March 31, 2009

HAKABA KITARO (2008) - the graveyard origin of GeGeGe No Kitaro

(2008, Japan, OVA, Graveyard Kitaro)

I've written as much as I can about GeGeGe No Kitaro in this total series guide, which I also keep updated. But while the character is enjoying a revival in Japan, all 400+ episodes of the animes now available on DVD. Creator Shigeru Mizuki has a museum all about his characters, and there's a Kitaro street of statues flourishing as a popular tourist destination in Sakaiminato. But in the west, Kitaro has only recently been represented on home video, by a single DVD release, the first live-action film. We've yet to see any anime, which first appeared back when Scooby Doo was first on TV!

But the animes never fully established exactly who Kitaro is. His origin has remained in the manga, even too scary for Japanese children's TV. Now comes Hakaba Kitaro, a short anime series, shown last year as part of the 40th anniversary of the Gegege anime, which has omitted much of the scarier, ickier side of the early manga stories. Whereas the ghost boy is regularly introduced emerging from a graveyard, like in the TV title sequences, episode 1 of Hakaba Kitaro dares to reveal Kitaro's mum and dad, his ghoulish birth and even the loss of his eye.

The series develops with Kitaro trying to find his place in the world, a young yokai living among humans. He meets Ratman and Catgirl for the first time, both portrayed to extremes, bigger farts and sharper claws respectively. His father, the eyeball (also explained), guides him towards his various powers as he gets used to modern city life, the lower reaches of hell, and angry yokai monsters.

The anime successfully mixes a deliberately retro style with the latest CGI effects. The drawing style reflects Shigeru Mizuki's earliest Kitaro manga. The human characters look angular and realistic - from before the time when he drew them in a rounded, cartoon style. The early Hakaba manga also provide many of the storylines, though the series interweaves these into a long continuing story. The almost primitive Kitaro character starts as a monstrous, hunched, cackling demon, carefree of the troubles of the world and netherworld, unlike the usual conscientious hero.

While there is humour, there's also sadness, shock and horror. The scares are often pitched at a level of near-hysterical terror like a Kazuo Umezu manga. There are more than a few echoes of Hell Girl - perhaps the creators are reminding us that Mizuki did it first, with Kitaro and his other early character Akuma-Kun, (Devil Boy), who also wore a stripy shirt.

I found two DVD releases of the series in Kuala Lumpur, intended for Hong Kong and Malaysia, both cramming the eleven episodes onto a single disc. The English subtitles on both were identical and accurately translated. They are the first translated DVD releases I've seen of any Kitaro anime. But while they looked like official releases, with holograms and carded sleeves, and bought in official video stores, the unreliable performance of the discs indicates otherwise.

But I look forward to a time when this rare scary anime is widely enjoyed as a stand-alone series, or as an introduction to this Japanese phenomenon, like the recent live-action films. I'm hoping that one day the many yokai monsters of these series will be seen outside Japan.

There's an interesting, related article about the series and Kitaro's history here on The Japan times online.

March 26, 2009

TOMIE vs TOMIE (2007) - she's back... both of her!

(2007, Japan, Tomie x Tomie)

(Review updated on 19/01/2011)

I thought we'd seen the last of the movies about Junji Ito's creepy creation. But then came this eighth entry in the Tomie series (here's my guide to them all). It's been out on DVD in Japan since 2007, and I first saw it on a Chinese DVD in Malaysia, pictured above, but now Japan Flix have released it officially, online with English subtitles.

With Tomie's unnatural ability to completely regenerate from dismembered body parts, it's surprising she hasn't had to face herself before...

Two factory workers are tangling with Tomie, well, two different Tomies. One guy is recovering from the death of his girlfriend, but is being pursued by a Tomie, who has a gaggle of his colleagues at her bidding. Unknown to him, a close friend is helping another Tomie through a difficult regeneration...

In this 'episode' in the saga, Tomie is more in control than usual, manipulating many men around her in a small factory. But both the Tomies have a serious problem, decay...

The traditional mayhem, obsession and violence ensues. But the promised confrontation of the two Tomies is far too brief and falls short of the bizarre heights of the series. But this is still a creepy, coherent and occasionally bloody tale. It's an above-average but small-scale Tomie film, far better than the last two entries (Revenge and Beginning), and achieves the paranoid atmosphere of the best Tomies, of being in a bad dream.

Framed 16:9, it appears to have been shot on HD video, but is far better photographed than the previous two, with careful lighting and composition. It's well directed by Tomohiro Kubo, an assistant director on Tomie: Forbidden Fruit and Hideo Nakata's Sleeping Bride, adding visual layers to the many mysteries.

With consistently creepy music and creative shock moments, this is a Tomie overdue in the west. Though Japan Flix aren't yet releasing any DVDs, this is only available to rent online or purchase in HD on iTunes.

By the way, the English subtitles on the Malaysian DVD (at top) were very poor quality, as if they'd been translated in an online website, rarely making grammatical sense.

Here's a trailer on YouTube...

March 22, 2009

Malaysian DVD stores - gateways to Asian cinema

Before I forget, here’s a little about Malaysian DVDs – releasing movies from all over South East Asia. Plus a few locations of DVD stores that I descended on during a brief stay in Kuala Lumpur, if you should ever be passing through.

Malaysia lies on the peninsula between Thailand and Singapore, as well as owning a northern chunk of the island of Borneo. It was a different experience to Thailand, Malaysia is a very different mix of peoples and religions. While Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, Malaysia is largely Islamic, with Indian and Chinese temples sitting alongside mosques and Christian churches.

There are relatively few Malaysian movies, while Hollywood product and American franchised TV dominate the multiplexes and toy stores. But the larger DVD shops also has extensive selections from China (i.e. Hong Kong), as well as India, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. This makes Malaysia a great place to find a huge variety of movies from most of Asia.

Shelves of TV Boxsets are dominated by Japanese TV series and anime, and Malaysia releases English-subtitled DVDs that even Hong Kong hasn’t got. It’s a rare chance to get subtitled DVDs of practically every major Japanese TV series, like the live-action Hell Girl. Multiple releases can be due to Hong Kong versions being stocked as well as Malaysian, and also because some of them might be bootlegged.

The widest selection of Asian DVDs that I found, was at Classic World Entertainment, on the 3rd floor of the Times Square mall (nearest monorail stop: Imbi). The sign over the store simply says ‘Classic’. Here there were Hong Kong, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Indian and Malaysian horror films, plus a large section of anime.

Elsewhere in the Times Square mall were several stores devoted to Japanese anime figures and model kits – two can be found next to the indoor rollercoaster! I was pleased to find plenty of Ultraman and Masked Rider stuff in most of the toy stores too.

For anime fans, there's an even larger selection of DVDs in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, which has two stores of Hiro Comic World on neighbouring streets. They also have a branch on the 3rd floor of the amusingly-named S&M shopping arcade.

The Video Ezy chain offer a more limited choice, with more Hollywood product, but were easier to find, like in the Times Square mall, and in the KLLC mall at the base of the Petronas Towers (pictured). I also visited the large DVD section upstairs in the Sogo department store, which had a generous Japanese TV selection.

Like I said, not all of Malaysia’s DVD releases appear to be official, no matter how official-looking the packaging is. The cover details aren't always accurate about languages and aspect ratios. The quality of the English subtitling is fairly stilted, like the Hong Kong releases, but sometimes much worse - misspelled, mistimed and loosely paraphrased. I've persevered with awful subtitles in the past, with their challenges of lateral thinking, because there's been no alternative available anywhere else.

Like Thailand, be careful as the latest films are also released on the VCD (VideoCD) format – these play in DVD players, but are much more compressed (worse picture quality) and the subtitles are burnt-in (not optional). If the film is on two-discs (VCDs only hold one hour of video), check whether there’s a VCD symbol instead of a DVD one. The artwork for VCD releases can be different from the DVD.

So, huge choice, but varying quality of product and English translation. It’s still a good way to pick through many weird and wonderful films that may never appear in the west.

Until now, the only online Malaysian websites I’ve used is Zoom Movie, which doesn't list many details about the DVDs, like the languages. Also, MovieXclusive from Singapore offers similar titles. Both sites offer releases that won't be found on the major Asian DVD suppliers like YesAsia.

March 21, 2009

FRIDAY THE 13th (1980) - finally Friday uncut, and on Blu-Ray

(1980, USA)

The first was only the beginning...

I keep returning to Crystal Lake, expecting to learn why it became so insanely popular. Now on Blu-Ray, it's possible to see the original movie clearer than it was ever projected. I couldn't even hear all the dialogue when I first saw it in a suburban fleapit.

It was a packed house on a Saturday night, the audience was hungry for the high bodycount promised by the trailer - a serial slasher film with guaranteed gore. Ironically at the time, America and the UK were unlikely to see much blood, sex or nudity after films had been past their respective censorship boards. The violence in the film was cut down - each kill faded to white early rather than show the whole murder. The week it came out in the UK (I’m guessing that was June 13th, 1980), I wish I’d seen it on Friday, and not Saturday, because I was sat in front of a loudmouth bastard who’d also seen it the night before. He proceeded to spoil every single surprise by telling his date what was about to happen. Not fun. But the film continued to fascinate, partly because of the bloody behind-the-scenes photographs in Fangoria, and also the series' subsequent longevity.

The new uncut US releases restore the death scenes that were only previously seen on home video on the Japanese laserdisc. There are also extras, old and new, talking about the original production – casting, special effects, story ideas and music. The director, Sean Cunningham, talks about misdirection, distracting the audience from where the next scare is coming from, which originally worked well. At the time, no one was sure whether the killer could be Crazy Ralph, Mr Christie the supervisor, or even the pot-obsessed cop… there were enough red herrings to keep us guessing. In interviews, the writer is honest about ripping off elements from the recently successful Halloween, and topping it all off with a shock ending like Carrie.

They talk about the making of the film, but not the key to it's success - the publicity machine. The classic bodycount trailer, and timing the premieres on Friday the 13th, selling it both as a ghost train ride and a date movie. We went to see everyone die. The characters weren’t expected to live, they weren’t given enough personality for us to get to know. Many of them were even annoying. The only thing that broke the boredom of the simple storylinewas the next kill. This is what the movie promised. Seeing it again, I was surprised at how few onscreen murders there were.

Friday the 13th became part of the horror movie genre called ‘have sex then die’. The inadvertent subtext is also ‘smoke pot then die’ or ‘play strip Monopoly then die’. Missing also is any mention of the handheld camerawork – Halloween opened with a memorable roving camera from the point of view of the murderer (itself an acknowledged steal from Dario Argento’s giallo thrillers). The success of much of Friday’s suspense are the twitchy point-of-view shots through the killer's eyes – indicating that they were nearby and also conveniently hiding their identity. I remember, In the cinema, there was screaming whenever the camera started creeping in on anyone.

Naturally, no mention is made of the uncanny resemblances to an earlier bodycount slasher, Mario Bava's 1971 Twitch of the Death Nerve, otherwise known as Bay of Blood. It has many of the same murder methods, a waterside setting, corpses rearranged for shock effect, and even a fisherman's pullover... But with far more explicit violence, more onscreen carnage and even gushing blood. The difference being it's Italian dubbed into English, and it has a twisty complex plot, perhaps too complex for a Saturday night crowd of teenagers. The similarities between Bay of Blood and the first two Friday the 13th films are as shocking as the nudity, and the gratuitous use of squishy squid close-ups. From the machete in the face, to the couple skewered with a spear during love-making. From a wheelchair murder, to a close-up decapitation... all from a film made nine years earlier.

Cunningham never planned on getting as far as a sequel, as is obvious from the bizarre premise of Friday the 13th Part II. He simply made a low budget horror, and look what happened.

On Blu-Ray, it looks remarkably good. It makes the most of the very dark, underlit, exterior scenes. The 5.1 audio mix isn’t tricksy, just slightly broadened, and there’s also the mono mix for purists. It’s the first time I’ve seen the film in a 16:9 aspect since the cinema release, and the composition looks strong and not cramped, even after all the years of 4:3 home videos. I’ve just finished watching all the Fridays in order. Now they’re coming out on Blu-Ray and in DVD special editions, with Friday the 13th Part III viewable in 3D on home video for the first time. For a better selection of cast and crew interviews, there's also the extensive documentary His Name Was Jason out on DVD.

Strangely, I can't find the Blu-Ray of Friday the 13th on, only on which is ironic as this new Uncut edition and Blu-Ray haven't been released in the UK. I guess they're trying to minimise confusion with the new remake. Also, Amazon lists it as 2.35 widescreen, when it's really 16:9. Part III was the first Friday to be shot 2.35 (and also the first in the series to feature the iconic hockey mask).

Don't worry, I'm not going to review the rest of the series, I just wanted to share my memories of when it all began. And I didn't even mention Kevin Bacon or his speedos.

March 14, 2009

BASKET CASE 3: THE PROGENY (1992) - Belial begets a basket of babies

(1992, USA)

There's something you don't see every day

The last of this supremely surreal comedy horror trilogy. It's not easy to follow the bizarre heights of Basket Case and
Basket Case 2, but 3 is worth it for more from Granny Ruth, her brood, and a chance to see Belial's brood of bouncing babies.

After a lengthy recap from the end of Basket Case 2, the characters then verbally re-remind us of where the story is at. A few months have passed and there are some new 'faces' at the commune. Everyone's back for the sequel, at least, everyone who survived... But with a looming medical emergency, Granny Ruth drives everyone onto a schoolbus and heads on down to Georgia, where she knows a trusted doctor friend, who is himself blessed with the largest 'freak' of all... a mad inventor called Little Hal.

It's not long before there's trouble with the locals, the police, Duane and of course Belial, who's lost none of his face-ripping charm. Indeed his murder methods have gained a few new twists...

Besides the bloody mayhem, there are a few brief sexual escapades for the Bradley twins, only slightly less bizarre than Basket Case 2. While Henenlotter's films homage grindhouse ideals, lightly exploiting sex as well as violence, he always balances the cheesecake with beefcake. Which means there's something for everyone.

This last
Basket Case is the least tidy story of the three, with scattershot ideas and dozens of characters. There's more comedy, and more of it is less successful, but the hits are worth the misses. While the highlight, or is that lowlight of Basket Case 2 was a parallel sex scene, Basket Case 3 satirises the miracle of birth like no other movie...

The music is exceptionally cheap and cheesy, a really nasty-sounding synthesizer trying to stand in for an orchestra. But Basket Case 3 also features the musical highlight of the series, as Annie Ross flexes her vocal muscles with an apt rendition of 'Personality'. I was recently hearteneded to learn that she was born in South London, only a few miles from where I live.

All in all, this is a wilder, sexier and more violent than film than Basket Case 2, but less even. This is the only Basket Case still without a special edition. It's only available in a 4:3 aspect, but looks comfortably framed. In many countries, it's included in a DVD double-bill with Basket Case 2.

This VHS cover, for the UK rental release, is my favourite artwork for the film, and is strongly reminiscent of the killer baby saga It's Alive (1974), which also stretched to a trilogy. This cover design was recently mirrored in Synapse's artwork for the Basket Case 2 special edition DVD.

On my region 2 DVD from Synergy (pictured at top), the only extras are trailers, but they're extremely entertaining straight-to-video movies - like Dolph Lundgren in Red Scorpion, The Exterminator and the first Maniac Cop. However, the Basket Case 3 trailer is extremely clumsy and stupid - every major plot point and gore effect is lazily spoilered and should certainly be avoided before seeing the film.

Soon, I look forward to revisiting Frank Henenlotter's Brain Damage, just as rewarding as any Basket Case, and then watch his brand new film, Bad Biology.

March 05, 2009


(1966, West Germany, TV, Space Patrol))

'The fantastic adventures of the Spaceship Orion'

Some sixties sci-fi that used to look futuristic, now doesn't. But those retro-predictions now provide glimpses of alternate futures of varying optimisms. I've now seen most of what the fifties and sixties offered and am currently in the mood for black-and-white TV shows, like Fireball XL5. There are still a few films from the period that I haven't seen - I only recently caught Planeta Bur from Russia, for instance.

So, if you want to see spaceships taking off from an underwater base via a whirlpool, ironclad beehive hair-dos, space cardigans, and invading aliens (called Frogs), you're in luck. Raumpatrouille (literally Space Patrol) was the first major German sci-fi TV show. It threw a big budget at huge sets and major special effects. As a result of the cost, it only ran for seven one-hour shows, but achieved a unique look - another future that never was. A future where spaceships are spacious, and unnecessarily huge. When Earth is no longer divided up into countries (and, apparently, everyone is now German).

My introduction to the show was through the lounge music par excellence of Peter Thomas, also famous in Germany for his TV themes and krimi movie scores. A European answer to Vic Mizzy, his enthusiastic and eccentric electric tunes aimed at being catchy enough to turn into hit singles. During the lounge revival of the 1990s, several CDs featured his work and the soundtrack for Raumpatrouille even got its own CD release. Not to be confused with the American Space Patrol TV series of 1950, or the British Space Patrol puppet series of 1963, the German series was released on DVD in 1999, and I had to see it.

Now, I've just bought the German three-disc boxset, of 2005 (pictured at top). The first two discs are exactly the same as the 1999 2-disc release (pictured here), which also had all seven episodes, remastered 5.1 audio, plus a few extras. The difference now being a third disc, with additional extras and a 2003 'movie', condensing the series into a single 90 minute storyline. Because of the series' kitsch value in Germany, this re-edited 'redux' adds newly shot scenes of a newscaster setting the scene and filling in the story gaps, but for laughs. It's an easy target to lampoon, but viewers could easily work out for themselves that the hairstyles and dance moves look bizarre. This unwelcome additional footage is intrusive but fairly brief.

The best aspect of the movie version is that it is subtitled in English. lists the 2005 boxset as having English subtitles, but these only appear on the movie condensation, and unfortunately not on the individual episodes. At least we can now it's possible to understand the important plot points of the series. Usefully, this movie version, sometimes called 'the producers cut' is also available as a separate release (pictured here).

The series was digitally remastered for the DVDs and looks brand new. It appears to have been made on 35mm film, but some of the visual effects appear to have been composited electronically - this could either have been pioneering work, or recently added. In any case, there's much to admire. The spaceship is as impressive for its manoeuvrability as its design, though the enemy Frog ships are less convincing as they dart about. Any rare personal appearances by the Frog aliens are ethereal. A haunting effect, seen as barely humanoid, sparkling shadows.

The huge, solid sets, alive with built-in lighting, backlit plastic, and shiny surfaces date from when silver in sci-fi was compulsory. The spaceship interior features control panel designs that defy description and gravity, much like the floating multi-armed robots (see below). The centrepiece is the commander's impressive circular table-top viewscreen, displaying intricate navigational information, (stop-frame animation and back-projected into the set, presumably from below).

But for many, watching the series without subtitles won't be tempting, especially when it's so talky, but the 1999 boxset is now sold for under 10 euros - that's seven hours of future Euro retro, people.

In Germany, the story of the Spaceship Orion and its crew lived on in over 100 paperback novels. The popular Perry Rhodan was more famous for a similar space adventure premise, and ran into hundreds of novels (and two movies, which are also rare outside Germany).

I've not seen any other German sci-fi, except for Star Maidens (1976), a co-production with the UK, where more was spent on hair-styles than special effects. Again, the soundtrack was the series' most memorable legacy.

Do you want to know more?

There are some great stills and memorabilia on this English Peter Thomas site, and there's this extensive German Raumpatrouille fansite - the Starlight Casino.

Here's the opening of episode two, including the original theme tune, on YouTube...

...and here's a recent remix of the theme tune, with clips from the show...