Wednesday, July 31, 2019

DEVIL'S EXPRESS (Gang Wars, 1976)

First-time director Barry Rosen bet on a Seventies genre trifecta by making a blaxploitation martial-arts horror film, and while I wouldn't call it a good movie it is an often-fascinating document of the fantasy life springing from the grungy state of urban life at that time. In its Mummy-inspired prologue, ancient Chinese monks lower a mysterious casket, with an amulet attached, into a hole in the earth. To ensure that no one knows the location of the burial, the leader of the little group kills everyone else before putting himself to the sword. While he might well have waited until they'd all done something to cover the hole, no one actually discovers the mystery inside until centuries later.

In 1970s Harlem, martial-arts instructor Luke (Warhawk Tanzania) spars with his friend Cris (Larry Fleischman). It's a tense friendship since Luke is black and Cris is a white cop, but as Luke explains to his suspicious students, he owes Cris a favor. In any event, Luke and his student-buddy Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan) are soon off to Hong Kong for some elite training. Rodan's head really isn't into the discipline -- he's more of a thug at heart -- but Luke earns a diploma after a match with the master. After that, Luke is sent to an island to meditate, while Rodan is tasked with watching over him. Bored by it all, Rodan just happens to discover the pit that generations of random explorers and possible treasure hunters managed to miss. Lowering himself in with ease, he snatches the amulet and takes it home to America with him.

The Hong Kong-New York steamer has another passenger: a Chinese man who suddenly finds himself possessed by some unseen entity. By the time he reaches the U.S. he's a staggering, bug-eyed mess terrified by every bright light and sharp sound until he finds a sort of shelter in the subway system. Now whatever's inside him can come into its own, though the filmmakers don't quite have the money to do more than suggest a chest-bursting exit with a lot of bleeding.

Meanwhile, Rodan and his gang buddies escalate their feud with a Chinese gang after he gets ripped off in a cocaine deal. In a violent variation on West Side Story the Chinese and black/Hispanic gangs perform martial-arts rumbles in the slums of New York, where the producers enjoyed extensive municipal cooperation despite their film's unflattering snapshot of Seventies squalor. As the gang war escalates, Cris and the rest of the police begin investigating a subway serial killer. While his comedy-relief partner invokes urban legends of mutant animals, Cris suspects that the killings are gang-related, despite Luke's vehement pushback against that suggestion. Luke's attitude toward his friends is strangely ambivalent. He warns them constantly against using martial arts in anger, but it's unclear whether he even realizes that Rodan is a drug dealer or if he would care. He lives in a sort of ebony tower, content to make love to his girlfriend and improve his knowledge until the killings come to close to home.

As you might guess, the subway entity is drawn to Rodan for the amulet he wears -- but by the time it finally catches up with him, the Chinese gang has snatched it away. That's how their wise old mentor is finally able to explain the actual situation to Luke, once the Chinese convince him that they weren't the ones who slammed Rodan face-first into a transformer. Only Luke has the mental discipline to defeat the monster, which adds an arsenal of psychic attacks to its arsenal for the final showdown in the tunnels. It takes a variety of forms, including Rodan and later two fighters at once, before trying to convince Luke that trains are bearing down on him. For Rosen it's a brave effort at something trippy and supernatural, but when the monster finally shows its true form and goes for a death grapple the scene is too dark to appreciate either the monster get-up or the climactic action.

While Devil's Express ends on an underwhelming note, it's an admirable B-film in which everyone seems to be trying hard to make an impression. Warhawk Tanzania (who made only one more film) is no real actor but at least errs on the side of excess, and while the fighting isn't much by Chinese standards (and the gore effects are mostly laughable) Rosen and his co-writers manage to invest each encounter with some dramatic urgency. They also find time for gratuitously entertaining stuff like a fight between a male bully and a female bartender at Luke's favorite watering hole and a cameo by misanthropic performance artist Brother Theodore -- he may be remembered from the early years of David Letterman's late-night show -- as a priest slowly driven mad by the subway killings. There's a likable cacophany to the pre-climactic scene where Luke negotiates with the cops to let him go into the tunnels alone while the priest rants to the assembled crowd about dead gods, pestiferous rats and whatnot. Rosen's enthusiasm makes it regrettable that he directed only one more film, though he's gone on to a long career as a TV producer. For Devil's Express he threw a lot of stuff at the screen to see what would stick, and that's almost certain to leave at least something for some of us to like.

Friday, July 26, 2019

LIGHTNING BOLT (Operazione Goldman, 1966)

The American title of Antonio Margheriti's Eurospy film presumably has "lightning" in its title because the James Bond film Thunderball had only recently come out, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Woolner Brothers, who distributed the film here and partly financed it, worried that the original title would make the thing sound Jewish. As far as the original writers were concerned, or so Wikipedia tells us, the hero was called Goldman because of his unlimited expense account -- and as a play on Goldfinger, or course. For U.S. consumption he's "Lightning Bolt" but is mostly known by his real name, Harry Sennett (Anthony Eisley). He answers to Captain Pat Flanagan (Diana Lorys), who's introduced in a manner that teases that she'll be the dominant character. Her share of the action is relatively light, however, though she does get to save Harry by shooting an enemy female. At other times she may as well be a damsel in distress. While the judo-throwing lady on the U.S. poster hints at female empowerment, you don't really get much of that here.

Instead, Flanagan and Sennett are tasked with figuring out how recent failed space shots from Cape Kennedy -- represented by archival footage -- might have been sabotaged. While the globe-trotting storylines of 1960s spy films were a big part of their appeal, Lightning Bolt restricts itself to Florida and environs, where our protagonists pursue various leads on their way to discovering the saboteur.

Goldman makes up for its limited scope with an admirably absurd villain. Beer magnate Rehte, played by Italian actor Folco Lulli done up as the stereotypical crew-cut, "pig-eyed" German, has a hankering to rule the world. The key to his plan is installing a superweapon on the moon that will allow him to blackmail all nations with the threat of mass destruction. He can't have other countries landing anything on the moon before his plans are complete -- hence the sabotage. Director Margheriti tries to further make up for his film's lack of variety in locations by giving Rehte a relatively impressive villain's lair in an underwater complex that somehow was built near Florida without the Americans finding out about it until Sennett and Flanagan applied themselves. The omnipresent Rehte brand also gives the film a modest Pop Art touch.

It's not enough for Rehte to rule an underwater city, scheme for world rule and brew beer of uncertain quality. He also has ways of dealing with insubordinate or incompetent henchpeople. He puts them in cryogenic suspended animation, a fate close to death that leaves victims the hope of revival. Rehte keeps one of his henchwomen in line by keeping her father in this state, but when he punishes her by thawing dad out and reducing him to a rapidly-moldering corpse, it only drives her once and for all to the good guys' side. Their task is to rescue a Scots-American rocket scientist Rehte had kidnapped (Paco Sanz) while destroying the brewer's rocket and his entire complex while they're at it. There's a respectable amount of destruction in the end. but at the end of the day the villain isn't compelling enough for his downfall to really impress us. Eisley lacks the charisma or more plausible prowess of Brad Harris and Tony Kendall in the Komissar X films. Overall, Lightning Bolt barely manages to distinguish itself in a momentarily very crowded field.

Thursday, July 11, 2019


Inside every porno filmmaker, I suppose, is an aspiring mainstream director. The pay is better and you're not as bound by genre conventions, no matter what critics of Hollywood say. The ambition was there, however briefly, in Gerard Damiano, who enjoyed a moment of fame -- somewhere between notoriety and celebrity -- when his film Deep Throat became a surprise hit in 1972. He followed that up with another quasi-crossover hit, The Devil in Miss Jones, in 1973. If anyone was positioned to attempt a crossover into true mainstream filmmaking, it was Damiano. In fact, he had already taken his shot. Filmed in the year Deep Throat was released, Legacy of Satan played double bills with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but to my knowledge the Deep Throat connection went unmentioned. That's just as well, since it would only have created false expectations for a movie that seems closer to a PG rating -- at least in the version I saw -- than the R it received.  It's a shame that Damiano didn't wait until after Deep Throat had hit before trying this, as he could almost certainly have gotten a bigger budget to work with. Instead, while displaying some pictorial ambition, Legacy looks cheap and slapdash, and while more money might have gotten the director better actors, the shabby screenplay is all on him.

The story plays out like an old eight-page horror comic in which wild things happen with little regard for why they happen. After a demonic ritual -- the villains worship an entity called Rakheesh rather than Satan -- plays out under the opening credits -- we sit in on a husband and wife, George and Maya, talking to their friend Arthur, who's quit his job to become a sort of spiritual seeker. Arthur proves to be a kind of talent scout for the cult leader, Dr.Muldavo, who enthuses over a photograph of Maya as if she were his reincarnated lost love. This visibly irks Muldavo's mistress/henchwoman Aurelia, but since she's a mute there's not much she can say about it.

Maya begins to have disturbing dreams and behaves disturbingly, too. One fine day, just before they're scheduled to visit Dr. Muldavo at Arthur's invitation, she deliberately slices her finger and makes George suck the blood. The Rakheesh worshippers are blood drinkers, you see, Aurelia being the current supplier for Muldavo. George isn't sure what to make of all this, while Maya is subject to mood swings that only add to her husband's confusion.

At Chez Muldavo, Maya and George are slipped a couple of Mickeys. For Maya it's like a hit of Reefer Madness-grade marijuana, setting her prancing about the room, while George basically passes out. He's quickly locked away so Muldavo can put the moves on Maya, but before any unholy marriage can be consummated, jealous Aurelia frees George and arms him with a magic, or at least a glowing sword. She gets stabbed for her trouble, but George avenges her by slashing Muldavo's face with the burning blade, sending the cult leader pitching over a balcony.

George and Maya run for it, but Maya -- how like a female -- asks for a rest. But aha! George was too late after all. Maya has turned, and asked for a time out only so the cultists could catch up and kill her husband. Now she tends to poor Muldavo, who survived the fall but has suffered a hideous, constantly worsening facial burn. Only fresh blood can save him, so Maya sets about exsanguinating some cult members -- but to no avail. To her despair, Muldavo succumbs, leaving her to plead with Rakheesh for some sign that they'll be together again. We get the sign at the very end, when Maya turns her head to reveal a scar like her late beloved's growing on her face. In the absence of any actual character development (or "arc") for Maya, Legacy gives us little more than a nearly random sequence of strange behaviors -- and nobody else has nearly as much development as Maya. Nor can any of the cast act, as far as I could tell here. Legacy  fails as transgressive cinema. What I saw appears to have some gore cut out, unless I'm only noticing editor Damiano's ineptitude, and there's no nudity whatsoever. It ends up reminiscent in ways of Andy Milligan's work, with which Legacy was sometimes associated in double-bills, but without Milligan's splenetic attitude. There's no real personality at all here, and I wouldn't be surprised if students of Damiano assured us that some of his pornos are better cinema. Maybe things would have been different if he did this a little later, flush with success and possibly roaring with ambition, but maybe he'd already found his true medium, and horror movies simply weren't it.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

DVR Diary: DEVI (1960)

In its native country, Satyajit Ray's 1960 film provoked considerable controversy when it was interpreted as an attack on religion. It took an intervention from founding father Jawaharlal Nehru, who urged people to see Devi before judging it, to assure the film a wide, global audience. Viewers outside India could just as well take it as an attack on superstition, but Devi may seem to them more like a psychological horror film about the breakdown of a woman's sense of self. The woman, Daya (Sharmila Tagore), is the young bride of Uma (Soumitra Chatterjee), scion of a respectable Bengali family who seeks a western-influenced higher education in 19th century India. While he takes classes in Calcutta and imbibes high culture, Daya moves in with the in-laws: father Kalinkar (Chhabi Biswas), brother-in-law (Purnendu Mukherjee) and his wife (Karuna Banerjee) and little son (Arpan Chowdhury). The old man worships Kali, more as a mother figure than as the destroyer westerners will think of. He has a man singing devotional songs that have a strong sentimental "mammy" quality on the steps of the estate. Before long, he's had a vision showing him that Daya is an incarnation of Kali. He installs her on a pedestal, where she becomes the confused but ultimately passive object of neighborhood devotion. For what it's worth, she'd already become the idol of her nephew, creating jealousy in the boy's mother, who sees her husband as a loser compared to his younger brother, Daya's husband. To the boy, Daya may be a second, better mother, and all the men in the household arguably see her as a mother figure, even though she hasn't yet had a child herself.

The situation escalates when an old man from the countryside brings his sick grandson to Daya, hoping that Kali (or "Ma") will heal the boy, his only remaining relative. When the miracle happens, through no special effort of Daya's, the cult spreads as Ray shows us long lines of pilgrims trooping in to pay homage. When Uma hears of this, however, he's scandalized. Returning home, he's determined to take Daya away from what he sees as craziness. By now, however, a seed, not of belief, but of existential doubt has taken root in Daya's mind. She can't be sure that she's not Kali, and so fears leaving her place at the shrine. Back there, the crisis comes when Khoka, the nephew, falls sick. His mom wants a real doctor to treat the boy, but he hesitates in the presence of the supposed god. Finally, with Khoka pleading for his Auntie, she entrusts her son to Daya -- but the family soon learns that "Kali" has taken Khoka for good. While the father wonders what sins he's being punished for, the dead boy's mother rages against the "witch" who "killed" Khoka. Of course, Uma is only more determined to rescue Daya from this meltdown, but by now, at the end, she just wants to run away from everything and everyone.

There's an irony in the background that Ray certainly must have appreciated. While poor Uma identifies Britain and the west with progress, in sharp contrast to the the superstition that ensnares Daya, their story plays out during the Victorian era, a time when English women were placed on pedestals and idolized, in a different fashion, to the detriment of their autonomy and agency. The Indian story differs in detail and intensity, but a universal point can be made about the treatment of women. Not even progressive Uma, after all, considers educating Daya as an option; she's an idol to him as well, in a way. Daya is trapped in a role that leaves little room for individuality or self-definition in an extreme instance of the social construction (or destruction) of identity. Angry Hindus may have seen Devi as a direct attack on their faith, but the wider world of cinema could just as easily see it as a tragic commentary on an emotional neediness among men that consumes and destroys women everywhere. The specifics of religion are just details that Ray deploys through visuals and especially with sound to tell his particular tale.

Thursday, July 4, 2019


Most of the way, Jon Watts' sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming feels like an appropriately comic epilogue to the last two Avengers movies. It feels true to the spirit of Marvel Comics to treat with levity what so shortly before had seemed the ultimate disaster or tragedy. So here we get a lot of riffs on the the comical complications of the event now known as "the blip," the five-year absence of half the people of Earth, followed by their very abrupt return. It seems like almost everyone in Peter Parker's science school suffered this fate, so all the characters we met in the last film look no more than two years older now. Far From Home leans even more toward teen comedy than Homecoming did, using a class trip to Europe as its framework like a special episode of an old sitcom. Writers spend so much time developing the teen plot -- in short, Peter (Tom Holland) wants to declare his love for MJ (Zendaya) but best bud Ned (Jacob Batalon) wants them to be bachelor buddies in Europe until he almost accidentally falls for Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), while suddenly-grown Brad (Remy Hill) has his own eyes set on MJ and Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) remains a conceited jerk. On top of that you have two comical chaperones, and on the side there's a budding romance between longtime Stark henchman Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Peter's frisky Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) There's so much of this early on, once we get past a prologue establishing the film's superhero credentials, that the standard supervillain plot feels secondary for quite a while. It doesn't help the supervillain plot that comics book already know what to expect from the beginning. The film, however, introduces Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), who acquires the nickname "Mysterio" from European TV, as a hero from an alternate universe who stands as Earth's only hope, in the apparently extended absence of most of the Avengers, against a quartet of rampaging elemental creatures appearing in different parts of the world. The only familiar hero Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) can lay hands on is Spidey, who finds this new crisis an unwelcome complication of his European plans but feels obliged to carry on Tony Stark's legacy. The comic book fans know Mysterio is a villain and are bound to grow impatient for the other shoe to drop as Beck befriends Peter and becomes a kind of new mentor for the young hero. The teen stuff is actually better written and definitely funnier, even if it makes Far From Home feel more like an Archie movie than a Marvel one.

The shoe finally drops once Peter is convinced that Beck is a worthier successor to Stark than he could be. He gives Beck the precious, all-powerful EDITH glasses bequeathed him by Stark, which is what Mysterio was after all along. Comics fans know the character as an illusionist and will have expected the elemental monsters to be fake. They are, in fact, a collective project, as Quentin Beck is but the leader of a clique of disgruntled former Stark Industries employees who have combined their talents to create illusions with teeth, holograms with drone air support adding up to genuine destructive power. The idea seems to be to make Mysterio Earth's greatest hero in a way that will allow all the clique to reap benefits in some corrupt way. To succeed, they need to kill the ever-suspicious Fury, but Beck is willing to let Peter live his life until Peter (and MJ) discover the truth about the elemental attacks. Now both of them, and Ned and Betty, are in mortal peril as well. While the idea of a gang of working stiffs, albeit in a higher pay grade, echoes the Vulture's gang in Homecoming, Far From Home raises the stakes from the previous film's admirably modest level as Mysterio orchestrates a mass-destruction attack on London, hoping to reinforce his heroic reputation by thwarting it after killing off anyone who may know too much. This adds up to an overlong, arguably incoherent climactic battle that has Spidey fighting drones, illusions and finally Beck himself while Happy Hogan and the primary school kids fight off drones in the Tower of London.

Gyllenhaal simply lacks the combo of charisma and gravitas Michael Keaton gave the vulture, and while the climactic fight is much busier than the climax of Homecoming it's not really an improvement. That Mysterio proves to be a one-and-done villain may also prove that neither the writers nor the actor were never very invested in the character, though he does get in a parting shot that will have ramifications for any further sequel. The weak villain condemns Far From Home to be an inferior film to Homecoming, unless you judge superhero films exclusively by the scale of action, but the ensemble of young actors remain likable enough to make their probable return still a welcome one. Holland is still a fine, easily-flustered Spidey and the other kids complement him well. Jackson is a more irascible Fury than we've seen in a while --  there's an explanation for this in the post-credits scene -- while Favreau, who goes back to the beginning of the MCU, makes a more plausible quasi-father figure for Peter. Overall, Far From Home isn't great, but thanks to most of the cast, it's hard to really dislike it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

THE INVINCIBLE MASKED RIDER (L'invincible cavaliere mascherato, 1963)

Best known for crime and cannibal films, Umberto Lenzi got his start making swashbuckling period pieces. One early effort was Il trionfo di Robin Hood, which went over well enough in some places, especially in Germany, that this subsequent effort was marketed, however implausibly, as a sort of sequel. It's a showcase for Pierre Brice, the French actor who became a star in Germany for playing the heroic Winnetou in adaptations of Karl May's western stories. The setting is somewhere in Spain, and to judge by the costumes some centuries after Robin Hood's time. An evil nobleman, Don Luis, (Daniele Vargas) has a neighboring aristocrat murdered, blaming it on highwaymen who are actually his stooges, and assumes guardianship over the victim's territory and daughter Carmencita (Helene Chanel). The only thorns in the villain's side are Maurilio, a local rabble-rouser (Romano Ghili), and an apparently invincible horseman who robs the robbers and bullies the bullies. This fellow is as masked as you can get, the full-face getup leaving no features exposed while leaving you wonder how he can see through it, though he manages well enough.

The plague has come to the territory, and Maurilio convinces the common people that their only shelter is within Don Luis' walls. The don's men repel the peasant invasion as they would a siege, capturing peasant women in the process and subjecting them to humiliating decontamination process. They're to provide entertainment when Luis marries his new ward, Carmencita to his stepson, Don Diego, who is returning from his studies for the occasion. At long last, after more than half an hour, Pierre Brice enters the picture in full "Don Diego" mode as the effete fop is discomfited by a staged attack on his coach, from which Don Luis' men rescue him. Somehow, we suspect, Don Diego probably has been hanging around the area already. Euro audiences must have been familiar enough with the Zorro legend or more local precursors like the Scarlet Pimpernel to see where Brice's shtick was leading.

Carmencita proves a reluctant bride, and Don Diego is too refined to force himself upon her. On top of that, the masked rider appears occasionally to hint that maybe she ought to give Diego a chance. When not carrying on this ambiguous courtship, the invincible one starts taking out Don Luis' henchmen, including a Moorish henchman (Carlo Latimer), whose lust for white women is portrayed in a way that may make the film look racist today. On the other hand, Lenzi makes a point of including at least one token Moor in the oppressed village to show that not all that kind are bad guys. But while the rider (or "Robin Hood," if you please) carries out his vendetta, Don Luis captures Maurilio in a masked rider costume and happily puts the malcontent to the hot-tong torture.

Don Luis plans to celebrate Diego and Carmencita's nuptials with a masked ball, but someone spoils the mood by showing up in another invincible masked rider costume. Protesting this politically incorrect sartorial decision, Luis orders the offender to unmask, only to discover that -- shock! -- Don Diego is the genuine, authentic Invincible Masked Rider. Except he isn't! The Pierre Brice character now explains that the real Diego died of the plague, creating an opportunity for him to take his place and fool the stepdad who apparently hasn't seen the boy in quite a while. This is a weird twist, and I wonder if it's exclusive to the German edition. Is it because the filmmakers didn't want to portray (spoiler warning) parricide on screen, or because the Germans, in particular, couldn't have a local aristocrat be the masked rider if the rider is supposed to be "Robin Hood," a man from another country. It's probably an unsettling and unsatisfying twist for many a viewer, since it renders the Don Diego performance a complete imposture without cluing us in on the real personality behind the double mask. But some audiences may have been satisfied simply by seeing the evil aristocrat killed and the good guy riding off for his homeland with Carmencita. What pleasures this film offers are simple ones: action, violence, good guys and bad guys. Lenzi had yet to find his own style or the stories to express it, and to be fair, the way I saw this film in the German dub (with English subtitles) probably didn't do it any favors. Still, it's an interesting example of European pop cinema other than peplums just before spaghetti westerns and Eurospy stuff overwhelmed nearly everything.