Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Ping an ye (1985)

... aka: 平安夜
... aka: 直冒冷汗
... aka: Christmas Eve
... aka: La nuit de l'assassin (Night of the Assassin)
... aka: Night Caller
... aka: Night Color
... aka: Perversión en la noche (Perversion in the Night)
... aka: Silent Night
... aka: Zhi mao leng han

Directed by:
Philip Chan

Much is made of holiday-set horror within the horror community despite the fact there are few actual great genre films set around any holiday. You'd think most of the standout titles would be centered around Halloween since horror is already built right into the holiday itself, but that's not the case at all. There are actually more good genre films set on Christmas! I guess there's just something about contrasting good will, generosity, family and "holiday cheer" with the macabre that appeals to fans, plus there's that undercurrent of it being somewhat subversive having horrific things go down on what's a religious holiday. Perhaps the atmosphere of Christmas itself is the primary appeal just for nostalgic or aesthetic purposes. When we think about Christmas we envision it being cold and often snowy. It gets dark early and many people are staying inside for obvious reasons. All of that makes for a proper horror atmosphere regardless of the holiday. It's also rather easy, visually-speaking, to capture the proper Christmas atmosphere. All we need are trees, lights and decorations and a few Christmas songs on the soundtrack, right? Still, I've seen plenty of films that have managed to fail even accomplishing that simple task and the same can be said for "Halloween" films failing to adequately capture the Halloween spirit.

There have been many times over the years that I've considering doing a "Best Christmas Horror" list but one thing always stops me: I do Top 20's around here and I've yet to find 20 great Christmas horror movies made between 1950 and 1990 for such a list. On the bright side, unlike Halloween, I could at least do a Top 10 for X-Mas if I wanted or it could become the backbone of a generic "Best Holiday Horror Films" list that includes all holidays. Unfortunately, Night Caller (which I had semi-high hopes for) isn't good enough to factor into either potential list.

Originally titled 平安夜 (or Christmas Eve) and aka Silent Night (carolers sing a Cantonese version of the Xmas staple during the opening scene), Night Caller is a lot like the previous German krimi and Italian giallo in that it features a few elaborate suspense / murder sequences and centers around a police investigation of a serial killer. Where this film eclipses a lot of what came before it is in its depiction of its two central detective characters and their camaraderie, plus having a host of side characters being fairly well-used. It also has a sense of humor that sometimes works and, instead of bogging things down too much with empty procedural, spends adequate time making the characters feel like human beings. And it's good it at least has that much to offer because it's otherwise too unoriginal and too light on the horror and suspense to extend beyond being merely a passable viewing experience.

On Christmas Eve, someone dressed in black (right down to the trench coat, bowler hat and gloves) enters the home of model Jessica (Terry Hu) and proceeds to viciously stab her 27 times in a blue lit giallo-esque sequence that ends with her being pushed through a window. Though some carolers and the one-eyed maintenance man see the culprit fleeing the apartment building, the only witness who may actually know the identity of the killer is the victim's angelic young daughter, Edith (Pui Wai Lee). However, she's traumatized, left in a state of shock and unable to talk. Seeing how Edith's estranged birth father (Dick Wei in a cameo) has no interest in taking full custody and suggests putting her in an orphanage, Inspector James Wong (Melvin Wong, also one of the producers) takes her back to his home so he and his wife Kiki (Deborah Sims) can care for her. The two hope she'll feel safe enough to eventually open up and reveal the identity of the killer.

Unlike the more by-the-books and responsible James, his partner Steve Chan (director / writer Chan) is an older bachelor who's known for his unorthodox techniques that have included shoving heads into toilets to coerce confessions, driving his car through stores during police chases, pointing his gun at dicks and making frequent use of his baton on unruly punks. Despite their differences, the two are very good friends, celebrate holidays together and have each other's backs when it comes to diffusing criticism from their hard-assed superior (Hoi-Tin Ng). The two are joined in their investigation by spunky tomboy policewoman Porky (Pat Ha), who is not at all porky and probably best described as "endearingly annoying."

Evidence lead the trio of investigators to numerous places, starting with the modeling agency that employed Jessica. It's run by Tak Ho (Stuart Ong), who has a criminal record that includes sexual assaulting underage girls. After trying to blackmail the real killer, Tak Ho becomes victim #2 after he's stabbed and thrown off some scaffolding during a televised fashion show. The killer is revealed midway through and, based on what little we've seen to that point, their identity isn't much of a surprise considering we only first see the character during the reveal. James eventually is kidnapped, chained up and tortured in the killer's lair while Steve and Porky attempt to piece the clues together and rescue him before it's too late.

There's a scene where punks attack an elderly couple and terrorize them with a soda fountain, flyswatter, toaster and ketchup, a loon (Kei Mai) singing Toni Basil's "Mickey" and doing a Travis Bickle impersonation while in blackface (?!), flashbacks that reveal the killer's true motive (which is pretty lame to be honest), a scene taking place at a HK knock-off of Chuck E. Cheese and a truly preposterous (though surprising) final scene. Genre regular Pauline Wong (Siu-Fung Wong) has a colorful role as a spurned bisexual model that earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination from the Hong Kong Film Awards, who also awarded this their Best Art Direction award. There are small cameo roles from Teddy Yip (MISS MAGIC) and Tina Lau (LOVE MASSACRE) as well.

While this received decent international distribution in the 80s in countries like Italy, Germany, the UK and the US (on the Rainbow VHS label), I'm not aware of any remastered DVD releases for this title. Ocean Shores was the primary distributor and at one time offered it on VHS, VCD and laserdisc.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Pengabdi Setan (1980)

... aka: Bila Dia Datang (When She Comes)
... aka: Mereka Kembali - Pengabdi Setan (They're Back: Servants of Satan)
... aka: Satan's Slave
... aka: Servant of Satan

Directed by:
Sisworo Gautama Putra

If you're a regular visitor, you already know I'll sit through a fuzzy, blurry, washed out, pixelated, too dark, too bright, scratched and otherwise heavily-damaged film with a screwed up aspect ratio taken from a crappy former VHS rental or cheaply pressed VCD with no subtitles granted these are obscure films we're talking about, there's not much information about them online otherwise and nothing better is available. And that's typically the case with older Indonesian genre films. Of the around 150 horror films made there between 1950 and 1990, only a small number of these have been restored. An even smaller number than that have been restored and released with English subtitles. So what a pleasure it is to see this one available as a beautiful, pristine-looking print in English. Hopefully distributors start picking more of these up and remastering them because there are a lot of entertaining little treasures just waiting to find a wider audience.

As far as Satan's Slave is concerned, the first version that was available here in America was a bootleg of the 1987 Japanese VHS release from Sony Exc!ting. Naturally, this release was in full screen, didn't have English subtitles and wasn't in the best of condition but it was all we had for several decades. However, this became a rare older Indo genre film to become available on DVD with English subs when BCI / Deimos picked it up for distribution in 2008. Joko Anwar remade the film under the same title in 2017, which was a big box office success (one of the highest grossing films in Indonesian history) and won numerous awards at film festivals. That prompted a 2020 Blu-ray release of this original from Severin Films. All of the above was enough to make this one of the easiest-available and most-viewed pre-1990 Indonesian genre films there is.

Mawarti (Diana Suarkom) dies, leaving behind her grieving husband Munarto (W.D. Mochtar), college-aged daughter Rita (Siska "Karebety" / Widowati) and younger teen son Tommy (Fachrul Rozy). Shortly after the funeral, Tommy is visited Salem's Lot-style by a pale, white-eyed woman in a flowing white gown who looks suspiciously like the dead mother and comes tapping on his window late at night. She leads him out into the woods where the two have a brief conversation about something but when he wakes up the next morning he remembers nothing. While the dad is able to bury himself in work and the daughter is able to run around with her boyfriend Herman (Simon Cader) and go to disco dance parties and such, poor Tommy has no real means of distraction and seems to be taking his mother's death the hardest. One of his friends recommends he visit a fortune teller to restore some hope in his future. Tommy ends up seeing a blind clairvoyant in sunglasses, who forecasts doom for him and his family in her cards. She recommends he study black magic in order to defend himself if need be.

Soon after, things start going to hell. A mysterious woman starts calling the home, asking for Tommy and then hanging up. The doorbell rings but nobody's there. Doors and gates open, close and / or lock by themselves. Tommy starts behaving strangely, gets nosebleeds, starts reading books on black magic (and horror mags!), tries strangling his sister and seems entranced much of the time. He also has an amazing nightmare where he's led down a white tiled corridor to a sacrificial altar by a red-robed Satan and guys wearing rubber monster masks. After seeing several ghosts lurking around, Rita suspects something evil is afoot. Her boyfriend notes that since her family isn't particularly religious and they don't pray on the regular, they may have left themselves open to dark influences. Though he says that jokingly, that's precisely what's happening.

Looking for a new woman to run the household, Munarto calls an agency and requests a housekeeper. The woman who shows up, Darmina (Ruth Pelupessi), is the same sinister woman who was posing as the fortune teller and has already led Tommy astray into the world of the black arts. Soon after Darmina's arrival, she's revealed to be an evil witch who chants at an altar with a smoking cauldron, candles and a skull. Asthmatic handyman Mr. Karto (H.I.M. Damsyik) is found hanging dead in the utility shed and then Herman dies in a motorcycle accident. After Rita is tormented by Herman's bloody ghost, the father relents and brings a shaman (Adang Mansyur) in to exorcise the evil spirits. That doesn't work out as expected when he's chased around the room by flying glass shards and then killed by a chandelier!

Darmina, who eventually gets crazy eye make-up and impressive teased hair, uses her powers to bring both Karto and Herman back from the dead, then heads to the cemetery to resurrect the mother's corpse. She and the three zombies then lay siege on the home and attempt to kill the family. Islamic ulama / cleric Kiai (Doddy Sukma), who kept showing up throughout the film attempting to warn the family only to be ignored, pops in just in time with an army of torch-carrying prayer warriors to help.

This is slower-paced, more atmospheric, much more serious (there's almost no comedy) and not nearly as jarring when it comes to things like editing and continuity than most other 80s Indonesian genre films I've seen. It's also somewhat better-made, with decent acting, camerawork (by F.E.S. Tarigan) and special effects (by S. Parya, who also has a small role) and a nicely subdued synth score from one-time composer Gusti Anom. The film was rare for its time in utilizing Islamic spiritual beliefs over Christian or Buddhist but the heavy-handed moralizing about the importance of religion / praying gets to be a bit much at times. This essentially functions the same way fire-and-brimstone preachers do: ironically enough, trying to scare audiences into religious servitude, which is basically just trading one kind of slavery for another!

I've read numerous places that this is a virtual remake of, or was heavily inspired by, Don Coscarelli's Phantasm and I'm scratching my head trying to figure out where the hell that all came from. Aside from a few minor similarities like both having a young male protagonist and there being a graveyard, fortune teller and motorcycle riding, the two films have virtually nothing in common. The most blatant borrowings are that one Salem's Lot copied scene I already mentioned and The Omen (the ulama showing up at the father's office to warn him; activities of the sinister woman who shows up from a nanny agency with her resume, etc.)

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