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Friday, October 20, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 20: PIECES (1982)

Ah, the joys of PIECES...

Here's a textbook example of how to open a movie where the audience cares about nothing but graphic murders and naked female flesh:

We open in Boston, 1942, where we find a young boy assembling a jigsaw puzzle of a naked woman.

The catalyst for 89 minutes of savage butchery.

The kid's mother walks in, sees the nudie puzzle and freaks the fuck out, beating the kid, noting how he's just like his father — who is away fighting WWII — and ransacking his room, confiscating his stash of porno mags. (How nasty they could have been back in 1942 is open for debate.) She sends him out of the room to get a garbage bag that she can fill with his filth collection and burn it, but instead the lad returns with a fireman's axe and shows him mom what happens when one comes between a guy and his stroke material.

Lesson learned: Do NOT threaten your son's smut collection.

After rendering his mother exceedingly dead, the boy breaks out a saw and begins dismembering her corpse. 

Breaking down the evidence.

When the police arrive, they find the kid hiding in the murder room's closet, and he acts as though he were the witness to the killing instead of being the murderer. We then skip ahead to the present day of 1982, where a heavy-breathing P.O.V. stalker of the type common to early-'80's slasher movies embarks on a series of horrific and brazen murders/dismemberments. His first victim is an innocent co-ed who's studying on the sunny lawn of a college campus. She somehow does not hear the loud roar of a chainsaw as the killer runs up to her and divests her of her head in broad daylight (which apparently no one sees or hears).

"What a lovely day for studying outdoors...WHAT THE FUCK?!!?"

Insert "She won't be going to the head of the class" joke here.

All of this happens during the first five minutes of the film, so we, the audience, have a pretty good idea of what we're in for.

As per usual with this sort of film, the so-called plot is nothing more than something upon which to hang a slew of gruesome mayhem, so all one needs to know is that it chronicles an un-involving police investigation into the killings, in which they work closely with campus stud Kendall (Ian Sera, best known as the obnoxious band frontman in the MST3K classic POD PEOPLE), who may unwittingly know who the killer is, since the fiend targets hot young girls. You won't give a shit about any of the interchangeable characters and the already flimsy narrative bears all of the earmarks of being padded out to bring the run-time up to feature length. The most glaring examples of this are a "who cares?" tennis match, a couple of "sexy" aerobics numbers in a dance studio, and, most ridiculously, a scene where a random Chinese guy attacks the female undercover cop character with his kung fu skills. This occurs with no provocation whatsoever and the assailant is revealed to be the campus stud's "kung fu professor." By way of explanation, the low-rent Bruce Lee explains away his actions with, "Something I eat...Bad chop suey!!!"

Anyway, the killer goes around slaying young women and absconding with select body parts, so he can piece together a flesh jigsaw puzzle of his late mum. The road to that goal certainly does not skimp on the nudity, violence, and gore, and it could easily be read as one of the most misogynistic movies ever, if not for the story's lack of an agenda that has to do with anything other than catering to the bloodthirsty needs of the '80's slasher audience. 

The admittedly creative water bed murder.

Now, over thirty years since that dubious genre's heyday, it may be hard for those who weren't there to witness it to understand just how popular and lucrative this sort of by-the-numbers trash was, and it was that assembly line sameness of content that made slasher movies fun as unintentional sources of amusement. They were dumb, cheap to make, and were great for teenage date night (where the goal was to get one's squeeze to move closer in the dark and, if you were lucky, maybe cop a cheap feel or go in for a sly finger-bang).

Good luck getting away with a shot like this today.

A Spanish/Italian/Puerto Rican co-production, PIECES knew exactly what kind of movie it wanted to be and was unashamed about it, which was quite refreshing at the time. While the majority of slasher movies hit theaters with most of their gory content excised by censors, who suddenly became diligent after the outcry generated when major studio release FRIDAY THE 13th (1980) painted the screen red, PIECES openly bragged about its content in its advertising, proudly proclaiming "It's Exactly What You Think It Is!" If you shelled out the ticket price in 1983 (which was when it was released in the States), you got what you were paying for, thanks to it eschewing the MPAA altogether and going out unrated, and the points in which no murders were going on could be used for adolescent sexual fumblings, taking swigs from smuggled-in beers and hard liquor, and/or taking hits off of a fat joint.

The very definition of "charnel house cinema."

When it comes to '80's slashers, PIECES is a classic of sorts,  and should be included among the roster of the era's must-see efforts for scholars of the genre. It doesn't have a brain in its head, but at least it's a better movie than FRIDAY THE 13th. Oh, and it has a completely ridiculous from-out-of-nowhere ending that has to be seen to be appreciated.

 Poster from the American theatrical release.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 19: LATE PHASES (2014)

An ideal retirement community...NOT.

Tough-as-nails blind Vietnam war vet Ambrose McKinley (Nick Damici) is moved into a charming retirement community by his son, Will (Ethan Embry). Ambrose is an embittered and unpleasant sort whose abrasive personality alienates all around him and led him to being a drag as both a husband (to his recently deceased wife) and father, but his son nonetheless does his best to try and be supportive of his dad while getting his own life and marriage underway. Upon moving into the community, Ambrose is greeted by a "charming" trio of resident women (one of whom is Tina Louise, aka Ginger from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND) who act as a welcoming committee, but he acts like an asshole to them, allowing them to glimpse his revolver and stating that he's a weapons expert in spite of his blindness, and immediately gains a rep as a jerk with possible violent tendencies. His only friends in the world are his service dog, Shadow, and Delores (SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER's Karen Lynn Gorney), the sweet neighbor lady whom he meets when moving in and who lives in the closely-connected residence on the other side of his living room wall. And it should be noted that the moment they cross the threshold into the retirement community, Shadow bristles and instantly assumes defense mode as something triggers his animal senses...

Ambrose's life in his new home veers straight into weird territory when he feels a torn area on one of his walls and finds a broken claw embedded in it. Then, on his first night there, he hears through the thin walls separating his place from Delores's and bears aural witness to her horrible disembowelment by what sounds like a ravening wild beast. The already on-edge Shadow is instantly up and on guard while Ambrose fumbles blindly for his gun, but the poor, brave pooch is simply no match for the monstrosity that bursts through the front door in search of prey. But Shadow does not die in vain, for he saves his master's life, and Ambrose puts his loyal companion out of his misery with a shot to the head. 

Once the police arrive and Ambrose relates what he heard, he overhears Delores's grieving daughter note that she'd heard ominous stories about the community and its monthly rash of pest turning up murdered, but did not believe them. Ambrose, being a tough motherfucker and not at all an idiot, pieces the evidence together after being told that it was a full moon the night before, and comes to the very correct conclusion that it was a werewolf that killed Delores and almost did him in. He tells no one of his deduction, probably realizing that saying a werewolf was on the loose would further brand him as a crank and a dangerous loony, so he spends the weeks until the next full moon preparing for Round 2 with the monster that killed his dog and neighbor. As the weeks go by, Ambrose trains himself physically, digs a deep hole in his backyard that is obviously a grave — but for whom? — and has a shady local gun dealer make him silver bullets and a single shotgun shell loaded with silver shot. None of his odd and intense behavior goes unnoticed by his neighbors and, unfortunately, the werewolf is a local and also not an idiot, so counter-measures are set in motion as the next full moon nears...

The beast emerges.

Werewolf movies are my very favorite flavor of horror story, and genuinely good ones are few and far between, so it was with great delight that I recently experienced LATE PHASES for the first time. It's a werewolf movie, yes, but it can more accurately be described as a tour de force character study about a bitter, alienating old man's handling of the encroaching end of a life that he has made dismal for himself and his loved ones while preparing to take on a supernatural menace in mortal combat without the benefit of sight. Think of Ambrose as Paul Kersey from the first DEATH WISH movie, only minus the conscientious objector attitude and with the level of personal intensity and toughness cranked up to eleven. Nick Damici's performance in the role is nothing short of stunning and once you see this film, you will ask where the hell he's been all these years and why is he not more well-known.

Ambrose (Nick Damici), utterly refusing to go out like some weak pussy.

The entire cast is solid, but it's Damici that will have you talking once you've seen the flick. His Ambrose is a bad motherfucker to the core, and I salute him as one of the hardest opponents a werewolf was ever stupid enough to fuck with.

As described, the film's first werewolf attack happens maybe five minutes past the opening credits, so there is no mystery as to what Ambrose is up against, but that's not the point. The point is getting to know what kind of a person he is and what goes through his head as he readies to put his military-trained boot up a big, furry ass, so we don't get more lycanthrope action until the climax. If you're coming to LATE PHASES expecting wall-to-wall werewolves like what you got with the superlative DOG SOLDIERS (2002), you won't get that, but the climax is riveting and very much balls-to-the-wall, plus it throws in some very clever and interesting surprises...

Bottom Line: LATE PHASES comes from out of nowhere to round out my list of the Top 5 best werewolves movies I've ever seen, and when that list features THE WOLF MAN (1940), THE HOWLING (1981), AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), and the aforementioned DOG SOLDIERS, I think the merits of LATE PHASES speak for themselves.

Promotional image for the DVD release.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2017-Day 18: THE MANSTER (1959)

In a nutshell: An American reporter in Japan encounters an unscrupulous scientist who uses him as a guinea pig for experiments involving evolution, cosmic rays, and shitloads of alcohol. The reporter begins sneaking around Tokyo at night to commit murders and eventually grows an extra head that separates into a hairy "new species" ape monster. 

Can you stand the sheer terror???

THE MANSTER is another flick that I saw during my formative years when it ran on Channel 5's iteration of CREATURE FEATURES., and I mostly watched it because it was a shot-in-Japan American production that looked and felt just like the Japanese films that I learned early to favor. Though not a city-stomping giant monster opus, it was worth watching to see how Americans handled Japanese-style scares, but it comes off like a monster movie as written and directed by a nine-year-old. The story's stupid as hell, not at all scary, and rather mediocre, so why am I bothering to call your attention to it? For one reason: the indelible and genuinely creepy moment when the reporter discovers an eye generating on his shoulder.

The best moment in an otherwise idiotic movie.

THE MANSTER is by no means a classic, but it's a fun way to kill 72 minutes and it has the decency to not be boring.

Poster from the Japanese theatrical release.

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.