Before we get into this article, let me get something off my chest and, in the process, confess to you all that I am going into this movie with a considerable chip on my shoulder. You see, as can be ascertained from the title, this movie deals with a journey to the planet Uranus, and as anyone can tell you, it is the God-given right of people discussing this planet to make as many “Uranus” jokes as they can (and believe me, I can make a lot of them). Especially when a movie turns out to be as dull and uneventful as this one, we who regularly engage in discussion of such films need those Uranus jokes to make it through to the end credits. Now some movies will try and head you off at the pass, using the alternate “Urine Us” pronunciation, but as you can see, even though it is less versatile, that pronunciation comes with its own cargo of hilarity.
While they were certainly responsible for their share of cinematic flotsam, American International Pictures can also be credited with creating a good few films that are today considered genre classics, as well as some films that are extraordinary solely for the fact that, given the circumstances of their production, they were even made at all. As far as AIP’s ventures into the Blaxploitation arena go, 1973’s Black Caesar definitely falls within the former category, while its sequel, that same year’s Hell Up In Harlem, serves as a perfect example of that last mentioned type of film.
Black Caesar was initially conceived by writer/director Larry Cohen as a vehicle for Sammy Davis, Jr. Instead, he ended up taking the project to AIP, where it became hitched to the star of former pro footballer and emerging blaxploitation leading man Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. While I think that this was probably the best outcome for all involved, I have to admit to growing a bit misty at the thought that, had things worked out differently, I might now be reviewing a film in which Sammy Davis Jr. beats a white man to death with a shoeshine box. In any case, AIP had already struck black gold with 1972’s Slaughter and Blacula, and saw Cohen’s reworking of the classic gangster film formula for a black milieu as a suitable next step in their venture into the black action genre. From this point, it was only a matter of second-time director Cohen hitting the streets of New York with his camera and delivering the goods.
Made in eighteen days for less than half a million dollars, Black Caesar went on to become a big hit, and AIP were quick to demand that Cohen provide a sequel as soon as possible. Adding to the time pressure on Cohen was the fact that his star, Williamson, would soon be leaving the country for some shooting overseas, which meant that production had to begin more or less immediately. Unfortunately, Williamson was at the time stuck in L.A. — far from Black Caesar‘s New York locations — filming That Man Bolt for Universal, while Cohen was working five days a week to complete It’s Alive, the first of his reputation-making creature features, for Warner Brothers. The solution that Cohen came up with to this problem was to shoot Hell Up In Harlem on the weekends using his It’s Alive crew and equipment, trying all the while to cope as best he could with the fact that he had neither his main actor or anything close to a completed script on hand.
Now, if you were a religious person, you might look at the obstacles that Cohen and his crew faced and conclude that Hell Up In Harlem was a film made in defiance of God’s will. And if you were a religious person and a fan of Black Caesar, you might look at the finished product and conclude that you were doubly justified in that opinion. Still, the lengths that were gone to complete it, combined with Cohen’s “shoot first, ask permission later” guerilla filmmaking style, make Hell Up In Harlem just about as good an example as you could find of classic B movie, seat-of-your-pants filmmaking, as well as a crystalline artifact of a long gone era in the American movie game.
While filming Hell Up In Harlem‘s many New York location scenes, Cohen employed a mixed bag of tricks in order to conceal Williamson’s absence, including frequently shooting from his character’s point-of-view. His primary ruse, however, involved the use of a double — always shown either from behind, at a distance, or with something obscuring his face — whose presence was later augmented by the insertion of close-ups of Williamson that were filmed in L.A., as well as a generous amount of post-dubbed Williamson dialogue. Cohen also managed to shoot quite a few of the film’s interior scenes in Los Angeles, relying a great deal on his Coldwater Canyon home as a location (Cohen’s wood paneled home office, in particular, shows up in a couple of different guises throughout), with the result that, once he was able to get Williamson to New York for some brief location shooting, those actors who had appeared in the Los Angeles scenes with Williamson, but could not make the trip back East, had to be doubled themselves. Given this patchwork approach, it’s a testament to Cohen’s ingenuity that the seams in the finished product are less obvious than they might have been. Nonetheless, it has to be said that, even when you don’t consciously notice them, they still contribute to the overall impression that there is something ineluctably “off” about Hell Up In Harlem –- and that’s without even considering those dialog scenes in which it’s all too clear that you’re watching actors performing monologues in completely different locations.
As far as the writing of the film went, Cohen basically decided to make up the considerable, unscripted portion of Hell Up In Harlem‘s story as he shot. In this case that meant that he not only structured the narrative to accommodate Williamson’s absence (of which the most absurd instance is the placing front-and-center of the character played by Julius Harris — the father of Williamson’s character, Tommy Gibbs, who was a comparatively minor presence in Black Caesar), but also around whatever locations became available at any given time, whichever of Cohen’s friends and acquaintances happened to decide they’d like to be in a scene, or just whatever off-the-cuff scenario struck the director’s fancy at the moment. Surprisingly, given Cohen’s background as a screenwriter, working outside the confines of a script proved to infect him with a serious case of directorial ADD, since much of Harlem‘s footage turned out to be of exactly the capricious nature described above, with the result that he essentially had to “write” the film in the editing room with the aid of lots of randomly inserted narrated exposition.
Given all of the above, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone that Hell Up In Harlem is a film that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Even I, a man who has managed to provide coherent synopsis of films watched on un-subtitled Hindi and Cantonese language DVDs, shudder at the thought of reigning its disparate narrative components into a recognizable structure. This is largely due to the fact that Cohen, whenever presented with an opportunity to shoot an improvised scene, seems to have invariably made that scene one involving Fred Williamson killing some anonymous actor or friend of the production who happened to be on the set that day. Such opportunities clearly arose quite often, with the result that Harlem consistently connects its plot points by way of countless scenes of our hero offing characters who we have not previously seen and will never hear mentioned again.
One of the casualties of this approach is the idea that Hell Up In Harlem is anything but a sequel to Black Caesar in name only. Black Caesar, after all, was a relatively sober effort — one that, with its grim story of an inner city gangster’s precipitous rise and calamitous fall, stood in contrast to most other films in the Blaxploitation genre, which had a tendency to present their heroes as invincible black supermen who always triumphed over adversity in the end. Hell Up In Harlem, on the other hand, by positioning Williamson’s character as simply the driving force behind a string of randomly connected, violent action set pieces, becomes exactly the type of film that Rudy Ray Moore and D’Urville Martin were parodying with Dolemite. Even Tommy Gibb’s trademark limp –- an injury sustained at the hands of the film’s villain at the beginning of Black Caesar, and a motivating force for Williamson’s character throughout –- is gone here, making it that much easier for Williamson to sprint back and forth from one nonsensical bit of mayhem to the next.
In this spirit, Hell Up In Harlem spends it’s opening act frantically undoing everything that Black Caesar established in its last scene. This is necessitated primarily by the fact that, in the overseas cut of Black Caesar, Williamson’s character ends up dying an ignominious death at the hands of a gang of vicious street urchins. Or, at least, so it would appear. Because, as we see at the beginning of Harlem, Tommy Gibbs has not, as we have been lead to believe, either alienated or caused to be killed every last one of his friends and associates, but instead still has a gang of loyal flunkies ready at the call to come to his rescue. Not only that, but Tommy’s formerly absentee father (the aforementioned Harris), whose sheepish overtures of conciliation were harshly rejected by Tommy in the first film, is also waiting anxiously by the phone and ready to pitch in. From here it’s just a matter of the gang getting Tommy patched-up, which turns out to be a simple matter of taking over Harlem Hospital at gunpoint — a scene that was essentially accomplished by Cohen and his crew, on very short notice and without shooting permits, taking over the real Harlem Hospital at camera-point.
It is exactly that practice of “stolen” location shooting, practiced by Cohen with neither a union crew or the benefit of permits, that, along with the improvised nature of the production as a whole, marks Hell Up In Harlem as an artifact of, not just a lost style of filmmaking, but also of an America that, in spirit, has long since ceased to exist. Often filming from a concealing distance and with one camera, Cohen and company here pull off things that, if attempted in a major city in today’s security-obsessed United States, would result in them being thrown in jail at best and taken down by a SWAT team at worst. These stunts range from having gun-waving actors run down the middle of crowded mid-town Manhattan streets to sending cars careening along city sidewalks — with, in that last instance, the only precaution being ropes hastily strung across doorways to prevent the innocent from straying into harm’s way. Of all of these, though, the one sequence that really seems to have originated from some strange yet familiar shadow Earth is one that was shot — if Cohen is to be believed, at least — without permission at LAX, in which Cohen stages a fight between Williamson and actor Tony King that takes place on a baggage carousel in front of a crowd of stunned and very real travelers. To top this off, the director then has his combatants run up the luggage shoot to continue the fight on the actual airfield, after which we’re treated to the sight of Williamson strutting around on the tarmac with an airliner taxiing just yards away. For those of us living in today’s locked-down society, scenes like that amount to a veritable pornography of unfettered access. And, whether you love or hate Hell Up In Harlem, you simply have to thrill to the spectacle of combined institutional innocence and individual chutzpa that they present.
Once Tommy Gibbs is again at large and in charge, Hell Up In Harlem introduces us to a new villain, corrupt District Attorney D’Angelo (Gerald Gordon), who, if I understood correctly, turns out to have been behind everything that happened in the first film. There is still a lot of talk about a pair of ledgers containing the names of on-the-take politicians that motivated a good deal of the first film’s action, but Tommy’s primary concern is with getting payback against those who brought about his downfall, which, of course, turns out to involve him and his gang randomly killing a bunch of unidentified people who are only notable for their complete absence from Black Caesar. Somewhere in all this, Tommy’s mild mannered dad ends up killing a couple of crooked cops in self defense, putting himself on the wrong side of the law as a result. The only proper response to this, of course, is for dad to officially become part of Tommy’s gang, a turn of events which somehow leads to him being put in charge of his son’s entire East Coast operation. “Big Papa” quickly grows accustomed to the pimping threads and lavish lifestyle that such a position entails, and we are soon treated to a montage of Julius Harris gleefully gunning people down that nicely bookends a similar montage of Fred Williamson that we saw toward the beginning of the picture.
To accompany all of this nonsense we have a soundtrack by Edwin Starr that literally provides a song for every occasion. Seriously, if Cohen had asked for a theme to accompany someone walking across the street, Starr would have come up with a song called “Walkin’ ‘Cross the Street” that consisted of nothing but him shouting the phrase “Walkin’ ‘cross the street” over and over again on top of a driving funk track. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, until you consider that James Brown, who also scored Black Caesar, had already provided a score for Hell Up In Harlem that was written and recorded entirely on spec. Unfortunately, the execs at AIP had been unhappy with Brown’s soundtrack work on Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off –- apparently Brown had a problem with timing his compositions to match the action on screen –- and rejected his Harlem score over Cohen’s objections, leaving Brown to release the work as The Payback, which is widely considered to be the last great album of Brown’s career.
Despite Hell Up In Harlem‘s many problems, I have to say that I think I prefer it over its predecessor. While it’s certainly true that Black Caesar is the more earnest and ambitious of the two, I don’t think that the abilities of Cohen and his cast were always up to that level of earnestness and ambition. Williamson, for instance, while undeniable blessed with a glaring surplus of charisma, gives an enthusiastic performance in both movies, but is seemingly incapable of giving a convincing line reading, with the result that Caesar’s level of melodrama is really not his friend. Leading lady Gloria Hendry, on the other hand, is just a little too cozy with melodrama, and comports herself throughout much of her screen time in both films as if she were chained to the wailing wall. Factors like these, along with the rough edges of Cohen’s direction, combine to make Black Caesar a bit of a bumpy ride for fans of consistent narrative tone. By contrast, Hell Up In Harlem, with its frenetic opening deconstruction of Black Caesar‘s final act, lets you know from the get-go that it’s going to be a wild ride through crazy town, and never disappoints.
One way that Hell Up In Harlem gains a lot is if you simply appreciate Cohen’s random set pieces on their own terms without attempting to tie them in with any larger narrative, because the fact is that many of them evidence a crazy sort of amphetamine-edged inspiration. The most famous of these is the entirely pointless scuba assault by Tommy and his gang on a mob summit being held on an “unnamed island off the Florida Keys”. This sequence involves, among many other things, a kung fu fight between Williamson and a bikini babe, a body count seemingly in the triple digits, and middle-aged black women in maids’ uniforms smiling serenely as they gun down central casting goombahs who, if anyone had bothered to name them, would surely have to a man gone by either “Guido” or “Sal”. Another highpoint is a hit that takes place at a hotdog stand that leaves all of its victims with half-eaten hotdogs sticking out of their mouths. And of course let’s not forget the scene in which Williamson sprints across a crowded Coney Island beach to pole vault the sharp end of a beach umbrella into the chest of yet another unidentified and previously unseen character.
Hell Up In Harlem‘s final scene sees Tommy lynching D.A. D’Angelo with his own necktie while crowing about how he’s “the first whitey hung by a nigger”. This was intended by Cohen as a topper to the previously referenced final scene in Black Caesar, in which Gibbs makes his white nemesis wear blackface and sing “Mammy” before beating him to death with a shoeshine box. It fails of course, which is not surprising. From the sound of it, the scene, like much of Hell Up In Harlem, was made up on the spot, and owed its existence to Cohen just happening at that moment to make a visual connection between Gerald Gordon’s tie and a convenient tree branch. Still, the scene is a fitting conclusion, in that it so appropriately sums up the spirit of Hell Up In Harlem as a whole. It is at once off-the-cuff, ultimately pointless, and, at the same time, possessed of that fascinating aura denoting a thing that someone, at one very particular time, and for only one fleeting moment, thought was a great idea, even though it totally wasn’t.
And then someone rolled film, and it was too late to turn back.
Release Year: 1973 | Country: United States | Starring: Fred Williamson, Julius Harris, Gloria Hendry, Margaret Avery, D’Urville Martin, Tony King, Gerald Gordon, Bobby Ramsen, James Dixon, Esther Sutherland, Charles MacGuire, Mindi Miller, Al Kirk, Janelle Webb | Writer: Larry Cohen | Director: Larry Cohen | Cinematographer: Fenton Hamilton | Music: Fonce Mizell, Freddie Perren, Edwin Starr | Producer: Larry Cohen
In recent days I’ve been pouring over Jasper Sharp’s just published history of Japanese sex cinema, Behind the Pink Curtain — certainly for the purpose of broadening my world cinema knowledge, but mainly because I really, really want to understand the way that sex is presented in the Japanese movies I watch. And right now, to be honest, I really, really don’t. I sometimes suspect that we — in this case meaning “we Americans” — are more to blame for this than the Japanese, that the overwhelming impression of Japanese films as dealing with eros only in its darkest and most perverse manifestations is the result of us yanks, in our eagerness to point a mocking finger at “those crazy Japanese”, focusing only on those films that enable us to do so.
Perhaps the reality is that Japanese cinema is teeming with examples of people having loving, mutually pleasurable, consensual sex, and we’re just not seeing it because we’re choosing not to look. Admittedly, I’ve yet to see evidence of that being the case. In fact, I’ve seen more than my fair share of evidence to the contrary. Still, I suppose that if you wanted to stretch things, you could consider In the Realm of the Senses to feature loving, mutually pleasurable, consensual sex — lots and lots of it, in fact — until, of course, you get to the part where the man dies during an act of erotic asphyxiation and the woman cuts off his penis. So, well, there you go.
Not that a few shafts of light haven’t penetrated my benighted state regarding this matter. For instance, I now know that the Japanese sex film, or Pinku Eiga, came of age alongside of Japan’s politically radical underground cinema of the 1960s, and that the two, thanks to many of their creatives maintaining a foothold in both worlds, are so intertwined as to be in many cases indistinguishable. (For instance, the films of Koji Wakamatsu, which always struck me as being more about politics than sex, but are still considered part of the Pinku Eiga genre.) As such, they share a confrontational aesthetic that can still be seen even in the pink films of today.
America’s military presence in Japan was a hot button issue at the time of pink cinema’s emergence, sparking student protests that, in many cases, lead to violent confrontations with police. Because of this, pink filmmakers often positioned the abused and violated female bodies at the center of their movies as being symbols of the motherland, which had, in their eyes, been itself violated by the presence of an invading army on its soil. Such pervading sentiments at the dawn of Pinku Eiga’s existence may serve to explain what came to be a seemingly ingrained habit of taking anti-Western potshots, often without any apparent underlying political context. A good example of this would be the frequency with which Christian iconography is put to aggressively blasphemous uses, a practice that would be baffling if directed at Japan’s pathetically under-represented Christian minority, but makes a lot more sense as a swipe at Western sensibilities. Such is the case with our review subject here, 1986’s S&M Hunter, a film with no agenda other than to be as freaky as possible, but which nonetheless equips its bondage-happy protagonist with a priest’s collar and a sex slave wearing a nun’s habit (and usually not much else).
Of course, another factor that has influenced the content of Japan’s sex films is the country’s notorious censorship laws, which ban the depiction of genitalia or penetration, but really not that much else. Because of this, Japanese filmmakers have often had to travel far outside of the usual territory in order to fulfill pornography’s promise of showing taboos broken, usually veering in the direction of fetish, perversion, and, all too frequently, the idealized depiction of rape and sexual assault. I also imagine that, in a culture that puts as high a premium on shame as Japan’s does, the spectacle of characters simply taking what they want sexually without fear, consequence, or remorse serves as a pretty potent fantasy of liberation — though, given those characters are virtually without exception male, one that comes at the expense of excluding half of the potential audience.
The titular hero of S&M Hunter is just such a character, a bondage-crazed, manga-style superhero, complete with his own hilarious, Spaghetti Western style theme tune, who not only takes what he wants from the women he encounters, but also puts in their place – or, in his parlance, “tames” – those women with the audacity to attempt to do the same themselves. S&M Hunter may just be the film that signals my arrival at the point where I have finally seen too much, which I knew was going to come sooner or later. Despite its much-touted ability to shock and offend, it managed, for most of its sixty minute running time, only to leave me vaguely amused, and in its most outre moments prompted little more of a reaction from me than a sedate but heartfelt “Huh. Now there’s something you don’t see every day.” This may not simply be due to my having collapsed irretrievably into a state of decadence and moral decay, however. For one thing, the notion that a woman’s unfettered expression of her sexuality would require her to be tamed in such a manner, if you take it at all seriously, speaks to such a profound sense of impotence on the part of the film’s intended male audience that the only appropriate reaction to it would be an embarrassed kind of pity.
More than that, though, I think that my becoming acquainted, over the years, with people who were into S & M play has made me aware of the extent to which the practice is just that: play. With its over-the-top, bluntly archetypal characters and wildly outlandish bondage scenarios, this is, to me, clearly the area that S&M Hunter inhabits, a world of fantasy and elaborate play — a fact driven home by the depiction of the women on the receiving end of S&M Hunter’s signature brand of justice as taking very obvious pleasure in the experience. Given that, I don’t think that S&M Hunter plays to an audience of potential B&D vigilantes any more than Harry Potter movies play to an audience who will immediately run out and carve lightning bolts into their foreheads and then expose their genitals to men in stylized horse costumes.
S&M Hunter is the second in a trilogy of S&M Hunter films directed by Shuji Kataoka, a regular Pinku Eiga director of the era who, in later years, would go on to become a popular director of DTV action films. Here Kataoka casts two stars who were both frequent presences in his films and prominent fixtures in the world of Japanese sex cinema as a whole. Shiro Shimomoto, who plays the title role, was one of the most prolific actors in pink films during the seventies and eighties, and, judging from the titles of more recent films like Tokyo Booty Nights, still keeps a foot in the game even today. Hiromi Saotome was also a fairly ubiquitous presence in such films during the eighties, specializing in bondage and S&M roles. She would go on to become such an enthusiastic proponent of her art that, in 1987, she would famously have herself strung-up and dangled from a footbridge in front of one of Tokyo’s most heavily trafficked commuter train stations.
As far as I can tell, having only seen the trailer, the first S&M Hunter film’s recounting of its title character’s origin depicts him starting out as an ordinary businessman who gets on the wrong side of the Yakuza. This leads to him being attacked and blinded in one eye by a vicious gang of delinquent schoolgirls -– all in full uniform, of course — lead by the hard-eyed Meg (Saotome). In the aftermath of this attack, he is discovered and taken in by the master of an S&M parlor called the Pleasure Dungeon. A true S&M Hunter, we see, is not born but made, as the master (Yutaka Ikejima) then puts our hero through a rigorous training course that ultimately results in him becoming a rope master of near-supernatural ability, a fearless avenger of the pussy-whipped, clad in a distinctive uniform comprised of tweed suit and riding boots, the aforementioned priest’s collar, a skull-and-crossbones emblazoned eye patch, and bowler hat. From here, S&M Hunter sets out to put Meg and her gang in their place.
However, the Hunter’s roping skills are not employed to merely punish and restrain, but rather to gain his prey’s unquestioning obedience via the administration of near-unendurable levels of sexual pleasure. Each of his elaborate, cat’s cradle-like constructions is designed for this purpose, with every knot and wind somehow honing in on a different pleasure zone, with the coups de grace being a long strand of rope that he musically thrums like a giant bass string, sending vibrations straight to his victim’s sweet spot. As he states at the outset of the second film, his method is to “defeat” women, not with violence, but with love, their emotions being their true weak point. And as a result of his ministrations, they are rendered his willing slaves. For those of you who are skeptical of S&M Hunter’s prowess in this regard, and can only be convinced by way of the employment of a dated eighties pop culture reference, heed the words of the Dungeon Master himself: “Even if Hulk Hogan was a girl, she’d be his slave.”
The second entry in the series begins with a gay man named Joe (Bunmei Tobayama) coming to the Pleasure Dungeon with a tale of woe about how his lover, Jack (Akira Fukuda), has been kidnapped and made a sex slave by an all girl gang called the Bombers. S&M Hunter quickly agrees to take on the task of freeing Jack and taming these wanton women, after which we are taken to the hideout of the Bombers, where the gang, lead by Machi (Ayu Kiyokawa), are keeping Jack naked and strapped to a bed for their pleasure. To S&M Hunter‘s credit, I fully expected Jack to be eventually “converted” by these ladies’ sexual attentions, but that never happens. In fact, once Jack is freed and reunited with his lover, the two men are allowed a tender moment that seems, by all appearances, to be a prelude to a full-on sex scene, albeit one which never arrives. I had to wonder if this was the result of something being left on the cutting room floor, or if it was simply a fake-out perpetrated with some kind of humorous intention. To be sure, S&M Hunter is filled with things that I recognize as having the formal appearance of jokes, but whose comic intent, for reasons that I assume are culturally based, ended up zinging right past me.
Finally the man-hating Meg, still in full schoolgirl uniform, shows up at the Bomber’s door, hoping to join the gang and enlist their aid in seeking revenge against the S&M Hunter for the humiliation she suffered at his hands. Meanwhile, the hunter is bearing down on the gang’s hideout, accompanied by the Master, his nun’s-habit wearing sex slave, Maria (Naomi Sugishita), and Joe, who by appearances is himself falling prey to the rope master’s irresistible sexual charisma. With his target in sight, S&M Hunter then declares that he prefers to go on alone, causing the Master, in an actually funny instance of the script drawing attention to its own haphazardness, to wonder aloud why the hell he had asked them all along in the first place. From there, our hero proceeds to work his ropey magic on the gang of uppity women.
The straight sex scenes in S&M Hunter feel fairly obligatory, and are interesting mainly for the lengths they go to make sure that you don’t actually see anything. (Think lots of conveniently placed visual obstructions of the type that could serve as gags in an Austin Powers movie.) Where the real creativity is invested is in the film’s breathtakingly surreal bondage scenarios. And it is with those scenes in particular that we see a softening of the movie’s potentially offensive edge, based in the fact that they’re aestheticized and rendered fantastic to the point of bearing little relation to any type of real world brutality. (According to Sharp’s book, a film like this would typically have on hand a real life rope master, or kinbaku, to supervise the intricate binding that was necessary to completing these bizarre tableaus.) Also, while I know that many would be offended by the notion of a woman actually enjoying being the subject of such humiliations, I have to say, for my own part, that after being subjected to the endless parade of cretinous male predators in Toei’s Pinky Violence films, it was nice to see a member of my gender being depicted as masterful, desirable and actually capable of giving a woman sexual pleasure, no matter how unorthodox his methods of doing so might have been.
The first real gasp-inducing example of the Hunter’s particular brand of artistry comes when he trusses up one of Machi’s gang in a giant spider web that is designed to increase its victim’s pleasure with every rope that’s cut. After Machi shoots through a couple of the knots, the Hunter warns her that any further attempts to free her friend will send her to “the ecstasy of hell”. Machi curses the Hunter, but he responds that she is only jealous that it’s her friend and not her who’s being subjected to this treatment. And, sure enough, soon after he has taken leave of Machi, she turns up at S&M Hunter’s ranch (yes, you heard me), saying that she now wants “to give control” to him. Since it is one of the film’s few portrayals of a consensual sexual act, what follows is played as a love scene, though one in which one partner is elaborately bound up in the rafters of a barn while the other stands far below thrumming vibrations at her nethers through a taut length of rope.
The scene has the ridiculously gauzy quality of a romantic dream sequence in an old Hollywood movie, and throughout it and the one that follows, actress Ayu Kiyokawa is given the full, halo of soft light treatment, rendering her unrecognizable from the hard-looking Machi we saw in the stark, harshly-lit earlier sequences at the gang’s hideout. Clearly the ministrations of S&M Hunter’s long, ropey fingers have caused a transformation in her, and once the act is complete, she pledges her love to him. “You only love the ropes”, he replies. Still, once she has departed, S&M Hunter graces us with a tender moment in which the Hunter, having second thoughts, runs after Machi and, upon catching up to her, hands her the rope he used to bind her. “This now belongs to you”, he says solemnly, obviously fighting to contain his emotions. It is in this moment that we’re afforded a glimpse of the S&M Hunter as a tragic figure, one who’s calling to discipline all of the world’s wayward women forces him to turn his back on love. (“All of the masochists need me,” he tells Machi. “I’m a charitable sadist. I can’t love only you.”) It’s as if director Kataoka, in an uncanny moment of long-range prescience, is preemptively providing his hero with the emotional complexity that a later Christopher Nolan reboot would otherwise affect. Later, moved by what she has seen and experienced, Machi says to her fellow gang members of the Hunter, “You don’t know him. His strength knows gentleness.”
S&M Hunter is irresistibly quotable. Its main character spouts all kinds of pretentious nonsense, and even, true to his ecclesiastical garb, quotes the New Testament (while other utterances — “I see your heart. Your heart wants my ropes” — seem more secular in origin). What I enjoyed most about the film was how it hijacks the terse moral shorthand and glib certitude of evangelism for its own anarchic ends. During the movie’s talky prologue, the Hunter essentially preaches to the audience, explicitly laying out the story’s conflict and moral, after which we see both briskly played out, with the gum-snapping, leather-clad Bombers playing the transgressors whose wayward actions meet with exactly those consequences that the moral predetermines. In the end it all plays out like some Bizarro World version of a Chick tract, with those who have given in to evil, rather than being cast into the lake of fire, instead being bound up and helplessly racked with consecutive multiple orgasms.
S&M Hunter concludes with the final showdown between the title character and the revenge-minded schoolgirl Meg, who has dressed for the occasion in full Nazi regalia. True to the movie’s aesthetic of escalation, it’s a real head-spinner, capping off with S&M Hunter managing, despite having his remaining good eye gouged out, to bind Meg and hoist her into the heavens with an industrial crane. All in all, it’s one of those endings that casts all that preceded it in a far better light, since, throughout S&M Hunter, you can’t help but wonder how it could possibly tie things up with a suitably crowning WTF moment. Well bravo, S&M Hunter. Well played. Well played, indeed.
In the end, I’d be a fool to deny that S&M Hunter traffics in misogyny, though I think there’s room for debate over how deeply held it is. That said, it did elicit a wince from me during its opening scene, at the moment when the Master says, on the subject of hitting women: “Even if you hit them hard, they recover. They go back to normal.” In response to this, I have to wonder: is writer/director Kataoka referring there to women’s emotional resilience, or is he actually saying that they’re literally indestructible? In any case, it is for this reason, according to the Master, that, rather than trying vainly to beat them into submission, “You need to train women to obey.” Again, it seems like we’re seeing a suggestion that, rather than being objects of contempt, women represent some kind of overwhelming, otherworldly force that needs to be contained – a viewpoint that would in turn suggest coming from such a standpoint of infantile helplessness that, again, it’s difficult to avoid feeling an aghast sense of pity in response.
It also just may be that there’s an element of obstinacy in my inability to be really offended by S&M Hunter. The whole thing has a bratty quality to it that suggests that getting riled by it would simply be letting S&M Hunter win. What’s worse is that I actually kind of liked the movie, which may very well make me a horrible person. Still, if that be the verdict, it won’t prevent me from maintaining my regular program of affectionately patting all human beings under four feet tall on the head, slinging old ladies over my back two at a time to carry them across the street, and cooking elaborate meals for homeless people. You see, that’s the kind of guy I am. But I’m also the kind of guy that has to take his hat off to a movie that manages to top itself as enthusiastically as S&M Hunter does, even though I know in my heart that tying up a lady in a giant spider web and sending her “to the ecstasy of hell” is fundamentally wrong. I hope you can all find it in your hearts to forgive me.
Oh, and also? Those fucking Japanese are crazy.
Release Year: 1986 | Country: Japan | Starring: Shiro Shimomoto, Hiromi Saotome, Ayu Kiyokawa, Yutaka Ikejima, Utako Sarashina, Naomi Sugishita, Bunmei Tobayama, Akira Fukuda | Writer: Shuji Kataoka | Director: Shuji Kataoka | Cinematographer: Toshio Shimura | Music: Takashi Akutagawa | Producer: Daisuke Asakura
Whenever I’m confronted with a film that lies immeasurably far beyond the boundaries of anything that could be considered competent, coherent, or even sane filmmaking, I find some superficial comfort in attributing said work to the hands and mind of a deranged lunatic possessed of an inner monologue so warped that agreed upon notions of human logic and morality seem to melt entirely away. This is, perhaps, a defense mechanism, as I encounter such films — as you might guess — pretty frequently. I suppose there is some solace in thinking that these films sprung from the fertile yet twisted mind of a madman, that surely there is no way a sane and normal human could have produced such alarmingly, hilariously awful material. To be hyperbolic about it, I suppose it is much the same as when we reflect upon the infamous dictators of our past as monsters rather than men, soothing our horror somewhat by casting them as some otherworldly ghouls rather than what they were and still continue to be: mere men, who remind us that the capacity of man to commit acts of near unimaginable cruelty is vast. They are not monsters. They are us, and but for a chance of fate — being born in another time, another place, or having a minutely different chemical balance in the brain — any of us could have been them.
Slightly less chilling is the similar revelation that a filmmaker like Harinam Singh isn’t some collective of 19th century schizophrenics who somehow started making movies for the Indian horror market, as I hypothesized previously. He is, in fact, just a man, and probably even a fairly ordinary one at that. When I reviewed what has to be his finest film, the mind-bending Shaitani Dracula, I likened it to many things, not the least of which was the product of a lunatic. I also said it had a kindred spirit in the film Manos: The Hands of Fate, and it was right then and there, when I wrote that sentence, that I knew my own hands of fate were guiding me slowly but inevitably toward grappling with a review of Manos.
It’s a fitting name for the movie, because my fate seems intrinsically intertwined with Manos. If any movie was my long lost evil twin brother, it would be Manos. I know that one day, billions of years from now, as the earth boils and dies, Manos and I are fated to stand atop a craggy cliff as a tumultuous sea of lava crashes below us and volcanoes spew fire and dinosaurs into the sky. There we stand, face to face, battered, bloody, aware of the fact that we are both doomed, yet never the less unable to extract ourselves from the eternal combat into which we have been and always shall be locked. I have seen the road lain before me, and I know that it leads to Manos: The Hands of Fate just as surely as its road leads to me. My ties to Manos are sundry, and even I did not realize most of them existed until I started peeling back the layers of the onion, each one confronting me with a revelation more unspeakable than the last, until one day I found myself actually standing on the very grounds that served as the location for the film, at which time I fell to my knees, cried out to the heavens, and went stark raving mad.
Forgive me. Let me begin this tale again, at the beginning. You see, it all started in 1966.
It was in that year that fertilizer salesman Harold P. Warren from El Paso, Texas, entered into conversation with a man by the name of Stirling Silliphant while the two men sat at a coffee shop together. Silliphant was a screenwriter, and he would later go on to pen scripts for movies like Village of the Damned, The New Centurions, The Poseidon Adventure, Shaft in Africa, and The Towering Inferno. He was also the man called in to string together the various stoned ramblings of Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Bruce Lee into the movie that became Circle of Iron. Even before all that, he was a regular contributor to a variety of television shows, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Route 66.
It was, in fact, on the set of Route 66 that Silliphant first met Harold P. “Hal” Warren. Warren, who moonlighted as an actor from time to time in local community theater productions, was appearing in the show as an extra, driving a bus or some such task as payback for doing some location scouting around El Paso. Warren — and this is just my impression of the man, based on conjecture and what other people said about him — seems like he was something of an obnoxious blowhard, the kind of guy who would have loud-mouth local commercials that played all hours of the day and night until everyone in town knew who he was, for better or for worse. You didn’t really hate the guy, because he was basically decent, but you didn’t really want to hang around with him either. So during the course of the conversation that took place at that coffee shop (I only wish I knew which shop it was), Hal boisterously proclaimed that making movies was easy money, that a trained chimp could make a movie, and hell, an untrained chimp could probably get by. He then bet Silliphant that ol’ Hal himself could make a movie, start to finish. And so was it all set in motion. Silliphant went on to win an Oscar for his screenplay for the film In the Heat of the Night, a slick police thriller that explored boiling racial tensions. Hal Warren went on to make Manos: The Hands of Fate.
As the legend has it, Warren not only placed this bet with Silliphant; he even went so far as to complete the script, right then and there, sitting at the table. You know, in the past I’ve joked that several films felt like the entire plot was scrawled on the back of a coffee-stained napkin. Well, in the case of Manos, it’s actually true. Warren outlined the entire plot on a napkin, right before what I assume to be Silliphant’s mystified eyes. What happened after that was a campaign of bullying, hucksterin’, and probably a whole hell of a lot of hornswagglin’, as Warren began his crusade to fund this new endeavor of his. Against all notions of sanity and reason, Warren managed to raise $19,000 for the completion of his film. Looking back from our informed vantage point in the future, the question isn’t so much how Warren was able to swindle people out of so much money — he was, after all, a fertilizer salesman, and presumably adept at the art of the hard sell (or shoveling bullshit). No, the question is, once he had the money, what the hell did he do with it all? Because of all the things that have been written and uttered about Manos since it was made, few people have claimed that it looked like $1,900 — let alone $19,000 — went into it.
In line with the ego others claimed he had, Warren cast himself in the lead, a seemingly decent if somewhat overbearing husband and father who is trying to drive his family to a vacation. The rest of the cast was assembled from friends and acquaintances, members of the local community theater group, and students from a local mannequin modeling agency. None of the performers were paid for their services. In fact, so solid with the spin was Warren that he somehow convinced them all to work for nothing more than a promise of a portion of the profits once the film was released. Say what you will about Warren’s soon-to-be-realized lack of talent as a filmmaker; the man was apparently one of the best salesmen in Texas history.
So with money on the cast thus saved, Warren went on to procure the proper equipment for making a film. This involved him salvaging a spring-loaded 16mm camera. The camera could not shoot sound, and Warren didn’t want to pay for audio recording equipment, so the decision was made that the entire thing would be redubbed in post-production — actually fairly common in low budget films of the time. More impactful than the sound on the limitation of Warren’s armada of one camera was that the spring-activated motor had to be rewound every thirty seconds.
So, free cast: check. Free camera: check. The next step for Wallace was to get some equally cheap location for his film. This came in the form of a ranch owned by a local lawyer named Colbert Coldwell. Coldwell had an office on the same floor as Warren, and I guess the two men knew one another well enough for Warren to know that Coldwell lived on a decent size ranch just outside of town. Coldwell, for his part, was looking at running for elected office, and I suppose he thought that donating a location for an entirely local film product would look good in the campaign. Whatever mesmerizing bullshit Hal Warren was spinning everyone else worked just as well on the ambitious would-be judge, who was lead to believe (by Warren, of course) that Hal Warren was already an experienced hand at making films. I’m sure being able to drop Silliphant’s name and play up the time Warren was a walk-on extra in an episode of Route 66 gave the wily fertilizer salesman more than enough rope with which to snare his prey. Coldwell went on to win his eventual bid for judge; Hal Warren, again, went on to make Manos: The Hands of Fate.
With all the pieces put in place and ready to fall, the time came for shooting on what was then called The Lodge of Sin to begin and for everyone to discover that Warren had no clue what he was doing. On top of that, he was apparently a grade-A jerk while on set, so much so that the small cast and crew did everything in their power to avoid the guy as much as possible. Frequent questions by the cast about what was happening, what was written, and what was being filmed, were met by Hal with the mantra of “We can fix it in the lab.” Hal’s impression that “the lab” was a magical place where horrible work was turned into works of art and all the faucets ran with gumdrops and glitter was fostered primarily by his actor/stuntman/DP, Bernie Rosenblum, who (like most of the cast and crew) recognized what crap Hal was making but, irritated that he wasn’t getting paid, didn’t feel like having to go back and do multiple takes and reshoots. Not that reshoots and retakes were all that realistic an option anyway. As Hal soon discovered, $19,000 sounds like a lot of money until you start paying for film stock and processing.
As one might expect, complications arose at every turn. One of the girls (Joyce Molleur) slated to play a bride of “The Master,” the film’s bizarre Satanic priest-like character who seems to wield no discernible power beyond bullying an acid freak and collecting a harem of women who badger him incessantly, broke her foot and so could not complete her previously assigned tasks. But Hal had her out there, so he was going to make sure she got into the picture. And so was born the “make-out couple,” Joyce and Bernie Rosenblum, who spend the entire film making out in a convertible in a subplot that can’t be called a subplot, because it has nothing to do with the movie itself. It did earn Bernie considerable accolades, since the film’s complete disregard for the flow of time means that he and Joyce were making out in the same spot for over twenty-four hours. While this is indeed impressive, one also has to question the ability of a guy to “close the deal” if, after necking clear through the night, he still hasn’t advanced beyond first base.
When they went to film the big “catfight” scene that takes place between the various wives of The Master, Warren found that his plan to have them all in sexy diaphanous gowns didn’t fly with the school marm-like head of the modeling agency that had lent him the girls. No way were they going to let these future mannequins be seen on a movie screen parading about in a state of tawdry undress. So they all showed up wearing formless see-through gowns on top of what can only be described as “granny panties,” those above-the-navel, below-the-thigh girdles that are usually only worn by the stuffy wife of the stuffy dean in a 1980s teen sex comedy.
When it came time to go into post-production, most of the duties were handled by Warren, who had no experience with such things. He and a couple others (including his wife) dubbed all the voices. With money fast running out, the editing process was slapdash, at best. But by hook and by crook, Hal completed his film. And in a testament to sheer unbridled ego and skill as a swindler, he convinced the people of El Paso that this was a huge event. A premier was booked. A spotlight was rented. Hal even arranged for the cast to arrive at the gala event via limo — one limo, which dropped off a couple performers at a time then drove around the corner and picked up a couple more, so as to create the illusion of lots of limos delivering lots of people.
What happened once the film started to roll was pretty much what you’d expect to happen if you’ve ever seen the movie. By the time the film was over, most of the audience had bailed, and most of the cast had slinked out to the nearest bar to drown the disappointment. But Hal won his bet, even if only technically, and he soon began work on a second film which, sadly, never got made. The rest of the people involved with Manos faded into the background of everyday life. Manos itself vanished into the gauzy folds of memories most people don’t want to remember.
Until January of 1993.
But let us turn back the clock once again, before we learn how it all converged at the same point, to 1984. In that year, I got my first job. It was through my dad, and as he is the owner of a carpet store, it means that any job he could get me would be rather on the undesirable side of things. Said job was working with a landscaping crew, back when landscaping crews were less Mexican and more stoned teenagers. One of my many jobs was hauling around and spreading bags of…wait for it…fertilizer. On the weekends, I worked on my grandpa’s farm, baling hay at some points and, at others, spreading manure on the fields to be used as…yes, fertilizer. Though I didn’t know it yet, my eventual date with Manos was already being seeded in the vast Kentucky fields that needed to be properly coated with the very substance Hal Warren used to build his El Paso empire.
In time, I got other jobs. Some better, some worse, but many of them involving my having to spread fertilizer on some surface or other. In 1993, I got a fairly cushy job at a college bookstore, where I whiled away the hours selling Chemistry texts and bright orange Florida Gator Panama hats of which I did not approve, though they ended up being wildly popular despite my sartorial disdain for them. I thought that my fertilizer-related days were far behind me. But then, someone showed up one night at my apartment with a copy of a movie they swore I absolutely had to see, even though it was the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. I didn’t know much about MST3K other than it existed. It was on Comedy Central, and Gainesville didn’t get Comedy Central. It wouldn’t have mattered if they did, because I didn’t have cable or even a cable-ready television. I had heard of the show, to be sure. One doesn’t get to be a college nerd in the 1990s without at least having heard of the show and getting kind of irritated at all the people on IRC who would randomly post “Hi-keeba!” and “A forklift!” But that’s about all I knew of the show. Heck, I didn’t even know what the premise was, or that it was people sitting around making fun of bad movies rather than it being bad movies they’d made themselves.
And none of that really mattered. Because as soon as we popped the tape into my 1985 top-loading VCR that was twice the size of my tiny little television and gathered around the diminutive screen while chowing down on items from Taco Bell’s 39-cent Fiesta Menu, I quickly forgot there were any wisecracking robots at all, so mesmerized was I by the film I was watching them watch: Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Watching Manos, like watching Shaitani Dracula, is an experience that can’t be described to anyone who hasn’t done it themselves. And once you have done it, you don’t need to have it explained to you. It is, I assume, not entirely unlike reaching that point in Hinduism or Buddhism where you become enlightened — which is the polite, religious way of saying you start saying and doing things that seem batshit insane to anyone who isn’t enlightened. I am reminded of the koan-like narration that appears at the beginning of Jodorowski’s El Topo, about how a mole spends his entire life trying to dig toward the surface only to discover, when he reaches the surface, he is blinded by the sun. When you dedicate a portion of your life to the pursuit of obscure cinema existing beyond the limits of mainstream film, a movie like Manos is both exactly what you’ve been looking for as well as the ultimate instrument of your destruction. I searched far and wide for a copy of the film in its original form, only to discover that none was to be had at the time. That situation quickly changed, however, as the Manos episode of MST3K proved to be one of their most popular. Before too long, copies of the movie sans the MST3K editing and embellishments began popping up.
Our strange and twisting narrative now takes us into the contents of the movie itself. The action begins with stolid early 60s family man Michael (Hal P. Warren) on a road trip with his wife, Margaret (Diane Mahree) and young daughter, Debbie (Jackey Neyman). This drive is apparently shown in real time, as it seems to go on forever with no real point. It doesn’t even function as filler travelogue footage, as most of what’s shown is the hood of the car, nondescript city outskirts, or southwest Texas scrubland. I’ve spent my fair share of time driving back and forth across Texas — an adventure I shall mention in more detail shortly, as it ties directly in with Manos, as so many things in my life do — and while I’ve had a great deal of fun on these drives, I would not really think of filming the driving parts from beginning to end and releasing it as a movie. In time, we learn that Michael and his clan are heading to…well, we never really have any idea where they are heading, though it seems like their intended destination was the middle of nowhere. By and by, they get lost on the twisting dirt roads of backwoods Texas (or whatever you call the backwoods when there are no woods) and, while driving aimlessly through the desert, stumble across…the hotel.
It’s the kind of structure that, at best, looks like the sort of place an ax-swinging maniac with a burlap sack over his head would come running out of. It also has a goat-legged hillbilly hippie (or, you know, whatever) loitering in the front doorway. Michael decides it’s the perfect place to spend the night, rather than making the drive back out to the main road. Despite this lapse in judgment, the journey to the mysterious motel reminded me of a drive of my own. During one of my excursions through Texas, I was lured by free admission to a place called the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument outside of Amarillo, where I was eating at and sleeping in the Big Texan Steakhouse, home of the 72-ounce monster steak, as well as a Texas shaped pool and squeaky saloon doors to the bathrooms in every room. You may think, as I did, that squeaky saloon door bathrooms are pretty cool, and they are, at least until the morning, when in the course of two people performing daily hygiene, you walk through them dozens of times…each time with that incessant squeaking…and creaking…and squeaking…
Where was I? Oh yeah, Amarillo. Anyway, we drove out to the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument even though the name didn’t really strike us with a great degree of interest. But whatever. We had one of those National Parks passes, and we’d been to a lot of out-of-the-way, forgotten parks as a result. Each one had proven to be pretty interesting to a road trippin’ history nerd like myself, so maybe Alibates would surprise us the way Washita and Wilson’s Creek did. So we drove. And we drove. And we drove. Down what seemed like endlessly and randomly winding roads through dusty red-brown Texas hill country, stopping occasionally to snap photos of lizards running across the blistering hot pavement, always following the beckoning finger of road signs that assured us we were going in the right direction. Eventually, however, I started to suspect that the signs had been planted there by desert-dwelling maniacs who liked to lure unsuspecting motorists to their doom by tempting them with the siren song of…well, you know. A flint quarry. In the end, the signs disappeared and the road just sort of petered out, turning from sun-bleached, cracked pavement to dirt, and then dead-ending out in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea if we saw the flint quarry or if we just got lost, but as we traced our route back toward the civilization and steaks of Amarillo, I was keenly aware of just how much our ultimately directionless sojourn resembled the opening of Manos.
Incidentally, we were in Amarillo because we were driving along what remains of Route 66 — the road that birthed the series that brought Hal Warren and Stirling Silliphant together for that fateful meeting which, in turn, resulted in the birth of Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Somehow, on the way back, we got sidetracked and ended up at what looked like an abandoned Air Force base, though signs assured us it was operational, and there were military jets flying overhead if not landing at the base. Still, it looked pretty overgrown and tattered to be in use. Visions of Weird War Tales flashed through my brain. But that, like stumbling across the plains and up to a Texas-sized slaughterhouse, is a horror story for another day.
Speaking of horrors, few experiences in life can prepare you for the tortuous yet impossible-to-turn-away-from sequence with which Manos now challenges the viewers. Convinced that this hellhole with a man-goat out front is the ideal spot for his family to spend the night, Michael starts barking orders to said man-goat, who informs us that his name is Torgo, and he takes care of the place while The Master is away. Torgo also adds that Michael and his family are not welcome, though on this Torgo seems to flip-flop his position like a modern politician. Torgo is played by a young guy named John Reynolds, and the only way to even begin to understand his performance is to realize that Reynolds was, according to everyone else on the set, whacked out on acid the entire time. In the similarly bizarre but more lavishly mounted Ray Dennis Steckler film, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies, I’ve always maintained that despite whatever shortcomings the film may possess, there were some moments of genuine creepiness generated mainly by the grainy, DIY nature of the film and film stock. I feel the same way about Reynolds’ performance as Torgo. It’s so completely bizarre, awkward, and unlike anything that a human would ever think of doing, that it becomes a moment of absolute brilliance.
Coupled with a few other factors — chiefly, the weird dubbing job and the uncomfortable moments of inaction and silence where you can tell everyone was waiting of the camera to start or finish — Torgo becomes an otherworldly, totally successful element of the film. According to Rosenblum, Reynolds built himself a metal contraption that attached to his legs, so as to better mimic the look and movement of someone who has goat legs. This, predicatbly, means that Reynolds staggers and lumbers wildly every time he tries to move (I’m sure the acid didn’t hurt…or help). And so the simple scene of Torgo being bullied into fetching Michael’s luggage out of the car becomes both an ordeal and an odyssey to behold, made all the stranger by the irritatingly haunting “Torgo walks” theme song. Hal Warren elevates his film to near Hitchcockian levels of anticipation by having this luggage scene go on forever, then have Michael and his family change their mind and make Torgo carry everything back to the car, then having Michael change his mind again and having Torgo carry everything back in one more time. It’s excruciating, exquisite pain worthy of Pinhead himself, and like everything in this film, it has to be witnessed to be understood.
And so the nightmare begins. Michael and his family are disturbed by the eerie painting of The Master that adorns the rustic lodge, probably because it looks so much like Frank Zappa crossed with the Frito Bandito. Debbie’s poodle runs outside and gets mauled to death by some unseen desert creature. Michael starts snooping around for no real reason beyond the fact that he had a gun in his glove compartment and felt like prowling around with it. The leaves poor Margaret alone to be peeped on by Torgo, who then approaches her in a scene whose off-kilter (i.e., dreadful) editing makes it even more awkward than the “Torgo gets the luggage” scene. And then The Master (Tom Neyman, the father of the little girl who plays Debbie) awakens and decides that, even though he is surrounded by catty, bickering wives, he wants to claim these two new females as part of his harpy harem. This sets the Satanic dames off to catfighting while The Master half-heartedly attempts to intimidate them by frequently stretching his arms out to yon heavens in order to show off his keen “hands of fate” robe. I don’t know what he’s a master of, but it sure ain’t keeping his broads in line. This just goes to show, as I’ve said elsewhere, that unless you are an all-powerful sultan or god-king, having multiple wives really never amounts to much more than having ten people yell at you for not regrouting the shower when you were supposed to.
Torgo seems to share my sentiments, and after The Master has claimed so many women as his own, just so he can make them lean against pillars, The Master’s goat-legged servant is wondering when the main man in the boss robes and man-sandals is going to throw a little love the way of his loyal assistant. In fact, Torgo seems to think Margaret would make the perfect Mrs. Torgo, a notion he stammers to her while engaging in the aforementioned quivering-hand pawing of her hair, which Margaret reacts to by, well, by not reacting. She just sort of stands there staring blankly at the camera as if the actress isn’t even aware that they’ve started filming.
The Master, despite the fact that he obviously has his fill of sniping women, doesn’t take kindly to this show of independence and lust from Torgo. What’s more, some of The Master’s wives are jealous of his interest in the new woman. Others want to kill the adults but let the child live. And some just want to throw down and have a good ol’ fashioned catfight in their underlovlies. Meanwhile, Michael is — I don’t know. He’s just sort of prowling around with a gun and getting knocked down hills for a while, before he finally recovers and comes walking to he poorly executed attemped rescue of his wife and child. It all culminated in a finale that is as ludicrous and inept as it is disturbing and grim.
Obviously, discussing the technical merits and the acting in this film is a moot point. Like I said, though, I think Jeff Reynolds’ performance is terrifically bizarre and effective. So, too, do I think some of the photography, marred though it may be, is successful at creating a disturbed, eerie atmosphere. Even when it’s just the gaunt, robed Master staring listlessly at the camera, there’s something compelling about it, a sort of Videodrome quality that makes it feel like the guy is staring right at you even though he was probably just waiting for someone to say “The camera has stopped rolling.” Manos is one of those films that fails on every logical level but triumphs when regarded as some sort of “nightmare on film,” relying heavily on strange imagery and a dreamlike structure as would be found in the European horror films of the late 60s and 70s. There’s no reason to apply logic to this film, because it does not operate within the realm of logic. Instead, it inhabits that rarefied air where total incompetence transforms into accidental genius. I’d love to compare it to a similar sounding film, Coffin Joe’s Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasure, but alas, that movie seems to elude me every step of the way. Hal Warren sits at the same table as Harinam Singh, Jean Rollin, Doris Wishman, Coffin Joe, and Jess Franco (who, ironically, would be the most accessible and mainstream of all the assembled artists). Really, isn’t that a table any of us would want to be seated at — especially if it’s a table at one of those groovy, surreal nightclubs that only exist in Jess Franco’s mind and films?
Most of the people involved with the film faded into the background, returning to their day jobs after the humiliating and/or hilarious world premiere. Jeff Reynolds, who was described as a kind and friendly but deeply troubled kid, committed suicide shortly after filming of Manos closed. Hal Warren spent much of his life trying to get money for a second film, but he was only able to snooker people once. Rumor has it that among the pitches he made to potential investors was a sequel to Manos. He passed away in 1985. Bernie Rosenblum stuck around long enough to see Manos going from local embarrassment to cult phenomenon and was interviewed extensively by a couple Canadian filmmakers when they made the short documentary film Hotel Torgo. Manos itself played very briefly in limited engagements at a few Texas drive-ins before vanishing, only to reappear again in 1993. Since then, as befits a film this odd, it has become something larger than itself. If it’s not quite a pop culture touchstone the way, say CHUD is, or Gymkata, where even people outside of cult film fandom can still drop references to it (even if they’ve never seen it), it’s certainly cemented its place in the black, black hearts of cult film fans across…well, probably not the world. But at least around the United States. People cosplay as Torgo and The Master at conventions. I once planned an adults-only remake of the movie (I still have the 75% finished draft of the script). Hell, I remember a while back, someone even made a Torgo screensaver.
This movie…I love this movie. I Shaitani Dracula love this movie. I love everything about it, right through to the startling, bleak, and grim “no one gets out of here alive” ending. Because I am a dark and twisted individual, I love “corruption of the innocent” movies, and I think Manos is a surprisingly effective entry into that category, partly because it feels less like a feature film and more like someone’s fucked up home movies of a boring, terrifying vacation. Michael is just a regular guy, a bit of a dick maybe, but hardly evil. As corny (not to mention taxing) as the opening is, it becomes oddly evocative when placed in the context of what ultimately befalls our seemingly happy family. Mundane driving, the almost ghostly repetition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” — and then all of a sudden everything begins to unravel in a macabre fashion. No one in the family does anything to deserve the horrible fate that befalls them — there is no generic “dark secret” that somehow justifies the punishment meted out to our hapless protagonists. One can only marvel at what must have been going on inside Hal Warren’s head. Was he just copying dreck he’d seen before, with no thought at all? Or are we watching the machinations of the mind of a seemingly normal man revealed to be somewhat freaky? Is Manos really “don’t give a damn” filmmaking, or is it the product of that sinister side of the brain we all possess but generally elect to repress in deference to the notion of a polite and civil society?
Which, in a way, is just a flowery way of asking Hal Warren, “What the hell were you thinking?” but it goes deeper than that. Whatever conflict may have been raging within Hal between his id and superego manifests itself on-screen, be it consciously or by accident, as we watch Michael and his family struggle then succumb to whatever boring corruptions with which The Master has assaulted them. The movie seizes upon that thinly-veiled thread of perversity that exists within us all and yanks on it until the whole carefully knitted sweater falls apart, dooming Michael, Debbie, and Margaret in the process. I know, I know. Some of you think that’s too much credit for such a bad movie. But I disagree. I think in spite of itself, Manos stumbles into moments where it works well, if you look past the obvious short-comings and agreed-upon popular consensus that this movie is thoroughly wretched.
Having recently exhaustively read and reread every issue of Cult Films and Psychotronic that I own, having read and reread the various books about obscure cult cinema from a round the world that make up my library, I started shopping around for new books to help me pass the time on those late nights when I can’t sleep and have run out of steam for making my zombie apocalypse plans (though such plans are more important than ever, as my current apartment possesses a few notable weak spots that must be properly attended to when the day comes). One of the books I picked up recently is Sleaze Artists, a collection of essays about badfilm, why we love it, and what our love means. I’ve started thinking in a dangerously pseudo-academic fashion about some of the movies I like, or more specifically, about why I like some of the movies that I like. Some are obvious, of course. I mean, when Pam Grier pulls a pistol out of her afro and blows away Shelly Winters, is there really a need to explore the reasons it’s awesome? But other films — films like Manos, films like Shaitani Dracula, films like Jean Rollin’s ponderous and surreal vampire movies — I love these films, despite the fact that by any sane measure, they are so bad so as to hardly even qualify as films. As I was reading through the introduction of Sleaze Artists, though, I came across some references to an older article by Pauline Kael, a critic with whom I have a somewhat contentious relationship (well, on a theoretical level — I’ve never actually met her or engaged in a duel of wits). But in this instance, she managed to perfectly sum up why a film like Manos hold such unholy appeal for me, and in a rare moment of journalistic integrity, I’m even giving her credit for the thought instead of paraphrasing it and pretending like I came up with it all by myself.
We like these films, she states, because we are so educated in the tropes and cliches of “good” filmmaking that such filmmaking has become tedious, predictable, and boring. And this is true. After years of doing this on my own, to say nothing of that film criticism minor I tacked on to my virtually unused journalism degree, I can hardly bear to sit through another by-the-numbers “quality” film. Sit me in front of a quirky indie comedy, and I can describe the whole movie to you before it even happens, right down to the moments of poignant reflection accompanied by ennui-tastic piano music or a crudely played folk-punk tune. The same goes for an indie drama, to say nothing of an Oscar-baiting studio film. Yes, I can see the film is good. Yes, I can see the performances are top notch. And I really do not care. It’s become so rote that it’s near impossible for me to give a damn, even when I think a movie is all right.
But, as Kael puts forth, cult films are the place you can go and be taken by surprise, to see something completely outside of the expected. We watch these films for the thrill of discovery, for the joy of witnessing something that would not be done in any other film, by any more talented and predictable filmmaker. Cult films are the places where true vision and madness find free reign, unfettered by industry and commercial training. In that freedom, yokels like me find great entertainment. Manos appeals to me because it is so wrong, because it is so unlike what any of us expect from a movie. It is the breath of fresh air in a stale environment full of movies in which damaged, quirky people try to reconnect and cold, disillusioned suburbanites struggle for feeling in a sterile environment. In an industry laden with clumsy messages and delusions of importance, the utterly baffling nonsense of Manos has more to say to me than any dreary lesson taught to me by a more competent film. Perhaps I have merely been bewitched, or had my evil side tempted by Hal Warren in much the same way Michael and his family are hopelessly entangled in the laconic and directionless plans of The Master. I mean…what was that guy trying to accomplish, anyway? If you don’t want any visitors, why build your lair in a motel? And if you want to possess people and turn them into your minions, why would you not want visitors? And whata re you up to, anyway? As far as I can tell, The Master harbors no dreams of plunging the world into darkness, or taking over, or summoning Satan or anything. He’s just this pasty dude who uses his black magic powers to arrange poorly executed dances out in the desert. Does he exist purely to corrupt the innocent? Is he trying to establish a less irritating version of Burning Man?
In the hands of someone who knew what the hell they were doing, Manos would never have achieved the air of total strangeness that makes it such an entrancing work of…art? Sure, why not? The out-of-focus camera work, the terrible editing, the silent scenes of people standing around waiting for their queues…these things never would have happened with a real editor on the crew, and Manos would have been worse off because of it. It would have been merely terrible. But Hal Warren, bless him, had no clue what the hell he was doing, and by lucky happenstance, his incompetence elevates Manos to a transcendental plane of existence. It is the sort of out-of-its-mind experience that we jaded filmgoers spend years looking for, and like the mole, when we finally see it, we are blinded by its brilliance.
It was, perhaps, some sort of naive blindness that led me, in the late winter of 2003, to El Paso, Texas.
Ostensibly, I was in Texas to meet up with some friends from Japan whose band, Petty Booka, was playing at SXSW in Austin. My job was to putter around, do the driving, and eventually get them from Texas to Chicago, and then from Chicago to New York. They were traveling across the southwest by van from California, an I flew in to San Antonio a few days early to hang out with some people I barely knew, before making the short trek up to Austin for the festivities. Well, the San Antonio thing ended up being kind of weird, though I did get to see the Alamo and that lovely canal they have running through downtown, so I decided to rent the car early and meet the gang from Japan in El Paso, where they were scheduled to play a gig. Insane, yes, to drive clear across Texas just so I could drive clear back across Texas a couple days later. But something compelled me. Something which, at the time, I could not fully explain. So I left San Antonio early one afternoon and drove, as fate would have it, south by southwest, through the night, across the great plains of Texas, listening to a Mexican oldies station.
When I arrived in El Paso, deprived of sleep and fueled by middle-of-nowhere diner food consumed at places best left in the mind of David Lynch, I checked in to the Coral Motel on Montana Avenue. Beautiful old-school place. Probably hasn’t been redecorated since the time of Manos. It was two days before anyone else was scheduled to arrive, so I decided to forgo sleep and wander around El Paso, eventually finding myself across the border in Juarez — the Chicago of border towns, to Tijuana’s New York. What happened in Juarez is a tale worth telling, though not right now. At some point I can’t nail down, since the entire time seems like one long, hazy hallucination (and, at times, probably was), I ended up at a diner with a couple people I can only assume I met at some point, since they were with me. I have no idea how the subject of Manos was broached, though I’d put good money on me being the one nerdy enough to do it. As the hands of fate would have it, though, two of the people I was with knew the movie through MST3K and, even better, because they were El Paso based fans, knew where it had been filmed.
So it was that, through cheap beer, long drives, ukulele playing Japanese girls, questionable tequila, dominatrixes, seedy Juarez nightclubs, substances I should not have ingested, and all-night diners, I found myself lying on the very stones that served as The Master’s altar, and standing in what remained of the doorway in which Torgo himself once stood so many years ago when he shakily announced…
“I am Torgo. I take care of the place while The Master is away.”
Release Year: 1966 | Country: United States | Starring: Tom Neyman, John Reynolds, Diane Mahree, Harold P. Warren, Stephanie Nielson, Sherry Proctor, Robin Redd, Jackey Neyman, Bernie Rosenblum, Joyce Molleur, William Bryan Jennings, Jay Hall, Bettie Burns, Lelanie Hansard, Pat Coburn, Pat Sullivan, George Cavender | Writer: Harold P. Warren | Director: Harold P. Warren | Cinematographer: Robert Guidry | Music: Russ Huddleston, Robert Smith | Producer: Harold P. Warren
As of this writing, Godzilla is in hibernation following his last attempt at a cinematic swan song, 2004’s dreadful Final Wars. Come the teens, however, I am pretty confident that Godzilla’s masters at Toho will take him out of mothballs again to reinvent him — as they have done in the two previous decades — for a new era and prevailing sensibility. In the nineties they gave us an appropriately touchy-feely Godzilla series, with Mothra recast as a new-agey Earth Mother and a teary-eyed psychic on hand to clue us in to the monsters’ feelings. The Godzilla of the 00’s was leaner and meaner, aided by the fact that all of those shots of collapsing skyscrapers now had a disquieting edge of verisimilitude. I have no idea what version of Godzilla Toho has in store for us in the future, but I’m fairly certain it won’t be the goofy superhero we saw in his movies from the late sixties and seventies. That incarnation, I’m afraid, is one that’s lost to the ages.
Still, I’m happy to at least see evidence of a more forgiving attitude emerging with regard to movies like Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and its much maligned director, Jun Fukuda. For years it seemed that the more affable version of Godzilla presented therein and the man most associated with it were held in utter revulsion by those who considered themselves serious fans. As such, they became central to an official narrative of decline – a woeful spiral or ruin traced from the minute Godzilla did that little victory jig in Monster Zero and cemented into inevitability with the replacement of series mentor Ishiro Honda by the upstart Fukuda, leading inexorably to that dark day when Godzilla and Anguilas would speak to each other via cartoon speech balloons in Godzilla vs. Gigan.
Behind all of this ire seemed to be this notion that the “real” Godzilla had been hijacked and replaced by a buffoonish impostor, an idea that seemed to be what fueled the comparatively serious-minded tone of the G films of the nineties and beyond. But what this stance refused to acknowledge is the fact that Godzilla’s rich and varied history gives him all the chameleon-like properties of a true pop icon — that he is a piece of imaginational public property capable of being to each person whoever that person wants him to be, without encroaching in the least on the next person’s conception of him. Those who enjoy Godzilla most as the symbolism-freighted destructive juggernaut seen in his debut film can do so without having that enjoyment dampened in the least by the fact that, later down the road, he would be pitching cartoon boulders at a giant lobster, just as those who enjoy that later version are free to do so untroubled by the fact that, early on, Godzilla was a bit of a dick. Godzilla is a bit like Madonna in that way (while Madonna, as time passes, is increasingly like Godzilla in a number of other ways).
Sadly, the cropping up of misguided and pointlessly self-limiting orthodoxies in the realm of pop culture is exactly the sort of thing you’re going to see if you allow for a backwass notion like “serious fandom”, which, to me, is like the flipside of “casual zealotry”. I mean, I’m both capable of being serious and a fan of many things, but I strongly believe that when the notions of “seriousness” and “fandom” collide, only trouble, heartache and — in the unforgiving lense of hindsight — deep, gnawing shame can result. I feel this especially acutely in this case. because, to my thinking, to be too critical of Godzilla after a certain point becomes dangerously close to taking Godzilla for granted, which is something we should never do. You see, I’ve reached an age where I’ve taken stock of my life and determined which things matter to me the most. And I can tell you in all honesty that Godzilla ranks right up there with fine liquor, warm summer nights and the love of a good woman among those thing that make life most worth living. Sure, I wasn’t crazy about Final Wars, but if you told me that having no Final Wars meant having no Godzilla, I’d have to say, sure, go ahead and give Ryuhei Kitamura the keys to the franchise and let him have at it.
All of this ties in with what I think determines which of Godzilla’s different manifestations will be the one a particular person will hold closest to his or her heart, which can basically be described as a sort of primary attachment theory of Godzilla. In short, it’s all about which Godzilla was your first. In my case, it was Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. If memory serves — which it may very well not — the encounter took place via a short-lived Saturday night horror movie package called Shock-It-To-Me Theater that aired on one of the Bay Area’s local UHF channels. The host was a goateed guy called Asmodeus, who always wore a smoking jacket and dark glasses — and who actually puffed away on a cigarette as he introduced the movies, which should give you some idea of how long ago this was. Not long after, Asmodeus and Shock-It-To-Me would be driven off the air by the popularity of a competing horror show on another local channel, Creature Features, which was hosted by the recently departed Bob Wilkins, an unassuming guy in an off-the-rack suit and glasses who had a perpetually bemused demeanor and a lacerating, bone-dry wit.
Thinking back, it must have been tough for Asmodeus, who was more what would have been considered a traditional horror movie host at the time — complete with ominously intoned, pre-scripted dialog and a cobwebbed, gothic castle set from which to intone it — to be knocked off the air by a guy like Wilkins. Little did we know at the time that, with Wilkins, we were seeing the first glimmer of an ironic hipster sensibility that, by the time of Mystery Science Theater, would become part and parcel of our attitude toward “B” cinema as a whole. Anyway, it’s just as likely that I first saw Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster on Wilkins’ Creature Features. But, if that’s the case, at least my lapse in memory gave me an opportunity to give Asmodeus a shout-out, because, even though I was among the horde of young viewers who ditched him in favor of Creature Features, he was still a formative influence.
Anyway, what matters the most out of all of this is that my initial viewing of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, whatever setting on the TV dial it emanated from, had a soul-stirring effect on me. I remember being struck by a sense of wonderment at the fact that adults, who at this point in my life seemed to merely serve as delivery system for everything — vegetables, outdoor activities, Summer swimming lessons — that I wanted to have nothing to do with, had taken the trouble to create something that was so completely awesome — something that, judging by how it conformed so closely to my seven-year-old mind’s conception of what was cool, appeared to have been designed specifically with my pleasure in mind. Here were giant monsters fighting; perilous jungle adventures; an army of exotic, uniformed bad guys lead by a dude with an eyepatch; futuristic looking sci-fi sets; toy boats and planes that acted just like the real thing, and lots of explosions, all set to a driving, sort-of-rock-and-roll-sounding musical score that practically screamed at me that I was watching probably the most exciting thing ever seen.
Some time later I would see — and years later, come to love — the original Godzilla, but at the time it was the one film in the series that struck me as being the departure. My Godzilla was the grumpy but ultimately lovable defender of the Earth that I had seen in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, or in Monster Zero — or the grumpy but ultimately loving and protective father figure seen in one of my other youthful favorites, Son of Godzilla. And that hasn’t changed much in my adulthood, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, given that the list of things I consider cool has changed very little since I was seven, and has only been amended over the years to commemorate my discoveries of things like girls, punk rock and beer.
Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster began life as Operation Robinson Crusoe: King Kong vs. Ebirah, a rejected script for a proposed co-production between Toho and America’s Rankin/Bass Productions (yes, the Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer guys) that was intended to tie in with the latter’s King Kong Saturday morning cartoon series. That fabulous bit of synergy finally saw fruit with 1967’s wonderful King Kong Escapes, but before that transpired, Godzilla producer Tomoyuki Tanaka determined the need for a new Godzilla film for the upcoming 1966 holiday season, and further decreed that said entry should be oriented toward a teen audience and feature a South Seas theme. In response, the Operation Robinson Crusoe script was hastily retooled — primarily, it seems, by crossing out the name “King Kong” wherever it appeared and penciling in “Godzilla” in its place — and then mashed up with another shelved script, this one for a sequel to director Jun Fukuda’s successful spy spoof 100 Shot/100 Killed, titled 100 Shot/100 Killed: Big Duel in the South Seas. The resulting Frankensteinian creation was a beast bearing the cumbersome title Godzilla-Mothra-Ebirah: Big Duel in the South Seas.
For all the coulda-beens and shoulda-beens of its detractors, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, viewed today, seems like it was inevitably the Godzilla movie that was going to get made in 1966. This was, after all, the year in which the author of James and the Giant Peach was commissioned to write a James Bond movie in which spaceships eat other spaceships and a villain’s space-age compound is housed within a hollowed-out volcano. The collision between the stodgy, adult-driven popular culture of the early sixties and the encroaching influence of sixties youth culture and it’s defining mistrust for authority had resulted in camp becoming the dominant aesthetic in seemingly every pop culture producing country in the world, and it was no longer safe for any pop icon born of the old order to be presented without a conspicuous display of tongues being placed firmly in cheek. (In this sense, the Batman TV series sort of served as the signal head-on-a-pike to mark our crossing over into this new territory.) Also, recent years had for the first time seen the vast majority of Television shows and movies being produced in color, something that producers were demonstrably eager to exploit via the widespread use of pop art-inspired, comic book-like palettes of bright primary colors, a tendency that is well in evidence in some of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster‘s sets. Lastly, the influence of the aforementioned Bond films had reached critical mass by 1966, becoming so pervasive that even the Beatles couldn’t resist the urge to spoof them in Help!, which makes it unsurprising that Godzilla’s handlers would draw upon their tropes as well. In short, all of these trends listed above come together in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, resulting in it being probably the most overtly comical, modish, and giddily irreverent film in the Godzilla series.
Facilitating this new tone was the fact that a number of the key members of the creative team behind Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster were younger than those who had worked on the previous G films. Director Fukuda, here taking the reigns of a Godzilla movie for the first time, was not only thirteen years younger than Ishiro Honda, who had directed all but one of the previous six Godzilla films, but also lacked Honda’s strong attachment to the giant monster genre. Instead, he drew upon his previous experience directing fast-paced action and comedy films for his approach to the material. Composer Masaru Sato — who had previously scored Godzilla Raids Again, the one Godzilla film that you are most likely to have completely forgotten existed — was likewise a decade-plus behind the man he was replacing, Akira Ifukube. In contrast to Ifukube’s ominous, deliciously portentious scores to the preceding Godzilla films, Sato here delivers a soundtrack that is alternately whimsical and full of manic, cartoonish urgency, and also can be credited with being the first to place twangy, surf-music inspired guitars amid Godzilla’s musical backing. Finally, taking the helm as director of special effects for the first time — despite Eiji Tsuburaya’s credit here — was Tsuburaya’s first assistant, Sadamasa Arikawa, a transition due largely to Tsuburaya having his hands full with the production of his television series Ultraman. Though working, thanks to Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster‘s reduced budget, on a smaller scale than what Tsuburaya usually had to deal with, Sadamasa does a fine job, and even puts his own stamp on things with some camera work that departs significantly from his mentor’s typical style.
One member of the team who was not a stranger to Godzilla was screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, who had in fact had a hand in writing most of the previous entries in the series, as well as such other high profile kaiju films as Mothra and Varan. Despite this, he was able to raise himself — or lower himself, depending on your perspective — to the task of concocting for Godzilla a story that was enough of a briskly paced and carefree piece of froth to make the monster’s previous film forays seem like sober dramas by comparison, incorporating teen-friendly elements from the current beach party, action and spy films as he went along. This emphasis meant that the aspects of the story involving the film’s human characters would be front and center for much of the film, which is actually not that unusual for Godzilla’s movies. All of them depend quite a bit on their human-based storylines to fill out their running time, and to my mind those storylines are precisely what keep the Godzilla movies fresh, because you never remember them from one viewing to the next. With every screening it’s like you’re seeing — and then forgetting — them for the very first time.
In the case of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, what you are forgetting is about sixty percent of the movie, because Godzilla doesn’t really enter the action until about the fifty minute mark. Until that time we have the story of Ryota (Toru Watanabe), a kid who is determined to go off in search of his fisherman brother, who has been reported lost at sea, but whom Ryota is convinced is still alive. Ryota’s first stop in his quest is a dance marathon in which a sailboat is the first prize, an episode that gives Masaru Sato an opportunity to contribute some swingy go-go music — complete with suspicious echoes of the Batman theme — to the soundtrack. Finding he’s arrived too late to compete, he enlists the aid a couple of goofballs who have already been eliminated in helping him to steal a boat from a nearby pier, a boat that turns out to be the hiding place of fugitive safecracker Yoshimura (played by ubiquitous kaiju eiga star Akira Takarada). For reasons that are not entirely clear, the four men all decide to spend the night on the boat, but awake to find that Ryota has set sail during the night without their knowledge, and that they are now somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, Everyone takes this pretty much in stride, until, after a few days’ journey, their boat is cleaved in two by a gigantic claw that thrusts up from beneath the ocean’s surface.
Ryota, Yoshimura and the other two all wash up on the beach of Devil’s Island, which they soon discover to be the hideout of The Red Bamboo, an army of crisply uniformed terrorists who are building an arsenal of nuclear missiles within their space-age compound there — and who bear no resemblance to the Chinese whatsoever. The island’s coastline is guarded over by the sea monster Ebirah, a giant lobster/shrimp thing that is almost exclusively seen from the waist up, with its lower body hidden beneath the water line, and who, in an especially memorable and rare instance of kaiju movie gruesomeness, spears a pair of escaping fishermen on the end of his claw like shish kebab. In order to keep Ebirah at bay while they ferry supplies back and forth, the Red Bamboo must use a yellow liquid refined from vegetation found on the island that has special, Ebirah-repelling properties, the production of which they delegate to an army of slaves who they have captured from nearby Infant Island. Said slaves, of course, are those peaceful inhabitants of said island who are able to remain peaceful solely by dint of them having the giant moth Mothra on hand to kick ass whenever anyone gives them any trouble. As Ryota and his pals watch the unloading of the latest shipment of slaves, one of the females, Daiyo (also-ubiquitous kaiju eiga star Kumi Mizuno) breaks away from the pack and makes a run for it. The boys come out of hiding to aid in her escape and soon become the object of pursuit for the one-eyed Captain Yamoto (played by designated Godzilla series eyepatch model — see his role as Dr. Serizawa in Gojira — Akihiko Hirata) and his machinegun-wielding troops.
Meanwhile, over on Infant Island, the remaining inhabitants are trying to raise Mothra from her slumber to go and save their enslaved loved ones, aided, as always, by those tiny twin singing fairies of Mothra’s — who, for the first time, are not portrayed by The Peanuts, but instead by another twin singing act called Pair Bambi. This scene provides an opportunity for another one of the high points of Sato’s musical score, a version of the usual ‘hey, Mothra, wake up” ritual song that would fit right in on one of those late nineties lounge-exotica compilations. Mothra proves difficult to rouse, however, a delaying tactic that gives us the nagging feeling we’re going to be seeing some Mothra ex machina action during the final minutes of the picture.
It turns out, however, that Mothra isn’t the only sound sleeper among the monsters in the neighborhood, because, in the course of scrambling frantically around the island in their attempts to evade Capt. Yamoto and his men, Ryota and company stumble upon Godzilla, out like a light at the bottom of a deep subterranean pit in the island’s interior. As momentous a discovery as this is, the boys file it away for future reference, as there is still much more frantic scrambling around to be done, in and out of the Red Bamboo’s compound and the various caves and fissures of the island, all the while being narrowly missed by fusillades of machinegun fire from their pursuers. Finally, in the course of one of these pursuits, Ryota finds himself tangled in the lines of an observation balloon which comes loose from its moorings and sails away from the island. In one of the film’s most willfully preposterous moments — and the final red flag for anyone who’s actually been trying to take any of this seriously — Ryota’s involuntary balloon ride deposits him right at the feet of the Infant Island natives at the very moment that their Mothra waking dance seems to be taking effect. Not only this, but, In response to Ryota’s inquiry, the islanders produce Ryota’s missing brother, who has been among them all along.
Ultimately, the good guys’ escape from the island and the Red Bamboo’s comeuppance cannot be accomplished without Godzilla on hand to deal with the villain’s fearsome guardian lobster, and so a hastily contrived lightning rod and the felicity of frequent tropical downpours are employed to bring him to. A little groggy at first, and obviously not too keen on doing any heavy lifting, Godzilla’s first reaction upon seeing Ebirah is to lazily chuck some boulders at him to see if that will do the trick of driving him off. It doesn’t, and Ebirah just bats the boulders back at Godzilla, who in turn head-butts them like soccer balls back in his direction, making this the most gleefully stupid prelude to a monster battle in the series thus far. Finally, the battle is joined in earnest, and involves a lot of underwater sequences that were reportedly quite perilous for the suit actors, weighed down as they were by hundred-pound-plus monster costumes in addition to being submerged in gallons of water.
One of the common complaints about Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster is that it is cheap. It is indeed true that the financially troubled Toho assigned the film a budget that was meager in comparison to that of its predecessors. Still, this is not a film that overreaches its limits, and, for the most part, its planning and scripting evidences a shrewd allotment of resources, allowing it to be a slick and handsome looking entry despite it being staged on a somewhat smaller scale than earlier Godzilla movies. Though the setting of the action on a remote island cut costs by alleviating the need for Sadamasa Arikawa and his crew to build entire miniature cities for the monsters to trash, what miniatures there are are well up to the standard set by the other films, and the need for fewer indoor sets allowed the producers to invest more in the colorful interiors of the Red Bamboo’s compound.
The only evidence of shoddiness that is too glaring to overlook is that no one seems to have bothered, during the transitioning of the script from one featuring King Kong to one featuring Godzilla, to put much work into differentiating the latter from the former. For the most part that isn’t much of a problem, since both meet the screenplay’s primary requirement of being giant rampaging monsters, but it definitely becomes a bit troubling during the section of the film in which Godzilla seems to be taking an amorous interest in Kumi Mizuno. Admittedly, this episode is a bit of a low point for the Big G, especially since much of it involves him guarding over Daiyo while hunkering down on his haunches and just kind of staring off into the middle distance. It’s not a good look for Godzilla, and I couldn’t help thinking that all he needed was a newspaper to complete the appearance of him sitting on the can. Also a bit puzzling is the fact that the water-bound Ebirah seems like he would be even less of an appropriate opponent for King Kong than he is for Godzilla, making it hard to imagine what exactly Toho might have been thinking there. This is not to say that Ebirah is entirely crappy as kaiju go, but he does prove to be a bit overmatched, and, at the end of the day, it’s pretty obvious why he came to take his place alongside King Seesar and Hedora the Smog Monster in the pantheon of one-shot Godzilla movie monsters.
Despite its obviously misguided intimations of Godzilla’s interspecies horniness, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster also affords its mon-star his fair share of iconic moments, including an entrance that involves him busting out of the side of a mountain. There is also an instance of classic Godzilla bad-assery in which, after tearing off one of Ebirah’s claws, he clacks the thing together like a giant castanet in order to taunt him. Elsewhere, perhaps less iconic, but still indelible is Godzilla’s battle with the Red Bamboo’s air force, which is set to a musical accompaniment that would be more appropriate for the dancers on Shindig. Still, it isn’t these isolated moments that make the film so enjoyable, but rather the infectious and undeniably good-natured enthusiasm that courses through the whole thing. It just careens along like a hyperactive toddler on a sugar rush until the end credits roll, leaving you with a mild but entirely pleasant sense of exhaustion. Seriously, I don’t expect everyone to hold this movie in as high regard as I do, but it seems to me that to hate it would take quite a lot of concentrated effort.
After Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Jun Fukuda helmed the similarly silly Son of Godzilla before handing the reigns back to Ishiro Honda for Destroy All Monsters (the first of many “final” Godzilla films) and Godzilla’s Revenge, soon after which he returned to direct some of the most maligned entries in the series, including the almost universally reviled Godzilla vs. Megalon. It is perhaps for this reason that Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster is held by some in a negative light; not so much for what it actually contains, but for the fact that the glimmer of Godzilla vs. Megalon can be seen in its eye. Personally, I like the later Fukuda films — Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla especially — but, more importantly, I love Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, and to an extent that I could never hope to justify with rational explanation. Suffice it to say that I am helpless to its charms, and even today when I watch it I can’t help but bust out into a big goofy smile. Of course, that should be entirely understandable to anyone who loves Godzilla. It was my first, after all.
Release Year: 1966 | Country: Japan | Starring: Akira Takarada, Kumi Mizuno, Chotaro Togin, Hideo Sunazuka, Toru Watanabe, Toru Ibuki, Akihiko Hirata, Jun Tazaki, Ikio Sawamura, Pair Bambi, Haruo Nakajima | Director: Jun Fukuda | Writer: Shinichi Sekizawa | Music: Masaru Sato
Mil Mascaras: Resurrection comes to us some thirty years after Mil Mascaras last appeared onscreen in a narrative feature. For those of you who missed out the first time around, Mil, along with Santo and Blue Demon, is one of the “Big Three” stars of lucha libre cinema, as well as one of the biggest stars in the history of lucha libre itself. While Mil’s cinematic efforts never had the same stateside impact as some of Santo’s, thanks to them never being dubbed in English, they are nonetheless every bit as entertaining — and, in some cases, much more so — than many of El Enmascarado de Plata‘s contributions to the genre, and are big favorites of ours here at Teleport City.
Mil Mascaras: Resurrection — which was initially titled Mil Mascaras vs. The Aztec Mummy — doesn’t come to us by way of the normal channels one might expect a Mil Mascaras movie to come through. In fact, it may very well be the only Mexican wrestling film whose writer-producer holds a Ph.D. in robotic engineering from Oxford. (I say “may ” only because that Fernando Oses looks like he might be a bit of an egghead.) Jeffrey Uhlmann brought the idea for the film with him when he took an associate professorship in the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Computer Science Department, and proposed it as an ideal project for exploring the potential for an entertainment technology-related IT program within the University’s Engineering School. Being that Uhlmann is obviously a serious fan of lucha cinema, I imagine that he also decided it would just be really cool to make a Mil Mascaras movie using some of Mizzou’s resources — but in the long run, it’s really all about the kids, isn’t it?
It’s so tempting here to go into all kinds of easy riffs about the crazy things that people get away with in the name of higher education that I practically feel obligated to do it. What? A whole course devoted to Gossip Girl? Snort! How about a major in tasting fine single malt Scotches? Hardy har har. But in truth, I can’t judge. Because anything Jeffrey Uhlmann has done pales in comparison to that time I defended myself against charges of stalking Rosario Dawson by saying that I was doing research for a paper on how the idea of celebrity redefines notions of public and private space. Okay, with that out of my system, let’s move on.
Anyway, given its very DIY nature, work on Mil Mascaras: Resurrection proceeded fitfully, with Uhlmann utilizing a crew largely comprised of school faculty and students and shooting on and around the University grounds, with principal photography being completed in three chunks spanning between late 2004 and Spring of ’06. Among Uhlmann’s colleagues who were involved were fellow professor Kannappan Palaniappan as co-producer and instructor Chip Gubera as director – though there was also an aborted pass at having DTV sequel maven Jeff Burr (Stepfather II, Puppet Master IV, Pumpkinhead II) direct the film, which ended with Burr leaving the project after two weeks of shooting (he was subsequently credited pseudonymously as “Andrew Quint”). Of course, before all of that there came the casting of the film’s 69 year old star. Uhlmann had originally imagined El Hijo Del Santo (that’s Santo’s son, for those of you who are Spanish challenged) as his lead, but when that wrestler’s schedule proved unaccommodating, he approached Mil Mascaras, who he had met a number of years earlier. Mil agreed, and the rest is… well, the rest is the subject of this review.
Now, all of the foregoing makes for a fascinating back-story, but as far as appreciating Mil Mascaras: Resurrection goes, it’s almost wholly irrelevant, because, on a technical level, the film comes across as nothing if not a professional effort, showing few signs at all of being an amateur or student production. Overall, the film has the kind of glossy non-style of the typical straight-to-cable movie, which, given the somewhat utilitarian aspects of its genre, is not all a bad thing. As such, it acts as a seamless delivery device for lucha movie thrills, free of any visual flourishes that might distract us from the business at hand. I’ll say right off that I really enjoyed the movie, and I suspect that, being that I’m perhaps as big of a lucha movie geek as Jeffrey Uhlmann, many of the problems I had with it are ones that few other viewers will share. Still, since no one seems to be campaigning for us to have consensus-seeking robots write our reviews here at Teleport City, I’m going to discuss those problems anyway.
One of the reservations I have about finding fault with how MM:R approaches its subject is that I’m not entirely sure what I have a right to reasonably expect from a Mil Mascaras movie made in 2007. The makers of such a film are faced with a difficult choice. They can choose to emulate the tone of the classic lucha films, which is basically one of complete absurdity cloaked in unwavering earnestness, but with no hope, in this post-ironic age, of convincingly achieving it. The only option in that regard, then, is to pay a sort of tribute to the things that contribute to that tone and use them as “quotes’ within the film, while at the same time trying to avoid the kind of smirky knowingness that could come off as being condescending toward the subject matter — a particularly tough trick when you consider the degree to which lucha libre fandom involves a delicate dance between an adult sense of irony and a child-like suspension of disbelief.
On the other hand, the filmmakers can go in the opposite direction, have a total nerd-gasm, and go all “reboot” on the subject, making their hero more dark and conflicted, filling in his back-story in a manner designed to give him a more mythic dimension, and spicing it all up with bits of edgy-sounding techno-babble about bio-morphing masks and such. (This would be what we might call the “Lucha movies: They’re not just for kids anymore” approach.) What those behind Mil Mascaras: Resurrection ultimately decided to do is a little bit of each of the above, and, as a result, the film, to some extent, feels like it’s suspended between homage, parody and a desire to be the thing itself – a desire that’s further foiled by it being a luchadore film that’s forced to have Columbia, Missouri fill-in for Mexico City.
This coming-from-all-angles approach, for better or worse, offers one distinct advantage to Mil Mascaras: Resurrection, in that it allows its accomplishments to stand on their own merits while providing an ironic shield for those things that it maybe wasn’t quite so successful at. This is especially true for the acting in the film, which, to put it kindly, is wildly hit or miss. Even the professionals among the cast — who include Willard Pugh, Richard Lynch and Gary Ambrosia — don’t seem to have benefitted from much direction, with the emphasis most likely being on simply moving things along at a brisk pace (something that, to give credit where it’s due, the film achieves quite admirably). Yet, because most English speakers are only familiar with Mexican wrestling films via those few Santo movies that K. Gordon Murray imported to the U.S., all of which were dubbed into English by some of the most affect-challenged voice-artists you could ever hope to hear, such stilted line readings can be defended as being in the spirit of the original. Unfortunately, one of Uhlmann and his colleagues’ key shortcomings is an apparent difficulty resisting the temptation to go overboard, and they scuttle some of the goodwill that such a defense would depend on with the gag of having Mil Mascaras’ dialog very obviously overdubbed with the exaggeratedly off-synch voice of another actor speaking English in a sonorous Latin accent. It’s an oversell that results in a lackluster aspect of the film that might have otherwise gotten by on a sort of ramshackle charm being undermined by an overenthusiastic elbow jab to the ribs.
This occasional tendency to oversell also dims the glow of one of my favorite moments in the movie, a speech given by the film’s resident benevolent scientific authority, a gentleman referred to only as the Professor (Kurt Rennin Mirtsching). It’s a signature moment in the early Santo movies to have some supporting character — usually an authority figure like a police chief or a respected scientist — speaking in awed tones about how amazing Santo is, and the inclusion of such a moment here is one giveaway of the script’s origins as one written around the character of El Hijo del Santo. It’s really note perfect, with the Prof. intoning that Mil has “the mind of a scientist, the soul of an artist, the body of a great athlete, and yet there’s something more about him. Something that separates him from other men.” Of all the film’s ticking off of the genre’s stock elements, this one struck me as the most affectionate, gently parodying the idea, but at the same time speaking to the kid in us who thinks it really would be cool if Santo built time machines in his spare time, no matter how ridiculous we know the idea is in reality. Unfortunately, rather than just leaving it there, the expression of such sentiments ends up becoming a conspicuously insistent motif in the movie — such as when the Professor praises Mil’s theories on observer-centric physics and beseeches him to join his University’s faculty, or when reference is made to another masked wrestler’s theories appearing in all the “peer-reviewed journals” — to the point that I started to get the uneasy feeling that what I was seeing was perhaps less gentle parody than it was simply jeering with hand over mouth.
So, in short, there’s something that I find a little bit slippery about Mil Mascaras: Resurrection‘s tone that keeps me from absolutely loving it. But, again, as much as I’m tempted to look at it sideways, I don’t think many others will be troubled by similar concerns. This is a lucha movie, after all, and isn’t the only test it really needs to pass that of whether an eight year old boy could watch it in an untroubled state of rapt credulity? He could. And given that, the rest of us, in the spirit of the endeavor, should probably just check it and enjoy the ride, and not give all of the film’s instances of winking and giggling at itself too much thought. After all, there is indeed much to enjoy.
I made brief reference before to the fact that Mil Mascaras: Resurrection moves along at a brisk clip, and it’s an attribute that bears more than a passing mention. Despite the unevenness of tone, its pacing is nearly flawless, something for which I think we owe thanks to both Uhlmann’s tight script and the expert intuition of editor Thom Calderon. Directors Gubera and Burr’s economical staging of the scenes, while failing the actors themselves, also contributes greatly to the cause. More happens in the first half hour of the film than happens in the entirety of many classic lucha movies, yet all of the actions and plot elements — the usual casualties in any attempt to race through a narrative — are fairly crisply defined. In addition, Calderon’s editing does an impressive bit of sleight-of-hand as far as covering up for the movie’s budgetary shortcomings, frequently giving us the impression that we’ve seen things — car crashes, extravagant stunts — that we haven’t, and never letting any one shot linger long enough on a given location to betray the fact that, rather than, say, the headquarters of the Mexico City Police Dept., we’re just looking at another part of Mizzou’s student commons.
Such misdirection is also helpful in portraying the physical heroics of a septuagenarian action star like Mil Mascaras. While he still looks intimidatingly buff and impressively light-on-his-feet, Mil definitely needs a little movie magic when it comes to displaying the same acrobatic skills he exhibited in his movies from the sixties, and the technical crew here doesn’t let him down. In fact, there was only one brief instance where I could spot an obvious double in Mil’s place, though I imagine that there were more instances where one was used.
Mil Mascaras: Resurrection alerts us right away to the “reboot” aspect of its agenda, making an isolated attempt, within its opening moments, to present us with that aforementioned dark and conflicted version of Mil Mascaras. Mil gets dumped by his fiancé/a terrible actress, after which he has a pensive moment, sitting on a river bank and staring searchingly at his reflection in the water. Seriously, I was only joking when, in my review of Superargo vs. Diabolicus, I imagined a more emo, Marvel Comics-inspired lucha cinema, but that’s pretty much what we’re getting here. Of course, Mil Mascaras can only be so emo, given that his every attempt to display emotion results in him simply widening his eyes in surprise. Still, that’s a lot more acting than Santo or Blue Demon ever did, and he should be commended.
Anyway, it is in this meditative riverbank moment that we learn that this movie’s version of Mil Mascaras is one who’s mask is part of a legacy of heroism handed down through his family over generations, which is actually another of the film’s elements that’s taken from the Santo movies. In the movies that Mil Mascaras did for Luis Enrique Vergara during the sixties, Mil was presented as having been raised by a bunch of crazy scientists who found him in the rubble of a bombed-out building at the end of WWII and rigorously trained him to be a consummate superman. Of course, this new version of his origin provides a lot of opportunity for talk about “fate” and “destiny”, and thus goes some way toward imbuing his character with those also-aforementioned mythic dimensions. Part of that destiny, it turns out, is for him to have a run-in with a recently resurrected Aztec Mummy who has been a foe of the Mascaras clan for generations, and who now plans to rule the world with a gem that has the power to control men’s minds. Jeffrey Uhlmann himself takes on the role of the Mummy, and it’s a performance that depends, as very well it should, on making lots of grandiose and highly-stylized hand gestures like Dr. Gori in Spectreman (always my go-to guy for stylized supervilliain hand gestures). Uhlmann does his maniacal lucha villain turn proud, although his Mummy mask has a muppet-like quality to it that makes the character oddly endearing despite that.
Over the course of the film, Uhlmann-as-scenarist reveals himself to be an attentive and appreciative student of Mexican wrestling movies — and vintage Mexican horror movies in general — as evidenced by the many affectionate references to the genre’s touchstone moments that can be found throughout. My favorite of these is the clunky, man-in-suit robot (also played by Uhlmann) that harkens back to the original Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy, but also brings to mind the robot from the loopy sci-fi musical hacienda-Western La Nave de Los Monstruos. There is also a replay of that iconic moment — originally seen in Santo vs. the Vampire Women, but imitated in several successive lucha films — in which our hero’s ring opponent, when unmasked, is revealed to be an inhuman monster, with the added bonus that the beast in this case is a ringer for the monster in the notorious sleaze-fest Night of the Bloody Apes. In another instance, the mummy revives and sends forth a legion of undead Aztec warriors in a scene that recalls The Mummies of Guanajuato and its numerous sequels, with the generous addition of a midget mummy to please the Agrasanchez fans in the audience. There are even a couple of vampire girls on hand to provide homage to Mil’s cinematic high water mark, Las Vampiras.
In addition to these specific quotations, the film also dutifully honors most of the genre’s basic conventions. The Professor, of course, has a beautiful young daughter (Maria, played — badly — by Melissa Osborn) who is in love with Mil, and, given that he thinks Mil is so awesome, the Prof. enthusiastically encourages the attraction. Thankfully, the filmmakers, probably sensing the considerable potential creep factor arising from the yawning age gap between the two, choose to pay tribute to this particular trope while maintaining a chaste distance between the lovers. Elsewhere, an impressive stamp of authenticity is gained via the appearance of a host of other real luchadores, including El Hijo del Santo, who participates in a tag team match with Mil in front of a strangely Caucasian-heavy Mexico City crowd, and Blue Demon Jr., who appears along with a bunch of other real-life masked grapplers as part of a modern day version of the Champions of Justice.
But where Mil Mascaras: Resurrection really gets it right, more than anywhere else, is in Mil’s costumes, which, according to the credits, were designed by the man himself. Mil, as I’ve said elsewhere, was the true rock star of lucha libre, and the only man, in a sport known for its garish flamboyance, capable of making his competitors’ colorful togs look like something they’d wear on a sick day home in comparison to his own. And, man, I don’t think he has ever looked better than he does here. These outfits, if you can train your eyes on them long enough to appreciate them without going blind, are masterpieces, from the glittering, every-color-of-the-rainbow number that he rocks early on, to the leopard print ensemble he wears when he accompanies the President of the United States (who also speaks about Mil in hushed, admiring tones, by the way) to address the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The real closer, though, the one that would bring the house down were Mil to take his looks to fashion week in New York, is the Aztec warrior get-up with the towering headdress that he wears to his climactic ring match. As outrageous eye candy goes, the whole assortment is pure heaven, and exactly the type of thing to make me forget, at least momentarily, my aforementioned misgivings about the picture overall.
And those misgivings, after all, are most troubling because there is enough that is good about Mil Mascaras: Resurrection to make me want to really, really like it. I love lucha movies — Mil Mascaras’ in particular — and I get the clear sense from this movie that Jeffrey Uhlmann does, too. And, given that, I respect and appreciate his and his collaborators’ efforts to bring Mil back to the screen in all his glory. Still, as is, I merely just like Mil Mascaras: Resurrection, and with reservations, at that. I am optimistic, however, about the news that this same bunch has completed a second Mil Mascaras film. After all, it’s not that I feel that theirs are the wrong hands to put to the task, it’s just that I think they’d benefit from a little more focus, perhaps of the type that would come from working under a schedule less fitful than the one necessitated by MM:R‘s stop-and-start production history. As I said, I’m not really sure how much I can expect from a Mil Mascaras movie made in the 21st century, but I’m hoping that, with their follow-up effort, Jeffrey Uhlmann and the gang will show me.
Release Year: 2007 | Country: United States | Starring: Mil Mascaras, Jeffrey Uhlmann, Kurt Rennin Mirtsching, Willard Pugh, Melissa Osborn, Richard Lynch, Marco Lanzagorta, Gary Ambrosia, Stephanie Matthews, Jonathan Verdejo-Rocha, Abbie Adkins, El Hijo del Santo | Writer: Jeffrey Uhlmann | Directors: Jeff Burr, Chip Gubera | Cinematographer: Thomas Callaway | Music: Vaughn Johnson | Producers: Kannappan Palaniappan, Jeffrey Uhlmann
Really, Pinhead? Really? This is how you treat me? We’ve come so far, and I’ve given positive reviews to so many of your movies, and this is how you pay me back? I suppose it’s fitting. After being lea down the tempting and Byzantine labyrinths of the Hellraiser franchise, I finally arrive and the final (for now, anyway) installment, only to discover it is the cinematic equivalent of finally solving the puzzle box only to have hooked chains shoot out and rip me to pieces.
Hellraiser: Hellworld is beyond awful and well into the “absolutely unwatchable” territory. I can’t think of a single redeeming thing to say about this horrible movie, with the possible exception of “Well, at least they finally got around to having Lance Henrikson appear in a Hellraiser film.” But that’s hardly enough for this wretched retread of other, equally as bad horror films. The plot this time around goes “meta” — featuring a group of twenty-somethings who play an online Hellraiser themed video game, only to discover that the game may be more real than they realize!!! Oooo! When the players are invited to a special “Hellworld” rave for the hardest core gamers, they find themselves in the mansion of Lance, who spins them a yarn about the house being built by the same Le Merchant who made the Lament Configuration, even though that guy lived and died in France. As the kids wander from one room to another, they are slowly killed off, one by one, in the usual outlandish fashion…or are they???
Oh, now you’re just messing with me. This is the third horror film I’ve watched recently, and I’m now officially three for three on movies in which a character says, “This is like a bad horror movie!” And once again, it’s because the movie is a bad horror movie. Why can’t, just once, we have a character who remarks, “This is like a good horror movie!” Anyway, unlike Hellraiser: Hellworld and Diary of the Dead, I went into Resident Evil: Degeneration fully expecting it to be awful but hoping that it might at least be watchable. And that’s about what I got though it was slightly less watchable than I was hoping.
I am a Resident Evil fan. As increasingly dumb as they are, and as increasingly dumb as I am for feeling this way, I’ve liked all three of the live-action movies. The Resident Evil video games are the only ones I’ve ever played consistently. So for once, I’m the target market for a movie based on a video game. That said, you know the “cut scenes” in the video games — those sequences where you can’t play the game and instead have to watch as the plot is advanced through a combination of middling CGI, bad writing, and unspeakable acting? If you’ve ever watched one of those and thought, “this would be awesome if it went on for 90 minutes,” then Resident Evil: Degeneration is the movie for you. For me, it was an exercise is tedium, albeit tolerable tedium.
See, here’s the thing about Kari Wuhrer: I don’t know what the thing is with Kari Wuhrer. I mean yeah, she’s hot, but plenty of men and women are hot, and most of them didn’t star in Beastmaster II: Through the Portal of Time. There is very little in the career or Kari that I’ve liked, and yet my obsession with her as an actress continues to urge me toward watching whatever goofball piece of junk in which she appears. The way some people think Angelina Jolie is the hottest woman on the planet, or Aishwarya Rai? That’s sort of how I feel about Kari. I just like the woman, and I have ever since Remote Control.
That said, it was inevitable that, even after the dismally dull part six, any meeting of Kari Wuhrer and the Hellraiser franchise was going to get my attention. So I sat down for this seventh installment in the the long-running horror series with some degree of anticipation that, at the very least, it would offer me something more than a jackass having hallucinations while sitting in his office cubicle. And hey, what do you know! Hellraiser gets itself back on track, at least to some degree. Deader, like most of the sequels, is far from being in the same class as the original, but it’s also far from being in that other class occupied by Hellseeker and Hell On Earth, that dimension of pain where even Pinhead dare not tread. This means the movie falls somewhere in the vicinity of Bloodline (part four) and Inferno (part five) in being a flawed but ultimately decent horror film.
Kari stars as perpetually smoking Amy Klein, one of those ace “reporters on the edge” who covers the sort of stories that are only covered in movie versions of what an ace reporter on the edge would cover. Which means, less war in Gaza and Somali pirates, more exposes on sleepy drug addicts and Eastern European resurrection cults. After her editor receives a videotape of a young Eurotrash goth type committing suicide only to be raised from the dead by a guy with stringy hair while other Eurotrash goth types stand around and sway, Amy is off to Bucharest to investigate the story. Eastern Europe is, as you all probably know, the favored haunt these days of pretty much every low budget horror film being made. Here’s an instance where the location works, though. Certainly more so than when a filmmaker tries to pass Prague off as Las Vegas. The Eastern European aesthetic — or at least what we in America imagine to be the Eastern Europe aesthetic — lends itself nicely to the Hellraiser world. Certainly Pinhead is going to seem more imposing when he appears in some crumbling ancient stone building or dripping concrete tenement than when he shows up in Terry Farrell’s posh Manhattan penthouse apartment.
Speaking of which — here’s a movie that at least puts its reporter in the right tax bracket. As someone who works professionally as a writer, despite all the evidence present here that I should be kept away from words, I’m always amused when a film’s struggling young writer can still manage to live in a sprawling multi-story, multi-room penthouse with a breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline, as did our intrepid reporter in Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. By contrast, Amy Klein is already an established reporter, but she still lives in an alcohol and cigarette smoke stained shithole. Now that is the sort of reporter’s life to which I can relate.
Anyway, Amy follows the trail of the videotape to an apartment where she finds a corpse and the fabled Lament Configuration puzzle box. So begins her descent into the usual Hellraiser madness, which includes industrial music party trains, an over-reliance on hallucinations and “dream within a dream” red herrings, shoehorning in of the word “flesh,” and token appearances by Hell’s favorite bail bondsman, Pinhead. All in all, as I said, it’s a pretty huge step up from the last film, and there are some sequences that are genuinely effective. My favorite is the dream-within-a-dream nonsense in which Kari finally discovers the location of the “Deaders” cult, as they call themselves, only to find herself forced to undergo their ritual. Then it turns out that was all a dream, then it turns out that dream was a dream, and she really does have a huge gaping hole in her chest. So begins a nightmarish yet blackly comical sequence where she tries to continue her investigation even though she has a huge chest wound that is continually oozing blood all over the place. In addition, her discovery of the industrial music party train after everyone in it has been slaughtered is another wonderfully creepy moment, as is her claustrophobic journey to the Deaders’ hideout.
The film also features one of Pinhead’s most overtly evil moments. The revelation that Amy was sexually abused by a father she eventually stabbed to death is pretty standard shock movie territory, so much so that at this stage in the game, it’s more likely to illicit rolled eyes and “ho hums” than any real horror. But when Pinhead finally shows up for his cameo, he remarks, almost off-handedly, that Amy will have ample time to spend with her father when she has been carried off to Hell, it makes the tired “sexual abuse” background worth the trouble, because that’s flat out creepy. Up until this point, really, the suffering delivered by Pinhead seemed too fanciful (remember the evil carnival in part two) or supernatural (the ever-present flying hook chains) to really be scary. Gross, maybe, but rarely scary. When Pinhead suggests that Amy will be spending eternity trapped with her sexually abusive father — that’s a horror a person can comprehend, and that makes it far more effective than any of the more fantastical nonsense Pinhead might throw at you. After being served up as sort of a cool anti-hero for the past several movies, that one moment makes Pinhead more recognizably evil and terrifying than at any other point in the series.
We also get something that we haven’t had in any of the Hellraiser movies, even the original, which is a downbeat “no one gets out of here alive” ending. In the other films, despite all else that happens, good triumphs over evil, the heroine escapes, the scumbags get ripped apart by hook chains, Pinhead is banished back to Hell by being covered in animated lines while he yells “Nooo!” and we’re pretty happy with how things turned out. Not so in Deader, however, which is thoroughly pessimistic and grim from start to finish. Amy Klein is a damaged but still somewhat decent person, but there is no redemption or catharsis waiting for her at the end of the journey.
Of course, as is standard with the direct to video Hellraiser sequels, Deader is not without its many problems. Once again, we have a script for an entirely unrelated movie that has been retooled to function as a Hellraiser movie. This means that much of the Hellraiser related material feels as shoehorned in as awkward uses of the word “flesh.” The plot depends on the actions of the Deaders and their leader somehow representing a “trespass” into the world of the Cenobites, but how exactly this becomes the supernatural equivalent of Pinhead telling kids to stay off his lawn remains unclear. As far as I know, merely committing suicide isn’t enough to get you into Pinhead’s wing of Hell; you have to actually summon the Cenobites. So I don’t know why Pinhead is so steamed that these kids are killing themselves then being brought back to life. Similarly, the movie links Deader “messiah” Winter (Paul Rhys) to the Le Merchant bloodline that created the puzzle box, but it doesn’t seem to have much of an idea with what to do with that subplot other than mention it. Certainly Winter doesn’t exhibit any of the traits that Bloodline lead us to believe are part of the Le Merchant character. And needless to say, there’s absolutely no explanation of how Winter is able to revive the dead, though in a movie series where people use a puzzle box to summon demons who promise pleasure and pain but only deliver on half their promise, I suppose worrying about the unexplained ability of one guy to revive dead Rumanian goth kids is a bit petty.
And there’s also the problem of the ending. While I appreciate the bleakness of it, it’s also pretty poorly thought out. It feels as if they had themselves a decent enough supernatural horror movie, did a fair job of tweaking it into a Hellraiser movie, then had no idea at all how to bring it all together in a cohesive, satisfying finale. It’s not enough to tank the film by any measure, but it is a shame they couldn’t pull the thing together.
I said with part five that I didn’t mind the rarity of Pinhead and the Cenobites in these sequels provided the surrounding movie was interesting enough to put off their appearance until the end. Five was. Six was not. Seven is back to being interesting enough to survive without Pinhead and his entourage making themselves known until the very end (minus the occasional appearance in a dream within a dream within an hallucination).
What we have here is an able cast, some great location work that takes advantage of the oppressive cityscapes and urban decay, and a plot that, while hardly perfect, is at least good enough for its running time. Kari Wuhrer is solid in her role and puts effort into it, and most of the supporting cast is either able or bad in that familiar way foreign extras are bad in English language films. That’s something I’ve long since learned to live with. I liked this one.
Which is good, because I’ve also seen part eight, and…well, let’s leave that suffering for the next review.
Reviewing the types of films that I do, I’ve become no stranger to mixed feelings. Korkusuz Kaptan Swing, for example, while leaving me less excited than other of Onar Films’ DVD releases, still feels like it should be a peak experience for me. After all, it’s a Turkish film that’s based on an Italian comic book that’s set in an imaginary America during the Revolutionary War. For someone as obsessed as I am with how the familiar gets refracted, refined and/or re-imagined through the lenses of different filmmaking cultures, you’d be hard pressed to concoct a more tantalizing recipe — unless, of course, you were to concoct a Thai movie that teamed Ultraman with a Hindu monkey god, or another Turkish movie in which Santo and Captain America join forces to fight a caterpillar-browed Spiderman. Neither of those two films, however, hold up a funhouse mirror to a well-tread episode of American history the way that Kaptan Swing does. And it is that strange depiction of my country’s forefathers’ struggle for independence that, more than anything else, makes the film come across to my tired Yankee eyes as being a product of a place oh, so very far from home.