Saturday, July 3, 2021

Karma – Enigma do Medo (1984)

... aka: Karma: Enigma of Fear

Directed by:
Custódio Gomes (uncredited)
"F. Faez" (Fauzi Mansur)

Some kind of supernatural evil is let loose at a secluded farmhouse. Elaina (Tatiana Mogambo) hears distorted moans and has visions of a knife spinning on a table and a dagger falling from the ceiling. The handyman stabs a tied-up pig to death with a sword (for real) and then Elaina's husband, Fausto (played by co-director Gomes), miraculously dies in the exact same manner. His ghost exits his body and meets up with a blonde spirit guide (Alan Fontaine) and then the two travel back to the 19th Century so he can bear witness to why the farm is being haunted. A hundred years earlier, a quartet of bandits invaded the farm and started slaughtering everyone in sight. However, it backfired when one of the injured men got his hands on a gun and shot and killed them, too. The mastermind behind that attack was a jealous, bitter ex-lover of one of the women.

Fausto and the guide return to modern times and to the farm, which seems to also double as some kind of hotel retreat / bed-and-breakfast. A varied bunch of other characters start showing up. There's a professor (Heitor Gaiotti) in thick glasses who's also an expert in the paranormal, an obnoxious drunk (Walter Gabarron), his unsatisfied and unfaithful wife (Eliane Gabarron), a nun, a young student and others. Everyone is the reincarnation of those slain a hundred years earlier at the same location and are played by the same actors. The student, Samuel (Tony Paez), also happens to be the reincarnation of Felipe, who was Elaina's lover in her past life, and the two quickly pick up right where they left off. Ya know, despite the whole "My husband just died a few days ago under mysterious circumstances" thing.

The guests soon start dying one-by-one and lots of other weird (and frequently nonsensical) things happen. A woman and her husband try to flee after she sees a levitating body but the ghost of the 19th Century jealous traitor guy (Mauro Pinto) shows up, shakes their car and sends them running back inside screaming. The drunk passes out on the floor, wakes up the next morning to find his wife hanging above the bed by a sheet and then just crawls into bed and goes to sleep (!) The dead wife then returns as a ghost and goes to a lake where two men are fishing. She leaps out of the water, grabs one, pulls him under, drowns him and then that man's ghost emerges from the lake to strangle his friend.

Another woman finds her own dead body draped over a tree limb and then gets attacked by a ghost-vampire that drinks her blood. Gates and doors move by themselves. Beds shake. One of the characters is possessed. Corpses return to life and start killing others. And there's a lot of death by a lot of different means, including pitchfork, sickle and sword. Though IMDb and some other websites currently have this title listed as either a "thriller" or a "drama," the genre is never really in question: This is a straight-up horror flick.

While not a "good" film by any means (the acting is mostly poor, the editing is frequently terrible, it seldom makes any sense and it steals all of its music from other films, most notably FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III), it's an entertaining one. The supernatural stuff is extremely fuzzy throughout, but in a unique way that adds some additional interest. Aside from the unusual touch of having the first victim return as a ghost to helplessly witness the current goings-on, the main bad ghost lures his victims by impersonating whomever was the last person he killed. Many of the supernatural events are seen in negative image, which seems to signify what's going on in a ghost world parallel to our own as well as revealing which body the evil ghost is inhabiting at any given time.

This ticks the right boxes when it comes to body count and blood for slasher fans and there's also some full frontal nudity provided by the leading lady in a couple of scenes. However, the nudity isn't nearly as excessive as you'd expect given that nearly the entire cast is comprised of Brazilian adult film performers!

Speaking of adult films, both directors started out as pretty mainstream filmmakers before descending into hardcore themselves. While Mansur would continue to make regular movies in between the sex flicks, culminating with the late-decade gore films SATANIC ATTRACTION and THE RITUAL OF DEATH, both of which received U. S. video distribution (incredibly rare at the time), Gomes descended right into the gutter after this with a handful of, shall we say, interesting-sounding films. One of them - the excellently-titled Alucinações Sexuais de um Macaco / "Sexual Hallucinations of a Monkey" (1986) - involves a bored porn actress fantasizing about having sex with a dwarf in a monkey suit. And then there's the PETA-nightmare double feature of Meu Cachorro, Meu Amante / "My Dog, My Lover" (1986) and Aberrações Sexuais de Um Cachorro / "Sexual Aberrations of a Dog," whose content you may be able to guess given the titles. If not, here's a hint: The latter stars a bunch of porno actresses and a Saint Bernard.

After its domestic theatrical release, Karma was given a video release in Brazil on the Alfa Cinema E Video label but was never officially released anywhere else. There are English fansubs available for this, but they actually fail to make it any more coherent for English-speakers than just watching it in Portuguese! A DVD-R release I've seen being sold by several bootleg outlets also contains the subs but save your money. The quality is no better than the copy that's currently on Youtube.


Embryo (1976)

... aka: Created to Kill
... aka: Create to Die
... aka: Die Brut des Bösen (The Evil Brood)
... aka: Ectogen
... aka: El embrión mortífero (The Deadly Embryo)
... aka: La criatura infernal (The Infernal Creature)

Directed by:
Ralph Nelson

After high school and a stint in the military, Roy Scherer Jr. moved to Los Angeles with the explicit goal of becoming a movie star. Despite little acting experience (supposedly he was rejected from at least one college acting program due to bad grades), Roy nonetheless immediately landed himself representation based on the power of his good looks alone. All it took was sending the agent a head shot. The only problem was his name. It was promptly changed to Rock Hudson. From there, he started out in small (and sometimes uncredited) roles before being taken under contract by Universal. Sensing huge potential in him, he was heavily promoted by the studio, who made sure his image was regularly seen by the public in newspapers and film magazines, and promoted him to leading roles in medium-budget western and adventure yarns. However, his popularity wouldn't skyrocket until he started appearing as the male lead in more romantic films, especially when paired with Doris Day. Starting in the late 50s well into the 1960s, Hudson would be regularly voted by both exhibitors and the public as the #1 movie star of the year and left a string of successful films in his wake. Women thought the strapping 6'4" star was charming and sexy, while male viewers took to his deep-voiced, broad-shouldered masculinity. He'd even occasionally get a bit of critical recognition, namely for his performance in Giant (1956), which garnered him his first and only Oscar nomination.

As is usually the case with movie stars whose careers are largely based on sex appeal, Hudson's popularity started to wane the more he aged. By the mid-60s, his films weren't bringing in the dough they had when he was in his physical prime. Even giving a career-best performance in Seconds (1966), a project Hudson had so much faith in he even partially financed, didn't seem to matter as the film was (undeservedly) a box office flop. Hudson eventually ended up turning to TV. Though he hated doing television, he had some success there on the long-running McMillan & Wife (1971-1977) and other projects. He also continued to pick up some film work, including the tasteless black comedy Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971), which has become a cult classic here in recent years, and this sci-fi horror flick, which has not.

As has been noted numerous times over the years, the big shocker about Hudson, his public persona, his political alignment with socially conservative moralists and the majority of his work in the entertainment industry was that it was later revealed that this icon of rugged heterosexual masculinity was privately homosexual. This all flew right in the face of stereotypical views of gay men as weak and effeminate and one the public at large couldn't quite process back in the mid 80s moral majority era, especially when Hudson then became the most famous casualty of AIDS in 1985. Adding another layer of uncomfortable irony was then-president Ronald Reagan, who was one of Hudson's personal friends yet lead an administration whose reaction to the AIDS crisis was unarguably appalling (you can get a good glimpse into that in the very telling 7-minute-long mini doc When AIDS Was Funny). While Hudson's reputation was tarnished for decades, enough time has now passed that the next generation of fans and critics have been able to reassess his work on its own merits, perhaps for the first time since the actor's passing.

It's a dark and stormy night when retired scientist Dr. Paul Holliston (Hudson) accidentally runs over a Doberman. He rushes home with the animal and immediately retreats to his sheet-covered lab, which he hasn't even been back in since the premature passing of his wife. Paul manages to extract two puppy fetuses from the critically-wounded animal, puts them in tanks and then goes about trying to save them. Though one of the fetuses and the mother dog die, Paul is able to save the first fetus with an intravenous injection of "placental lactrogen," an experimental rapid-growth hormone that he and his late wife were working on prior to her passing. The dog fetus almost immediately matures into a viable puppy and so quickly ages to adulthood that he has to tell everyone that it's actually the mother dog and not one of her babies.

Given the name "Number One," the dog proves to be super-intelligent and fast-learning to the point where it needs almost no training to follow commands. It can fetch its own food from the refrigerator, clean up after itself, open and close doors, carry groceries and even goes to bed whenever its told. However, it also has a mean streak that it's smart enough to keep hidden, and kills a smaller dog when no one's looking and then hides its body in the bushes. Thinking the dog has been a success, Paul goes to his hospital administrator buddy Jim Winston (Jack Colvin) for help. Though he finds it "morally questionable to experiment with a living being," Jim agrees to provide him with a 12 to 14 week old fetus that otherwise has no chance of surviving outside the womb. One unfortunate suicide later and Paul has his specimen.

After administering the hormone until the fetus has aged to 9 months, Paul stops giving it the drug. Unfortunately, the hormone continues to work despite his best effort to slow or stop the process using various techniques like DNA blocking agents and other drugs. The baby soon becomes a toddler and then a little girl and then an adult woman, (played by half-Nicaraguan former model Barbara Carrera), before he finally comes up with a drug cocktail that seems to work. All the while she was in her life support chamber, Paul was subjecting her to "subconscious teaching" by playing audio tapes about math, science, etc. Once she's finally out and about, he names her Victoria and continues teaching her the basics, like how to speak, brush her hair, dress, etc.

Emotionally, Victoria is rather childlike due to never being exposed to social and environmental restrictions before. However, she has an excellent memory and is like a sponge when it comes to absorbing new information. She speed reads through books and research papers and, after finishing the bible, concludes, "An interesting story, but not very logical." Paul takes Victoria on vacation so that she can see some of the outside world and learn how to act around other people. And, to help shield her identity, they concoct an entire backstory for her. She's Victoria Spencer, a recent graduate from the University of Colorado who will be living and working alongside Paul as his new research assistant. Now she's ready to meet the rest of the family, including Paul's sister-in-law Martha (Diane Ladd), his son Gordon (John Elerick) and Gordon's pregnant wife Helen (Anne Schedeen).

While Victoria manages to delight nearly all that she meets with her beauty, intelligence and charming personality, she does manage to ruffle a few feathers, namely those belonging to Ladd, whose catty character is secretly in love with Paul and thus jealous of the competition, and Roddy McDowall, in a one scene cameo as a cocky chess master who gets shown up at a party by Victoria. But our test tube temptress soon has even bigger problems to contend with. Paranoia starts setting in and she becomes convinced Paul is going to hand her over to a scientific lab to use as a guinea pig if her drugs stop working. As a result, she starts injecting herself with the drug behind Paul's back. She then suffers from terrible cramps and eventually resorts to murder in order to save herself, which requires fluid from the pituitary gland of an unborn fetus!

While this certainly owes a debt of gratitude to countless earlier mad doctor films, it's also firmly in another sub-category I've seen a number of times before which I don't believe even has a name. This category plays up heavily on the common "master" fantasy where the middle-aged male lead has a young, beautiful, innocent, impressionable and unsullied adult female virgin to sculpt into whatever form he desires, only to have it all backfire in some horrific way. Sometimes, like here, the male lead creates the woman using science. Sometimes, the male lead runs across a beautiful alien or demon or some other supernatural being unfamiliar with the modern world who is in need of the older male's mentorship and guidance until things turn sour. In nearly all of these, there's a sexual element present, which is also the case here as doctor and creation eventually become lovers. As Paul states in one of his recordings, "It's not such an unpleasant task to teach such a willing pupil!" I don't know. Daddy Complex Chillers kind of has a nice ring to it.

Reception for this one has mostly been lukewarm or on the negative side, but I was seldom bored. Sure, if one wants to pick apart the scientific aspects they certainly can, this trots out the stale old "Don't play God" moral at the end and most of what occurs in the first hour probably could have been reduced down to about fifteen minutes without much being lost in the process. That said, this is professionally made and well-acted, with Hudson (somewhat surprisingly) fitting the whole sci-fi / horror milieu just fine and Carrera making a strong impression in an early role. The well-trained canine co-star also provides some genuine amusement during many scenes. Ladd, on the other hand, is wasted on a bizarrely underwritten part. The cast also includes Vincent Baggetta as a womanizing computer expert and Dr. Joyce Brothers, who appears as herself during the party scene.

This was one of the final films for Nelson, who at one time was making Emmy and Oscar winning films like Lillies of the Field (1963) and Charly (1969). Immediately after this, producer Sandy Howard decided to back an big budget adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), which again starred Carrera and featured make-up effects from John Chambers, Ed Butterworth and Dan Striepeke. One may suspect the poster featuring a nude Carrera in a fetal position was a classic bait-and-switch technique to get asses into theater seats, but she does actually appear nude several times in this PG-rated film. Hard to imagine that a film with T&A and plenty of shots of bloody aborted fetuses would receive the same rating nowadays!

Embryo fell into the public domain about a decade ago, so it's been extremely easy to find on many budget labels over the years. The initial VHS release from Ace Video used the new title Created to Kill, while later DVDs reverted back to the original title.

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