April 27, 2007

HANUMAN vs 7 ULTRAMANS (1974) Thai Ultraman movie madness

Hanuman vs 7 Ultramans
(1974, Thailand/Japan)
aka The 6 Ultra Brothers Vs. the Monster Army

If I’d gone on holiday to Thailand, immersed myself in the usual tourist sights of monkeys, temples and statues of Buddha, got a bit homesick for my usual diet of Japanese TV, then taken some bad acid, I might have dreamt something looking like Hanuman vs 7 Ultramans.

It’s psychedelic, often makes no sense, and fuses the Japanese Ultraman universe with Thai mythology. You couldn’t make this stuff up anywhere else.

Ultraman is very popular in Thailand, so much so that this film was specially shot with the cooperation of Japan's Tsuburaya Productions, which extended to lending out the Ultraman suits and monster suits and helping with the special effects. Unwittingly, this started an international battle over the rights to the Ultraman characters outside of Japan. The lawsuit has only just been settled (see this Sci-Fi Japan news item for a July 2007 update and some great Hanuman v Ultraman posters).

The plot, if you must... 2 young Thai boys try to stop 3 nasty crooks from stealing the head off a statue of Buddha from a ruined temple. (Shades of Ong Bak). One of the boys is killed, but instead of going to heaven, he becomes the monkey king Hanuman in giant form, or something like that. (It looks like two of the boys can transform into giant Hanuman - it’s confusing, and all in Thai.) Thus Hanuman takes his bloody revenge on the nasty crooks. Slow fade to black.

But that's not all! Nearby, scientists are testing rockets that could spark rainfall in areas of drought. All very noble, but not very wise to have thirty fully fuelled rockets all on launchpads so close to the mission control buildings… in an earthquake zone.

We inevitably get a spectacular rocket accident that causes an earthquake and wakes up five monsters who were living underground. Six (or is it seven) Ultramen then join Hanuman to save the day. Cue fighting, explosions and more monkey-dancing.

It’s almost like the plot of two TV episodes stretched over 100 minutes. Especially because there is a LOT of padding. At the start there are two unfunny soldiers mucking around in a jeep, acting like circus clowns and going for a swim in what look like girls bathing suits. More padding comes from the boys and their friends doing a lot of Hanuman-type monkey-dancing at the temple.

More padding comes from Hanuman himself doing a victory monkey-dance in front of the six bored Ultramen. At the end of it all, Hanuman kisses every Ultraman goodbye. All very friendly but they don’t look at all impressed.

I enjoyed the psychedelic special effects. All the intricate optical compositing and trippy backgrounds looked to me like they were done by the Japanese crew. On the other hand, the modelwork is not at all convincing, the rocket base looks exactly like a model. In fact, some of the outer space sequences look so bizarre, using no slow-motion at all, that the effects look like a George Melies fantasy from 100 years ago.

The action gets pretty extreme. One of the boys gets shot in the face! In close up! The baddies get their come-uppance in a bloody style too – getting squished or stomped by the giant. For something I presumed was aimed at 5 year olds.

The music stretches the patience – sounding exactly like a Thai tourist trap cultural evening (been there, done that), rather than a superhero action film. Similarly, Hanuman looks exactly like the famous statues in the Kings’ Palace in Bangkok, no effort has been made to tweak the character into an action hero. It’s a traditional Thai character, traditional music, traditional monkey-dancing.

Like many Hong Kong films (up until the late eighties) all the dialogue is post-synched. That is, no location sound is recorded. All the voices are synchronised in later in a sound studio. This makes every scene sound like a small radio play. The acoustics are of a small room, the lip-synch is loose, the sound effects are sparse. The impressive-looking Hanuman and a sky god he meets in space have no processing on their voices – they just sound like normal people. Lazily, one of the monsters sounds exactly like Godzilla.

There’s also stock footage from the TV series to pad out the Air Force attacks on the monsters. Though the film has been shot in a very wide 2.35 anamorphic widescreen format (which has been crammed onto this DVD without letterboxing), the TV shots haven’t been cropped at all. The resulting effect is that shots intercut between normal-looking widescreen footage, and some very flat looking airplanes.

Hanuman transforms in the usual air-punching Ultraman style - though the mask is scary in the extreme!

It’s a staggeringly strange film. I’m still don't get how all that monkey-dancing rates as entertainment. But, for fans of Thai pop culture, Ultraman completists, or seekers of the truly way-out, this is for you.

It must have been popular too, in Hanuman's next movie he met the 5 Kamen Riders.

Chaos at the rocket base

Hanuman vs 7 Ultramans (don't blame me - that's how they spell it on the cover) is still available on Thai PAL DVD in a very, very ropey transfer more suitable for VideoCD. It has obviously been mastered on a multi-generational VHS tape, though because it’s Thailand, it still might be an official release! The picture is very soft and dupey, and there are lots of tape creases thoughout.

Like I said, the 2.35 aspect has been squeezed into a normal 4:3 frame, resulting in very tall thin-looking people. But, because of the legal status of this title, I don’t think it’ll be digitally remastered any time soon...

The VCD version, split over two discs, is available from eThaiCD. I got the DVD from Max Renn's eBay shop, which I've visited online many, many times.

By the way, I've unsqueezed the frame-grabs above, to show you how wide the picture has to be. It looks wrong even on a widescreen TV.

Do you want to know more?

Asian movie expert, Mark Simpson has a fuller plot summary, and much more enthusiasm for the film - read his review here...

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April 23, 2007

DIE MONSTER DIE! (1965) Boris Karloff and the MONSTER OF TERROR

(1965, USA)

Dated thrills, but recommended for fans of sixties horror and Lovecraft
early film to be adapted from the work of H.P. Lovecraft. This time it's The Colour Out of Space reworked as a last gasp of creaky old-school gothic, made just before George Romero's living dead breathed new life into the horror genre. It's relatively dated for a 1960's horror film, but suitably gothic enough to compliment the Lovecraft mythos.

Director Daniel Haller appeared to be trying to keep the AIP producers happy by delivering something that looks as gothic as their Poe series of films, whilst injecting more interesting, futuristic story elements. He'd make a decidely more modern 'way out' horror film in 1969, with another Lovecraft story, The Dunwich Horror.

Once again we're in the town of Dunwich, but it's obviously shot in England. A young American, played by Nick Adams, arrives to tempt his college sweetheart (Suzan Farmer) away from her old family home, and her old family. Mother (Freda Jackson) is sick and bedridden and Father (Boris Karloff) is obviously hiding something. Is it anything to do with a meteor that fell near the house many years ago? Course it is.

The family mansion is in the middle of nowhere surrounded by burnt-out forestland. Something nasty is lurking in the trees. Weird sounds can be heard in the cellar and as for the greenhouse... let's just say that the rabbits don't look very well.

Plotwise it's a linear and creaky 'old dark house' formula with the requisite unscary spiders and rubber bats. But the atmosphere of the house pervades (wait till you see the cellar!) and the various creatures mean there's never a dull moment.
Lovecraft was working in a world of his own when it came to the horror genre. Here his story is interpreted as a belief in the supernatural vs scientific phenomena. The eerie electronic sound effects, like the pulsating meteor and the things in the greenhouse, help make several key scenes very effective, while the classic cast keep it all interesting.

Boris Karloff proves he's still got it, giving an earnest performance. Even though his character is bound in a wheelchair, it amusingly doesn't stop him from creeping up on people. Without him, there would be no film.

Handsome, chiselled Nick Adams plays the engaging lead, the stranger from out of town, shunned by the villagers. Despite a promising start to his career, acting alongside his friend James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Adams was doing Japanese monster movies by now. Probably scoffed at by his peers, at least he was in films that are still being enjoyed today. No consolation to a serious actor though, he would take a fatal overdose a few years later. If only he'd stuck around, I'm sure he would have had another big break in the business.

Love interest Suzan Farmer wears some extremely tight sweaters, but manages to play the damsel in distress without appearing as stupid as this role usually necessitates. She went on to appear in two Christopher Lee Hammer classics, Rasputin - the Mad monk and Dracula - Prince of Darkness. On the commentary track to the latter film, I was thrilled to hear she is now a well-researched fan of horror films!

Freda Jackson has a small part as Karloff's ailing wife, bedbound, she's been exposed to the meteor. As her illness worsens, it's anyone's guess as to whether the actress is actually behind the mutated facial make-up or not. Scene-stealing, over-the-top gibbering mad roles were Jackson's forte, showcased in her 'midwife' scene in Brides of Dracula (1960), the old gypsy in Ray Harryhausen's The Valley of Gwangi (1969) and one of the blind witches in Clash of the Titans (1981). I love her work!

Terence de Marney has a brief role as the doddering butler - he had a better role in The Hand of Night (1966), as the Queen of the Night's sidekick. Hearing his real voice finally confirmed for me that he was definitely voiced by a different actor for The Hand of Night, in order to sound more like a Moroccan arab!

Patrick Magee appears in a brief role as an alcoholic doctor. This unique and instantly recognisable actor was always busy. His cult roles were in Roger Corman's Masque of the Red Death (1964), Amicus Films Tales from the Crypt (1972), and most famously in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), where he was in a wheelchair himself. He certainly wasn't allergic to horror films - his first was Francis Ford Coppola's debut feature Dementia 13 (1963).

This DVD was the first time this 2.35 widescreen film had been presented anamorphically. The colours are vivid (especially important in the climax) and the detail is so good that you can now pick apart some of the optical special effect shots, like the matte paintings. But the print is a little scratchy and needs a fair amount of restoration. The mono soundtrack is in good shape, but the sparse sound effects and clunky music edits, no doubt due to the tight budget, would now benefit from a digital mix and makeover. This is a good example of what older films look like on DVD, without a hefty amount of extra repair work.

I'm aware that my feelings for this film are coloured by nostalgia, but I still think it's eventful and imaginative enough to still entertain today.

By the way, the exteriors of Karloff's mansion were filmed at Oakley Court, just a jump to the left from Bray Studios, and a former home of Hammer. Besides appearing in The Reptile (amongst many others), Oakley Court was extensively used, inside and out, for the filming of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

To see a fuller storyline of Die, Monster, Die and some frame grabs, check out the review at StompTokyo!

DAY WATCH (2006) epic sequel to NIGHT WATCH

Cover art for the Russian DVD release with English subtitles

(2006, Russia, Dnevnoi Dozor)

Reviewed from the English subtitled all-region Russian DVD (from allDVD)

Highly recommended Russian horror/action/fantasy epic.

After the dazzling originality of Night Watch (2004) succeeded in captivating Russian audiences and worldwide cult movie fans, the sequel delivers more of the same. But at least this time we’re more ready for it. Night Watch has done for Russian cinema what Ring did for Japan. But I've yet to see any other recent Russian film as nearly as accomplished.

Day Watch is another mind-boggling movie, based on the Night Watch novel (a fuller explanation, together with PLOT SPOILERS is here on Wikipedia). All your favourite characters are back, but it’s highly recommended that you watch Night Watch again before ploughing into this. There’s no exposition to remind you of the story-so-far.

There’s the same mix of mundane everyday Russian life alternating with epic other-worldly action. Vampires, black magic, ancient power. It provides a next-generation update on several genres all at once.

The special effects are used with imagination and vision on a very large-scale. Though sometimes, the direction tries a little too hard to impress.

Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky) is back, caught in the middle of the war between light and darkness. Vampirism hardly figures in the story – it’s a power struggle teetering on the edge of all-out war. Points are being scored with long intricate battles of mind influence, like a game of chess using people and history. This time, an ancient piece of chalk that can alter fate could sway the battle.

Action scenes, hinted at in the trailer, include the spectacular assault on a labyrinthine fortress on horses that can ride through brick walls, a sports car driving up and skidding around the outside of a huge hotel and, oh yes, the destruction of major Moscow landmarks…

The film expects viewers to pay close attention, open their minds and be blown away by this violent, darkly humorous, black magic epic.

Zhanna Friske as Alisa - a dangerous adversary with a horny hairdo

The only English subtitled DVD available at the moment is from the alldvd online store. But as the film progressed, the timing of the subtitles on my copy got worse, sometimes lagging behind the speaker by several seconds. The picture was slightly soft, as was the audio. Home cinema perfectionists may want to wait for the inevitable US release, that will follow Day Watch’s appearance in US cinema’s in June. It’s certainly a film that will bear, and necessitate, repeat viewings!

24framespersecond (linked here) has just reported that Day Watch will also get a cinema release in the UK in October.

Don’t be put off by the simplistic DVD covers and posters – they seriously let down the layered, stylish look of these films. Instead, check out the trailers on the Day Watch fansite Into The Gloom

How the third film, Dusk Watch, intends to build on these two films and conquer the US remains to be seen...

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April 22, 2007

THE EMPEROR'S BAKER (1951) and more GOLEM movies

The hunt for another good Golem movie

Based on an ancient Jewish legend, the Golem is a creature modelled from clay and brought to life to protect the oppressed in a medieval ghetto. The German silent classic film The Golem (1920), reviewed here, influenced both the story and the look of Universal Studios’ classic Frankenstein (1931), where the creature was similarly man-made. Besides lifting several scenes, like the creature meeting a little girl, Frankenstein also used The Golem’s cinematographer, Karl Freund, who later directed his own horror films, The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935).

Widely available on DVD, the silent 1920 version stars the imposing Paul Wegener as the creature. But this is by no means the only Golem movie, and I’ve tried to see them all. One has just emerged on DVD in France, The Emperor's Baker.

Two of the earliest versions of the legend also starred Paul Wegener, The Golem (1915) and its sequel The Golem and the Dancer (1917), but both are now believed to be lost films (some fragments can be viewed on this site, in The Nitrate Vault). Note the slimmer look of Wegener's monster suit, above.

The first version with sound was a French/Czech co-production. Photos of the creature show a very modern make-up design, that makes this Golem look more like a classic stylized bronze statue. The impressive stills make me still want to track this version down. It was last seen on French VHS, reviewed on SciFilm here.

The plot is fairly similar to The Emperor's Baker, but is harder-edged and less humorous. It's a period costume drama, mostly revolving around the Emperor and his paranoid fear of the Golem and the Jewish elders who control it. While struggling to keep hold of his own sanity, he viciously tortures one to find the statue's hiding place. In the climax, the Golem finally awakes and saves the day, destroying major chunks of the palace in the process. The lions used to eat prisoners in the dungeons are set free on the palace subjects and justice is served. The Golem looks impressively scary and inflicts major damage on his rampage of revenge, even stomping someone's head flat!

This is the best of the Golem movies made with sound. Though the Emperor gains a fair amount of sympathy due to the complex performance of Harry Baur, completely overshadowing the rather pious, one-dimensional goodies. The most glamorous of the women plays the rabbi's wife - looking inappropriately like Marlene Dietrich. The sets are huge and are slightly expressionistic, in a nod to the silent versions.

Veteran director Julien Duvivier later had a brief run in Hollywood, directing the lush portmanteau Flesh and Fantasy (1946) among others.

The next version of the Golem also came from Czechoslovakia and has just been released in France on DVD by Artus Films (I bought it here). This time, the Golem is in colour. I saw a photo, of this creature piling through a wall, in a Sunday magazine back in the seventies and have wanted to see it in action ever since. It looked huge and terrifying, with a unique monster design…

Actually two shorter films shot back to back – The Emperor’s Baker and The Baker’s Emperor – both appear on this new 2-DVD set from France. But unfortunately it’s not a horror, but a big budget comedy costume drama, one of the most handsomely mounted films made in Eastern Europe at the time. Huge elaborate sets, hundreds of extras, lavish costumes – it’s a rambling comedy about an eccentric Emperor who switches places with a baker (both played by Jan Werich). He’s searching his kingdom for the Golem (making this a sequel to the silent versions) but his ministers are more interested in using it as weapon of war… Most of the humour comes from the dialogue, only included as Czech language or French subtitles. The picture looks good, but the colour has faded a little, and the print is quite heavily scratched near the reel changes.

The Golem eventually makes a relatively minor appearance in both films and is doubly disappointing because it’s a solid prop. When it walks, it’s merely pushed forwards, twisting it’s body without moving it’s legs.

It only looks good when standing still. It’s stature is imposing, towering above the cast, and when activated the eyes (nostrils?) glow red and smoke pours out.

An impressive production, beloved in Eastern Europe (where you can still see statues of this version on the streets), it’s good to finally see it, but the 1920 version remains unbeaten in the realms of fantastic cinema, for its focus on the supernatural aspect to the legend.

IT! (1966)
Lastly, a rather melted-looking Golem appeared in a low-budget British horror film that starred Roddy McDowall (star of many Planet of the Apes) and a young Jill Haworth (Tower of Evil, The Haunted House of Horror). IT! (1966) has the Golem committing robberies and minor havoc around modern-day London, much like the treacherous penguin in The Wrong Trousers. McDowall has a psychotic mother-fixation and sees the benefits of using such a monster to rule the world! I keep going back to It! and I'm finally warming to it... Updated review of IT! here.

UPDATE 2008: IT! premiered on DVD in the US on a double-bill with The Shuttered Room.

My 2012 review of THE GOLEM (1920) is here.

April 14, 2007

FEAR IS THE KEY (1972) - finally on DVD in widescreen

(UK, 1972)

Recommended seventies action thriller

UPDATED November 2007

In British cinemas in the 1970's, you could watch two movies for the price of one ticket. You'd either get two brand new films on a double-bill, or there'd be a new film with a supporting feature - an older film that was a proven crowd-pleaser.

I saw Fear is the Key as a support, several years after it's initial release. The car chase alone guaranteed continuing ‘support’ status, and the name of Alistair MacLean on the posters was a big draw, as his bestselling books continued to be adapted throughout the decade.

Admittedly, all I could remember about this film was the car chase and the mini-submarine, so it’s time I watched it again, prompted by the Roy Budd soundtrack CD which is a favourite of mine.

The low-key opening scene is a hook, a mystery motivation for our anti-hero, played by Barry Newman. On a remote airfield, he's talking to an aircraft by radio transmitter, when he hears it being shot out of the sky. For the rest of the film, he is a driven man.

Later, we're not told how much later, he's raising hell in New Orleans and in trouble with the police, starting fights and even drinking on a Sunday!

Naturally, he soon appears in a Louisiana courthouse, but not for long. We hear that he's wanted for killing a cop, and to seal the deal, he shoots another one in front of the judge! Grabbing a hostage, the luscious Suzy Kendall, he leaps into the fastest-looking sports car parked outside and we're off!

Car chase!

13 minutes long!

No seat belts!

Newman, and the stunt drivers, treat the red Ford Gran Turino like a 4x4. A succession of police cars chase them along the river banks of the Mississippi, burning rubber on and off the road, on boardwalks through the bayou, leaping through the air, spinning around roadblocks, and barrelling along a beach. It's the action highlight of the movie, which dares to peak early. The car stunts were arranged by Carey Loftin, the best driver in the business at the time – his work already included the car action in Bullitt, Diamonds Are Forever, and The French Connection - classy credentials indeed.

Accused of driving like a madmen, Newman’s character comes back with "I've got nothing to lose".

The film settles down into an edgy thriller, full of guys in dodgy suits wth itchy trigger fingers. A mix of helicopters, deep-sea diving, and a peripheral blonde – it’s all typical Alistair MacLean material - a sort of Americanised When Eight Bells Toll.

As we get to the crux of what the bad guys want – Newman steers a submersible down to the bottom of the ocean. A sequence achieved almost entirely by modelwork, courtesy of special effects kings Nick Allder and Derek Meddings. The size of the bubbles gives away the scale – but I completely missed this in the cinema. It is an excellently-shot scene, looking like they actual shot the models underwater.

After the big noisy opening, there’s a relatively quiet, but tense climax to this enjoyable slice of seventies thriller.

Watching it again, I was trying to work out whether it was a British or American production. I always thought this was a US film because of the swampy location work in the early scenes, but with so many British actors and technicians, I now believe it’s a British film that fooled me. The oil rig scenes and country mansion could have been filmed anywhere. I think there is some cleverly shot UK studio work, with some deceptive naturalistic lighting making it look like location work.

Two well known American actors help make us think the film is from the US, which also helped sell the movie internationally. Barry Newman had just appeared in the off-beat hit Vanishing Point, where he spent practically the whole movie behind the wheel of a fast car. But he’s famous for very little else than these two cult car films. He had a successful run on TV in his own series as trendy lawyer Petrocelli, but after that he dropped off my radar until I saw him in Stallone’s recent actioner, Daylight.

Glamorous support is provided by Suzy Kendall, who was married to Dudley Moore at the time. You may know her from prominent roles in several key Italian horror films, like Dario Argento’s trendsetting The Bird With Crystal Plumage. Her fantastic screams, heard at various moments in the car chase, demonstrate her suitability for horror roles.

John Vernon is always excellent. Whether good or bad, you never quite trust him, but you know he means what he says. This is a typically solid performance before he parodied himself as Dean Wormer in the comedy classic National Lampoon’s Animal House.

As Vernon's psychotic sidekick, Ben Kingsley appears in his first film role (according to IMDB) - almost as the younger incarnation of his character from Sexy Beast. It’s rare to see him with hair! His piercing eyes must have got him the job, and it's a substantial supporting role.

Another Brit bit-part is filled by the late Tony Anholt, (from TV’s The Protectors and Space 1999) in a rare film appearance.

Fear is the Key was only on DVD in Scandinavia until recently, cruelly cropped from the original 2.35 widescreen, down to full frame 1.33. Not a good way to see it. (The above screengrabs are 16:9 cropped from the original 2.35 widescreen, and are NOT representative of the new DVD release).

The new UK release is in 2.35 widescreen, in the UK (pictured at top).

Roy Budd's exciting, jazzy soundtrack has also been remastered on CD.

If you like this film, you’ll want to check out many other car chase movies on Varaces – the Movie Car Chase Database!

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April 11, 2007

THE WORLD SINKS EXCEPT JAPAN (2006) disastrous comedy

(2006, Japan, IMDB: Nihon igai zenbu chinbotsu)

Region 3 Hong Kong NTSC DVD (Panorama)

Not recommended at all

From Minoru Kawasaki, Japan's prolific director of low-budget movie comedy, comes this cheeky item lampooning last summer's blockbuster movie The Sinking of Japan
(reviewed here). Even the poster is a parody. Actually the film is an adaption of a novel that parodied the original Japan Sinks book. Okay...

The premise supposes that Japan is left floating, when every other country sinks beneath the oceans. Scientifically silly, it's basically a reversal of the plotline of The Submersion of Japan in order to concentrate on the implications for Japan's immigration policies. Currently very strict, Japan is shown here allowing in state leaders and their favourite film stars from Hollywood, but adopting brutally strict laws to keep out everyone else.

To keep the humour current, the characters are updated with lookalikes of Kim Jong-Il, and film stars Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. But the resemblances are fleeting and the resultant comedy value is wasted. In fact, most of the comic potential is wasted, by not lampooning the movie further. The old scientist who bores everyone with his endless tectonic explanations should have been funny, but was just boring instead!

I was expecting much better from the director of The Calamari Wrestler, which is fantastic. But I think the humour here leans too heavily on politics, as well as the comedy value of TV star cameos, which were all lost on me.

Obviously, this might all be very funny to Japanese viewers, but I usually 'get' their comedies easily. Also, the controversial nature of the bad taste humour here (like dealing with foreigners with flame-throwers) obviously distances gaijin viewers even more. It probably looked a lot better on paper.

The low budget is so low, that a paltry few computer graphics, mostly looking like weather maps, show us the world sinking. Most of the rest of the film takes place in a small bar, which we are supposed to believe is swanky enough for the world's richest people.

But I'd overlook all this if there were laughs, or even a story. The Calamari Wrestler had a surprisingly strong story, besides the fun of showing a large squid mixing in everyday society. The World Sinks Except Japan is sunk by it's largely international cast who can't act for toffee, let alone perform comedy. As always, the Japanese actors playing the journalists and the Prime Minister are good, but any non-Japanese actors are pretty embarrassing.

For me The Calamari Wrestler (reviewed here) shows that Kawasaki can do better, but I'll be approaching the rest of his films with caution in the future. They certainly all look promising, with 'high concept' ideas - Kani the Goalkeeper Crab, Executive Koala, and Wig Detective...

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April 09, 2007

GHOST GAME (2006) reality TV Thai horror

(2006, Thailand, IMDB Laa-thaa-phii)

Region 3 Thai PAL DVD (Premium Digital)
No English subtitles

Looks good but not recommended

The premise looks promising enough - 11 contestants are locked inside a the site of a wartime prison in Cambodia, where many prisoners were tortured and killed. If they stay in this supposedly haunted site long enough, they stand to win a lot of money. How scared are they willing to get, before they give up? If it really is haunted, are the ghosts dangerous? Whatever happens, everything is live on TV...

But this location is based on an actual prison and the film opens with what looks like actual photos of the real-life atrocities in Cambodia, from the time of the Khmer Rouge. These provide the kind of horror that the ensuing ghost-train level of scares can't hope to compete with. The movie also deeply upset the people of Cambodia, who subsequently didn't allow the film's release in their country.

In the film, the contestants are literally sent up the river to a remote jungle setting and taken through the rules. They are locked in the prison and told to explore. Sure enough ghosts soon start to appear to some of the party. But that's when I started struggling with the internal logic of this particular ghost phenomenon. The ghosts close in on people, touch them, scare them and then... leave. Sometimes everyone can see it, sometimes not. What's the ghost up to? Surely it's not taking directions from the TV director? It's certainly playing the game.

With the gamers strapped into torture chairs, or lying in crates filled with skulls, this is a reality TV show that I'd watch, as long as it was my least favourite celebrities.

The scares certainly build up effectively, but mostly because of ear-splitting sound-effects that guarantee the jolt. The ghosts get more violent, things start going wrong and the fact that it's on nationwide TV is quickly forgotten. As the gamers start dying off, the most gruesome action is edited around, almost like it's avoiding being too intense. After a tight opening volley of scares, the pace falters halfway through.

The saturated greenish hue and contrasty lighting certainly adds to the morbid atmosphere, but when everything looks green, you can't easily see the colour of blood. Also the scenes are sometimes too dark - there's one with a hanging corpse that you could easily miss. The shot has been electronically darkened so much, that it's almost invisible in the shadows.

The clips from the film that are used in the trailer, included on this Thai DVD, look considerably lighter than the finished film. The trailer looks more like the TV show it's supposed to be. Someone's obviously made everything look more filmic in post-production, at the expense of the action being visible!

The cast are the usual crowd of good-looking teenagers, a similar ploy used in Thai horrors Scared and Art of the Devil, and their acting is at least better than the average Friday the 13th movie, or is that faint praise?

A potentially strong and interesting premise is frittered away with a simple story with few scares, constantly interrupted by the daylight scenes between rounds of 'the game'.

Do you want to know more?

If you want a second opinion, Slasherpool has another review and some screengrabs.

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April 04, 2007

GAMERA THE BRAVE (2006) - the flying turtle's back!

(2006, Japan, Chiisaki Yusha Tachi Gamera)

Now on official region 3 NTSC DVD from Hong Kong (Universe)

Recommended for younger Japanese monster movie fans

Gamera - the story so far... In the 1960's rival studios came up with a monster of their own, envious of Toho's internationally successful Godzilla series. Though more childish and lower-budget, the series lasted into the 1970's with six movies.

During Godzilla's hiatus between 1995 and 1999 (to make way for the US version), Gamera triumphantly returned with three big budget action spectaculars that put the 1990's Godzilla films to shame. Gamera - Guardian of the Universe, Gamera 2 - Advent of Legion, Gamera 3 - Awakening of Irys are arguably the best ever to come out of Japan.

Now, during another Big-G hiatus (Godzilla Final Wars in 2004 was announced to be the last film for at least 9 years) this new film returns to Gamera's roots with a child-friendly monster movie.

For me, the 1990's trilogy contained the most exciting kaiju (giant monster) movie moments ever - with great staging and special effects. The human characters were also well integrated with the monster action, making these well-constructed stories that don't collapse when the monsters are offscreen.

Gamera the Brave begins by playing on audience expectations with a rip-roaring night battle between adult Gamera and 3 Gyaos monsters. While the film has a stand-alone story, this scene ties in with the end of the previous film. It's wonderful to see him back in action.

Then we meet Toto, a young schoolboy from southern Japan, who discovers a strange egg that hatches in front of him. A baby turtle emerges and he adopts it as a pet, not knowing that it's a baby Gamera. There are some very silly scenes when he discovers that his tiny turtle discovery can fly. It looks like someone superglued some fishing wire to a turtle's back - turtles just don't look aerodynamic.

The simple story and believable characters are good enough, but the action gets a little silly, soppy if you like, and amusingly Japanese. The baby Gamera soon grows as big as a house just in time to meet the giant reptilian Zedus as it hits the shore. Zedus is a fearsome amphibious lizard that has been wreaking havoc offshore.

As it arrive onshore, the government see Gamera in action, and want to study him, taking him to a huge research station. But Zedus is following him...

This is more of a family film, but it occasionally oversteps the boundaries by having Gamera's green blood spurt - for example with the usual hand impaling. Otherwise, it's a children's adventure centred on three boys and a young girl who believe in Gamera when no-one else does. Because of the heroics of the children in the story, I think this is why the film was originally publicised as Gamera - Little Braves.

The action scenes are few, but excitingly staged, though it's undignified to see Gamera stuck in a skyscraper with his butt sticking out. The monster, Zedus, looks convincingly like a living monster, showing off 'suitmation' at it's best. While the CGI used, (like Zedus' tongue weapon) doesn't look as convincing as the computer FX in Gamera 3.

Being a baby, the face of Gamera looks a little cutesy, especially compared to his recent incarnations. This especially makes it hard to recommend to hardened newcomers - you have to see the 1990's trilogy first, then see this one.

But at a time when giant monster movies are fairly few, it's nice to see one with solid effects, that isn't tongue-in-cheek.

The film is presented 2.35 widescreen (like many of the early films), but the region 3 only has an extra trailer, but does have a handsome embossed card slipcase. A special edition with a disc of extras is available from Japan but has no English subtitles.

Do you want to know more?

For a full plot description, an alternate review and loads more stills, the Sci-Fi Japan website has an article that's very hard to beat!

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