May 31, 2009


(2008, Japan, IMDB: Shinkaiju Reigo)

After years of tantalising photos, various reports of screenings and half a dozen title changes, Reigo has finally surfaced on DVD in Hong Kong, released by Panorama (cover art above). Despite the lack of English subtitles, I could wait no longer.

Starved of new Japanese giant monster movies and with the current hibernation of Godzilla, I was looking forward to this, my expectations fuelled by various news sites. Reigo was made by Godzilla/Gamera fan Shinpei Hayashiya. His previous film was Gamera 4: Truth, a short unofficial sequel to the awesome 1990s trilogy. As a fan production, this is extremely impressive. But as a monster movie, it wasn't very satisfying.

The setting is World War II. Japan launches the Yamato, the largest battleship in the world, to lead the Japanese fleet. The mission gets complicated when the Yamato mistakes a huge undersea monster for an enemy destroyer and accidentally kills its offspring. The monster, Reigo, wants revenge and starts attacking the fleet. But if anything can stop it, the Yamato can...

The WW2 setting is deadly serious and quite daring for a giant monster movie, a genre usually reserved for escapism. What lets the film down are the obviously limited budget (small sets and few actors) and the variable special effects. For what should be a visual effects movie, there are very few scenes that work convincingly.

There are obviously some intricate creature costumes and models, but these are only shown in very short cuts. A potentially startling scene, when some man-sized 'bone-fish' leap up onto the deck and attack the crew, was kept very short. Perhaps because the bloody nature of the scene had to be toned down. There's hardly a good look at the bone-fish at all, which looked as interesting a creature design as the main monster.

The wider shots of the creature are mainly done CGI, a very difficult technique when depicting the ocean. The best of the effects shots are very impressive, some saved for the film's climax. The Battleship Yamato is also largely CGI, and rarely looks at all convincing.

I don't want to list all my disappointments in the film. After all it's an ambitious and original project from a fan of the genre. But I strongly advise everyone to treat this as a spectacular fan-made film that actually has a decent cast, rather than expecting a monster movie with a big enough budget.

There are some familiar faces in the cast, Susumu Kurobe (the original Ultraman himself) and Taiyo Sugiara (Ultraman Cosmos himself). Plus the always-welcome Yukijiro Hotaru from the Gamera trilogy, Giant Robo Mikazuki and many other cult movies.

Sci-Fi Japan have a very extensive look at the making of the film, the production history and many publicity shots.

The official Reigo vs Yamato website is in English is here.

There's also the trailer on YouTube here.

Dread Central has recently broken the news (and a trailer) for a modern-day Reigo sequel from the same director, with the monster walking around on land. It'll be ready by the end of the year, confusingly called Deep Sea Monster Raiga. Again this looks perfect for it's intended audience at giant monster movie festivals, especially since it appears to be aiming for homage/comedy.

May 26, 2009


(1969, USA)

First saw this when it was first released in England, under the title The Most Dangerous Man In The World. As a pre-teen, I wasn't interested in talky spy-thrillers, but the countdown clock climax and Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack made an impression. I thought that the film had disappeared, only recently aware of the original US title change.

Gregory Peck (Moby Dick, Arabesque, The Omen) plays Hathaway, a scientist sent to China on a secret mission. He's to get hold of a formula that could allow the growth of food in inhospitable climates. As an expert in the field, and able to read Chinese, he travels there under the pretence of seeing a former colleague (Keye Luke).

As he says goodbye to his girlfriend (Anne Heywood), there's a sense that he won't be coming back. He has a one-way radio transmitter implanted in his skull to send any information back undetected, not realising that military intelligence have packed the device with explosive, in case they need to prevent him from talking.

Travelling through Hong Kong then China, to his friend's laboratory, Chairman Mao himself asks to meet him, and suddenly America has the opportunity to eliminate the communist leader with the oblivious walking bomb...

This is an intelligent, if gimmicky, spy thriller, with the suspense ramped up by frantic cross-cutting between Peck and his eavesdroppers, with their collective finger on the button.

Seeing it in 2.35 widescreen for the first time in 40 years, it still has much to offer. With China once again at the forefront of the world's economic stage, and the current threat of an insular Communist leader in North Korea, this story could almost play unchanged today.

I was impressed by the extent of the location filming. While the interiors and a huge compound were built at Pinewood Studios in London, there are some great scenes in 1960s' Hong Kong. I couldn't say for sure whether anything was actually shot in China. It would have been rare to film there at the time, though I've heard actress Zienia Merton talking about when she visited with Gregory Peck, and had to leave in a hurry when the Chinese heard about script being about assassinating their beloved leader!

The scenes of the huge temple and paddy fields could easily have been shot around Hong Kong. While the climax was apparently shot in the Welsh mountains of Snowdonia.

I always thought of this as shot in the US, but recognising many British actors throughout. Burt Kwouk, Mai Ling, Zienia Merton (a regular on Space 1999) plus Oli Levy (the same year he was in Moon Zero Two) again playing a Russian. The only American actors that needed to be ferried over are Gregory Peck, Keye Luke and Arthur Hiller (The Andromeda Strain, Futureworld). Director J. Lee Thompson (Happy Birthday To Me, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes) wrings as much excitement out of the story as possible.

Even now, I'm unsure if The Most Dangerous Man In The World is supposed to refer to Gregory Peck's character, or Mao Tse Tung...

The DVD (artwork at top) is presented 2.35 anamorphic widescreen. There is a commentary track, two alternate scenes with extra nudity, some trailers and a 'mini-movie' of alternate takes. The trailer and the nude scenes are the most interesting items.

Talking of nude scenes, actress Zienia Merton is still in the acting game, and has recently written her autobiography, available from her website.

The title sequence is on YouTube, a powerful photo-montage of communist China as was...

May 23, 2009

New sounds from old movies - Pogo remixes ALICE IN WONDERLAND

When I'm not watching films, I'm always listening to music old and new. I was delighted to hear this artist who combines the old with the new. Pogo remixes and samples movie soundtracks to a modern chill-out vibe. It's a little off-topic, but most of his music is film-related and there are also tightly-edited, cut-up videos made from film clips.

Pogo's most popular work includes four tracks reworking Disney's psychedelic animated musical Alice In Wonderland (1951). Fans of the original can be reassured that this is an affectionate update rather than any sort of blasphemy. The familiar aural atmosphere is preserved but re-edited into a whole new song - the remaining lyrics of Alice (above) a
re now nonsensical, using only parts of words.

Other tracks are based on Harry Potter, Carry On films, Disney's The Sword in the Stone (1963), The King and I (1956) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). This week, I was listening to music on the train to work while reading a biography of the late Richard Harris (Hellraisers by Robert Sellers). I was a little spooked when I realised I was also listening to his voice, as Dumbledore in Pogo's Harry Potter track.

The young musician also wants to make movies, according to this interview. He's already made a short film Out With It, which shows incredible promise - also on YouTube.

All his music videos are also here on YouTube, under the band's original name of Faggottron. 15 tracks by Pogo can heard and legally downloaded for free from LastFM.

A huge thanks to Frankie F. for leading me to these.

May 21, 2009

BRAIN DAMAGE (1988) - Henenlotter's most cerebral outing

(1988, USA)

Grindhouse pre-cursor to Requiem for a Dream

Funny, horrifying, tightly-plotted, unique. I love Brain Damage, but it's probably the director's least well-known film.

After enjoying Frank Henenlotter's first two Basket Case movies (reviewed here and here) and Frankenhooker, I was further rewarded by his next film, Brain Damage, which proved to be his best film in many respects. It actually has a meaning behind all the mauling. In fact, there's an awful lot of subtext going on here, but here's the story so far...

Brian is having trouble getting up one morning. He feels drained and dizzy and finds blood on his bedsheets. He discovers a weird-looking parasite has attached itself to his body. It looks like a turd, or maybe a large penis, and it talks! It persuades him to place it on his neck and injects a blue liquid into his brain, giving him powerful and colourful dreams. What Brian doesn't realise is that while he's dreaming, the parasite uses his body to carry him to its next meal... brains...

This would be grim material for a horror film, but Hennenlotter and his team use a large amount of humour, especially with the parasite glibly talking back to its host. The fairly basic special effects look a wacky as well, with Elmer the parasite looking a little like a cartoon character, especially the eyes. We get to see inside Brian's brain as the needle delivers its hallucinogenic load! I'd say that this is also the goriest of all his films and easily contains the most powerful shock moment, all in the same scene.

With Brian unable to resist further injections and his health and reliability rapidly declining, it's easy to see the parallel with drug addiction, but there's no preachy message, just a horrifying glimpse of a downward spiral, suitably portrayed against the backdrop of Manhattan.

The other subtext is more complex, as my 'gaydar' goes off the scale with this film. The two well-built brothers are always wearing tight white underwear. The parasite often looks and acts like a penis and even gets confusingly pulled into sexual activity. Brian appears to enjoy his drug like an orgasm, while his neck is being penetrated from behind (ahem). There's more male nudity than female (usually Hennenlotter balances the two) and while there are no explicitly gay characters, there are several possibles, and even a fantasy threesome. Again, like the drug parallel, this subtext isn't part of the story and there's no explicit message - quite an achievement considering AIDS hysteria was everywhere at the time.

Like his other films, the low budget means that the quality of acting is variable, which is a shame during the more maniacal moments. The limber parasite puppet, together with Zacharle's melodious voice, proves to be one of the best performances in the film. Though Rick Hearst does an incredible and difficult job in the lead as Brian.

My Synapse DVD (cover art pictured at top) restores the censored scenes that were missing from the UK and US versions of the film. It's presented in widescreen, which looks accurately framed, but the DVD is non-anamorphic (the black letterboxing is part of the picture). The extras are a trailer and a commentary track from
Frank Hennenlotter. I'd guess that the more recent UK and US DVDs are anamorphic widescreen.

Right, now to track down Bad Biology, Frank's first film in years...

May 17, 2009

Not on DVD: JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1967) - animated fun in 2D

(1968, USA, TV)

Filmation Studios' animated movie spin-offs

In the sixties, a TV series that had me hooked was this Filmation cartoon. One image, that haunted me ever since, was the intrepid bunch surrounded by eerie giant moving slabs of stone. How were they going to get out of that one? Being really young, I was genuinely concerned that they would one day escape the bowels of the earth and return to the surface. According to this Wikipedia entry, I finally learnt that they never did!

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1967) is another series that I've wanted to revisit out of nostalgia, that hasn't been released on VHS or DVD. Unsurprisingly, I guess, I'm finding more and more rare items are easier to find on YouTube, Google Video, VEOH etc. Only a few moments after remembering something I've not seen in decades, I can watch it online.

Now that my memory has been refreshed, I was surprised that the cartoon series of 17 episodes was a follow-on from the colourful, epic movie from 1959. The linking character being Gertrude the Duck! I'd like to know how she survived the film. She's trapped under the earth along with Professor Lindenbrook, two kids and a guide who are being chased by an evil-doer and his sidekick. They meet a lot of giant monsters and a multitude of subterranean civilisations, mostly hostile!

With exciting cliffhangers before each ad break, this is still fun, if you can get used to Filmation's 'limited animation' techniques. These similar the cost-saving devices used in anime, but at the time, it looked like a step backward from the dynamic action of Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry and of course Disney. But a weekly half-hour of TV animation had a far lower budget.

Here's a few more Filmation productions that I remember playing on TV here in the UK. Fantastic Voyage (1968) extended the 1966 movie into regular missions of the Combined Miniature Defence Force. The traitor among them has been wisely weeded out and replaced with a Spock-like Indian psychic. The memorably catchy soundtrack is the main reason I'd like to see these again. Here's the zingy theme tune on YouTube with the incredibly shouty voiceover...

The animated Star Trek (1973) series even made peak-time Saturday night on the BBC, as an alternative to the endless re-runs of the classic live-action show. Having most of the original cast doing the voices really helped. This site about animated Star Trek includes a guide to the other Filmation shows on DVD.

Filmation also made two animated Batman series in 1968 and 1977. The 1968 version is much more watchable, despite not having Adam West's voice. Mainly because the annoying Bat-Mite (Batman's very own Scrappy Doo) was added to the 1977 series. Annoyingly, this is the series available on DVD. The earlier show is immediately notable for it's epilepsy-unfriendly title sequence that uses the same flashing colours that triggered the infamous Pokemon mass-fainting phenomenon in Japan. Dozens of these short 1968 episodes (segments of The Batman/Superman Hour) are on YouTube. Love the Bat-ejector seats in the Batmobile!

I think Filmation's Flash Gordon (1979) was also widely seen, especially when the series was condensed into an animated feature-length version. The first 16 episodes roughly follow Flash's first adventures on the planet Mongo, just pre-dating the famous Dino De Laurentiis movie of 1980.

I'd recommend the wonderful Saturday Morning Blog - a treasure trove of cartoon episodes from this era, that are viewable online.

If you want to know more, Wikipedia has a long, thorough entry on the short, prolific life of Filmation productions.

May 14, 2009

RED SHADOW (2001) - from the director of SAMURAI FICTION

(2001, Japan, Akakage)

Tragi-comedy ninja action in this homage to the beloved Toei series

I only started watching samurai movies relatively
recently. After overdosing on Asian horror, I dipped my toe into a few other genres. I tried some Akira Kurosawa classics, like The Seven Samurai, but struggled to appreciate them. I found the more recent, realistic dramas The Hidden Blade and The Twilight Samurai more accessible and impressive. I loved the sword-swinging action hits Princess Blade and Azumi. Hong Kong's House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower are full of truly impossible feats, and tremendous eye candy, but I don't feel the need to catch every epic. The same goes for the huge backlog of samurai and Chinese martial arts films through the decades. I'm looking for the more offbeat movies. The same way I prefer the westerns of Sergio Leone over John Ford. So I was very pleased to stumble upon Red Shadow.

It's a modern spin on a ninja hero. Based on a popular TV and film series produced by Toei Studios, who celebrated their 50th anniversary with this irreverent homage. The ninja heroes' ultra-athletic abilities are sent up with light, but not slapstick, comedy. While die-hard Red Shadow fans might not welcome this, there's also plenty of action and drama. The approach is much the same as director Hiroyuki Nakano's acclaimed Samurai Fiction (1998), also a modern update of the samurai genre.

Red Shadow focuses on three young ninja students who are part of a secret movement who use their special abilities to prevent civil war and unnecessary bloodshed. They can camouflage themselves in darkness, scale impossible walls, and defend themselves from any weapon. Red Shadow, Blue Shadow and female ninja buddy Asuka are given a mission to keep two clans from going to war. The three friends are in constant peril, and in danger of falling into a love triangle, in defiance of their ninja code.

If you liked Samurai Fiction, this is most definitely for you. Red Shadow is all-round entertaining and accessible. Jarringly, the soundtrack is techno music (which works for me), a technique Nakano also used in Samurai Fiction.

Composer/actor/pop star Hotei Tomoyasu makes an early cameo appearance and provides the magnificent electric guitar solo over the closing credits. I wish Tomoyasu was as famous in the west as his music - he wrote and performed one of the most famous tracks in Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol 1.

I watched a blurry DVD from Hong Kong, which lost a lot of detail in the many night scenes, but there must be a better Japanese or US DVD edition out there for me to upgrade to for my next viewing.

For a taste of the action, here's a French trailer for Red Shadow on YouTube...

Also check out this promo for the 1960s Toei TV series, it has giant monsters!

May 12, 2009

OTAKUS IN LOVE (2004) - a manga maniacs rom-com

(2004, Japan, Koi no mon)

First faltering romance for a pair of anime/manga/cosplay geeks

I'm not big on romantic comedies, but here's one devoid of cliches. It's in the world of anime geeks (or otaku), where fictional characters and their inventors attract an obsessive fandom of Star Trekian proportions. But while anime
and manga are widely seen to be all giant robots and schoolgirls, in Japan they're about absolutely anything (tennis, cats, cooking) with just as many female fans.

Koino (Wakana Sakai) loves singing along with anime theme tunes, collecting manga, and dressing up as her favourite characters. Mon (Ryuhei Matsuda) is an aspiring manga artist with a radical take on the artform. The two meet by accident. Well. In an accident. Both twenty-something, lonely virgins, with something in common. A love of manga. She's particularly impressed that he's a manga artist. That is, until she sees his work...

The scenario is set for a bizarre courtship involving cosplay dating, ani-singers, and manga conventions... Mon stumbles into a manga bar and even the owner, Marimoda, gets tangled up in the budding relationship... The embarrassments of early sexual connections pale into comparison with their respective obsessions.

This is the first film directed by Suzuki Matsuo, an experienced actor who also stars as the deadpan bar manager. He's adept at handling this quickfire comedy with a sharp sense of visuals. Matsuo has also rallied an extensive set of cameos. Among the real-life manga artists and anime singers, there are also movie directors. I didn't get all the in-jokes (though the humour doesn't rely heavily on them), but I wasn't expecting to see Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo, Nightmare Detective) and Takashi Miike in all the chaos.

Acclaimed, cult actor Ryuhei Matsuda (the star of Nightmare Detective 1 and 2, and Gohatto) proves adept at deadpan comedy. He's also unafraid to flash his leopardskin bulge, though this is still very tame for a sex comedy. The less well-known Wakana Sakai proves to be his match for comic timing as well as drama.

I'd assumed that, by now, Otakus in Love would have been released on DVD in the UK or US, but no. With the widespread cosplay and anime conventions, I thought that this film could be an easy sell.

Luckily, the Japanese DVD was subtitled in English, under the title Koi no Mon. There's also a Korean special edition which has good subtitles and even subtitled extras on a second disc. Both editions are out of print, but they're out there, somewhere.

The official website for the film is still here.

For a flavour of the visual style, here's an unsubtitled trailer on YouTube...

May 07, 2009

GUARD POST / GP506 (2008) - from the director of R-POINT

(2008, South Korea)

Su-Chang Kong wrote and directed both this and R-Point (2004) - both are horror films set in the army. I was impressed and scared by R-Point and wondered if this soldier's tale was going to be similar. The strengths of both films are that you're not sure which particular horror genre you're heading into. A slasher movie? Zombies? Ghosts?

Guard Point begins at the end of a massacre, at a remote concrete complex near the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. A military investigation team arrives to discover a sole survivor drenched in blood, holding an axe. They're given 24 hours to determine what happened. Did everyone kill each other, or did one man do it all? Is he mad, or possessed?

But as the scares began, I was disappointed to see a few overly familiar horror cliches, especially after the originality of the surprises in R-Point. The plot was certainly clever, but maybe too convoluted, because I started to get lost as the story moved between timelines before and after the massacre.

When explanations finally arrived, they didn't quite answer everything, and I was left sorting out red herrings from loose ends. The narrative was hard-going and requires concentration - with many sudden flashbacks, it's not always easy to follow. Also, with a cast of four dozen characters, all soldiers, variously covered in blood and camouflage make-up, it wasn't easy to make out who's who.

But it's a handsome looking film, with a convincing cast and solid, steadily-increasing shocks. It's certainly far more eventful than R-Point, and far gorier. Maybe I'll understand it better second time around. If it was from Thailand I'd be very impressed. But from Korea, I'd expect to be more satisfied. Boy, am I hard to please sometimes.

Guard Post was released last year on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK by Cine-East.

Here's the trailer on YouTube, without subtitles though.

May 06, 2009


(1960, Hong Kong, Ching nu yu hun)

A beautiful film which inspired the internationally famous A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), which in turn revitalised the flying swords genre, as well as many more Hong Kong ghost stories. Recently restored on DVD, the 1960 Shaw Brothers version holds up as a favourable alternative to the better known Tsui Hark remake.

Based on the same source as A Chinese Ghost Story (Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling, written in the 17th century) it has the same basic structure of a rent collector who can't find a place to stay in a small town, resorting to staying in a deserted temple that the locals say is haunted.

Exploring the grounds, he meets an attractive young woman in the splendid back garden, where she lives with her aunts and grandma. While she is initially annoyed at his nosiness, she starts to fall for the handsome young man. But courting has many strict rules and when she gets too amorous, he's in danger of getting into deep trouble with her family. Worse than that, there's a horrible murder at the temple, and a body has been drained of blood...

Shot completely in a studio, this early example of colour film from Hong Kong rivals its remake. It's a far more sedate version, but is as typical of the early 1960s as A Chinese Ghost Story is of the late 1980s. The characters, the lush sets and costumes, and especially the story are it's strength. There's almost no fighting and a restrained use of special effects, just enough to serve the story, but with enough shock value.

The remake now almost looks more dated, with fast cutting, wide-angle swish pans, OTT wirework, saturated blue lighting and backlit smoke. The special effects have aged too - the skeletons make Army of Darkness look good. Don't get me wrong, it's still a great martial arts comedy, with inventive routines as good as classic Jackie Chan, and the cast look perfect, Leslie Cheung almost as beautiful as Joey Wang...

But if it's a more serious ghost story you want, I'd certainly recommend Enchanting Shadow. It has a relatively slow start, but I was impressed at how gripping it became. It appears to have been influenced by Hammer Horror, that made an international impression at the end of the 1950s, enough to film in Eastman colour and use startling blood and make-up effects.

There's a short documentary about the director Li Hanxiang included on the DVD (pictured at top), thankfully with English subtitles. As well as a trailer, which is so scratchy and faded, it's a reminder of how miraculous the restoration has been of this fifty-year old movie. The packaging states the film is 2.35 widescreen, but after watching it, that must be a typo. It's presented 4:3, which looks correct.

There's another favourable review of Enchanting Shadow here on Illuminated Lantern, and the DVD is available at HK Flix here.

Meanwhile, there are now remastered editions of all three Chinese Ghost Story films, like this Hong Kong DVD boxset available at YesAsia. Tsui Hark also remade the first film as an animation, and 24framespersecond has news that a live-action remake is now in the works.

May 04, 2009

GRIZZLY (1976) - with the emphasis on grisly

(1976, USA)

Finally, I get to see an uncut version of Grizzly. This was the first to cash in on the bloody wake of Jaws. Cinemas were then deluged by a carnival of killer animal movies, mostly aquatic (Tentacles, Orca The Killer Whale, Piranha, Alligator...), but also landlubbers (Prophecy, The Swarm...). Although Grizzly was first out of the gate, it's one of the best in the genre.

The version we saw in UK cinemas in 1976 had most of the blood (and flying limbs) censored. Despite the amount of gore that was allowed in Jaws,
the censor wasn't nearly as lenient with Grizzly. The wonderful Shriek Show 30th anniversary DVD has been my first chance to see the film in its entirety. Getting a 'guilty pleasure' like this, widescreen, uncut, with a commentary track, behind-the-scenes footage, and new interviews, make the Special Edition extra special.

Campers start dying in a state national park. When I say dying, I mean 'getting torn apart'. The ranger thinks a bear is to blame, but no one believes him when he reckons an abnormally large grizzly is responsible - it's just too far south. As the hunters become the hunted, he enlists the help of a helicopter pilot and an eccentric bear expert to try and end the carnage.

Director William Girdler's background was in low-budget horror movies, and Grizzly closely resembles an early slasher film, with the emphasis on slash. The intensity of the bear attacks puts Jason Vorhees to shame, using gore and close-ups of screaming victims backing away from the camera, in a way that recalls Italian giallo. There's as much blood in the uncut version of Grizzly than many Friday the 13th movies, and there's that familiar forest ambiance too. All this and helicopter action. Hey, I happen to like helicopters. So did 1970s action cinema. Had to have a helicopter.

Part of it's continuing watchability today is due to the extensive use of a real-life, full-size grizzly bear running around. (The DVD extras mention the solitary electrified wire that separated it from the cast and crew).

If this were made today, the scriptwriter would have to work hard to avoid the bear being simply anaesthetised and lovingly relocated. But this is a monster movie made in Texas, so the only solutions considered are strictly guns and ammo.

As a bonus, the cast are very good, adding convincing drama to a simple story, but are more familiar from TV. You may have seen Christopher George (the park ranger) star in Lucio Fulci's zombie classic City of the Living Dead (1979), vigilante slasher The Exterminator (1980), or even Girdler's next nature-revenge movie Day of the Animals. Richard Jaeckel (the eccentric tracker) for me is forever the star of Kinji (Battle Royale) Fukasaku's delirious The Green Slime (1968), as a military astronaut defending a space station from, um, alien monsters from the green slime...

As a prime example of bad-taste, low-budget, exploitation cinema gone mainstream, Grizzly is hard to beat. Girdler would try and match it's success with Day of the Animals (1977), but his last film was my favourite, The Manitou (1978), which I reviewed here.

Check out more abut William Girdler's 'Texploitation' movies here.

In the UK, Grizzly topped a double-bill with
Drive-In, a good-natured Texan teen comedy. It was like American Graffiti, but in 1970s Dallas. It includes a movie-within-a-movie playing at the drive-in, Disaster '76, an early satire of catastrophe movies, made before Airplane. It's not on DVD, but Drive-In can be seen in its entirety here on GoogleVideo.

May 03, 2009

ULTRA-Q (1966) - Japanese monster TV series, before ULTRAMAN

ULTRA-Q(1966, Japan, TV)

I first heard of this TV series as I was tracing back to the first of the Ultraman series, and assumed this was another show about 'a man in a suit fighting monsters'. But while Ultra-Q lead up to the first, classic Ultraman of 1966, it's a very different format. A trio of young investigators who face outbreaks of the unknown, usually involving giant monsters. This entertaining black-and-white series has now been reissued in Japan on DVD, crucially at a new lower price per disc.

It was dreamt up by the special effects mastermind behind the Godzilla films, Eiji Tsuburaya, as he was trying to find a format for his special effects techniques in a TV show. He was aiming for the same mixture of fantasy and mystery as the US hit The Twilight Zone, but because of his visual effects for Toho sci-fi films, like the Godzilla series, and possibly because they knew he owned all the monster suits, each episode of Ultra-Q usually has a giant monster in it.

In much the same way the producers of The Outer Limits insisted on a 'bear' every week, a scary monster or alien that would add a visual hook, Tsuburaya ended up switching formats to Ultraman, where his giant humanoid alien would fight a different monster every week. This UItra-format has been popular ever since, involving hundreds of live-action TV series and movies. The rights to the superhero were even sold internationally to the US, Australia and Thailand who shot their own versions.

But I really wanted to see Ultra-Q, to see more of Tsuburaya's special effects and unique monsters, some of whom have reappeared in later Ultraman series. There was even a recent update of Ultra-Q called Dark Fantasy, but it was a fairly cheap tribute, shot on video, and didn't look as nearly as impressive as the 1966 show, when the special effects rival his film work.

Ultra-Q episodes can either be mini-monster movies, short disaster epics, or surreal childhood fantasies. But the imagination and extensive special effects, not to mention the lively camerawork, fast editing and jazzy score, make it enjoyable even without subtitles. The series was made in black-and-white, unlike Ultraman, which helps makes the composite visual effects and back projection look more convincing, which adds to the charm.

While the series ended up being aimed at children, the high production values, adult cast and scary weirdness makes it as interesting to adult fans as sixties Godzilla movies, for instance.

Indeed, watch out for guest appearances from movie monsters Godzilla, King Kong, Manda and the gang, sometimes dressed up in disguise, and marvel at the new creations such as a giant snail with glowing eyes - a ridiculous and unique creature that still manages to creep me out. How'd you like to see that staring through your window at night?

I baulked at paying for the Japanese boxset that was issued in 2005, but in 2008 the same DVDs were reissued at a far more affordable price. There are seven volumes, each with four episodes on. CD Japan and YesAsia sell them, but be careful not to order the recent remake Ultra Q - Dark Fantasy, or the 2005 editions (they have black and white covers) as they cost twice as much as the new issues. Japanese DVDs are all NTSC, but coded region 2. There are no English subtitles on either release.

For more about the life and works of visual effects mastermind Eiji Tsuburaya, August Ragone's extensive and superbly illustrated biography is still in the shops.

Update November 2013
Shout Factory have released the entire series with English subtitles for English-speaking fans to finally enjoy this unique series. Despite Japan releasing the series yet again, but colorised, it was relief to see this American boxset presents all episodes in the original black-and-white, over five discs.