Kwaidan (1965, Masaki Kobayashi)

It’s been a pretty outstanding SHOCKtober over here. I did well to avoid the usual direct-to-video garbage of the last few years and watch stuff I’d actually heard would be good. So I figured I was due for a disappointment when I popped in Kwaidan, another period Japanese piece where everybody moves too slowly – another Ugetsu, in other words. But though it’s definitely true that everyone moves too slowly (and the more rich and upper-class, the slower they move) it’s an awesome looking movie, and even the stories I liked less were a pleasure to watch. I don’t know much about Kobayashi, but easily figured out that he had a background in painting. Watched the full-length version from Masters of Cinema.

1. The Black Hair
Rentaro Mikuni (The Burmese Harp, Vengeance Is Mine, Teshigahara’s Rikyu) is a samurai who has fallen on hard times. He has a good wife, Michiyo Aratama (Sword of Doom, The Human Condition, Ozu’s The End of Summer) but he “could not understand the value of love,” tells his wife “for men, advancement is the most important” and walks out on her, moves away and marries the daughter (Misako Watanabe of Youth of the Beast) of a rich man. But he finds himself unhappy, misses his first wife, so one day he throws it all away and returns to her, finding his property decrepit and run down, but her still sewing quietly in a corner. Or is she? After he pledges he’ll stay with her forever, she’s revealed to be a ghost. He ages about fifty years in the span of a minute, in a pretty awesome scene, then falls to the ground.

2. The Woman of the Snow
This one has the most remarkable images, which is good since I already know the story, first from Tales from the Darkside: The Movie but it also has similarities to The Crane Wife tale. A woodcutter (Tatsuya Nakadai, star of The Human Condition and The Face of Another, played the old king in Ran) is caught in a storm with an older man and witnesses a sort of Jack Frost woman freezing the man to death. She lets him live if he promises to never tell what he’s seen. Soon after, he meets a girl (Keiko Kishi of Early Spring, Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza), falls in love, gets married, has kids, and one day laughingly tells her about that day in the snow, at which point his wife turns back into the snow demon and leaves him, saying if their children ever have reason to complain about his parenting she will return and kill him. The sky is a series of colorfully painted backdrops, often with an eye in the middle, always watching the woodcutter.

3. Hoichi, The Earless
I assumed for a while that the subtitles had missed a letter in “Fearless,” but no. This was the longest and best story. Set in a monastery near the site of an ancient sea battle, with head priest Takashi Shimura (the older detective in Stray Dog and star of Ikiru) and blind errand boy Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura of Demons, Sad Vacation). Ghosts of the defeated army appear at a shrine and send a warrior to fetch Hoichi to sing them the story of the sea battle. He secretly performs for them all week, until the priest finds out, and tells him he’s in great danger. The priests write scripture across Hoichi’s skin – but miss his ears. The warrior comes and can’t find the singer, “I will take these ears to my lord to prove his commands have been obeyed.” The ghosts leave, and from then on, people come from all over and pay to hear the famed Hoichi the Earless play his music.

4. In a Cup of Tea
Kan’emon Nakamura (Mizoguchi’s 47 Ronin and Miyamoto Musashi) is a very serious warrior, a guard I think. He sees another man’s smiling reflection in a cup of tea, but drinks it anyway. The ghost (Noboru Nakaya, husband of the Woman in the dunes) appears “in person” with his retainers, challenging the warrior, who finds he cannot fight them since they can disappear at will. But all this is a story being written by an author (Osamu Takizawa of Fires on the Plain) who goes missing until his reflection is seen inside a pot of water – the weirdest of the four stories, and a good one to end on. Kobayashi made 20-some other movies, all of which I must see immediately.

Buy from Amazon:
Kwaidan – Criterion DVD

Q: The Winged Serpent (1982, Larry Cohen)

“Maybe his head just got loose and fell off.”

Shitty scat-singing pianist turned incompetent diamond thief Jimmy Quinn stumbles across the nest of a winged monster that has been terrorizing New York, snatching up rooftop sunbathers and window washers, and tries to use this knowledge for profit. As in God Told Me To, Cohen shines in picking up crowd scenes seemingly out in public and not on a closed set. I like that Cohen casts skilled but unattractive actors – lead cop David Carradine (Kill Bill, Boxcar Bertha) and thief Michael Moriarty (The Stuff, Pick Me Up) don’t seem much like movie leading men, but they’re perfect for this story.

Moriarty is dwarfed by the city:

Murderous cultist takes a volunteer:

Moriarty is the fascinatingly doomed, black center of the movie, on the run from his partners in the jewel heist he botched, but Carradine and his partner Richard “Shaft” Roundtree kill time trying to solve a series of grotesque murders, apparently committed by a cult trying to appease the beast. I have to question the skills of the investigators when Moriarty is brought into the station for beating a security guard who works at the top of the Chrysler building, and they continue to bargain with Moriarty, offering him a million (which he never gets) to tell them which tall building hosts the monster. Besides that little plot hole, it’s a pretty great movie.

“I can’t imagine that the monster would want to kill YOU, Richard Roundtree.”

The monster, just after crushing Richard Roundtree’s spine and dropping him 200 stories:

Buy from Amazon:
Q: The Winged Serpent DVD

Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard)

It’s the 50th anniversary of Breathless! It’s also the 50th anniversary of Peeping Tom and Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors, but you don’t see anyone making a fuss over those. It’s also the 50th anniversary of writer Truffaut’s other movie about doomed small-time criminals, Shoot the Piano Player. I don’t know which of the two I prefer. StPP has more indelible images, but Breathless is all about motion, with its jazzy editing. Feels like a story that got away from them, a two hour script filmed as a four-hour feature, then mercilessly reduced to 90 minutes.

I didn’t remember the story very well – not that there’s much story to worry about. Belmondo is an incorrigible cad, stealing from everyone he comes across, and Seberg is the conflicted girl who becomes his downfall, reporting him for having killed a cop at the start of the film. He stops to meet with friends (always trying to get money) and she stops to interview a writer (I think) played by Jean-Pierre Melville, part of her ambition to climb from street newspaper-seller to reporter, while a police inspector is always close behind them both.

Good to see on the big screen, a highly enjoyable classic-film experience. Nice to hear from the DVD interviews that just a couple years after Breathless came out, Godard was already talking about the end of cinema – it’s not a recent thing with him.

Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974, Roy Ward Baker)

When I heard that Roy Ward Baker, who’d worked with Marilyn Monroe and Bette Davis, director of the acclaimed 1950’s Titanic movie A Night To Remember, had died, I didn’t think it would affect me. Certainly I wouldn’t bother to have memorial screenings a la Claude Chabrol, since I’d just ignored the death of the more important-seeming Arthur Penn – after all, this is SHOCKtober. But I looked him up on IMDB anyway, and to my surprise, the newspaper obituaries neglected to mention (out of courtesy, I suppose) that Roy helmed low-rent horror flicks for Hammer Studios in the 70’s. So I grabbed one of those right away.

I watched Hammer’s very first vampire movie last year, then skipped straight to this one, made in the final dark days of Hammer horror, when the studio was losing its market share and resorting to silly gimmicks, like pairing up with Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong for a kung-fu vampire sequel. Christopher Lee wanted nothing to do with it and bowed out of the series, leaving the diminished, token role of Dracula to John Forbes-Robinson (who’d had a small part in Battle of the River Plate, which also featured Lee).

the fake chinese dracula with the fake european dracula:

Peter Cushing returned from the original to play Van Helsing for the fifth time. VH has traveled to China in search of more vampire stories, and gets them from David Chiang (Seven Man Army, Seven Blows of the Dragon, Seven Lucky Stars) whose village has been overrun by the seven titular monsters – actually six, since his ancestor killed one. Hong Kong cinema already had their own vampire stories, so VH amusingly points out some differences between European and Asian vampires (the former are afraid of crosses, the latter fear buddha statues) and we learn others visually (the Chinese vampires are crazed, bloodthirsty zombies, not sexy creatures like Dracula). Cushing is joined by his gun-toting son Robin Stewart (previously in Horror House with Frankie Avalon) and a rich hanger-on feminist (Norwegian Julie Ege of The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins, The Amorous Milkman). Together they run off to help Chiang and his six brothers free the village, stopping first to kick the ass of a local gangster, who receives an arrow through the neck for interfering.

loving couple Julie Ege and David Chiang:

loving couple Szu Shih and Robin Stewart:

Even with the son wasting our time falling for Chiang’s knife-brandishing little sister (Szu Shih of Supermen Against the Orient, The Crooked Profligates) while Chiang falls for the Norwegian, and despite multiple appearances of rubber bats on strings, the movie totally has my sympathy because of all the undead kung-fu. Three golden vampires appear in our heroes’ cavern resting place and are dispatched (fire works well, Cushing discovers, and weaponless Chiang finds he can punch their dusty hearts out) then the fight at the village against the last three claims most of the brothers. Chiang impales himself and the bitten Norwegian on a stake. Dracula (have I mentioned he’s in the body of a long-haired Chinese gent?) reveals himself to Cushing, who kills Drac in about ten seconds. I know it’s not Chris Lee, but the history these two characters have had together would seem to deserve a more dramatic ending.

Bury me with a sword inside a giant egg, just in case this happens:

Buy from Amazon:
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires DVD

Roger Corman double-feature

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

“You’re just a simple little farmboy and the rest of us are all sophisticated beatniks.”

I’m always afraid of Roger Corman movies because I figure they’ll be awful, Ed Wood-style catastrophes. But after I reminded myself that he made the great X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, I rented these two. Both were great, quick and cheap, but very fun and full of weird humor, not the dull, cardboardy type of cheap movies MST3K always mocked (though the show did feature four Corman movies, all from ’57 and earlier). It was only Corman’s sixth year in the movie business, and the twenty-third movie he directed. Shot in five days, and entirely not bad.

Alice and Walter:

Joe Dante fave Dick Miller, in his only starring role, is slightly creepy and socially inept but eager waiter Walter at a super-hip cafe populated by some hammy characters. I was glad to learn that the songs and clothes and beat poetry were intended as exaggerated parodies of the fashions of the time, since I found it all hilarious. Especially good were cafe boss Leonard, who does a nice horrified stagger when he first discovers Walter’s secret, and Maxwell (Bruno VeSota, vet of sixteen Corman pictures) the beardy ultra-pretentious king poet.

Walter accidentally kills his cat (while trying to save it), then an undercover cop trying to bust oblivious Walter for heroin possession (in crazed self-defense), then covers them in clay and is celebrated by the locals for his lifelike “sculptures.”

Walter vs. the undercover cop:

Walter wins:

Determined to stay famous, he starts killing people on purpose – starting with Alice (Judy Bamber of The Atomic Brain), a Marilyn-looking hottie who’s a total bitch to Walter, yet eagerly agrees to pose nude for his next sculpture. Then he murders a random dude with a table saw (“What’s that you got in the box?,” says Leonard to Walter, who is carrying a man’s head in a box – an early influence on Se7en?). Finally he’s given an art show by Leonard – I’m not clear how his plan to keep Walter from killing more people was supposed to work out – and discovered, he chases his crush Carla (Barboura Morris of Wasp Woman and The Trip) into the night until the voices in his head drive him to suicide.

Leonard finds out what’s in the box:

“I suppose he would have called it ‘hanging man’… his greatest work.”


Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

“Please don’t damage the horticulturalist.”

Opens with a pan across a comic strip drawing and a skid-row detective voiceover. The main flaw with this version versus the musical is that Seymour (Jonathan Haze of Gunslinger and Swamp Women) and Audrey (Mrs. Futterman in the Gremlins movies) are less cute and more annoying. Audrey II’s voice is good but the plant prop and puppeteering are pathetic. But the script is good, and as with Bucket of Blood it’s nice that it’s a comedy instead of a sadly self-serious horror about a man-eating plant.

I did like Mr. Mushnick, New Yorker Mel Welles playing a bearded eastern-europe type. Also good to see Dick Miller again – he’s a regular customer who eats flowers (nicely contrasted with the flower who eats people). The dentist (who is not dating Audrey) is a disappointingly regular looking guy. As the VHS box used to proudly proclaim (“Starring Jack Nicholson”), Jack plays the Bill Murray role, a masochistic patient with two minutes’ worth of groan-worthy dialogue.

As in Bucket of Blood, the first person killed is undercover police (dressed as a railway bum for reasons unknown), so a pair of Dragnet-parody cops keep hanging out at the flower shop, along with two giddy girls who want flowers for a parade float and a woman who wants to award Seymour with a prize for Audrey II. Similar ending to the other movie, really – wimpy guy who’s gained celebrity by killing people in secret gets found out, nighttime chase outdoors leads back to a familiar location where he dies (in this case, eaten by plant).

I didn’t get any Little Shop screenshots, so here’s the cast of Bucket of Blood one more time:

Both movies were written by Charles B. Griffith, later director of the Ron Howard-starring clutch-popping classic Eat My Dust. Netflix disc included Rifftrax commentary, which didn’t work too well since the movie was already a comedy, resorting to rude swipes at the low-budget production.

Hatchet (2006, Adam Green)

“You can’t hook up with itchy chicks. Everyone knows that.”

Second movie I’ve watched in a row (after [Rec]) with no new gimmick of its own, seemingly quite derivative, but so well done it rises above most originals. The key isn’t the story or the creature effects – I think it’s all in characterization and acting. No incredible camerawork/filmmaking but I enjoyed watching because I liked everyone in the movie (so, the opposite of House by the Cemetery).

The final girl is Marybeth (Tamara Feldman) who returns in Hatchet II as a different actress, out to investigate the disappearance of her redneck family, brother Josh (Blair Witch Project) and father Robert Englund. The cameos keep rolling from there – Tony Todd (Candyman himself) as a theatrical shop owner, Kane Hodder (Jason in Fridays 7-10) as main monster Victor Crowley, and the movie’s own special effects guy John Carl Buechler (who also directed the classics Troll, Friday the 13th 7 and Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College).

Ben; Candyman; Marcus

But we’re not supposed to know that Marybeth is the hero yet – at the start, she’s just another passenger on a nighttime mardi gras swamp tour, along with a couple slutty girls and a “filmmaker” (Bill Murray’s brother Joel, who played a milkman in Shakes the Clown), a Wisconsin couple (he played the friendly guard booth nightwatchman in Halloween 2 and she had small parts in Gremlins 2 and The Burbs) a faker of a tour guide, and our two main dudes, killjoy Ben in his Newbury Comics t-shirt and friend Marcus who grudgingly agrees to accompany his bud instead of staring at boobies in the city. Then they all stumble too close to undead vengeance-cravin’ Victor Crowley’s house and get real killed.

Tour guide Parry Shen gets real killed:

Good movie, with just the right amount of humor to keep things fun without harming the horror atmosphere. Green has made three features and something like ten shorts since this came out in 2006. Filmmakers who have not made anything since then: Alfonso Cuaron, Paul Verhoeven, David Lynch, Sofia Coppola, Todd Field, Hal Hartley, Tarsem Singh, Aki Kaurismaki, Larry Fessenden, Robert Altman and Ronny Yu. What is the holdup?

Buy from Amazon:
Hatchet [Blu-ray]

Trick ‘r Treat (2007, Michael Dougherty)

What if horror movies were less like the bulk of Night of the Demons (teens trapped in a haunted house) and more like the short bookend segments of Night of the Demons (grumpy man who puts razorblades in apples gets his just desserts)? This movie plays like a better-interwoven Creepshow anthology (even with the comic-book animated intro), different stories in the same town on Halloween night, jumping back and forth in time where they intersect. It picks up the torch that was dropped (and doused and buried) by Halloween III: Season of the Witch. I’m trying to say it was very good. Written and directed by a collaborator of Bryan Singer, who produced.

Another reason to cheer: the victims are all carefully chosen – they’re caught disrespecting the spirit of halloween, and get what’s coming to ‘em. For instance, at the beginning a square-jawed guy (Tahmoh Penikett of the fake-Kubrick segment in Trapped Ashes) believes in the magic of halloween, has his house all decked out and just enjoyed the annual parade, but his hot pouty wife (Leslie Bibb, Brad Cooper’s girl in Midnight Meat Train) thinks halloween is dumb, and is thus murdered by an apple-headed troll with a jagged lollipop.

Dylan Baker (the child-rapist dad in Happiness) clearly has the best role as a high school principal who murders a shitty, greedy little student, then goes through an Unfaithfully Yours-style comic ordeal to dispose of the little guy. Dylan’s crabby, drunken neighbor Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox) just wants to be left alone, then is visited by the murderous troll. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is timidly trying to find a party date. And some kids recruit a nerdy girl in a witch hat to explore the quarry where legend says a school bus full of mental kids once plummeted. Predictably, in that story the dead return to kill the kids, who had been trying to prank the witch girl all along. But I didn’t foresee the sly ending to Dr. Guggenheim’s story (he was the bus driver). Most deliciously, Rogue is set up as victim to a black-robed vampire prowling the halloween parade, but she turns out to be a werewolf (heh, in red riding hood costume) and the vampire is just Dylan with false fangs.

Buy from Amazon:
Trick ‘r Treat [Blu-ray]

Abel Ferrara double-feature

The Addiction (1995)

A black and white (but mostly black) arthouse vampire movie. Being a big fan of talky French cinema and a moderate fan of avant-garde, non-narrative films, I always hesitate to use the word “pretentious,” but it kind of seemed pretentious. Maybe I’m just afraid of philosophy, and since the lead character is getting her PhD in philosophy, there was lots of Sartre and Heidegger and the like.

With Edie Falco, who I didn’t recognize with long hair:

It’s full of great ideas, though, and maybe it’s because I was weak and sick while watching, but I found it moving by the end. College student Lili Taylor (in that brief period between Short Cuts and I Shot Andy Warhol when she seemed like a movie star) is bitten in an alley then left alone. She get no underground vampire dance clubs or Lost Boys camraderie – she has to figure it out on her own. Clever metaphors to STD’s and drug use abound (she steals blood from homeless dudes using a syringe, ugh) along with the pondering about the nature of being. She does briefly (oh! too briefly) get a mentor in the form of Christopher Walken, second-billed for his three minutes of screen time.

With the teacher she’s about the seduce and then bite:

Lili graually infects classmates and professors, then holds a graduation party that turns into a bloodfeast. I think she dies from taking sacrament soon after, but she’s in the hospital all torn up so maybe she was dying anyway. Movie was “presented” by hip-hop/comedy producer Russell Simmons for some reason and written by Nicholas St. John, who wrote most of Ferrara’s previous movies but not Bad Lieutenant, his previous killer combo of horror and catholicism.

With some girl she just bit:


Body Snatchers (1993)

Watched this on a whim since it was on netflix streaming, not expecting much from Ferrara’s studio horror remake (the movie he forgot about when criticizing Werner Herzog for remaking Bad Lieutenant), but it was great – excellently creepy and so stylishly shot – one of the few times throwing a big-budget thriller remake at an artistic filmmaker has paid off (sorry, The Departed). Paid off for me anyway – if IMDB is to be believed, it was a royal bomb in theaters. In competition at Cannes though, beaten unfairly by The Piano (and fairly by Farewell My Concubine). Third of four Body Snatchers movies. I knew about the Kevin McCarthy and the Nicole Kidman, but not about the one with Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy.

All Things Horror points out: “Sure, it’s not perfect. There’s a bit of annoying narration that seems completely unnecessary, some unfortunate blue screen, a goofy big explosion-filled ending,” all valid points. I’d like to add that the scene where suspicious doctor Forest Whitaker is driven to suicide by approaching aliens was pretty over the top, and if I didn’t already know Whitaker is a great actor, I would not have guessed it from this scene.

Awesome move setting the story on an army base, a location where everybody is trained to act like a pod person anyhow. R. Lee Ermey is looking good with his little mustache as the local general. Young Marti (Gabrielle Anwar of Flying Virus and iMurders) reluctantly moves onto the base with her boring dad (he’s so boring) Terry Kinney (founding member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater), evil stepmother Meg Tilly (Psycho II) and observant little stepbrother. Marti immediately stars hanging out with a couple bad influences: hot, emotionless chopper pilot Tim (Billy Wirth of The Lost Boys) and general’s daughter Jen (Christine Elise of Child’s Play 2). Once the snatching starts, Tim’s post-traumatic stress disorder proves extremely useful in blending in with the aliens. Particularly creepy was the wide-mouthed pointing scream the baddies used as an alarm once the base had been mostly snatched.

Soon after that starts, Marti’s dad goes in search of help. And suddenly Guy Pearce is on an airplane? Then some Lebanese guys welcome Don Cheadle to Toronto?? Oh man, netflix has started playing the movie Traitor instead, probably to make a funny movie-snatchers joke. It’s hilarious, but I had to go rent a proper DVD of Body Snatchers and watch the last half hour a few nights later.

Writing assistance by both Stuart Gordon and Larry Cohen – along with Ferrara that’s an entire unholy trinity of 80’s cult filmmakers. No wonder I liked it.

The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (2009, Rob Zombie)

“Put your filthy paws on me, you damn dirty ape”

A silly, often stupid, pornographic parody horror cartoon indebted to Ren & Stimpy (for gross-out detail drawings), Tenacious D (for the music) and Looney Tunes (for the ever-present caricatures). References just about everything, including Halloween (Myers is hit by Superbeasto’s car), House of 1000 Corpses (Captain Spaulding as himself) and even Werewolf Women of the S.S. I am an idiot, because I loved it.

Superbeasto (voiced by head writer Tom Papa) is a mexican-wrestler superhero, but his eyepatch-sporting huge-breasted sister (Sheri Moon Zombie, with a perfect voice for cartoons) does most of the hard work along with her super-horny robot (Brian Posehn). It seems a scrawny nerd with a devil head (Paul Giamatti) and his intelligent screw-headed ape (Tom Kenny) has found the foretold badass girl with the mark of Satan on her ass (Rosario Dawson). Dr. Satan needs to marry Dawson in order to become all-powerful, which should be a problem since he’s a satanic nerd, but once she finds out he’s rich she steps right up. A fight ensues, Superbeasto gives Satan a monster wedgie, and order is restored. I love the music – during the big Carrie ripoff scene, the song is “Why’d you have to rip off Carrie?”

Lots of good voices – I didn’t recognize Elvira, Harland Williams, Clint Howard or Dee Wallace, but noted Danny Trejo as Superbeasto’s boss buddy back in the neighborhood, and John “Bender” DiMaggio as a lagoon creature cameo.

Buy from Amazon:
The Haunted World of El Superbeasto [Blu-ray]