It’s hard to write about these old Turkish superhero movies–especially those directed by Yilmaz Atadeniz–without making reference to the Republic serials of the 1940s. The problem with doing so, however, is that many of you young people out there, with your newfangled transistor radios and souped-up hotrods, will have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. I suppose the appropriately curmudgeonly response to that would be to refuse to continue this review until you’ve educated yourselves on the topic, instead filling space with horrific, Andy Rooney-like ruminations on how butter doesn’t taste the way it used to and why on earth is the print in Reader’s Digest so small until you return with at least one complete viewing of The Perils of Nyoka or some-such under your belts. But, as much as the thought of such an exercise appeals to me, I’m afraid I can’t do so in good conscience. The fact is that those serials were meant to be seen in a very specific context, a context which simply doesn’t exist anymore. Despite what I said previously, I’m actually not old enough myself to have seen them as they were originally presented–i.e in weekly installments as part of a Saturday matinee at the local movie house presented to an audience that I imagine as being made up entirely of young boys in immaculate baseball caps and striped shirts with names like Skip, Biff and Scooter.
It’s not that Event Horizon isn’t the kind of movie I would write about. Haunted spaceships and Sam Neill ripping out his own eyeballs is right up my alley. No, the reason isn’t the content, but rather, that fact that this is one of those movies that already has a lot of words spent on it from a variety of sources both in the mainstream and in the realm of cult film fandom. Under such circumstances, it’s hard to imagine what i might have to add that is new. In some cases, I can come up with something — some tiny, meaningless tidbit that is a throwaway line in a movie that then allows me to write endlessly on some idiotic and obscure point. But upon watching Event Horizon, I was left with a distinct lack of ideas when it came to thinking about how I might approach writing about this film with some degree of originality. And now that I’ve finished the first paragraph, I still have no idea, so with any luck, something will pop up as I stumble along.
I didn’t see Event Horizon when it was released. I’m not sure why. I mean, it’s a gory film about a spooky spaceship. I think, however, in 1997, I saw maybe three film the entire year, and that was when I went out on dates with a lovely Southern belle. Somehow we ended up at a screening of Mortal Kombat II: Annihilation. So shamed was I that I just packed up and left North Carolina for New York, hoping to lose myself in the throng and hide my shameful secret. But Teleport City has, in a way, become a curious place for dragging my own horrible secrets into the light for all to see, and on the scale of shameful secrets, “took a date to see Mortal Kombat II: Annihilation” is much worse than “burning passion for Catalina Larranaga” or even “took a date to see Wicked City.” It’s probably not worse than, “invited a girl over, cooked her a crappy dinner, then made her watch Black Devil Doll from Hell,” but it’s pretty close.
I was also pretty much broke in 1997. Hell, I was pretty much broke in 2007, but I’d learned to stretch a dollar in those ten years. Whatever the reason, I didn’t see many movies that year, and Event Horizon was among the ones I didn’t see. Heck, I don’t think I knew a thing about it back then, because I didn’t even have a TV at the time where I could see important commercials informing of the virtues of films like Event Horizon, B*A*P*S, Kull the Conqueror, or any of the other fine films released that year. In the many years that followed, Event Horizon was off my radar and forgotten about, even though from time to time someone would tell me I should see it. That almost always encourages me not to see a film, as very few people seem to understand the complexities of my taste, and so they assume that I will want to be watching Troma films or other intentionally and ironically crappy movies. People just can’t grasp my earnestness. But lately, I’ve been going back and catching up on a lot of the science fiction I missed in the past ten years or so, and after Screamers, Event Horizon was the next film on the list — though calling it science fiction is sort of like calling Halloween a “coming of age drama.”
Despite the starships, hibernation chambers, spacesuits, and other superficial trappings of science fiction, Event Horizon is most definitely a horror film through and through, hewing closely to the classic set-up of a group of people in an isolated location, being preyed upon by a mysterious and murderous force. It just so happens that outer space is a slightly more isolated location than usual. In this regard, Event Horizon draws upon a history of science fiction horror that includes films like Alien and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires and can be traced back even further to the era of pulp fiction and writers like H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, it’s Lovecraft’s name that is most often invoked when people attempt to describe this film, even though at no point does Sam Neill yell “Yog Sothoth!” Unfortunately for a lot of people, Lovecraft and horror films were not invoked by the advertising for the film when it was released, which marketed it for the most part as a space adventure with some minor overtones of spookiness. People who went in expecting sci-fi space adventure found themselves confronted by hallucinatory images of demon rape, maggots, people being flayed alive, other people vomiting up their own innards or possibly someone else’s arm — at times, the atrocity exhibition is hard to decipher, but the fact remains that it was not what the average sci-fi fan was expecting. I’ve never quite understood this type of bait and switch marketing, as it only makes people mad. But I suspect that it has less to do with some sinister attempt to trick sci-fi fans into seeing a horror film and more to do with an ad agency that never bothered to watch the movie they were marketing and just assumed that, since it featured a spaceship, it was a science fiction film.
By the time I saw this movie, of course, the cat was out of the bag, so I knew exactly what I was getting into. Even if I hadn’t, it would not have mattered much, since I can roll with horror just as easily as I can science fiction. So that’s not what bugs me about this movie. What bugs me is that Event Horizon is this close to being a great movie, and that it comes so close but ultimately fails is, fair or not, much worse than if it had just been a crummy movie from beginning to end. At least then, I could have abandoned any care and gone along with things. That’s what gets me through The Chronicles of Riddick, Aeon Flux, and the many other two-star science fiction films for which I seem to have an incredible weakness. But Event Horizon was almost so much more, and while I ultimately like the movie quite a lot, I do so well aware of the bitter taste left by great ideas left poorly explored and a resolution that sees the movie collapse in on itself — which I guess is fitting in a way for a movie that features the a black hole propulsion system.
The set-up is not unlike that of a couple other “investigating the mysterious ship” movies. I’m thinking specifically of The Black Hole and 2010. In the year 2047, a group of search and rescue astronauts lead by Lawrence Fishburne when he was allowed to show emotion instead of being an emotionless monotonal Matrix guy, are en route to a secret location known only to aerospace scientist Sam Neill. It is soon revealed that they are on their way to rendezvous with the space ship Event Horizon, an experimental craft with the ability to use a black hole generator to warp space and travel massive distances in the blink of an eye. But the ship went missing seven years ago, and there’s been no successful contact with the crew since it suddenly re-appeared near the planet Neptune. Captain Miller (Fishburne), Dr. Weir (Neill), and the crew of the rescue ship Lewis and Clark are to make contact with the crew of the Event Horizon and see what the heck is going on. A rough approach through the stormy space surrounding Neptune results in damage to the Lewis and Clark, meaning that whatever happens on board the Event Horizon, they’re going to have to stick around a spell to fix their own ship.
Things are hardly soothing on the nerves once the team boards the massive experimental space ship. The crew is gone, and the only trace of them is a garbled transmission full of screaming — though eventually Miller and company also discover some hideously mutilated remains splayed across the walls. Although the ship’s black hole drive is presumably shut down, it still finds time to activate itself and suck a member of Miller’s crew into its vortex, returning him in a coma that is only broken long enough for him to babble hysterically about “the darkness inside him” and the nightmarish things he saw on the other side. On top of that, the rest of Miller’s crew starts seeing things — specifically, hallucinations of their dead loved ones. And because horror on top of horror isn’t enough, scans of the Event Horizon begin returning reports of widespread bio signals, inferring that something else is on the ship with them. When one of Miller’s officers decodes the Event Horizon log, they are met with perverse images of the crew being ripped apart, raped by hideous beasts (or possibly by other members of the crew), and suffering untold and unspeakable horrors. Miller decides that the ship can go to hell, and they’re leaving it behind. But Weir seems to feel that the ship has already been to hell, and that somewhere along it’s universe-warping journey, the Event Horizon passed into another dimension, one of absolute chaos and evil, and in doing so became a sentient and highly malevolent living organism. The scans are picking up life forms; they’re picking up the ship itself, and the hallucinations and other problems are a result of the ship’s immune system defending itself from invading organisms.
Or the ship could just be a big ol’ hunk of Hell-infused evil. Whatever the case, Miller is as keen on leaving as Weir is on keeping everybody there.
As a concept, I think Event Horizon is tremendous. The idea of a ship’s experimental drive warping space tot he point where it rips the fabric of the universe and winds up in another dimension humans could best comprehend as Hell is wonderful, and that sort of “horror among the stars” is right out of the old pulp writings of H.P. Lovecraft, who often tinged his horror with elements of science fiction. The universe into which the Event Horizon passed is glimpsed, but only in tiny, tiny portions, and the film relies again on the old Lovecraft trope of a place so completely evil, so thoroughly perverse and malign, that to merely gaze upon it would drive a man insane. Further, the idea that the ship, once returning in some way or another from that universe, would have become a sentient creature as evil as the universe through which it passed is a concept rife with potential. It’s also a set of ideas so vast, so complex, that attempting to tackle them in two hours in a sci-fi horror film is almost certainly doomed to failure.
And that’s what happens to poor Event Horizon; it is filled with too many good ideas that are too complex, and there’s no hope of the film ever being able to satisfactorily unravel it’s science, meta-science, philosophy, and religion. In a way, this isn’t a bad thing. To present human characters with a situation far beyond their comprehension and thus leave many questions necessarily half-answered or completely unresolved is fine. There is a way to do that. I just don’t think Event Horizon hits the mark. It aims. It makes a valiant effort. But int he end, it just can’t get it’s head around its own central concepts, and the whole thing devolves into an ending that lets the film down.
But make no mistake about it — I like this movie. I like it a lot. I think the things it does right make it more than worth the time it takes to watch. My frustration stems purely from the fact that it was well within the grasp of this film to be even better, and it didn’t quite make it. It’s like one of those break-aways in basketball where one guy has the ball,sprints the length of the court alone, has everyone cheering and going nuts, but then when he goes up for the slam dunk, he somehow screws it up and misses. You know, if he’d just dribbled down and missed a jumper, no worries. But because there was tremendous emotion and pageantry around the idea of a breakaway and dunk, when the guy blows the dunk, it makes the missed basket way more painful — especially if it comes near the very end and costs them the game. Event Horizon spends most of its running time building up the freak-out and scares (sometimes with cheap jump scares, but usually through the use of genuine atmosphere), but as Roger Ebert said of the movie, “it’s all foreboding and never gets to the actual boding.”
But let’s detach ourselves from disappointment and spend some time talking about what this movie does right. First and foremost is the atmosphere. Although the science fiction setting misled a lot of viewers, it works wonderfully for this type of film. It’s basically a slightly more fantastic version of the “old dark house,” the remote cabin, or any of the many other locations horror films use to isolate their cast from the outside world — only more so. Millions of miles from home, on a tiny man-made island, surrounded by an environment that will kill you almost instantly if you set foot outside. That’s even more claustrophobic and nerve-wracking than being at some rich weirdo’s country manor. And Event Horizon never lets you forget how vulnerable these people are. Their air is running out. One guy ends up outside the ship without a spacesuit. You never lose sight of how fragile humans are in this setting — something I think could only be replicated by setting your movie in the middle of the ocean. Much of Event Horizon has to do with the concept of tampering in domains man was not meant to see, but while the specific domain may be the Hell Universe, in general it’s obvious that even save travel through space in incredibly dangerous, and a tiny mistake or bit of damage can have colossally negative repercussions.
Adding to the ominous air is the Event Horizon itself, which was apparently designed by someone who thought H.R. Giger’s stuff was just too cuddly. I’m not sure how practical it is to have a spaceship with such features as a rotating tunnel of spikes and a room full of crawlspaces that are accessed through thorn-covered black panels, but I suspect that few aerospace engineers, even in Russia, are looking to design anything quite this terrifying. Remember when the interiors of spaceships were all white and well-lit? I wonder when the point will come that we decide to move away from that color scheme, and away from various pads and cushions covering stuff, and finally embrace the style that calls for dim, flickering lighting, exposed ductwork and wires, and lots and lots of razor blades and thorns. Practicality issues aside, though, and taken purely as art design, the Event Horizon is magnificent. Production designer Joseph Bennett and visual effects supervisor Richard Yuricich bring an immense amount of experience to the game. Yurichich cut his teeth on films like 2001: A Space Odyssey before moving on to supervise visual effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and of course, Ghost Dad. Bennett did design for the cyberpunk cult hit Hardware, and one can see the evidence of all their past work (as well as the ever-present influence of old German expressionism and Giger’s work on Alien) in the design of Event Horizon. This isn’t a terribly big-budget film, but they do a lot with what they have, giving the entire movie the feel of some twisted, horrific opera.
Another feather in the cap of this film is the cast. None of them inhabit especially well-developed characters. They operate on the level of recognizable stock — Fishburne is the tough but fair captain; Neill is the scientist consumed by his obsessions; Richard Jones is the wise-cracking black guy. But even when the characters are thin, the performers still give it their all. You feel like they believe what’s happening around them, and while they sometimes make dumb decisions, they rarely make decisions that aren’t understandable given the circumstances. The exception, perhaps, would be that after Miller spends a long time explaining that the ship will pick you brain and create hallucinations of suffering loved ones, and after everyone in the crew understands this is what the ship is doing, Kathleen Quinlan’s Peters still falls for the trick. I’ve mentioned it in other reviews, but it always annoys me enough that I feel like mentioning it again anytime it happens (and it happens a lot). The hoary old “evil entity transforms into a loved one” shtick grates on my nerves. I mean, you’re in outer space, for crying out loud. Obviously, when you’ve been told that the evil spaceship ghoul thing will make you see visions of your loved ones and use them to lure you to your doom, and then all of a sudden your son appears out of nowhere in a location he absolutely could not be in, well why the hell would you fall for that? Why would your son be running around on a haunted space ship that just returned from Dante’s Inferno? I guess you could dismiss it as some sort of hypnotic effect, or the result of mental breakdown making a character unable to reason, but mostly it just always strikes me as lazy writing.
Still, no one turns in a bad performance, even though they’re sometimes given very little to do. The bulk of the good stuff goes to Sam Neill, since he gets to play the characters who goes completely bonkers. If anyone had seen Neill in In the Mouth of Madness, they wouldn’t have followed him into space, because they would know that spooky H.P. Lovecraft entities tend to follow him around and drive people mad. If Event Horizon succeeds with any one character, it’s Neill’s Dr. Weir, who starts off sympathetic enough before he is consumed by the horrible mysteries contained within the walls of the Event Horizon. However, one gets the feeling that his character never becomes omniscient, never actually knows what these mysteries are despite his enthusiasm about them. No matter the speeches he may give about boundless evil, other dimensions, and forbidden knowledge, his Faust of a doctor is ultimately as clueless about what’s going on and what’s going to happen as everyone else’s. Although this is likely the product of the screenwriter not knowing himself exactly what was going to happen, the end result is effective. Neill becomes the acolyte of an unseen “holy man,” one who speaks only in riddles and fools his followers into thinking they possess some profound understanding or insight when, in fact, they have been fed nothing but meaningless phrases and garbled imagery. There’s a tragedy surrounding Dr. Weir, who far from becoming one with the ship and grasping the universe from which it has returned, instead becomes nothing more than a pitiable dupe.
Whether or not screenwriter Phil Eisner meant that to be the case, he should take it. Because the rest of his script is where the concept of Event Horizon starts to unravel. Poking fun at the science is ultimately meaningless — this is hardly the sort of film you go to for hard facts, and such an exercise would be as futile as poking holes in the space science of Star Wars. Still, it’s kind of fun, so why not, provided we remember that stressing fiction over science never kills a movie for me. Heck, one of my favorite science fiction films is Adieu, Galaxy Express 999, and that’s about a steam locomotive traveling through the galaxy while a little kid hangs his head out the window. The science of Event Horizon plays out as if it was conceived by someone who was told about Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time by someone else who hadn’t actually read the book, but had been around other people discussing it. A Brief History of Time was, of course, one of those great books that everyone bought and no one read, putting it in the rarefied air occupied by other such books: that gigantic Bill Clinton memoir, the 9/11 Commission Report, Ulysses by James Joyce, and The Bible.
Part of what Hawking’s book dealt with in its attempt to bring high physics down to a populist level was the topic of black holes. Now I actually read the book, because I’m a nerd like that, and because I had to as part of one of the classes I was taking. It was one of those science classes set up specifically for people who aren’t very good with equations, which meant it was mostly full of journalism students and members of the University of Florida football team who would groan anytime the professor tried to relate a fundamental understanding of physics to the act of making a solid pass. Yeah, sure, physics is involved, but it was highly suspect to suggest that Danny Wuerffel spent his time in the huddle scrawling geometry and physics equations into the dirt to figure out how best to get the ball into the hands of wide receiver Reidel Anthony.
Anyway, I think that class gave me about as sound an understanding as would be needed to be the guy that Eisner’s friend talked to about black holes. Meaning that I could remember that Hawking made allusions to Dante’s Inferno when speaking of the event horizon of a black hole — that gravitational point of no return from which light itself cannot escape. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” Hawking said, paraphrasing Dante and the sign that hung outside the gates of Hell. He meant, of course, that the pull of a black hole is so great, that if you cross the event horizon, you’re not coming back, so you best make peace with the fact that you’re dead meat. Now pass that sentiment through me passing it on to someone else, who then tells Phil Eisner that he was drunk at a party the other night, talking about some deep shit like black holes. All of a sudden, that simple quote applied to explain how hopeless it is to escape the pull of a black hole is twisted to mean that a black hole actually could be the gateway to Hell. And poof! Event Horizon‘s concept is born. It’s really not a bad concept, regardless of how misconstrued it may be. Black holes are weird, after all, and the idea that they lead somewhere other than to a horrible death in which you are crushed down to microscopic size by the unbelievable gravitational pressure is hardly new to Event Horizon. And even the best minds are still feeble when up against cosmic phenomena of this scale. So why not? And anyway, the use of the term “event horizon” works in a couple different ways, and it refers as much to a black hole as it does to the Event Horizon itself, which proves to be a flashpoint which, once entered, will not allow the humans to escape.
What’s more important to the quality of the screenplay is what Eisner does with the concept, and while he starts off strong, he seems to get lost, allowing the movie at times to devolve into a blood and guts horror film (not bad) and a pastiche of other other movies (slightly less forgivable). I’ve already mentioned some of the films from which Event Horizon draws, but there are plenty of others. In fact, it lifts wholesale the scene of a river of blood gushing forth from an elevator from The Shining. In fact, you could really view this movie as little more than The Shining meets The Black Hole. Sam Neill’s character bears a close resemblance to Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining, and the concept of a haunted house (or spaceship) that causes hallucinations and may itself be alive is an idea shared by both films. Many other elements are lifted from the Russian sci-fi film Solaris, yet another “man battles hallucinations” sci-fi tale.
One could also invoke the specter of the old Roger Corman Poe films, especially The Fall of the House of Usher, as it too is about a house infused with evil to the point of becoming a malignant being itself, ending in a fiery collapse much the same as we see at the end of Event Horizon. And the idea of the black hole as a portal to Hell was explored — with equal awkwardness — by The Black Hole, a film which sends one of its robotic villains through a black hole and lands him standing on a pillar surrounded by a lake of fire and the souls of the damned. n fact, Event Horizon reflects The Black Hole in many ways — an exploratory crew finds a long lost ship; that ship’ screw has vanished or mostly vanished; things are spooky; and then it all falls apart at the end when the movies both realize that they have ten minutes to explain things that the top scientific minds of the word have been grappling with for decades.
In the case of Event Horizon, all the talk of physics versus metaphysics, of a ship powered by pure evil, of a rip in the fabric of space that leads to a Hellraiser universe, lead to an anti-climatic and predictable fist fight between Miller and Weir. Though it is similar to The Fall of the House of Usher, and though it’s a suitably horrific and downbeat ending for the decent guy Miller, it seems ultimately to be a resolution that fails the film’s attempts at something more complex. I don’t need the questions to be answered. In fact, I prefer that they try and fail, discovering that comprehension of what awaits them is simply beyond the boundaries of the human brain. But a fist fight and an explosion seemed somehow to be less than what should have been delivered. It may not be entirely Eisner’s fault, though. Apparently some forty minutes was cut from the movie in order to achieve a manageable running time (1997 was a few years too early for genre films to run three hours or more and still get a wide release) and an R-rating (the 90s represented MPAA judges in a reactionary phase as an answer to the gore and nudity soaked anarchy of the 70s and 80s). Fans hoped that the footage would be restored at some point, and that such restoration would smooth out many of the wrinkles that prevent Event Horizon from achieving its ambitions, but so far such wishes have gone unsatisfied. Even when released to DVD, the film was still the theatrical cut. Whether or not it will ever be fully restored is up in the air, but given that we live in an era when almost everything, no matter how obscure or trashy, is getting lovingly reconstructed by some madman, there’s still the possibility that a more complete version will emerge and we can re-assess the film based on that.
Until then, though, we have to work with what we get to watch, and as presented, Event Horizon is an almost great movie that loses its way and relies on too many scenes from other movies and too many cheap jolts. I do wish horror films would retire that bit where someone is scared, and then someone comes up behind them and grabs them on the shoulder, refusing to speak until the other person and the audience have gotten a cheap scare. Really — have you ever approached a person in complete silence, from behind, and grabbed them by the shoulder? Yes, you have, but that’s because you were intentionally trying to scare that person. In all other instances, no one does this, and yet horror films feature it like every other scene. What makes it frustrating here is that Event Horizon doesn’t need to rely on these weak scares. It has plenty of legitimate scares and an over-arching feeling of doom and eeriness. Falling back on juvenile tactics like the shoulder grab is just gratuitous and sloppy. At least they didn’t have a scene where a cat jumped out of a box or something.
And really, perhaps I am being like this movie: searching for something that isn’t attained, being more serious than I should. Taken as nothing more than a horror film with sci-fi dressing, I really think Event Horizon is a success. It definitely has the feel of an old pulp — right down to losing track of itself over the course of its running time. Director Paul W.S. Anderson is no stranger to fans of pulpy movies, having directed Mortal Kombat before this (but not Mortal Kombat II), and Resident Evil after, among other things. I have a curious love-hate relationship with Anderson’s films in that I love some, hate others, but rarely find myself somewhere in between. Flaws aside, I love Event Horizon. And even more flaws aside, I love the Resident Evil movies, and Mortal Kombat, even (though not Mortal Kombat II). I guess I’m lukewarm on Soldier, so there’s one middle ground movie.
But I hate with a passion the Alien vs. Predator films, even more than I hate Mortal Kombat II. Still that’s a lot of hits any only one real miss for me (granted, I’m not a discriminating viewer), so I guess I like Anderson as a director, and I think Event Horizon is probably the best film he’s made and will likely make. At its worst, it is grade-A horror hokum, full of mumbo jumbo and ideas that don’t really pan out. And I can deal with that just fine. Heck, like I said, I probably would have preferred if the film was that way from beginning to end instead of flirting with brilliance in spots, only to fold at the last second. But regardless, this is good, gruesome pulp fiction, full of the creeping unknown and vague talk about dimensions of madness and torture that only Cthulhu, Pinhead, and the makers of the Ilsa films can imagine. Anderson’s direction is sure-handed, and he and cinematographer Adrian Biddle make wonderful use of the warped madhouse the production team has created for them.
So, huh. I guess I did have a lot to say about Event Horizon. Funny the things you learn about yourself when faced with writing about a movie where Sam Neill digs out his own eyeballs. I was pleasantly surprised by it. I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was, and even though it’s a shame it wasn’t as good as it could have been, at the end of the day, I’m happy enough. I’m also happy I didn’t see it in 1997, because even though I would have liked it then, perhaps even more than I do now, the fact of the matter is that Southern belle was actually willing to still enter into a relationship with me even after I made her see things like Mortal Kombat II: Annihilation, City of Darkness, and Alien 4. I don’t know if that tenuous, early romance could have survived Event Horizon as well, especially considering the fact that she never made me go see Titanic, like every other girlfriend did in 1997. I guess I could have sold Event Horizon with no more or less deception than the original marketing team if I positioned it as “kind of like Titanic, in that it is about people on a doomed ship.”
Release Year: 1997 | Country: United States | Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy, Jason Isaacs, Sean Pertwee | Writer: Phil Eisner | Director: Paul W.S. Anderson | Cinematographer: Adrian Biddle | Music: Michael Kamen | Producer: Jeremy Bolt, Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin
The Moonstone marks our first real foray into a universe in which we will be spending a lot of time: the Poverty Row thriller. An understanding of what Poverty Row was — if not an actual appreciation for its product — is an important part of any cult film education (and given the way you kids are allowed to make up any damn thing and call it a college major these days, you can probably go PhD in Cult Film Studies or some such nonsense, when you should be spending your time in college learning about Hammurabi, thermodynamics, and beer funnels), because Poverty Row is where the b-movie was born. So let’s set the stage.
The more popular movies became, the more demand there was for something — sometimes, anything — to fill the marquee. There was only so much the big studios could produce, and the hunger for cinematic entertainment was fast starting to outpace production schedules. When the studio system — by which certain production studios were allowed to own and operate their own theaters, showing only their own movies — was broken up, it opened the door for a number of prospective upstart studios to step in and both fill the void with their own product as well as find a screen on which to play it. Newly independent theater owners often paired these films of lesser prestige with a film from one of the big studios — the b-picture to the a-picture main event.
The b-movies were often produced very quickly and on the cheap, usually with a cast of unknowns, though sometimes they’d score a star whose name had some marquee value during the silent era. Most of the major studios eventually started their own b-movie production machines, and these films benefited from access to recognizable contract players from the studio as well as all the sets, props, and costumes that had been used in other, bigger budget productions. This is why b-movies like the Mister Moto series look far more lavish and expensive than they actually were. They had access to all the stuff that was lying around for the bigger budget Charlie Chan films.
But the bulk of the b-movies and programming filler was produced by smaller studios. Among these studios, few were as prolific and respectable (relatively speaking) as Monogram. So successful was Monogram, in fact, that it soon took on the appearance of a “little major,” with it’s own stable of contract players, directors, writers, and sets. Monograms and the studios like them were dubbed “Poverty Row,” as much a reference to the budgets they had to work with as it was a reference to less cultured hoi polloi who flocked to see the cheapies. This was truly the cinema of the people, giving the unwashed masses like you and me exactly what we wanted. And what we wanted, at least at the time, was westerns and thrillers. It’s the thrillers that concern us today, and The Moonstone is a perfect place to begin.
In 1868, an author by the name of Wilkie Collins had published a story called The Moonstone which is generally considered the first English-language mystery novel. Of course, as soon as something is proclaimed to be the first of anything, someone else is going to show up with ample evidence why some other work deserves the honor being considered the first. Look at attempts to pin down the first slasher film. For a while, everyone agreed that it was Halloween, but then some smartie pants started maintaining that it was actually Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, and then it was Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, and now I think it’s gotten to the point where the world’s first slasher film is actually attributed to Sophocles.
So whether or not The Moonstone is the world’s first English language detective and mystery novel, instead of the C. Auguste Dupin stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the fact remains that T.S. Eliot called it the first English detective novel, and who’s going to argue with T.S. Eliot? W.B. Yeats? Please. Whatever the case, Collins’ story sets the template for the many, many detective thrillers that would follow. There’s the isolated British manor house, the large group of suspects brought together in a common location, copious red herrings, amateur sleuthing by one or two people who are also among the gathered cast of characters, and of course, the gruff inspector from Scotland Yard. In particular, The Moonstone deals with the theft of a precious stone from a young British heiress.
The movie sticks to the original novel in some basic respects, but for the most part it varies quite remarkably. One of the the elements that made the novel such a success was its references to drug use. That aspect of the novel’s script is excised entirely from the plot of the film, seeing as such open depiction of drug use and abuse was strictly taboo in 1934 — the very same year that the Hayes Code enacted in 1930 was put into heavy enforcement. Monogram certainly wasn’t in a financial position to take on the United States government and defend their picture, so the easier route was simply to write around the opium. Additionally, the novel takes place over the course of many, many months. In the movie, everything takes place in the course of twenty-four hours. Where as three mysterious jugglers from India play a major role in the novel — the moonstone was originally stolen by a British officer in India, and disciples of the god from whose forehead it was stolen have sworn to get it back, no matter how many generations it takes — in the movie, there is only a single Indian, a servant, who has very little to do other than show up for some questioning. In fact,the movie, while entertaining, the whole movie plays like an adaptation of the novel done by someone who sort of read the novel a long time ago and is now doing their best to remember what they can.
On the night of her birthday, young Ann Verinder (Phyllis Barry) receives the gift of the Moonstone, though how good a gift it is remains dubious. Although obviously precious, the stone has a bloody past and carries a curse. Originally stolen by a shifty British officer in India (as in the novel), the Moonstone has since been the object of spookiness, with various Indians swearing revenge on the family of the man who stole it and to return it to its rightful home, whatever the cost. On top of the oogy boogy factor, Ann seems to only know people who would have some sinister reason for wanting to steal the jewel. Her own father is in dire financial straights, and the Moonstone could save him from ruin. A moneylender to whom her father owes most of the money is keen on the stone as well. The family’s young maid is a former thief. A cousin’s servant happens to be Indian. The assistant doctor that works with Ann’s father has a terrible secret about his past.
Not surprisingly, amid all these potential thieves, the Moonstone ends up being stolen — from right under Ann’s pillow, no less. I’ve always wondered about people who put precious items under their pillow for safekeeping — that includes guns. Now I guess if you are one of those people who lies perfectly still, on your back, with your hands folded across your chest in angelic repose, then putting valuable sunder your pillow would be fine. But seriously, how many of you sleep like that? And how many of you sleep in two dozen different positions over the course of a night, including ones where you wake up and find your knee against your chin and your pillow shoved between your knees, with a second pillow somehow ending up on the floor clear on the other side of the room? If I went to sleep with a Moonstone under my pillow, there’s a good chance that I would wake up and find the thing under the dresser, stuck between my butt cheeks, or possibly in the fridge, since I tend to get up in the middle of the night and sleepily make myself bowls of cereal.
And especially if I knew my house was full of people who might want to steal the jewel, I’d find somewhere safer than under my pillow. First, why would you be friends with nothing but people who want to steal your cursed birthday present? Second, if you are a well-to-do heiress, even one who doesn’t know her father has secretly blown the family fortune, you still have your big British manor house, and I’m pretty sure there must be a secure place for such things as cursed moonstones. I mean, even if the attempt to steal the stone woke you up, what’s to stop the thief from wearing a mask and punching you in the face? So really, I guess what I’m saying is, if your security system is to put your valuables under a pillow then lie a wispy British heiress on top of it, you deserve to have your moonstone stolen.
Complicating the case is the fact that a number of odd things happened at conveniently inconvenient times: the arrival of the moneylender, the departure of Ann’s father int he middle of the night to deliver a baby, and the arrival of a storm so violent that no one could possibly leave the house. Also on hand is Inspector Cuff of Scotland Yard (Charles Irwin), dispatched upon hearing about Ann’s inheritance because Scotland Yard expected such a young and naive owner would be the victim of treachery. One by one, Cuff grills the inhabitants of the house, airing their dirty laundry and conveniently explaining for the audience what the motivation for theft would be. As Cuff goes about his business, Ann’s father falls ill with pneumonia contracted whilst mucking about in the storm, delivering babies, and a number of people decide to solve the mystery themselves. The only real clue is a smudge left on the door by a careless thief — a very careless thief, because the smudge is gigantic.
And then, just as the mystery is getting good and mysterious, everything is wrapped up in like three minutes with a minimum of fuss, and the movie ends.
According to some sources, this movie’s original running time was a little over an hour, as was customary for cheap films of this period. But all the existing copies that have been released on DVD run just under fifty minutes. So somewhere there are ten to fifteen minutes of this film lying around that are not included in the version I watched. While that still makes for a brisk movie, it would explain a number of plot threads that are introduced and never really picked up again. It would also make for a little more suspense than we get with the movie in its current state, which although it is wrapped up in more or less the same way as the novel, comes very abruptly and without any sense of a big reveal.
But first, let’s talk about the good. For an early thriller based on an early thriller, and with a minimal budget, The Moonstone is pretty entertaining. It confines itself to two locations — or only one, if you discount the opening scene in a Scotland Yard office — and a small cast, with the whole thing feeling a bit like a stage production, but the movie never looks or feels as cheap as it is, even if the exterior of the mansion is just a model. Monogram obviously put some time and effort into the production, and that extra care translates into a more impressive end product that Poverty Row often gave us. On top of that, there’s no real weak link in the cast. Most of them were experienced hands, if not well-known actors. Phyllis Barry was a bit player in all sorts of films, including the Errol Flynn epic The Prince and the Pauper and one of the Bulldog Drummond films. She was usually relegated to roles like “Barmaid” and “Housekeeper,” but given something a little more substantial, she acquits herself nicely.
John Davidson gets to parade around in a turban, making menacing intense eyes as Yandoo, the Indian servant who may or may not be part of a cult dedicated to retrieving the Moonstone. Davidson had been in movies for almost twenty years by the time he appeared in The Moonstone, starting his career way back in 1915 — not quite the dawn of the feature film, but awful close. His experience with silent film is most likely the reason Davidson is able to do so much with only a few lines of dialog. It’s too bad that his role is relegated to something relatively unimportant in the movie, because the Indians in the novel apparently had more to do.
The most recognizable face for cult film fans is probably David Manners, best known for inhabiting the role of Jonathan Harker in Todd Browning’s 1931 production of Dracula. Manning went on to appear in Universal’s The Mummy, as well. In fact, very few members of the cast of The Moonstone could be considered inexperienced, and their adeptness at the craft is evident. Poverty Row features sometimes saddled the audiences with remarkably wooden actors, but that’s not the case here.
Similarly, director Reginald Barker was an old hand, having begun his directing career in 1912. The Moonstone actually comes to us at the end of his career — just as the novel came at the end of Wilkie Collins’ career — and it’s obvious that, even if this is a B production, it’s being helmed by a man who knows what he’s doing. As with director Michael Curtiz, who made Captain Blood just one year later, and as with many of the directors working at the time, Barker’s experience with silent films translates into an effective use of things like light and shadow and the facial expressions of the actors — the tools you had to use in a film when dialog couldn’t do the talking for you. Barker’s direction and little flourishes keep the film from feeling static, even though this is a movie comprised almost entirely of people sitting around.
In fact, if there’s a weak component to this film besides the rushed ending, it’s the dialog, which is bland but relatively harmless. However, in a movie in which there is almost no action at all, it needs to make up for that with cracking good dialog, and The Moonstone falters in this regard. Scriptwriter Adele Buffington wrote about seventy-five billion Poverty Row westerns, and the screenplay for The Moonstone smacks of what I would call “rushed competence.” It’s a perfectly serviceable script, but it takes the easiest route and avoids dealing with any of the complicated affairs that made the novel more engrossing. The drug references are dropped almost entirely, with the final solution coming in the guise of a medicine considerably less controversial that laudanum.
Wilkie Collins was, himself, an addict, and drew on his own experiences with laudanum for the story. However, drug references would hardly fly under the new Hayes Code, so Buffington more or less drops it. He also does considerably less with the thief-turned-maid character than does the original novel, and she, like Yandoo and a number of the suspects, more or less disappears after she has her interview with Inspector Cuff. But like I said, this is “rushed competence.” Buffington has an hour to tell the story, instead of a novel. Subplots and extraneous digressions, interesting though they may have been, had to be cut. Buffington’s final product is perfectly serviceable, but one can’t help but notice that inside this good movie is a great movie that was never quite made.
The Moonstone lacks the spark of the better films of the time, and even of the better Poverty Row productions. The Mister Moto films didn’t just enjoy access to the props from the Charlie Chan movies; they also benefited from snappier dialog and pacing. And when compared to other low budget thrillers, like the Bulldog Drummond films, the short-comings of The Moonstone become more obvious. Luckily, since it clocks in at about three-quarters of an hour, the movie never affords itself the chance to get dull. Still, acceptable but uninspired dialog is what prevents The Moonstone from being a must-see on entertainment terms instead of just historical importance terms.
Still, The Moonstone makes for a fun, if brief, way to spend some time. Well shot, well acted, and at least adequately written. In terms of Poverty Row productions from an independent like Monogram, it represents the top of the heap, though I wouldn’t say it’s the best. But films like this are where it all began. In the conventions a movie like The Moonstone establishes, we see the bits and pieces that will become everything from horror films to giallo. Even Hitchcock did much of his best work in the same confines defined by the Moonstone novel. If you’re interested in where modern cult films come from, The Moonstone should be on your list of things to watch. Heck, even if you don’t like it as much as I did (and I liked it enough, though it’s not a film I’d run through the streets singing the merits of — I save that honor for Howling II), it took you less than an hour to watch it.
Release Year: 1934 | Country: United States | Starring: David Manners, Phyllis Barry, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Jameson Thomas, Herbert Bunston, Charles Irwin, Elspeth Dudgeon, John Davidson, Claude King, Olaf Hytten, Evalyn Bostock, Fred Walton | Screenplay: Adele Buffington | Director: Reginald Barker | Cinematographer: Robert Planck | Music: Abe Meyer | Producer: Paul Malvern
I once read a review on some site that contained the statement “Slaughtered Vomit Dolls is not for everyone”, which is my favorite line ever from an online review of a cult movie. Not only is it admirable for being refreshingly direct, but also for how it so clearly provides the guidance that we depend on from such reviews. It makes you truly grateful that the internet exists, especially if you’re one of those people who might otherwise have considered purchasing Slaughtered Vomit Dolls as a Mothers Day gift.
In the spirit of those words, then, I would like to begin this review by stating that Hausu, the 1977 debut feature from Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi, is not for everyone. However, if you are one of those people whom Hausu is for (or for whom Hausu is?), I think that you will find it not only fascinating, but addictive. I myself have seen it five times now, and it’s a testament to its uniqueness that each time I watch it I find myself surprised anew at just how strange it is. It’s as if it contains too much that’s beyond the normal frame of reference for the brain to adequately retain it all. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it is one of the most unique horror films that I have ever seen.
Obayashi came to Hausu from a background in television advertising, and, in making it, he not only employs all of the tricks of that trade, but also turns many of them on their head. This is a film in which no fraction of any one frame escapes being stylized to within an inch of its life. In addition to working with a woozy pallet of saturated and uniformly unnatural colors (not to mention a chaotic sound design), Obayashi uses every special effect technique available at the time, in concert with a large repertoire of “naive” optical effects not typically seen since the early talkies, to create layers of visual and aural signals that constantly bombard the viewer at every level. While this can at times come off like a first-time director simply showing off, the film is far from an empty exercise in style. Hausu is simply energized by too much passion (and perhaps rage) for there not to be a vision–and heart–behind its madness.
Obayashi, at least in his early directing years, seemed to be drawn to fantastic stories that centered on school-aged protagonists, especially those that played on themes of teenage angst (his other films include Exchange Students, The Little Girl Who Conquered Time and the manga adaptation Drifting Classroom), and Hausu is no exception, following the fate of a close knit group of seven teenaged schoolgirls. Of these seven, only the ethereally beautiful Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami) is provided with any kind of back-story–or character, for that matter. The remaining six are simply an assortment of types, each paired down to a descriptive nickname and one corresponding signature behavior: Mack (for “stomach”) overeats; Fanta (Kumiko Ohba) is prone to romantic daydreams; Melody (Eriko Tanaka) plays piano; Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) practices Kung Fu and has her own action theme music, etc.
Collectively these girls inhabit a world straight out of a seventies Saturday morning cereal commercial, one in which people rise to greet the day with arms outstretched to the sun as cartoon rainbows play across the horizon to the strains of treacly soft rock. As Obayashi presents it, you wouldn’t be at all surprised if one of those freaky psychedelic football mascots from Syd and Marty Kroft’s PuffnStuff or Lidsville were to bound into frame at any moment. Oshare’s life outside of the group, however, is presented a little differently, though in no less cavity-promoting terms. Hers is a world of movie-fuelled romanticism with the kitsch level pushed to belligerent extremes (think Douglas Sirk on eleven): Beyond the balcony of her father’s high-rise flat, a permanent artificial sunset stretches across the sky like a glorious, lurid bruise, and, as we watch Oshare, all of the camera’s means of idealizing dewy young womanhood–gauzy soft focus, halo lighting, fan-blown hair captured in dreamy slow motion–are amped to the level of the grotesque. Taken together, the world that’s presented in the first section of Hausu is one in which a malignant, over-ripe greeting card sentimentality has poisoned the very atmosphere. And, given that, it should come as no surprise that rottenness lurks just around the corner–or, at least, just a short train ride away.
Things start to turn when Oshare, heartbroken over the prospect of her widowed father marrying a creepily serene younger woman named Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi), reaches out to her beloved dead mother’s sister, an aunt (Yoko Minamida) whom she hasn’t seen for many years. That aunt has remained in the family home, alone, honoring a decades old promise to wait for the man to whom she was engaged, even though, as we have seen, he was long ago killed in the war that took him away in the first place. (In keeping with the psychotically chipper tone of Hausu‘s first act, the flashback of the aunt’s tragic story is played out as a silent era film while, on the soundtrack, the girls coo inanely over how cute and quaint it all looks.) The aunt in return invites Oshare and her friends to come stay at the remote family house for the holiday.
Quickly after the group of girls arrives at the house it becomes apparent that, not just something, but everything isn’t right. The aunt, they eventually learn, has long ago died and become a ghost whose vengeful spirit has infected the very house itself. Furthermore, in order to maintain itself, the house must literally devour any virgin girl who steps within it. It is at this point that Hausu resoundingly turns against its first half, and the opening scenes’ creepy yet chaste fetishizing of the young girls gives way to an explosive sexuality so uncontainable that it literally permeates and animates the physical environment that they inhabit.
It is also at this point that Hausu takes on the structure of a conventional modern horror film, with the girls being picked off one by one by a variety of gory means. But the nature of those means, given that it’s the house itself that is implementing them–combined with the delirious, candy colored nightmare of their presentation–makes those sequences anything but conventional. The scene in which we watch Melody getting eaten, and then digested, by a grand piano is probably the most memorable, but there are a number of others that equal it in terms of their combined horror and absurdity. Obayashi here performs a neat (and, to my mind, never repeated) trick by drawing on the queasy, hallucinatory imagery of Italian horror directors like Argento, while replacing their languid, dreamy pacing with the sugar rush velocity of a particularly demented Saturday morning cartoon. The result is as intoxicating as it is overwhelming.
Hausu, perhaps surprisingly, dates very well. Despite its surface appearance, it manages to escape itself being 1970s kitsch by presciently recognizing that kitsch for what it was in its own time. From that vantage point, it can treat those treacly feel good excesses, not with nostalgic affection or condescending dismissal, but as a telling symptom of something malignant underneath. It may just be wishful thinking, but I like to believe that it’s no coincidence that Hausu came out in the year commonly associated with the birth of punk–that, though not apparent on the surface, hidden within it is a mischievous punk sensibility. After all, what better symbol of everything that punk rose up against than the smiley face? If Obayashi did not officially count himself among punk’s practitioners, he at least attacked that symbol and everything it stood for with a bile and passion equal to theirs.
Hausu also benefits greatly by comparison to contemporary Japanese horror movies, which typically suffer from their makers’ grim determination to make every moment pregnant with ominousness and foreboding–with the end result being films that are pretty much uniformly tedious and annoying. In contrast, Hausu, a film that is rich with humor and a subversive sense of play, not only delivers a number of effective scares, but also manages to be profoundly disturbing as a whole. At a time when it is becoming distressingly apparent that the Japanese have forgotten how to make horror movies that are actually scary, it might just be that their film industry could take a lesson from Hausu. Perhaps they could learn from it that their taking the horror genre too seriously could be the very thing that is leeching it of all of its horror, and that it’s time to bring a sense of fun and mischief back into the process. The American film industry, on the other hand, should continue in their benevolent ignorance of Hausu, because no one wants to see a remake of it starring cast members of Gossip Girl.
So, if you think that Hausu is for you, that’s the good news. The bad news is that, though long a soft and grainy staple of the grey market, Hausu is, as of this writing, only legitimately available as a German PAL region DVD without English subtitles. That shouldn’t be too much of a deterrent, however, because its simple story and emphasis on visuals make it a perfect example of the type of film that’s easy to enjoy without understanding the spoken language. Still, given the ready availability of so many old Japanese genre titles on the market, it’s somewhat astonishing that no one has seen fit to give a film as ripe for cult appreciation as Hausu a proper American release. Mind you, it’s no Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, but it still deserves to be seen.
Release Year: 1977 | Country: Japan | Starring: Kimiko Ikegami, Yoko Minamida, Kumiko Ohba, Saho Sasazawa, Haruko Wanibuchi, Eriko Tanaka, Miki Jinbo, Masayo Miyako, Mitsutoshi Ishigami | Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi | Writers: Chiho Katsura, Nobuhiko Obayashi | Cinematographer: Yoshitaka Sakamoto | Music: Asei Kobayashi, Micky Yoshino | Producer: Nobuhiko Obayashi
The Delinquent Girl Boss movies are just my speed, because as much as I hate to admit it, I’m a bit of a Pinky Violence lightweight. It’s not that I don’t like the genre. I do, very much. It’s just that it’s one that’s so fraught with potential pitfalls that watching an unfamiliar entry can be a bit of a risky proposition. In my experience, the most successful PV films maintain an almost painfully delicate balance between sleaze and artistry, and those that don’t leave me with nothing more than a ninety minute hole in my life and a feeling of being mildly pervy.
It’s for this reason that, for all the depravity on display, I can still get a kick out of Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom, while Girl Boss Guerrilla, from the same director, makes me want to tear my brain out and scrub it with a Brillo pad–or that, while I consider Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, with all its incest and bloody backroom abortions, to be a small masterpiece, Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs just reminds me that I should probably wash my hands after handling the discs I get from Netflix.
The Delinquent Girl Boss movies, on the other hand, could best be described as Pinky Violence “lite”. That is due in great part to their star, Reiko Oshida, who is simply so adorable that you’d never want any of those things that happen to Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike in their movies to happen to her. (Not that you necessarily want them to happen to Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike, either–but obviously someone does, because it seems like neither of them can get through a movie without having some sweaty yakuza or lesbian prison guard string them up and whip them across the chest.) Though Rika, the character that the baby-faced Oshida portrays, is certainly a tough customer, she’s less worldly and careworn than her sister delinquents, and you get the clear impression that her bravado is to some extent meant to cover up for some residual adolescent doofyness. In contrast to the hardened teenage killing machines typically played by Sugimoto or Ike, with Rika there is a faint glimmer of hope of a brighter future lying ahead, and that not only keeps you rooting for the character, but also allows the series as a whole to take on a somewhat lighter tone than other films in the genre. Not that it’s all picnics and popsicles, mind you.
Blossoming Night Dreams is the first in the Delinquent Girl Boss series, as well as Toei’s first entry in the Pinky Violence genre. Spurred to jump into the game by the success of Nikkatsu’s Stray Cat Rock series of female delinquent films, the studio would go on to make the PV genre their own through more brazenly exploitative franchises like the aforementioned Terrifying Girls’ High School and Female Prisoner Scorpion films. At the time of this film, the template that those later films followed had yet to be set, and so, while there is a fair share of tits and blood on display, there’s nowhere near as much as would become standard within a couple years. Furthermore–and again unlike perennial PV stars Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike–Oshida was not required to shed her clothing for her role, leaving the burden of baring all upon her supporting stars.
As with Worthless to Confess, the final entry in the Delinquent Girl Boss series (and the only other one that I’ve seen) Blossoming Night Dreams opens in a girls’ reform school, giving us a scene in which the rowdy inmates make a mockery of a presentation on bridal etiquette, using it as an opportunity for what you have to guess is just the latest in a series of regularly occurring wild brawls. This presentation, in which a prim charm school matron delivers such dispiriting bromides as “to look like a bride is life itself”, paints a pretty cynical picture of the possibilities that await these girls on the outside, and it’s not hard to side with them when they run riot over the thing. Still, these possibilities have to be confronted, and we soon shift forward a year, where we find nineteen year-old Rika back on the outside, trying to put her past behind her and play it straight and narrow. Unfortunately, as countless films have taught us, that’s rarely an easy thing to do.
Rika first finds work at a laundry, but loses that job when the owner attempts to rape her, and his wife, stumbling in on the two of them, assumes that it is Rika who is trying to seduce him. The next horny male Rika encounters, however, ends up being a little more helpful, as Tsunao (series regular Tonpei Hidari) is able to provide her with an introduction to Umeko, a former inmate of the same reform school who runs a bar and nightclub where a number of the schools’ alumni work as hostesses. It seems like Rika may have found a safe haven under the wing of the maternal Umeko, but the old ways start to exert their pull again once she discovers that a local Yakuza clan is trying to muscle Umeko out of her ownership of the club. Just when you think you’re out…
As is typical with Pinky Violence movies, pretty much all of the men that the girls in Blossoming Night Dreams encounter are goonish, sex obsessed louts. In the case of the more sympathetic ones, you get the sense that only a thin layer of civility (or, in some cases, just timidity) prevents them from simply taking by force what they want from these women. This conceit makes watching Pinky Violence movies in general a complicated proposition for a male; While you’re invited to ogle at the exposed female flesh on display, these films pretty much tell you that, in doing so, you’re no different from the leering and slobbering potential rapists that inhabit them. Aside from the odd reformed yakuza, the only nobility you’ll see is that displayed by the women, who know that they only have their own community to protect them within a world dominated by ruthless male predators (something that’s driven home, as it is here, by the mournful enka ballad that opens so many of the films in the genre–which is usually a tragic rumination on a woman’s narrow options in a heartless male world). Because of this, the scenes of stoically endured torture and abuse that you see in some of the harder-edged entries in the genre are as much tableaus of martyrdom as they are mere kinky spectacle. Finally, placing a further obstacle in the way of enjoying these films as pure titillation is the fact that what consensual sex occurs is almost always joyless for these women, with sex presented as just another cynical means of survival.
Now, by this I’m not saying that these films are necessarily feminist in their perspective–though they do seem, despite being written and directed by men, somewhat anti-male (which–sorry guys–is not the same thing). I’m just trying to point out that the viewpoint they present is certainly one that’s more complex than one might assume. And that complexity provides a framework for, among other things, some well drawn and sympathetic female characters–though not so much the male ones. Don’t get me wrong, of course: while Blossoming Night Dreams is pretty tame, a lot of the other films in the genre could fairly be called “dirty movies”. But to dismiss them as being only that would be a mistake, and would perhaps deny you a challenging and rewarding movie watching experience… with boobs.
Anyway, because suffering is such an important part of these movies–and Reiko Oshida seems to be off limits in terms of baring the full brunt of it–it’s a good thing that we have on hand Yuki Kagawa’s character Mari. Judging from this and Worthless to Confess, Mari serves as the Delinquent Girl Boss saga’s emotional pin cushion. Here Mari is working as one of the bar hostesses, and a major subplot involves her desperate search for her drug addicted younger sister, Bunny, who is on the run after having stolen a stash of drugs from the Yakuza (those same yakuza who are trying to take over the nightclub, naturally). After failing to reach Bunny before the gang can, with predictably tragic results, Mari goes out seeking revenge, only to end up being viciously gang raped. Kagawa gives one of a number of solid performances in the film, investing Mari with a haunted soulfulness that makes her plight all the more painful to witness. Because of that I wish I could say that things improve for Mari as the series progresses, but I’m afraid no one saw fit to give the poor girl a break, as the final film ends with her stricken with a case of TB contracted from her no good yakuza boyfriend.
The above is not to say that Rika is wholly exempt from being at the receiving end of some hard treatment and harsh lessons. There’s a somewhat surprising episode in which she naively offers herself to the yakuza boss Ohba in return for him waiving a debt he’s been holding over Umeko’s head. Of course, Ohba avails himself of what’s offered (though, unlike with Mari, we’re only shown the aftermath) but with no intention of keeping up his end, and he allows the rest of the gang to rough Rika up before kicking her to the curb. Though there is a brief scene in which Umeko admonishes a shame-faced Rika for her stupidity, the film gives only cursory attention to the effect that this presumably traumatic event has had on Rika, and mostly just uses it to provide fuel for the bloody payback that we know is coming. It’s not the only time that the series is a little dishonest in how it isolates its star from the worst of what it has to dish out, but for me it was the instance in which that practice was the most distracting.
Once every other avenue of recourse has been exhausted, and the accumulated insults and injuries have become to great, the women of the Bar Murasaki determine that screaming, blade slashing, blood spraying vengeance is the only answer. It’s at this point that those of us who have already seen Worthless to Confess (which is most of us who would watch Blossoming Night Dreams, given that Worthless beat the first film to DVD by a couple of years) realize that Blossoming Night Dreams has followed pretty much the exact trajectory as that later film: We have the opening in prison, followed by various attempts to go straight in the outside world, which are foiled in turn by the greedy machinations of the Yakuza, and, finally, a number of intertwining subplots that coalesce into a hyper-violent girl-on-gangster finale. This, however, doesn’t make the sweet, sweet payback any less satisfying, and it’s to Blossoming Night Dream‘s credit that its predictability doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
While it lacks those unexpected moments of transcendent lyricism that mark Norifumi Suzuki’s better PV films–and that can be found throughout the first three Female Prisoner Scorpion movies–Blossoming Night Dreams is not without its instances of visual poetry. Still, its overall look is most representative of the type of high level craftsmanship that was standard in the Japanese commercial cinema of its day. Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi would go on to direct all four films in the series, and his work here–along with that of cinematographer Hanjiro Nakazawa–shows a studied attention to composition and color that insures that each shot has an appealingly hyper-real sheen. This serves especially well in the psychedelic nightclub numbers, which are largely indistinguishable from the psychedelic nightclub numbers in many other Japanese movies of the period, and are all the better for it (after all, why mess with a winning formula?).
I really liked Blossoming Night Dreams. As I’ve indicated, it won’t overwhelm you with its artistry, but it is a handsomely made film, and the performances are uniformly top notch. And because I didn’t have to spend half of its running time cringing and hoping that my wife didn’t walk into the room, it afforded me the opportunity to savor some of those aspects of the PV genre that are most appealing to me. I imagine that the other two movies in the cycle that I have yet to see are largely the same, but that doesn’t make me want to see them any less. The fact is, I would watch them for Reiko Oshida alone, even if they consisted entirely of her reading the Tokyo phonebook to a stuffed ocelot. She’s simply one of the most appealing stars of her day, period.
Release Year: 1970 | Country: Japan | Starring: Reiko Oshida, Masumi Tachibana, Yukie Kagawa, Keiko Fuji, Hayato Tani, Toshiaki Minami, Bokuzen Hidari, Yasushi Suzuki, Saburo Bouya, Tatsuo Umemiya, Tonpei Hidari | Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi | Writers: Norio Miyashita, Kazuhiko Yamaguchi | Cinematographer: Hanjiro Nakazawa | Music: Toshiaki Tsushima | Producers: Kenji Takamura, Kineo Yoshimine
Once you’re done with the knowledge-based cherry picking, there are a wide variety of factors that come into play in deciding which are the potential gems among the selection of five dollar Bollywood dvds at your local Indian grocer or favorite online vendor. Familiar names or faces in the cast or crew of a film are always helpful, but there are also certain thematic or conceptual lures that might serve to tip the scales. In the case of Dharam-Veer, for instance, it certainly didn’t hurt that the cast included the stunning Zeenat Aman–and while its male lead, Dharmendra, isn’t one of my favorite actors, I do harbor a lot of good will toward him thanks to his co-starring role–with Amitabh Bachchan–in the classic Sholay, as well as his appearance in other highly enjoyable films such as Ankhen and Alibaba aur 40 Chor.
There are a couple key themes that define Teleport City and to which I frequently refer. First among these is that Teleport City was always envisioned as a response to the taunt, “Get a life!” or, alternately, “Get a girlfriend!” Part of the reason the reviews I write so often diverge into tangential stories about silly adventures, history (both accurate and suspect), and the circumstances under which I’ve viewed these movies and how said circumstances have influenced my reactions is because I like to illustrate what I’ve learned and experienced first-hand from my many strange years in cult film fandom: that we do have lives, often exceptionally fun lives at that. The second of the over-arching themes that inform Teleport City is that you should be happy this is your hobby, because you will never want for new material. No matter how much you’ve seen, you’ve never seen it all, and you will discover new and amazing films from all over the world with pleasing regularity. Exploring these films leads, often, to exploring other cultures, other countries, other customs and histories, and learning about far more than simply the film you happen to be watching.
Case in point would be the little sub-genre — “family” might be more appropriate — known as “krimi,” a series of fantastical German murder mystery movies based on the works of British author Edgar Wallace and drawing influence from a sprawling landscape of source material that includes pulp adventures, noir crime dramas, James Bond, and old horror films. Until a few years ago, I’d never heard of “krimi” films. Back in the day, I had a German film class in what we then referred t as “college,” or sometimes “university.” Back in this time period, I would ride to class on my pennyfarthing bicycle beneath trees dripping with the vibrantly colored leaves of fall, my letterman sweater rakishly unbuttoned and my books slung around my shoulder in a satchel, whistling the latest hit by The Ink Spots and thinking of my sweetheart Annabeth and the grand we time we’d have that weekend when I would borrow my chum’s horseless motor carriage to drive her up to the country for a picnic, where I would serenade her with some ukulele playing. Oh, that was truly the golden fall of ’92!
The film class covered the basics of German film — meaning we watched some Metropolis, Doctor Caligari, Nosferatu, Triumph of the Will, Jew Suss, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum, American Friend, The Seventh Cross, and the dreaded The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. Although the professor was a grand man and once scheduled a make-up class at his own home, where he had an early, pre-flatscreen television version of a home theater, an indoor pool, and a feast of spaetzel and bratwurst (apparently being the head of the Germanic and Slavic Languages department married to the head of the Russian Language department has its perks beyond just being able to stage the siege of Stalingrad in your back yard every night), and even though he taught me the word vergangenheits-bewaltigung, there was no mention of krimi. For that matter, there was no mention of the Jerry Cotton FBI-adventure films starring George Nader, or of Superargo, so in the end, I have to question the quality of education I received. Still, and despite The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, one of the better film classes I took, even though (and possibly because) the professor wasn’t trained in film studies. Plus, Sigfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler was a fine book, and the class itself benefited from sharing a semester with a “Women and Film” class which was excruciating (this is what you get when you do schedule drop-add at the last minute — please, o Lord! No more Jane Campion!).
I also learned that I wanted a Wiemar Republic era nightclub in my house. Later, of course, I became more of a grown up and dispensed with such childish fantasies. Nowadays, I want a Jess Franco nightclub in my house.
With this basic foundation in German cinema, it was many years before I visited that nation’s movies again, and when I did, it was a decidedly different type of film than those I’d been watching in school. Fewer pensive stares and excessively long takes, and more George Nader and his perfectly sculpted hair jumping out of Jaguar cars and shooting gangsters. When the book Fear Without Frontiers came out, I got my first glimpse at the weird world of krimi and knew, immediately, that this was a type of film I was going to want to see. As is often the case, however, recent knowledge and enthusiasm abut a certain film or type of films has no direct correlation to the ability to actually obtain and watch the movies. So while I could sit in my study, contentedly puffing on my pipe and sipping a glass of fine Glenrothes as I marveled at photos of skull-faced killers and arch-villains in pointy crimson hoods or frog outfits, I could not carry my enthusiasm out to my own home theater for viewing. My only option at the time was to shell out stacks of lettuce in exchange for bootleg copies of dubious quality.
But the era of DVD often rewards the cheap and patient, and too long ago, Alpha Video — DVD-era heir to the throne of Goodtimes Video — was kind enough to make bootleg copies of dubious quality unnecessary, as one could now freely purchse semi-bootleg copies of dubious quality, but for four dollars instead of fourteen. Alpha Video dumped a number of krimi onto cheap DVDs, followed shortly by an “Edgar Wallace Collection” released by Retrocinema. I also discovered that some of the films I already owned were, in fact, based in some degree on the works of Edgar Wallace, though in at least some of these cases, the connection is dubious. In others, the whims and obsessions of the director override any other identity the film may possess. That is to say, The Devil Came from Akasava is not a krimi; it is a Jess Franco film. Slowly, and far more lazily than someone who possesses actual drive and motivation, I was able to piece together a half-ass knowledge of the history of Edgar Wallace and how the Germans came to love him so much that they based a bunch of cheap movies on his stories.
Wallace was born in the London slums in the latter half of the 1800s, his father an actor, his mother a dancer — two professions and a life that we can see reflected as major influences in Wallace’s work. In 1896, he found himself stationed in South Africa, serving in the Boer War and developing a nascent writing career as a reporter. His work attracted the attention of none other than Rudyard Kipling, who encouraged Wallace to continue his writing career. Wallace, himself a great admirer of Kipling, wisely took the advice, and before too long, he was making enough money as a foreign correspondent in South Africa to afford a wife and a comfortable existence for the both of them. Then, just as quickly, he lost all his money, because that’s the way us writers are. After returning to England in 1902, he published his first serialized novel in 1905, but once again he proved a better writer than financial adviser, as a crackpot promotional scheme that offered readers a reward if they could figure out the solution to the book resulted in lawsuits, bankruptcy, and the loss of his copyright for the story.
But at least he had a new career, even if he had to maintain it to stay one step ahead of poverty — something I’m sure no other writer has ever experienced. It was a relatively unspectacular career for some time, but in 1921, something suddenly caught fire. It was in this year that Wallace’s name became synonymous with mystery writing. By 1928, it is reported that nearly a quarter of the books being printed in England were Edgar Wallace mysteries. He managed to get himself a plum job as the figurehead president at British Lion Films, which meant that he would be getting cuts of all future and past films based on his work. In 1931, after an unsuccessful bid for Parliament (the gambling habit came back to haunt him), he went to the United States and attempted to scare up a screenwriting job for himself. He had a hard time finding takers for any but one of his scripts, and that one he managed to sell to RKO Pictures, though they insisted on a different title, something more exotic than The Beast. And so was born King Kong. Wallace died shortly afterward, in 1932. By that time, he had written some 250 books and plays, countless short stories, and left his family $68,000 — not a bad sum in 1932, so long as you ignore that it was countered by the $400,000 in debt he amassed as a result of gambling on the ponies and a love of throwing big parties.
One of his sons, Bryan Edgar, himself a budding writer, took on the task of selling his late father’s work for the screen and of writing new books in the style of and “inspired by the work of Edgar Wallace.” So I guess he was like a proto-Christopher Tolkien. When Bryan Edgar moved to West Germany after the war, he brought with him the infectious enthusiasm for his father’s work that had resulted in so many books and so many films based on those books. Wallace’s stories were very popular in Germany throughout the 1920s, thought exactly how this came to be I’m not sure. I guess it was part of the treaty the Allies made Germany sign at the end of World War I. “Cede all territories, disarm and disband your military, make Kaiser Wilhelm shave his mustache, and oh yes, you must read Edgar Wallace novels” — that’s the actual text of the Treaty of Versailles, though I would by irresponsible if I didn’t mention that there is a hand-written addition, in pencil, from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, ever anxious to be fair and forgiving, that says, “You can sell the books after you are done reading them, or trade them for a slice of bread.” Needless to say, this conciliatory amendment enraged David Lloyd George, who proceeded to doodle a picture on the back of the treaty of Woodrow Wilson and Kaiser Wilhelm, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Unfortunately for Prime Minister Lloyd George, he was caught doing this by Georges Clemenceau, who used this knowledge to force England to cede its claim to Wilhelm’s mustache, which would now become the property of France and be placed prominently on the face of Clemenceau himself so as to teach Lloyd George a lesson about being naughty.
See the important things you learn when you read a review at Teleport City?
Anyway, much like the British, the Germans were keen on making cinematic adaptations of Edgar Wallace novels. However, all production of these films was halted, and indeed the books themselves were banned, with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. When Bryan Edgar Wallace arrived in West Germany after the war, his appearance coincided with a general revival of interest in crime films, thanks in no small part to the films of the French New Wave, who were keen on drawing influences from old American noir and crime films and championing genres of cinema previously dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration. The atmosphere was right, and before too long, interest in Wallace’s works was revived, and so too was the production of films based on those novels. In 1959, with the release of The Fellowship of the Frog, the krimi was born.
There were two competing studios cranking out Edgar Wallace movies at the time, though most fans consider the string of films released by Rialto to be the definitive krimi series. Most of the films were dubbed into English for American audiences, and some were retitled for distribution elsewhere. Over time, the films based of works by Edgar Wallace became mixed in with the films based on the works of Bryan Edgar Wallace, writing in his father’s style. The result is a bit confusing, especially so far removed from the original years of release and with so little information previously available. The end result is a wonderful krimi maze as convoluted and confusing, yet fun to wander through, as the plots of the films themselves.
Phantom of Soho is among the films attributed to Edgar Wallace but actually the work of his son, and rather than being one of the Rialo productions, was made by the studio CCC. As far as krimi go, it is not considered to be the best, but that’s no indication that it isn’t very good, and it still serves as a textbook example of the shared elements of Edgar Wallace krimi. As with all exceptionally convoluted and twisted stories, it can be distilled into one very simple idea: someone is killing people in and around a cabaret in London’s seamy Soho district, and Scotland Yard needs to catch the killer. As with most “whodunits,” we encounter a number of possible suspects, including a massage therapist employed by the owner of the club, a knife-throwing fake Arab, a beautiful dancer and photographer, a salty old fisherman, a writer, and even the chief of Scotland Yard himself. Attempting to crack the case is stolid British inspector Patten (Dieter Borsche) and his rather bizarre assistant, Hallam (Peter Vogel). Cracking the case consists of the two inspectors spending a lot of time hanging out in the nightclub that seems somehow inextricably linked to the strange murders. Soon, we are neck deep in a plot that involves insurance fraud, blackmail, lots of women in black lingerie, and lost of people skulking about dark, twisting, and excessively foggy Soho streets.
Although Phantom of Soho is not a Rialto production, and although it is based on a novel by Bryan Edgar Wallace rather than his father, it’s still quite a fun, old fashioned mystery with a few modern twists (primarily in the form of half-naked women parading about the place, and even a couple very brief glimpses of nudity — which must have been novel at the time for a mainstream film, and it contains pretty much everything that defines the krimi. First and foremost, there is the outrageous villain. The titular phantom of Soho is perhaps less outlandish than some of its krimi compatriots, largely because the phantom remains unseen for the majority of the film, represented only by a point of view shot in which we see only the killer’s hands, wearing sparkly silver gloves and brandishing a knife. But when the appearance of the phantom is finally revealed, it is suitably creepy and fulfills the krimi tendency to feature criminal masterminds in outfits that are at once very cool and utterly absurd. I don’t see how, even in a seedy neighborhood, you could parade around in sparkly gloves, a funerary shroud, and a decaying skull mask without attracting at least some attention, but then, this is only a loose interpretation of reality, so I guess such things are permissible. Edgar Walllace was a pulp writer, after all, and the pulps thrived on such villains. And besides, around this same time, Kriminal would have been running around in a full-on skeleton-themed body stocking, so maybe it was just one of the many trends of London in the swingin’ 60s.
We also have the requisite cast of potential suspects, suspicion being removed from them one by one and each succumbs to the blade o the mysterious phantom, until finally we are left with the core possibilities: the writer, the dancer/photographer, the doctor/physical therapist, the club owner, and the chief of Scotland Yard. All are connected in some way to a plot involving the sinking of an ocean liner in order to collect on the insurance money (this is not a central mystery to the plot, and is revealed fairly early in the story). The eventual reveal isn’t entirely a surprise, but then, it rarely is these days, given how many movies have been made in this style. And besides, the fun of the krimi is rarely in being fooled by the unmasking of the killer. It’s in the ride, and Phantom of Soho is an interesting ride indeed, steeped in eerie atmosphere cribbed from film noir and old horror films. The Soho of this movie is a fantastic, almost mythical creation, the result of someone who might never have been to Soho trying to make it up based on the things they’ve heard about it — not at all unlike American and Italian Westerns serving up a mythical version of the Old West based on legend and romance rather than hard facts.
This Soho is, as I said, covered in fog at all hours of the day and night. Clandestine couplings and seedy goings-on take place in every club, in the shadows of every alley, the rooms of every hotel, every movement softened to impressionism by the ever-present mist that clings to the neighborhood like the shroud of death itself. The Phantom of Soho exists in a fantasy world composed of such images — similar in a way to the city occupied by the heroes and villains of Streets of Fire so many years later — and seemingly equal parts 1920s romanticism and 1960s modernism, resulting in a film that exists in a time and place that is familiar but not quite real. This is realized through the use of studio sets and location shooting on the streets of Hamburg. The final product is a recreation of London that is completely unreal yet totally believable, obviously recognizable but with a hint of the alien, as if something lurking in that fog just isn’t quite right. It is the conjuring of this mood that serves to be the greatest attribute of The Phantom of Soho, for the plot itself is somewhat slow and prone to lots of talking.
Just as the movie strives to create a mythical London, so too does it strive to create fiction-perfect ideals of Scotland Yard inspectors in the persons of Patten and Hallam. Patten is the stock stoic cop in a trenchcoat, navigating the seedy underbelly of London without ever seeming to be uncomfortable or distracted by the women in their underwear that thankfully populate the focal point of the crimes. His opposite number is Hallam, who represents one of the genuinely funny comic relief character, primarily because the comedy of his character comes not from broad attempts at slapstick, but rather from the fact that the presentation of the character is just so weird. It’s a Germanic interpretation of the famous dry wit of the Brits (“At last, I can realize the dream of arresting my own boss.”). In a modern production of this film, Hallam would be played by Cripsen Glover. As it is, Peter Vogel looks like a Peter Sellers character and really makes the whole film worth watching — well, him and Helga Sommerfeld as Corrine, the dancer/photographer who spends most of the movie in fetching black lingerie and little else. Actor Peter Vogel was a tragic case, obviously talented but prone to depression. He attempted to kill himself on one occasion, by jumping out of a window during a film premier, and succeeded in another attempt at suicide, this time by poisoning himself. I really don’t know the details of his life and career, but his turn as Hallam is really inspired.
But if there is a real star of the film it’s the art design and direction. Director Franz Josef Gottlieb spent the 60s directing similar murder mysteries and pulp-inspired adventures, bringing an avant garde touch to his films that was most likely informed by French interpretations of American noir and the old German horror film’s fascination with expressionism and strange shot set-ups. The Phantom of Soho is full of arty composition and awkward angles, but far from feeling gratuitous, these decisions seem perfectly in line with the bizarre feel of the film and the desire to create a sense of familiar reality that is, at the same time, disturbingly unreal. This is probably thanks largely to Swiss cinematographer Richard Angst, whose career stretched as far back as the pre-Hitler Weimar era of the 1920s. Very early in his career, Angst found himself working alongside Leni Riefenstahl, one of Germany’s most talented and most notorious film personalities, on Arnold Frank’s demanding cycle of mountaineering adventure films: The White Hell of Pitz Palu, Storm Over Mount Blanc, White Frenzy, and S.O.S. Iceberg. Cutting his teeth in the silent era of German film undoubtedly informed the cinematographer’s sense of the surreal, and his experience on those challenging films helped him become one of the great cinematographers of early adventure cinema. In 1959, when legendary German director Fritz Lang returned to Germany for the first time since World War II (Lang not being especially friendly with the Nazis, nor they with him), he hired Angst for the color remake of his earlier India-themed epics, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. Angst’s approach to Phantom of Soho works wonderfully, infusing the film with a unique feel and tying it through imagery to the horror films of the silent era, just as the plot of the film would later tie into a new type of thriller: the Italian giallo.
There is much that is similar between the krimi and the giallo, and especially The Phantom of Soho, which is one of the more lurid krimis, and the work of Dario Argento. The krimi films grew from the pulp stories, with a dash of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes thrown in, and integrated the whodunit mystery with elements of horror and the fantastic. Giallo would take the same hybrid approach, one foot in horror and the other in the murder mystery, though the Italians did not carry over the reliance on a pulpy, outrageous villain in a crazy costume. But much of what we can see in the giallo cycle of the 1970s is present already in The Phantom of Soho: the mysterious killer, the list of suspects, the preoccupation with seedy locations, the inclusion of art and artists (specifically, writers, models/dancers, and photographers), and the protagonists working his way doggedly through a progressively more tangled web are all elements that became de rigueur for gialli — themselves outgrowths of the Italian pulp novels from which they take their name (“giallo” or yellow — because the books were easily identified by their signifying yellow covers).
Central to the plot of The Phantom of Soho is both photography and, even more so, writing. Among the many potential suspects in the film is a woman with a successful career as a writer and an intimate relationship with the head of Scotland Yard. She challenges the inspectors to solve the case before she does, confident that as a writer with a fresh and sometimes outlandish imagination, she is better suited for working such an unusual case as that of the phantom of Soho. In this sense, the movie becomes a story that is writing itself as it goes. Argento would use this same concept in his 1982 thriller, Tenebrae, which while not being a remake of The Phantom of Soho, certainly uses the Bryan Edgar Wallace story and the related movie as its inspiration and basis.
Although the pace of the film is slow — too slow for some people, with too meager a pay-off at the end — I think it’s a great little movie. The atmosphere is incredible, the cinematography inventive, and the story both strange and entertaining. It plays an important role in the long history of thrillers, and especially n thrillers infused with elements of the horrific. As an introduction to the world of Edgar Wallace and German krimi, one should probably start with The Fellowship of the Frog or any of the Rialto productions available on DVD. Being written by Wallace’s son and produced by CCC, The Phantom of Soho is more of a “related tangent,” and shouldn’t be used as a basis for building a working knowledge of krimi — though it absolutely should be included in any expansion of one’s knowledge.
Release Year: 1964 | Country: Germany | Starring: Dieter Borsche, Barbara Rutting, Hans Sohnker, Peter Vogel, Helga Sommerfeld, Werner Peters, Hans Nielsen, Stanislav Ledinek, Otto Waldis, Hans Hamacher, Elisabeth Flickenschildt | Writer: Ladislas Fodor | Director: Franz Josef Gottlieb | Cinematographer: Richard Angst | Music: Martin Bottcher | Producer: Artur Brauner | Original Title: Das Phantom von Soho
The lines between good and evil in Bollywood movies tend to be pretty broadly drawn, but never so broadly, it seems, as when the great Amrish Puri was cast as the villain. Deep of the voice, wild of the eye, and massive of the brow, Puri, though a versatile actor who played many diverse roles in his four decade career, truly made his mark with his portrayals of over-the-top bad guys in countless Bollywood action and masala movies (And yes, yes, I know…as Mola Ram in that Indiana Jones movie. Give it a rest, for chrissakes!). Many of these portrayals were iconic, but, while Puri would star in nearly four hundred films by the time of his death in 2005, there is one film for which he is remembered most of all.
Although England’s Hammer Studio made a variety of films, the trio of Horror of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy solidified the direction of the studio and its identity with the public for the remainder of its life. And not without good reason. In their heyday, and even long after the studio had fallen into disrepair, Hammer showed a panache for producing lavish looking Gothic horror that was simply unmatchable. America’s AIP came close with Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe inspired cycle of films starring Vincent Price, but no one could approach Hammer’s consistency and longevity in producing world-class horror. Starting in 1958 and continuing throughout the 60s, and into the studio’s final days in the first half of the 1970s, Hammer produced an unbelievable string of incredible horror films — almost every one of them a hit — buoyed by the one-two punch of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee’s Dracula films and Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein series.
It’s understandable that Hammer would focus on the genre that helped define them as a major player on the global film production scene, but even as the monsters and madmen were overrunning the studio, Hammer was still doing its best to make non-horror fare, including some noir-style thrillers, war films, and a series of swashbucklers. Over the years, these films have been largely overshadowed by the horror product, and in fact most have been extremely difficult to get a hold of them, with very few being released on home video, at least here in the United States. Thus, they became all but forgotten, even though they often used the same directors, writers, and stars (specifically Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee) as the horror films and were often films worth remembering.
With the bulk of Hammer horror films now released on DVD (with the exception of Twins of Evil and Vampire Circus, both of which remain curiously MIA in the United States), and with these releases bringing in some new fans and revitalizing interest among the older fans, distributors have begun dipping into the vast body of Hammer’s non-horror work. Over the past year or two, two volumes of Hammer noir and crime films were released, along with some of the more obscure psychological thrillers. And in early 2008, it was announced that Hammer’s collection of swashbuckling pirate movies was finally going to be released. With any luck, the near future will also see the release of Hammer’s war films and the remaining caveman adventures.
The first of Hammer’s pirate films to make it to DVD in the US was Captain Clegg, a curious beast of a film that got released first primarily because it was marketed in the US, at the time of its original release, as a horror film. Appearing under the title Night Creatures, the movie found its way onto a recent double feature release with The Evil of Frankenstein. And while Night Creatures does contain an element of horror, anyone who goes into it looking for scares is going to be confused.
Hammer’s dalliance with pirate films began in 1961 with the release of The Pirates of Blood River, starring venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, 7th Voyage of Sinbad‘s Kerwin Mathews, and Hammer bit player Michael Ripper in a rare feature role. Hammer’s production values were never higher than they were in the first half of the 1960s, where seemingly everything they touched came out looking astounding, and The Pirates of Blood River benefits from Hammer’s attention to detail — not to mention from venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee in one of his best Hammer performances and a chance to see Michael Ripper doing more than playing “the suspicious barkeep.”
It also starred young Oliver Reed, for whom 1960-1961 was an exceptionally good year. His first film as the lead — Curse of the Werewolf — came out in 1960, and he was charged with the task of supporting the film entirely on his own, in the middle of a Hammer horror frenzy that was defined almost entirely by Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. For Oliver Reed, a totally untested leading man, to be trusted with the lead in Hammer’s first color horror film that didn’t star Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee was both a tremendous opportunity and a huge gamble. It paid off, though, and although Curse of the Werewolf never attained the iconic status of the Dracula and Frankenstein films, it became one of the most respected. From there, Reed was paired with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee for The Pirates of Blood River, and then, that same year appeared alongside Peter Cushing in Captain Clegg, the second of Hammer’s pirate outings. But while The Pirates of Blood River was a somewhat more traditional swashbuckler, Captain Clegg is a crazy mix of pirate, horror, and detective films.
Things start off piratey enough, with the mutilation and stranding of a crew member (big Milton Reid — one of those actors you know by sight if not by name) for attacking the wife of the captain, a mysterious and ruthless pirate by the name of Clegg. Leaving the dastardly crewman to his fate sans food, water, ears, or tongue, the film then skips ahead a number of years to the remote British town of Dymchurch, which is being visited by no-nonsense British Navy captain Collier (Patrick Allen and his magnificently manly chin — only Chuck Conners stands a chance against him) who suspects the small hamlet of being an offloading center for liquor smugglers. But Dymchurch hardly seems to be a den of smugglers and rapscallions, populated as it is by jolly coffin makers (Michael Ripper), upstanding squires (Derek Francis), upstanding squire’s sons (Oliver Reed), and the benign local parson, Blyss (Peter Cushing). Collier, however, is an experienced hand at flushing out smugglers, so he’s hardly taken in by innocent looks alone. However, a number of surprise inspections and raids lead to nothing but property damage and the ruffling of the town Squire’s feathers as Collier and his men accuse various townsfolk of ill doings only to come up empty handed every time. At this point, the film resembles a thriller or mystery far more than it does a pirate adventure.
Parson Blyss himself remains cordial with the captain, reminding the townsfolk that the man is just doing his job, but even the kindly parson is offput when he is attacked by one of Collier’s crew — the very man stranded and mutilated by Clegg, it turns out. Collier apparently discovered the man shortly after Clegg abandoned him, as Collier was hot on the trail of the pirate at the time. Since then, they’d kept him on as a crewman for heavy lifting, menial tasks, and amusement, even though the former pirate is prone to getting drunk and attacking people. Collier’s pursuit of Clegg, ironically enough, ended in Dymchurch, where the wily pirate was finally captured and hanged, Blyss himself delivering the final rites and convincing the local church to allow Clegg a proper burial in exchange for an apparent change of heart the pirate had while incarcerated. Plus, Blyss just likes to believe int he good of everyone.
Clegg isn’t the only dead man causing Collier. Legend has it that the marshes around Dymchurch are haunted by phantoms. In fact, a man was recently killed by them. Collier, ever the enlightened man of reason, sees little reason to believe in the phantoms, and in fact he is highly suspicious of them since the man most recently killed by them happened to be Collier’s own man, who had previously tipped the captain off to the smuggling going on in Dymchurch. And it isn’t very long before the viewer is clued in to the fact that smuggling is going on, and pretty much the entire town is in on it. Blyss is the brains behind the operation, coffin maker Mipps the operations man, and any daring-do that needs to be performed is handled by the Squire’s son and lookout, Harry Cobtree. Using a series of secret compartments and tunnels centering around the church and Mipps’ coffin shop, the town regularly runs illegal French wine, even under the very nose of Collier. The phantoms — glowing skeletal horsemen — are, naturally, just members of the local smuggling ring, who find the threat of ghostly marsh phantoms to be advantageous to the smuggling profession.
Things start to get complicated for our merry smugglers not just because Collier is so persistent in his investigations, but also because one of their member is lusting after a barmaid, Imogene (Yvonne Romaine), who is in love with Harry Cobtree. In a drunken rage, he attacks the young woman and, when rebuffed, reveals to her than she is actually the daughter of the notorious Captain Clegg, and that furthermore, he is willing to expose the smuggling operation to Collier. Imogene is terrified by the revelation that she is Clegg’s daughter, for fear that this knowledge will spoil her in the eyes of young Harry, who should already be forbidden from her on account of their different classes. But Harry is hardly phased by such outdated constraints, and Imogene discovers that he and Blyss already knew she was Clegg’s daughter. Blyss, sensing that Collier is close to unraveling their smuggling plot, begins arranging for Harry and Imogene to be wed then escape the town before the net is drawn closed around them. When Harry is wounded while serving as lookout for one of the operations, Collier launches an all-out attack on the smugglers, but Blyss and Mipps are his equal, and a game of cat and mouse ensues that comes to a dramatic end inside Blyss’ chapel.
Despite the fact that the revelation at the end of the movie is hardly a surprise, Night Creatures succeeds in being a cracking good yarn that draws its suspense not from the solving of the mystery — the smugglers are all named very early in the film — but by developing those people as characters then allowing you to revel in the race and maneuvering against Collier. Captain Clegg was originally meant to be called Dr. Syn, a remake of an earlier film which itself was based on Russell Thorndike’s novel, Dr. Syn. But by a strange coincidence, Disney happened to develop an interest in this otherwise forgotten novel and film from the 1930s at the same time as Hammer. Needless to say, Hammer wasn’t in a position to challenge Disney, who had already obtained the rights to the Syn title and character. However, Disney was willing to play ball with Hammer, and aside from requiring that they change the name of the title character, Disney was more than happy to allow Hammer to proceed with production.
Disney’s version, called The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh but also known as Dr. Syn Alias The Scarecrow, was released in 1963 and featured Patrick McGoohan (of The Prisoner fame, among other things) in the lead role. Being a made of television movie, it was decidedly more family-friendly than Hammer’s version, with its horse-mounted ghouls, exhumed bodies, mutilated pirates, and other such trappings. Still, there’s very little in Captain Clegg to prevent being a rip-roaring good time for young and old alike, and any foolhardy young lad such as I was would have been delighted by it (remembering, of course, that there was a time when children’s films could contain murder, shrieking ghosts, drunks, and Sean Connery punching people in the face).
I’ve not seen the Disney version, and I won’t dismiss it out of hand because Disney has been known to produce some damn fine pirate and adventure entertainment (such as the three Treasure Island films). Although Disney’s competing version kept Captain Clegg off the American radar, these days Hammer’s version is the one you can find on DVD, while Dr. Syn Alias The Scarecrow has become wickedly hard to track down. It was released on VHS a long time ago and played at some point on the Disney Channel (as bootlegs bearing the channel’s logo attest to). I know there has been some word of the old Wonderful World of Disney series — of which Dr. Syn was a part — finally finding their way on to DVD, so one can only hope that this little pirate adventure sees the light of day once again.
Night Creature‘s script by Anthony Hinds (one of Hammer’s most reliable producers-turned-screenwriters, having penned Curse of the Werewolf, Kiss of the Vampire, and a number of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy movies) is expertly paced and hues closely to the original film. Even though it never really becomes a swashbuckling adventure (although Peter Cushing does get to swing from a chandelier) or a horror film, Hinds exploits the trappings of both genres to create a thrilling hybrid driven by strong characters and solid British acting. Although Cushing is the star attraction (and rightfully so), most Hammer fans are overly delighted that Michael Ripper gets such a meaty role. Ripper’s career is defined by tiny roles, almost always as a cranky innkeeper or barman who refuses to give our hero a room for the night, then makes a horrified face when someone says the name Frankenstein or Dracula. Despite the brevity of each of these roles, Ripper never gave anything that his absolute all. With Night Creatures, he gets a meaty role, and he makes the most of it. In fact, despite Cushing being the headliner, the bulk of the on-screen action is in the hands of Ripper and young Oliver Reed. Neither lets the film down, just as the script doesn’t let them down.
It’s hard to believe that Reed was so inexperienced an actor. He exhibits an easy charisma and likability that pulls you in and really makes you care about the character. Reed’s career was a rocky and uneven one, owing primarily to a fondness for the drink. In the 1960s, Hammer was hungry for someone young to augment the team of Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. Reed seemed to fit the bill perfectly, and indeed after turns in Curse of the Werewolf, The Pirates of Blood River, Captain Clegg, and some of Hammer’s psychological thrillers, it seemed like Hammer had a winner on their hands. Good looking, athletic, and possessed of abundant charisma that could be channeled with equal skill into warmth, intensity, and pathos, Reed was a star on the rise. He was even on the short list (which actually seems to have been very long, given the number of people that are always mentioned as having been on it) to replace Sean Connery as James Bond, and the thought of Oliver Reed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — well, I liked Lazenby, and I love that movie, but had Reed been allowed to bring that deadly combination of charm and smoldering intensity to the role, I think he would have done then what wasn’t really accomplished until Daniel Craig took over the role in Casino Royale.
Unfortunately for Reed, his professional successes were balanced with personal trials. Stormy marriages were one thing, but when Reed was forced to endure endless barrages of questions about his drinking. Such interrogation by TV hosts and reporters often lead to the actor losing his temper, and his reputation for a drunk and a hothead plagued him for years, even when he was still making quality films. Unfortunately for Hammer, Reed never became the pair of shoulders that could carry the studio through tough times, as he was by then on to different opportunities. The task of being Hammer’s “next big thing” then fell on the shoulders of Ralph Bates, who certainly had the chops. But by the time Bates was on the Hammer scene, it was too late, and nothing was going to stop Hammer’s collapse.
Reed enjoyed success throughout the 60s and into the 70s, but by the 1980s, his star had faded considerably. Reed seemed to take it in stride. Although he continued drinking, he seemed happy to settle down to a relatively quiet life with his wife, at least until 1999 when Ridley Scott came knocking and offered Reed a part in Gladiator. It ended up being one of those rare parts perfectly suited for reviving the career of an old hand who had gone through stormy times and emerged older and wiser, ready to take on the role of elder statesman. Sadly, it was not to be for Reed, and he died of heart failure during the making of the film. Still, it must have felt good to be in the saddle again, and although it is done so posthumously, his role in Gladiator ended up being one of his best.
Of course, none of this praise for Ripper or Reed is meant to sell the rest of the cast short. It’s just that, in the case of Peter Cushing, do you really need me to tell you how good he was? It’s Peter Cushing, for crying out loud! He was always good. As the resident piece of Hammer glamour (I spell it with a “u” for England), Yvonne Romain doesn’t have terribly much to do other than look pretty (which she does with ease — if not for Caroline Munroe, she might be the prettiest of all Hammer’s starlets), but I always found the Hammer beauties to be as able at acting as they were at being eye candy, and when she’s given something to do, Romain is as solid as the rest of the cast. She was already experienced with both period adventure films and horror, having appeared in such cult favorites as Circus of Horrors, Curse of the Werewolf (where she co-starred alongside Oliver Reed), episodes of The Saint (which, granted, pretty much every actor in England appeared in at some point), and Patrick McGoohan’s espionage series Danger Man.
And let’s not leave off poor ol’ square-jawed Patrick Allen as Captain Collier. It would have been easy for this film to make us root for the smugglers by making Collier a grade A jerk, but instead, Collier is ever noble, if a bit stiff, and the smugglers are forced to make us like them by force of their own character rather than depending on him as a foil. Collier is nothing other than completely honest and straight-forward, a model officer of the British Navy. And Allen is perfectly cast, not just because he has that incredible jaw and an air of authority. His accomplishments as an actor are too numerous to list, and long with Cushing, he’s probably the most experienced of the cast members. He even showed up in the Japanese sci-fi film Gorath!
Director Peter Graham Scott wasn’t a Hammer films regular, working primarily in television, but he does an excellent job here with a script that allows him to wander between creepiness (the marsh phantoms, the old windmill and the scarecrow) and adventure. This is really an actor’s movie, though, as many Hammer films were, and the chief function of the director in these cases was to know what he was doing and do it without getting in the way — which is exactly what Scott does. As such, he’s not a name a lot of people know, but sometimes the best director for a movie is the one who can make you completely unaware of the director. He does lend the film rather a unique look for Hammer films of the time by shooting on location and outdoors, rather than relying entirely on the Bray Studio sound stages.
I’m looking forward to the release of Hammer’s other pirate films, because while this one may be tangential at best to the swashbuckling genre, it still manages to be a superb adventure film with a real “boy’s own adventure” feel to it. What with long dead pirates, ghosts in the swamp, scarecrows, secret passages, and smugglers, it could have easily been a Hardy Boys adventure. I feel a bit guilty that I haven’t said more about Peter Cushing, but like I said, what more can you say? The man went into everything with total commitment, and Captain Clegg is one of his finest roles. The script plays wonderfully off Cushing’s slight appearance. When first we meet him in this film, he looks dainty and frail, and hardly the sort of man who could command a band of smugglers prone to dressing up like skeletons and galloping through the swamps. But when it comes time for him to take charge, the transformation is remarkable, and you absolutely believe him as the leader of men. “Absolutely believing him” is pretty much the very definition of Cushing’s film career, as he was remarkably gifted at making whatever was happening, no matter how outlandish, seem absolutely real.
Here, he benefits greatly from Hinds’ script, which affords him a degree of complexity and depth very similar to what he enjoyed and challenged audiences with in the Frankenstein movies. He is ostensibly the bad guy, heading up a smuggling ring, killing off informers, and foiling Collier’s attempts to do an honest man’s work. But if he’s a bad guy, Cushing’s Blyss is hardly evil, and his scenes with Oliver Reed and Yvonne Rainer allow him to radiate warmth and care. As with the movie itself, Cushing’s role here is not among his iconic performances, but it probably should be.
We’ll have plenty of chances to talk further about Peter Cushing. It’s not every day that you get to say more about Michael Ripper than, “he was excellent as the grumpy bartender.” Whether you call it Captain Clegg or Night Creatures is unimportant. By any name, it’s top notch adventure all the way around.
The road that lead me to Tony Falcon, Agent X-44: Sabotage was, as is often the case with these things, a somewhat long and circuitous one. It began when I was watching the third Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movie, the Shaw Brothers co-produced The Vengeance of Fu Manchu, on TV, and found my attention drawn to the actor Tony Ferrer, who was playing the fairly substantial supporting role of Shanghai Police Inspector Ramos. Ferrer was certainly charismatic, and handled himself admirably in his action scenes. But what really struck me was that here was a Filipino actor playing a character whom the filmmakers had gone out of their way to identify as Filipino (why, after all, name a Shanghai policeman “Ramos”?).