Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Wendigo Meets DRACULA (1931)

Let's get back to basics. My friend Wendigo and I have been looking at sexy vampires, mindless monster vampires, surreal Euro vampires and unfunny clown vampires, and it's left us wondering what the point has been. Wendigo was in a mood to go back to the beginning --not all the way to Nosferatu, but back to the film that really starts vampire cinema as we know it. But Tod Browning's film did more than that; it reclaimed the word vampire for the world of supernatural horror.

Browning's Dracula is regarded as the first Hollywood film to feature an actual supernatural menace, one that isn't proven a fraud at the end of the picture. I'm not sure that that's true; there has to have been some movies with real ghosts during the silent era. But I can see why it seemed that way in 1931, when debunking movies like The Cat and the Canary and Browning's own pseudo-vampire story London After Midnight were fresh in memories. Because he'd made London (in which Lon Chaney is a detective who dresses as a vampire to catch a human villain), Browning seemed determined in Dracula to leave no doubt in viewers' minds. He shows us Dracula and his brides rolling out of their coffins to anticipate Renfield's arrival at the castle, which made me ask Wendigo why Browning wasted the opportunity to create suspense by making us figure things out as Renfield does. The point, Wendigo said, was to do without suspense, to put it in your face that Dracula is an undead, unnatural being, and that there were new rules in the horror genre.

Dracula is a vampire -- a nosferatu, as some peasants and academics say. What of it? What is a vampire, exactly? Most American moviegoers, given the rarity of Murnau's Nosferatu, had never seen a "real" vampire. What, then, do they learn from Browning and Bela Lugosi?

Which of these three doesn't belong?

Posterity tells us that a vampire is a suave dude in an opera cape with a medallion and a goofy accent. The first impression, however, is of a compelling, seductive creature capable of raping you, sort of, at night until he drains your life force and makes you one of his kind. They have an intense blood hunger that gives them a predatory look when they find a victim. The blood is a kind of life for them, and a kind of bond. One bite is enough to give the master vampire a mental power over a victim, making him a servant; more bites may make one a bride -- as long as the victim dies at night rather than by day. On some in-between level the vampire will just kill you, as Dracula deals with the crew of the Vesta. The vampire has animal magnetism -- a mesmeric power -- and can become an animal, a bat or a wolf.

Bela Lugosi played this character, a repulsive monster, on Broadway and became a sex symbol. How did that happen? Part of it had to do with his famous accent, which made him a counterpart of the "Latin Lovers" who were popular during the Twenties -- though in silent movies you couldn't hear the accents. There was a bit of the "demon lover" in the Latin Lover, something savage and dominant -- think of Valentino as The Sheik. Think of Valentino as Dracula, for that matter, had he lived. Plausible? If so, that may clarify the connection between the vampire and the Latin Lover. For female audiences, both offered a rape fantasy of sorts that was made safe by being fictional, even if the vampire's rape threatened a fate literally worse than death.

Sex appeal makes Lugosi's Dracula something very different from the ugly horrors of Nosferatu and London After Midnight, but Wendigo reminds me that in folklore the word nosferatu means an incubus who sexually ravishes women until they die of exhaustion or become pregnant by the creature. So sex has always been there, Wendigo suggests, but women weren't going to imagine welcoming Max Schreck into their beds. Lugosi adds sex appeal to the sex. He dresses well and displays a Romantic if Gothic sensibility ("To be truly dead...that would be glorious"). At the same time, Wendigo emphasizes the way that Lugosi conveys with his slowness, his labored English ("to-morrow...eve...nink.") and his glacial, deliberate movements, that he is a dead thing. We've seen other Lugosi films from 1931 where he moves more energetically and speaks English much more easily than in Dracula, so we can conclude that his manner of speaking the lines he's known for years is a deliberate choice. Slowness also symbolizes sleep, hypnosis and somnambulism, and his victims (most notably his brides) become as slow as Dracula. Under his influence, Mina thirsts for Jonathan Harker's blood, but doesn't pounce with fangs bared as in a modern vampire film. Instead, she closes in oh so slowly as the camera closes in in another instance of Browning's (and Karl Freund's) underrated facility with the camera. The slowness identifies her and Dracula as not of this world.

Helen Chandler as Mina, with a lean and hungry look. David Manners
may as well have his back to us throughout the picture.

Lugosi's undead sexiness is, most significantly, a synthesis of the folkloric vampire and the pop-culture vampire, two very different things that had been competing for attention for decades before the Hamilton Deane-John R. Balderston play and the Universal adaptation began to merge them. In the very year when Bram Stoker published the novel Dracula, Rudyard Kipling published "The Vampire," which was inspired by Philip Burne-Jones's painting of the same name. Poem and painting described a man drained of life force by a predatory female who was not a bloodsucker but a kind of moral succubus.

The poem's opening words, "A fool there was," became the title of Porter Emerson Browne's play and nove that, as a 1914 movie, made Theda Bara one of Hollywood's first true stars. Bara's star persona was the "vampire." The subsequent diminutive, "vamp," which survives today, doesn't convey the malignancy imagined by Kipling and subsequent writers.

If someone used the word "vampire" in the media from 1897 until 1931, they were less likely to have meant someone like Dracula than someone like Theda Bara. Bram Stoker's legacy was lapped by Kipling's almost as soon as both were out of the starting gate. Wendigo observes, however, that the pop-culture vampire archetype I've described reminds him a lot of Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla, while Bara's habit of striking batlike poses at least evoked a supernatural lineage for her mundane menaces. What Balderston, Deane, Browning and Lugosi did with Dracula was integrate the seductive aspect of the pop vamp with the traditional supernatural monster -- with a lingering pop fascination with mesmerism (Svengali reached the screen the same year as Dracula) thrown in. After the movie, when people spoke of vampires they were once more more likely to mean the undead than gold-digging maneaters. That's a little cultural revolution right there.

The bat effects in Dracula aren't really bad for a first try.

It all sounds good on paper, but it was up to Browning, the recognized master of cinematic grotesques, to sell it. His direction of Dracula has a bad reputation, mainly because he mostly stuck with the play's centralization of action at the Seward house. Critics give him credit for an atmospheric first half hour, while Renfield travels to Castle Dracula, but act as if the camera simply froze once the vampire reached London. Browning has suffered even more since George Melford's Spanish-language version returned to mass circulation, but Wendigo and I agree that the English-language version gets a bad rap. Looking at the main action with reviewers' eyes, we noticed how frequently Browning moves the camera in the dreaded drawing room, how often he dollies in and out for emphasis, and how often he stages the action to let actors walk toward the camera or retreat from the camera for maximum dramatic effect. Also, Browning doesn't need as many fancy directoral tricks to hold your attention as Melford does, because Browning has Lugosi. Any sensible director of Dracula would film Lugosi the way Fred Astaire preferred to be filmed, because Bela acts with his whole body and needs to be seen occupying the same space as his fellow actors in order for his timing to work. Browning doesn't need to impose an auteurial signature here; the story itself is enough to mark this as a typical Browning film for his fans.

Art direction by Charles D. Hall

Browning enjoys a definitive cast of supporting players.

Dwight Frye is Renfield. He's a more important character than in the novel, based on the writers' need to tie the madman more closely to the main plot. He takes Harker's place on the trip to Transylvania (which reduces David Manners's Harker to a near nonentity) and is stuck in a situation where the audience knows more than he does. He holds our sympathy with his determined politeness, but once under Dracula's sway he blossoms into one of movies' great madmen, as well as a faithful-enough embodiment of Stoker's "sane man fighting for his soul." Nearly everyone admires Frye's mad scenes and his incredible laugh, but Wendigo feels that he deserves more credit for a more fully nuanced performance that encompasses compassion and moral terror as well as insane arrogance and craven servility. Frye's Renfield may persist as an archetype for actors even longer than Lugosi's Dracula.

Sorry, Hammer fans, but Edward Van Sloan is Van Helsing. Peter Cushing does a great version of the character, but Van Sloan embodies pure willpower in a manner Cushing never matched. Here a character's slowness (compared with Cushing's dynamic performances) expresses indomitable authority. The scene where Van Helsing stares down Dracula despite the vampire's full exertion of his dominance is an awesome moment. Van Sloan portrays a man who takes no shit from anyone, dead or alive. Dracula has heard of this guy, Bela tells us, but still underestimates him. Van Helsing's virtues are willpower and knowledge, a point sometimes missed by Cushing and entirely lost by (ugh!) Hugh Jackman in a recent travesty of the mythos.

Dwight Frye sets the tone for generations of viewers dissatisfied with Charles Gerrard as Martin.

Van Helsing tells us that he will turn the superstitions of the past into the scientific truths of today by revealing a vampire's existence. This assertion helps us understand why some other characters in the movie annoy people so much. Probably the most hated person in the picture is Martin, the sanitarium keeper and "loony" catcher. Martin's only response to any outburst from Renfield, no matter how revealing it might be, is to reiterate that he's a loony. He grows convinced by the end of the film that everyone but himself is loony. In simplest terms Martin is comedy relief on the Shakespearean model of an ignorant smart-aleck, but for Dracula's purposes he represents the far extreme of unwillingness to believe the increasingly obvious. Wendigo adds that comedy-relief characters and scenes serve a necessary release-valve function, breaking up the tension of the plot so that the next shock will be a fresh jolt. Next most obtuse is poor Jonathan Harker, who scoffs and sneers at Van Helsing's notions until Mina's teeth are practically in his throat. David Manners' very name may have destined him to play bland heroes, but he can't be blamed for a thankless role that reduces the hero of the novel to a clueless observer of events. We want him to figure it out, but we might just take him for a stubborn skeptic if we didn't have Martin around to show us that Harker's viewpoint is just plain stupid.

Wendigo suggests, however, that Harker's ignorance may be a necessary component of his innocence. He notes that, even after Harker realizes the truth, he never becomes such a vampire hunter that he has blood on his hands. Wendigo's impressed by the final symbolism of Harker escorting Mina up the great staircase out of the Carfax crypt, as if he were guiding her out of the underworld into which the fallen angel (Dracula) had driven her. Harker has to retain a sort of innocence in order to fulfill this function, but viewers might be excused for finding him a little too innocent to be respectable.

The Browning Dracula remains one of Wendigo's top ten vampire films. It holds up well after eighty years, and Wendigo sees fresh details and nuances every time he watches it. Because it's a consciously trailblazing film, it retains a certain transgressive quality no matter how tame the action may seem compared to so many later vampire films. Wendigo has never read the play, so he can't be certain how much Browning really contributed, but the director was probably the right man for the moment. When I asked him what Dracula has that so many later films lack, he told me that it might be the simplistic answer, but "Bela Lugosi" is the correct one. He has "it," as might have been said of a contemporary "vamp," and it sticks with us today. No matter how many have followed him in the role, Dracula still speaks to the collective consciousness in Lugosi's voice. Wendigo will not say that this is the best vampire film ever, but it'll always be in the running. For my part, when asked by Wendigo, I won't claim it's the best either, but I will say it still sets a standard for the genre. The others are all variations on Dracula's theme.

Here's the familiar Realart re-release trailer, uploaded to YouTube by RoboJapan.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


The blurb on the box cover claims that Atil Inac's film "Plays like Hurt Locker from the opposite vantage point." However attractive that comment may have seemed to Vanguard Cinema, the distributor of the DVD, it misrepresents the film, which portrays a woman caught between the two fires of American occupation and jihadist terror. In war, contrary to what some may believe, there can be more than two sides.

Filmed on location in the Turkmen and Kurdish regions of Iraq and in Turkey, Buyuk Oyun is the story of Cennet (the name roughly rhymes with "Jeanette"), a young Turkmen woman who takes a lucky trip to an outhouse just as an American unit rolls into her village and shoots up her family. This is as much as we see of the Americans in the film, and they're shown as blunderers rather than villains. Nevertheless, Cennet bears a grudge. Her first priority, however, is to go to Kirkuk, where her one remaining brother works at a barter mart.

After the horrors Cennet (Suzan Genc) has seen, moving on isn't as easy as it looks.

In Kirkuk, Cennet learns that her brother was injured in a terrorist bombing and airlifted to Turkey for specialized medical care. Without a passport, she resolves to cross the border to find her brother. She entrusts herself to a group of smugglers ("bandits" from a more skeptical perspective) and gets raped for her trouble. Despairing and dishonored, she tries to kill herself by jumping off a cliff into a river, but she's fished out by good samaritans who finally get her into Turkey. She ends up in the tender care of a jihadist cell led by a goggle-eyed fanatic. He promises to inquire about her brother, who had been transferred to an Istanbul hospital, but blatantly lies to her, telling her without checking that the brother is dead. He quite consciously wants to mold her into a suicide bomber, cynically describing her and another woman as "lambs" who'll make quite a show by blowing themselves up simultaneously. This sets up the sort of suspense we've seen before. Will Cennet go through with the bombing? Will her suicide vest function or not? Will she manage to encounter her brother and learn the truth before she throws her life away? Without spoiling too much, I'll say I was favorably surprised by the lack of resolution at the end of the picture.

If sacrificing one's life is such a great thing, how come guys like this never do it themselves?

Atil Inac and co-writer Avni Ozgurel clearly oppose both the Americans and the jihadists. Their sympathies are with the simple people caught in the middle, whose lives are likely to be made no better no matter which side wins. While the jihadist leader is clearly the main villain of the piece (and his final scene raises questions about possible ties to the U.S.), Buyuk Oyun uses Cennet's odyssey to put a human face on a suicide terrorist. She is no Islamist. She isn't out to conquer the world in the name of a Caliphate. She doesn't hate anybody's freedom. But she's angry and vengeful and, most importantly, believing her brother dead, she has no family and thus, to her mind, nothing to live for. That detail may illustrate a significant cultural difference between Iraqis and Americans. We might expect an American so victimized and isolated to grit her teeth, start over and find her own place in the world. Cennet doesn't seem to believe that she has her own place as an individual; without her family, and without honor after the rape, she feels that her life means nothing and may as well be given up in some meaningful way. She thinks differently by the end, but her experiences have alienated her to the point where she seems to be more isolated, more alone than she really is.

Suzan Genc made her movie debut playing Cennet and makes a sympathetic impression. As a director, Inac has a strong eye for the landscapes of northern Iraq, but some montages seem padded to accommodate Sabri Tulug Tirpan's score. He opts for some narrative telescoping through montage that throws away some strong opportunities for drama, especially when we get to Cennet's indoctrination into jihadism. Inac may simply have been careful to avoid having Cennet espouse opinions that might lose her audience sympathy. As for the audience, Buyuk Oyun did the festival circuit before opening in Turkey earlier this year, and apparently hasn't played theatrically in the United States. One scene in which Cennet goes topless to apply dye to her breasts, out of fear that her explosion might expose naughty fragments to unwanted eyes, makes me suspect that Inac's primary audience is the global art-house crowd rather than the Turkish public. At the very least I'd bet that that scene isn't playing in Turkish or Iraqi theaters.

A Step Into the Darkness isn't the first suicide-bomber movie from a Muslim filmmaker and isn't necessarily the best one. But the setting and the story make me want to recommend this film as something like a moral imperative to those who still wonder why some folks in the Middle East have bad intentions toward Westerners. I consider myself fortunate that the Albany Public Library acquired the film. More libraries should do the same.

This English-subtitled trailer was uploaded to YouTube by tftyapim.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Yoshishige (Kiju) Yoshida's follow-up (not counting a film not included in my new collection) to Akitsu Springs takes the reputed yet globally neglected Japanese master director into genre territory with satirical intentions. Timed to coincide with the Tokyo Olympiad and released on July 4, Escape From Japan can be safely assumed to have something to say about Japan's place in the world and its relations with the U.S. in particular. It also proves less an imitation than a black-comic send-up of the sort of sordid crime stories that Seijun Suzuki and others specialized in.

A characteristic view from the ceiling, repeated often in Escape From Japan.

Escape chronicles the misadventures of Tatsuo Ihara, a small-time criminal who dreams of seeking his fortune away from Japan. I've seen the type before in some of the "Nikkatsu Noir" films collected in a Criterion Eclipse box set last year. While the Nikkatsu protagonists usually yearned to go to Brazil and make a new start through hard work, Tatsuo wants to become a celebrity entertainer in America. He idolizes the Rat Pack and fancies himself a singer in their style. Yoshida portrays a people enthralled by American pop culture, the probably inevitable result of the American occupation. Later in the film we'll see a Japanese woman with a GI boyfriend cajole a black GI into doing a Harry Belafonte impersonation. At the same time, Japan is celebrating its restoration as a respectable nation by hosting the 1964 Olympics. By doing so, are they reasserting their own autonomous identity or is this another instance of aping the West or angling for its approval? Yoshida doesn't exactly take a stand one way or another, but by having Tatsuo eventually intrude on the Olympic celebrations he does seem to be raising the question.

Tatsuo's initial concern is with helping his cool drummer buddy Takashi rob a Turkish bath in Tokyo's Shinjuku district. It's an inside job; Takashi's girlfriend Yasue works there. They take a tough guy along who proves the only competent member of the gang, since Tatsuo's a nervous novice and Takashi proves a hopeless drug addict who passes out in the middle of blowtorching a safe. They still manage to escape with the swag, but not without taking a cop on an unwanted ride that ends with a bullet.

The tough guy thinks that Yasue might squeal now that murder's involved. He wants to kill her by forcing her to OD on sleeping pills, but not without raping her first. While Takashi staggers about Tatsuo screws up the courage to save Yasue by shooting the tough guy. After leaving Takashi to dry out with his share of the loot, Tatsuo, now one of Japan's most wanted, goes on the run with Yasue in search of a way out of the country. She has a friend -- the woman with the GI boyfriend, who occasionally smuggles emigrants onto military planes. Because a lot of Japan-US flights are tied up during the Olympics, the best that can be arranged is a flight to Korea. Tatsuo briefly shares a meat locker with a Korean who wants to go to "the people's republic" -- that's North Korea, folks, -- and doesn't want a thug like Tatsuo defiling any of his sacred soil. Tatsuo luckily wanders away before the MPs raid the locker and hooks up with Yasue again. Before long, she loses the rest of their money somewhere on a golf course and gets arrested trying to retrieve it. Finally, Tatsuo sees no way out, as a fugitive, other than appropriating Japan's most public occasion by hijacking a radio truck covering the Olympic torch run. Before he realizes that the intrepid reporters have kept their mikes running, he tells the world of his motives, sneering that Japan doesn't interest him. Now more of a cop magnet than ever, he has one last run to make to the harbor if he hopes to escape from Japan....

Escape is an anti-crime film, not because Yoshida makes any effort to preach against crime, but because he portrays his criminal characters as anything but cool. Tatsuo is an idiot and a crybaby, delusional about his musical talents and constantly protesting his innocence. There's nothing glamorous about his exploits, including his murder of a yakuza by the exact method from which he saved Yasue: forcing him to chug sleeping pills. Because movies so often (or too often, depending on your attitude) portray criminals as cool rebels, a film that portrays its criminal protagonist as a hysterical wretch can't help but seem like a parody. Whether Yoshida was consciously parodying Nikkatsu noirs or Japanese crime films in general, he clearly did intend to make a kind of comedy. The comedy consists a little too much of people screaming for my taste, but there is a more substantial satire of an inanely Americanized Japan, against which Yoshida contrasts, in bookend sequences, the abstract art of painter Taro Okamoto. Similarly, the score is shared by the banal American-style pop music Tatsuo loves (apparently composed by Masao Yagi) and the astringent, portentiously modernist sounds of Toru Takemitsu. The juxtaposition of musical styles is effective, but the paintings look more like a way to maintain Yoshida's "Japanese New Wave" credentials.

Samples from cinematography by Toichiro Narushima.

I was entertained by the satire and by Yoshida's stylish direction, but I don't think his heart was in this film as much as it was invested in Akitsu Springs. From what I've read, Escape suffered from studio interference that prodded Yoshida toward independence in the future. Looking at the films to come, there are a lot more intense-sounding romances (including a version of Wuthering Heights) and few if any crime films. As a crime film, Escape doesn't surpass the best of the films it satires, but it does build up the case for Yoshida as a director we should know more about.

Maybe you'll get a better idea from this trailer, uploaded to YouTube by TheAsianVisionS:

Friday, August 27, 2010

In Brief: KICK-ASS (2010)

After years of seeing superheroes in comic books and movies, why has no one, to our knowledge, put on a costume and tried to be a real-life superhero? That question inspired Mark Millar to write the Kick-Ass graphic novel, the basis of Matthew Vaughan's latest film, and it's a question asked aloud by the comic-store geek who will become "Kick-Ass" with a green scuba outfit, a couple of martial-arts sticks and a Facebook page. You'd be excused for thinking that Kick-Ass would portray the career of a costumed hero in the real world. But between comic-book world and real world comes movie world, and that's where the film is set. In movie world, like the real world, people don't run around in strange costumes fighting crime, unless they're in a comic-book movie. Likewise, and with the same general exceptions, they don't have superhuman or magical powers. Kick-Ass works from the premise that it would be difficult to be a costumed superhero in movie world (which I guess is where the actual comic book also takes place), but movie world has different rules from the real world, so that our hero's task won't be as difficult as we first assume. We get a taste of what real-world Kick-Ass would be like by the end of the first half-hour, when the hero has been stabbed in the gut and totaled by a car on his first adventure. In movie world, however, this ordeal bestows advantages on our costumed neophyte. The various metal reinforcements required by his bones don't hamper his mobility, but enhance his resilience. Better still, he emerges with a degree of imperviousness to pain that will give him more staying power in combat. On top of that, Kick-Ass acquires allies in his haphazard war on bullies and muggers. Big Daddy and Hit Girl demonstrate the feature that most distinguishes movie world from the real world: every claim ever made for the martial arts is true. Through rigorous training, an 11 year old girl can be a relentless killing machine, olympian in acrobatics and proficient in any weapon that can be bought online. She and her vengeful-ex-policeman father stand as proof that anyone could be a superhero, in the sense of wearing a costume and kicking ass, in movie world, even as Kick-Ass himself discovers an actual answer to his original question: people in real/movie world (here the line blurs a bit for thematic purposes) don't become superheroes because they, unlike the orphans and loner vigilantes of comics, usually have something to lose. By the time he realizes this, however, he, by operating publicly as opposed to his two clandestine predecessors in costume, has done the one thing Millar deems necessary to inspire a proliferation of superheroes, as well as the supervillains to fight them in sequels....

If Kick-Ass isn't a satire of the superhero genre, it ends up being a sort of tough-love satire of the comics fans whom Millar assumes would be the most-likely candidates for costumed fame. The humor of it comes from our hero's cluelessness, despite years of reading modern superhero comics, regarding the physical prerequisites for masked vigilantism. But like a silent-film hero, through grit and good examples Kick-Ass transcends his ineptitude and ultimately gets to fly and kill people. It's part of the coming-of-age process that encompasses this erstwhile wanker's first sexual conquest after an extreme version of the classic dual-identity dilemma in which the girl admires Kick-Ass but assumes his alter ego to be not a dweeb, but gay. On both levels, Kick-Ass reveals itself as just as much an adolescent gratification fantasy as any conventional comic. The most fantastic concept in the romance plot probably isn't that the girl will sleep with our hero, but that she'll read and admire his collection of Steve Ditko Spider-Man comics.

Taken as it is, Kick-Ass is pretty entertaining and occasionally very funny. The actors handle their chores well, and I suppose I should be glad that the hero wasn't played by Michael Cera or any of the other young actors people love to hate these days. Longtime comic-book fan Nicolas Cage cracked me up with his Adam West impersonation in his Big Daddy costume, while Hit Girl is a sight gag from beginning to end. The action is well staged and the violence is less gruesome than the graphic novel's reputation had led me to expect. There are some really bad CGI backgrounds in certain scenes, but overall the film has the right look that treads the thin line between comic-book visuals and movie world comedy. Kick-Ass is junk-food cinema but for an old comic-book fan it goes down pretty well and it didn't bother me afterwards. That may make it one of the better comics-inspired movies ever made.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Italians loved to put long titles on their movies back in the day. The original tag for this Alberto de Martino film is I familiari delle vittime non saranno awertiti -- "The families of the victims will not be notified." It didn't reach the U.S. under its present handle until after Telly Savalas had become a TV star on Kojak several years later. Earlier in the decade he was doing a lot of interesting or at least eccentric work in Europe, from the flamboyant Cossack in Horror Express to the title psychopath in Redneck. Here he plays what would eventually become the title character in a story about the yearning for family and the related obsession with betrayal and revenge within the Sicilian Mafia.

Antonio Sabato the Elder is the actual star of the picture. He plays Antonio Mancuso, a young man who grew up outcast in the underworld because his father had been whacked for being a traitor. He's desperate for acceptance by a mafia family, but when he finally gets an opportunity he grows suspicious. He's ordered to kill a man who just happens to be the person who denounced Antonio's father years ago. Antonio figures out that the target's actual enemies want to hide their hand and blame the killing on Antonio's own urge for revenge. It would be better for them if Antonio were killed after doing the deed, but he outsmarts his employers and gets paid before leaving the country for Hamburg, where his brother Nicola has been operating as a pimp.

The Mancuso brothers aspire to more honorable work, but how do they earn their way into the orbit of Don Vincenzo (Savalas), who runs the local mob? They come up with an elaborate scheme to trick some of Vincenzo's drug runners, stealing their drug bag and replacing it with a duplicate, "losing" that in a police chase, and then "retrieving" the real bag and returning it to the Don at his estate. Vincenzo sees no reason to befriend Antonio, and slugs him when the upstart insults his underlings, but his gut feeling tells him to trust the young man and bring him and Nicola into the family.

The brothers do a lot of dirty work for the Don, including delivering one offender to a soap factory to be sent home to his mother by the bar, but they feel like men of respect at last. Antonio's family ties promise to grow closer as he falls for Vincenzo's niece Monica (Paola Tedesco), an insolent young woman who openly defies her guardian and even snatches cigarettes out of his mouth. We learn that she bears her uncle a grudge because she blames him for the death of his brother, her father. Antonio responds to her vengeful spirit, fends off her attempt to flog him, and has his way with her, crowing that they share the same blood. It doesn't seem like the thing to say to a woman you're screwing, but he doesn't mean it that way.

Paola Tedesco and Antonio Sabato in post-coital conversation

Don Vincenzo has a bad heart and it seems to be making him behave erratically. The other European bosses become convinced that keeping him in charge in Hamburg is bad for business. Despite Antonio's warnings, Vincenzo insists on doing things his way. Determined not to be a betrayer, Antonio convinces himself that Vincenzo is the real traitor to the organization and agrees to plot his destruction. Monica betrays Vincenzo by revealing his location in a private hospital, and Antonio and Nicola hijack a Feuerwehr ambulance to storm the facility and take out the Don. In the end, Antonio will lose one family and gain another, but the film concludes on an abrupt note of uncertainty about his future and his need for children to avenge him just in case....

Compared to de Martino's crazed Canadian crime epic Shadows in an Empty Room, Crime Boss is a temperate if not tepid film. It never goes over the top, but as a character-driven film it doesn't really need to. De Martino and Lucio Battistrada's story's major flaw is its overstatement of the relationship between Sabato and Savalas. When the latter, cornered and about to die, tells Sabato that he loved him like a son, and Sabato cries in reply that "I loved you too!" we haven't really seen much in the film to prove these claims. Most likely de Martino needed such a scene to sell the parallel between Sabato as a reluctant betrayer of a father figure and Paola Tedesco's Monica as a ruthless betrayer of blood kin. Tedesco, whose career began as Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salome in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, steals the picture as a sexy schemer with a frustrated lust for power. If she had only used a gun she could have earned admission into the international Seventies pantheon of amazons and valkyries. By comparison, Savalas gives a relatively restrained performance by his Euro standard, while Sabato is acceptable but not compelling as the antihero. Francesco de Masi contributes a likable score, and the film is full of (for me) fascinating footage of Rome, Hamburg and other points of interest.

On a stylistic note: Now that's a jump cut!

A public domain item in the U.S., Crime Boss is available in several cheap packages. It can be found in VideoAsia's Thug City Chronicles collection, along with several superior Euro-crime items, but Mill Creek Entertainment's version in its Suspense Classics collection is preferable for being letterboxed, though it starts the film in the middle of the opening credits, leaving out the actors' names. I familiari delle vittime lacks the intensity and panache of the most entertaining crime movies from the place and period, but it has just enough story to hold your attention for an hour and a half that passes easily enough.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wendigo Meets AGAINST THE DARK (2009)

Our quest for novelty has burnt us once again. Once more my friend Wendigo and I opted to try something that neither of us had seen before, something that just happened to be on TV (on the increasingly misnamed Sleuth channel) on our normal vampire-watching day. We have to admit that we didn't exactly have high hopes about this one, but we thought that at least this would be a "vampire" movie that bucked the current trend toward dreamy, misunderstood bloodsuckers and featured a genuinely loathsome, repellent monster. And to an extent we were correct.

Guess what? It had vampires, too -- sort of. Well, they're infected humans (Wendigo suggests, "zombie vampire creature infected things") with a "relentless quest for blood," but they have a sloppy way of getting at our precious blood that looks suspiciously like a zombie attack. At every opportunity this picture shows us flashes of grimy hands fondling entrails to a soundtrack of grunting. Anytime an infected one pounces on our protagonists, we get a subliminal moment of fondling entrails, plus grunting. The grunting and entrail fondling is also used occasionally as a bridging device between scenes. It all made Wendigo very skeptical of the alleged vampirism of the infected, which is claimed for them by the publicity for Against the Dark and by some characters in the film. I asked him, "What do they need to do to be vampires?" and he answered, "Actually, they need not to act like zombies." Some of them do seem relatively vampiric insofar as they drink blood without necessarily fondling entrails or grunting. We see an infected female diligently filing her fangs before she cuts a dangling victim's throat to fill her "I Hate Mondays" coffee cup. We expect to see more of her, possibly as a head vampire later in the picture, but while she does reappear, it doesn't amount to anything. She doesn't fight Steven Seagal and we don't even see her destroyed - - or at least neither of us recall seeing it. But that's par for the course for a film that doesn't seem to know how to build up a villain. We get introduced to a mad doctor who's kept himself alive by feeding victims to the infected. He looks like a big bad but Seagal promptly dispatches him. We see another bloody fellow who announces that his kind have "evolved" so that we humans "are just cattle to us." He boasts of his intellect and cunning, but is last seen running straight into shotgun fire.

There is nothing psychologically or folklorically vampiric about the infected wretches of Against the Dark. For that reason, Wendigo has practically nothing to say about the movie. He'd like to insult Steven Seagal (who wouldn't?) but the great man is actually in it so little that he's almost an elusive target. He's the head of a small group of "hunters," military-trained swordfighters (?) dedicated to eradicating the infected and rescuing human survivors. Seagal favors the katana these days because he can pretend to kill people with a single stroke at a time. He may have a hard time moving the rest of his body beneath that possibly form-fitting trenchcoat, but he can still sort of swing a sword. Otherwise, to describe his movements as lumbering is unfair to lumber.

His subordinates have even less personality than Segal does. The females don't even have dialogue. They march back and forth in front of the hospital, and we mean this literally. In one scene they walk from left to right and Seagal says, "Clear out dat area." A few minutes later they walk from right to left and Seagal says, "Clear out dat area." They appear only sporadically through the first hour of the film, leaving us to attend to two small bands of survivors who eventually join forces and the army guys (led by Keith David) who argue interminably over how soon to bomb the hospital or how long to wait for the hunters to flush out the survivors. When they finally hook up with the hunters, Seagal gets a belated (but no less pompous for all that) introduction, announcing, "My name is Tao." Cue the bombastic rock theme. His name is all you need to know about him. As for his motivation, as he explains: "Well, da thing of it is, we have to do what we do." And who's going to argue with that? Instead, let's argue with the hunters' rescue technique. Once they find the civilians, they acquire a habit of sort of wandering away to leave them helpless and alone again. But at one point Tao hands someone a gun, explaining, "Dis is a 9 millimeter automatic. It fires quick, so don't spend it all in one place." Fortunately, just about anything and anyone can kill a "vampire" in this picture. At one point, a frail female practically strangles a bloody-mouthed attacker before flinging him to the floor and stomping him to death. Like zombies, these vamps have to swarm on you or pretend to be innocent little children in order to have a chance against people.

After the fact, Wendigo thinks the basic story is a rip-off of that more prestigious original screenplay, House of the Dead 2. That one had characters fleeing from infecteds through a hospital threatened with carpet bombing, but unlike Against the Dark, its sets were actually dressed to resemble a hospital. Wendigo used to work in a hospital, so he noticed instantly the complete absence of signage in this film's alleged hospital set. On the other hand, the Against the Dark hospital had a storeroom full of mannequins. Beat that! Better still, the hospital was so cunningly designed that all the hallways lead to the same exit. We're assured of this constantly. Does that mean that you can reach the exit by walking in any direction? It must be so, because we could never keep track of where our little band was in the building, yet they got out eventually. We had a hard time even keeping track of who the characters were. This is one of those films that throws several groups of people together, none of whom introduce themselves to each other. It's those little things whose absence makes you realize that this is something special.

The dialogue redeems the film. It gave us something to laugh at. I enjoyed one character's ten-second gloss on I Am Legend, apropos of what? "We're the monsters now," she says, "This isn't our world anymore." I can see why she'd feel that way with Segal around, but this was before she met him. At another pessimistic moment, a character opines: "Nothing will ever be OK again -- or the same." And along the same lines: "You know what I was just thinking? Same thing I always think about: what are we going to do?" We were wondering the same thing a lot during this picture. We were never so grateful for commercial interruptions, and Wendigo in particular was glad for the first time in his life that a film had been edited for content. Anything that meant less of the movie was cause for joy.

How bad is Against the Dark, really? Wendigo says it's as bad as some of the vampire comedies we've seen. Consider yourselves warned.

If this isn't warning enough, examine this trailer, uploaded to YouTube by kotegashi.

Monday, August 23, 2010


There's a new movie of The Tempest coming out this fall. The gimmick is that Prospero will be played by Helen Mirren. In this age of inclusive casting, I say: Why not? I expect that when the film comes out, someone will find it ironic that Mirren took the part, given that she made her film debut in a movie some believe was inspired by the same Shakespeare play. Of course, it seems sometimes as if all you need to do is make a movie with an old man on an island and someone will say it was inspired by The Tempest, especially if it comes late in a filmmaker's career. Age of Consent was Michael Powell's final feature film, and the director is arguably more of a Prospero figure than the painter played by co-producer James Mason. Powell found himself in Australia after the British film industry effectively blackballed him for making Peeping Tom in 1960. Exiled from the studio resources that had made his great collaborations with Emeric Pressburger possible, Powell had to find ways to make magic on the cheap. That he succeeded doesn't make Age another Tempest. At least it's less interesting to me as a variation on Shakespeare than as a variation on Powell's own past work.

Mason plays Bradley Monahan, an abstract artist who can't stand to see his works treated like commodities in a New York gallery. He flees to his Australian homeland, to a little island near the Great Barrier Reef, in search of solitude, excepting his dog Godfrey. He gains fresh inspiration after encountering Cora (Mirren), a feral teenager who catches crustaceans to sell to local grocers. Cora toils for her wicked grandmother, but is saving some money of her own to move to Brisbane on in the hope of becoming a hairdresser. Bradley is a new customer, the proceeds from whom Cora can keep completely from the drunken hag of a grandma, but when the painter deduces that Cora has stolen someone else's chicken to sell to him, he suggests a more honest way of making her living: posing for him. While he doesn't seem to have done figurative art before, Cora stirs new creativity in him, and his artistic appreciation of her budding body makes her aware of her awakening womanhood. Others have been aware of it already, but she knows how to beat down unwanted suitors. The question is whether Bradley himself is a suitor or not....

Maybe Age of Consent is Michael Powell's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Age of Consent is taken from a painter's novel, and the main characters are more Pygmalion and Galataea than Prospero and Miranda. That relationship reminded me of a similar relationship in Powell's most famous film, The Red Shoes. In that story, initiated by Pressburger and adopted by Powell later, Boris Lermontov is a ballet impresario and Victoria Page his star dancer in the making. A visionary but not an artist in his own right, Lermontov shapes Page into his desired image through intellectual and emotional manipulation. Vicky is torn between her loyalty to dance and her love for a composer -- Lermontov has told her that she can't have both art and love -- and the tension destroys her. In Age, Powell directs a kind of do-over of the fundamental archetypal relationship at the heart of Shoes. While Lermontov may see himself as the real total artist and Vicky as his model, in Age that's the actual relationship between the leads. Cora becomes a willing servant of Bradley's art, eventually putting aside any agenda of her own. As a true artist, Bradley's mentorship of Cora is free of the manipulative, exploitative quality that makes Lermontov a kind of villain. And in an ending that actually took me by surprise, but struck me afterward as an old director's self-gratifying fantasy, Bradley's apparently selfless dedication to art is rewarded by Cora's sexual desire.

Powell's achievement in Age of Consent is kind of magical. Without the resources to create the incredible special effects of his Forties films, the director put his artistic stamp on the film with details as simple as set painting. Bradley gradually transforms his sabbatical shack into a dazzling interior, complete with dazzling sawblade sun, and once he's fully settled in you know that you're in Michael Powell's world. He also makes the most of a lush location; Bradley's paradise combines the best of nature and art.

Young Mirren is a kind of special effect in her own right, setting a precedent for decades of cinematic nudity with which her reputation as a great actress has only recently caught up. James Mason is a hero merely for facilitating a final Powell feature, but he was clearly a true believer in this project, giving a looser, livelier performance than I'd ever seen from him. With his beard and his hint of an Australian accent he seems determined not to do "James Mason," and he succeeds admirably. The only major fault I can find with this film is Jack MacGowran's obnoxious performance as Bradley's disreputable crony, who brings nearly needless plot complications with him to the island. On the other hand, Godfrey gives a great performance, almost award-worthy if there was a supporting animal category.

Powell's luck remained bad, however, and Age of Consent was shown in most markets in mutilated form. Fortunately, I never got around to seeing it until Sony made it available in a two-film set with A Matter of Life and Death, one of the director's Forties triumphs. Age is not embarrassed by the company.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


When I seek cinema entertainment abroad, Japan is my third-favorite stop on the wild-world-of-cinema map after Italy and France. I know a lot of people in that neighborhood: Kurosawa, of course, but also Kenji Fukasaku and Seijun Suzuki along with the establishment masters like Mizoguchi, Ichikawa, Oshima, etc. Needless to say, there's still a lot of uncharted cinematic territory in the island nation, but the intrepid Alan Fish at the Wonders in the Dark blog recently blazed a trail through the career of a neglected Japanese master. Yoshishige Yoshida (also known as Kiju Yoshida) has directed feature films from the early 1960s into the early 21st century, his last appearing in 2002. Surveying a number of key films from the Sixties through the Eighties, Fish has ventured a case for considering Yoshida among the top rank Japanese directors. Thanks to Fish's colleague at Wonders, Sam Juliano, I now have an opportunity to explore Yoshida's work myself.

My initial thought was: any director with a picture called Eros Plus Massacre in his filmography will have my attention -- but we'll get to that one later. We start with a project Yoshida undertook for a star actress, hia future wife Mariko Okada, who had taken a hand in the production of her 100th movie. Okada was busy, not old; she was only 29 at the time, but the milestone was a big deal for the publicity department of the Shichoku studio and gets a separate credit even before the studio logo appears. I wasn't familiar with the name or the face at first, but a filmography search revealed that I had seen her in Hiroshi Inagaki's "Samurai" trilogy from the 1950s. I'll be seeing a lot more of her in Yoshida's work, and after Akitsu Springs that sounds like a good thing.

The movie, adapted from a Japanese best-seller, illustrates the attraction-repulsion relationship of Shusaku Kawamoto (Hiroyuki Nagato),an ailing returned soldier and aspiring writer, and Shinko (Okada), the young proprietor of the title resort. The time is the bitter end of World War II, and Shusaku finds his own home a bombed-out wreck. He's in a bad way by the time he reaches Akitsu, and Shinko makes it a project to nurse him back to health and discourage him from killing himself. The benevolence makes her feel good. His will to live is really restored when he feels a great urge to comfort Shinko when she breaks down in tears upon hearing the news of Japan's surrender. But when he hits another trough of frustration later, he invites Shinko to die with him. She laughs at the idea initially, but when he confesses his love she decides to join him.

Shusaku's plan is to tie their bodies together and jump together into the local stream. In an oddly matter-of-fact scene he goes about binding Shinko while she natters on about how her relatives and friends will react to her demise. When he starts to put the rope around her chest, she collapses in a giggling fit; she's very ticklish. The absurdity of the whole episode finally makes him laugh as well, and the suicidal spell is broken. Before long, however, Shusaku quits the Springs and goes to Tokyo, where his brother is a shaming literary success and he himself soon has a wife and a baby. Akitsu becomes a refuge from the frustrations of literary and family life, but he never wants to stay for long. Eventually, Shinko decides that the only way their love will last is if they die as they'd planned long before....

Akitsu Springs is Romantic with the literary capital R, not only in its emotional intensity but in Yoshida's vivid use of expressive landscapes. The location cinematography by Toichiro Narushima is ravishing, and Yoshida's camerawork makes the film a treasure simply as a cinematic travelogue of postwar Japan. Hikaru Hayashi's music sustains the Romantic mood with a main theme that gains tragic resonance as the film goes on.

The story seems to say something about postwar Japan -- why else start in August 1945? -- but the romantic elements of the story really are universal. But I couldn't help noticing a similarity to Nagisa Oshima's Violence at Noon in Akitsu Springs' concern with deferred suicide. Maybe Japanese cinema of the time was coming to critical terms with the romantic ideal of double suicide and its psychological or social implications. Yoshida's approach is more straightforward, as his picture is more melodramatic than Oshima's, more readily pegged as a "women's picture" or a "weepie." But it has an emotional power to which Oshima doesn't aspire, the cumulative effect of Yoshida's pictorial brilliance -- this is a strong Exhibit A in the case for his genius -- and Mariko Okada's riveting performance, ably supported by Nagato. Everything builds to a climax that combines acting, cinematography, landscape and Hayashi's score for an almost operatic effect.

To give you a full sense of the pictorial richness of Akitsu Springs I could take screencaps until I wouldn't know when to stop. The picture's plot might sound conventional or cliched to some, but Yoshida's direction makes it visually compelling from beginning to end. Whether the director lives up to this early triumph remains to be seen -- by me, that is. Expect to see more of him here in the months to come.

For now, check out the original Japanese trailer, uploaded to YouTube by TheAsianVisionS. No subtitles, alas: Akitsu Springs was never released commercially in the U.S., and only had its film festival premiere in 2005! After seeing the film, that fact becomes a mystery.