The
... aka: Madame Death
... aka: Mrs. Death

Directed by:
Jaime Salvador

Since the best offers John Carradine was getting in America at this time were in Grade Z productions like Ted V. Mikels' The Astro Zombies (1967) and Al Adamson's BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE (1969), he decided to head to Mexico to try his luck down there. Carradine wasn't the first veteran horror star to do this. Lon Chaney Jr. paved the way by playing a were-mummy in 1959's THE HOUSE OF TERROR. Carradine also wasn't the only one who'd be doing this a decade later. Basil Rathbone and Cameron Mitchell had both been in a 1967 Spanish-language horror-comedy called Autopsy of a Ghost (which Carradine was also in). Even the late, great Boris Karloff ended his long and distinguished career by appearing in four (very bad) U.S. / Mexican co-productions, which combined footage Karloff shot in Los Angeles with director Jack Hill with footage shot in Mexico by Juan Ibañez.

So what was this short-lived trend - drafting English-speaking stars into Spanish-language films - all about? One would assume it was to have more internationally-known names so the films could be released to a wider market, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Only the Karloff films were dubbed. The rest of these weren't even released outside of Spanish-speaking countries. Still, having 'name' stars never hurt anyone's movie, even if the 'names' had to be dubbed over by someone else at the end of the day. Why well-known actors would appear in these to little fanfare probably is as simple as getting a paycheck mixed with lack of opportunity elsewhere; perhaps Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were hogging all the good roles? Carradine was a blue collar actor who simply liked to work and never seemed to turn down any role - so it's not surprising that he was the most prolific English-speaking actor to do these. It was just a one-time thing for Chaney, Rathbone and Mitchell, while Carradine did a handful: Anthology of Fear, Pact with the Devil, Secret of Death, The Vampire Girls and this one; which were all filmed in 1968.

Andres (Victor Junco) is dying of cancer and is so desperate that he's enlisted the services of sketchy mad scientist Dr. Favel (Carradine), who has a bad reputation around town and was expelled from the medical academy for ethical violations. Andres' wife Marlene (Regina Torné) hates Favel, but decides to play along if it means being able to save her husband. As his patient nears his death, Favel puts him inside a glass preservation contraption that puts his body into a state of suspended animation. He then tells Marlene he needs "fresh young blood cells" to put into his body in order to save him. She agrees to be the donor and is hooked up to a machine she thinks is going to pump out some of her blood. Instead, Favel gives her some kind of degenerative disease that sometimes withers half of her face and body. Now with her husband on ice and cursed with a Jekyll & Hyde style affliction, Marlene starts to go a little mad. Favel promises that he'll restore her beauty and save her husband if she'll just get him blood.

Marlene owns a successful fashion design business with her partner Tony (Miguel Ángel Álvarez), who's having an affair on his wife Patricia (Alicia Ravel) with a model named Lisa (Isela Vega). There are always lots of attractive young women hanging around her home, and since Favel requests only blood from young woman, there are plenty of donors at Marlene's disposal. She strangles some with a steel wire and stabs others, using clear tubing to extract their blood once they're dead. After Patricia and Lisa are both killed, Marlene implicates Tony in the murders to buy herself some more time. Unfortunately for her, Dr. Favel has no real intention of helping her and is just using her as a pawn for his own egomaniacal desires to become a world famous scientist.

Fernando Osés leads up the boring police investigation, with help from a doctor played by Mário Orea. Elsa Cárdenas co-stars as Julie, Marlene's personal assistant, who becomes one of the targets. Also thrown into the mix is Favel's pitiful hunchback assistant Laro (Carlos Ancira), who has the hots for Marlene. During one Ed Wood-esque moment, the hunchback attempts to rape Marlene and Favel pulls out a whip and starts lashing him.

There's absolutely nothing new or novel about this low-budget production. The sets are cheap, the police scenes are dull, much of the dialogue is poor, the color photography is pretty flat and the mad scientist's agenda is generic and silly. The makeups are good, though, and some scenes are pretty fun. Marlene chases a victim around in a room full of mannequins and has a nightmare where she envisions Carradine's disembodied head ordering her to "Kill! Kill! Kill!" There are several lengthy fashion show sequences featuring lots of butt ugly lace tablecloth "high fashions" of the day, so those are pretty amusing. The best scene takes place in a horror wax museum with replicas of Dracula, The Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster, where Marlene throws acid in some guy's face and then decapitates his girlfriend with a guillotine. 

The real saving grace is its female star. Torné gets to play both tortured victim and demented, over-the-top maniac and does a good job at both. She also appears topless, something not all that common in Mexican genre films at the time. Despite having star billing, Carradine's role is a supporting one and he disappears from the film for long stretches. The actor also gets to introduce the film in a pre-credits prologue.

Les raisins de la mort (1978)

... aka: Grapes of Death, The
... aka: Pesticide
... aka: Raisins of Death, The
... aka: Village of the Living Dead, The

Directed by:
Jean Rollin

Grape harvesters who work for Roubelais Vineyard have been using a new chemical pesticide on their annual crop. Unfortunately, the shoddy masks they've been given by their boss haven't been airtight and the men have been breathing in the toxic substance all along. And if direct contact with the substance in the air is bad, actually ingesting the wine certainly couldn't be any better for you. Aboard a train, two women; Elisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) and Brigitte (Evelyne Thomas) are the sole passengers and happen to be passing through the same area as the vineyard. At a brief stop, one of the sick men gets aboard the train. His face begins to swell and bleed, he goes mad, kills Brigitte and then tries to kill Elisabeth, but she stops the train and escapes. After running a piece through the country, she comes across a farmhouse where named Lucien (Serge Marquand) and his daughter Antoinette (Patricia Cartier) live. It doesn't take long before Elisabeth realizes that the same affliction that's befallen the man aboard the train has also infected the farmer, who has a strange rash on his hand and has already murdered his wife during one of his "spells." Antoinette insists they sneak out and take the car to go get help, but they're ambushed by the father, who promptly rips open Antoinette's top to reveal she too is infected before sinking a pitchfork into her. On her way out, the farmer pleads with Elisabeth to kill him, so she smashes him up against a wall with the car before heading on down the road.

Elisabeth eventually finds herself in another village, where she's attacked by yet another crazed / infected man and shoots him in the head. From there, she encounters the blind Lucie (Mirella Rancelot) wandering around in a field full of large stones. Lucie claims she's from a nearby village, has been ostracized for supposedly being bad luck and has gotten separated from her guide. Elisabeth decides to take her back and, once they arrive, the entire village appears to have been slaughtered. Bloody corpses are strewn all over the ground, but soon more insane killers to come crawling out of the rubble. After Lucie wanders off and gets herself killed, Elisabeth seeks refuge in a home where a mysterious, nameless beauty (Brigitte Lahaie) is hiding out. The woman claims to be the mayor's assistant and says she's been trapped there for three days. Elisabeth senses something's a little off about her, but since she doesn't bear any of the trademark soars of the infected, our heroine takes her at her word. As soon as the two step outside to make a run for it, the woman grabs Elisabeth and informs all of the mad villagers to come out and kill her. Thankfully, a pair of construction workers pop in just in the nick of time. They; WWII veteran Paul (Félix Martin), and his younger co-worker Francois (Patrice Valota), rescue Elisabeth and the three head off to the vineyard - where Elisabeth's fiancé Michel (Michel Herval) is supervisor - to try to find out just what's happened.

First off, it needs to be pointed out that this is a much more commercial film than Rollin's previous efforts and, as a result, it may not please some of his die-hard fans. As a matter of fact, I've seen Grapes written off numerous times as a lesser film in the director's oeuvre. Though the ambiance, locales and much of the photography is terrific, there's little "surreal" or "dream-like" atmosphere to be found here. It follows along a linear story line without meandering at a funeral procession pace like many of Rollin's other works. It also lacks the director's typically large amount of gratuitous nudity and his obsessive undraping of underage-looking girls in pigtails, which I suspect is actually the chief reason it is sometimes discounted. I've noticed about the same treatment has been afforded some of Spanish director Jess Franco's least exploitative films. While his sex films are often branded "art," some of his other works, such as his black-and-white Gothic horrors, are often written off as being too mainstream by the dedicated. Me? I go straight down the middle with my tastes, so I often enjoy these "lesser" efforts more so than the lauded ones. I like a nice balance between style and story. If a movie is lacking in one area or the other, it better succeed with flying colors where it is good. Grapes possesses neither exorbitant visual style nor a brilliantly written screenplay, but does show enough attention to both areas to at least skim by with a passing grade.

This same story (pollutants leading to madness, mutation and death) has been told many times elsewhere in films made both before and after this one. Where it separates itself is in its amazing shooting locations, which give this an unique atmosphere that sets it apart from other efforts in the 'living dead' sub-genre to which it belongs. The majority of the film has been shot outdoors in the French countryside and it's filled with Autumn colors, various crumbling structures and old farmhouses and walkways made of stone. The backdrops are often so absorbing to view, you'll find your attention drifting away from the action and characters just to check out what's going on behind them. The writing is less successful. Though the plot-line is certainly at least competent, its attempts to draw war parallels at the very end aren't elaborated upon enough to make them all that impactful. The makeup work is itself highly uneven, but there's at least one memorably gruesome sequence (a decapitation) which has managed to withstand the test of time well enough.

Leading lady Pascal sadly committed suicide in 1985 at the age of 39. Lahaie and Rollin also collaborated on many other projects, including the highly-regarded-by-fans FASCINATION (1979), THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTED (1980), which shares a similar toxic-chemicals-turn-people-into-homicidal-maniacs premise, and The Escapees (1981). The Synapse DVD release contains 30 minutes worth of interviews with both Rollin and Lahaie, but they don't really even talk about this film except in passing!

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