December 30, 2006

KAZUO UMEZU'S HORROR THEATER - VOLUME 2 (2005) Snake Girl and The Wish

Region 1 NTSC DVD (Tokyo Shock)

I’ve persevered with Kazuo Umezu’s Horror Theater (volume 1 reviewed here), partly out of curiosity about this oddball manga artist who Japan regards fondly as someone equivalent to Roald Dahl, but who can draw his own pictures – a one-man Dahl and Quentin Blake combined. His manga have been published for over 50 years now, mostly in shoujo manga (‘manga for girls’). Children experiencing the vivid intensity of emotions and horror situations of his illustrations, are the reason I suspect they haven't been forgotten.

Despite their low budgets, varying styles and shot-on-video look, these Japanese horrors are at least original and unique tales, thought up long before the current trends came along. They’re not all successful but they are very different.

Volume Two contains two stories where the directors have attempted to closely follow the visual style of the original manga comics, rather than reworking the tales. Presumably these are two of Kazz’s most famous tales.

The first is called Snake Girl.

Yumiko is a young schoolgirl getting hate-mail e-mails. After witnessing a particularly nasty murder at school, Yumiko is sent away to the country, to stay with her indifferent aunt and uncle. They seem to be obsessed with snakes. Yumiko finds it easier to befriend their two daughters. But after meeting an old local mystic, she get’s a nasty snake-bite, not from a snake, but a snake creature… Local people are also getting bitten, ever since Yumiko arived in the village, there has been an outbreak of snake problems…

I was keen to see this one to discover whether it had anything in common with the 1968 movie adaption of the same source (Snake-Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch
reviewed here). The roots of the story are the same, with the same skeletal story, and some of the same incidents, like Yumiko discovering snakeskin in her bed one morning. But the ending is different and the story takes a different direction and is far less claustrophobic. Kazz has also updated it with the internet sub-plot. I’m still more impressed with the movie because of the higher production value and successfully nightmarish mood.

But here the lead actress is outstanding and the snake creature is imaginatively designed and portrayed (see the cover art above), with an excellent CGI money shot. Though some of the close ups are so close, you can see the actress’ white teeth visible behind the yellow fake teeth.

The narrative is confusing, zombie villagers are thrown into the mix, but are so lacklustre and unthreatening that it only adds to the ‘bad dream’ feel. But a little girl’s bad dream is hardly strong stuff for the rest of us. Compared to the extreme gore of a later episode, this almost feels like children’s TV.

The young lead, and the director go to great pains to re-enact the stylized 'screaming face' tableau – hands raised to the face, just like the original illustrations. This is careful homage, but really doesn’t work in live-action. Especially because nothing else in the film is as exaggerated.

Together with a slack ending and a very poorly staged transformation scene, this story is more of a grim fairy tale than horror.
I'll still revisit it rather than watch the similarly themed Thai horror Snaker any day. (That had a great cover - of a girl with snakes for hair - and nothing else, looking more like a theatre group with a video camera.) But still the best snake-girl on film, is Jacqueline Pearce in the Hammer horror The Reptile (1966) - really horrendous snake bites in that one.

Director Noboru Iguchi must have done something that Kazz liked, because he's now directed a movie based on a Kazz character - The Cat-Eyed Boy (Nekome Kozo).

The second story in Volume 2 is called The Wish.

This time with a schoolboy at centre stage. He’s friendless and locks himself away at home, building a human-sized puppet out of wood, wishing he could will it to life with telekinesis. He loses interest in the project when he actually makes a real friend, but then his wish comes true…

This simple rambling tale is helped enormously by the horrendously hideous puppet creature – it just has to sit in a room to creep you out. Even though the story looks very video, the story makes a good naturalistic impression, despite some fake-looking sky effects.

Again the director has taken pains to recreate the original tale, making for a short film that’s underdeveloped. But it’s suitably creepy and packs some unexpected shocks. A limited but startling use of digital effects helps enormously in the climax.

If you thought the clown doll in Poltergeist was scary, you really shouldn't see this.

The DVD has useful behind-the-scenes interviews, promotional trailers for the two stories and intros from Kazuo Umezu himself. Every scrap of information helped me understand the stories better, but I’d love to see more frames from the original comics, without which these adaptions would make much more sense.

Note that lists two of these DVDs under the mis-spelled title Kazuo Umezz's Horror Theater.

Do you want to know more?
Kazuo Umezu has a blog in Japanese - where his many photographs belie his tastes for fine cuisine and red-and-white stripy clothes.

The six story series also has a CD soundtrack release which features an expanded version of the catchy theme tune sung by Rurutia. She also provides backing vocals on other tracks as well as singing the end theme. The CD contains electro, rock and creepy muzak all featured in the series. I bought mine from CDjapan.
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December 29, 2006

Finally on DVD: SILVER STREAK (1976)

Region 1 and Region 2 DVD releases (20th Century Fox)

Finally on DVD widescreen and stereo, Silver Streak was the film where Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder began their cinematic partnership as a comedy duo in three further vehicles. But it’s also a comedy thriller in the vein of North by Northwest, and a train disaster movie!

Gene Wilder starts off as a mild-mannered innocent caught up in international intrigue. After an intimate scene with Jill Clayburgh, bordering on raunchy, he convincingly transforms into a romantic (seventies) action hero. Occasionally his comic touches reach the manic level that made him famous in Mel Brook’s classic Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. If you enjoyed those, I’d recommend this and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother as his strongest non-Brooks films.

There’s a James Bond undercurrent to the casting - Clifton James had already appeared in Live and Let Die and Man With the Golden Gun as the stereotypically redneck Sheriff Culpepper, but here gets to tone down the hick accent and display his excellent comic timing. Richard Kiel appears here as a gigantic killer with shiny teeth before his famous role as Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.

Patrick Magoohan (star of cult TV series The Prisoner) makes a rare appearance and is an excellent baddie mastermind. You can tell he’s bad because he addresses black people with the n-word.

Race plays a major part here, even though the film is essentially a summertime family film. An effort has been made here to have several black characters in the story. They aren’t blaxploitation cliches, even though the actors are playing waiters and a thief! The director dares to tread a fine line in a scene where Wilder has to wear shoe polish and try and pass for black. Made in this pre-PC period, the film easily manages to be inoffensive and funny even today, mainly thanks to Pryor’s lightning tutorial. Silver Streak was Richard Pryor's first mainstream hit, and it was hugely successful, launching him as a bankable star.

1976 poster art, giving away the spectacular ending

Let’s not forget the action, there’s stunts on top of, jumping out of and crawling around on the outside of the speeding train, of course. A spectacularly filmed helicopter chase and running gun battle. Not to mention, the climactic runaway train piling into a station – filmed by cladding a juggernaut lorry to look like a locomotive, and ramming it through a huge set as dozens of stunt people run away, just in front of the destruction. All the stunts in the film looking genuinely dangerous - one carriage-to-carriage 'transfer' looks positively reckless.

The mixture of comedy and thrills was a hit for all concerned – writer Colin Higgins went on to write and direct his own hits with Foul Play and Nine to Five. Train disaster movies continued through the decade with the downbeat catastrophe of The Cassandra Crossing. Even a TV movie expanded the 'runaway train and two helicopters' scenario to an entire TV movie with Disaster on a Coastliner (imagine William Shatner as Steven Seagal in a low budget Under Siege 2).

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December 24, 2006

BLOOD - THE LAST VAMPIRE (2000) ground-breaking anime

Region 2 PAL DVD (Manga Video)

Set near a US Air Force base in southern Japan in 1966, this is about Saya, a schoolgirl special operative who, alone with her sword, is able to vanquish huge vampiric bat-creatures who hide among us in human form.

At 48 minutes long, this stand-alone anime is too short to be called a feature and too long to be called a short. Animation house Production I.G (of Ghost in the Shell fame) made this entirely digitally, meaning the hand-drawn sketches of each frame are scanned into computers to be inked, coloured and have effects added and composited. The resulting High Definition video master was then used for screenings in digital cinemas.

This was a first for Japan, but was already a technique being used elsewhere, by Disney and even The Simpsons.

Production I.G were also experimenting with techniques – like the addition of 3D environments and vehicles, like the plane and the train. Elaborate camera moves were emulated, giving some point-of-view angles a handheld feel. These effects were then used extensively in the spectacular Ghost in the Shell anime series.

Besides being a testing-ground, the result is very exciting and rewatchable despite a few shortcomings. The story is dense and a little confusing, probably because it was designed as the middle act of three episodes. Also, it starts off in English language, then reverts to Japanese. The first scene makes us doubt whether Saya has killed a vampire creature (or “chiroptera”) or a human by mistake. The closing scene points towards the Vietnam War, but this doesn’t make any real sense until Blood+ started up five years later!

Still, Saya’s surly attitude, and the whodunnit aspect of which person is actually a monster, carries the story. A Halloween party at Saya’s school adds to the confusion. There’s enough action in the short running time to flesh out a feature film too. It's very, very bloody and the creature is exceptionally agile, large, and horrifying.

It's a tour de force anime that hasn’t dated, and with a story that’s still expanding. A new incarnation of Saya emerged modern day in Blood+, a 50 episode anime series that in turn led to the Chevalier D’Eon anime currently running in Japan.

Also, a live-action version of the original Blood is being produced in Hong Kong under the title Blood Vampire, but may not appear until 2008, according to this report from the Hollywood Reporter.

Blood - The Last Vampire is available from Manga Video on Region 1 and Region 2 DVD, (featuring a good behind-the-scenes documentary) and there's also a CD soundtrack in circulation.

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December 22, 2006

Christmas Cards

Psychotic Santa lurking outside?
You should really call the police.

If only you hadn't just murdered your husband...

At this special time of year, of course my thoughts turn to… the horror films of Christmas past.

One of my favourites is the 'All Through The House' segment in Tales from the Crypt (1972), starring Joan Collins, among many others.

These lobby cards are my Christmas cards to everyone out there - have a good one, and all the best to you and yours throughout the New Year.

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R.I.P. - Shirley Walker steps down from the Bat

SHIRLEY WALKER (1945 - 2006)

It’s not very seasonal, but I only just heard about this. A sad loss for the world of soundtrack music: Shirley Walker unexpectedly passed away at the end of November, aged just 61.

She was the most prolific female composer of TV and movie soundtracks, after making her name orchestrating for Danny Elfman and conducting some of his most famous scores, including the superb and influential Batman (1989) and Edward Scissorhands (1990).

I was particularly fond of her own work for Batman - the Animated Series(1992), where she was the supervising composer, continuing the brooding atmosphere of the two Tim Burton movies. The thrilling result, using a full orchestra, helped raise a children’s animated TV series to a dramatic level that adults could enjoy.

For me, her best work for the animated Batman was the superb score for the first animated spin-off movie Batman - Mask of the Phantasm (1993). One of my favourite tracks, ‘First Love’, for a scene where Bruce Wayne remembers a teenage romance, perfectly evokes a melancholy memory of what could have been.

For the follow-up series that took the character into the future, Batman Beyond (1999), she worked with a team of composers that upped the tempo, shrieked with electric guitars, and propelled the viewer into the future with a more 'electro' sound. The soundtrack to the series is unique and exciting, even surprising the programme makers, that a respectable-looking bunch could effortlessly ‘rock out’. Shirley also performed on the synthesizer, something she had previously done in her earliest film work, on Apocalypse Now (1979), a landmark of audio presentation, due to Walter Murch's innovative sound design.

We always looked forward to hearing her work whenever her name came up in opening credits, and were selfishly looking forward to many more years, especially now she was on higher profile projects, like soundtracks for the Final Destination trilogy, and the recent remakes of Willard and Black Christmas.

I’m very sad that she’s gone, and thinking of what could have been.

December 17, 2006

DOCTOR WHO - THE INVASION (1968) Restoring lost Cybermen episodes

8 x 25 minutes (approx)
Region 2 PAL DVD (2 Entertain)

Panic on the streets of London...

I'm enjoying watching this new release of a sixties Doctor Who story starring Patrick Troughton. Two of the eight episodes in this story were very probably lost forever when they were wiped/scrapped in the seventies. Over a hundred other episodes are still missing, but this DVD release proves that all is not lost.

Having hunted around the world, the BBC have decided to use animation, by Cosgrove Hall productions, to recreate the vision for the two missing episodes. This technique was previously used to illustrate special episodes on the BBC website, featuring Richard E Grant as the Doctor, (made before the recent new series started). A trial animation was tested out first (you can view it on the BBC website).

The animation, delightfully rendered in black and white, is obviously not the same as having the original vision, but it closely illustrates how it may have looked, and provides continuity for the surviving episodes. The success of this release will presumably decide whether further recreations will be attempted.

I thought the technique works very well - the episodes at the time were made with many quite static close ups (television sets were fairly small at the time) and far less action, which makes it easier to second guess what was going on.

I believed that the animators would be guided by 'screen grabs' - photographs taken off TVs at the time of transmission. Many of these have appeared online, illustrating entire missing stories in comic strip fashion. But no mention of these photographs were made here on the DVD documentaries - perhaps they don't exist for every episode. Many of these 'photo-novels' are still part of the BBC Doctor Who website.

The best aspect of the venture is the immaculate audio restoration. The audio survives for the missing episodes, largely due to fans recording off-air at the original time of transmisission. A DVD extra illustrates how the best elements are used and restored. All the episodes indeed sound fantastic.

This story features the Cybermen attempting an invasion of sixties London, and is very much a blueprint for the earthbound Jon Pertwee series that followed soon afterwards. The Brigadier and U.N.I.T. (in their debut) help Jamie, Zoe and the Doctor battle a megalomaniac electronics industrialist who is aiding the Cybermen on Earth.

This is a new two DVD set, on release from the BBC’s new merchandising arm ‘2 Entertain’. The DVD extras are interesting and not overlong. A 48 minute look at the making and influence of the series, reveals a large number of the original cast still keen to talk about it. Besides the documentaries, there are some rare glimpses of the characters and crew in colour, in still photographs taken on location.

What’s next? Myself, I’d love to see the two Yeti stories restored (also Patrick Troughton episodes). They are among my earliest TV memories. The BBC have the 'photo-novels' and all the audio recordings...

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SWING GIRLS (2004) Japanese feel-good comedy

SWING GIRLS (2004, Japan, IMDB: Shinobu Yaguchi)
Thai PAL region 3 DVD (AG Entertainment)

I'll swing for you...

I don’t make a habit of seeking out feel-good comedies, but I try out Japanese and Korean ones because they still feel more different and original. For the record, I haven't seen a good Thai comedy yet - the ones I've seen are like bad seventies Benny Hill sketches.

Swing Girls is charming, carefully crafted and well observed. It’s funny, but not subtle, but not crude either.

Imagine a film made in the west where a guy forms a band that’s just made up of schoolgirls and there NOT being any jokes about sex. I sometimes worry that the teenage characters in Japanese films aren’t portrayed as being interested in sex (anyone who is is called a "pervert"), and they only ever build up to talking about romantic involvements – and nothing more.

I’m guessing that this is what Japanese society wants teenagers to think about, rather than what they actually do think about. It’s very rare for Japanese films to portray teenagers having sex or sexual problems - I can only think of All About Lily Chou Chou as a recent example - it was a brutally honest and rather bleak look at loneliness and the extremes of bullying. Am I over-generalising about the Japanese? I tend to generalise too much, generally speaking.

I digress, Swing Girls is a character-based comedy with an easy to understand humour and a keen eye for sight gags.

The plot is very slight – a group of underachievers have to understudy the school brass band but end up forming a ‘big band sound’ jazz act. The motivation in the middle act is a little foggy, as I wondered why the girls were working so hard to keep the band together when they were no longer being forced to. But the story finds its way again storming towards a predictable but enjoyable climax.

Many of the gags defy logic, for example the band often reacts as a group, rather than as a group of individuals. But this provides a successful and visual string of sight gags.

The film is beautifully observed and photographed, peaking with an innovative, unexpected, visually elegant scene where the gang get attacked by a large wild boar!

Obviously, the soundtrack is filled with uplifting big band swing music, which is presented as a rare innovation that the kids introduce to the old fuddy-duddies, who are hooked on boring school band tempos.

Non-threatening Waterboys (the Hong Kong DVD)

This isn’t an original premise of course, mostly a female twist on Waterboys (2001), also written and directed by Shinobu Yaguchi. The recent hit comedy, about an all-male synchronised swimming team, also spawned a Waterboys series on the Fuji TV network.

Again the theme was that anyone can achieve any goal if they work really hard, despite facing an impossible deadline. Sounds very much like the Japanese salaryman work ethic to me.

Like Waterboys, Swing Girls also stars Naoto Takenaka as the teacher who turns them around – probably the only recognisable face in the film, he seems to specialise in very physical performances, such as in the fantasy films Hiruko the Goblin (1990), Sakuya - Slayer of Demons (2000), and the recent Yokai Monsters.

Unusually, the Japanese DVD has English subtitles – this seem to be more likely on dramas and comedies, but as usual it’s quite expensive compared to other countries. The Hong Kong DVD has English subs, and the Thai DVD which I watched (cover art at top) had very good, well-translated subs which seemed to capture most of the humour in the dialogue.

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December 12, 2006

TOWER OF EVIL (1972) - an early slasher

(UK, 1972)


Updated December 2013 - now on blu-ray

An expedition sets out to discover the island’s secrets, to find the killer and look for old gold. The team includes two couples involved in a love quadrangle, even more complex than the usual love triangle. They are in for a night of more bloody mayhem and sexual shenanigans.

There are red herrings, blood-lettings, bouts of madness, explicit sex, and the extended use of fast-cutting, with subliminal shocks, accompanied by a woman screaming. If you want to put an audience on edge, make them listen to screaming for a whole minute – it’s nerve shredding. The subliminals interestingly flash forwards as well as back in the story.

Mixing Hollywood haunted house films, with the seventies slasher cycle about to happen in the US.

At the time, Tower of Evil pushes the boat by challenging the censor with as much nudity, sex and violence as possible. Pre-empting slashers with its ‘have sex and die’ and 'smoke pot and die' slasher ruels. It also reminded me of a european giallo - maximising bloody slaughter, nudity and love-making as far as possible. Unlike a giallo, Tower of Evil is without any overt style in either cinematography or fashion!

Tower of Evil is fast-paced entertainment, sincere performances leavened by scathing sarcasm and fruity language. The shocks alternate with many cheesy moments that undermine the grisly atmosphere.

I still can’t forget the laughs in the audience when I saw this supporting Death Race 2000 in 1976. A fake head rolls down some fake stone stairs, only to be capped with a shot of the actress’ head poking through the floor of the set – a stupidly obvious effect that was stupidly still considered a good idea to be used in Alien (which also got laughs when I first saw it in London in 1979).

The aforementioned decapitation effect has an impressive start though. Before the head rolls down the stairs, there’s a wide shot of the body of a naked girl, found with her head turned backwards. As someone touches the head, it parts from the body, leaving a headless corpse. This is either a superb fake body, or the actress’ head has been painfully bent back and hidden beneath the floor of the set, pre-empting the similarly stunning effect that Tom Savini used on a mortuary slab zombie in Day of the Dead (1985).

The story tries its best to confound the audience until the very last moment. The film delivers from the very start, as two fishermen arrive on the island to discover the aftermath of a massacre. Already we are hit with several shocks, mutilation, murder and frantic nudity.

A survivor is taken back to a strange white room for a very unorthodox interrogation, involving regressive hypnosis induced by disco lights and injections of prescription drugs. This is presented as being OK if the police use them. The white room and flashing coloured lights is similar to the hypnosis machine from The Sorcerers.

The island and lighthouse are admittedly stage-bound, but the large sets are impressive. Again, if this was made in Europe, the setting might have been more stylised, but here the idea is to aim for visual realism. This is partly undermined by overconfidence in optical effects. The boat that brings them to the island shows off back-projection at it’s worst, and the opening foggy lighthouse is a brazen model, but other effects prove to be far more successful and even mystifying.

The contemporary use of skin-tight flared jeans leave little to the imagination – and that’s just the men. The extended nude scenes show off topless jiggly women as well as fit young manflesh, a relative rarity in the genre. Full rear nudity courtesy of John Hamill, also one of the divers in the opening scene of Trog, which also starts off with an half-naked hunk-fest. One nude sex scene in Tower of Evil is all the more explicit because of the complete lack of bedclothes. Halloween, this is not.

Tower of Evil has a cast of British horror part-timers. Most have done one or two horrors but none could be considered regulars. Jill Haworth (Haunted House of Horror, It!, The Mutations), and Bryant Haliday had brief stabs as horror icons (The Devil Doll and The Projected Man). There's familiar support from Jack Watson as the boatman, who appeared as a vengeful ghost himself in From Beyond the Grave, but usually played stalwart police and army men. Dapper Anthony Valentine played many villainous smoothies, here plays a police interrogator – his other main horror role was in Hammer’s last horror To The Devil a Daughter, though he also proved how vicious he could be in Performance.

Two faces hard to take seriously in this, because they usually played comedy, are Robin Askwith, who later made his name in the bawdy sex comedy series that started with Confessions of a Window cleaner, and Derek Fowlds, already known as the straight man to the TV glove puppet funny fox Basil Brush, and later became Nigel Hawthorne’s sidekick in the long-running parliamentary sitcom Yes, Minister.

Director Jim O’ Connolly certainly makes a great effort to lift this above the cliches. It improves on his earlier horrors Berserk! (1967) and a low budget favourite of mine The Night Caller. Connolly also wrote the screenplay for Tower of Evil (based on a George Baxt novel). Connolly may be best known as the director of 'cowboy vs dinosaur' epic Valley of Gwangi - one of Ray Harryhausen’s classic special effects films.

The region 1 DVD from elite Entertainment is well restored, taken from colourful sources that don’t look their age – but it’s quite an old DVD and was presented 1.85 widescreen, non-anamorphic. The letterbox crops off some nudity and feels too severe compared to the 4:3 VHS that I’ve become used to over the years. Though even in the cinema, I remember the boat scenes being unconvincing because we could see how far out of the water the boat was, without any waves being seen, so it probably looks more convincing with the image cropped.

Candace Glendenning on the cover of the UK DVD

This is the only UK DVD release so far, from Simply Media.

Scorpion Entertainment released this blu-ray in 2013, remastered from the original inter-positive. The picture appears a little scratchy at the start, but thankfully clears up. The first reel also sounded quiet and a little dull, but again, soon improves.

The extras are only two battered trailers, from the UK and US release - the latter as Horror on Snape Island. But I'm thankful that it's on blu and finally 16:9 anamorphic widescreen (Amazon incorrectly list it as 1.33 aspect).

December 09, 2006

The George Lucas EWOK Trilogy – why?

Ewok double bill out on DVD. Why?

Sometimes filmmakers I respect, filmmakers who produced films I will always cherish, make something so jaw-droppingly awful, that the very mention of it’s existence only gets looks of disbelief.

To quote a Star Wars fan commenting on IMDB, “anything Star Wars is the best”. I must disagree.

This is to throw some light on corners of the Star Wars Universe that are almost so bad they're good. But not quite. They're bad.

Keeping a nominal score, let’s watch as the scales tip over into more bad Star Wars movies than good. 2-6. If you liked Revenge of the Sith, that’s still 3-5.

For me the Star Wars saga was great until the Ewoks turned up. Loved Star Wars (as it used to be called), loved The Empire Strikes Back. Then Return of the Jedi introduced the Ewoks, who saved the day and ruined mine. I even hoped that the Special Edition of Jedi would rectify the matter and realistically portray Ewoks as cannon fodder for Stormtrooper weaponry. But no.

After Return of the Jedi, George Lucas planned the next episodes in the Star Wars universe – did he write the third trilogy? – the first trilogy?

(Wait a minute! What a great idea. Let’s make an Ewok adventure. No. Let’s make two Ewok adventures! I’ve still got the suits. And a warehouse full of unsold Ewok merchandise left over from Jedi. Call up ILM!)

When Star Wars is already child-friendly, why spend so much effort aiming additional films at five year olds? Get them while they’re young?

Now I know these were made for TV in the US, but in Europe and the rest of the world, we were sold these as movies, with lavish looking movie posters, and movie ticket prices. That makes these Star Wars movies.


Made back when hang gliders were cool! (Gotta have a hang glider in the movie. They’re cool right?) In the seventies they were cool. If it wasn’t for all the twigs on the forest floor, we might have had little wooden Ewok skateboards too.

A family crashland on Endor (we don’t see the crash), and two children are discovered and cared for by the local Ewoks – a sort of Tarzan and the Teddy Bears. The parents have been kidnapped.

The grunting Ewok language doesn’t communicate to the audience what the hell is going on in the early scenes (much like the endless wookie ‘dialogue’ in the infamous TV Star Wars Christmas Special, which is slightly more watchable). A tired voiceover is provided by Burl Ives to tell us what the Ewok actors are emoting, trapped behind masks that only have jaw movement.

There’s a little blonde girl, with a mop-top of ringlets and an Olivia Newton John sweatband, to remind us of Earth in the eighties. Her brother is an angry young Skywalker substitute in a familiar orange flightsuit. They are looking for their parents. That’s the plot.

Like other Star Wars films, there are the familiar spot wipes and cross wipes from scene to scene. There are the treehouses of the Ewok village. There’s lead Ewok, Wicket, again played by Warwick Davies. The family starcruiser looks like a spaceworthy version of a snowspeeder, but not much bigger. There’s laser rifles, though again they’re not as deadly as throwing rocks or spears.

Unlike Star Wars, there's magic (magic sticks, magic pebbles, magic fairies, an enchanted forest), and lots of (cheap to film) Earth animals like horses and chickens… not very exotic. Perhaps they are special space chickens.

Don’t get me wrong. I like teddy bears. I just don’t like them running around doing cute things in forests. I also like to suspend my disbelief. But I have limits.

My definition of a caravan constitutes a long line of camels, not 3 ponies and a horse. Taking on a giant, (well, tall) monster with 3 ponies and a magic stick, does not constitute a Star Wars adventure.

ILM provide some reasonably executed but uninspired matte paintings and some truly atrocious creatures, realised by using hand puppets or very primitive stop-motion animation that hasn’t looked this bad since silent movies.

A ridiculous model spider gets a lot of screen time and big close-ups, but shouldn’t have had either. Anyone who ever complained about fake-looking spiders in anything else should really watch this and vote it the worst. I’ve seen fifties B-movies with better looking fake giant spiders (check out Missile to the Moon).

The only standout special effect is the dancing lights provided by a cloud of tinkerbell-type fairies. Of course, they push this too far and for too long, ending up with a huge close up of what looks like an animation from a 19th century zoetrope, endlessly cycled through three poses.

The acting shouldn’t go without a quick mention. (Don’t act the lines, just repeat them, “We need more medicine,” for emphasis. Repeat “I miss Mommy and Daddy”...)



Similar to the especially cruel opening of Alien 3, writer George Lucas then kills off the moppet’s entire family before they get a chance to escape Endor. You spend the whole of the first film reuniting the family, then you kill them off - nice. Now you’ve made the little girl cry. Happy now, George?

The lower budget whittles down most Ewok activity down to one Ewok, Wicket again, now talking cute English so that a narrator is no longer needed.

There’s an evil witch, who can turn into a crow. Well it’s Sian Phillips in an Elvira wig. There are evil child-catchers, in an evil castle. The story could easily be a limp rehearsal for Willow, but with pantomime acting.

A brave band of heroes needs to break into the castle and free the captured Ewoks. But instead of Val Kilmer and some pixies, we get an old man, a moppet, an ugly muppet and Wicket.

Wicket has oversized gappy buck teeth that don’t warrant the many close-ups he gets. He looks uncannily like my old boss who used to wear food in his beard after lunch. The memories still make me nauseous. Perhaps I’m not Ewok-phobic after all, it’s just flashbacks of the boss.

The blonde moppet from the first film gets most of the screen time, but can't act for toffee – she’s gained even more cuter blond ringlets since the first film, and seems to be inspired by the same genius who thought toddler beauty pageants and Shirley Temple films are a good thing. Great for parents watching home movies of their own children, great for inspiring involuntary stomach-clenching in the rest of us.

Across the board, the acting is like a school play – George presumably liked the idea of using a non-acting blond kid and saved it for The Phantom Menace.

Excitement drips off the screen with child-friendly stunt scenes. (Can you fall off this log into this pile of leaves?)

There’s a very, very ugly muppet with buck teeth, who gets lots of close ups. He also looks like my old boss.

(A little girl surrounded by ugly muppets? I’ll save that idea and use it for Labyrinth.)

All the action is underscored by endless jolly music. Jolly flute music, see moppet dance. Hear moppet sing a nursery rhyme. If you hadn’t killed off the little girl’s entire family, you wouldn’t need to try and cheer us up again, George.

There’s lots of cuddling scenes, Ewoks and the old man she finds in the forest. Buckets of sloppy sentiment, cuteness, cuddling and lots of scenes of being tucked up in bed.

But remember, authentic Star Wars stories written by George Lucas, produced by Lucasfilms, with special effects by Industrial Light and Magic.

Why not write a movie like Bounty Hunters of the Empire?
Han Solo – The Early Years?
Princess Leia’s Secret Diaries?

No. Ewok adventures.

Including Return of the Jedi, these make up Lucas' epic Ewok trilogy. But please, no more…
What? Ewok cartoons? Also on DVD? Nooooooooo…

Once again. Why?

Now I’ve raked it all up, don’t get me started on Captain Eo, another space fantasy based on a George Lucas story. (No, Angelica, evil acting is like this… twiddle your fingers like claws… closer to the face… that’s it!) and it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola…


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December 08, 2006

MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003) from the director of THE HOST

(South Korea, 2003, IMDB entry Salinui chueok)
Region 3 NTSC DVD (CJ Entertainment)

I’m bored by police-procedurals. We’re shown a crime, now let’s watch the police solve it. These dramas are usually so cliché-ridden, and full of red herrings. Writers seem to be bored with trying to intelligently perplex the viewer, resorting instead to cinematic cheats (not showing you all the clues), or outrageously plotted cheats that you could never guess. Or they’re too simple and I guess it right away. I’ve lost patience over the years. So now, I avoid movies and TV in this genre. There’s an awful lot of it to avoid.

I didn’t know quite what sort of film Memories of Murder was going to be, I was half expecting a psycho-on-the-loose thriller. I wanted to watch it because I’d already seen the director’s next film, The Host (2006). Having enjoyed that so much, I had my hopes pretty high. I didn’t know I was getting a police-procedural movie. I also didn’t know I was going to enjoy it so much.

Whether it was because of the unusual locations, but this movie felt worlds apart from the usual murder mystery. Besides enjoying the story, I was learning about the quirks of living in South Korea in the mid 1980’s, when the country was under military rule, with the public enduring regularly staged curfews and air raid drills.

The main characters are members of the police force who are trying to catch a serial rapist who also murders his victims. Under-equipped and under-staffed, they try methods both fair and foul, and follow hunches that are both unlikely and even unscientific.

I was wrong-footed by the opening subtitles – many thrillers and horror films open by saying that ‘the following story is based on a true story’. Opening statements in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Picnic At Hanging Rock duped me into thinking the stories actually happened, which makes watching the films almost mind-blowing. When I found out that it was just a dramatic ploy, it’s both relief (for the victims) and a realisation that I’ve been duped. Rather than be duped again, I chose to ignore the opening statements, and assumed it was pure fiction.

But this film actually is based on a true case, back when the country suffered it’s first ever serial killer. Director Joon-Ho Bong studied the case carefully and wanted to tell the story from the police’s angle. And as we’ve seen from The Host, he doesn’t like Hollywood endings…

Despite Memories of Murder only being his second film, this is remarkably assured film-making. Confident character-driven story-telling, immaculately photographed, very visual narrative, very beautiful to watch. The grim subject is leavened with black humour, and by the bizarre behaviour of the increasingly desperate detectives.

The acting is uncanny. I’ve seen some of these actors before, but they convincingly become their characters, drawing me completely into the story. Several actors also star in The Host, notably Kang-Ho Song and Hie-bong Park, here playing cop and boss, rather than father and son. Sang-kyung Kim plays the other lead detective, brought in from the capital to help the country cops.

It’s an enthralling and impressive film. Sometimes grim and tragic, but always gripping. Now that I know it actually was a real case, watching it again is going to be even more harrowing. But obviously I’d like to know more about the actual events. But this isn’t information that’s easy to find in English.

The Hong Kong DVD was anamorphic widescreen with 5.1 audio. But the extras weren't subtitled in English, which is a great pity - I'd love to know what was said in the director's commentary... The film is also available on DVD in the UK and the US.

I'm sure as more audiences discover The Host, they'll hopefully be tempted to go back to this film. Anyway, in the meantime, I’ll go back even further and seek out the director's first film, Barking Dogs Don’t Bite, apparently a black comedy…

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December 07, 2006

GODZILLA vs DESTOROYAH (1995) more new Godzilla DVDs


Region 3 Hong Kong NTSC DVDs (Universe Video)

Godzilla vs the blog monster

After the long inital run of Godzilla movies ground to a halt in 1975 while aiming increasingly for the kiddie market, a more adult, action-based breed Godzilla was tried for the comeback in 1984. This cycle lasted until the character was practically killed off in 1995 to make way for America's flawed remake in 1998. The 1984-1995 Godzillas were very difficult to see, emerging as a mish-mash of english-dubbed VHS, VideoCDs and laserdiscs.

Universe Video in Hong Kong are making available these pre-DVD era movies with six new DVDs. These are the first home video releases with the original Japanese audio, as well as english subtitles. They are all presented in the original widescreen.

Having already released The Return of Godzilla (1984) and Godzilla vs Biollante (1989), Universe Video's Hong Kong DVDs should fill a considerable gap in G-fans' collections. These are not definitive releases though, as you'll see below, but they are still very welcome. I'll remind you that the missing film from this era is Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II (1993) - the best release is the region 1 NTSC DVD. (For the full list of Godzilla moves, see my updated checklist.)

These next four films are also available on Sony Pictures/Columbia Tristar region 1 DVDs, in two double-bills with English audio only. Some viewers may prefer this, but I'll warn you that the Godzilla vs King Ghidorah and Godzilla vs Mothra have been brutally cropped from 1.85 to a very tight 1.33 pan and scan fullscreen. While the Godzilla vs Space Godzilla and Godzilla vs Destoroyah set is widescreen anamorphic.

Here are the four new Universe Video releases...

is presented letterboxed widescreen (not anamorphic).

Remember that this isn't a great film to introduce your friends to Godzilla. King Ghidorah is a great monster and the fight scenes around Shinjuku are spectacular, but the human plot is a nutty, low-rent Terminator 2 riff, with ginger megalomaniacs in a UFO from the future playing around with Godzilla's origins by using time travel and teleportation!

There's a cyborg trying to do Terminator stunts but using Bionic Man special effects, and some stupid-looking Dorats (imagine Care Bears crossbred with rattle snakes). This is offset by good footage of real tanks and real fighter jets (rather than the usual models). The cityscape modelwork and explosions are all exciting enough, it's the optical animation effects (light rays and time travel effects) that look dated.

is presented anamorphic widescreen.

is also letterboxed (not anamorphic).

The return of the son of Godzilla.

is anamorphic widescreen.

The Japanese cut slightly differs from the American release. Several scenes are moved around, especially at the beginning. Also, the US version left off the end montage sequence (under the Japanese end credits) which was a wonderful round up of classic Godzilla moments. These Hong Kong releases are also a way of getting a copy of the original Japanese prints, with original title sequences intact.

These new Universe releases all have Japanese stereo audio, even when the box art says mono. The English subtitles are well-translated, but annoyingly share the screen with traditional Chinese subtitles. But this isn't as obtrusive as it sounds and I didn't find it distracting.

The picture quality looks a little soft in places and could certainly be improved in the future - I don't think these are digitally remastered versions. But for the exceedingly reasonably prices, this is a good way to enjoy these rare titles.

If you register with HK Flix, you can scrutizize the cover art and back cover scans online. It's the site where I bought all these discs.

I've done a Massive Update on my Godzilla Checklist.
You can always check back to my
Godzilla DVD checklist, whilst pursuing your own perfect Godzilla movie collection this side of Japan! While it's an older entry on this blog, I keep it updated without changing the address, so that you can keep it bookmarked in your favourites.

Looking through the list again, it reminds me that many releases still aren't anamorphic widescreen, or on DVD at all! Only in Japan are all the films owned by one studio, Toho. Everywhere else, the series will continue to get released piecemeal, and will never be consistently presented.

Next update, I'll try and add small scans of DVD artwork of the releases worth chasing.

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THE FOG (1980) old cult titles on HD-DVD

THE FOG (USA, 1980)
Available from France on HD-DVD (Studio Canal)
Good to see that among the mixed bag of movies fresh from the cinemas, there are some interesting older titles being released on the new HD-DVD format.

For several years, most films have been digitally mastered onto High Definition master tapes. These masters were used to make the regular 'standard definition' DVD releases. But now, HD-DVDs can use the same master tapes without the need for remastering. This should instantly give movie studios a very wide choice of potential HD releases.

The increased storage capacity of the HD-DVD format means that it can now hold the same sized pictures as HDTV, 1080 picture lines, and full-width 1920 pixels per line (without having to squeeze the picture anamorphically). Uncompressed audio tracks are now also a possibility, dependent on how many different audio tracks and supplement material is also being stored on the same disc.

I think the increased quality of the image is of most benefit to anyone with a very large screen. I'm not sure there'll be a noticeable difference on a standard sized TV, widescreen or not.

John Carpenter's The Fog (1980) is an upcoming release on HD-DVD, presumably to 'complement' the recent remake. The picture quality is suitably impressive, and is especially necessary for a film shot in the 2.35 widescreen format - though it seems to have been slightly cropped at the sides, down to something resembling a ratio of 1:2.0. Hopefully in the future, when everyone's TVs are bigger, 2.35 aspected movies will actually be released in full width 2.35!

As an example of older titles to be released by Studio Canal, my only gripe is that there are absolutely no extras, meaning that I'll have to hang onto my old DVDs because they have all the extras on! Most supplemental features on HD DVDs seem to be included at standard definition, and shouldn't take up much space. It's always a trade-off between extras, picture quality, and a wide variety of alternate audio tracks, all vying for storage capacity on each disc.

Still, I'll be looking forward to David Lynch's The Elephant Man and the 1976 version of King Kong, from the same range, which are also both 2.35 widescreen films. These discs are designed to be released in several different language territories and are not regionally coded like standard DVDs.

Do you want to know more?
Full audio specs and more details about The Fog and The Elephant Man from Xploited Cinema website.

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December 01, 2006

Finally on DVD: ARABESQUE (1966) sixties spy chic

(1966, USA)

Back when all action films had helicopter chase scenes
I got very used to watching this on Saturday Night at the Movies on TV in the seventies. It's a lively Hitchcockian riff - an innocent man finds himself in the middle of an undercover spy feud.

Rather, this is filmed like Hitchcock informed by psychedelic cinema, which means that the camera shoots through spectacles and glass tables, and looks in mirrors wherever possible. Hitch himself would do this for a reason - to emphasise drama or psychological states – rather than simply messing around with the image. But hey, style over substance is exactly what this piece of fluff deserves. It's a big summer action spy movie - big stars, big stunts.

One chase scene goes as far as to paraphrase the cropduster scene from North by Northwest, (for some reason a Holy Grail of action cinema for many years). It also predates a scene from Michael Ritchie's Prime Cut (1972) where very similar farm machinery is also used to menace Lee Marvin and a young Sissy Spacek as they get cornered in a cornfield.

Highlights include an night-time fight staged behind the scenes in London Zoo, there's snooping and sniping at Ascot horse races, and a horse and helicopter chase finale.

But the cast are the real reason to watch - Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in their prime. Loren exudes glamorous star quality every time she's onscreen. Both stars' witty performances compensate for the sometimes trite dialogue and the overly convoluted plot. As in Modesty Blaise, the startling designer costumes still look striking today.
Alan Badel plays a suitably sinister baddie, hiding behind a pair of severe sunglasses, though he only just manages to convince us that he's at all interested in Loren sexually. He played another ambivalent character as a schoolteacher trying to control the Children of the Damned.

His faithful henchman is played by John Merivale, the star of Italian monster movie Caltiki the Immortal Monster. There's some interesting trivia on this British actor over on IMDB - with a story of his relationship with Vivien Leigh after her divorce from Laurence Olivier. I'm surprised that this is listed as his last film role.

Kieron Moore is the only sore thumb in the cast, who fails to convince us why on earth he's talking like a beatnik, daddi-o. Moore's fierce acting style was in demand in lower-budget movies at the time. He had leading parts in Crack in the World, Doctor Blood's Coffin and Day of the Triffids.

The Arabic Prime Minister that everyone is trying to assassinate is played by German actor Carl Duering - though for decades I have watched this thinking it was Donald Pleasence! It looks just like him.

Director Stanley Donen made his name with classic fifties musicals Singing in the Rain and On the Town, but my favourites of his are Arabesque and the original Bedazzled. In both films he successfully captured the sixties London vibe.

The master of James Bond title sequences, Maurice Binder, designed the opening credits, using vivid colours and electronic video feedback. Wild!

So, if you can get past all the Arabs being played by European actors wearing tan make-up, Kieron Moore’s daft dialogue and a couple of unnecessarily violent murders, this could be for you. Don’t bother trying to follow the plot, or work out which double-agents are working for who - it’ll make your head hurt. Just enjoy the company, the fashion and the ride.

For the first time on DVD, the 2.35 widescreen cinematography looks splendid, (presented anamorphically) and the crisp mono soundtrack showcases Henry Mancini's lush, catchy soundtrack, which is also available on CD.

November 26, 2006

THE GRUDGE (2004) Extended Director's Cut comparison

THE GRUDGE (2004, US) Extended Director's Cut
Region 2 PAL DVD (Universal)

Another Grudge DVD - bring it on!

I've been reviewing the Japanese Ju-on and Grudge movies over the months and it's overkill to recap them all here for newcomers, so here's some links. I've previously made out
a list of the series and reviewed the first Ju-on films. There are also my reviews of the Japanese films called The Grudge and The Grudge 2 (number 3 is reportedly on the way). I was also very impressed by director Takashi Shimizu's Reincarnation recently.

Timed with the cinema release of the American remake of The Grudge 2, comes the DVD release of the cut of the first US Grudge that I always wanted to see. The ‘Extended Director’s Cut’ of The Grudge was originally only released to Japanese cinema audiences. Only now do the rest of us get to see it. This DVD also has a completely new batch of extras.

Bill Pullman is the third actor to play the teacher in this familiar scene from the series!

Sam Raimi’s production company bravely tried to do something different with this remake of a Japanese horror – instead of totally rewriting and recasting it, he hired the original Japanese director, some of the original cast and actually shot it in Japan. The main difference being to deliver an English language version with American stars. It helps that director Takashi Shimizu is an expert on US horror films, and reckoned he knew how to tweak his film towards a western audience.

On first seeing the US version in the cinema, I was immediately disappointed with the muted versions of the scare scenes that I’d enjoyed in the original Japanese films. The Grudge seemed to be a round up of the best bits, but not as scary. I jumped a few times because of the pumped-up volume of the soundtrack, but I wasn’t creeped out at all. Where was the ghastly croaking sound?

Crucially, new audiences to the story would have been pretty confused by the first scare scene with the huge computer-generated ‘hair swarm monster’, because it looks more like a monster than a ghost.

I was sad that Shimizu didn’t use the original house location any more ('the star' of the first four films), electing instead to rebuild a new slightly altered version entirely on a soundstage. The exterior shots of the house aren’t convincing enough.

I was also bemused that a Japanese director would choose to portray Tokyo as noisy, unfriendly, unhelpful, and with such overcast weather. Not my experience of the city at all.

The American cast were likeable and I enjoyed seeing the original Kayako and her husband being played by the same actors from all the previous Japanese versions. The Christopher Young soundtrack was suitably haunting. But it wasn’t a scary film, and didn’t add to The Grudge mythos, which had been growing with every film.

KaDee Strickland recreates the lift scene with the Toshios

Now I've had a chance to compare this US cut with the Japanese cut. There's a few interesting results. Apart from a few minor tweaks to some scenes, a line of dialogue here and there, these are the main extra scenes in the Director’s Cut that I noticed (fairly spoiler-free):

- there are extra shots in the first major special effects scene, to extend the shock value of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s first fright

- as Bill Pullman’s character and his family move into the house, his sister discovers a cat statue upstairs and some childish drawings in the cupboard

- Clea DuVall wakes up in the middle of the night and hears noises in the house

- Ted Raimi’s awful discovery on the staircase culminates in a longer, ghastlier effects shot

- Sarah Michelle Gellar has to plead with a disinterested Rosa Blasi, before she agrees to help

- the climactic flashbacks are much longer, more violent, and actually show, for the first time in any film, the original murders, explaining why Kayako crawls down the stairs and why she croaks… So many crucial scenes, I’m surprised it was cut so much

- finally, as the ambulance leaves the house, we get a flashback to Kayako, husband, son and cat moving in on their first day in the house – it’s a welcome change to see them together as a family and see her smiling for once!

So is the director aiming his scares at an American audience by using less explicit horror? Almost all the major scary set-pieces have been diluted. Was this to appease the censor, or to appeal to western audiences?

If you haven’t got The Grudge already, I’d fully recommend getting the director’s cut – it doesn’t pull its punches, and it makes more sense!

The DVD also has new extras, most importantly Shimizu’s two short films, 4444444444 and In A Corner, that first got him noticed – they also feature characters from The Grudge and can easily be considered part of the series – one is even back-referenced in the first ever Ju-on.

Other extras include video diaries – Sarah Michelle Gellar good-naturedly complaining about her long shooting days, and KaDee Strickland’s engaging and enthusiastic tour of Tokyo. There are also over thirty minutes of deleted scenes! These look good enough to have been part of the film – presumably a two-hour running time was once a possibility.

In other Grudge news, there is now a novel based on Shimizu's original stories. Written by Kei Ohishi, it's just been released in a translated paperback version.

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