Friday, June 27, 2014

Devil's Express (1976)

... aka: Death Express
... aka: Devil Express
... aka: Gang Wars
... aka: Gang Wars: Devil's Express
... aka: Phantom of the Subway, The

Directed by:
Barry Rosen

China. 200 B.C. - A group of monks put a amulet inside a coffin with a corpse and drop it down into a cave. Afterward, the leader (Yoshiteru Otani) decapitates all of his followers with his samurai sword and then slashes his own throat. Cut to present day New York City. Martial arts instructor Luke Curtis ("He's not one of the best... he is the best!") finishes up a lesson with a "pig honky" client of his and gets ready for his big trip over to Hong Kong, where he'll do some more training with martial arts guru Master Leung (Duncan Leung). Accompanying Luke (Warhawk Tanzania) on his trip is one of his students, Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan), a coke dealer / gang banger who really could use some soul cleansing. The two men arrive in China, go to the camp for some laughable training exercises and then venture into the woods to meditate. While there, they stumble upon the cave. Despite Luke's "bad vibes," Rodan finds the coffin and, unbeknownst to his buddy, pockets the amulet. Both men get on the midnight flight back to the U.S. ... but they're not alone. As it turns out, after they left the cave, a living corpse (actually a resurrected demon) busted out of the coffin, made its way to a dock, possessed a businessman (Aki Aleong) and then hitched a ride aboard a ship heading to, you guessed it, New York City.

Once the ship arrives in New York Harbor, the possessed dude (now blinded and sporting some huge white eyeballs; an effect achieved by having the actor close his eyes and painting his eyelids white!) stumbles down the street and disappears into a tunnel. His chest bursts open and something comes out. Not long after, mangled corpses start turning up in the subway. The amulet, which Rodan now wears around his neck, seems to have some kind of power over the demon / monster / zombie or whatever it is and the creature would like it back. Lt. Cris Allen (Larry Fleischman) of the NYPD is put on the case, and he's assigned new partner Mike (Stephen DeFazio) for a clichéd odd couple pairing. Cris is street-smart and tough while Mike loves tennis and country clubs and thinks mutant animals (!) may be responsible for the killings. The two men hit the streets to try to figure out what's going on and don't seem to take an eyewitness who claims to have seen "a deformed monster" in the subway all that seriously. Meanwhile, there's a vicious rivalry going on between two rival gang factions: one a Chinese gang called "The Red Dragons" and the other a black gang called "The Black Spades" (seriously... ).

If you're sitting there at home pulling out your hair because you can't decide whether to watch a blaxploitation movie, a demon movie, a kung fu movie, a gang movie or a buddy cop movie then don't fret: Devil's Express has got you covered on all fronts. So does it actually pull any of that off successfully? No, it does not... but that is not necessarily a bad thing depending on what kind of viewer you are. Most of the acting is terrible, the characters aren't the least bit likable, the editing is ragged, the dialogue is boring, the blood is tomato soup and the action is just pathetic. The subway horror scenes are few and far between to begin with but the lighting is so dark (even in the restored version) you can barely even see anything. The demon itself is not fully revealed until the very end but, again, it's difficult to really make the thing out because of the lighting and editing. Where this truly shines for fans of bad movies is in the fight choreography, which is some of the worst ever. For starters, the black actors clearly have no real martial arts training and are pitted against Asian actors who do, which is extremely awkward to watch (and makes it extremely difficult to believe that the "Spades" could whip their asses). That's made even more awkward than it already is by the fact fists and feet typically don't come within a foot of their desired target. Add some canned 70s-style kung fu sound effects for the body impact and the back alley brawls are a laugh a minute. I am still laughing writing this up a few days later.

This film is also odd in that there's no real central focal point. Top-billed Warhawk Tanzania (whose name cannot be said enough in its entirety as far as I'm concerned) features prominently in the beginning, but is strangely absent from the majority of the mid-section when it focuses its attention over on the cops, the gangs (of which Luke has no involvement because he's an upstanding guy) and the murders. Though Tanzania's acting skills and on-screen charisma border on nonexistent, he does at least come through for a hilarious finale; strutting around, doing various cliché kung fu poses and beating up a bunch of guys (and the demon) while wearing gold lamé bellbottoms. The "actor" had appeared in another kung fu blaxploitation flick called Black Force (1975) before this one, but nothing after.

The major talents to emerge from the production were director of photography Paul Glickman, who'd go on to shoot many other films (including a half-dozen for Larry Cohen) and assistant cameraman Stefan Czapsky, who'd move up the ranks to become a cinematographer himself (winning some major awards for Tim Burton's Ed Wood [1994]). David E. Durston (director of the cult classic I Drink Your Blood [1970]), Sherry Steiner (from several early William Girdler films), Domonic Paris (director of Dracula's Last Rites [1980]), Fred Berner (later an Emmy-nominated TV producer) and Brother Theodore (in a truly bizarre cameo as a manic preacher) all have small roles, as well.

Though listed on IMDb under the title Gang Wars, this was filmed as The Phantom of the Subway and was first released theatrically under the Devil's Express title in 1976. The Gang Wars moniker was a re-release title hoping to cash in on the success of The Warriors (1979). There was at least one early U.S. VHS release on the Simitar label (under the Gang title) and one early pre-cert issuing in the UK by FLK Video. In 2005, Videoasia either accidentally screwed up their packaging or intentionally led people astray with their DVD collection "Tales of Voodoo: Volume 3;" which claimed to contain Devil's Express, when in fact the movie on the set was actually The Devil (1981), a gruesome black magic film from Hong Kong originally titled Xie bo. It wouldn't be until 2013 that Code Red finally released the film legitimately.


Hakujitsumu (1964)

... aka: Daydream
... aka: Day-dream
... aka: Träume im Zwielicht (Twilight Dream)

Directed by:
Tetsuji Takechi

In 1962, director Satoru Kobayashi made Nikutai no Ichiba ("Flesh Market"); the first official Japanese film featuring both sex and nudity and made decidedly for adult audiences, and thus the "eroduction" genre (or as it would later be called, the "pink film" or "pinku eiga") was born. Kobayashi's film became a huge hit playing in more underground venues. Made for another independent production company, Koji Seki's erotic adventure Jôyoku no dôkutsu (called "Desire in Cavern" on the original poster and also known as Cave of Lust) soon followed. Then came Tetsuji Takechi's Onna onna onna monogatari (1963), a nudie pseudo-documentary featuring strippers, geisha and the all-important female wrestlers, which became the third pink film and was also the first of such films to get a release in America (under the title Women... Oh, Women!). Under whatever title, the film was another moneymaker. Takechi was then allowed to make a follow-up. Though it came two years after the inaugural pink, Hakujitsumu ("Day-Dream") was the first of its kind made on a big budget and the first of its kind to receive an extensive marketing campaign. The production company went all out; wide-releasing it in its homeland, getting it a screening at the Venice Film Festival and issuing it theatrically in numerous other countries, including here in America. In fact, it ended up doing so well on the sexploitation market in the U.S. that it was re-issued a second time with new color dream sequences added by distributor Joseph Green (of THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE fame).

Things open with statements from both the writer of the source story and the director, who notes the political nature of the film and justifies the unclothed scenes by explaining "... nudity stands as much for man's extreme situation as it does for human alienation." The credits feature white paint oozing down and being squirted onto a wall, accompanied by a female's moans. We're then in a dentist's office for more unsubtle sexual imagery like the sounds of drilling, gurgling, spitting and people being probed in the mouth with fingers and phallic dental instruments as the camera tilts this way and that way and shoots everything from odd angles and large circular lights and fans are positioned around like giant eyeballs gazing upon all the action. In the waiting room, Mr. Kurahashi (Akira Ishihama) is waiting with an infected tooth when Cheiko Hamuro (Kanako Michi) comes in. He's intrigued by the quiet young beauty and can barely keep his eyes off of her. Both he and Cheiko are then called back to the dentist (Chojuro Hanakawa) and his nurse (Yasuko Matsui) at the same exact time. In preparation for getting his tooth yanked out, Mr. Kurahashi is given a shot of anesthesia and drifts off into la-la land for a bizarre fantasy.

Kurahashi envisions the dentist biting Cheiko and drinking her blood. Next she is a meek nightclub cabaret singer at the whim of her dominating and abusive manager / lover (played by the same guy who plays the dentist). He takes her home, ties her up, slaps her around, removes her shirt and bra with a scalpel and scissors and then plays a game of "electricity" with her by wrapping wires around her arms and shocking her. Kurahashi has to sit and watch the whole thing play out from outside the window. In a brief color interlude, the mean lover rubs blood on her chest. Next, Kurahashi is on the playground and Cheiko is a monkey on a leash that he confess his love to before she vanishes. The mean lover rips her clothes off numerous times, she turns into a mannequin after sex, throws a pillow at a black cat drinking milk off the floor and runs through a department store naked. I'm sure it all has something deep and profound to say about sex or love or gender roles or male insecurity or obsession or something. Or maybe it's just an excuse just to show tits and ass. It's rather difficult to tell.

Like many other experimental / surreal films, I found this pretty tedious to sit through. The soundtrack (frequently incorporating distorted sounds, echoing sinister laughter, string plucking, weird sci-fi beats and a shrill dentist's drill) is annoying in the extreme. There are lots of long unbroken shots of the same repetitive actions; some lasting minutes at a time for no apparent reason. It's all nicely photographed and there's some good imagery in here from time to time, but it's wasn't enough to hold my interest. But hey, if you're the type who likes to watch numerous 30-second shots of someone having water squirted on their face with a water pick, 1-minute shots of blank screens, a minute of an anguished face barely visible in the darkness and over three minutes of someone trying to run down an escalator going up, then this may be the movie for you. The new color scenes added by Green for the U.S. release - which were spliced in throughout the film - featured full frontal nudity and more explicit soft-core sex starring extras wearing masks, probably to disguise the fact they're not Japanese. For the record, I viewed the original version as intended minus that footage.

Hakujitsumu is notable also as the very first sex film to fall victim to Japanese censorship. As most exploitation connoisseurs know, the Japanese have no issue allowing all manner of twisted perversions and oddball fetishes to pass into their popular entertainment, but for the longest time had a law forbidding showing genitalia or even pubic hair  That began right here when a brief glimpse of down-there-hair was censored with a white dot. For decades afterward, filmmakers had two options in regard to full frontal nudity: either film it as they wanted and have the censors either pixilate or fog out the offending areas, or try to shoot around it. Numerous films opted for the latter but then tried to make up for that by showing basically everything but the private parts and / or upping the perversion to insane levels.

Takechi followed this success up with Kōkeimu (or, "Dreams of the Red Chamber") the same year, which was attacked by the censors, stripped of over 20 percent of footage and made incoherent in the process (the removed footage has since been lost). The following year, he made the highly-political Kuroi yuki ("Black Snow," 1965), which stirred up a ton of controversy in its homeland after Takechi was arrested and tried on obscenity charges, which were later dropped after other artists came to his defense. Takechi would continue to make sporadic pink films through the late 60s, disappeared for much of the 70s and reemerged in 1981 with a more explicit remake of Hakujitsumu, which became the first theatrical release in Japan with hardcore sex. His final film; also blending graphic sex with horror, was yet another partial remake: Hakujitsumu 2 (called either "Captured for Sex" or "Daydream 2" in the U.S.); which was his final film. He passed away in 1988, but certainly left an indelible mark on Japanese cinema while he was around.

All of Takechi's Hakujitsumu films were based on a short story (written in 1926) by Jun'ichirô Tanizaki, who supposedly did not like Takechi's adaptation of his work and didn't live to see the others (he died the following year). In 1965, the same story was filmed in South Korea under the title Chunmong ("Empty Dream"). Brief nude scenes (which were removed prior to release) led to the arrest of that film's director, Yu Hyun-Monk, as well.

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