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Monday, May 31, 2021

Yue ya er (1978)

... aka: 月牙兒
... aka: New Moon, The

Directed by:
Feng-Pan Yao

Just how much misery, suffering and abuse can be heaped upon poor Barbara Wang in just an hour-and-a-half by the Lars von Trier of Asian ghost movies? Guess you'll just have to read on to find out. This one's structured like a lot of the others, with a brief "modern day" (though still period-set) framing story acting as both bookmark and intermission and the bulk of the film being in flashback form. The framework here features a young writer with an interest in supernatural tales who's on his way to the capital for an examination and seeks shelter at an abandoned home late at night. There, he spots three graves, a walking skeleton and a floating ghost girl. An elderly man shows up, takes him inside and then explains to him why the place is haunted. Cue flashbacks.

Yu-Ching Liu (Yang Yueh), a scholar who's studying to become a public official just like his powerful Uncle Kung, is having a lot of pressure put on him by his family. They think he needs to succeed as a way to honor his late father, ancestors and his controlling widowed mother (Bi-Hui Fu), who currently runs a small shop and is desperate for the family to achieve a high social standing. The mother and another uncle (Han Hsieh) forbid Yu-Ching from getting married until he passes his exams but it appears his whole life is pretty much being laid out for him by other people. He'll study hard. He'll get a specific job. He'll marry a girl from a wealthy and reputable home. And he'll always be concerned with his wealth and have to maintain his status within the community. Late one night, a beautiful, bashful young woman named Hsiu-Niang Huo (Barbara Wang) stops by the shop for some herbs. The two have instant chemistry and Yu-Ching lends her his umbrella, less as an excuse to be kind and more as an excuse to go visit her later on.








But Hsiu-Niang is just a poor country girl who lives with her sickly, alcoholic old father (Hsiang-Ting Ko) in a shack near some peach blossom trees and someone his family would never approve of. Still, Yu-Ching is persistent. He asks Hsiu-Niang to visit him at midnight at an ancient temple he frequently studies at and it's there he asks her to spend the night with him. He promises that if she does, once he passes his exams he will marry her. And he's sincere. At least at first. However, when his mother finds out, she's irate, refuses to even meet her potential daughter-in-law and demands her son never see her again. But Yu-Ching cannot stay away and Hsiu-Niang soon becomes pregnant with his child.

Yu-Ching leaves for the long journey to the city to take his exam, with hopes of eventually returning to marry Hsiu-Niang, but his mother and uncle start conspiring against him in his absence and laying down the groundwork to destroy the relationship. They inform Hsiu-Niang that her future husband has already been betrothed to an official's daughter and thus can never marry her. And, when Hsiu-Niang visits Mrs. Liu (who's also been intercepting any mail her son sends), she berates her as disreputable and uneducated and blames her for seducing her son when it reality it was the exact opposite. When her father finds out she's pregnant, he beats her and then, descending further into his alcoholism, dies soon after. Hsiu-Niang becomes the subject of local gossip and few will even deal with her, aside from one sympathetic couple who help her give birth to a baby boy she names Han-Er.








As far as Yu-Ching is concerned, he simply never comes back to the village to fulfill his promise. After passing his exam in the city, he found out that he's expected to marry his cousin, Shu-Hsien (Wei-Ling Chen), and already been designated to take his uncle's place as Minister of Finance. Finding himself attracted to his cousin, he agrees to the coupling and just marries her instead. The two move into a guarded mansion and live in luxury, with a large staff.

Meanwhile, Hsiu-Niang is left barely eking out an existence as a poor single mother. Mrs. Liu attempts to buy the baby from her to help alleviate her burden but she refuses and insists Yu-Ching will return to them one day. More years pass and the boy, now three years old, is already becoming an outcast himself. Other kids bully him and refuse to play with him because he has no father. After finding out the asshole she's waited all this time to reunite with has since married, she packs up her belongings and travels to the city with Han-Er in tow. All of her money is stolen by a thief and then, when she finally gets access to Yu-Ching, he claims he doesn't know who she is is, slaps her in the face, pushes her down and has his guards throw her into the street. She's then forced to dig through trash for food and beg people for help.

Shu-Hsien, who doesn't believe her husband's lie that he doesn't know Hsiu-Niang, grows concerned they'll become the subject of ridicule unless they "terminate" the problem. Yu-Ching hires an assassin to kill her but the man has second thoughts and allows her to go back home. Unfortunately, Han-Er dies as soon as they arrive and then Hsiu-Niang hangs herself. Naturally, the restless spirit of our tormented heroine has to return to settle the score, with Yu-Ching, his wife and his mother the primary targets.








This is about 80% melodramatic morality tale soap opera overacted within an inch of its life (check out how many "gasp!" reactions you can count at the various revelations) and 20% below average ghost / revenge tale, which is mostly relegated to the final 15 minutes. That's not a winning percentage. Once again, Yao reuses the accidental pregnancy angle from his ALL IN THE DIM COLD NIGHT (1974) from just four years earlier, as well as the good-hearted but long-suffering female protagonist who's used, discarded and can't seem to catch any kind of break trope that's used in a zillion other Asian ghost tales. In other words, this New Moon is same as the old, only not quite up to par.

Toward the end, there are some very poor optical effects with the ghost's head detaching and a shrunken ghost getting trapped between two cymbals and popping out of a pot, as well as your standard green and red gel lighting on ghost faces. Also after about an hour and 15 minutes of grueling serious stuff, they decided to throw in some embarrassing comedy centered around a pair of bumbling, ineffectual exorcists and a mentally challenged servant called Kung Fu (played by Chen Fang), who, at one point, breaks the fourth wall and repeatedly looks directly at the camera making goofy faces.








This was the recipient of an English-subtitled VCD release at some point but that's the only home video release that I'm aware of. I could not locate a theatrical film poster for this, nor any actual scans of a VHS or VCD cover.

1/2

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Afterman, The (1985)

... aka: After Man
... aka: Mundo Nefando (The World of Horror)
... aka: Sex 1999

Directed by:
Rob Van Eyck

I've seen my share of post nuke trash flicks (one of my favorite exploitation subgenres), but this one from Belgium is certainly something special. And by special, I mean gloriously perverted! Long after a nuclear war, a bearded man (Jacques Verbist) who's been living in an underground shelter for his entire life has finally run out of options. He's alone, running low on supplies and soon going have to leave his sanctuary and venture out into a changed world whether he likes it or not. He's so desperate for food, he's reduced to eating a maggot off of his dead mother's frozen corpse, which is being housed inside a walk-in freezer. And since he's also desperate for sex and his mother's body is just kind of lying there, well, you probably get a good idea of what else he's been up to. When the computer systems start going haywire after warning him to evacuate, he finally opens the doors and heads out.

It's a harsh, cold climate outside with brown, polluted water. The man spots a half dozen men off in the distance and runs to greet them. However, his happiness at finding other survivors is short lived when the leader headbutts him, knees him in the crotch, bends him over, pulls down his pants and rapes him while the others hold him down and jerk off (!!) As if that isn't bad enough, he has to follow that up with a raw sewer rat for dinner.








The man ventures on and ends up at a run-down building which houses an indoor pool. Inside are two women who are surprising well-kept considering the whole world being destroyed thing. After a lesbian sex scene lasting for five minutes, one of the women finally gets off after drowning the other one. Seeing how that chicks clearly isn't worth messing around with, the man continues on his quest.

His next stop is a farm run by a big, sadistic bald man (Nick Van Suyt, star of Lucker the Necrophagous) and his wife. They keep a female captive (Franka Ravet) locked inside an outside cage covered in chicken wire who's fed scraps and used for labor and sexual purposes. The man is captured when he attempts to steal eggs, thrown into the cage and is basically treated the same way the woman is. He's forced to use his bare hands to pick up manure, is beaten with a stick and gets tied to a tiller like a cow and whipped. The man finally has enough, clubs the farmer over the head and escapes. The slave girl follows. At first, the man tries to chase her off and refuses to share food with her, but after she proves herself by saving him from a quicksand bog, he has a change of heart. Soon the two are fucking on the forest floor, snuggling by the campfire, foraging for nuts, laughing and becoming a normal loving couple.








Of course, being a legit couple in this post-apocalyptic hellscape full of murderous degenerates reduced to their basest of needs for sex and sustenance isn't the easiest thing to pull off. Flesh is a hot commodity, in more ways than one, it turns out. While squatting in an abandoned greenhouse for the night, some cannibalistic thugs beat up the man and kidnap the girl. She finds herself tied up and kept prisoner, where she and some other ladies are plumped up with porridge until they're ready to butcher and serve. The man finds them, rescues his girl and unties the others. One of the feral femmes then rips the eyeballs out of her captor's head with her bare hands!








After getting chased through the woods by some more punks, our destitute duo find themselves being taken in by a sect of monks in a gated monastery. There, they bathe, beautify and bone, in that order. Next thing the man knows, he's being forced to give one of the men-of-the-cloth a blow job (!!) and is forced to take communion by sipping wine, getting down on his knees and kissing the ass of a male torso statue by the homosexual monks. Even worse, their cemetery is quickly filling because the monks are also ripping out the hearts of those they're offering shelter to as human sacrifices. To what? Who knows! The last bit has our couple "saved" by a rich woman (Dora Raskin), who takes them back to her castle, seduces the man with a little footsie fun at the dinner table while her Asian servant plays piano wearing a mesh top and nearly drives the female half of the couple to suicide.








While this shapeless film is little more than a series of vignettes featuring our leads wandering around trying to survive one dangerous encounter after another, this is kind of compelling almost in spite of itself. And it's actually refreshing to see a director who appears well aware of his budgetary restraints and tries to find no-cost ways around them. Most of this is shot outside or in available abandoned buildings and the entire film is nearly dialogue-free so that the amateur cast isn't quite as obvious. To help make up for the nonexistent production values and lack of special effects, he crams in as much sex / nudity and violence / gore (including someone impaled on spikes and a pitchfork through the neck) as possible. While that doesn't make this Mad Max, it does keep the film bleak, sleazy and entertaining; perhaps even deceptively low-concept.


Many years after the fact, the director made a pair of sequels: Afterman 2 (2005), which speculates what would happen if Osama Bin Laden took over Europe (!!) and Afterman III: The Global Warming Disaster (2013). This and many of the director's other films were covered in the documentary Forgotten Scares: An In-Depth Look at Flemish Horror Cinema (2013), which also features an interview with Van Eyck. This title was never given a U. S. video release but was released on VHS in other countries like the Netherlands and Japan. A 25th Anniversary Edition is now available on DVD.

★★1/2

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Wilczyca (1983)

... aka: A nőstényfarkas kisértete (Ghost of the Female Wolf)
... aka: Die Wölfin
... aka: She-Wolf, The
... aka: Vlcice (Wolves)
... aka: Wolf, The

Directed by:
Marek Piestrak

Set in 1848 in a remote, snow-draped area of Poland, this centers around liberation fighter Kacper Wosiński (Krzysztof Jasiński), who's just returned home from a long trip away. The relationship he's had with his miserable wife Maryna (Iwona Bielska) wasn't a loving or good one before he left... and it's about to get even worse. While he was gone, Mary found herself a lover, got pregnant and then decided to try to terminate the pregnancy herself. In the process, she's torn up her insides so badly that a doctor cannot even help her. On her deathbed, Maryna is found clutching a severed wolf paw and curses her husband right before passing away. Eerily, a den of wolves are heard howling right outside the moment she does.

Soon after, Kacper finds out Maryna was involved in some other unsavory things like drunken debauchery, burning all of the crucifixes in the home and practicing witchcraft. She earned herself such a bad reputation that all of the local clergymen have sworn her off and now even refuse to give her last rites or help with her funeral. Before the body is buried, Kacper's concerned brother Mateusz (Jerzy Prażmowski) suggest they drive a wooden stake through the body in case Maryna should rise from the dead and make Kacper's life a living hell from beyond the grave. He refuses the offer, so Mateusz takes matters into his own hands and stakes her. Afterward, Kacper signs over the family home to his brother and informs him that he never plans on returning.








Some time passes and Kacper, who was a "comrade-in-arms during the insurrection," has moved up in the world from his humble beginnings to the pillared mansion of liberation army leader Count Ludwik (Stanisław Brejdygant) and his unhappy, much-younger bride Julia (also Bielska). Julia's life parallels that of Maryna in that she's sick of her husband constantly being busy, gone and emotionally and physically unavailable to her. After all, she's young, bored, sick of being stuck inside all the time and even sicker of him constantly being consumed with political matters. Not even her openly carrying on a lesbian affair with her maid, Hortensja (Hanna Stankówna), gets much of a reaction out of Ludwik, who's set to leave for a long period yet again. This time he decides to skip out on goodbyes and the associated drama and just send a letter later on. He entrusts Kacper with looking over both his house and his wife while he's away.








After helping to escort Ludwik and their on-the-lam associate Count Wiktor Smorawinski (Leon Niemczyk) out of the country, Kacper returns to the estate feeling ill and is diagnosed with having "swamp fever." Yet that doesn't really explain why he was already having visions of a large female wolf stalking the grounds and had spotted a ghost in the woods prior to getting sick... Nor does it explain why he finds his missing pet dog dead and wolf tracks surrounding it. Countess Julia, who, judging by a couple of flashbacks, seems to have always had a cruel streak to her, starts behaving even stranger than normal upon the arrival of handsome soldier Otto von Furstenberg (Olgierd Lukaszewicz). Otto was a former lover of Julia's and he's returned to rekindle their relationship. The fact she is now married isn't of much concern to either and Kacper's attempts to cock block the lascivious countess are unsuccessful.

Kacper's brother shows up to visit and informs him that not only did he have a creepy encounter with Maryna's rotting corpse ghost but the cemetery housing her body had been destroyed during a battle, thus removing the wooden stake and releasing her evil spirit. Kacper begins to suspect the spirit has somehow possessed Julia. Before long, our hero is consulting a doctor friend (Henryk Machalica) and asking him to make a special bullet using silver and holy water.








Sad to say, I was anticipating a little better here, perhaps because this is often held up as one of the torchbearers of early Polish horror and this turned out to be so... mediocre. I'm not saying it's poorly-made or acted. It's not. In fact, it has decent production values, period detail, make-up, costumes and performances plus a palpable chilly winter atmosphere and the occasional nicely framed shot or mildly eerie bit. The problem here is with the script and direction. The pacing is slow, it's talky and both the dialogue and underdeveloped characters (most especially the thoroughly unlikable protagonist) come off incredibly flat, leading to a mostly uninspiring, predictable film devoid of energy, suspense and surprise.








Another issue I had is that I could never quite figure out why so much time was being spent on the Polish liberation angle or how that all tied together with the horror / supernatural stuff. I guess it doesn't necessarily have to be tied together. It may very well just be incidental, not adequately established by the writer or director (this is an adaptation of a novel so perhaps some important stuff was left out) or is merely there to give this a veneer of respectability in what is otherwise a pretty generic ghost story. Either way, I found myself having a difficult time becoming involved in the plot and the people who populate it and I seriously doubt being more knowledgeable about 19th Century Polish history would make that much of a difference.


While this title never made it to the U. S. during the video era, it was distributed throughout Eastern Europe and in Russia. There were multiple VHS releases in Poland and releases in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Hungary and other countries. Supposedly, two million Polish viewers (nearly 20 percent of the population back then) saw this in 1983, making it one of the biggest box office hits of the year in its home country. It was popular enough to spawn a 1990 sequel: Powrót wilczycy / "The Return of the Wolf" (or "The Return of the She-Wolf") which was made by the same director.

★★
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