March 31, 2007


The region 3 DVD cover art

(2006, Hong Kong/China, IMDB: Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia)

Opening in UK cinemas on April 13th.
Out now on region 3 DVD in Hong Kong, and region 1 in the USA.
Coming to Blu-Ray HD at the end of May.

Recommended - a highly entertaining epic costume drama

In Phuket, an island off the west of Thailand, I went to see the new epic from Zhang Yimou, the director of House of the Flying Daggers and Hero. It was dubbed in Thai with English and Chinese subtitles.

The story begins as a high-powered drama, where all is not well between the Emperor of China, the Empress and their three sons. The Empress’ health is failing, but this doesn’t stop her from trying to continue a relationship with her son, who’s just returned from war.

As the implications of their secret relationship escalate, the royal house is thrown into full-scale battle, with itself.

The film begins by introducing us to the all the characters in the impeccably lush rainbow-coloured interior of the Emperor’s palace. After a relatively low-key start, the films first action scenes immediately impress.

I loved the black-clad warriors most of all, (with similar skills to Japanese ninja), whose weapons are flying scimitars on chains! Also used as grappling hooks, these silent killers can also anchor in the ground, allowing the warriors to attack from clifftops and sail down the chains on hollow bamboo grips.

But no one is as helpless as they appear. Every character seems to be an advanced master of martial arts. This may unintentionally amuse, as may some of the acting. As bad karma boomerangs on the baddies, emotions reach fever-pitch, but not too subtly. The exception here is Jay Chou who underplays as usual, showing little more range than his turn as the boy racer in Initial D – The Movie.

The legendary Chow Yun Fat is almost unrecognizable as the bearded Emperor. Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha) looks both regal and dangerous as the Empress, but overdoes the twitching. Liu Ye, as her illicit lover, ascends to levels of 'mad' acting not seen since Cary Elwes in Saw. The acting isn’t nearly as even as House of Flying Daggers, but here, I guess, the stakes are far higher…

The battle scenes between the factions eventually fill the immense courtyard of the Emperor’s Palace, turning it into a huge, bloody chessboard. Aided by a multitude of computer graphic warriors, the action is still exciting and plot-driven.

I can’t tell you just how much of the epic action had been faked because the print I saw (in Thailand) was quite soft, but I still think there are many scenes that have been done large-scale with a traditional cast of thousands. All dressed in highly ornate colour-coded suits of armour, it’s imaginatively spectacular.

The acting and the operatic drama are enjoyably over-the-top - it seemed to complement the impossible fighting skills on display.

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March 30, 2007

The Tribute to Billy Mackenzie Concert - with a host of associates from the 80's

Last night I had a wonderful evening at a tribute concert in memory of singer Billy Mackenzie, who would have turned fifty this week.

Billy was one of my favourite vocalists, still is. An extraordinary and unique voice that soared, a cheeky and surreal humour, mad mad compositions, and attractive to boot. I’d been buying Associates 12” singles and albums from the start and, to me, his music kept getting better and better, continuing with his guest vocals and solo albums. So I was shocked to hear of his death, ten years ago.

A thorough biography (The Glamour Chase) didn’t fully explain why he was no longer with us, but did underline how full a life he’d lead. Thankfully almost all of his recordings were subsequently released on CD, including two unreleased albums and even radio sessions, so that we could, for a while, keep hearing new music from him.

I’d never saw him perform live, though I’d seen him wandering around nightclubs in London a couple of times. I’d got all of his records and wanted to go up and tell him that, but I could never think of the right words fast enough. I was too shy, and hated bothering people I admire, out of respect mostly.

But last night there was a tribute concert at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, in aid of the Sound Seekers charity, with all the bands giving their time for free. They mostly did 3 numbers each, including one Associates or Billy Mackenzie cover version, making it a unique evening full of surprises, and a belated chance for me to hear his music live.

I didn’t know quite what to expect, and I wasn’t expecting to hear so much of Billy’s music - the idea of attempting covers of songs originally recorded with a such an extraordinary voice seemed brave, impossible and even musically blasphemous (steady on).
I was late and missed Howard Hughes, a pianist who’d accompanied Billy in the early days – the gig got underway earlier than I’d expected. But I caught the second act, Mower. Their wild electric guitar sound evoked the energy of early Associates tracks, but I didn’t know whether they had any connection with Billy. They certainly seemed to have been inspired by him, and I’ll be seeking out more of their music. This was their last gig under the name of Mower (mostly because they’re fed up of the confusion with the US band of the same name).
Next up were The Subterraneans, a band originally named by Billy. The thrill of their set was a restaging of an early Billy duet with Christine Beveridge called Kites, originally released under the name 39 Lyon Street. It was a thrill to hear Christine sing live, having heard the song so many times.

Better still, Paul Haig (another 80’s solo artist who started off with the band Josef K) then joined the band and sang two of tracks that Billy used to like, 'Kinda Funny' and 'Something Good'. According to the NME site, Paul hadn’t performed on stage since 1989. He was in fine voice though and still mean on the guitar. I’d loved his voice on electro releases in the 80’s, especially Big Blue World, a collaboration with Alan Rankine, Billy’s main musical partner in the Associates.

Next up was a musical first as two mainstays of ZTT (Zang Tuum Tumb records, infamous for their Frankie Goes to Hollywood releases), played on stage for the first time ever. Claudia Brucken – lead singer of Propaganda (whose music has aged better than Frankie’s) and pianist Andrew Poppy. They played a quiet but powerful set, starting with a cover of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, and then Roy Orbison’s In Dreams. Claudia’s underrated voice is evocative of the 80’s electro hits of Propaganda, but also of some beautiful solo releases in the 90’s. Her album Love and A Million Other Things, is a special favourite. She closed this set with a cover of the Associates 'Breakfast'.

But Claudia was back on stage in a more lively incarnation, with her new band OneTwo, in which she has teamed up with Paul Humphreys, who was one half of OMD, Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark – prolific backbone of 80’s electropop. Together they have been recording new material, as well as appearing live with a mixture of classic Propaganda numbers, Claudia’s solo hits, classic OMD songs and new OneTwo tracks. An EP came out two years ago, and their first album has just been released. But just as I was hoping for a spate of OneTwo gigs, OMD have reformed for a major tour! Paul has reunited with Andy McCluskey (last heard perfoming on his own under the name of OMD in the 90’s).

So that’s good news for OMD fans, but it looks like Claudia will have to wait a while before properly promoting the new album. This gig was a rare chance to see OneTwo performing, for now at least. Their three numbers were a new track, then the very popular Propaganda hit Duel(which finally got the crowd moving), and finally a wonderful updated version of the Associates’ classic hit Club Country.

The whole evening was like time travel for me, the first gig I ever went to, back in 1981, was OMD. I’ve got all their albums. I saw Propaganda live (in ’85) and never thought I’d be able to hear their music live again, over twenty years later! And there was more to come…

Electric Soft Parade are a much younger band, still releasing music the first time around. Like other bands during the evening, they were daunted by the chance to cover a Billy Mackenzie track, not only because of his huge vocal range, but because musically “the arrangements are insane”. They performed Blue It Is, a downbeat song where Billy stayed in the lower octaves.

Throughout the evening, as the crew quickly but frantically re-rigged for the drastically different bands, Billy’s original music haunted the venue. On a projection screen at the back of the stage, many rare pop promos were playing that I’d not seen before. In the 80’s, the Associates were mainly on TV ‘live’ on Top Of The Pops or The Tube. The pop videos were rarely shown. Thankfully, much of this archive material is on YouTube at the moment, including a wonderful documentary/tribute made by Scottish TV, with interviews with many of Billy’s many collaborators – including Alan Rankine, Paul Haig and Yello.

Next on stage were B.E.F. (British Electric Foundation) who once released 2 marvellous albums of classic cover versions with electro backing and a wide range of guest vocalists, from Tina Turner to Paula Yates. Billy Mackenzie sang on both albums. B.E.F. had managed to exist without ever performing live, so this night was another first, 25 years after the band formed!

B.E.F. were of course an offshoot of the groovy Heaven 17, themselves an offshoot of the original Human League. Martyn Ware on keyboards introduced Billie Godfrey, a singer with a fantastic voice – she performed Free (Mackenzie’s contribution to the second B.E.F. album) noting that even a woman with a good vocal range had trouble hitting the notes that Billy Mackenzie had. She was fantastic, and it’s good to hear that she is part of Heaven 17’s new line-up.

The original Heaven 17 singer Glenn Gregory then appeared and performed a David Bowie track, one of Billy’s faves - Bowie was a huge influence on Billy’s eclectic musical ambitions, not to mention his often extravagant changes of image. Glenn then sang my favourite Heaven 17 track Let Me Go, again which I’d never ever thought I’d hear live – I’d missed them gigging twenty years ago. Claudia Brucken then joined the band for a reworking of the original demo version of Temptation (recently rediscovered by Glenn’s mum digging around in her attic). I think Temptation had been the band’s hugest hit.

Glenn Gregory then reluctantly closed the set with his rendition of Party Fears Two. It had been a huge hit for the Associates and Glenn couldn’t believe no other band had picked it for the evening. Once he studied it, he realised it was a difficult track to master. But he managed perfectly, despite it being a sad thing to have to do. To sing someone’s songs because they aren’t around any more.

Heaven 17 produced some stylish and unforgettable tracks in the 80’s, Come Live With Me was another classic. I’d not realised that they’ve started performing again and even released a new album last year. I’ll be looking out for them gigging in the future, because Glenn Gregory is still a powerful singer and a wonderful performer.

Lastly, seven years after their last gig, with no plans to play live any more, was Apollo 440. With the quality and power of their music, it’s a great pity, though they still work on movie soundtracks – like the barnstorming reworking of the Lost In Space theme tune.

They opened with a track from their 1996 Electro Glide in Blue album. They also performed The Smiths’ William It Was Really Nothing, which is now thought to be a song cheekily written by Morrissey about Billy. There seemed to be fewer and fewer 80’s bands being left out of the night’s roster!

Apollo 440 closed with Pain in any Language, the last song of the evening. The singer gave an extraordinary performance, evoking Billy’s wild and energetic style. It was a fantastic end to the evening.

Emotions were of course mixed – it was also sadly the last song Billy Mackenzie ever recorded. It was with Apollo 440 for the Electro Glide album. Billy later committed suicide. Ten years ago. He was 39.

Update: photographer Peter Ashworth has posted many of his photographs of the bands, taken on the night on his website, here.

Video clips of the concert have even started appearing on YouTube - Paul Haig, OneTwo, Claudia and Andrew, and Glenn Gregory.

Do you want to know more?
Complete Billy Mackenzie/Associates discography here - great grabs of album covers!

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March 28, 2007

H.P. Lovecraft movies - the older ones

An introduction to a series of reviews for the oldest movie adaptions of Lovecraft's works...

There was a time when adaptions of the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft could be counted on one hand. I sought them all out because of their reported potency, and the horrors he described were unique and terrifying.

The Haunted Palace (1963)
Die, Monster, Die! (1965)
The Shuttered Room (1967)
Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)
The Dunwich Horror (1969) well as two adaptions for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1971) compendium TV series (the Cool Air and Pickman’s Model segments)

...used to be all the Lovecraft there was to see.

The other major inspiration in American horror literature, Edgar Allan Poe, quickly had many of his titles plundered in the 1960’s, but filmmakers braked sharply when moving onto Lovecraft, because many of his stories were considered “unfilmable”. Lovecraft’s trump card was his medium – on paper, the viewer imagines what he describes, sometime huge, sometimes vague, always nasty. If you have an imagination, a cinema screen can’t possibly better it.

I still have a fondness for these 'Old Ones', the early entries in the Lovecraft filmography, and am currently drawn to watching them again -reviews will be appearing here shortly.

When I sought out horror movies on TV in the seventies, I’d rewatch these five films on TV to wring out any elements of Lovecraft, though sometimes there’s very few to find. If you ignore the often disappointing climaxes and unworthy special effects, the premise of each movie still evokes an unusal atmosphere, albeit mostly updated to modern dress.

Having watched all five films, The Shuttered Room is easily the best film, but the least Lovecraftian. The Dunwich Horror would be the most Lovecraftian story but is set in modern times. The Haunted Palace looks suitably gothic, and is in period dress. Take your pick.

A further slew of adaptions in the 1980’s, helped by a surge of low-budget cinema to fuel the videotape boom, like The Unnamable (1988) and From Beyond (1986
), were an equally mixed bag. Re-Animator (1985) is easily the best of this next wave, though director Stuart Gordon struggled valiantly on to try and match it for many years.

Now in an age of CGI when you can put anything you can imagine onto the screen, a host of new filmmakers are doing their best to tackle Lovecraft again, hence the Unfilmable website with news of a raft of recent and future adaptions of the works of H.P.L., and an extensive list of past efforts and possible influences. Proof that Lovecraft’s influence over horror cinema is far-reaching, and definitely thick-bookworthy.

A shorter, rather more 1990’s guide to Lovecraft cinema is on this website here, summarising the contents of the reference book, The Lurker in the Lobby.

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March 25, 2007

SOLDIER BLUE (1970) - widescreen and uncut?

(1970, USA)

Recommended anti-western

When it was released in 1970, the film's title and the original 'nude squaw' poster made this look like it was going to be softcore porno. In addition, the fuss in the press at the time made it sound like a violent atrocity of bad taste. From accounts I'd read about the stuntwork and particularly the gruesome prosthetic make-up effects (like in John Brosnan's book Movie Magic), it sounded like the British censors had made many extensive cuts.

On paper, the story looked more like an old-school western, 'cowboys and indians'. In fact, Soldier Blue is an early revisionist western, told more from the Native American side as well as the anti-war movement. Like Little Big Man, this film was part of the learning process that challenged the demonisation of ‘injuns’ in countless cowboy movies.

Besides trying to set the record straight on native America, Soldier Blue was also an early Vietnam allegory, targeting the My Lai massacre at a time when it was too controversial to tackle to portray – it took Hollywood until the 1980’s to do that.

When I first saw the film on British TV in the late seventies, heavily cut (film jumps infered this was a UK print), it was certainly shocking but for different reasons. Instead of a A Clockwork Orange, I got a rather affable romantic comedy that starts off with an exceptionally hippy song. There were a few fights, a lot of talking and a lot of cuts. All that was left of the climax were the looks of shock on the faces of witnesses.

Seeing it again now, it’s a giddy mixture of heavy-handed pacifist arguments, (cue the shot of American cavalry riding roughshod over the American flag), light comedy and brutal violence. Very seventies, but still worth catching. The techniques used to shock then are mostly unusable now. Multiple rapes, female nudity and child murder... To add to the 70's 'period' feel, it's all topped off with a jaunty Roy Budd soundtrack that constantly feels inappropriate, almost like they were trying to make the film even 'lighter'.

The radiant Candice Bergen is the fiesty lead, Peter Strauss is a touch too naive and easily offended as the 'Soldier Blue' of the title. His slow wake-up call to his new understanding of religion, women, bad guys and natives was all paralleled in what was actually going on in society at the time. A revolution of attitudes that also meant revising the written word in history books. The massacres of civilians by American troops were hard to believe back then, but are now verified facts in both Sand Creek, Colorado in 1864 and My Lai, Vietnam in 1968.

Donald Pleasence rounds off the leading actors to make the middle act more enjoyable, but the meandering storyline drifts way off-topic before the climax kicks in.

Shot totally on location, I was surprised by the huge mobilisation of soldiers and horses. The climactic battle is mounted on an extremely large scale. The film includes horse stunts that are no longer allowed in the UK - they were cut from a recent TV transmission and will presumably be missing from any UK DVD release. A decapitated head, and a rape scene are also missing from the Momentum DVD about 28 seconds in all.

The Dutch Kinowelt DVD version, although hinted at in dialogue, no scalpings are shown, and the infamous breast cutting is simply, but effectively done with a special effects knife that shoots out blood. Today it's not the gore that shocks, even in this 'uncut' version, but the full-frontal nudity and the elaborate stunts showing the killing of children.

Like many censored movies, decades of rumours confuse what scenes were shot and what was actually seen in the cinema in different versions around the world. But this is certainly the least cut version I've seen.

The Kinowelt release has a colourful, bright film transfer from a good print, with a clear audio track. Good to finally see it in 2.35 anamorphic widescreen too.

The US DVD cover has Donald Pleasence's name misspelt
and a cowboy who isn't in the film at all!

This might be the same version of the film on region 1 DVD from Lionsgate, but I’ve read several instances of film scratches, dull colour and warbling audio, but I’ve not seen for myself. Here's a review, with screengrabs.

Do you want to know more?

For screenshots from the German Kinovelt DVD (which I believe is the same release as the Dutch DVD that I have), try this page from DVD Active.

There's also this book about the film.

ONE MISSED CALL (2003) another scary Takashi Miike

ONE MISSED CALL (2003, Japan, Chakushin Ari)
NTSC region 3 HK DVD (Widesight)

Highly recommended J-horror film

Takashi Miike proved that he could make a crowd-pleasing box office hit as easily as his surreal low-budget shockers. Before Zebraman and The Great Yokai War, came this straightforward horror film that was so popular, it kicked off a franchise.

But Miike doesn’t use humour, so much as genre in-jokes, taking a similar premise to The Ring and running with it. The J-horror cliches are all there, but he uses them effectively and often trumps the scares with his own inventive twists.

It’s about a deadly curse that's transmitted by mobile phone – the predicted victim gets a call from the future at the precise time and date that they'll die, as well as a sneak preview of what their final moments will sound like. After several shocking deaths, with no proof of suicide, the press get wind of the serial phenomenon and arrange live television coverage of the next victim's allotted demise. The TV producer tries adding an exorcist to hedge his bets, hoping to either cure the curse or unmask it all as a hoax. Unfortunately, the curse is real and the exorcism doesn't work...

The scares aren’t always logical, Miike is having fun with an all-out scary movie and adds extra frights to keep up the momentum, and the film is way more bloody than the Ring films. Of course there's a long black-haired female ghost, but this movie has something extra - a fast pace.

Some great fx work and icky special effects make-up make this one of the strongest and straightforward Japanese horror films. My only reservation is that tying up all the plot threads makes the ending a little anti-climactic - but full marks for respecting the storyline and following it through logically.

The able and attractive Kou Shibasaki heads the cast. She went on to star in The Sinking of Japan, and appeared in the scary scarecrow movie Kakashi (2001) and Battle Royale (2000).

Two sequels followed, and a TV series that I wrote about here.

The film is out on region 1 DVD (pictured) in the US, but I'd already bought the region 3 release from Hong Kong, which has great audio and excellent English subtitles.

R.I.P. Freddie Francis

Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis, David Lynch and Freddie Francis, working on Dune

Freddie Francis has passed away at the age of 89.

There are many obituaries online, like from The Independent, but I'd like skew my own towards his horror credits. To me his name was quickly connected with my love of horror films at an early age. As I started watching them, his name kept coming up...

In all, Freddie Francis seemed to have had three careers one after the other – each of them impressive. It makes for a formidable IMDB entry.

His black and white cinematography for gritty British dramas won him an early Oscar in 1960. But I loved his work on The Innocents, which ensures this as easily the best film version of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. It’s an edgy ghost story that still works today. The Governess of two small children (Deborah Kerr) is either being haunted by evil spirits with a debauched past, or is imagining it all as a result of her own inhibitions.

Tiring of being told what to do, (not to mention low wages), Francis broke into directing, salvaging The Day of the Triffids (1962) without earning a screen credit. But he became typecast as a horror director. In contrast to the critical, artistic successes he worked on as a director of photography, he was soon villified for making ‘schlock’. But I’d argue that many of his ‘horrors’ will easily last as long as his acclaimed mainstream work. Critics look through his films and quickly point to Trog (1970) as being awful, but I don’t think he ever needed to be told! Even though it’s not at all typical of the quality of his many horror films, it’s still highly enjoyable and is about to be remastered on DVD.

The films he directed for Hammer Studios, and it’s many rivals, read like a catalogue of my favourite late-night TV horror film experiences. For me his name became a guarantee of something interesting.

His best are The Skull, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, The Creeping Flesh, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and of course the superb Tales from the Crypt. Inventive and unusual camerawork, an intelligent and imaginative approach, elevates unlikely supernatural material to effective and shocking cinema.

Among his own favourites is a rare movie that ought to be more widely seen – the perverse black comedy Mummy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly.

As British cinema declined through the seventies, he reluctantly went back to cinematography, for the third phase in his working life. But this again produced some of his finest work and another Oscar, for Glory (1989) of which he is rightly proud.

But for me, it’s his work with David Lynch that was so important. His work in widescreen black and white for The Elephant Man (1980) is exceptional. It enabled Lynch to make a mainstream film, while remaining partly in the atmospheric universe of Eraserhead.

Lynch again wanted a team of familiar faces on Dune (1984), an entirely different scale of project, though Francis was undaunted by the challenge of making a special-effects heavy science-fiction epic.

A third project with Lynch was Francis’ final film, as cinematographer on The Straight Story (1999), for which he had an agreement to get shorter working days as a compensation for his advancing years. This was a request Lynch was happy to oblige, especially since leading man Richard Farnsworth was in his seventies.

Seeing Freddie Francis interviewed about his work at the NFT in London, he was unpretentious and almost dismissive about his directing career in horror. But he knew from the constant interest that they were still enthusiastically appreciated. A clip was shown, from Torture Garden, of Peter Cushing being out-manoeuvred by Jack Palance in a quest for Edgar Allen Poe memorabilia. The scene was intense and gripping, and left the audience begging for more. It was my first chance to see even a glimpse of something he’d directed on the big screen, and it was gratifying that it still worked so effectively.

He was obviously proud of the great films that he’d lensed, and that working with the likes of Scorcese, Lynch, Karel Reisz and Jack Clayton meant that his work was appreciated both technically and artistically.

To me it’s amazing that his career was so schizophrenic, balanced between arthouse, mainstream and low-budget horror. He knew when the scripts were poor, the titles daft, the money tight, and the schedules rushed, that the critics wouldn’t be amused. But to me it was the heights he elevated the material to. Like the acting of Peter Cushing, he could take an awful script and make it both believable and thrilling.

Mr Francis, your work has been a great pleasure and I’m very sorry to see you go.

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March 17, 2007

KAMEN RIDER KABUTO (2006) hyper-action TV series

TV episodes: 49 x 25mins

Recommended action series!

In the near future, a meteor destroys the Tokyo district of Shibuya. Soon afterwards, monstous alien beings secretly start killing people and disguising themselves as the victims. Undercover organisation ZECT trace these alien "worms" and combat them with ZECT soldiers who have special anti-alien machine guns. If that fails, a special operative has been chosen to wears a high-tech belt that transforms into Kamen Rider armour and gives him an array of powers to defeat the aliens. Things get complicated as ZECT operatives bicker as to who gets to wear the belt, and other Kamen Riders start appearing in Tokyo...

Kamen Rider is a Japanese live-action TV series that's been on the go since 1971. Like Ultraman, each series features a slightly different hero, with a different costume. He rides a motor bike and transforms into a superhero whose helmet resembles the head of a beetle, hence the antennae! The baddies are nasty-looking monsters, usually controlled by an evil alien villain, who also has an army of black-clad guards. Unlike Ultraman, all the action is human-sized, rather than giant-sized.

Until I saw the latest series, I've always avoided the many Kamen Rider series, because they were quite childish, and resembled Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in terms of fighting and acting. The costumes looked like they were from pantomimes, the fights were mainly acrobatics, and the villain's army of guards all made annoying squeaky noises like the Monty Python Knights-who-say-"ni".

But with Kamen Rider Kabuto, the format has been seriously upgraded. The series is more adult, the baddies more deadly, and the action is incredible. Certainly, the special effects are only for a weekly TV series, but it usually looks fantastic. Great costumes, surreal humour (especially the master of make-up!) and high-speed action. The black guards now work for the heroes, and have suitably slick costumes.

The Kamen Rider costumes have the ability to transform into more powerful versions, (an excuse for flashy special effects) and for 60 seconds Kabuto can kick into an accelerated fighting speed, called the "Clock Up". While he's fighting in this mode, rain, crashing cars and exploding buildings are all halted into slow motion. Visually, it looks startling.

There are usually new monsters every episode, and all have the ability to disguise themselves as humans (having killed the original in a squishy way). The monster costumes are elaborate and inventive as always. The only regular monster is the green "worm" - which has a vaguely Giger-esgue skull-like face.

There is of course a fair amount of padding involving the human characters, some of it dramatic, some of it silly, with a steady preoccupation with food and the perfect herring miso soup - I'm not joking. One of the heroes thinks he's perfect and tends to preach, another can make anyone beautiful with his make-up box in under a minute - he also seems to wear a little too much face powder himself. Much of the action takes place around the Tokyo Tower, the spectacular red-and-white landmark that is usually the first to go when Godzilla is in town.

The series was shot 16:9 widescreen and lasted 49 episodes. There was also a Hyper-Battle straight-to-video DVD episode and a movie, called Kamen Rider Kabuto - God Speed Love, released in Japanese cinemas in August 2006 and set in an alternate universe.

You can maybe find fragments of the series on YouTube, or there is now a badly subtitled Hong Kong DVD release, (Part 01 pictured above contains eps 1 to 26), but the Japanese DVDs have no subs at all.

Do you want to know more?

- Superb site with more details and loads more photos at the Unofficial Kamen Rider Kabuto Homepage.

- For more info on the entire history of Kamen Rider TV series, here's the Wikipedia page to start you off.

- Opening theme tune here on YouTube - marvellous!

- First episode here on YouTube - but for how long?

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March 11, 2007

THE SINKING OF JAPAN (2006) a blockbuster

(2006, Japan, IMDB: Nihon Chinbotsu)

Recommended... if you're not expecting a Hollywood disaster movie.

Hong Kong region 3 NTSC DVD (Edko Video)

Basically, an undersea geologist predicts a disaster in the tectonic plate movements under the islands of Japan. While the Government race against time to save the population, we follow a young oceanologist and his girlfriend’s family amidst a series of natural disasters.

This is based on the same book as the 1973 film The Submersion of Japan, reviewed here...

America make large-scale disaster movies with high body counts, killing off characters that have been carefully introduced. The destruction is usually showcased as spectacular carnage rather than tragedy. Now, I have a nostalgic appetite for those bad-taste epics, but of course the Japanese do it differently.

It's awesome, rather than gruesome. The destruction of cities and landmarks is done realistically, but respectfully doesn't show citizens in their final moments. In fact, I can only remember one onscreen death scene in the whole film!

Like the 1973 film, there’s a downbeat parade of the icons of Japanese life from all over the country being displayed and destroyed. It bleakly fantasises about the end of Japan and the idea that the race would be dispersed around the world. The implied message could almost be, if they want neighbouring countries to open their borders in a time of crisis, perhaps they should be more generous with their own present restrictive policies on immigration. The Prime Minister, played by Koji Ishizaka, (with a hairstyle that reminds us of the last actual PM - Junichiro Koizumi), and his cabinet have great difficulties persuading other countries to accept evacuees.

The fantastic fx shots of mayhem are layered with sprays of flooding water, clouds of falling ash and dust, for depth. Some of the vistas of destruction are slightly stylised, perhaps to take the edge off.

Despite the opportunities for drama, the central love story is rather melodramatic, with a faintly painful pop song cutting in at a key moment. The love interest is the fiesty fire-fighter Reiko, played by Kou Shibasaki, (from One Missed Call and Battle Royale).

I shamefully didn't recognise Tetsuro Tamba, in what must have been his final role as Reiko’s grandfather, presumably a casting homage to his role as the Prime Minister in the 1973 film. Admittedly, there was an awful lot of chaos going on.

This is a vast improvement on the original film, with a far faster pace, some interesting twists and great FX. It doesn't feel too much like a disaster movie because it plays more as a tight-knit drama. The movie starts on the wrong-foot with a kind of far-fetched Hollywood action sequence that misleads the audience as to the kind of film it is.

The region 3 DVD is 2.35 anamorphic widescreen, has good DTS sound, but only one trailer for extras. Available here on HKflix, for instance.

The trailer (with no English) with lots of effects shots here on YouTube.

UPDATE (February 2008): now on DVD in the US under the title Doomsday...

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March 07, 2007

REPTILICUS (1961) a monstrous slice of Danish

Nice poster, but the Golden Gate Bridge doesn't appear in the movie...

(1961, Denmark/USA)

Danish version on PAL region 2 DVD (Metronome)
American version NTSC region 1 DVD (MGM/UA)

Denmark, the land of The Little Mermaid, has only ever made one giant monster movie - here's why...

I was very disappointed when I first saw Reptilicus a few years ago. But with repeated viewings, I’m growing to love it as enjoyably bad. It’s so very, very bad for a host of reasons. An object lesson in actors taking the story seriously, before seeing the special effects.

For many years, all I knew of this 1961 giant monster movie, were some fairly effective b/w stills in horror magazines. Then I got the novelisation of the story (which has a great action shot on the cover and a mention of "breasts" on every page), and a couple of brief glimpses of the monster in action, that were used as cutaways in The Monkees.

It had good credentials, beng written by Ib Melchior who wrote inventive scripts for a series of low-budget sci-fi movies, including The Angry Red Planet (1960). One of his stories was made into the awesome Roger Corman movie, Death Race 2000 (1975), so I had high hopes for Reptilicus.

The film’s main drawback is its star, a small marionette with fewer points of articulation than the average action figure. I was flabbergasted at how small the models of the buildings were – hugely unconvincing for a horror movie supposedly pitched at an adult audience! The puppet has wings that barely move, legs that don’t move - when it ‘walks’, it’s obviously being dragged!

Worse still, the film was shot in Denmark. Each scene was shot twice, with the same cast members performing each scene in English then Danish. Most of the dialogue in the US version was redubbed to sound more convincing. According to director Sid Pink, it was because the actors were talking with a strong “sing-song” accent (like the Swedish chef in The Muppet Show).

The American producers were appalled with the US version and drastically re-edited it, shot new footage, and tried to elaborate the existing monster footage, but cheaply, delaying the US release until 1963.

I first saw the US version, and have just got hold of the Danish DVD release from last year. Here’s the major differences between the two versions (for the minor differences, there's a whole book on the making of this film, Reptilicus: The Screenplay by Kip Doto. See also Video Watchdog magazine, issue 96, for a cross-analysis).

The US version has more gore - like the early close ups of chopped meat that come up in the giant drill bit. (Ah yes, the plot, some miners discover a giant, frozen disembodied tail. When it accidentally defrosts, it regenerates into a dinosaur and marches on Copenhagen - see?)

There’s more human flesh on display in the Denmark version – with several extra gratuitous beach scenes of young couples cavorting in swimsuits. How continental!

Denmark is also treated to extra scenes of Petersen, the comedy-relief lab assistant (who dresses in overalls like a hick farmer), played by Denmark’s favourite comedian Dirch Passer. With his square head and goggle-eyes, he looks like something drawn by Jack Kirby. The Danish version has been restored for DVD to be part of a collection of Passer's films, so I won't be too hard on him. Mind you, the scene where he sings the 'Tilicus' song to a sudden group of children outside the lab, is a real lowpoint... in the history of cinema. Much of Passer’s comedy schtick, and this song are missing from the US version.

The USA still left in the other embarrassing song, in what I call the 'travelogue section' of the movie. As the carefree characters explore the delights of downtown Copenhagen, oblivious to impending doom. The army officer in charge of operations takes time to call in at a bar in Tivoli pleasure gardens to hear 'Tivoli Nights', sung with gusto by the perky Birthe Wilke ("Denmark’s answer to Doris Day" according to Wikipedia). She does her best with the clunky lyrics like...

"You're all dressed up and with a smile on your face,
You look as gay as can be."

In the slow first half of the movie, the US version tries to ramp up suspense, with gory close-ups of the disembodied tail removed from the drilling excavations.

The Danish version dilutes the scary early scenes in favour of comedy, courtesy of Petersen. Then around halfway, the film gives up being coy and turns into bloody monster mayhem.

The puppet trashes some small models, but then the budget spurts and splashes out on a fullsize claw that flattens a farmhouse set, narrowly missing the farmers. A shot strangely left out of the US version, because it's not badly done.

The US also loses the fabled, wooden, flying shots of the monster. All other shots of Reptilicus, they try and enhance by zooming in (optically, making the shots look poorly composed and grainy). Some other shots are slowed down, meaning you can take your time looking at the grain on each frame. Worse still is the addition of the, ahem, green slime - optically added "acid" that seems to come out of the monster's mouth and splash over the lens, then freeze. Worst of all is the placing of what look likes a crayon drawing of a farmer, positioned over the lizard's mouth, to make it look like he’s being eaten.

The original FX may be primitive, but these additions make them laughably worse. Together with the bilingual acting, unspectacular locations, and loosely re-dubbed dialogue, makes the US version a veritable punchbag of a movie.

On a trivial note, when the monster is depth-charged by the Navy, it loses a leg, in a shot that I swear was copied and included in Steven Spielberg's monster opus, Jaws (1975).

The Danish DVD has a trailer - which wisely contains no shots of the puppet. The picture is a slightly cramped 1.33, but it may have been released this way. The print is well-presented and in good condition for 45 year-old Eastmancolour. The PAL running time is 92 mins.

The region 1 Midnight Movie DVD is no frills, a bit like the monster in the US version. It's also 1.33.

The choice is yours, optical green glop and extra gore, or half-naked Danes and the original cut.

Do you want to know more?

Judging by it's presence on the web, this film is really very popular... perhaps it's the spectacular flame-thrower sequence, perhaps it's the spectacular impromptu stunts of the Danish students hurling themselves off the cantilever bridge, perhaps it's the puppet...

More trivia, extensive reviews and good screengrabs from
Eccentric Cinema and Monstershack.

German site
Monstrula has an absolutely AWESOME collection of international photos and posters (and toys!) for Reptilicus and many more marvellous monster movies, mmm.

The US trailer for Reptilicus is currently here on YouTube...

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