All posts by Todd

When not working the sex beat for Teleport City, Todd writes about world pop cinema on his blog Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill!
Shiro_shimomoto

S & M Hunter

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In recent days I’ve been pouring over Jasper Sharp’s just published history of Japanese sex cinema, Behind the Pink Curtain — certainly for the purpose of broadening my world cinema knowledge, but mainly because I really, really want to understand the way that sex is presented in the Japanese movies I watch. And right now, to be honest, I really, really don’t. I sometimes suspect that we — in this case meaning “we Americans” — are more to blame for this than the Japanese, that the overwhelming impression of Japanese films as dealing with eros only in its darkest and most perverse manifestations is the result of us yanks, in our eagerness to point a mocking finger at “those crazy Japanese”, focusing only on those films that enable us to do so.

Perhaps the reality is that Japanese cinema is teeming with examples of people having loving, mutually pleasurable, consensual sex, and we’re just not seeing it because we’re choosing not to look. Admittedly, I’ve yet to see evidence of that being the case. In fact, I’ve seen more than my fair share of evidence to the contrary. Still, I suppose that if you wanted to stretch things, you could consider In the Realm of the Senses to feature loving, mutually pleasurable, consensual sex — lots and lots of it, in fact — until, of course, you get to the part where the man dies during an act of erotic asphyxiation and the woman cuts off his penis. So, well, there you go.


Not that a few shafts of light haven’t penetrated my benighted state regarding this matter. For instance, I now know that the Japanese sex film, or Pinku Eiga, came of age alongside of Japan’s politically radical underground cinema of the 1960s, and that the two, thanks to many of their creatives maintaining a foothold in both worlds, are so intertwined as to be in many cases indistinguishable. (For instance, the films of Koji Wakamatsu, which always struck me as being more about politics than sex, but are still considered part of the Pinku Eiga genre.) As such, they share a confrontational aesthetic that can still be seen even in the pink films of today.

America’s military presence in Japan was a hot button issue at the time of pink cinema’s emergence, sparking student protests that, in many cases, lead to violent confrontations with police. Because of this, pink filmmakers often positioned the abused and violated female bodies at the center of their movies as being symbols of the motherland, which had, in their eyes, been itself violated by the presence of an invading army on its soil. Such pervading sentiments at the dawn of Pinku Eiga’s existence may serve to explain what came to be a seemingly ingrained habit of taking anti-Western potshots, often without any apparent underlying political context. A good example of this would be the frequency with which Christian iconography is put to aggressively blasphemous uses, a practice that would be baffling if directed at Japan’s pathetically under-represented Christian minority, but makes a lot more sense as a swipe at Western sensibilities. Such is the case with our review subject here, 1986′s S&M Hunter, a film with no agenda other than to be as freaky as possible, but which nonetheless equips its bondage-happy protagonist with a priest’s collar and a sex slave wearing a nun’s habit (and usually not much else).

Of course, another factor that has influenced the content of Japan’s sex films is the country’s notorious censorship laws, which ban the depiction of genitalia or penetration, but really not that much else. Because of this, Japanese filmmakers have often had to travel far outside of the usual territory in order to fulfill pornography’s promise of showing taboos broken, usually veering in the direction of fetish, perversion, and, all too frequently, the idealized depiction of rape and sexual assault. I also imagine that, in a culture that puts as high a premium on shame as Japan’s does, the spectacle of characters simply taking what they want sexually without fear, consequence, or remorse serves as a pretty potent fantasy of liberation — though, given those characters are virtually without exception male, one that comes at the expense of excluding half of the potential audience.


The titular hero of S&M Hunter is just such a character, a bondage-crazed, manga-style superhero, complete with his own hilarious, Spaghetti Western style theme tune, who not only takes what he wants from the women he encounters, but also puts in their place – or, in his parlance, “tames” – those women with the audacity to attempt to do the same themselves. S&M Hunter may just be the film that signals my arrival at the point where I have finally seen too much, which I knew was going to come sooner or later. Despite its much-touted ability to shock and offend, it managed, for most of its sixty minute running time, only to leave me vaguely amused, and in its most outre moments prompted little more of a reaction from me than a sedate but heartfelt “Huh. Now there’s something you don’t see every day.” This may not simply be due to my having collapsed irretrievably into a state of decadence and moral decay, however. For one thing, the notion that a woman’s unfettered expression of her sexuality would require her to be tamed in such a manner, if you take it at all seriously, speaks to such a profound sense of impotence on the part of the film’s intended male audience that the only appropriate reaction to it would be an embarrassed kind of pity.

More than that, though, I think that my becoming acquainted, over the years, with people who were into S & M play has made me aware of the extent to which the practice is just that: play. With its over-the-top, bluntly archetypal characters and wildly outlandish bondage scenarios, this is, to me, clearly the area that S&M Hunter inhabits, a world of fantasy and elaborate play — a fact driven home by the depiction of the women on the receiving end of S&M Hunter’s signature brand of justice as taking very obvious pleasure in the experience. Given that, I don’t think that S&M Hunter plays to an audience of potential B&D vigilantes any more than Harry Potter movies play to an audience who will immediately run out and carve lightning bolts into their foreheads and then expose their genitals to men in stylized horse costumes.


S&M Hunter is the second in a trilogy of S&M Hunter films directed by Shuji Kataoka, a regular Pinku Eiga director of the era who, in later years, would go on to become a popular director of DTV action films. Here Kataoka casts two stars who were both frequent presences in his films and prominent fixtures in the world of Japanese sex cinema as a whole. Shiro Shimomoto, who plays the title role, was one of the most prolific actors in pink films during the seventies and eighties, and, judging from the titles of more recent films like Tokyo Booty Nights, still keeps a foot in the game even today. Hiromi Saotome was also a fairly ubiquitous presence in such films during the eighties, specializing in bondage and S&M roles. She would go on to become such an enthusiastic proponent of her art that, in 1987, she would famously have herself strung-up and dangled from a footbridge in front of one of Tokyo’s most heavily trafficked commuter train stations.

As far as I can tell, having only seen the trailer, the first S&M Hunter film’s recounting of its title character’s origin depicts him starting out as an ordinary businessman who gets on the wrong side of the Yakuza. This leads to him being attacked and blinded in one eye by a vicious gang of delinquent schoolgirls -– all in full uniform, of course — lead by the hard-eyed Meg (Saotome). In the aftermath of this attack, he is discovered and taken in by the master of an S&M parlor called the Pleasure Dungeon. A true S&M Hunter, we see, is not born but made, as the master (Yutaka Ikejima) then puts our hero through a rigorous training course that ultimately results in him becoming a rope master of near-supernatural ability, a fearless avenger of the pussy-whipped, clad in a distinctive uniform comprised of tweed suit and riding boots, the aforementioned priest’s collar, a skull-and-crossbones emblazoned eye patch, and bowler hat. From here, S&M Hunter sets out to put Meg and her gang in their place.


However, the Hunter’s roping skills are not employed to merely punish and restrain, but rather to gain his prey’s unquestioning obedience via the administration of near-unendurable levels of sexual pleasure. Each of his elaborate, cat’s cradle-like constructions is designed for this purpose, with every knot and wind somehow honing in on a different pleasure zone, with the coups de grace being a long strand of rope that he musically thrums like a giant bass string, sending vibrations straight to his victim’s sweet spot. As he states at the outset of the second film, his method is to “defeat” women, not with violence, but with love, their emotions being their true weak point. And as a result of his ministrations, they are rendered his willing slaves. For those of you who are skeptical of S&M Hunter’s prowess in this regard, and can only be convinced by way of the employment of a dated eighties pop culture reference, heed the words of the Dungeon Master himself: “Even if Hulk Hogan was a girl, she’d be his slave.”

The second entry in the series begins with a gay man named Joe (Bunmei Tobayama) coming to the Pleasure Dungeon with a tale of woe about how his lover, Jack (Akira Fukuda), has been kidnapped and made a sex slave by an all girl gang called the Bombers. S&M Hunter quickly agrees to take on the task of freeing Jack and taming these wanton women, after which we are taken to the hideout of the Bombers, where the gang, lead by Machi (Ayu Kiyokawa), are keeping Jack naked and strapped to a bed for their pleasure. To S&M Hunter‘s credit, I fully expected Jack to be eventually “converted” by these ladies’ sexual attentions, but that never happens. In fact, once Jack is freed and reunited with his lover, the two men are allowed a tender moment that seems, by all appearances, to be a prelude to a full-on sex scene, albeit one which never arrives. I had to wonder if this was the result of something being left on the cutting room floor, or if it was simply a fake-out perpetrated with some kind of humorous intention. To be sure, S&M Hunter is filled with things that I recognize as having the formal appearance of jokes, but whose comic intent, for reasons that I assume are culturally based, ended up zinging right past me.


Finally the man-hating Meg, still in full schoolgirl uniform, shows up at the Bomber’s door, hoping to join the gang and enlist their aid in seeking revenge against the S&M Hunter for the humiliation she suffered at his hands. Meanwhile, the hunter is bearing down on the gang’s hideout, accompanied by the Master, his nun’s-habit wearing sex slave, Maria (Naomi Sugishita), and Joe, who by appearances is himself falling prey to the rope master’s irresistible sexual charisma. With his target in sight, S&M Hunter then declares that he prefers to go on alone, causing the Master, in an actually funny instance of the script drawing attention to its own haphazardness, to wonder aloud why the hell he had asked them all along in the first place. From there, our hero proceeds to work his ropey magic on the gang of uppity women.

The straight sex scenes in S&M Hunter feel fairly obligatory, and are interesting mainly for the lengths they go to make sure that you don’t actually see anything. (Think lots of conveniently placed visual obstructions of the type that could serve as gags in an Austin Powers movie.) Where the real creativity is invested is in the film’s breathtakingly surreal bondage scenarios. And it is with those scenes in particular that we see a softening of the movie’s potentially offensive edge, based in the fact that they’re aestheticized and rendered fantastic to the point of bearing little relation to any type of real world brutality. (According to Sharp’s book, a film like this would typically have on hand a real life rope master, or kinbaku, to supervise the intricate binding that was necessary to completing these bizarre tableaus.) Also, while I know that many would be offended by the notion of a woman actually enjoying being the subject of such humiliations, I have to say, for my own part, that after being subjected to the endless parade of cretinous male predators in Toei’s Pinky Violence films, it was nice to see a member of my gender being depicted as masterful, desirable and actually capable of giving a woman sexual pleasure, no matter how unorthodox his methods of doing so might have been.

The first real gasp-inducing example of the Hunter’s particular brand of artistry comes when he trusses up one of Machi’s gang in a giant spider web that is designed to increase its victim’s pleasure with every rope that’s cut. After Machi shoots through a couple of the knots, the Hunter warns her that any further attempts to free her friend will send her to “the ecstasy of hell”. Machi curses the Hunter, but he responds that she is only jealous that it’s her friend and not her who’s being subjected to this treatment. And, sure enough, soon after he has taken leave of Machi, she turns up at S&M Hunter’s ranch (yes, you heard me), saying that she now wants “to give control” to him. Since it is one of the film’s few portrayals of a consensual sexual act, what follows is played as a love scene, though one in which one partner is elaborately bound up in the rafters of a barn while the other stands far below thrumming vibrations at her nethers through a taut length of rope.


The scene has the ridiculously gauzy quality of a romantic dream sequence in an old Hollywood movie, and throughout it and the one that follows, actress Ayu Kiyokawa is given the full, halo of soft light treatment, rendering her unrecognizable from the hard-looking Machi we saw in the stark, harshly-lit earlier sequences at the gang’s hideout. Clearly the ministrations of S&M Hunter’s long, ropey fingers have caused a transformation in her, and once the act is complete, she pledges her love to him. “You only love the ropes”, he replies. Still, once she has departed, S&M Hunter graces us with a tender moment in which the Hunter, having second thoughts, runs after Machi and, upon catching up to her, hands her the rope he used to bind her. “This now belongs to you”, he says solemnly, obviously fighting to contain his emotions. It is in this moment that we’re afforded a glimpse of the S&M Hunter as a tragic figure, one who’s calling to discipline all of the world’s wayward women forces him to turn his back on love. (“All of the masochists need me,” he tells Machi. “I’m a charitable sadist. I can’t love only you.”) It’s as if director Kataoka, in an uncanny moment of long-range prescience, is preemptively providing his hero with the emotional complexity that a later Christopher Nolan reboot would otherwise affect. Later, moved by what she has seen and experienced, Machi says to her fellow gang members of the Hunter, “You don’t know him. His strength knows gentleness.”

S&M Hunter is irresistibly quotable. Its main character spouts all kinds of pretentious nonsense, and even, true to his ecclesiastical garb, quotes the New Testament (while other utterances — “I see your heart. Your heart wants my ropes” — seem more secular in origin). What I enjoyed most about the film was how it hijacks the terse moral shorthand and glib certitude of evangelism for its own anarchic ends. During the movie’s talky prologue, the Hunter essentially preaches to the audience, explicitly laying out the story’s conflict and moral, after which we see both briskly played out, with the gum-snapping, leather-clad Bombers playing the transgressors whose wayward actions meet with exactly those consequences that the moral predetermines. In the end it all plays out like some Bizarro World version of a Chick tract, with those who have given in to evil, rather than being cast into the lake of fire, instead being bound up and helplessly racked with consecutive multiple orgasms.


S&M Hunter concludes with the final showdown between the title character and the revenge-minded schoolgirl Meg, who has dressed for the occasion in full Nazi regalia. True to the movie’s aesthetic of escalation, it’s a real head-spinner, capping off with S&M Hunter managing, despite having his remaining good eye gouged out, to bind Meg and hoist her into the heavens with an industrial crane. All in all, it’s one of those endings that casts all that preceded it in a far better light, since, throughout S&M Hunter, you can’t help but wonder how it could possibly tie things up with a suitably crowning WTF moment. Well bravo, S&M Hunter. Well played. Well played, indeed.

In the end, I’d be a fool to deny that S&M Hunter traffics in misogyny, though I think there’s room for debate over how deeply held it is. That said, it did elicit a wince from me during its opening scene, at the moment when the Master says, on the subject of hitting women: “Even if you hit them hard, they recover. They go back to normal.” In response to this, I have to wonder: is writer/director Kataoka referring there to women’s emotional resilience, or is he actually saying that they’re literally indestructible? In any case, it is for this reason, according to the Master, that, rather than trying vainly to beat them into submission, “You need to train women to obey.” Again, it seems like we’re seeing a suggestion that, rather than being objects of contempt, women represent some kind of overwhelming, otherworldly force that needs to be contained – a viewpoint that would in turn suggest coming from such a standpoint of infantile helplessness that, again, it’s difficult to avoid feeling an aghast sense of pity in response.

It also just may be that there’s an element of obstinacy in my inability to be really offended by S&M Hunter. The whole thing has a bratty quality to it that suggests that getting riled by it would simply be letting S&M Hunter win. What’s worse is that I actually kind of liked the movie, which may very well make me a horrible person. Still, if that be the verdict, it won’t prevent me from maintaining my regular program of affectionately patting all human beings under four feet tall on the head, slinging old ladies over my back two at a time to carry them across the street, and cooking elaborate meals for homeless people. You see, that’s the kind of guy I am. But I’m also the kind of guy that has to take his hat off to a movie that manages to top itself as enthusiastically as S&M Hunter does, even though I know in my heart that tying up a lady in a giant spider web and sending her “to the ecstasy of hell” is fundamentally wrong. I hope you can all find it in your hearts to forgive me.

Oh, and also? Those fucking Japanese are crazy.

Release Year: 1986 | Country: Japan | Starring: Shiro Shimomoto, Hiromi Saotome, Ayu Kiyokawa, Yutaka Ikejima, Utako Sarashina, Naomi Sugishita, Bunmei Tobayama, Akira Fukuda | Writer: Shuji Kataoka | Director: Shuji Kataoka | Cinematographer: Toshio Shimura | Music: Takashi Akutagawa | Producer: Daisuke Asakura

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Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster

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As of this writing, Godzilla is in hibernation following his last attempt at a cinematic swan song, 2004′s dreadful Final Wars. Come the teens, however, I am pretty confident that Godzilla’s masters at Toho will take him out of mothballs again to reinvent him — as they have done in the two previous decades — for a new era and prevailing sensibility. In the nineties they gave us an appropriately touchy-feely Godzilla series, with Mothra recast as a new-agey Earth Mother and a teary-eyed psychic on hand to clue us in to the monsters’ feelings. The Godzilla of the 00′s was leaner and meaner, aided by the fact that all of those shots of collapsing skyscrapers now had a disquieting edge of verisimilitude. I have no idea what version of Godzilla Toho has in store for us in the future, but I’m fairly certain it won’t be the goofy superhero we saw in his movies from the late sixties and seventies. That incarnation, I’m afraid, is one that’s lost to the ages.

Still, I’m happy to at least see evidence of a more forgiving attitude emerging with regard to movies like Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and its much maligned director, Jun Fukuda. For years it seemed that the more affable version of Godzilla presented therein and the man most associated with it were held in utter revulsion by those who considered themselves serious fans. As such, they became central to an official narrative of decline – a woeful spiral or ruin traced from the minute Godzilla did that little victory jig in Monster Zero and cemented into inevitability with the replacement of series mentor Ishiro Honda by the upstart Fukuda, leading inexorably to that dark day when Godzilla and Anguilas would speak to each other via cartoon speech balloons in Godzilla vs. Gigan.


Behind all of this ire seemed to be this notion that the “real” Godzilla had been hijacked and replaced by a buffoonish impostor, an idea that seemed to be what fueled the comparatively serious-minded tone of the G films of the nineties and beyond. But what this stance refused to acknowledge is the fact that Godzilla’s rich and varied history gives him all the chameleon-like properties of a true pop icon — that he is a piece of imaginational public property capable of being to each person whoever that person wants him to be, without encroaching in the least on the next person’s conception of him. Those who enjoy Godzilla most as the symbolism-freighted destructive juggernaut seen in his debut film can do so without having that enjoyment dampened in the least by the fact that, later down the road, he would be pitching cartoon boulders at a giant lobster, just as those who enjoy that later version are free to do so untroubled by the fact that, early on, Godzilla was a bit of a dick. Godzilla is a bit like Madonna in that way (while Madonna, as time passes, is increasingly like Godzilla in a number of other ways).

Sadly, the cropping up of misguided and pointlessly self-limiting orthodoxies in the realm of pop culture is exactly the sort of thing you’re going to see if you allow for a backwass notion like “serious fandom”, which, to me, is like the flipside of “casual zealotry”. I mean, I’m both capable of being serious and a fan of many things, but I strongly believe that when the notions of “seriousness” and “fandom” collide, only trouble, heartache and — in the unforgiving lense of hindsight — deep, gnawing shame can result. I feel this especially acutely in this case. because, to my thinking, to be too critical of Godzilla after a certain point becomes dangerously close to taking Godzilla for granted, which is something we should never do. You see, I’ve reached an age where I’ve taken stock of my life and determined which things matter to me the most. And I can tell you in all honesty that Godzilla ranks right up there with fine liquor, warm summer nights and the love of a good woman among those thing that make life most worth living. Sure, I wasn’t crazy about Final Wars, but if you told me that having no Final Wars meant having no Godzilla, I’d have to say, sure, go ahead and give Ryuhei Kitamura the keys to the franchise and let him have at it.

All of this ties in with what I think determines which of Godzilla’s different manifestations will be the one a particular person will hold closest to his or her heart, which can basically be described as a sort of primary attachment theory of Godzilla. In short, it’s all about which Godzilla was your first. In my case, it was Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. If memory serves — which it may very well not — the encounter took place via a short-lived Saturday night horror movie package called Shock-It-To-Me Theater that aired on one of the Bay Area’s local UHF channels. The host was a goateed guy called Asmodeus, who always wore a smoking jacket and dark glasses — and who actually puffed away on a cigarette as he introduced the movies, which should give you some idea of how long ago this was. Not long after, Asmodeus and Shock-It-To-Me would be driven off the air by the popularity of a competing horror show on another local channel, Creature Features, which was hosted by the recently departed Bob Wilkins, an unassuming guy in an off-the-rack suit and glasses who had a perpetually bemused demeanor and a lacerating, bone-dry wit.


Thinking back, it must have been tough for Asmodeus, who was more what would have been considered a traditional horror movie host at the time — complete with ominously intoned, pre-scripted dialog and a cobwebbed, gothic castle set from which to intone it — to be knocked off the air by a guy like Wilkins. Little did we know at the time that, with Wilkins, we were seeing the first glimmer of an ironic hipster sensibility that, by the time of Mystery Science Theater, would become part and parcel of our attitude toward “B” cinema as a whole. Anyway, it’s just as likely that I first saw Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster on Wilkins’ Creature Features. But, if that’s the case, at least my lapse in memory gave me an opportunity to give Asmodeus a shout-out, because, even though I was among the horde of young viewers who ditched him in favor of Creature Features, he was still a formative influence.

Anyway, what matters the most out of all of this is that my initial viewing of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, whatever setting on the TV dial it emanated from, had a soul-stirring effect on me. I remember being struck by a sense of wonderment at the fact that adults, who at this point in my life seemed to merely serve as delivery system for everything — vegetables, outdoor activities, Summer swimming lessons — that I wanted to have nothing to do with, had taken the trouble to create something that was so completely awesome — something that, judging by how it conformed so closely to my seven-year-old mind’s conception of what was cool, appeared to have been designed specifically with my pleasure in mind. Here were giant monsters fighting; perilous jungle adventures; an army of exotic, uniformed bad guys lead by a dude with an eyepatch; futuristic looking sci-fi sets; toy boats and planes that acted just like the real thing, and lots of explosions, all set to a driving, sort-of-rock-and-roll-sounding musical score that practically screamed at me that I was watching probably the most exciting thing ever seen.

Some time later I would see — and years later, come to love — the original Godzilla, but at the time it was the one film in the series that struck me as being the departure. My Godzilla was the grumpy but ultimately lovable defender of the Earth that I had seen in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, or in Monster Zero — or the grumpy but ultimately loving and protective father figure seen in one of my other youthful favorites, Son of Godzilla. And that hasn’t changed much in my adulthood, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, given that the list of things I consider cool has changed very little since I was seven, and has only been amended over the years to commemorate my discoveries of things like girls, punk rock and beer.


Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster began life as Operation Robinson Crusoe: King Kong vs. Ebirah, a rejected script for a proposed co-production between Toho and America’s Rankin/Bass Productions (yes, the Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer guys) that was intended to tie in with the latter’s King Kong Saturday morning cartoon series. That fabulous bit of synergy finally saw fruit with 1967′s wonderful King Kong Escapes, but before that transpired, Godzilla producer Tomoyuki Tanaka determined the need for a new Godzilla film for the upcoming 1966 holiday season, and further decreed that said entry should be oriented toward a teen audience and feature a South Seas theme. In response, the Operation Robinson Crusoe script was hastily retooled — primarily, it seems, by crossing out the name “King Kong” wherever it appeared and penciling in “Godzilla” in its place — and then mashed up with another shelved script, this one for a sequel to director Jun Fukuda’s successful spy spoof 100 Shot/100 Killed, titled 100 Shot/100 Killed: Big Duel in the South Seas. The resulting Frankensteinian creation was a beast bearing the cumbersome title Godzilla-Mothra-Ebirah: Big Duel in the South Seas.

For all the coulda-beens and shoulda-beens of its detractors, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, viewed today, seems like it was inevitably the Godzilla movie that was going to get made in 1966. This was, after all, the year in which the author of James and the Giant Peach was commissioned to write a James Bond movie in which spaceships eat other spaceships and a villain’s space-age compound is housed within a hollowed-out volcano. The collision between the stodgy, adult-driven popular culture of the early sixties and the encroaching influence of sixties youth culture and it’s defining mistrust for authority had resulted in camp becoming the dominant aesthetic in seemingly every pop culture producing country in the world, and it was no longer safe for any pop icon born of the old order to be presented without a conspicuous display of tongues being placed firmly in cheek. (In this sense, the Batman TV series sort of served as the signal head-on-a-pike to mark our crossing over into this new territory.) Also, recent years had for the first time seen the vast majority of Television shows and movies being produced in color, something that producers were demonstrably eager to exploit via the widespread use of pop art-inspired, comic book-like palettes of bright primary colors, a tendency that is well in evidence in some of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster‘s sets. Lastly, the influence of the aforementioned Bond films had reached critical mass by 1966, becoming so pervasive that even the Beatles couldn’t resist the urge to spoof them in Help!, which makes it unsurprising that Godzilla’s handlers would draw upon their tropes as well. In short, all of these trends listed above come together in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, resulting in it being probably the most overtly comical, modish, and giddily irreverent film in the Godzilla series.


Facilitating this new tone was the fact that a number of the key members of the creative team behind Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster were younger than those who had worked on the previous G films. Director Fukuda, here taking the reigns of a Godzilla movie for the first time, was not only thirteen years younger than Ishiro Honda, who had directed all but one of the previous six Godzilla films, but also lacked Honda’s strong attachment to the giant monster genre. Instead, he drew upon his previous experience directing fast-paced action and comedy films for his approach to the material. Composer Masaru Sato — who had previously scored Godzilla Raids Again, the one Godzilla film that you are most likely to have completely forgotten existed — was likewise a decade-plus behind the man he was replacing, Akira Ifukube. In contrast to Ifukube’s ominous, deliciously portentious scores to the preceding Godzilla films, Sato here delivers a soundtrack that is alternately whimsical and full of manic, cartoonish urgency, and also can be credited with being the first to place twangy, surf-music inspired guitars amid Godzilla’s musical backing. Finally, taking the helm as director of special effects for the first time — despite Eiji Tsuburaya’s credit here — was Tsuburaya’s first assistant, Sadamasa Arikawa, a transition due largely to Tsuburaya having his hands full with the production of his television series Ultraman. Though working, thanks to Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster‘s reduced budget, on a smaller scale than what Tsuburaya usually had to deal with, Sadamasa does a fine job, and even puts his own stamp on things with some camera work that departs significantly from his mentor’s typical style.

One member of the team who was not a stranger to Godzilla was screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, who had in fact had a hand in writing most of the previous entries in the series, as well as such other high profile kaiju films as Mothra and Varan. Despite this, he was able to raise himself — or lower himself, depending on your perspective — to the task of concocting for Godzilla a story that was enough of a briskly paced and carefree piece of froth to make the monster’s previous film forays seem like sober dramas by comparison, incorporating teen-friendly elements from the current beach party, action and spy films as he went along. This emphasis meant that the aspects of the story involving the film’s human characters would be front and center for much of the film, which is actually not that unusual for Godzilla’s movies. All of them depend quite a bit on their human-based storylines to fill out their running time, and to my mind those storylines are precisely what keep the Godzilla movies fresh, because you never remember them from one viewing to the next. With every screening it’s like you’re seeing — and then forgetting — them for the very first time.


In the case of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, what you are forgetting is about sixty percent of the movie, because Godzilla doesn’t really enter the action until about the fifty minute mark. Until that time we have the story of Ryota (Toru Watanabe), a kid who is determined to go off in search of his fisherman brother, who has been reported lost at sea, but whom Ryota is convinced is still alive. Ryota’s first stop in his quest is a dance marathon in which a sailboat is the first prize, an episode that gives Masaru Sato an opportunity to contribute some swingy go-go music — complete with suspicious echoes of the Batman theme — to the soundtrack. Finding he’s arrived too late to compete, he enlists the aid a couple of goofballs who have already been eliminated in helping him to steal a boat from a nearby pier, a boat that turns out to be the hiding place of fugitive safecracker Yoshimura (played by ubiquitous kaiju eiga star Akira Takarada). For reasons that are not entirely clear, the four men all decide to spend the night on the boat, but awake to find that Ryota has set sail during the night without their knowledge, and that they are now somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, Everyone takes this pretty much in stride, until, after a few days’ journey, their boat is cleaved in two by a gigantic claw that thrusts up from beneath the ocean’s surface.

Ryota, Yoshimura and the other two all wash up on the beach of Devil’s Island, which they soon discover to be the hideout of The Red Bamboo, an army of crisply uniformed terrorists who are building an arsenal of nuclear missiles within their space-age compound there — and who bear no resemblance to the Chinese whatsoever. The island’s coastline is guarded over by the sea monster Ebirah, a giant lobster/shrimp thing that is almost exclusively seen from the waist up, with its lower body hidden beneath the water line, and who, in an especially memorable and rare instance of kaiju movie gruesomeness, spears a pair of escaping fishermen on the end of his claw like shish kebab. In order to keep Ebirah at bay while they ferry supplies back and forth, the Red Bamboo must use a yellow liquid refined from vegetation found on the island that has special, Ebirah-repelling properties, the production of which they delegate to an army of slaves who they have captured from nearby Infant Island. Said slaves, of course, are those peaceful inhabitants of said island who are able to remain peaceful solely by dint of them having the giant moth Mothra on hand to kick ass whenever anyone gives them any trouble. As Ryota and his pals watch the unloading of the latest shipment of slaves, one of the females, Daiyo (also-ubiquitous kaiju eiga star Kumi Mizuno) breaks away from the pack and makes a run for it. The boys come out of hiding to aid in her escape and soon become the object of pursuit for the one-eyed Captain Yamoto (played by designated Godzilla series eyepatch model — see his role as Dr. Serizawa in Gojira — Akihiko Hirata) and his machinegun-wielding troops.


Meanwhile, over on Infant Island, the remaining inhabitants are trying to raise Mothra from her slumber to go and save their enslaved loved ones, aided, as always, by those tiny twin singing fairies of Mothra’s — who, for the first time, are not portrayed by The Peanuts, but instead by another twin singing act called Pair Bambi. This scene provides an opportunity for another one of the high points of Sato’s musical score, a version of the usual ‘hey, Mothra, wake up” ritual song that would fit right in on one of those late nineties lounge-exotica compilations. Mothra proves difficult to rouse, however, a delaying tactic that gives us the nagging feeling we’re going to be seeing some Mothra ex machina action during the final minutes of the picture.

It turns out, however, that Mothra isn’t the only sound sleeper among the monsters in the neighborhood, because, in the course of scrambling frantically around the island in their attempts to evade Capt. Yamoto and his men, Ryota and company stumble upon Godzilla, out like a light at the bottom of a deep subterranean pit in the island’s interior. As momentous a discovery as this is, the boys file it away for future reference, as there is still much more frantic scrambling around to be done, in and out of the Red Bamboo’s compound and the various caves and fissures of the island, all the while being narrowly missed by fusillades of machinegun fire from their pursuers. Finally, in the course of one of these pursuits, Ryota finds himself tangled in the lines of an observation balloon which comes loose from its moorings and sails away from the island. In one of the film’s most willfully preposterous moments — and the final red flag for anyone who’s actually been trying to take any of this seriously — Ryota’s involuntary balloon ride deposits him right at the feet of the Infant Island natives at the very moment that their Mothra waking dance seems to be taking effect. Not only this, but, In response to Ryota’s inquiry, the islanders produce Ryota’s missing brother, who has been among them all along.


Ultimately, the good guys’ escape from the island and the Red Bamboo’s comeuppance cannot be accomplished without Godzilla on hand to deal with the villain’s fearsome guardian lobster, and so a hastily contrived lightning rod and the felicity of frequent tropical downpours are employed to bring him to. A little groggy at first, and obviously not too keen on doing any heavy lifting, Godzilla’s first reaction upon seeing Ebirah is to lazily chuck some boulders at him to see if that will do the trick of driving him off. It doesn’t, and Ebirah just bats the boulders back at Godzilla, who in turn head-butts them like soccer balls back in his direction, making this the most gleefully stupid prelude to a monster battle in the series thus far. Finally, the battle is joined in earnest, and involves a lot of underwater sequences that were reportedly quite perilous for the suit actors, weighed down as they were by hundred-pound-plus monster costumes in addition to being submerged in gallons of water.

One of the common complaints about Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster is that it is cheap. It is indeed true that the financially troubled Toho assigned the film a budget that was meager in comparison to that of its predecessors. Still, this is not a film that overreaches its limits, and, for the most part, its planning and scripting evidences a shrewd allotment of resources, allowing it to be a slick and handsome looking entry despite it being staged on a somewhat smaller scale than earlier Godzilla movies. Though the setting of the action on a remote island cut costs by alleviating the need for Sadamasa Arikawa and his crew to build entire miniature cities for the monsters to trash, what miniatures there are are well up to the standard set by the other films, and the need for fewer indoor sets allowed the producers to invest more in the colorful interiors of the Red Bamboo’s compound.

The only evidence of shoddiness that is too glaring to overlook is that no one seems to have bothered, during the transitioning of the script from one featuring King Kong to one featuring Godzilla, to put much work into differentiating the latter from the former. For the most part that isn’t much of a problem, since both meet the screenplay’s primary requirement of being giant rampaging monsters, but it definitely becomes a bit troubling during the section of the film in which Godzilla seems to be taking an amorous interest in Kumi Mizuno. Admittedly, this episode is a bit of a low point for the Big G, especially since much of it involves him guarding over Daiyo while hunkering down on his haunches and just kind of staring off into the middle distance. It’s not a good look for Godzilla, and I couldn’t help thinking that all he needed was a newspaper to complete the appearance of him sitting on the can. Also a bit puzzling is the fact that the water-bound Ebirah seems like he would be even less of an appropriate opponent for King Kong than he is for Godzilla, making it hard to imagine what exactly Toho might have been thinking there. This is not to say that Ebirah is entirely crappy as kaiju go, but he does prove to be a bit overmatched, and, at the end of the day, it’s pretty obvious why he came to take his place alongside King Seesar and Hedora the Smog Monster in the pantheon of one-shot Godzilla movie monsters.


Despite its obviously misguided intimations of Godzilla’s interspecies horniness, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster also affords its mon-star his fair share of iconic moments, including an entrance that involves him busting out of the side of a mountain. There is also an instance of classic Godzilla bad-assery in which, after tearing off one of Ebirah’s claws, he clacks the thing together like a giant castanet in order to taunt him. Elsewhere, perhaps less iconic, but still indelible is Godzilla’s battle with the Red Bamboo’s air force, which is set to a musical accompaniment that would be more appropriate for the dancers on Shindig. Still, it isn’t these isolated moments that make the film so enjoyable, but rather the infectious and undeniably good-natured enthusiasm that courses through the whole thing. It just careens along like a hyperactive toddler on a sugar rush until the end credits roll, leaving you with a mild but entirely pleasant sense of exhaustion. Seriously, I don’t expect everyone to hold this movie in as high regard as I do, but it seems to me that to hate it would take quite a lot of concentrated effort.

After Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Jun Fukuda helmed the similarly silly Son of Godzilla before handing the reigns back to Ishiro Honda for Destroy All Monsters (the first of many “final” Godzilla films) and Godzilla’s Revenge, soon after which he returned to direct some of the most maligned entries in the series, including the almost universally reviled Godzilla vs. Megalon. It is perhaps for this reason that Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster is held by some in a negative light; not so much for what it actually contains, but for the fact that the glimmer of Godzilla vs. Megalon can be seen in its eye. Personally, I like the later Fukuda films — Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla especially — but, more importantly, I love Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, and to an extent that I could never hope to justify with rational explanation. Suffice it to say that I am helpless to its charms, and even today when I watch it I can’t help but bust out into a big goofy smile. Of course, that should be entirely understandable to anyone who loves Godzilla. It was my first, after all.

Release Year: 1966 | Country: Japan | Starring: Akira Takarada, Kumi Mizuno, Chotaro Togin, Hideo Sunazuka, Toru Watanabe, Toru Ibuki, Akihiko Hirata, Jun Tazaki, Ikio Sawamura, Pair Bambi, Haruo Nakajima | Director: Jun Fukuda | Writer: Shinichi Sekizawa | Music: Masaru Sato

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Mil Mascaras: Resurrection

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Mil Mascaras: Resurrection comes to us some thirty years after Mil Mascaras last appeared onscreen in a narrative feature. For those of you who missed out the first time around, Mil, along with Santo and Blue Demon, is one of the “Big Three” stars of lucha libre cinema, as well as one of the biggest stars in the history of lucha libre itself. While Mil’s cinematic efforts never had the same stateside impact as some of Santo’s, thanks to them never being dubbed in English, they are nonetheless every bit as entertaining — and, in some cases, much more so — than many of El Enmascarado de Plata‘s contributions to the genre, and are big favorites of ours here at Teleport City.

Mil Mascaras: Resurrection — which was initially titled Mil Mascaras vs. The Aztec Mummy — doesn’t come to us by way of the normal channels one might expect a Mil Mascaras movie to come through. In fact, it may very well be the only Mexican wrestling film whose writer-producer holds a Ph.D. in robotic engineering from Oxford. (I say “may ” only because that Fernando Oses looks like he might be a bit of an egghead.) Jeffrey Uhlmann brought the idea for the film with him when he took an associate professorship in the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Computer Science Department, and proposed it as an ideal project for exploring the potential for an entertainment technology-related IT program within the University’s Engineering School. Being that Uhlmann is obviously a serious fan of lucha cinema, I imagine that he also decided it would just be really cool to make a Mil Mascaras movie using some of Mizzou’s resources — but in the long run, it’s really all about the kids, isn’t it?


It’s so tempting here to go into all kinds of easy riffs about the crazy things that people get away with in the name of higher education that I practically feel obligated to do it. What? A whole course devoted to Gossip Girl? Snort! How about a major in tasting fine single malt Scotches? Hardy har har. But in truth, I can’t judge. Because anything Jeffrey Uhlmann has done pales in comparison to that time I defended myself against charges of stalking Rosario Dawson by saying that I was doing research for a paper on how the idea of celebrity redefines notions of public and private space. Okay, with that out of my system, let’s move on.

Anyway, given its very DIY nature, work on Mil Mascaras: Resurrection proceeded fitfully, with Uhlmann utilizing a crew largely comprised of school faculty and students and shooting on and around the University grounds, with principal photography being completed in three chunks spanning between late 2004 and Spring of ’06. Among Uhlmann’s colleagues who were involved were fellow professor Kannappan Palaniappan as co-producer and instructor Chip Gubera as director – though there was also an aborted pass at having DTV sequel maven Jeff Burr (Stepfather II, Puppet Master IV, Pumpkinhead II) direct the film, which ended with Burr leaving the project after two weeks of shooting (he was subsequently credited pseudonymously as “Andrew Quint”). Of course, before all of that there came the casting of the film’s 69 year old star. Uhlmann had originally imagined El Hijo Del Santo (that’s Santo’s son, for those of you who are Spanish challenged) as his lead, but when that wrestler’s schedule proved unaccommodating, he approached Mil Mascaras, who he had met a number of years earlier. Mil agreed, and the rest is… well, the rest is the subject of this review.


Now, all of the foregoing makes for a fascinating back-story, but as far as appreciating Mil Mascaras: Resurrection goes, it’s almost wholly irrelevant, because, on a technical level, the film comes across as nothing if not a professional effort, showing few signs at all of being an amateur or student production. Overall, the film has the kind of glossy non-style of the typical straight-to-cable movie, which, given the somewhat utilitarian aspects of its genre, is not all a bad thing. As such, it acts as a seamless delivery device for lucha movie thrills, free of any visual flourishes that might distract us from the business at hand. I’ll say right off that I really enjoyed the movie, and I suspect that, being that I’m perhaps as big of a lucha movie geek as Jeffrey Uhlmann, many of the problems I had with it are ones that few other viewers will share. Still, since no one seems to be campaigning for us to have consensus-seeking robots write our reviews here at Teleport City, I’m going to discuss those problems anyway.

One of the reservations I have about finding fault with how MM:R approaches its subject is that I’m not entirely sure what I have a right to reasonably expect from a Mil Mascaras movie made in 2007. The makers of such a film are faced with a difficult choice. They can choose to emulate the tone of the classic lucha films, which is basically one of complete absurdity cloaked in unwavering earnestness, but with no hope, in this post-ironic age, of convincingly achieving it. The only option in that regard, then, is to pay a sort of tribute to the things that contribute to that tone and use them as “quotes’ within the film, while at the same time trying to avoid the kind of smirky knowingness that could come off as being condescending toward the subject matter — a particularly tough trick when you consider the degree to which lucha libre fandom involves a delicate dance between an adult sense of irony and a child-like suspension of disbelief.


On the other hand, the filmmakers can go in the opposite direction, have a total nerd-gasm, and go all “reboot” on the subject, making their hero more dark and conflicted, filling in his back-story in a manner designed to give him a more mythic dimension, and spicing it all up with bits of edgy-sounding techno-babble about bio-morphing masks and such. (This would be what we might call the “Lucha movies: They’re not just for kids anymore” approach.) What those behind Mil Mascaras: Resurrection ultimately decided to do is a little bit of each of the above, and, as a result, the film, to some extent, feels like it’s suspended between homage, parody and a desire to be the thing itself – a desire that’s further foiled by it being a luchadore film that’s forced to have Columbia, Missouri fill-in for Mexico City.

This coming-from-all-angles approach, for better or worse, offers one distinct advantage to Mil Mascaras: Resurrection, in that it allows its accomplishments to stand on their own merits while providing an ironic shield for those things that it maybe wasn’t quite so successful at. This is especially true for the acting in the film, which, to put it kindly, is wildly hit or miss. Even the professionals among the cast — who include Willard Pugh, Richard Lynch and Gary Ambrosia — don’t seem to have benefitted from much direction, with the emphasis most likely being on simply moving things along at a brisk pace (something that, to give credit where it’s due, the film achieves quite admirably). Yet, because most English speakers are only familiar with Mexican wrestling films via those few Santo movies that K. Gordon Murray imported to the U.S., all of which were dubbed into English by some of the most affect-challenged voice-artists you could ever hope to hear, such stilted line readings can be defended as being in the spirit of the original. Unfortunately, one of Uhlmann and his colleagues’ key shortcomings is an apparent difficulty resisting the temptation to go overboard, and they scuttle some of the goodwill that such a defense would depend on with the gag of having Mil Mascaras’ dialog very obviously overdubbed with the exaggeratedly off-synch voice of another actor speaking English in a sonorous Latin accent. It’s an oversell that results in a lackluster aspect of the film that might have otherwise gotten by on a sort of ramshackle charm being undermined by an overenthusiastic elbow jab to the ribs.


This occasional tendency to oversell also dims the glow of one of my favorite moments in the movie, a speech given by the film’s resident benevolent scientific authority, a gentleman referred to only as the Professor (Kurt Rennin Mirtsching). It’s a signature moment in the early Santo movies to have some supporting character — usually an authority figure like a police chief or a respected scientist — speaking in awed tones about how amazing Santo is, and the inclusion of such a moment here is one giveaway of the script’s origins as one written around the character of El Hijo del Santo. It’s really note perfect, with the Prof. intoning that Mil has “the mind of a scientist, the soul of an artist, the body of a great athlete, and yet there’s something more about him. Something that separates him from other men.” Of all the film’s ticking off of the genre’s stock elements, this one struck me as the most affectionate, gently parodying the idea, but at the same time speaking to the kid in us who thinks it really would be cool if Santo built time machines in his spare time, no matter how ridiculous we know the idea is in reality. Unfortunately, rather than just leaving it there, the expression of such sentiments ends up becoming a conspicuously insistent motif in the movie — such as when the Professor praises Mil’s theories on observer-centric physics and beseeches him to join his University’s faculty, or when reference is made to another masked wrestler’s theories appearing in all the “peer-reviewed journals” — to the point that I started to get the uneasy feeling that what I was seeing was perhaps less gentle parody than it was simply jeering with hand over mouth.

So, in short, there’s something that I find a little bit slippery about Mil Mascaras: Resurrection‘s tone that keeps me from absolutely loving it. But, again, as much as I’m tempted to look at it sideways, I don’t think many others will be troubled by similar concerns. This is a lucha movie, after all, and isn’t the only test it really needs to pass that of whether an eight year old boy could watch it in an untroubled state of rapt credulity? He could. And given that, the rest of us, in the spirit of the endeavor, should probably just check it and enjoy the ride, and not give all of the film’s instances of winking and giggling at itself too much thought. After all, there is indeed much to enjoy.


I made brief reference before to the fact that Mil Mascaras: Resurrection moves along at a brisk clip, and it’s an attribute that bears more than a passing mention. Despite the unevenness of tone, its pacing is nearly flawless, something for which I think we owe thanks to both Uhlmann’s tight script and the expert intuition of editor Thom Calderon. Directors Gubera and Burr’s economical staging of the scenes, while failing the actors themselves, also contributes greatly to the cause. More happens in the first half hour of the film than happens in the entirety of many classic lucha movies, yet all of the actions and plot elements — the usual casualties in any attempt to race through a narrative — are fairly crisply defined. In addition, Calderon’s editing does an impressive bit of sleight-of-hand as far as covering up for the movie’s budgetary shortcomings, frequently giving us the impression that we’ve seen things — car crashes, extravagant stunts — that we haven’t, and never letting any one shot linger long enough on a given location to betray the fact that, rather than, say, the headquarters of the Mexico City Police Dept., we’re just looking at another part of Mizzou’s student commons.

Such misdirection is also helpful in portraying the physical heroics of a septuagenarian action star like Mil Mascaras. While he still looks intimidatingly buff and impressively light-on-his-feet, Mil definitely needs a little movie magic when it comes to displaying the same acrobatic skills he exhibited in his movies from the sixties, and the technical crew here doesn’t let him down. In fact, there was only one brief instance where I could spot an obvious double in Mil’s place, though I imagine that there were more instances where one was used.

Mil Mascaras: Resurrection alerts us right away to the “reboot” aspect of its agenda, making an isolated attempt, within its opening moments, to present us with that aforementioned dark and conflicted version of Mil Mascaras. Mil gets dumped by his fiancé/a terrible actress, after which he has a pensive moment, sitting on a river bank and staring searchingly at his reflection in the water. Seriously, I was only joking when, in my review of Superargo vs. Diabolicus, I imagined a more emo, Marvel Comics-inspired lucha cinema, but that’s pretty much what we’re getting here. Of course, Mil Mascaras can only be so emo, given that his every attempt to display emotion results in him simply widening his eyes in surprise. Still, that’s a lot more acting than Santo or Blue Demon ever did, and he should be commended.


Anyway, it is in this meditative riverbank moment that we learn that this movie’s version of Mil Mascaras is one who’s mask is part of a legacy of heroism handed down through his family over generations, which is actually another of the film’s elements that’s taken from the Santo movies. In the movies that Mil Mascaras did for Luis Enrique Vergara during the sixties, Mil was presented as having been raised by a bunch of crazy scientists who found him in the rubble of a bombed-out building at the end of WWII and rigorously trained him to be a consummate superman. Of course, this new version of his origin provides a lot of opportunity for talk about “fate” and “destiny”, and thus goes some way toward imbuing his character with those also-aforementioned mythic dimensions. Part of that destiny, it turns out, is for him to have a run-in with a recently resurrected Aztec Mummy who has been a foe of the Mascaras clan for generations, and who now plans to rule the world with a gem that has the power to control men’s minds. Jeffrey Uhlmann himself takes on the role of the Mummy, and it’s a performance that depends, as very well it should, on making lots of grandiose and highly-stylized hand gestures like Dr. Gori in Spectreman (always my go-to guy for stylized supervilliain hand gestures). Uhlmann does his maniacal lucha villain turn proud, although his Mummy mask has a muppet-like quality to it that makes the character oddly endearing despite that.

Over the course of the film, Uhlmann-as-scenarist reveals himself to be an attentive and appreciative student of Mexican wrestling movies — and vintage Mexican horror movies in general — as evidenced by the many affectionate references to the genre’s touchstone moments that can be found throughout. My favorite of these is the clunky, man-in-suit robot (also played by Uhlmann) that harkens back to the original Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy, but also brings to mind the robot from the loopy sci-fi musical hacienda-Western La Nave de Los Monstruos. There is also a replay of that iconic moment — originally seen in Santo vs. the Vampire Women, but imitated in several successive lucha films — in which our hero’s ring opponent, when unmasked, is revealed to be an inhuman monster, with the added bonus that the beast in this case is a ringer for the monster in the notorious sleaze-fest Night of the Bloody Apes. In another instance, the mummy revives and sends forth a legion of undead Aztec warriors in a scene that recalls The Mummies of Guanajuato and its numerous sequels, with the generous addition of a midget mummy to please the Agrasanchez fans in the audience. There are even a couple of vampire girls on hand to provide homage to Mil’s cinematic high water mark, Las Vampiras.


In addition to these specific quotations, the film also dutifully honors most of the genre’s basic conventions. The Professor, of course, has a beautiful young daughter (Maria, played — badly — by Melissa Osborn) who is in love with Mil, and, given that he thinks Mil is so awesome, the Prof. enthusiastically encourages the attraction. Thankfully, the filmmakers, probably sensing the considerable potential creep factor arising from the yawning age gap between the two, choose to pay tribute to this particular trope while maintaining a chaste distance between the lovers. Elsewhere, an impressive stamp of authenticity is gained via the appearance of a host of other real luchadores, including El Hijo del Santo, who participates in a tag team match with Mil in front of a strangely Caucasian-heavy Mexico City crowd, and Blue Demon Jr., who appears along with a bunch of other real-life masked grapplers as part of a modern day version of the Champions of Justice.

But where Mil Mascaras: Resurrection really gets it right, more than anywhere else, is in Mil’s costumes, which, according to the credits, were designed by the man himself. Mil, as I’ve said elsewhere, was the true rock star of lucha libre, and the only man, in a sport known for its garish flamboyance, capable of making his competitors’ colorful togs look like something they’d wear on a sick day home in comparison to his own. And, man, I don’t think he has ever looked better than he does here. These outfits, if you can train your eyes on them long enough to appreciate them without going blind, are masterpieces, from the glittering, every-color-of-the-rainbow number that he rocks early on, to the leopard print ensemble he wears when he accompanies the President of the United States (who also speaks about Mil in hushed, admiring tones, by the way) to address the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The real closer, though, the one that would bring the house down were Mil to take his looks to fashion week in New York, is the Aztec warrior get-up with the towering headdress that he wears to his climactic ring match. As outrageous eye candy goes, the whole assortment is pure heaven, and exactly the type of thing to make me forget, at least momentarily, my aforementioned misgivings about the picture overall.


And those misgivings, after all, are most troubling because there is enough that is good about Mil Mascaras: Resurrection to make me want to really, really like it. I love lucha movies — Mil Mascaras’ in particular — and I get the clear sense from this movie that Jeffrey Uhlmann does, too. And, given that, I respect and appreciate his and his collaborators’ efforts to bring Mil back to the screen in all his glory. Still, as is, I merely just like Mil Mascaras: Resurrection, and with reservations, at that. I am optimistic, however, about the news that this same bunch has completed a second Mil Mascaras film. After all, it’s not that I feel that theirs are the wrong hands to put to the task, it’s just that I think they’d benefit from a little more focus, perhaps of the type that would come from working under a schedule less fitful than the one necessitated by MM:R‘s stop-and-start production history. As I said, I’m not really sure how much I can expect from a Mil Mascaras movie made in the 21st century, but I’m hoping that, with their follow-up effort, Jeffrey Uhlmann and the gang will show me.

Release Year: 2007 | Country: United States | Starring: Mil Mascaras, Jeffrey Uhlmann, Kurt Rennin Mirtsching, Willard Pugh, Melissa Osborn, Richard Lynch, Marco Lanzagorta, Gary Ambrosia, Stephanie Matthews, Jonathan Verdejo-Rocha, Abbie Adkins, El Hijo del Santo | Writer: Jeffrey Uhlmann | Directors: Jeff Burr, Chip Gubera | Cinematographer: Thomas Callaway | Music: Vaughn Johnson | Producers: Kannappan Palaniappan, Jeffrey Uhlmann

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Korkusuz Kaptan Swing

Reviewing the types of films that I do, I’ve become no stranger to mixed feelings. Korkusuz Kaptan Swing, for example, while leaving me less excited than other of Onar Films’ DVD releases, still feels like it should be a peak experience for me. After all, it’s a Turkish film that’s based on an Italian comic book that’s set in an imaginary America during the Revolutionary War. For someone as obsessed as I am with how the familiar gets refracted, refined and/or re-imagined through the lenses of different filmmaking cultures, you’d be hard pressed to concoct a more tantalizing recipe — unless, of course, you were to concoct a Thai movie that teamed Ultraman with a Hindu monkey god, or another Turkish movie in which Santo and Captain America join forces to fight a caterpillar-browed Spiderman. Neither of those two films, however, hold up a funhouse mirror to a well-tread episode of American history the way that Kaptan Swing does. And it is that strange depiction of my country’s forefathers’ struggle for independence that, more than anything else, makes the film come across to my tired Yankee eyes as being a product of a place oh, so very far from home.

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Sons of Great Bear

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The imperative to put butts into theater seats is apparently one that has been shared by film industries throughout the world, regardless of what political system they operated under. And whether those butts were capitalist or communist seems to have made little difference. Thus it was, in 1966, that East Germany’s state run DEFA studio decided to try their hand at what had been widely considered an exclusively American genre, the Western, in an attempt to entice those audiences who had been staying away from their usual, more dryly ideological fare in droves with more thrilling, action-oriented entertainments.

Of course, DEFA had no intention of aping Hollywood’s approach to that genre, and would ultimately put their own, distinctive spin on it. Going a long way toward achieving that was their decision to tell their film’s story from the point of view of its Native American characters, with whites settlers serving as the villains, a conceit that would also provide a convenient platform for critiques of American imperialism and greed. But lest you think that choice was just a cynical appropriation of a suffering people’s history for crass political ends, let me point out that there was an abiding German fascination with Native Americans and their culture that had existed since long before the communist divide, the responsibility for which can pretty much be placed at the doorstep of one man.


It’s difficult to touch upon a figure like Karl May in passing, because the temptation is so great to simply reel off the strange and colorful details of his life at the expense of the subject at hand. But for the sake of brevity, let’s just say that, prior to becoming one of Germany’s most popular authors ever, Karl May had seen his share of hard times, and was no stranger to the inside of a prison cell. His tendency to be light-fingered had scuttled his teaching career early on, leaving him to fall back upon a well established habit of thievery and fraud that some today believe was the byproduct of a clinical personality disorder.

The years 1869 through 1870 saw May embark on a particularly impressive crime spree, during which he repeatedly employed a ruse in which he posed as a police lieutenant to confiscate “counterfeit” deutschmarks from various shopkeepers. After a run from the law that involved the employment of disguises and a number of narrow escapes, May was finally captured and sentenced to four years in the Waldheim penitentiary. It was during this stay that May, inspired by the works of James Fenimore Cooper and travel accounts of the American West, discovered and refined his gift as a teller of adventure stories. Soon after he was released, he began writing the first of a phenomenally popular series of novels, the most enduring of which would featuring a noble Apache chief named Winnetou and his white, German-born blood brother Old Shatterhand.


Of course, given that May had never once set foot on American soil at the time of writing them, the Winnetou stories were far from documentary in terms of their representations of frontier life, and of the lives of indigenous Americans in particular. They were in fact tainted by sentimentality and rife with “noble savage” clichés, to the point that he even had Winnetou renounce his Indian spirituality and convert to Christianity at one point. Still, they were unusual in their time for their sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans and their acknowledgement of the depredations perpetrated upon them by the white man. They were also imaginative enough in their telling to inspire many of the Germans who read them to take an interest in Native American culture beyond what was described in their pages. Some of those readers even went on to form “Indianerclubs” — a number of which still exist today — whose mostly white members would not only immerse themselves in that culture but also dedicate their holidays to trying to emulate it as best they could.

It was inevitable that the characters from May’s Western adventures would eventually make their way to the big screen, and, in 1962, West Germany’s Rialto Film Preben-Philipsen made it so, initiating a series of films that were to become wildly popular throughout Europe. The majority of these starred French actor Pierre Brice in the role of Winnetou and American actor — and former Tarzan — Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand, and used locations in Yugoslavia to sub for the American West. Eventually coming to comprise eleven entries in all, they came to be known as the Winnetou Films, and are generally considered to be the seed from which the Italian Spaghetti Western sprang, a connection driven home by the presence within them of such genre stalwarts as Klaus Kinski and Terence Hill.


DEFA saw their own first venture into the Western genre — or Indianerfilm — as a response to, rather than an emulation of, the Winnetou films, and were determined to outshine their West German counterparts in terms of the historical accuracy and authenticity of their product. To this end, they chose as their source material The Sons of Great Bear, a young person’s novel written by East German author and historian Liselotte Welskopf Henrich that was at the time considered to be scrupulous in its depiction of Native American life and customs. Veteran Czech director Josef Mach was invited to take the reins of the picture and, to star as its hero, the fearless and incorruptible Sioux warrior Tokei-Ihto, a chance was taken on an unknown young Yugoslavian actor named Gojko Mitic.

Yugoslavia was a popular — i.e. cheap and accessible — shooting location for foreign producers at the time, and when representatives of the British production Lancelot and Guinevere came to the Belgrade sports academy where he was training, looking for a stunt double for star Cornel Wilde, Mijic, an accomplished student athlete with the necessary riding skills, suddenly found himself in the film business. From there he went on to do stunt work and bit roles in a variety of films, including a number of Italian Peplums, before making his way into the Winnetou films. Mitic started out in small, uncredited parts in the Karl May Westerns, but worked his way up to the point where he had a substantial supporting role in 1964′s Frontier Hellcats (aka Unter Geiern), which is presumably where the producers of The Sons of Great Bear first caught sight of him.


The Sons of Great Bear‘s action takes place against the backdrop of the U.S. government’s forced relocation of the Dakota Sioux in the aftermath of the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. a territory that was considered hallowed ground by the Sioux, and which had formerly been protected by a treaty entered into in the days before it was thought to have any value by white settlers. Tokei-Ihto’s Bear Band is one of a number of groups of Sioux who are determined to resist the relocation by any means necessary, and as a result they become a target of, not only the U.S. Military, but also the scruffy and shifty-eyed bunch of frontiersmen charged with doing their dirty work. The most scruffy and shifty eyed of all of these is Clarke, aka The Red Fox, a rogue who seeks to weaken the tribe by tempting its members into alcoholism and vice, and who, in the film’s prologue, is shown to have murdered Tokei-Ihto’s father. Clarke is played by Czech actor Jiri Vrstala with a level of menace convincing enough that I was given considerable pause to learn that he had for years played a popular children’s character called Clown Ferdinand both on East German TV and in the movies. Based on his performance here, it’s easy to imagine that being made to watch Clown Ferdinand was, for East German children, just a more modern equivalent of being taken behind the woodshed.

After Tokei-Ihto leads a successful raid against a scouting party lead by the scheming Lieutenant Roach (Gerhard Rachold), he is betrayed by the Bear Band’s elders and delivered to Roach and his men under the pretext of negotiating a treaty. Roach has him imprisoned, then has his people driven by force from their land and moved to the barren, rock-strewn reservation that the government has assigned to them. Tokei-Ihto is eventually freed, thanks in part to the sympathetic efforts of conscientious frontiersman Adams (Horst Jonischkan), and becomes determined to lead his band across the Missouri River to make a better home. Such exodus, of course, does not conform to the plans of the white authorities, and so Clarke and his men set out to thwart it, leading to a final, violent confrontation between Tokei-Ihto and his father’s killer.


For a fledgling genre attempt by a company accustomed to producing output of a very different kind, The Sons of Great Bear is remarkably sure-footed, the only evidence of its status as a novice effort being a narrative rhythm that is at times a bit odd and halting. I think that’s in part a result of the filmmakers trying to deliver the required amount of kinetic thrills while at the same time providing the necessary historical background. It must be said, though, that there appears to have been an assumption on their part that the film’s audience would come to it with at least some knowledge of that background, because what information there is, is far from spoon-fed to us. The movie jumps right into its action without preface, and what historical context there is has to be gleaned from odd exchanges of dialogue that pop up between those scenes that move the story along. Of course, this does not prevent the producers from earning their government paychecks via some heavy handed political messages — including a couple of lines that could easily be interpreted as making analogies to Vietnam. But it’s fairly clear that those producers were at the same time fully cognizant of the fact that they would lose their audience if those messages were delivered at the expense of the expected amount of gun fights, Indian raids, and fancy riding by the movie’s athletic star.

While it may be that the creative team behind the film didn’t quite have a grasp on the classic Western’s vigorous pacing, it is clear that they had an understanding of it’s grandiose scale and mythic dimensions. Cinematographer Juroslav Tuzar’s lyrical widescreen compositions take the film’s Montenegro locations and imbue them with a sense of limitless expanse appropriate to the metaphorical American landscape they stand in for. The images are at times so captivating that the filmmakers themselves seem to have become entranced, resulting in a number of overly lingering shots that further contribute to the film’s odd ebb and flow. Soundtrack composer Wilhelm Neef matches this effort with a score that shows he can step up to the plate when majestic sweep is required, though he also manages to serves up some of the type of rinky-tink cheese that we’ve come to expect from the Germans during this era, including a weird little, ska-tinged tune that accompanies Tokei-Ihto’s raid on Lieutenant Roach’s scouting party.


But, handsome trappings aside, it is the performance of star Gojko Mitic upon which The Sons of Great Bear stands or falls. And Mitic, somewhat miraculously, comes through. Saddled with the burden of portraying a character who is more monument than man — essentially the spirit personified of his noble and long suffering people — Mitic shoulders an onus that would have toppled many more experienced actors and perseveres. Given that the stoic Tokei-Ihto is a classic man of few words, this involves on Mitic’s part the projection of an unnervingly steadfast soulful intensity — or, if you’re feeling less charitable, the employment of a fixed, blank stare that is given intensity by weight of Mitic’s undeniable natural charisma.

In any case, less of Tokei-Ihto’s communication is done through looks than action, and the latter proves to be a language to which Mitic is ideally suited. Despite being required to do what had to be a truly grueling amount of stunt work, Mitic accomplishes a dizzying assortment of perilous moves with all the grace and agility suited to the fearless, nearly superhuman warrior he’s charged with portraying, whether he be leaping down upon his prey from a perch high in the trees, or jumping from the saddle of one charging horse to another. It also doesn’t hurt that Mitic, sculpted from head to toe and half naked for much of the film, is an exquisite physical specimen, an ocular treat for anyone with an appreciation for the male form regardless of their gender or preference. Red blooded guys who fear that a film like this might leave them tainted by exposure to socialist propaganda can rest assured; Watching The Sons of Great Bear won’t make you a commie. However, it just might turn you gay.


While it’s true that Tokei-Ihto is more of an idealized archetype than a flawed human being, and his primary nemesis, Clarke, is a purely evil, melodramatic villain of the highest order, it cannot be said that, beyond that, The Sons of Great Bear presents its conflict in strictly black and white — or white and red — terms. Aside from sympathetic white characters like the aforementioned Adams and the American major’s daughter Cate Smith, both of whom give aid to Tokei-Ihto at various points, we are also shown traitorous Indians who work alongside the whites, as well as dissension and infighting within the tribe, such as that which leads to the elders betraying Tokei-Ihto. Neither can it be said that the conflict between the whites and the Indians is framed as simply one between the powerful and the weak, as the lot of Clarke and his fellow frontiersmen, facing encroaching irrelevance in the form of the coming railroad and the establishment of European-style “civilization”, is shown to be in some ways more miserable than that of the persecuted Indians, who at least have their rich culture and deep bonds of community to fall back upon. Of course, one doesn’t need to dig too far beneath this to find the underlying message that capital and its brute machinations are the real villains, but the filmmakers should be given credit for not sacrificing complexity in favor of creating characters that simply stand in for ideological talking points.


Of course, the major stumbling block to appreciating The Sons of Great Bear‘s many positives is the fact that all of its Native Americans are so obviously pasty white Europeans in redface and black wigs. But anyone who has been able to overlook that type of minstrelsy in American Westerns — which was usually in the service of a far less sensitive portrayal — shouldn’t have too much of a problem with it, even though I admit that it was hard getting used to hearing guttural German phonemes issuing from these Indians’ mouths. Aside from this probably unavoidable casting quirk, though, the film does a fairly good job of avoiding becoming little more than a camp artifact. True, a couple of Wilhelm Neef’s musical cues, as already mentioned, are a bit on the cheesy side, and there is a regrettable man-in-a-suit bear mauling scene, but overall the movie comes across as a well made and exciting adventure, with an interesting perspective, that has much more to offer than simple kitsch value.

By the time filming on The Sons of Great Bear was nearing its end, Gojko Mitic, who considered the film a one-off effort on his part, had had it. The actor would later admit to some churlish onset behavior brought on by homesickness and impatience. Given that, it was probably a “good news/bad news” situation for him when the film went on to meet with a success that was far beyond the expectations of anyone involved in it. Overnight, Mitic had become the most popular film star in East Germany, and the East German Indianerfilm DEFA’s most in-demand genre. Eleven more such films would follow, all starring Mitic in roles very similar to the one he portrayed in Great Bear, ending with 1983′s Der Scout. Despite the fact that he would eventually front a wide variety of films for DEFA — including Gottfried Kolditz‘s science fiction epic Signals: A Space Adventure — he would come to be commonly referred to as “The most famous Native American in Eastern Europe”, and would appear on German television as recently as 2006 in the role of Karl May’s Winnetou. Because of this, Mitic can count as part of his legacy the fact that, for a certain generation of Germans, he changed the rules of playing “Cowboys and Indians” forever.

Release Year: 1966 | Country: East Germany | Starring: Gojko Mitic, Jiri Vrstala, Rolf Romer, Hans Hardt-Hardtloff, Gerhard Rachold, Horst Jonischkan, Josef Majercik, Josef Adamovic, Milan Jablonsky, Hannjo Hasse, Helmut Schreiber, Jozo Lepetic, Rolf Ripperger, Brigitte Krause, Karin Beewen | Writer: Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich | Director: Josef Mach | Cinematographer: Jaroslav Tuzar | Music: Wilhelm Neef

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Superargo vs. Diabolicus

I’d like to start off by telling you that what you’re reading is in every way identical to a normal movie review… except for one thing. It’s bullet-proof. It also contains a tiny transmitter by which we here at Teleport City can track all of your movements. So that would be two things, then. Oh, and it can also act as shark repellent. Of course, if you were to find yourself in the kind of circumstances in which you could put all of those hidden functions to the test, I’d be very impressed. Unfortunately, you’d also be dead. The fact is that I’ve just always wanted to give one of those “except for one thing” spiels like you hear in 1960s spy movies. Exactly, in fact, like the one that the masked hero Superargo receives toward the beginning of Superargo vs. Diabolicus, during which he is presented with all kinds of items — from a dhingy to a cocktail olive — that are in every way identical to what they appear to be on the surface, except for one thing. That doesn’t really apply to the cocktail olive, though, because it is actually a Geiger counter and, as such, completely inedible. So it’s really completely un-identical to a cocktail olive except for one thing — i.e., looking like a cocktail olive.

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Dunwich Horror

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H.P. Lovecraft may not be one of the best writers in the world, but he’s certainly one of the most fun to read — not to mention imitate. For this reason, I got it in my head that it would be a great idea to read The Dunwich Horror aloud to my wife. She not only loves to be scared, but is so committed to the endeavor that she’s even on occasion been willing to meet Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror movies halfway. That’s a perfect attitude to bring to Lovecraft, in my opinion, because he’s an author you really need to be willing to work with. In cracking open one of his stories, you’re making an implicit agreement to be scared; otherwise it’s just not going to work. Of course, Lovecraft does his part to help you along in that regard, always letting you know exactly how afraid you’re supposed to be, even when the object of that fear remains somewhat sketchily defined, and also modeling the desired behavior by populating his stories with characters who launch into paroxysms of terror at the faintest fetid odor.

With the combination of my wife’s gameness, Lovecraft’s semaphore-like emotional cues, and the fact that the mildewed pages of the 1970s paperback edition of Dunwich I’d found gave off a scent that, with a little imagination, could be interpreted as being primordial, we were, as far as I was concerned, all set. However, after five solid pages describing the blighted landscape of Dunwich town, my wife made clear that she wasn’t having it, saying something to the effect of, “What is this shit?” All of which is not to discourage you from reading Lovecraft to your own spouse or significant other; but it’s certainly important to make sure you’ve done the proper amount of prep work.


By the way, the old Jove paperback of The Dunwich Horror that I purchased features a cover illustration that is a very literal depiction, based on Lovecraft’s description in the story, of Wilbur Whateley in his true form, which looks like the upper half of Golem from Lord of the Rings grafted onto something that looks like a cross between the lower half of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a pineapple, and one of those cat-shaped wall clocks whose eyes move from side to side with the second hand.

I imagine that Lovecraft’s tendency to devote more words to telling his reader how scared he or she should be than to describing the thing to be feared posed a problem to those filmmakers initially assigned the task of bringing his work to the screen. After all, until the advent of modern J-Horror — whose sensibility is pretty much right in line with Lovecraft’s — the common wisdom would have been that you were supposed to scare your audience by showing them something scary, rather than by just showing them a bunch of people being scared, or, even worse, showing a bunch of people talking about how potentially scary some vaguely defined thing might be if it it actually existed. Furthermore, such filmmakers might understandably conclude that a film whose every character was in a constant state of near-wordless cowering for no clear reason might quickly forfeit audience interest.


It is this last conviction that might explain the casting choices made in connection with director Daniel Haller’s first Lovecraft adaptation for AIP, Die, Monster, Die!. A veteran art director, Haller had also worked in that capacity on AIP’s initial Lovecraft outing, The Haunted Palace, directed by Roger Corman. While by no means a close adaptation of its source material, Die, Monster, Die! did an admirable job of achieving Lovecraft’s patented mood of mounting dread and creeping, formless horror. The only departure from that — and it’s a radical one — was the placement of American actor Nick Adams at its center, probably the most un-Lovecraftian protagonist imaginable, who would be much more likely to call the great Cthulu a “jerk” and punch him in the nose than to simply be driven mad by the impossibility of his existence.

When it came time for Haller to make his second Lovecraft adaptation, 1970s The Dunwich Horror, he and screenwriter Curtis Hanson chose to add another very un-Lovecraftian element to their quintessentially Lovecraftian tale with the introduction into the mix of a sweaty dose of eroticism. Lovecraft’s stories, with all their references to tentacles and other undulating protuberances coming out of things at all angles, were certainly sexual — if in a repressed/hysterical way — but they were far from sexy. In fact, judging from the man’s writings alone, I’d imagine that any attempt by him to describe any normal type of human sexual congress would be one of the most excruciatingly awkward, squirm-inducing things you could possibly read. If there does not exist somewhere a porn parody written in Lovecraftian prose, or myriad examples of erotic Lovecraft fanfic, then the internet truly has no right to exist. It’s not for me to put the effort into finding out, though. Of course, the concept seems less strange when you consider that it was no doubt partly a result of AIP fulfilling their early Seventies mandate to serve up at least some explotational content with every offering. But the whole enterprise rockets back into the realm of the unnamable when you consider that the actors they chose to place at the center of all this heat and steam were Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell.


The Dunwich Horror was something of a landmark for Sandra Dee, in that the Gidget star was required by its action to spend much of her screen-time writhing and moaning orgasmically on a sacrificial altar while in a state of near undress, and even to treat the audience to a brief flash of her — possibly body-doubled — breasts. Of course, Dee was at an unavoidable crossroads in her career by this time. The wholesome, girl-next-door image that had propelled her to stardom in the early sixties was now not only hopelessly out of sync with the times, but also impossible to maintain now that she had undergone a very public divorce from her husband Bobby Darin. Given these factors, that she would slam her knockers out in an AIP picture was probably as inevitable as it was surprising.

On the other hand, Dean Stockwell’s transition from sweet-faced to unsavory had been accomplished long before he arrived on the Dunwich set, with any memories of the adorable child star he used to be forever tainted by roles such as that of the effeminate child murderer in 1959′s Compulsion. To say that Stockwell comes off as a “little” creepy in The Dunwich Horror would be the Mona Lisa of understatement. From the nervous sidelong glances, to the unwavering hushed monotone, the speech riddled with odd pregnant pauses, and the intent, wild-eyed staring, his performance is, in fact, the whole creepiness package, without one unsettling tick left behind. Of course, given he was charged with portraying a character who, in the original story, was depicted as being a goat-like, preternaturally intelligent, prepubescent eight foot giant who conceals beneath his garments a body that is part T. Rex , part pineapple and part cat clock, you could forgive him for over-compensating.


By the way, my writing this review gave me the opportunity to allay a misconception about Dean Stockwell that I’ve been entertaining for quite some time. I’ve long had this vague notion, which I had the nagging feeling wasn’t true, that he had some kind of strong Walt Disney affiliation. This turns out to be due to me confusing him with that star of countless, animal-themed, live action Disney movies from the sixties, Dean Jones, a man who is creepy in his own right, though in a quite different, more Disney-like way than Dean Stockwell. Now, thanks to Teleport City’s stringent research standards, I can tell you with utmost certainty that Dean Stockwell absolutely, positively did not star in That Darned Cat!, The Ugly Dachshund, Monkeys, Go Home! or The Million Dollar Duck. In fact, during this period in Dean Jones’s career, Dean Stockwell was playing roles like that of an acid-tripping Haight-Ashbury hippy in Psych-Out. So, how wrong can you be, really?

Aside from being the movie that tried to generate sexual heat between Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell, The Dunwich Horror is notable for being one of the AIP Lovecraft adaptations that — like The Haunted Palace, but unlike Die, Monster, Die! — directly addresses the author’s much vaunted Cthulhu Mythos. Granted, it may not do so with enough authenticity to satisfy fans of the author, but much lip service is indeed given to such touchstone concepts as “Yog-Sothoth”, “The Old Ones” and the “The Necronomicon”. However, as alluded to above, both the Old Ones — that ancient race of unimaginable non-human creatures who, according to Lovecraft, once ruled the Earth and are itching to return — and their followers are portrayed as being much hornier than in any of Lovecraft’s tales. Their most fully-formed emissary in the human world, the unnamed “thing” locked up in a mysterious upstairs room in the Whateley house, seems to be most concerned with first ripping off all of its victim’s clothes when it encounters its first human prey. Similarly, the rituals that Wilbur (Stockwell) must perform in order to summon the Old Ones back into our dimension seem to mostly involve him feeling up a drugged and prostrate Sandra Dee and reading incantations while standing between her splayed legs.


There is a familiar feel of that smarmy, late-to-the-party seventies version of hippie free love to all this, though, of course, in a much more overtly sinister form. It’s a tone that’s driven home even by Les Baxter’s main theme, a narcotically swooning swinger’s revelry with a decadent European sensibility that could just as easily have come from the mind of Serge Gainsbourg or Michel Legrand. Mind you, I don’t think this quality detracts from The Dunwich Horror. I think that an adaptation of Lovecraft’s work for a more permissive age would have no choice but to address the creepy sexuality that underlies it, and Haller’s take here is indeed suitably creepy. That this imperative was put in the hands of a studio like AIP, who was more than happy to deliver on the required nudity and implied sexual shenanigans, just represents a fortuitous dovetailing of interests.

The potent sex magic that Dean Stockwell wields in The Dunwich Horror — at least as it applies to Sandra Dee — is shown to be pretty much in full effect from the very opening moments of the film. It is at this point that we meet Dee’s character, Nancy Wagner, a student at venerable old Miskatonic University. Her professor, Dr. Armitage, has entrusted her with the between classes errand of returning his surprisingly crisp looking copy of the ancient book of forbidden knowledge, The Necronomicon, to the school’s library. The mention of the book’s name attracts the twitchy attentions of the proximately lurking Wilbur Whateley (Stockwell), a visitor to the university from the nearby town of Dunwich whose consummate creepiness is matched only by his single-mindedness. Wilbur follows Nancy to the library and asks her to let him see the book before she replaces it in its case. She resists at first, but it is only a matter of Wilbur making whammy eyes at her for a few seconds before she relents, despite the objections of her obviously unaffected friend Elizabeth (Donna Baccala). Wilbur makes off to hungrily devour the tome’s contents, only to be intercepted by Dr. Armitage, who rents it from his grasp with a stern rebuke. This bit of awkwardness does not preclude the four of them from going out for a drink at the pub later, at which time Wilbur engages Dr. Armitage in a conversation that goes more or less like this:

Wilbur: Can I see the book?

Armitage: No.

Wilbur: Can I see the book?

Armitage: No.

Wilbur: Oh, Okay, but… can I see the book?

Armitage: No.


Dr. Armitage, by the way, is portrayed by the veteran character actor Ed Begley, a man who played supporting roles in almost as many classic film noirs as Elisha Cook Jr. He’s a great, if unusual, choice for the role, because, while he’s appropriately gray and distinguished, his history of playing tough guy roles gives him a two-fisted air decidedly at odds with the tremulous demeanor of the typical Lovecraftian academic. That may not make his character authentic to the text, but it certainly makes him a more credible opponent to the forces he’s up against, and when he and Wilbur face off to shout incantations at one another at the movie’s conclusion, you get the sense that you’re seeing a dramatic showdown between more or less equally matched adversaries — a markedly more satisfying and movie-like conclusion than if the makers had stuck with the finale as presented in the book, in which a bunch of frightened old men cower in the rain while shouting spells and praying that Yog-Sothoth doesn’t kill them.

Wilbur eventually manipulates circumstances so that Nancy has to give him a ride back to his creepy old house in Dunwich, and, once there, sabotages her car so that she has no choice but to spend the night. Nancy is already falling increasingly under Wilbur’s sway by this point, so she raises little objection to this turn of events, but Wilbur still drugs her drink just to be on the safe side — possibly because, in her chemically-induced stupor, she will be less likely to notice the ominous gurgling sounds coming out of the locked room at the top of the stairs. That night, as she slumbers, Nancy dreams that she is being groped and chased by a bunch of hippie mud people who caper around and mug at the camera as if they were auditioning for the Broadway production of Yog-Sothoth: Superstar. This experience seems only to increase Wilbur’s hold over her, and the one night’s stay extends to a series of days, as, all the while, it becomes clearer that Wilbur is grooming her for a very specific purpose, a purpose that is more than hinted at when Wilbur shows Nancy the ancient sacrificial altar perched atop a desolate hilltop near his home.


Once Wilbur has finally gotten his mitts on the Necronomicon and set in motion the rituals necessary to bringing the Old Ones back into the world of men, The Dunwich Horror, like the story it’s based upon, sees out its final act as a pretty sweet little monster on the loose story. The film is helped greatly in this regard by the fact that Lovecraft described the unnamable thing locked up in the Whateley house, once freed, as being mostly invisible to human eyes. This enables the filmmakers to represent it through some pretty effective shots of trees being rent about by unseen forces, an interesting use of negative effects, and reaction shots of the monster’s horrified victims (one of whom is played by a very young Talia Shire). All in all, it’s a satisfyingly apocalyptic payoff to the slow-burn piling on of unease that makes up the film’s first hour, and even survives the fact that, once we do catch a fleeting glimpse of the beast, it appears to be Dean Stockwell wearing a mask made out of plastic snakes.

While the sleazy, swinger’s leer that The Dunwich Horror affects certainly dates the picture — and may go some way toward undermining its scare factor for modern audiences — the film in most respects still holds to the high standard set by AIP’s earlier gothic horrors drawn from the works of Poe and Lovecraft. As with those films, the modest budget is compensated for by both a handsome production design and a studious attention to the creation of a pervasive atmosphere of dread and foreboding. Bolstering that is a range of reliable, if somewhat over-the-top, performances by a cast made up of stolid old troopers, among them Sam Jaffe as Wilbur’s grandfather and Lloyd Bochner as Armitage’s ally, Dr. Cory. Only Sandra Dee, out of all the performers, seems to be holding back, but the fact that she comes off as a bit narcotized is actually in keeping with her character’s situation. Still, it’s a bit odd that Dee, who had not all that long before been a fairly major star, agreed to take a part in a film in which she really ends up being more of a prop than a character.

And pondering that image of Sandra Dee, lying prone and half-conscious while being the subject of all kinds of uninvited groping, I might be inspired to reconsider my previous statement about what might constitute The Dunwich Horror‘s true source of horror for modern audiences. After all, isn’t the thought of being groped by a leering, permed and mustachioed Dean Stockwell really the definition of horror at its most profound and unnamable? More courageous souls than I have doubtless been prompted to tear off and eat their own faces at the mere thought. In fact, if that’s the only way to purge that image from one’s mind, I recommend that we all do that right now.

See you on the other side of madness!

Release Year: 1970 | Country: United States | Starring: Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, Ed Begley, Lloyd Bochner, Sam Jaffe, Joanne Moore Jordan, Donna Baccala, Talia Shire, Michael Fox, Jason Wingreen, Barboura Morris, Beach Dickerson, Michael Haynes, Toby Russ, Jack Pierce | Writers: Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum, Ronald Silkosky | Director: Daniel Haller | Cinematographer: Richard C. Glouner | Music: Les Baxter | Producers: Roger Corman, Jack Bohrer

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Battle Beneath the Earth

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The wonderful thing about Battle Beneath the Earth is that it allows even an underachiever like myself with no college edukation to feel that he has a breadth of scientific knowledge superior to that of its makers. On more than one occasion while watching it I was able to point at the screen and exclaim, “Der, that can’t not happen! Har!” For instance, I don’t know anything about geology, but I know that molten lava is hot, and that you can’t just daintily step over a stream of it as if it were a crack in the sidewalk. Also, if digging a tunnel between China and the U.S. were as easy as this film makes it out to be, China’s biggest problem would be the steady influx of six-to-eight year-old American boys constantly emerging from holes hither and yon to excitedly wave their shovels at people.

Battle Beneath the Earth strikes me as being what a movie conceived by one of those six-to-eight year-old boy might be like. It’s a film that is clearly targeted directly at the kiddie matinee market, and, as such, seems to bypass all adult sensibilities and mainline directly into the brain patterns of a prepubescent Sixties-era male jacked up on war comics, high sugar cereals and violent Saturday morning cartoons. I mean, listen to this premise: The Red Chinese dig a subterranean tunnel from China to the U.S. with the intent of detonating nuclear bombs under our major cities, only to be engaged by the U.S. armed forces–ideally portrayed by a bunch of green plastic army men–in all-out warfare… beneath the surface of the Earth! Seriously, fellows, if that doesn’t stir the kid inside, I don’t know what would.


Unfortunately, in execution, Battle Beneath the Earth confronts a discrepancy between ambition and means similar to what an eight year-old likely would. As a result, it ends up being a classic example of the type of movie that marries a grandiose concept to modest intentions. “The Chinese” end up being more like some Chinese (and not even real ones, in many cases) and the “battle” ends up being more like a skirmish. Still, the movie has to be given some points at the get-go for its dopey concept and total disregard for maintaining credulity among anyone whose age breaks the double digits. Then again, given that this is a British production pretending to be an American one, it could just be an instance of some smarty-pants English people making fun of us yanks by dumbing themselves down in imitation. (Executive #1: “So how do we make it seem authentically American?” Executive #2: “Well, first of all, we should make it really stupid.”)

In line with its moderate level of spectacle, Battle Beneath the Earth is the work of a group of professionals who shared a more or less equally moderate level of accomplishment. Before helming the picture, director Montgomery Tully churned out–seemingly at monthly intervals–a large number of competent but unremarkable B crime thrillers, and also worked in British television. Similarly, writer Charles F. Vetter (here credited as L.Z. Hargreaves) was responsible for writing enjoyable genre entries like First Man Into Space and Devil Doll that, while certainly not without their well-deserved fans, are far from considered classics. Star Kerwin Matthews, for his part, was known primarily for playing support to stop-motion monsters in films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and Jack the Giant Killer–though it was possibly his work in eurospy films like the OSS 117 series that put him in mind for his role here–and leading lady Vivienne Ventura had a healthy resume of TV work. All in all, a perfectly respectable line-up of talent, but nowhere near a guaranty that what you’re going to be seeing will rise above mediocrity.


Our action begins on a British soundstage dressed up to resemble–at least to a grade schooler’s exacting standards of verisimilitude–a street in downtown Las Vegas. As a crowd of British extras doing their best to exude American-ness looks on, obviously over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer (Peter Arne) kneels with his ear to the sidewalk, exclaiming excitedly about some kind of suspicious goings on “down there”. Of course, since the movie is called Battle Beneath the Earth, we know that Kramer is on to something, but the Las Vegas authorities, not being afforded such insight, just think he’s a nutter and cart him off to the bin. Kramer, of course, protests to the contrary and insures them that the threat he perceives is real. However, like most supposedly sane people in movies who are assumed to be crazy by everyone else, he steadfastly refuses to state his case in clear, simple terms, and instead resorts to vague, metaphorical language that is as close to incoherent raving as possible.

Enter Naval Commander John Shore, played by Kerwin Matthews. Since an undersea lab project he helmed ended in disaster thanks to a mysterious underwater earthquake, Shore has been relegated to a test lab where he spends his days hitting brightly colored pipes with a rubber mallet. Fortunately, one of his assistants happens to be over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer’s sister, and she asks Shore, an old family friend, to visit her brother in the brain hospital. Kramer is not much more transparent in his statements to Shore, but does show him a “seismographic drawing”–made as a byproduct of some earthquake prediction research he was conducting–that, according to him, shows man-made tunnels under the U.S.that he believes are entering the country somewhere along the Oregon coast. Later, when news breaks of an unexplained mine collapse in an Oregon coastal town, Shore decides that Kramer’s claims merit further looking into.


Part of that further looking into involves Shore visiting his buddy Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy at the very clearly labeled “Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center”. Despite the name, the center appears to be some kind of global listening post. They’ve got “the entire world bugged”, Cassidy tells Shore, and if “a champagne cork pops in the Kremlin”, they hear it. That this arrangement is unironically presented as being merely sort of neat is in keeping with Battle Beyond the Earth’s kid-like perspective, exemplified in this case by a purely “gee-whiz” conception of both the benevolence of military authority and the sleek efficiency of American bureaucracy. This is, after all, a movie where the sight of a uniformed official puffing out his chest and barking gravely into a bright red phone while standing in front of a wall-sized map is treated as being on an equal level of spectacle to any of the action set pieces, and in which, during the cast listing at the end, each of the characters are listed by full name and military ranking, even though some of them weren’t even referred to by name in the film… and none of them are real people (seriously, you feel like you’re supposed to stand up as they roll by).

The barking of terse commands into red phones is not just noteworthy in itself, of course, but also because it results in important things getting done, and often in remarkable time. At one point, when silence is required in order for the Navy’s detecting equipment to identify the locations of the Chinese underground tunnels, Admiral Felix Hillebrand (Robert Ayres) simply picks up the phone and makes a couple of calls, resulting, within just a few hours, in the entire United States going completely silent. All transportation has been shut down, traffic stopped, broadcast signals ceased and all heavy machinery of every kind brought to a halt in every single region of every state in the union. One by one, each of the states checks in with the central command center, letting the brass know that “condition silent” is in effect in their slice of the country–at which point, of course, that state lights up on a giant wall map. These few uniformed men in this room are not just important, Battle Beneath the Earth is saying, but super duper important–so much so that they can toggle the entire country on and off like a light switch.


It’s kind of hard to believe that those behind Battle Beneath the Earth meant for any of this to be taken seriously, even by the attention-deficient rugrats at the core of their target audience. This was 1967, after all, and characters such as these were already commonly being presented as either villains or figures of ridicule throughout mainstream entertainment. Most of the military men on display here, with their implied mania for control and obsession with commies, are, in fact, just a few tweaks away from becoming Dr. Strangelove‘s General Jack D. Ripper. Still, if fun is being made, Battle Beneath the Earth is doing a superhuman job of feigning stone-faced earnestness throughout, never once tipping its hat or giving the audience the slightest glimmer of a wink.

Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy, by the way, is portrayed by Ed Bishop, who, of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, probably makes the largest blip on the radar screens of Teleport City’s readers. Though he was born in Brooklyn, there was something about Bishop–perhaps his weathered farmboy good looks or unaccented TV announcer’s voice–that seems to have struck British casting agents as being quintessentially middle-American, because his early career consisted largely of bit parts as token American astronauts, low level military functionaries and mission control operators in a number of British productions. Around the time of making Battle Beneath the Earth, he was providing the voice of Captain Blue in Gerry Anderson’s puppet series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. That would lead, a couple of years later, to him donning a platinum wig and taking the lead role of Commander Ed Straker in Anderson’s first live action series, UFO — if not the best, than certainly one of the most stylish science fiction programs of the Sixties.


Anyway, Shore’s initial visit to the (Underground) Atomic Detection Center proves unfruitful, as Cassidy’s equipment is more attuned to picking up Champaign corks popping in the Kremlin than it is hundreds of Chinese burrowing away right beneath our feet. Undaunted, Shore heads to the collapsed mine in Oregon where, while exploring a disused section, he stumbles upon a freshly made tunnel whose walls have apparently been hewn via the application of extraordinary heat. He also finds a medallion that someone has left behind that has a Chinese dragon on it. This discovery leads to Shore being authorized to return to the mine with a small group of combat soldiers. This second time around, Shore and the soldiers happen upon a big yellow tank thing bearing the same dragon insignia as the medallion, which is in the process of carving a tunnel through the rock using high intensity lasers. (These lasers are portrayed by a couple of extra-bright headlamps–but have no fear; the use of drawn-on cartoon laser beams will be used at later points as dramatic effect requires.) They follow the laser tank to an underground chamber in which a number of Asians in lab coats, as well as a few soldiers, are tending to some large, black, lozenge-shaped things which also bear the same dragon insignia. “Chinese!”, exclaims one of the soldiers. “With atom bombs!”, exclaims Kerwin Matthew in reply.

At this, Shore and company leap from hiding and waste the whole group in a hail of machinegun fire. This tactic, while effective in a very limited sense, leaves quite a few questions with little hope of being answered, such as just who all of these freshly dead Chinese people are working for. As we will soon learn, the answer to that is General Chan Lu, a rogue Chinese officer who has seized his country’s plutonium stores and held his government hostage while pursuing his own personal plan to nuke the U.S. to rubble using a system of world-spanning tunnels dug by his private troops over the course of three years. Serving loyally at his side are the evil scientific genius Dr. Kengh Lee and his key military aid Major Chai, both of whom have to compete for attention with his ever-present pet falcon.


Now, as far as I could tell, all of those Chinese military personnel gunned down by Shore and his men, like most of the non-speaking Asian roles in Battle Beneath the Earth, were played by actual Asians, but the door slams pretty hard on race-appropriate casting once we get to the speaking roles. Chan Lu and Kengh Lee, for instance, are played by veteran character actors and British TV stalwarts Martin Benson and Peter Elliott, and they do so in a dispiriting display of the most egregious putty-eyed Orientalism you could imagine. In all seriousness, if there was just one of them it might be easier to get around, but between the two of them they’re like a tag team of Fu Manchus trying to out “ah so” one another in a taxing display of excruciating inscrutability. Major Chai, also, is played by a British actor, David Spenser, though in a comparably lower key. It is only Paula Li Shiu, out of all the Asian actors on screen, who gets a speaking role, playing Dr. Arnn, a functionary of Chan Lu’s who shows up in one scene to hypnotize a captive Peter Arne using a handheld electric fan.

By the way, out of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, Peter Arne is definitely the one most worth watching. For one thing, he’s perfect for a comic book movie like this, because he looks like he was drawn by Steve Ditko; his face a collection of anxious lines that looks like just one more stressor could cause it to collapse in upon itself. Furthermore, in a field of stubbornly one-layered characters, his is the one that strives the most toward three dimensionality. Kramer is conflicted, resentful of his earlier treatment by the military establishment, but driven by a sense of duty once he is called upon to rejoin the cause, and Arne brings a twitchy irascibility to his portrayal that makes him the focus of every scene he’s in. Arne was yet another fixture of 1960s British TV (I swear, I don’t think there’s a single member of the cast of Battle Beneath the Earth who didn’t make a guest appearance on Danger Man) and I was sad to learn that he left this world under violent circumstances, the victim of murder in 1983. I wish I could pay him better tribute than simply saying that he was the best actor in Battle Beneath the Earth, but there you go. At least I mean it sincerely.

Now I have to mention here that I will be describing things in Battle Beneath the Earth that will sound much more exciting or colorful than they actually appear on screen. To counter this, I suggest that you apply to every mental image conjured by these descriptions a sort of down-sizing formula, reducing the scale of what you see in your mind by a factor of about, oh, eighty percent or so. For instance, when I describe a clash between Chinese and American soldiers, you might think of it as involving actual armies, when in reality there will be no more than a dozen people on either side. This was done, I imagine, not only to save on the cost of employing extras, but also because that is about as many people as the small sets could accommodate. To give some idea, also, of the level of art direction and set design on display, I should call your attention to the command headquarters of General Chan Lu. It appears to have been staged on a single cave set that was redressed and used for the majority of the film’s subterranean locations, and is pretty lazily decorated with whatever could be purchased cheaply and easily from a Chinatown gift shop. There are a couple of Oriental rugs slung on the wall, one of those folding screens, some Chinese lanterns and a couple of dragon statues, etc. Pretty shoddy, really, and fully in keeping with the laziness of the stereotypes portrayed by Benson and Elliott (which is the true source of their offensiveness, really: that they’re less the result of racism than they are of the filmmakers just not giving a shit).


Similarly, the high tech headquarters of the Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center is comprised of a surprising amount of exposed aluminum sheeting and, if not for all of those colorful wall maps with all their flashing lights to distract us, might look more like the kitchen in a run-down elementary school cafeteria. Finally, on the prop front, the Chinese laser tank is appealing in a life-sized toy kind of way, but looks like it was probably made out of wood, and when the U.S. makes their own version of the tank, it appears to be just the same prop painted blue. (See, theirs is yellow and ours is blue. Blue vs. yellow. Get it?)

So, with all that in mind, let’s return to the business of plot synopsis. After successfully defusing all of those atomic bombs (Matthews’ Shore is one of those old fashioned omni-abled sci-fi movie heroes that we here love so much: not just good with the science, but also with using his fists and, if the plot requires, dismantling nuclear weapons), Shore and his small team of soldiers are sent back for another foray into the tunnel. This time Chan Lu’s men lead them into a trap which is comprised of a bucket of steam-emitting nuclear waste that one of the Chinese soldiers appears to detonate using a Roadrunner-style plunger. What follows is just one of the movie’s instances of people running away from a nuclear blast–though, in this case, with only varied success, as many of Shore’s men end up getting killed. This is cold realism in action, of course, because everyone knows that you need at least ten minutes to make egress on foot from the effects of an Atomic explosion, which is the reason why Shore and his crew are later able to jog to safety after detonating several full-sized nukes. You can’t overemphasize the importance of lead time.

After this failure, team USA gets the jump on Chan Lu thanks to that aforementioned “condition silent” business, and are able to create a brightly-lit wall map showing the locations of his tunnels. Admiral Hillebrand determines that the General’s main supply tunnel under the Pacific can be accessed by way of an inactive Hawaiian volcano, and assigns Shore and his men the task of destroying it, while at the same time bringing Kramer back onto the team to create the blue version of the laser tank. It is at this point that we see the eleventh hour introduction of a sexy lady scientist (hey, who let that thirteen year old into the writing session?), Tila Yung, portrayed by Vivienne Ventura. Ventura ends up being a fairly innocuous presence, and provides someone for Shore to mack on during his downtime from saving the world, but she is disconcertingly orange in color, and has a strange vocal inflection that sounds like it’s half accent and half speech impediment which I found a little distracting at times.


Anyway, it is in the bowels of the Earth below that Hawaiian volcano that Battle Beneath the Earth‘s final battle beneath the Earth finally takes place. Of course, the way things work out, it ends up being just Shore, Tila Yung and Sergeant Mulberry (played by Al Mulock, who is sadly probably most famous for committing suicide while in costume during location shooting for Once Upon a Time in the West) holding up our end of the battle. Numbers aren’t important, however. What is important is that this battle affords the opportunity for Martin Benson to strut around and make pronouncements like “Our enemies stands naked before us!” and “Logic is the American’s god!”, and for Shore, Yung and Mulberry to steal some of Chang Lu’s soldiers’ uniforms and try to imitate Chinese people by speaking English in robot voices, and, finally, for the three of them to stand on a cliff, confusingly looking straight ahead at what is revealed to be an aerial view of a nuclear explosion.

For all its failings, Battle Beneath the Earth is a difficult movie to hate. In my case, this is partly due to it having the disarming quality of seeming like it was the result of someone watching me play army men on my bedroom floor when I was six and then making a movie out of it (though, of course, with much lower production values). In fact, it’s difficult to even call it a bad movie. What it is, in reality, is a solidly mediocre movie, though one whose mere adequacy is rendered bad when viewed in comparison to its over-reaching concept. Star Kerwin Matthews, director Tully and scenarist Vetter all contribute valiantly to maintaining that level of mediocrity, insuring that our hero will never diverge from a stubborn, slate-like blandness, that no camera composition will be inventive enough to call attention to itself, and that no situation will be novel enough to deliver any kind of actual surprise. Against that backdrop, the pulse-raising moral offense incited by the minstrelsy of Martin Benson and Peter Elliott actually comes as some kind of gift, as does the genuine quirkiness of Peter Arne’s performance.

The way it cagily intertwines itself with childhood nostalgia also makes Battle Beneath the Earth one of those infuriating films that always seems better in recollection than when actually viewed. There’s no harm in that, of course, other than that it encourages repeat viewings, which, believe me, the actual film really doesn’t hold up to. It’s a pleasant enough diversion on the first pass, but once it’s done, it’s time to close the toy box and move on.

Release Year: 1967 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Kerwin Matthews, Vivienne Ventura, Ed Bishop, Peter Arne, Martin Benson, Peter Elliott, Robert Ayres, Al Mulock, Earl Cameron, John Brandon, Bill Nagy, Paula Li Shiu | Writer: Charles F. Vetter (as L.Z. Hargreaves) | Director: Montgomery Tully | Cinematographer: Kenneth Talbot | Music: Ken Jones

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In the Dust of the Stars

You’d think that the isolation of Soviet-style communism would have at least shielded the citizens of East Germany from the worst excesses of seventies fashion, but the 1976 space opera In the Dust of the Stars tells us otherwise. Neither, apparently, did it prevent the creatives at the state-run DEFA studio from falling under the influence of such decadent western cultural products as Jess Franco movies and the swinging sci-fi TV series of Gerry Anderson. That this film never saw release on this side of the Iron Curtain is no surprise, given that the vision of a socialist utopia it presents — marked by free love, frequent casual nudity, and a distinctly lopsided female-to-male ratio — is one that many healthy young Western men could easily get behind. The resulting sudden spike in defections Eastward would have been truly crippling to national security.

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Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41

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Shunya Ito’s first entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was essentially a women-in-prison picture that combined the action, violence and titillation typical of that subgenre with a striking number of audacious artistic touches. Ito’s second entry, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, was a whole other animal entirely. Emboldened, perhaps, by the success of the first film and the amount of creative leeway given him by Toei, Ito this time largely dispensed with genre trappings and delivered a film that was even more obviously the product of a singular directorial vision. Relentlessly bleak and harrowing, yet suffused with a desolate, breathtaking beauty and daring sense of visual invention, Jailhouse 41 is like a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.

One of the most obvious changes that this second entry makes to the Scorpion template is in the presentation of its heroine. The fact that the first film had dealt with the pedestrian niceties of back-story allowed Ito — aided by another astonishing performance from his star, Meiko Kaji — to free Matsu/aka Scorpion from the moorings of earthbound considerations of character and move her completely into the realm of archetype. As such, Kaji portrays her as an extra-human engine of vengeance with a nuclear core of rage forged from the countless injustices done her by men and the corrupt, male-driven society that they represent: In short, the terrible price of all her nation’s sins given human form.


While Female Prisoner #701 sought to provide Matsu with a narrative that gave her recognizably human motivations, Jailhouse 41 renders all of that irrelevant by telling us everything we need to know about her character in a brief, opening credits sequence of startling power and economy. It is this increased sure-handedness that relegates the first film — although an impressive and unique work in its own right — to being clearly the least of the three Scorpion films that Ito directed, and marks Jailhouse 41 as the film in which the series came decisively into its own.

In Jailhouse 41, Ito builds a lot upon those elements of his creative arsenal that he put to use in the first film — his visual references to traditional Japanese theater and the use of hallucinatory sequences involving horror movie-like imagery among them — but he also introduces many new ones. One of those is his practice here of having the actors freeze in tableau during certain scenes — something that comes off looking a lot weirder than a simple freeze frame would. Creative sound design also plays a much bigger part in this film, and even extends to abruptly cutting the sound completely at some points in order to better portray — as many of these effects are intended to — Matsu’s interior reality. It is this expressive use of sound that serves so well to make our introduction to Matsu in Jailhouse 41 such a memorable one.


The film begins with an echoing, disembodied female voice repeatedly calling the name “Sasori” (Scorpion), as if in incantation, as the camera snakes through the dark, cavern-like hallways leading down into the bowels of the prison. Finally we reach the door to Matsu’s subterranean cell, and the haunting call gives way to a steady and methodically persistent scraping sound. As the sound continues, we see Matsu, lying with her hands chained behind her back on the damp floor of the dungeon-like cell, her back to us, much as she was at the beginning of the last film — though this time, we will learn, she has been chained alone in that cell for a full year’s time. We are unable to make out the source of the sound until the camera moves around to face Matsu, at which point we see that she has clenched tightly between her teeth a metal spoon, which she is tirelessly working to sharpen by scraping it repeatedly against a very well-worn groove in the concrete floor — her face all the while frozen in a look of cauldron-eyed fury that is almost terrifying beyond description. As the credits roll, she is shown over the course of time (Days? …Months?), her position changing very little as she ceaselessly sharpens away, the piece of metal clasped in her jaws gradually transforming from a spoon into a blade. By the time this sequence is over, we have seen more than enough to convince us of Matsu’s preternatural singularity of purpose, and wouldn’t doubt for a minute that she could spend the entirety of a year in sleepless pursuit of fashioning an implement of vengeance.

As the credits end, Matsu’s labor are interrupted by a visit from the warden (Fumio Watanabe). Since losing his eye to Matsu in the first installment, the warden has clearly become as obsessively dedicated to Matsu’s unhappiness as she is to his, and he informs her in no uncertain terms that he intends for her to be locked in her underground tomb forever — with the exception of today, when she will be briefly trotted out in order to keep up appearances for a visiting prison official. The warden further informs her, with some regret, that he has accepted a promotion that will place him outside the prison, and, as a result, he will no longer be able to personally supervise her constant brutalization. Matsu responds to this news with a subtle amplification of what I referred to in my review of the first film as THE LOOK, letting us know that she sees this as her last chance for payback.


That look, now honed to a lacerating acuity, will get a serious workout over the course of Jailhouse 41. Because, while Kaji’s performance in the first Scorpion film wasn’t a particularly verbal one, her turn here renders it positively chatty by comparison. Matsu speaks a mere two lines over the entire course of the film, both of which occur within the final fifteen minutes and are comprised of less than four words (and one of which, “You sold me”, is, fittingly, a testament of betrayal). This makes Kaji’s performance here even more of a wonder to behold. Certainly, there are moments in which Matsu speaks through action, but it is those moments of stillness — of watching, of waiting — that most indelibly define her character. Given this, Kaji’s take on Scorpion comes across as nothing less than an iron-willed assertion of sheer presence — and goes a long way toward justifying her cult icon status today.

When Matsu is herded into the prison’s exercise yard — manacled and, by all appearances, barely able to walk thanks to her months spent in chains — we see that her long absence from the general population has made her something of a legend among the other inmates, and her presence is greeted by them with hushed awe. Propped up by two guards, she is forced into formation with the other prisoners as the visiting official walks among them, spouting stultifying rehabilitory bromides. Matsu is less hobbled than she seems, however, and, when the first opportunity arises, she make a lunge for the warden. She fails narrowly in her intended goal of taking out the warden’s remaining good eye, but succeeds spectacularly in putting the fear of God into the visiting official, who promptly drops to his knees and shits in his pants. Inspired by Scorpion’s example, the other prisoners run riot through the yard.


Punishment comes for the inmates in the form of hard labor in the rock quarry, though Matsu is relegated to simply walking among them with a heavy cross-shaped tree stump lashed to her back. Observing this, the warden lets the guards know that, if their intention was to break Scorpion’s influence over the prisoners, their semiotics are a little off. He instead proposes to humiliate Matsu in front of her peers once and for all by having her gang raped by a group of guards in monks robes and stocking masks. This brutal act is perpetrated by the guards with all of the nightmarishly caricatured grotesquerie that we’ve come to count on from the Pinky Violence genre’s depictions of male rapacity, and accomplished with Matsu, glaring molten daggers all the while, still spread-eagled upon the makeshift cross, proving that Norifumi Suzuki was not the only Japanese exploitation director who delighted in flailing away at Christian iconography.

Sadly, this defilement seems to achieve its intended purpose, and, with the exception of a sensitive young inmate named Rose, Matsu is promptly turned upon by her deliriously stir-crazy fellow convicts. On the meatwagon ride back to the prison, she is beaten mercilessly by a gang lead by Oba (Kayoko Shiraishi), a vicious older inmate with a face frozen in the stylized grimace of a Kabuki demon. With this beating, however, Oba has unwittingly aided Matsu in effecting the gang’s escape, for when the guards, believing her dead, come to check on her condition, Matsu manages to overpower and strangle one of them with her chains. After taking out the remaining guard, Matsu, Oba, Rose and four other prisoners escape into the surrounding wilderness. When the warden and his lieutenants later arrive upon the scene, they find the van trashed and both guards dead — one of them, a participant in Matsu’s rape at the quarry, gorily castrated with a tree stump (one of those sights that is all the more horrible for how it sets you to imagining just how on Earth the act was accomplished).


A couple weeks back I reviewed Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film The Godless Girl, an early example of the youth-in-prison genre that took a different, but equally allegorical, approach to its depiction of prison life vs. life on the “outside” as Jailhouse 41. In that film, the young protagonists make a break for it and are able to escape momentarily into the countryside beyond the prison’s walls. This is presented as a brief, idyllic episode, with the lush natural surroundings representing an Eden-like paradise that stands in stark contrast to the Hell on Earth represented by the prison. In Jailhouse there is no such contrast, as the women, once “free”, find the outside world to be every bit as harsh and filled with cruelty as their former confines. To underscore this, the landscape they travel through after their escape is shown as a blasted, volcanic wasteland, and their first shelter a desolate ghost town half buried in black ash. The message is clearly that, being that these are women whose lives and actions have placed them outside the narrow roles defined for them by society, theirs is a world that has no place for them, and offers no true freedom.

Of course, under these circumstances the women prove to be just as much of a threat to each other as anything else in their environment, as their time in prison seems to have left most of them too addled to take any kind of effective or concerted action. It is Matsu alone who maintains a composed — albeit hyper-vigilant — facade, and the volatility and caterwauling that surrounds her serves even more to underscore her unnatural stillness. This eerie calm — and the way that Matsu watches Oba as if in deep recognition of something Oba herself seems desperate to avoid understanding — leads Oba to see Matsu as a threat, and to tirelessly seek to engage her in a power struggle that Matsu invariably wins by virtue of abstaining from it. Despite this adversarial relationship, the two are repeatedly framed as being inextricably linked, and it is predictably Oba’s resistance to seeing her and Matsu’s fates as being bound together that leads to her end.


It is hard to single out one moment in Jailhouse 41 as being the film’s most haunting, because there are many such moments. From the outset of the women’s dash to freedom through this nightmarish terrain, Ito creates an atmosphere that makes even those moments that, on paper, read like simple convicts-on-the-run boilerplate fraught with a creeping sense of horror and unease. But the moment that takes the most decisive turn toward the supernatural occurs during the women’s brief hideaway in the ash-blasted ghost town. The night brings a violent storm, during which the women are drawn to a small hut whose walls suddenly collapse to reveal a mad-eyed old woman, cowering in a blanket with a knife tightly gripped in both hands. Later, as the women gather around a fire, the old woman, still clutching the knife, sings an eerie song, lamenting — in an echo of the Scorpion series’ theme song, sung over the credits of each film by Kaji herself — that “women commit crimes because of men”. Over a series of surreal tableaus staged in the formal, stylized manner of Kabuki theater, she goes on to sing of each woman’s crimes, and we learn that Oba, in a fit of rage against a philandering husband, murdered her own children, one of them an unborn whom she killed by stabbing herself in the womb.

Later, when the warden and his men are closing in on them, the prisoners escape with the old woman into a forest of maple trees that Ito has bathed in a disconcertingly artificial looking autumnal glow. The old woman collapses and, before dying, relinquishes the knife to Matsu while mumbling something about a curse. A ghostly wind whips through the trees and partially buries the body of the woman in fallen leaves, after which it vanishes into thin air. We then see Matsu, now holding the knife, as her hair whips wildly in the wind, a sudden unearthly glow rising upon her face. For anyone who might have stumbled upon Jailhouse 41 with the expectation of seeing a run-of-the-mill women’s prison picture, this has to be the movie’s most resounding WTF moment.


The women’s further adventures on the lamb yield no less amount of strangeness or misfortune. Once they have taken shelter on the outskirts of a small village, it’s demonstrated how straying from the group leads to tragic consequences. One women is lured by the warden, using her small child and elderly parents as bait, and coerced into betraying the others, which leads to a bloody confrontation that leaves two guards and one of the women dead. Later, young Rose wanders off and encounters a group of drunken salarymen on holiday, one of whom has just been regaling his companions with tales of raping Chinese civilians during the war. The world that Jailhouse 41 has sketched for us decrees only one possible outcome for this meeting, and so Rose is brutally raped and murdered, her body tossed like a rag doll from a cliff into the rapids of a nearby river. In just one of many of the film’s instances of surreal visual poetry, the waterfall runs deep crimson as a result, and the women, seeing this, intuit exactly what has happened. Matsu and the others trail the men to the tour bus from which they came and hijack it, taking all of the passengers onboard hostage.

During the siege that follows, the escapees terrorize their captives in a vindictive frenzy, while Matsu, still clutching the old woman’s knife, watches in her usual impenetrable silence from the front of the bus. She entertains a hallucination of the bus suddenly converting into a minimalistically-rendered courtroom with the passengers as a hectoring jury and the women kneeling in chains before them. This morphs into an even stranger fantasy scenario in which the women are each shown being trapped in fishing nets and prodded at by a jeering crowd of villagers, until Matsu manages to cut through the net with the old woman’s blade and stand triumphantly before her stunned persecutors. You think for a moment that Matsu might intervene on behalf of those hostages who appear to be innocent, but these visions seem to advise her otherwise.


Jailhouse 41 ends similarly to the first Scorpion film, with Matsu, the sole survivor out of the original gang of seven, back on the streets after having successfully avoided capture by a variety of single-mindedly ruthless means. Now clad in the same black pimping ensemble she wore at the end of Female Prisoner #701, she is now intent on enacting the vengeance that she has been thirsting for since the outset. Unlike the first time, however, her target is the warden, and she dispatches him in much the same protracted manner she did her betraying boyfriend the first time around, stalking him relentlessly through the streets and slashing him to ribbons with the blade bestowed upon her by the old woman. Once this is accomplished, we see Matsu reflected in the Warden’s glass eye, laughing hysterically — after which she is seen reunited with her fellow escapees, all back in their prison uniforms and running through the streets of the apparently deserted city, handing the knife one off to the other as they go.

As jarring as it is to see a smile on Meiko Kaji’s face after all that has gone before, this fanciful coda was the only such sequences in Jailhouse 41 that fell a little flat for me. For one thing, that Scorpion’s killing of the warden would appear to so effectively lift her burden seems to contradict the tone of the entire film, as it would more likely be a hollow victory, and leave no fewer insurmountable battles in its wake. Furthermore, the image of the women passing the knife between them, while fashionably militant, represents an offering up of a somewhat glib and depressingly limited concept of girl power. Of a piece, it seems like a pat, conciliatory gesture tacked onto the end of a film that has to this point been uncompromising in its vision. Of course, that vision may be unrelentingly bleak, but there is enough redemption to be found in the beauty and inspired ingenuity of its unveiling to render any tacked-on upbeat ending unnecessary. After all, one of the things that carved out a special place for this film in my heart is how it manages to be so oppressively nihilistic in its content while being so transcendent in its presentation.


So what is Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, you might ask. Is it a women-in-prison film? A horror film? An exploitation film? An art film? The answer — as it is when anyone poses those kind of rhetorical questions in the context of a film review — is that it’s all of those in fairly equal measure. It is also a film that is filled with more ideas than its somewhat loosely structured screenplay at times seems capable of holding, and as a result it can come across to some as little more than a series of dazzling but only tangentially connected set pieces. This is an impression that will, I feel, be allayed by repeat viewings. Because — other than those that I singled out above — each of those set pieces ultimately reveals itself to be true to the film’s emotional and moral core. As I said, this film is like a nightmare, and, in taking the form of a dream, it gains cohesion from the beating heart of emotional truth that hides within it, rather than from anything approaching a tidy narrative structure. Also like a nightmare, it has a way of sticking with you long after it has come and gone.

While Jailhouse 41‘s final sequence feels like it wants to be the end of the story, the truth, as most of you know, is that that was far from the case. Shunya Ito had one more Scorpion film in him — and while it’s arguable that, with Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, the director topped Jailhouse 41, it is certain that he contributed yet another bold addition to the series.

Release Year: 1972 | Country: Japan | Starring: Meiko Kaji, Fumio Watanabe, Kayoko Shiraishi, Hiroko Isayama, Yukie Kagawa | Writers: Hiro Matsuda, Tooru Shinohara | Director: Shunya Ito | Music: Shunsuke Kikuchi | Also known as: Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, Scorpion: Female Prisoner Cage #41, Joshuu Sasori: Dai-41 Zakkyo-bo