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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 17: TRICK 'R TREAT (2007)

Obey the rules of Halloween, or you will meet Sam...

The horror anthology film goes back at least as far as DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) and continues to this day, with largely uneven results, but one of the better and more fun of the recent crop is writer/director Michael Dougherty's TRICK 'R TREAT. 

Taking place on Halloween night in an Ohio suburb, the film follows the night's intersecting paths of several characters, connected only by the holiday and the recurring presence of wee Sam, a silent, pint-sized demonic entity whose origins and purpose are never stated, but it's made very clear that he is definitely the enforcer of the night's rules and lore, and may be the physical personification of the spirit of Halloween. Sam walks unnoticed among the legions of trick-or-treaters, observing their shenanigans and availing himself to offered candy, but may the gods help you if you disrespect this sacred night...

The tone is set with a short vignette in which a young couple returns home after walking the streets in costume. The husband is clearly into Halloween and has set up their front yard with all manner of spooky seasonal decorations, but his wife openly expresses her disdain for the holiday, much to her husband's sadness, and she demands that he take down the decorations immediately since her mother's coming over the next day, and she knows he'll spend the next day sleeping late and playing videogames. Instead, she lets her husband go inside to relax (in actuality he goes to jerk off to porn) and begins taking down the decorations herself. But her disrespect for Halloween has been noted by Sam, and let's just say that she won't have to endure another October 31st... 

"Give me something good to eat..."

The first of the intertwined tales of terror introduces us to Charlie (Brett Kelly), an obnoxious Jack-o'-lantern-smashing fat kid who also breaks the honor system and takes waaaay more than one piece of candy from a clearly-marked self-service bowl on a porch where no one is at home. Charlie is busted when the homeowner, local school principal Steven Wilkins (Dylan Baker) returns, but the pricipal sits Charlie down on the porch and says he was just like him when he was a kid, offering Charlie a candy bar. After scarfing down the chocolate, the kid falls victim to the principal's poisoned treat, vomiting up seemingly gallons of half-digested candy before he keels over. Wilkins hauls the lad's body inside and what ensues is a comedy of bodily disposal that gets interrupted by the principal's young son and the crotchety old man who lives next door. (More on him later.) 


Charlie and the chocolate toxicity.

And when all seems to be over, Wilkins goes into his house and brings his sweet little boy down to the basement, all the while concealing a butcher knife behind his back...

Next, we meet a quartet of very attractive young women who every year choose a different city in which to celebrate Halloween. The youngest of the group (Anna Paquin) is reluctant to join the others clad as she is in a Little Red Riding Hood outfit that she feels makes her look ridiculous, but her older, Cinderella-garbed sister gives her grief about her need to loosen up and the fact that she's still a virgin at age twenty-two. The girls cruise the town, inviting young men to meet them at a drunken bonfire party in the woods, but the youngest does her best to dodge the revelry and instead stays in town to blend in with other revelers. She gets more than she bargained for when she encountered a masked man with pointy fangs that may not be part of his costume...

While cruising for some Halloween cock, there's always that one killjoy.

But is the innocent Little Red Riding Hood as helpless as she seems? The answer is a resounding "NO."

Elsewhere in town, a number of mean kids orchestrate a cruel prank on "Rhonda the retard" (Samm Todd), a girl who's described as an "idiot savant." (Though from her behaviors and way of speaking, I'd peg her as autistic.) The kids her to an abandoned rock quarry that 30 years early was purportedly the site of "The School Bus Massacre," in which a bus carrying eight "disturbed" kids in Halloween costumes were chained to their seats as their driver, who had been paid by their embarrassed and fed-up parents, sought to drive the bus into the lake so that the kids would drown. The eight children drown and the driver escapes to no one knows where, but the mean kids tell the Halloween-lore-savvy Rhonda that they are all going down to the edge of the quarry's lake to set down eight Jack-o'-lanterns as an offering to the souls of the drowned children. What follows is a textbook example of when a prank goes horribly, supernaturally wrong.

Rhonda receives the fright of her young life.

Lastly, we meet the aforementioned crotchety old neighbor of Principal Wilkins, the nasty Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox, who was also the screen's original Hannibal Lecter), who hates trick-or-treaters, scares them away from his property, and absconds with the candy they drop while fleeing in abject terror.  The guy's a mean asshole who disrespects Halloween, so he's about due for a visit from wee Sam.

Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox) meets Sam, and what a meeting it is...

While not an instant classic nor particularly scary for grownups, TRICK 'R TREAT is a good way to introduce younger viewers to the Halloween anthology sub-genre. It's not overly gory (though there are some moments that look quite painful) and there's no nudity aside from a very brief flash of naked breasts, so I say expose your 10-and-older kids to it in order to get them into the spirit of the season. Trust me, that'll keep you on Sam's good side.

Poster from the theatrical release.

Monday, October 16, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 16: HEBI MUSUME TO HAKUHATSUMA (1968)

When the shrine  stares back.

Sweet young Sayuri (Yachi Matsui) has been raised in a kind Catholic orphanage since infancy, with fellow orphan Tatsuya (Sei Hiraizumi) acting as her adored more-or-less brother, but now, after years of searching, her biological father has found her and has come to take her home. During the drive home, her father warns Sayuri that her mother (Yuko Hamada) was in an accident a while back that rendered her somewhat mentally ill, so she should keep that in mind while around her. Upon arrival at the house, her mother addresses Sayuri as "Tamami," a gaffe that is swiftly corrected by the father. The mother hazily acknowledges her mistake and welcomes Sayuri to the household, which also includes Shige (Sachiko Meguro), the housekeeper.

Just as Sayuri is about to settle in, her father is called away to Africa for a two-week research trip as part of his studies of venomous creatures, many examples of which he keeps in his private study/lab. Once dad's out of the picture, Sayuri tries to sleep but is awakened by a snake being dropped into her bed. Her shrieks bring the housekeeper, but Sayuri's claims about the snake are disbelieved. The next day, her mother shows Sayuri the house's Buddhist shrine and encourages her to pray there (apparently ignoring the fact that the girl was raised Catholic). While humoring her mother's wishes and beseeching the Buddha to be kind to her, Sayuri glances up at the shrine and sees an eerie and none-too-friendly pair of eyes staring back at her. Startled, she tells her mother what she saw, and her mother oddly advises Sayuri not to tell her father of what she saw when he returns. That night, Sayuri leaves her bed upon hearing her mother stealthily wandering around. Her mother leaves food in the shrine and leaves, which Sayuri observes, but when she enters the shrine she notes that the food is gone. She confronts her mother about this and it is revealed that the shrine has a secret room that houses the aforementioned Tamami, whom Sayuri is told is her hitherto unmentioned older sister, and who also bears an unsettling "plastic" aspect to her face....

Sibling disharmony.

No explanation is given for Tamami living in a hidden chamber, but Sayuri just goes with it and agrees to share her own room with the cold Tamami. Tamami immediately is found to be a mean and vicious little bitch who wields control over her mother and the housekeeper, but the real horrors start once the sisters begin rooming together. As she tries to sleep, Sayuri notices odd things about Tamami, such as her obsessed focus on frogs in a biology textbook, a strange cut on the side of her face, and the fact that Tamami's back is covered in scales like a snake. 

Night terrors.

Sayuri suffers weird nightmares filled with imagery of attacking snakes, and on one night Tamami leaves the house, with Sayuri convinced she's left to search the nearby swamp for frogs. While their mother and housekeeper search outside, Tamami, in a move worthy of any ghost or spirit, manifests inside the house, revealing herself to indeed be a snake, and she savagely latches onto her terrified little sister's neck.

Tamami: Snake monster?

But when Sayuri awakens and finds herself uninjured, things just get weirder. Was Tamami's monstrous form and attack all just a dream? And what the hell is up with Tamami holding up a large, freshly-caught frog, with one leg held in each hand, graphically tearing it in half down to the crotch, and throwing the gory mess into her sister's shocked face? Whatever the case, Sayuri's recounting of the weird happenings is met with disbelief from mom and the housekeeper.

The clearly unhinged Tamami, jealously concerned that Sayuri is usurping her place in the family, demands that Sayuri be moved from their shared room to the attic, which will be kept locked at night. Once relegated to the attic, Sayuri spies on her sister through a hole in the ceiling and sees Tamami peel off her "face" before a mirror, revealing scaly patches festooning her features. 

Tamami reveals herself.

In a jealous rage, the older girl cries out in anguish, asking why she can't be beautiful, and tears her sister's clothes out of their shared closet, littering them all over the room. Seeing this fills Sayuri's heart with pity, but it's all wasted compassion as Tamami's bitchery is kicked up a notch when their mother leaves the girls alone in the house while she goes away for observation by her doctors. Tamami physically drags Sayuri into dad's lab, where she demonstrates the efficacy of a tank of acid by throwing a live snake into it and forcing Sayuri to watch in horror. Retrieving the snake's skeleton, Tamami notes that if left in the acid long enough, even the bones will be eaten away, saying it with a distinct undertone of threat. She then orders Sayuri to move out and never come back, or else she may come to serious harm. But, having promised her father to make the best of things until his return, Sayuri refuses to knuckle under to Tamami's bullying, which does not sit at all well with the elder tormentor. And as if all of this wasn't enough bizarreness to deal with, from out of nowhere a hideous, fanged, silver-haired witch shows up to pile more torment upon poor Sayuri.



With nowhere else to turn, Sayuri seeks help from the kindly nun who runs the orphanage, and upon telling her of all that she's been through, the nun begins to fill in the pieces of the puzzle with information about why Sayuri was left in the orphanage in the first place and exactly who Tamami really is. The nun, who had received a letter from Sayuri's dad asking how things were going between the girls, promises to send the father a response that outlines all that has gone on in his absence, which fills Sayuri with hope. But that hope is shattered as the nun is brutally murdered by the witch before she could pen to paper. With only Tatsuya to turn to for help, Sayuri and her surrogate brother soon discover the truth of it all and find themselves in grievous danger.

Let's hear it for nightmare fuel!

Starting off like a horror story for the kiddies (and based on a manga by Kazuo Umezu), HEBI MUSUME TO HAKUHATSUMA — which roughly translates as "The Snake-Girl and the Witch with Silver Hair" — at first seems like it could fit in with the majorly kiddie-aimed Gamera flicks that its company, Daiei Film, cranked out on a yearly basis, only much better-made. It's shot in moody black and white and it milks its monochromatic palette for maximum atmosphere, and the visual set pieces display imagination that knows what being creepy is all about. Its monsters are very much in keeping with the Japanese aesthetic for its era, with their look echoing traditional block print depictions of legendary Yokai and how such creatures would be interpreted in live productions — a style that most Westerner viewers might find "fakey" when not approaching it with cultural context in mind —and they are guaranteed to give youngsters the frights. But the story's narrative content is a study in jealousy, cruelty and outright madness that veers into quite gruesome territory, such as the aforementioned rending of the frog and the stabbing of the nun, plus some truly harrowing edge-of-your-seat mayhem during the climax. There are several "HOLY SHIT!!!" moments that are quite jarring for a film of its vintage, and even taking into account the harsher aspects of what's acceptable in Japanese storytelling for youngsters as opposed to our Western consideration of such material, things get majorly hardcore toward the ending. And though all is revealed by the end, some of the story's more fantastical elements are not explained, and those omissions appear to be a case of sloppy screenwriting that assumes the viewers will fill in those plot/logic gaps themselves.

Nonetheless, HEBI MUSUME TO HAKUHATSUMA is very strong meat for what can be considered a kiddie horror, and as such it is very much recommended. (It also makes one wonder what the Gamera movies might have been like if Daiei hadn't so flagrantly cheaped-out and half-assed that series pretty much from the beginning.)

Poster from the Japanese theatrical release.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 15: HARD CANDY (2005)

The start of an unforgettable date.

After getting to know 14-year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) during three weeks of flirtation on an internet chat room, 30-year-old photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) takes her back to his house, where the girl makes them screwdrivers. After a few drinks, Hayley suggests that Jeff take sexy pictures of her and she begins to dance suggestively on his couch. As Jeff breaks out his camera, he begins to feel woozy and soon keels over unconscious. Upon coming to, Jeff finds that he's securely tied to a chair and Hayley's innocent and precocious demeanor is cast aside to reveal a cold and vicious sociopath with an agenda.

To give away more would be grossly unfair to curious viewers, so I won't go any further with the plot particulars. What I will say is that as the story unfolds, the audience is taken along on a journey into every man's very worst nightmare. Is Hayley insane? What is her motivation? Is Jeff actually a predator of underage girls? 

HARD CANDY is a nail-bitingly intense psychological battle wherein the seemingly weaker opponent wields several clear and very strong advantages, so Jeff's situation is a steady descent into hopelessness. Basically a two-character study (though three other characters make very brief appearances), the film is a tour de force of performances from the leads, both of whom are utterly believable in their roles, but Page's Hayley comes from out of nowhere to join the short list of cinema's all-time most terrifying psychos, and she only gets more fear-inducing with each passing moment. She's brilliant, methodical, and veers between overwrought adolescent histrionics and icy coldness as she torments her captive and plays with his mind and body in the most cruel of ways.

Believe it or not, this is the relative calm before the storm...

Psychological horror is far less easy to pull off than narratives showcasing rapacious monsters or implacable slashers, and HARD CANDY succeeds at its horrific flavor in every possible way. It's a true make-you-squirm thriller, especially for males, and if there is any justice it will eventually be rightly recognized as the classic that it is. This is movie with very, very sharp teeth and you had better believe me when I tell you it is not afraid to go there. HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.

Poster from the theatrical release.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 14: THE SHALLOWS (2016)

When a surfing holiday goes horribly, horribly wrong.

Medical student Nancy Adams (Blake Lively), takes a surfing holiday to Mexico while grieving for her recently-deceased mother. Her mother's death has led Nancy to consider leaving med school, but serious consideration of that decision is put on hold as Nancy, following hours of surfing with friendly locals, is attacked by a massive great white shark that has been feeding on the nearby carcass of a humpback whale. Nancy's surfer athleticism and medical training allow her to survive and make her way to an exposed rock outcropping in the shallows, a mere 200 yards from the beach and safety, where she's just out of the water enough so that the apex predator cannot reach her. But the shark is mindlessly relentless — to put it very mildly — and it's only a matter of time until high tide renders Nancy easily obtainable...

Let's face it: When it comes to shark movies, JAWS (1975) was a rock-solid masterpiece of suspense and terror that defined the genre and set the standard, so pretty much every shark movie that came in its wake could not help but come off as feeble or a pale imitation by way of comparison. With that stated, I'll go out on a limb — or an isolated rock — and name THE SHALLOWS as probably the very best of the post-JAWS shark-centric shockers. Its premise is the very model of narrative simplicity, set as it is in one remote location and peopled with an absolute minimum of characters, so what we really focus on is seeing just how Nancy will survive against what is for all intents and purposes a voracious sea monster of the most implacable order.

"Those goddamned Beach Boys are a pack of fucking liars!!!"

Seeming even more consumption-minded than the shark in JAWS, the great white found here just will not stop in its efforts to eat every fucking thing in its path succeeding in devouring three other victims as it awaits its chance at taking Nancy. It's big, it's terrifying, and, thanks to modern special effects, it's a beautifully realized and downright nasty antagonist.

And since the other human characters are pretty much ancillary shark-fodder, Blake Lively is given a terrific showcase in which to shine. She imbues Nancy with a relatable humanity and disorientation in the wake of the character's mom's death, which only makes her clearing-the-mind-via-surfing-holiday gone wrong seem all the more terrible. It's also a very physical performance, and while Lively spends the film in a bikini and a subsequent leg-exposing body-glove, the hot chick factor is almost immediately forgotten as the shark enters the picture and Nancy proves herself tougher and more resourceful than you will ever be.

I love sharks and shark horror stories, and THE SHALLOWS easily makes it into my roster of Top 5 shark flicks of all time. No small feat, that, so give it a look. And bear in mind that it manages to be riveting and scary as hell with only a minimum of PG-13 gore. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Theatrical promo poster.

Friday, October 13, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 13: JUJIN YUKI OTOKO (1955)

Shaq?

First of all, this film is more of a monster movie than a straight-up horror outing, but I cite it here for completists and also due to its controversial status and attendant rarity. Known and released in the United States as HALF-HUMAN (1958), Toho's 1955 JUJIN YUKI OTOKO — roughly "monster snowman" — was never given an uncut release here and was yanked from distribution in its native Japan early in its run. That's a shame because it's an okay little creature feature from the legendary director Ishiro Honda, who a year earlier unleashed Godzilla upon the world in the classic GOJIRA (1954). 

The "abominable" snowman and child.

I won't go too heavy into detail, as this is pretty much a standard Abominable Snowman yarn, but all you really need to know is that it's about an assortment of humans who want to find the snowman (and its child) who they believe to be a dangerous menace, and during the course of the story we also meet a community of primitive mountain villagers who venerate the snowman as a local spirit/god. The mountain area where the snowman lives is infamous for no one who ventures there ever coming back, which is assumed to be because the snowman kills outsiders, but the snowman's actually quite mellow and even helpful when push comes to shove, and the villagers are revealed as the murderers of interlopers. Needless to say, some of the humans want to capture and exploit the snowman and that course of action predictably leads to tragedy, while the mountain village's sole hot chick (Akemi Negishi) must redeem herself in the eyes of her people after she rescues an outsider after he suffers a dangerous fall. Anyway, the bad humans kill the snowman's child, which causes him to rampage and destroy the village, after which he pulls a King Kong and abducts the film's answer to Fay Wray (Momoko Kochi, who was the female lead in GOJIRA). And, like I previously stated, tragedy occurs.

The snowman.

 As content goes, the film is not scary, violent, or gory, so why has its un-bastardized version been suppressed by Toho for over sixty years? Well, it's all down to the depiction of the mountain people. Some sources say they are meant to represent Japan's Ainu people, an indigenous ethnic group, or the Burakumin, "hamlet people" who are deemed "unclean/impure" because of their roles as slaughterhouse workers, executioners, undertakers, and other functions that place them in close proximity to death. I'd say the closest American equivalent of the stereotype would be our perception of hillbillies, rednecks, and other "poor white trash" as unsavory, sub-human, inbred vermin, and as such the depiction of the villagers could be considered offensive or insensitive. When Japanese film studios withhold their own works, it's usually for reasons of sensitivity, which is commendable and kind of unexpected when one considers the often outrageous, insane, over-the-top, and offensive material found in a lot of what they unleash on screens.

 The snowman pulls a Kong.

And let us not forget HALF-HUMAN, which was the westernized version. It gave the Toho original the same shabby treatment that both GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN — re-edited and retitled GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER — and VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE received when they hit the States. New footage with American actors was shot and inserted into the films while chunks of the originals were excised. (The re-jiggering in VARAN was especially egregious, as most of the movie's giant monster footage was inexplicably swapped out for a newly-shot romance plot involving an American soldier and Japanese woman.) The one saving grace of HALF-HUMAN is that it moves at a much more brisk pace than its Japanese source, so I say stick to the original.


The lone hot villager chick (Akemi Negishi) fights for her redemption.

"But, Bunche," I hear you ask,"If Toho took the film out of release and has kept it suppressed for over six decades, how could we ever get to see the unadulterated version?" That, my friends, it where the collector's "grey market" comes into the picture. I have no idea when or how, but as of the past couple of years a grainy print of JUJIN YUKI OTOKO has been turning up in bootleg DVD form, often with HALF-HUMAN thrown in for good measure, at big horror and comics conventions in the dealers' area. I stumbled across it a while back and snagged it, largely because I was curious to see if it was any better than the HALF-HUMAN edit that I saw during my early "monster kid" years, and I was pleased to see that the film quality, while admittedly a tad hazy, was more than clear enough to be watchable, and the subtitles were actually quite good. (Sometimes with this sort of unofficial release, the subtitles may get done by someone whose command of the English language is, to put it kindly, rudimentary at best, and downright incomprehensible at worst. The majority of those badly-subbed items hail fro Hong Kong.) The first copy of it that I obtained also featured running time codes at the top of the frame for the entire film, but one soon learned to ignore them. The bootleg has since been given a professional-level upgrade, in that the time codes have been blurred out, which works just fine over a black and white film.

BOTTOM LINE: Definitely worth a look for Toho and Ishiro Honda junkies, as well as fans of cryptozoological thrills.

Poster from the original Japanese theatrical release.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 12: GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL (1968)

As Air Japan flight 307's crew faces birds committing suicide by flying into the plane, thanks to an unexplained phenomenon that turns the sky blood-red, they must also contend with sorting out a bomb threat and an armed hijacker (Hideo Ko). But as if all of that were not enough, they cross the flight path of a UFO and are forced to crash land on an uncharted, uninhabited island. 

An unwanted close encounter.

Only nine people survive the crash, with the presumed-dead hijacker suddenly sitting up and bringing the number up to ten. He takes a stewardess hostage at gunpoint and escapes onto the island, only to run straight into a parked flying saucer. He turns to flee but is compelled to approach the ship.


As the terrified stewardess watches from behind a boulder, the hijacker enters the spacecraft and immediately has his forehead telekinetically split open. A silver/gray, pulsating, blob-like life form enters his body through the new cranial orifice and possesses him, after which he disappears.


"You may call me...Vulva-Face!!!"

Hearing a radio bulletin stating that no trace has been found of their plane and that all attempts at rescue have been called off, the survivors must work together to stay alive, which is not going to be easy because every one of them, with the exceptions of the co-pilot (Teruo Yoshida), the stewardess, and a cute blonde American war widow (Cathy Horan), are all either idiots or outright self-serving assholes. Among the survivors is a psychiatrist who theorizes that while mankind fights among itself with senseless wars, hostile space aliens will use that distraction and stage a stealthy invasion. That theory is proven true as the possessed hijacker, now more or less a space-vampire, gets to work on draining the hapless humans of their vital fluids.


Feeding time.

Feigning death, the hijacker/alien allows itself to be brought into the plane, where it feasts upon the film's most obnoxious character (Nobuo Kaneko) and takes the man's wife (Yuko Kusunoki) as the next host body for one of its compatriot invaders.

Speaking telepathically through the newly-possessed female, the aliens identify themselves as the Gokemidoro, who hail from "a universe far from Earth." The Gokemidoro have had their eye on our world for some time — previous sightings of UFOs are chalked up to being our first encounters with the Gokemidoro — and are now in the active process of full-scale invasion, with the complete and utter extermination of mankind as their goal. Stating that we have already turned our world into "a monstrous battlefield," the aliens blame us for their choice of Earth as their conquest objective, since our own in-fighting distracted humankind from believing that UFOs were a clear and present threat. Having thus explained themselves, the aliens deem the human woman no longer of use, so they vacate her body and pitch it off of a cliff, and upon rushing to her corpse, the survivors find that her body is now as desiccated as that of a mummy.

Locking themselves in the hull of the crashed plane, the survivors opt to pick one of their number to be bait so they can actually witness a vampire do its thing, all in the name of science.


The invader stalks...

...and preys.

The survivors are picked off one by one until only the co-pilot and the stewardess remain, and they defeat the alien by dousing it with previously foreshadowed jet fuel and setting it alight.

The invader seeps out, vanquished by flame.

But, in a ludicrous "twist" ending, it turns out that the plane did not crash on some deserted island after all. Instead, the plane ended up within wandering distance of a major city, and the last of our survivors find themselves on a highway packed with cars, each of which contains the dead victims of the alien invasion. As they venture into the city, they find everyone is dead and hear the aliens announce that humanity is done. As the camera pulls away from the Earth, we see an armada of flying saucers approach the world as its new occupants.


There goes the neighborhood.

While Japanese sci-fi movies were certainly no strangers to the American/western market, straight-up horror films from the Land of the Rising Sun seldom played in the States, and when they did they were usually deemed the sort of highbrow fare that got relegated to "art" theaters. Films like ONIBABA and KWAIDAN may have seemed too culturally inaccessible for western tastes, so instead we were deluged with giant monster movies, a genre that Americans invented but that the Japanese very much made their own and arguably improved upon and codified. Toho's Godzilla and his city-razing brethren, as well as the far cheaper and goofier adventures of Gamera, found themselves in heavy rotation on U.S. television and in theatrical releases for decades and eventually became one of the major pop culture bridges between East and West. That said, Japanese straight-up horror films seldom saw releases in the States until roughly the 1980's, and Shochiku Studios' GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL — its original Japanese title translating as something to the effect of VAMPIRE GOKEMIDORO — was one of the few to sneak through, but it remained largely elusive until the advent of home video. (And   even then it was only likely to be found in dubbed versions on dodgy bootleg VHS copies at comics conventions, which is how I first obtained a copy and saw it during 1990.)

Much like the later AIRPORT series of disaster movies, GOKE's narrative intersperses the impending doom with the personal drama of the main cast and, also like with the AIRPORT films, we don't necessarily give a shit about any of that stuff. The promise of mayhem with a space-vampire is what put butts in seats in the first place and that aspect of the story delivers with creepy and atmospheric flavor, while the rest is just un-involving and over-wrought claptrap that brings the proceedings to a dead halt.

In re-watching GOKE for this year's round of horror movie essays, I got my hands on a crisp, widescreen subtitled DVD of it and finally saw it as intended. Seeing it in its native tongue improved the experience somewhat, but other than a few good effects — the aliens entering and exiting those very vaginal-looking forehead wounds being the highlight — bolstered by some occasionally creepy lighting and atmosphere, GOKE is really only worth sitting through once, and that's only for Japanese horror completists and vampire movie addicts, though the monsters here are only count as vampires on a technicality. You've definitely seen worse, but that ending pretty much sinks all of the good will the film had garnered up until we find out that the whole film took place pretty much right next to a highway.

Poster from the Japanese theatrical release.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 11: JIGOKU (1960)

"Once drawn by that merciless wind, the fair youth of morning is at dusk naught but bones. In the end, all must die. Numberless are the sins committed on the way to death. For those sins, there may be punishment in the law. Some may slip through its net, but the awareness of sin cannot be escaped. Religion imagines a world after death, dealing punishment in place of the law. That world is Hell."
— opening narration

Theology student Shiro Shimizu (Shigeru Amachi) is engaged to Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya), the daughter of his respected teacher, Professor Yajima. He also maintains a strange relationship with the uber-creepy Tamura (Yoichi Numada), who seems to know the intimate and sometimes shameful secrets of all and sundry. Showing up uninvited to the professor's house as Shiro announces his intention to marry Yukiko, Tamura makes it clear to the professor that he knows of an atrocity that the man committed during WWII and leaves with Shiro. As Tamura drives Shiro home, Tamura lets on that he knows Shiro has been sleeping with Yukiko and asks him to consider the possibility that she may be pregnant. (The guy's a total buzzkill from the word "go.") 

Tamura (Yoichi Numada) and Shiro (Shigeru Amachi), on a road trip to a dire destiny.

Seconds later, Tamura runs over a drunk named Tiger Kyoichi, a leader of the Gondo yakuza syndicate, and drives away. Shiro demands that Tamura stop the car so they can see if the victim is alright, but Tamura stoically refuses and blames the accident on Shrio, citing that it would not have happened if he had not asked Shimura to deviate from his planned route of travel. While Shiro silently contemplates his culpability for murder if the man dies, the gangster's mother (Kyoko Tsuji), alongside his floozy girlfriend, Yoko (Akiko Ono), grieves over her son's corpse and vows vengeance should she ever find the hit-and-run perps. Upon reading of the hit-and-run in the paper the next day, Tamura could not give less of a shit if he tried, while Shiro tries to convince him to go with him to the police and turn themselves in. Tamura notes that Kyoichi was only some piece of yakuza scum and not worth the best years of their lives, but the guilt-ridden Shiro confesses the accident to Yukiko, who suggests that her father might know what to do. While on their way to see the professor, the cab the pair are riding in crashes into a telephone pole and Yukiko is tragically killed. After Yukiko's funeral, Shiro frets over whether he or Tamura will "win" their battle of conscience (or lack thereof) and finds himself hanging out in a sleazy nightclub, where he meets, picks up, and puts the bone to the yakuza's bereaved girlfriend (who is also revealed to be a heroin addict, in a narrative bid to up the vileness quotient). Yoko twigs to the fact that Shiro is one of her lover's murderers, so she reports back to the gangster's mother and, with the target now identified, the plot for revenge escalates.

As if Shiro were not already fucked up enough by his fiancee's untimely demise, he heads to a rustic retirement community upon being notified that his mother if terminally ill, and while his mother lays there slowly expiring, her husband cavorts in the very next room with some kimonoed hoo-er. (Yeah, this movie's a roller coaster ride of sunshine...) Suddenly, a cutie named Sachiko shows up and she happens to look exactly like the dead Yukiko (which only makes sense, as she's played by the same actress). Sachiko sent the letter that alerted Shiro to his mother's illness, and she is his mom's nurse, as well as the daughter of Ensai (Jun Otomo) an alcoholic painter who lives nearby and drinks heavily while painting a depiction of Hell. We also meet other assorted residents of the community, all of whom are quite sleazy and/or pathetic, and are each responsible for murders and other acts of awfulness in the past. Tamura, the professor, his wife, the yakuza guy's mom, and the yakuza guy's lover all converge on the retirement community and in short order all are killed, via natural death, suicide, a fall from a great height, hanging, consumption of rancid fish and poisoned wine at a party, gunshot wounds, or strangulation. Thus, every fucking character in the story is consigned to Jigoku, which is the Japanese word for Hell. Well most of them go to Hell, but I'm getting to that...

When I first sat through JIGOKU — aka SINNERS OF HELL — I was disappointed to discover that it's basically a slice-of-life drama focusing on the sleazy doings of some Japanese folks in 1960 whose climax features an infamous depiction of the culture's concepts of Hell and what becomes of those whose vileness during life earns them a one-way ticket to eternal damnation. Loaded with enough sleazy characters and situations to fuel several schlocky soap operas, the melodrama just keeps on coming, piling on atrocious behavior after atrocious behavior with the kind of glorious excess for which Japanese cinema is renowned. In fact, things get so over-wrought that it all verges on self-parody. But the most bizarre aspect of this flick is its dual nature as a two-way mind-fuck of a film. If one approached this movie knowing absolutely nothing about it, it at first reads as a straight drama picture, which is totally understandable, but then it turns into a balls-out gruesome and gory festival of the torments of the damned brought to life. It's like someone swapped out the last reel for the ultra-nasty and surreal final twenty-plus minutes of an unabashed horror movie.

Just one of the creepy images seen once the film quite abruptly turns into a straight-up horror movie.

Upon his death, Shiro ends up in Limbo, where he again sees Yukiko, who tells him she was pregnant with his daughter, whose soul has been sent along the river into the underworld, so Shiro must brave the horrors of Hell itself to save her. What follows is a journey through hideous punishments, tortures, and other such wholesome sights, coupled with a few shocking revelations along the way. Packed with creepy and gore-filled imagery, the Hell sequence features a cornucopia of folks being graphically beheaded, sawn in twain, flayed, disemboweled, tormented by naked temptresses,  being boiled in oil, impalement, tongues torn out, walking barefoot through a landscape of three-foot-tall glass shards, and the general hopelessness of existence. 

Not even Hammer films went there like this back in 1960, so once again Japan delivers.

Even by today's standards, some of this stuff is very extreme and disturbing, and it's worth making one's way through all of the soap opera mishegoss just to get to it. That said, the ending is simultaneously disappointing and corny, but the film overall packs serious balls and must have been quite a shock to Japanese audiences in 1960. And if you're wondering why you've never heard of this movie, despite there having been a ton of Japanese horror and sci-fi flicks released in the States during the 1960's, trust me when I tell you that this film's content did not have a hope in, well, Hell of ever getting past American censors. Even without its visceral diabolical slaughterhouse segments, the film's adult content would have been tough for watchdogs of media decency to let by, and an edited version would have ended up as a very short and incomprehensible mess.

Though its 100-minute running time may occasionally drag a bit, which has a lot to do with the film's utterly joyless/hopeless tone, JIGOKU is never boring and the final reel makes it worth a look for all horror completists.

Poster from the theatrical release.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 10: SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)

Santa Claus is coning to town...WITH A FUCKING AXE!!!

Yeah, yeah, I know this a Christmas movie, but while considering '80's slasher flicks to talk about for 31 DAYS OF HORROR, this one kept coming back to mind. Thus I haul it out as that rarest of the rare: a combination cookie-cutter seasonally-themed slasher flick and a movie that you can run for the family at Christmas that is guaranteed to offend all and sundry.

Everybody has their favorite Christmas movie. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, WHITE CHRISTMAS, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (which, in my opinion, is more of a Halloween flick), and THE SANTA CLAUSE all vie for time on the airwaves each December, and in the case of the downright hilarious A CHRISTMAS STORY the bloody thing gets put into heavy rotation as of Thanksgiving, in some cases airing repeatedly for twenty-four hours on one station. It's Christmas spirit overkill and I'm saddened to see the Christmas flicks that suit the needs of myself and others of like mind — curmudgeons who find the annual overkill both nauseating and oppressive — get no respect and are given pretty short shrift by the general public. I'm talking about recent cult favorite BAD SANTA, and the far more offensive SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT.

Both flicks kicked up a certain amount of controversy for having the nerve to be anti-everything the season stands for and filling the screen with lurid tastelessness, but that was the raison d'etre for both movies and BAD SANTA was definitely the more high class effort. It had competence behind the camera, actors you'd actually heard of, and a funny though admittedly vile script, so it definitely counts as a legitimate piece of well-crafted cinema. The same cannot necessarily be said of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT.

Arriving at the ass end of the infamous "slasher movie" cycle of the early 1980's, this flick tells the tragic story of Billy, a sweet little boy whose life turns into a gigantic habanero turd on the night his family visits Grandpa, an old geezer who's been catatonic for years. When the rest of the family is out of earshot, Grandpa — strongly resembling Bill Murray in a cheesy wig and beard —

speaks for the first time in years, eerily warning Billy, "Ya know what happens on Christmas? Santy Claus visits all the little boys and girls, and if they bin bad...he punishes 'em! So if you see Santy Claus a-comin', you better run, boy! RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!!!" immediately after which Grandpa returns to his drooling catatonia. Needless to say, Billy's parents end up viciously murdered on the roadside by a crook in Santa drag, an event that he witnesses, thus dooming him to a lifetime of scarring yuletide memories.

The lesson here: do NOT stop for random roadside Santas. 

Poor Billy, along with his infant brother, is relegated to a Catholic orphanage, complete with a Mother Superior who could have taught Torquemada a thing or two, where he endures years of physical and psychological abuse, permanently warping his mind against the tripartite horrors of sex, the Christmas season and all its trappings, and, of course, nuns.

Sister Bertrille she ain't.

As the years pass, Billy grows into a handsome, hulking young hunk and gets a job at a local toy store. He's a bit twitchy but basically okay as a person and a worker, but when the Christmas season rolls around Billy is forced to don a Santa suit for the store's Christmas party. Spurred on by liquor and witnessing the almost-rape of a co-worker by the odious stock boy, Billy snaps and wanders about the neighborhood indulging in a rampage of castigation, bellowing "PUNISH!!!" as he nails people in their heads with an axe, a hammer, or what have you.

"PUNISH!!!"

The film is strictly bargain basement, and its low-budget only adds to it's lurid charm. I mean, what's not to love about a crazed lunatic in a Santa suit killing off an assortment of stock slasher movie non-characters? Hey, they were drinking, and fucking and stuff, so they had it coming! And among this cannon fodder can be counted the lone thespian that I've actually heard of, namely Linnea Quigley, the preeminent "scream queen" of eighties horror best known for her memorable butt-nekkid cemetery dance in THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985).

'80'S topless horror mainstay Linnea Quigley.

If your movie needed gratuitous nudity or bared boobs Linnea was the gal to call, and she doesn't disappoint here (the one drawback being that her lovely jubblies end up with a pair of wall-mounted deer antlers protruding from them after Billy impales her for messing around with her boyfriend while she was supposed to be babysitting).

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT certainly isn't the film to put on for grandma during her Christmas visit, but it's fun for us sick-of-the-season types and even has moments of pitch black humor: after wiping out the babysitter and her boyfriend, Billy is confronted by the adorable little babysitee, a wee girl who thinks he's the real Santa Claus (despite Billy's beard hanging off and him being rather blood-drenched). When he sees her he asks if she's been good, to which she vigorously nods in the affirmative. As he draws ominously closer, Billy asks, "Are you SURE you've been good?" The little darling emphatically assures "Santa" that she's been a good girl, so Billy hands her a present: a bloody box-cutter that'd he'd earlier used to slash a victim's throat. As he dazedly wanders out into the night the camera returns to the sweet little kid who now has a look on her face that fairly screams, "What the fuck kind of present is this shit?" Get used to it, sweetheart, this is just the first of many disappointing Christmases to come.

When all is said and done, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT is just the ticket for a drunken Christmas Eve get-together of friends you haven't seen since last year, all of you eager to ditch your dysfunctional families for a few hours and be the reprobate that you can't get away with being while staying with the folks. It's a colossal "fuck you" to all the sentimental tripe that's been shoved down your throat for at least the past month, so slip on your K-Mart Santa suit — make sure the beard is in no way properly aligned — crack a few cold ones, and let the film take you along on a fantasy in which it could be you planting a fireman's axe into the treacle-addled pate of the Christmas season. And whatever you do, avoid the sequels like the plague; they may just be the very worst franchise in the entire horror genre, even edging out the wretched HOWLING followups. Seriously, they fucking suuuuuuck...

The classic theatrical release poster, which reportedly caused great consternation for parents when it was displayed at shopping mall movie theaters.