July 29, 2006

ONE MISSED CALL - the TV Series (2005) on DVD

(TV, 2005, Japan, Chakushin Ari)

Malaysian region 3 NTSC DVD (released by DVD Version)
TV series - 10 x 47 mins episodes

Takashi Miike’s hugely enjoyable One Missed Call (2004) was a successful late entry in the Ring ‘genre’ of Japanese horror. Taking the familiar plot of a series of cursed mobile phone calls, triggered by a vengeful (long black-haired, crawling) female ghost, Miike demonstrated that there was still fun to be had.

As One Missed Call - Final, the third movie, is released in Japan, I thought I’d mention the TV series that’s now out on DVD.

As a TV thriller, this is less serious in tone than the similar
Ring: The Final Chapter series, in fact this is even more tongue-in-cheek than the One Missed Call movies – there’s a sort of Mulder and Scully pair of detectives, backed up by a posse of Lone Gunmen net detectives. The bloodless death scenes include homages to horror movie death scenes lifted from classics like The Omen and even Ju-on. But this is for TV and quite a low budget affair, so apart from the spectacular fire stunt in an early episode, the action relies mostly on editing and ingenuity rather than FX.

More of a detective series with dollops of horror, it also adds humour with the interplay between the regular cast. The ensemble players are charismatic and the main characters likeable.

The series works at a tangent to the mythos of the movies, but provides just enough drama and horror to entertain.

Again, if you haven’t seen Japanese TV drama before, the series doesn’t look as slick as, say, UK drama. The series was shot on video and much of the action takes place on location (meaning that fewer sets have to be built). The initial ‘feel’ is more like a regular soap, than a filmic drama.

The entire series is
out in Japan (without english subs) in a 5 DVD set called Chakushin Ari - the TV series.

It’s also available under the cheeky name “Ghost Ring” in a 3-dvd boxset in Malaysia (pictured). This has the original Japanese stereo, and decent optional English subtitles. The picture is 1.33 fullscreen but the compositions don’t look cramped (even though it was shot 16:9 widescreen). I got mine from ZoomMovie DVDs. (It's also still listed on HK Flix. 30/08/08)

July 27, 2006

LIVING SKELETON (1968) Japanese ghost ship madness

LIVING SKELETON (1968, Japan, originally titled Kyuketsu Dokuro Sen)
Region 2 NTSC Japanese DVD (Shochiku)

Delirious horror film from the writer of Goke Bodysnatcher from Hell

In the early seventies, there were only a few books about horror films. Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies didn’t analyse the genre, it simply tried to list the films. I studied and re-read the plot descriptions and memorised the many publicity photos. Subsequently, I’ve tried to see all the films. 30 years later, I’m still tracking them down.

A tip-off from the Classic Horror Film Board (full of guys who write today’s books about horror films) led me to this recent Japanese DVD release. A sixties horror that I read about in the seventies. But wouldn’t you just know it – the photo that made me want to see it (above) isn’t anywhere in the film – and it looked like it was really grabbing her too (grumble).

IMDB lists Living Skeleton (the US release title) as director Hiroshi Matsuno's only film! Tellingly, screenwriter Kyuzo Kobayashi also wrote Goke Bodysnatcher from Hell – another mix of social critique and shock value. From my armchair, I’d put my money on the writer for being the driving force behind the mad mix of genres.

It’s an occupational hazard for horror film reviewers to endure the repetition of sub-genres – this is a ghost ship movie. Most films in this genre are usually called Ghost Ship, or Death Ship. Living Skeleton avoided this trap rather cheekily, seeing as there isn’t a living skeleton in the film! We must blame the US for the misleading misnomer. The actual translation isn’t as catchy – something like Bloodsucking Skeleton Ship or Bloodsucking Pirates.

Most ghost ship movies stick boringly to the concept dictated by the title and have people trapped on a ship, with ghosts. Even the recent US Ghost Ship (2002) did that. Living Skeleton pre-empts that film by starting off with a massacre onboard, but chooses instead to take the story into unpredictable directions.

Obviously I won’t spoil it for you but, for instance, the ship manages to haunt people on the land – quite an achievement. There’s also a double dose of necrophilia, echoes of Psycho in one of the film’s best shock moments, dodgy model ship FX way before Horror of the Zombies (from the Blind Dead films) came up with an even less convincing model ship. There’s even a scene straight out of Alien! This film has everything! Did I mention it has a female ghost with long black hair? The soundtrack emulates doleful harmonicas from Sergio Leone westerns, and fuzzbox guitars out of Barbarella.

Oh, and we’re in the sixties, when mechanical bats on wires were still state-of-the-art. There’s lots of those. But they’re far better than Kiss of the Vampire.

The beautiful Kikko Matsuoka plays a dual role as Saiko and her murdered sister (and her ghost, I think). According to IMDB she played one of the pearl divers in You Only Live Twice!

If I spoiled the plot I could start listing similarities with the best ‘ghost ship’ story of them all, the original The Fog. I previously thought that John Carpenter's film was a rip of Horror of the Zombies, now I’m not so sure.

Anyhow, there’s also some spooky underwater scenes with skeletons, all quite surreal, and these show off the 2.35 black and white photography the best. Elsewhere, many of the camera compositions look so cramped, I’d swear they were framing it to look good on TV. But, even in black and white, the film manages to be pretty gory.

A brisk pace, shocks, gore, nudity, mechanical bats and a plot you’ll never guess. This ghost ship outruns many of its successors in entertainment value. Now if only there were English subtitles…

This recent DVD release uses misleading cover art (pictured) that looks like a modern ghost story – if they slapped some original publicity stills on the cover, I’m sure they’d shift more copies. It looks and sounds very good - a 2.35 widescreen anamorphic picture, optional mono or 5.1 audio. The film has obviously been lovingly restored, gore and all. Pity there’s no trailer. There is an interview with actor Okada Masumi (who plays the priest). Filmed in 2003, I’m sorry to say that he recently passed away after a long career in film and TV, Takeshi Kitano’s Izo being one of his last appearances.

The back catalogue of Japanese horror fantasy has barely been plundered in the west – and it looks like we’re missing out. Matango Fungus of Terror and Goke Bodysnatcher from Hell are a very good start, but let’s not forget monochome movies. I’d happily trade this B/W gem for the entire Lake of Dracula trilogy, for instance.

July 26, 2006

DAMEKKO DOUBUTSU (2005) Useless Animals - nutty anime

(2005, TV anime, Japan, "Useless Animals")
26 x 5 minute episodes

A strange, slapstick series of very short stories with a catchy theme tune.

These tales are simple, but I'm still fathoming out the premise! "Useless Animals" are people dressed as animals living in the forest, I think. Also I'm not sure whether they are adults or children. Sometimes they have grown-up, realistic faces, sometimes child-like. Each character is a different animal - there's a wolf who loves an accident-prone leopard. There's a grumpy chain-smoking rabbit, a short-sighted owl, and two brothers - a strange, effete unicorn and a shy "pegasus" (a flying horse).

They all think that they're animals, but walk around like people in costumes. As usual, part of the fun is figuring out what's going on, but the stories are concerned with how they all get along. The especially useless wolf usually tries to chat up the leopard, fails, and exhausts the patience of the rabbit. He then gets kicked over the horizon - in one spectacularly animated shot, we see his point of view as he flies a high arc over the forest!

Original, funny and infectious. Whatever next?

Episode one is on YouTube with English subtitles.

MYLENE FARMER goes anime

I was astonished to see Mylene Farmer's new promo for Peut-Etre Toi - she's teamed up with Japan's Production I.G for a 4-minute Ghost-in-the-Shell-type mini-adventure. Mylene is portrayed as an animated heroine, battling her way through a scenario that crosses Blood+ with Innocence.

One of my favourite singers, one of my favourite animation houses -working together! I'd forgotten just how crazy the French are about anime.

You can see the entire promo here on YouTube. (Thanks to Twitch for the mini tip-off).

Also, there's loads of beautiful screengrabs here - on a French fansite called 'Ettocdemac'.

The track is off her latest album Avant Que l'Ombre ... I was lucky enough to see her perform it in concert in January. There are camcorder clips from the concert also on YouTube, but the entire concert was filmed for a DVD being released in December.

July 23, 2006

SPEED GRAPHER (2005) Debauched violent anime fun

SPEED GRAPHER (2005, Japan TV)
24 x 25 minute episodes
A Gonzo Production

Highly recommended mutant thriller anime

With Duran Duran's "Girls on Film" as its theme tune, we're immediately plunged back into the atmosphere of the excesses of the eighties, (even though the story is set in the near future).

Opening with an orgiastic scenario out of Eyes Wide Shut, freelance photographer Saiga infiltrates a secret club for super-rich V.I.P.s, and discovers everything is for sale - sex, pain and your darkest fantasies made real. By accident he discovers the secret of 'the Goddess' and then things really kick off...

Kinky, blood-spattered, debauched - with a fast-paced story and some killer characters (you won't see many female detectives dressed like Ginza), this has very original action scenes and a wicked sense of humour - fun!

There's not many anime with regular gay characters in (albeit eighties stereotypes) or fight scenes with drag queens. There's also not many series that run to 24 episodes without any padding - but Speed Grapher rips along, it always seems to be moving, plot-twisting, or fighting.

The imaginative and genuinely scary, genetically self-mutated assassins in Speed Grapher make the X-Men look like Dennis the Menace. Imagine if your dentist turned into a giant spider-thing and each of his legs had a drill built into each foot..

Animation house Gonzo makes the future look sexy and the baddies look demonic, and it's in widescreen too. Can't wait to see their upcoming adaption of the classic Dario Argento horror film Suspiria...

More Speed Grapher screengrabs and a heap of spoilers at Memento, here.

Here's the Japanese SPEED GRAPHER title sequence on YouTube, with the Girls on Film music (which will apparently not be used on the western DVD releases), and without the title captions...

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Finally on DVD: ANTARCTICA (1983) with english subs

Finally on DVD:
ANTARCTICA (1983, Japan)
HK region 3 NTSC DVD (CN Entertainment)

Out of the blue, I was surprised to discover this DVD was out now in Hong Kong. It's 16:9 anamorphic widescreen with a DTS 5.1 soundtrack. The main drawback is that the english subtitles aren't perfectly subtitled - the translations are a little stilted, and worse still they share the screen with chinese subtitles too - you can't select english subs only, despite there being two other chinese subtitle options! But until this gets a release in the west, this is the best DVD version out there.

I'd been impressed by the film, for the harrowing cinematography and fantastic score by Vangelis (the year after his magnificent Blade Runner soundtrack).

I reviewed Antarctica (off a dubbed US VHS release) a few months ago and wasn't expecting a DVD release with subtitles anytime soon - see review here.

July 19, 2006

New CHIAKI KURIYAMA DVD - Kindaichi TV Movie with subs

THE FILES OF KINDAICHI (TV movie, 2006, Japan)
"Queen Bee" aka "Joubachi"
starring Goro Inagaki as Kousuke Kindaichi
and guest starring Chiaki Kuriyama
All Region Malaysian DVD - with English, Chinese and Malay subtitles

Had to spotlight this release, mainly because of the guest star. This is the first thing that I've seen Chiaki in since The Great Yokai War. It's a feature-length murder mystery made for TV, part of the ongoing series of light-hearted thrillers featuring fictional detective Kindaichi.

Set in post-war Japan, Joubachi features Chiaki as the title character, 'Queen Bee', a privileged young lady who occasionally flips out and brains her suitors with a biwa (a sort of lute). The period setting gives Chiaki a chance to wear an assortment of traditional period costumes, reminiscent of her outfits in the 1999 ghost movie Shikoku.

It's interesting to see what a big-budget Japanese drama looks like, but not nearly as big-budget as US television, so don't expect Lost. This is still a handsomely mounted and acted drama that occasionally tips towards psychological thriller, with Chiaki playing a central role.

Unlike the Japanese DVD, this Malaysian release has english subtitles, but they are really 'cracked' - like a bad automatic translator programme has been used. I suppose the subs give enough clues as to what's going on, but you need to concentrate, laterally. On the plus side this DVD release has the original Japanese audio and it's widescreen - shot for High Definition TV.

I got my copy from ZoomDvd.com, here's a link. Be careful which title you get though. All the releases in this series have the same photograph of Kindaichi on the cover (see top photo) and they don't mention which story it is in the text. So look at the details of the actors to work out which story is on the DVD.

If you want to know more about further murder cases of this fictional Japanese detective, I tried to list the various Kindaichi movie series in a recent entry, here.

July 16, 2006

DORM - Special Edition DVD - out now but no subs

(2006, Thailand, Dek Hor /"My School")

A reasonably-priced deluxe region 3, 2-disc DVD boxset (pictured) has just been released in Thailand. This is my favourite Thai film so far and I've raved about it here . Problem is that there's no English subtitles. Doh! So I'll just tell you what else is in this set - if it does get released in the west, it probably won't have all these extras.

There's a beautifully produced booklet and an extra DVD full of, um, extras. There's a dozen deleted or expanded scenes, a thorough making-of documentary, featurettes on the special FX, photo galleries, trailers, and the original soundtrack (that doesn't appear to have been released on CD). There's also TV coverage of what looks like a cast-and-crew preview with lots of interviews happening while the film clips play in the background - how disrespectful! "Here's my new film, let's talk through it".

I'd love to hear just how much of the film is based on actual events in writer/director Songyos Sugmakanan's (pictured on the left) own schooldays, but of course everyone's talking in Thai.
Best of the extras is the uncut six-minute pastiche of Mr Vampire. A specially-filmed homage that plays during the schoolboys' 'movie night' scene. It uses lookalike actors and recreates footage of the best gags from Ricky Lau's superb 1985 Hong Kong comedy horror.

Child star Charlie Trairat even has a pop video, though he doesn't seem to be too comfortable singing.

I got mine from eThaiCD.com.

UPDATE APRIL 9th 2007:Dorm is now out region 3 Hong Kong with a no-frills release but with anamorphic widescreen, 5.1 audio and decent English subtitles. It's coming soon for a region 1 USA release at the end of May 2007.


Yes, yes, it's overlong and hasn't got the non-stop pacing of the first film, but Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest still has much to offer. I hadn't read any reviews, just to avoid spoilers, but I've heard a lot of negative stuff. If you're a fan of dark fantasy adventure comedies, you're in for a treat.

Most of the characters are undead, the crew of the Flying Dutchman are also spectacularly mixed-up with underseas creatures, (like if Jeff Goldblum had accidentally taken an aquarium into his matter-transporter). There's hammerhead shark-man, hermit crab-man and best of all octopus-faced Bill Nighy. I wandered why I was seeing his photo everywhere (like the one above) - to understand it better you have to see it move. That's when the make-up becomes spectacular - a living beard made up of tentacles. I'm guessing it's an effect that uses physical prosthetic appliances, keeping the effects computer-aided, rather than computer-reliant.

Indeed, it's been a long time since I've been in a cinema and not thought "computer-generated". Despite the fact that there's impossible stunts and the best giant sea-monster ever, it never looks fakey - just spectacular.

I won't give a full review - there's plenty of them out there. I'll just say that I thought it was impressive, with an intricately funny script and a stream of original action scenes. Oh yes, and an almost totally British cast. Arrr!

July 15, 2006

SUKEBAN DEKA - THE MOVIE 2 - more schoolgirls, fewer yoyos

Region 1 DVD (Tokyo Shock)

A brief look at the second Schoolgirl Cop movie.

This film followed the third and final TV series. But with more characters and a more involved plot, this film is not nearly as much fun.

Having debuted in the first movie, 17 yr-old Yui (the Sukeban Deka III) shares this movie with her two older sisters, Yuka and Yuma. She is now working for a the Juvenile Security Bureau, a student police force tackling juvenile crime with vicious triple-bladed yoyos!

But Yui rebels against the heavy-handed tactics and quits the force. Teaming up with her sisters and a gang of young outcasts, she tries to prove that the bureau is corrupt - creating crimes to justify their own existence...

The overly complex and political plot doesn't sit well with the patently silly array of weapons our heroines have to use - Yui's sisters have only got knitting needles and a metal origami crane!

Also, there are fewer opportunities for hand-to-hand fighting - there's more cars, tanks, boats and even a blimp - but less time for karate and Yo-yo action! Because of the more complex stunts, the girls are obviously stunt-doubled too.

The fight scenes are also less convincing. The first has Yui leaping out of a river (how?) and diving single-handed into a fist fight with 6 henchmen.

The behind-the-scenes programme makes more sense of the set-up, when we learn that "the Kazama sisters" are a singing trio in real life, performing concerts between shooting days! We also see how they've done a very good job of making actresss Yui Asaka look so young.

The movie lacks much of the originality and simplicity of the first, more low-rent action, but fewer memorable characters.

Mark H

July 07, 2006

SUKEBAN DEKA - THE MOVIE (1987) deadly yoyo action on DVD

(1987, Japan)

Region 1 DVD (Tokyo Shock)

She's the Schoolgirl Special Agent with a deadly steel yoyo!

This is ridiculous, but an awful lot of fun.
I thought I was just going to watch a movie. Once again there was homework to be done. Sukeban Deka, according to Wikipedia, translates as something like “delinquent girl detective”.

I also didn’t realise Sukeban Deka was a franchise, rather than a pair of stand-alone movies…

Watching it, I felt that I was missing something, plotwise. All the characters seemed to know each other and I didn’t know why. There were flashbacks, too. That’s because this movie followed on from two TV series. Seeing as we’re unlikely to see the TV series, you’ll need to know this before the first film…

Sukeban Deka - The Backstory
What I needed to know before I started watching was... that the Japanese government were training delinquent schoolgirls to become special agents, giving them weapons disguised as stuff you’d find in a satchel (like yo-yos) and training them to fight (with sharpened fingernails or glass marbles). After a year (or a series) of hazardous missions, Sukeban Deka 2 has resigned and separated from her chums…

Sukeban Deka - The Plot
Asamiya Saki has forsaken her special agent status and has re-entered normal life. She accidentally bumps into a young man trying to escape some thugs and decides to help him. He’s escaped from Hell’s Castle (!), a madman headmaster, Hattori, is trying to brainwash young students into helping him stage a coup d’etat (shades of Yukio Mishima). She reforms the gang and asks her old boss for her weapon – the deadly steel yoyo. Taking on a helicopter gunship (with her yoyo) and teaming up with the newly-appointed Sukeban Deka 3, Saki and the Red Rangers have to storm Hell’s Castle to stop the villain. Luckily she’s been given the Ultimate Yoyo…

Sukeban Deka - The Review
A nutty set-up like this, playing like a low-budget remake of Enter the Dragon with schoolgirls, is nothing but fun all the way. You have to cheer when the heroine finally swaps her nasty cardigan for the schoolgirl uniform. You suspend your disbelief as the girls defeat armed guards with yoyos and marbles. You gasp when you see The Terminator so blatantly ripped off.

Released in 1987, it looks like it was made in the seventies. Grainy film stock, lots of location shooting, helicopter action, poor model work and a TV cast. The only thing that dates it is the electro eighties pop songs, also sung by the actress who plays Saki. The rest of the soundtrack is repetetive, catchy and over-the-top.

Toei studios made two films around the three TV series. Director Hideo Tanaka keeps the action moving along briskly, riding roughshod over logic, but getting the girls to look as convincing in action as possible. Yoko Minamino, as Saki, performs most of her stunts and does much of her own fighting (and yoyo work). She’s a real find and it’s no surprise to learn that she’s still working as an actress today.

The chief baddie, Hattori, is cleverly underplayed by Masato Ibu, who recently starred as the head Xillian in Godzilla Final Wars. He was also in Azumi and Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun!

Sukeban Deka - The DVDs
The two films are out in the US from Tokyo Shock. Sukeban Deka - The Movie (pictured above) also includes trailers and a marvellous behind-the-scenes TV programme that looks like it could have been made yesterday. The lead actress Yoko, is honest about her worries and stress about carrying a movie, and we see her bravely performing stunts as well as singing the theme tune!

Besides the sequel, there is also a 1994 OVA anime of Sukeban Deka, available on Region 1 DVD. The 3 TV series are all out in DVD boxsets in Japan, but without any English subtitles.

If you'd like to learn even more about the phenomenon that is Sukeban Deka, check out this superb fansite for screengrabs, guides and lots lots more...

But the latest news is that YoYo Girl Cop is the name of a new movie remake, in the pipeline for next year! Twitch Film have reported that this new adventure is on the way! Check the link out for more details, teasers and the new poster.

Not on DVD : THE MAXX - very dark US animated series

Not on DVD: MTV's THE MAXX (1996, TV, USA)

If you thought Batman was moody, wait till you meet Sara

Deeper and much, much darker than the series of Aeon Flux - this is the MTV animation that I most want to see on DVD. The exquisitely twisted story, the painfully real characters - it's essential, though morbid viewing...

Based on the comic's by David Kieth, the TV version of The Maxx only got so far in telling the story. But it still sort of stands on its own.

Julie is a freelance social worker with a history of abuse, but in Maxx's fantasy world she's his Jungle Queen. The Maxx is a masked musclebound hero in a purple skin-tight suit (looking like The Phantom with a massive overbite). He protects Julie in two parallel universes, one of which is a grimy, crime-soaked metropolis. Mr Gone is the villain of the piece, a bald bearded serial killer, who controls little lumpy eyeless creatures, called Isz.

Fathoming out the mysteries on both planes is rather challenging. Even after several viewings, I'm still not entirely straight on exactly what happened in each character's past. But the series is a dark place I like to revisit to work it out all over again. I'd suggest you try and stick with it before bailing out to read all the spoilers in websites like Wikipedia.

Besides providing humour, action and enjoyable disorientation, the series manages to visualise various aspects of mental illness in an inventive and entertaining way, no mean achievement! Julie seems to be in denial, Max is living on the streets and has problems remembering, Sara, a friend of Julie's, is accurately portrayed as extremely depressive, but still manages astute and humorous observations while engaging, but not seeking, our sympathy.

If I remember correctly, The Maxx went out on MTV in 10 minute episodes, many with cliffhanger endings. The VHS compilation (pictured above) presents the entire series without any breaks. But this means we miss out on the recaps and teasers from the original transmissions, which were narrated by Mr Gone and were valuable in providing extra hints and clues to the ongoing mysteries.

The Maxx mixes up bone-crunching superhero fights with psychological horror. It's unique in animation from the west, one of the few animated series firmly aimed at adults.

Here's a clip from THE MAXX on YouTube.

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THE QUIET FAMILY (1998) Korean black comedy on R2 DVD

THE QUIET FAMILY (1998, South Korea, titled Choyonghan Kajok)
Region 2 PAL DVD (Tai Seng)

The original "Katakuris" tale with a heavyweight cast

Not a full review here, but I just had to flag this movie as an 'instant favourite' from my growing list of Korean films, and it's available in the UK too. Great cast, familiar faces, cult director, but the film has been eclipsed by a Japanese remake by another cult director!

For all the critical fuss about The Happiness of the Katakuris, I wasn't impressed with it's low-budget, genre-busting shenanigans. I’m a Takashi Miike fan, but not of absolutely everything he takes on. Katakuris was a remake of this Korean film, The Quiet Family, which I enjoyed far more.

The set-up is roughly the same - a bankrupt family take on a backwoods guest house in the mountains (in this version it's near the border between North and South Korea).

Terrified of getting a bad reputation, the owners hide the fact that their first guests commit suicide on the premises. Desperate to protect their business, they'll bury their secrets and even resort to murder...

The Quiet Family like Katakuris, is a bloody black comedy that occasionally gets bizarre, there's even a little singing... But I found it more effectively shocking, and funnier.

Notably, it stars Min-sik Choi (Oldboy himself) and Kang-ho Song (Mr Vengeance himself) here convincingly playing the 21 yr old son. The two actors have been in most of the best Korean films in recent years, but here they play as part of an ensemble cast - the two daughters and the matriarch of the family are all equally strong characters.

The director Ji-woon Kim went on to make the classic A Bittersweet Life and A Tale of Two Sisters. So a growing audience should hopefully search back and find The Quiet Family.

The only downfall for me was the hurried ending which left too many plotlines unfinished, but it's still hugely enjoyable while it lasts.

Mark H