March 27, 2014

THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941) - Boris Karloff and the world beyond...

(1941, USA)

In many, many of his horror movies, Boris Karloff plays a scientist who begins the story with the best of intentions. And then things go very wrong. The Devil Commands is unusual because for once he isn't a mad surgeon pioneering monkey brain transplants or reanimating corpses. Though it does deal with life after death, delivering similar chills as Vincent Price's Monsieur Valdemar in Tales of Terror (1962)...

The huge rise in the interest in spiritualism, communicating with the recently departed using seances and mediums, was understandably boosted by the first World War. This was filmed during the second, and mixes in fresh elements from the early days of science fiction pulp novels. Instead of using the mystical forces of crystal balls and Ouija boards, here the method is scientific, involving headgear that screams 'science from the future!

But this early sci-fi is also definitely horror, not just because of Karloff, but because of his character's methods... While I was familiar with publicity photos from the film, I was pleasantly shocked to discover the macabre story behind them - a uniquely weird tale, an early echo of Stuart Gordon's From Beyond (1986).

I first remember seeing this among a season of early Karloff horror films on late night TV. The 'mad doctor' ones have co-mingled in my memory and only this and The Man They Could Not Hang stood out at all clearly. Both containing plot elements I'd admired in much later films.

It's not just the story that helped it stand out, director Edward Dmytryk would soon claw his way out of B-movies onto the A-list, with the cherished film noir Farewell My Lovely, an Oscar  nomination for Crossfire and soon after the powerful navy drama The Caine Mutiny

He gets the most out of the cast and the low budget, much in the same way film noir would prosper. His staging of the actors constantly makes for interesting, intensely composed imagery, even with just two characters in frame. His direction also boosts the cast. For example Karloff's mostly mute laboratory sidekick is far more sensitively handled than Universal horror's mad hunchbacks.

Best of all is the lapsed spiritualist played by Anne Revere, the driving force behind Karloff's work. He's trying to contact the dead for personal reasons. Her character recognises the financial potential of such a discovery... As in The Sorcerers, Karloff defers any hint of evil, despite his (ahem) bizarre methods. It's the woman in the team who is greedy and murderous. Revere's performance is restrained but powerfully performed, and a revelation because I've only ever seen her play the most perfect of mothers, as in National Velvet (1944).

Like many B-movies this runs barely longer than an hour, but the story is tightly-packed and may even fascinate you. 

This time around I watched the US NTSC Sony DVD release from 2003. Most of Karloff's work from this era has been collected into boxsets, but I agree that this warranted a standalone release. I compared it to my 1990s UK TV recording and found that the DVD has a far superior transfer. Sharper detail and a wider reveal of the action. It's also the only DVD release there's been in the UK or USA.

More, recommended Boris Karloff films:

March 23, 2014

JIN-ROH: THE WOLF BRIGADE (1999) - a fiercesome armoured police force

(1999, Japan)

Alternately impressive and ponderous anime movie

Just rewatched this. But like many Studio Ghibli films, while I'm impressed by the animation, the detail and artistry of the visuals, I struggle to follow the meanings of the story. First time I watched Jin-Roh, about ten years ago, I was quite new to anime and Japanese cinema in general. Anything I didn't understand I'd let slide because I thought that Japanese culture was very different. Which in many ways it is, but not different enough for me to continually excuse its ambivalent politics or sexual politics.

In an imagined alternate future, a few years after World War II, shortages and harsh government leadership inspire civil unrest and violent demonstrations in the streets. Rather than give the problem to the military or the police force, a new domestic strike force clamps down on demonstrations, trained to be without compassion in dealing with 'revolutionaries'.

After a particularly bloody riot, in which a young woman has supplied the freedom fighters with a deadly homemade bomb, the task force is chasing the leaders down in the sewers. But Fuse, a young member of the heavily-armed task squad, is unable to shoot down the young woman as she tries to deliver a second device...

Fuse is then questioned as to why he didn't kill her. He's kept under observation in case he's a member of a vigilante group within the Jin-Roh, known as The Wolf Brigade. Kept away from active service, he's shocked to meet a young woman who looks exactly like the one he couldn't kill in the sewers...

Directed by Hiroyuki Okiura one of Production I.G's animators, and written by Ghost In The Shell's creator Mamoru Oshii, Jin-Roh is impressive visually, but only really works during the intricate high-calibre action scenes. Most of the story is a low-key investigation into the allegiance of the central characters, rather than any study of their tactics - obliterating demonstrators with heavy weaponry.

The constant references to the German tale of Red Riding Hood, and the characters talking in metaphors make the dialogue hard to follow. Kei's character, who looks to be schoolgirl age, might not be much younger than Fuse, but her physical stature makes her look far younger. Their potential romance looks transgressive though her childlike behaviour is at odds with her extremely dangerous job. This blurring of whether characters are women or girls continues to make Japanese drama look outdated, especially the genres aimed at young men.

Jin-Roh was made after a couple of low-budget live-action films featured the same fictional tactical squad - the barely comprehensible The Red Spectacles (1987) and Stray Dog: Kerberos Panzer Cops (1991), both of which feature the impressive armour (above).

The trilogy, more specifically the look of the Jin-Roh squad, have of course led to impressively-detailed Japanese action figures, not to mention some very similar looking soldiers in video game sci-fi shooters.

(In an attempt to better represent what I've been watching, I want to write more reviews. This was an experiment in writing in 'one sitting'. A short review that doesn't take much longer than a movie running-length to write. Of course, I'll still devote the same silly amount of time to the heavily-researched articles...)

The Making of Slap Shot - a new book on the 1977 sports comedy

I've added a review of the 2011 Jonathon Jackson book to my piece on Slap Shot. Rather than spread items about the same film all around the blog, it's all been included in my 2008 review of the film.

Having just read the book and watched the blu-ray for the first time, I've updated and expanded my review... Slap Shot (1977)

March 08, 2014

A ton of GODZILLA movies new to blu-ray

Thirteen new Godzilla blu-ray releases on the way...

While we hold our radioactive breath for Gareth Edwards' gigantic Godzilla movie, it's already good news for kaiju fans as half of the Japanese Godzilla films will soon be on blu-ray.

The story so far - not all Godzilla films have yet hit DVD in the USA (Godzilla 1984, below, still hasn't materialised). And besides the American Godzilla (1998), only three have so far been released on blu-ray... 

Godzilla 1984 - still missing from DVD in the USA
Two editions of the very first 1954 Godzilla were released on blu-ray by Criterion (below) and Classic Media. Destroy All Monsters (1968), which confusingly hasn't got 'Godzilla' in the title, was released on blu-ray by Media Blasters in 2011. Godzilla vs Biollante (1989) was released on blu-ray by Miramax in 2012.

Godzilla (1954) - one of three already on blu-ray
But NOW, the imminent second American Godzilla blockbuster has triggered a tidal wave of Godzilla reissues on DVD and thirteen blu-ray debuts. With the rights to Japanese Godzilla films split among different worldwide distributors, there've been four separate announcements of new Godzilla releases made this year. While Sci-Fi Japan have most of the news scoops, what I'm doing here is compiling a checklist of all these new blu releases in one place. I'll also update my master Godzilla DVD list accordingly as they're confirmed. I'll obviously have to rethink the name... disc list? Godzillas?

Universal Studios will release King Kong vs Godzilla (1963) and King Kong Escapes on blu-ray in April. The American version of King Kong vs Godzilla was very different to the Japanese, but I believe this is the only version that will be released. It was the first Godzilla film to be made in colour. Its sequel King Kong Escapes (1967) also features a mechanical King Kong and the Gorosaurus (that later popped up in Destroy All Monsters), but Godzilla himself doesn't appear in this story.
Details on

Also in April, Media Blasters will be reissuing Destroy All Monsters (1968) on blu-ray and DVD, but also Godzilla vs Megalon (1973) will be appearing on blu-ray (above) for the first time.
Full story from Sci-Fi Japan here.

Three more classic Godzillas will arrive on blu-ray in May from Kraken releasing. Be careful though, as each film has two alternate names (the titles were often re-translated for their US release). 
Godzilla vs the Sea Monster / Ebirah - Horror of the Deep (1966). 
Godzilla vs the Smog Monster / Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971, above). 
Godzilla vs Gigan / Godzilla on Monster Island (1972).
Sci-Fi Japan has the cover art of all three releases.

Also in May, Sony are set to release EIGHT MORE Godzilla movies on four double-bill blu-rays. Deep breath...

Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991) and Godzilla vs Mothra (1992),
Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II (1993) and Godzilla vs Space Godzilla (1994),
Godzilla vs Destoroyah (1995) and Godzilla vs Megaguirus (2000),
Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) and Godzilla: Tokyo SOS (2003)

These are all up for pre-order on Amazon. There should be DVD releases of all of them as well.

More news on these sets from The Good, the Bad and the Godzilla.

Of course, I'm holding my breath to see how good these will look in high-definition. US releases don't always have access to the original Japanese film materials to make the best transfers of films that date up to sixty years old. The blu-ray of Destroy All Monsters was certainly a disappointment. But it's going to be fun finding out.

Kaiju fans have already been treated to the awesome 1995-1999 Gamera Trilogy on blu-ray (from Mill Creek, above) as well as the later 2006 sequel Gamera The Brave (from Tokyo Shock). The good news is that now Mill Creek are also releasing the original six Gamera films in two blu-ray sets (below).
More details from Sci-FI Japan here.

For all the latest news on these and other Japanese science-fantasy, please follow...
Sci-Fi Japan
The Good the Bad and the Godzilla

My full list of where to find all the Japanese Godzilla films on DVD... 
is kept updated here.

March 04, 2014

THE DEMON (1963) - Daliah Lavi and IL DEMONIO

(1963, Italy, original title IL DEMONIO)

For years, I only knew Daliah Lavi as the sensual, secret agent 'James Bond' in Casino Royale (1967) - to be fair, everyone in the film is called James Bond. But she has some great scenes, especially when she's up against ineptly villainous Woody Allen, whilst completely naked. If you've not seen it, she's also well known (to horror fans) for Mario Bava's The Whip and the Body (1963) opposite Christopher Lee.

The extensive Video Watchdog interview (in issue 170) with her surprised me when they discussed at length another Italian horror film where she plays a possessed woman who performs a backbending spider walk ten years earlier than Regan in The Exorcist

This alone made it a must-see for me, and while I wasn't expecting an unbridled exorcism shocker, The Demon has a consistent, unique quality and plenty of harsh surprises. Shortly after reading about the film, a subtitled version appeared on YouTube. This was lucky, as the film has only been available on DVD in Italy without English subtitles (above). That's a shame because it's quite mesmerising as well as Daliah's favourite of her many screen performances. 

Set in a remote Italian farming village, Puri is very unhappy that the love of her life is marrying another woman. She tries simple, elemental witchcraft to gain his affections. She performs a ceremony high on the cliffs above the church while he gets married to try and curse the couples' good luck. She stalks their home on wedding night, using dead animals to distract the guards. Is she possessed? Is she a witch? Is she mentally unbalanced?

Dressed in black, her defiant appearance and physical presence simply doesn't fit in. The villagers even believe she's a blight on their crops. They use a local faith healer to try and cast out the demon in her. His private ceremony involves trussing her up and then he takes advantage of her. 

Throughout the story, many try to cure her, usually with disproportionate violence. As her behaviour becomes more and more extreme, their methods also escalate.

The superstitious villagers use simple chants and tokens to ward her off, though her behaviour looks just as much like a distraught woman having a breakdown. Though her spider walk in a cathedral and her violent reaction to nuns and rosary beads appears to be a demonic possession.

The film has an episodic, semi-documentary look and sometimes not much explanation to link the abrupt change between locations or to examine the implications of what has just happened. But her extraordinary performance and the spectacular rural locations make this uniquely memorable.

Reading her VW interview again, this was based on a true story and Daliah met the girl she was playing! Director Brunello Rondi, a scriptwriter for Fellini, had her acting amongst (unprepared) real people in real locations, which makes it even more interesting.