Sunday, October 19, 2014

THE CAT (1992) - Lam Ngai Kai &
THE PACK (1977) - Robert Clouse

This weekend, it rained cats and dogs...but only in my DVD player. Common house pets turned horrific otherworldly menaces. Yes, I had sniffed out a theme.

The Cat (or Wisely's Old Cat, depending on who you ask) is an oddball sci-fi/horror hybrid by the same guy who brought us the eternally rewatchable Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. Without the Ricky director pedigree, I'm pretty sure I would have never stumbled across it. While not quite as much delirious fun as that movie, there are a number of quality cult film WTF moments such as: the best cat versus dog junkyard fight of all time, a menacing glob of unidentifiable space goop to rival anything in the original The Blob (or its '90s Kevin Dillion remake), the sweatiest woman ever captured onscreen.

You see, it's about a cat from outer space and this ancient octagon that...oh, screw it. Plot really doesn't matter here. Just watch this wonderful clip and see what I mean.

The Pack from 1977 was more standard when-domesticated-animals-attack horror fare, Jaws on four legs basically. Though it's more about the horrors of lazy tourism than canine terror, per se.

For some unexplained reason, the city vacationers to this Seal Island getaway have a tendency to adopt local dogs for the summer and then, when it's time go, leave them out in the wild tied to trees. Eventually, these abandoned mutts ban together and become a pack of feral Fidos, killing off locals on the island during the off-season. So old '70s stalwart Joe Don Baker as the town's resident marine biologist/badass must do his damnedest to keep the heavily Vaselined and ketchup-slathered mongrels at bay.

The flick's not really competent or troubling enough to make you give your own homebound Rover more than a second's worried glance. But the man-dog bonding freeze frame at the end is good for one hearty laugh, not to mention an odd tacked-on subplot about a father trying to get adult shut-in son laid at all costs.

Despite the Humane Association disclaimers on these films, I'm pretty sure some animals were harmed in the process in both. If not physically than psychically. But perhaps the animal in question was just me.

Monday, October 06, 2014

GRIZZLY (1976) - William Girdler &
WENDIGO (2001) - Larry Fessenden

For this weekend's odd creature double feature, "it came from the woods"...and rather phlegmatically in both cases.

Grizzly is a mildly enjoyable, unapologetic Jaws-on-land cash-in. The bear in question is not that scary (obviously a domesticated chap) and the attacks edited in such a way that it's obvious he's 20 to 30 yards from endangering anyone in real life. Lots of looped growling and long lens paw swiping at the camera ensue. There's one gruesome kiddie kill that caught me by surprise (see below). Other than that, the most enjoyable thing about this '70s creature feature was Christopher George (Enter the Ninja, The Exterminator) as a very put-upon park ranger. The shouting matches he gets into with his supervisor offered more than a few gut-buster lines seemingly on loan from some inner city cop movie set in Detroit rather than the piney woods of rural Georgia.

2001's indie cheapie Wendigo may not be a rip-off of any specific movie. I'm pretty sure it's the first of its kind to center entirely around the shape-shifting mystery creature of Native American lore. But it seems to have taken one too many lessons from its blockbuster Blair Witch cousin two years prior...namely, "tell, don't show."

In other words, there's very little Wendigo in Wendigo. A couple blurry flashes here and there. A fast tracking POV moving through the woods with occasional branch-like feelers attached to the end. Actually, there's not even that much talk of a Wendigo other than the token Native American in a pawn shop (who, of course, may or may not be there). He tells the troubled child of a NYC family vacationing upstate about the beast, then gives him a whittled action figure of same before-- poof!!

For a low budget horror flick, there's some good acting and lived-in family dynamics in this thanks to Patricia Clarkson and Jake Weber. Fessenden can be an interesting director, though I preferred his sort-of vampire tale Habit far more. As far as creepy creatures go, the wooden Wendigo knickknack and the blurry blob you see only here and there scare about the same.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014


If memory serves, I don't think I've done a "sequel" month to any of Cashier's past random themes. I could be wrong and feeling a little search-averse right now. So let's call this follow-up month a first, shall we?

This October, I'm limited in viewing time and still have some leftover creature flicks from the October two years ago. Also, it's Halloween month, so more odd monster movies are perfectly apropos. Bring on the latex, the unidentifiable goopus and slime trails, bewildering beasts on four legs, two or none at all.

What? Why so sad? You were holding out for Coptober II, weren't you?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

BRANDED TO KILL (1967) - Seijun Suzuki

And, lastly, for the record...the saga of Japan's Number 3 Top Killer and preeminent
steamed rice huffer? Still the Number One Suzuki  in my book.


Thirty minutes into the first film of his late-career Taishō trilogy, the Teutonically titled Zigeunerweisen, I realized that for the first time in many a film I was finally getting the pure product...Seijun Suzuki, raw and uncut. This was the great big (weird) epic waiting to leap out of him after all those years as a B-movie director indentured to a studio, the demented Lawrence of Arabia festering in his loins that had been suppressed like a dirty urge for far, far too long. All those brilliant, offbeat touches formerly relegated to the margins of his genre-bound yakuza, juvenile delinquent and cop programmers? The ones that could be spotted here and there, as in Tokyo Drifter's mad rainbow art direction or Branded to Kill's odd bits of actorly business (the hot air balloon, the boiling rice addiction, et al.)? Well, now they were front and center without apology or conventional narrative to tether them down. I quickly came to realize that Seijun Unchained can be both an awe-inspiring and exhausting thing.

Clocking in at a bulky two and a half hours (rather than his usual brisk 90 mins or under), Zigeunerweisen sounds like something you sampled at the biergarten a few weeks back. It could be. It too is ripe with hoppy weirdness: scenes of deep eyeball licking, a disabled Greek chorus that appears intermittently to sing scatological love songs, a form of early 1920s wife-swapping wherein the husbands not only exchange their brides bodily but also their brides' ghosts (or souls, possibly). And then there's this whole business with pink bones. "Whoever dies first, the other will get their bones" says one of the leads to the other, adding that when crushed into a fine powder these bones tend to be pink.

Huh? Trust me, it's less confusing than you think. Because the Z movie (I refuse to type that Germanic mouthful a third time) is actually the best and most coherent of the bunch. Everything comes together in a pleasing and far from obvious way. It has something to do with the Sarasate recording at the film’s center and its mysterious bit of mumbling captured on the phonograph. Other than that and the fact that this film reminded me at times of the best of Lynch and Jodorowsky, that's all I'm gonna say.

As the trilogy progresses, the Law of Diminishing Demento Returns begins to kick in (wait, there is such a law, right?). The weirdness starts to become more boondoggle then boon. Kagero-Za features a writer obsessed with a ghostly woman who crushes and later bathes in a vat of bladder cherries (look it up..I did). There is more business with supernatural doppelgangers, handcrafted dolls whose souls (and other vital organs) can be found by looking up their dresses. Then there is a stage play performed entirely by children which would seem to summarize the two-plus hours of adult interactions we have just seen. I'm not sure how much it explained or if it only confused me more. By then, I was just enjoying the visuals and happy the children's play wasn't one of Wes Anderson's.

By the time the last of the trilogy, Yumeji, rolled into my DVD player, I have to admit I was suffering a little Unfiltered Suzuki fatigue. The lead was a painter this time, and there was something to do with a cuckholded husband running around with a scythe looking for the man who slept with his wife. And boating...lots of boating. No bladder cherries or eyeball licking but lots of lovely, blood-spattered screen prints. Even at his oddest, eldest and most unrestrained, Suzuki always brings the visual panache. Thank you, Seijun. Some seven hours later, my corneas are still drenched.

A TALE OF SORROW AND SADNESS (1977) - Seijun Suzuki

Sorrow and sadness, sure. But more! And lady-golf at that. Lots and lots o' lady golfing!!

This is the first film Suzuki made following a ten year hiatus after being kicked out of Nikkatsu Studios for basically being too brilliant (probably not the term the studio chieftains would use) in 1967's Branded to Kill. His return to the screen is not quite a return to form but definitely a very odd duck in his oeuvre. A semi-comic psychological thriller about a fashion model being groomed for Japan's pro golf circuit (and the many product tie-ins therein) until she runs into a female stalker (literally, in her car) who then wants a piece of her fame/residuals. Identity swapping, blackmail and tricky putting greens ensue.

Remember one review earlier when I said Fighting Elegy at times felt like Suzuki's version of Stripes? Well, if that's the case, then this one is, by default, his Caddyshack.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

FIGHTING ELEGY (1966) - Seijun Suzuki

Sometime during his four-movie-a-year (and mostly yakuza-driven) indentured servitude with Nikkatsu Studios, Suzuki turned out these two uncharacteristically serious anti-military films based on novels and, no doubt, enriched significantly by his own wartime experiences. I had planned on skipping them, suspecting they might be lesser Seijun efforts (despite their Criterion Collection pedigree). Boy, am I glad I didn't. There are multitudinous treasures to be found in both.

Prostitute is, yes, a story about a military prostitute (or "comfort woman") at a Japanese encampment who has the great misfortune to be the favored leisure lady of a sadistic local adjutant. Though she frequently fantasizes about ripping him to shreds-- literally, in a Michel Gondry-esque sequence that sees him as a floating paper doll torn in half--Harumi doesn't give into despair or drug abuse like some of her co-workers but rests her hopes in a love affair with his meek assistant, Mikami. They manage to keep their liaisons hush-hush until Mikami is captured by the Chinese, at which point she prevents him from killing himself, apparently the expected Japanese custom in such a predicament.

After he's returned and court-martialed by his own troops and she's returned to the brothel, Harumi continues to "keep hope alive," fighting the good fight with a force of will far superior to that of any of the guys in uniform. Suzuki has made a film about a comfort woman, true, but also a strong woman (definitely the strongest in any of his movies I've seen). It's too bad she attaches her future (and, literally, herself in a tragic climax) to a man who's her inferior in almost every sense.

Though Suzuki reverts to black and white (probably by budgetary decree) for this one, there is style here to burn--no Technicolor required. Sumptuous slow-slow motion sequences abound. Stark desert framings pop. Tumultuous tracking shots (like the one above) astonish.

"Oh, Michiko, I will not masturbate.
I fight to sublimate my desires."

Did I say both of these flicks were uncharacteristically serious? OK, I may have overstated just a tad. Fighting Elegy, filmed a year later, definitely boasts its fair share of absurdist humor. Any movie about a teenager so desperate to resist the temptation to flog the bishop that he routinely engages in playground warfare (and, later, actual warfare) to tamp it down can't be but so poker-faced. It's not American Pie exactly (or Nippon Pie?), but there were a few scenes where I felt like I might be watching Seijun Suzuki's Stripes. Playing "Chopsticks" on a piano with your unzipped pee-pee? Engaging in rapid-fire haiku to drown out the image of your naked girlfriend? Yes, Fighting Elegy features both.

Actually, Catholic military school cadet Kiroku's boner-suppressing antics and latent brutality reminded me a lot of another ultraviolent fascist-in-training to come several years later. I'm talking Kubrick's Alex DeLarge. Extreme sexual repression as fervent militaristic motivator..check and check. The difference here is it's mostly self-imposed. Though Kiroku isn't forced by scientists to wear eye clamps and gag while watching snuff films, his severely regimented schooling definitely has a blunting effect that similarly backfires on his superiors/captors later on.

Though the lifeblood of Elegy is scathing anti-war satire, Suzuki does manage to innovate in other more visual ways. There's a great sequence in a school room where the cadets' call-and-response chant with their instructor reaches such a fever pitch that the screen itself begins to break apart, Suzuki flagging/eclipsing portions of the frame in time to the recitation. And, speaking of barriers, there's the perfect close-up of Kiroku and his lady love puncturing a partition screen (below) to touch hands before parting for good. Sadly for this young pent-up soldier, it's the most "action" he's likely to see anytime soon, apart from the battlefield.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

& YOUTH OF THE BEAST (1963) - Seijun Suzuki

According to Wikipedia, the clumsily named yakuza-cop programmer Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards! is one of a handful of Seijun Suzuki's movies with the word "bastard" in its title. This is probably the only one of those bastards I'll ever see, unless someone's got handy YouTube links to The Bastard and Stories of Bastards that I've overlooked (if so, please send!). But more important than the fatherlessness of it all is that this is earliest Jo Shishido-Suzuki pairing I'm likely to find...unless someone's got tracks on Voices Without A Shadow, their actual first collaboration (again, please send if so!). That fact alone made it worthwhile late night viewing, even if the flick itself was a bit "chaste" by Suzuki standards.

Shishido plays a freelance detective who goes undercover for the police as a yakuza to try to get information on warring rival bosses. Light intrigue ensues. There's some amusing business with yakuza clans fumbling over each over to kill an informant who's just been released from prison. Better still, a Joe Shishido song and dance number!

Apart from the soft shoe, you might be better served sticking to Youth of the Beast, their later collaboration the same year. The plot is nearly identical (Shishido's a disgraced ex-cop going undercover among warring clans to unravel a friend's murder), but this is the first Suzuki where he really starts to upturn the crime genre, hit his stride style-wise. The color palettes and compositions get bolder (check it, above). And Jo gets to be a REAL BASTARD this time, indiscriminately beating up 'hoods, bedding chorus girls, even casually setting his boss' crewcut on fire. Watched back to back, you get the feeling Suzuki went: "Didn't I just make this same movie three months ago? Fuck it...I'm going to mix things up."

Bastards is a serviceable primer, but Beast is the real deal. It's devil-may-care swagger hints at, perhaps, the finest Suzuki to come a few years later (definitely the best Suzuki-Shishido). Its name? Far less cumbersome...Branded to Kill.

Friday, September 12, 2014

EVERYTHING GOES WRONG (1960) - Seijun Suzuki

SPOILER ALERT: The title of this movie is also the last line of the film (or very close to it). Yes, it's THAT kind of movie, a jazzy juvenile delinquent picture that takes itself too seriously when it's not be-bopping casually to the latest pop tune. In other words, kind of like your average teenager.

This teenager, Jiro, happens to be haunted by his soldier father's death during the war and miffed that Mom's taken a new lover...namely, a wealthy industrialist who made the same tanks that got Dad killed. So he does what any teen in these pictures (in any language) would do-- he acts out, steals cars, smokes, drinks, generally treats the young ladies in his life poorly, with a mixture of unbridled lust and out-of-the-blue contempt. Call it Kamikaze Without A Cause.

I'll admit, this is not one of my favorite Suzuki's. My attention drifted throughout, even though it's quite short. But it was interesting to see a director known for his irony and free-form existential style working in a more earnest and at times melodramatic format. And both actors playing the young lovers are quite likable though they try hard not to be. It gets better as it goes along but probably should have ended at a spot few minutes earlier (hint: it involves a car crash). Because the scene directly afterwards where the movie title is dropped like a lead anvil in the dialogue reeks suspiciously of a studio-mandated coda.

Then again, I could be wrong. I mean, everything else is, right?

TAKE AIM AT THE POLICE VAN (1960) - Seijun Suzuki

I think it's safe to say that this early Nikkatsu noir programmer will never fall prey to the Hollywood remake machine. Who today would buy a prison security guard (generally not that highly paid) taking the initiative to investigate the prison van sniper shooting that got him suspended for six months but doing his amateur sleuthing entirely on his own, entirely without pay and at great risk to his own safety? In this economy? Yeah, I think he'd probably just leave it to the warden, then head down to his local Starbucks for a job application and a latte. The fact that this mild mannered guard goes Columbo/Dirty Harry without his friend/brother/sister/child being killed in the crossfire...well, it almost seems quaint.

And Take Aim, by later Suzuki style standards, is rather quaint. It's one of his pre-color, pre-"crazy" B pictures a few years before he started bucking harder against genre conventions and the studio brass. There are, however, some inspired compositions, some interesting business with bows and arrows (see below), a better than average trainyard climax. The plot might be a little needlessly convoluted for a movie less than 80 minutes. That said, in that short run time rarely was I bored.

Go ahead, Take Aim...but maybe after you've seen a few other Suzuki classics first.