Fairly or not, Eurospy films are generally regarded as cheap knock-offs of the James Bond movies. But there is cheap, and then there is cheap. Anyone who has actually watched a significant number of these films knows that there are a rare few that don’t appear cheap at all, and even glance — if barely — at the kind of production values seen in the 007 franchise. Others occupy a comfortable middle ground, and are able to succeed as long as their ambitions don’t outstrip their means. Then, of course, there are those on the other end of the spectrum that are so visibly poverty ridden that you almost wonder why the filmmakers even bothered.
Like many people, I find that there are certain types of films that appeal so strongly to me on a conceptual level that I tend to cut them considerable slack when reviewing them. Often times, even the very worst of these films, like when Santo is old and fat and spends half the film driving a station wagon to the grocery store, muster enough of the elements I like to keep me satisfied. And one of my very favorite genres is the Eurospy film and the various offshoots and influenced tributaries — among them the Italian fumetti-inspired films. As we covered in some weird and convoluted fashion in our review of Kriminal and the three Turkish Kilink films, as well as Danger Diabolik, fumetti were saucy Italian comic books populated by sexy, violent anti-heroes and villains. Super-thief Diabolik became the flashpoint for a whole series of comics and related films that drew both from Diabolik and the James Bond movies. Diabolik himself was a throwback to the old pulp heroes like The Shadow, The Spider, and European counterparts like Fantomas — with a bit of Batman thrown in for good measure.
It is perhaps a sign that I’ve succumbed to the stressors of the season that I’ve been re-watching a lot of these earlier lucha movies lately. While the Mexican wrestling movies of the late 60s and 70s can be amusingly trashy, those made a decade previous exhibit an appealing hokeyness and sincere desire to entertain that makes them, for me, the ideal form of cinematic comfort food. They also, in the case of films like 1960’s Neutron vs. The Death Robots, exhibit a not inconsiderable amount of appealing, old school style. Neutron vs. The Death Robots, the second in a series of five Neutron films, was directed by Federico Curiel, one of the most prolific directors of Mexican lucha films. Working with literally every major star in the genre, Curiel helmed a steady stream of entries that lasted from the early 60s until the twilight of the Mexican wrestling film’s popularity in the late 70s, in the process providing the genre with its last box office hurrah with 1972’s wildly successful Las Momias de Guanajuato.
Eight. Nine. Three. In the Japanese card game known as hana-fuda, it’s the worst hand you can get. Eight, nine, and three — ya, ku, and sa. Japanese organized crime families adopted the name “yakuza” because of this hand. Because you need to be lucky to be a yakuza. Because you’ve drawn the worst hand if you cross them. Because winning with a ya-ku-sa hand requires the utmost skill at reading an opponent. Others may claim it’s because it’s bad luck that leads to a life of crime, or because yakuza are born losers. Or because in the Edo period, when the yakuza first emerged on the scene, they might have evolved at least in part out of the tekiya and bakuto social groups.
Cruel Gun Story director Takumi Furukawa appears to have been neither all that prolific or acclaimed, but he is nonetheless an important figure in the history of Nikkatsu. It was Furukawa who directed the venerable Japanese studio’s first major hit after its return to film production in the mid 50s and, in the process, launched the career of possibly its most iconic star of the period, Yujiro Ishihara. The film in question was 1956’s Season of the Sun, the first of the wave of popular youth-in-rebellion dramas –- known as the Sun Tribe films –- that came to be among the studio’s biggest earners during the late 50s and early 60s.
Like many of my stories, this one starts out with a girl. Nice girl. Well, not that nice. Something of a catch. We were lying around in my apartment in some state of undress or other — not because we were in the throes of passion, but rather because it was Florida in August, and my air conditioner was broken. Such extreme heat and humidity can make one shed one’s modesty as quickly as one sheds pants or shirt. We were watching something dreadful and delightful, as we tended to do. In this case, it happened to be a low-budget exploitation film called Death Curse of Tartu. At the time, I was still young and not so wise in the ways of obscure movies as I am today, so I didn’t know anything about the movie, the director, or the robust little Florida film industry of the 1960s that produced it. But once the movie started playing on my epic 10-inch TV, something strange happened during the credits.
“That’s my step-mom!” my friend exclaimed.
Including The Shuttered Room in a Lovecraft-themed month of reviews is admittedly a bit of a stretch. To the extent that its source story is considered by anyone to be part of the Lovecraft canon, it is thought of as being only very peripherally so, with many of the author’s followers disdaining to give it even that distinction. The story originally appeared in the 1959 collection The Shuttered Room & Other Pieces, which was compiled by author August Derleth and published under his own Arkham House imprint. Derleth, a longtime friend and supporter of Lovecraft’s during his lifetime, is a bit of a controversial figure among Lovecraft devotees. While his championing of Lovecraft’s work is inarguably responsible in part for the author being as well known as he is today, some of the liberties that Derleth subsequently took with that work is seen by many as being of a considerably less laudable nature.
One of the many things that makes Lovecraft interesting, at least for me, is the discussion of why his writing work, if it does work for you (and despite my jokes about gambrel rooftops and fishmen, it does work for me most of the time). Everyone has their own reasons. Some can be agreed upon by the larger body of Lovecraft fans. Others are acutely personal. My example has always been my tendency to go backpacking in the wilds of New England, seeing firsthand how, even in our modern, developed world, civilization can vanish abruptly, leaving you surrounded by nothing but the night and woods. Even in those small states, the amount of land that gives way to untamed solitude is vast, and when you walk into the middle of it with nothing but boil-in-bag stroganoff and a headlamp to fend off the grip of the wilderness, it becomes a lot easier to believe Lovecraft’s tales of ancient things lurking in the mountains and foothills. You look up and realize how tiny you are. You look around an realize how vulnerable you are. Wolves, bears, and rutting moose are bad enough. I guess if I had to also deal with chattering crab monsters from space, I’d find them a lot scarier than I might have while sitting at home with a dram of Glenmorangie, reading The Whisperer in the Darkness. Because as has been pointed out to me in discussion, it’s not so much the monster as it is the isolation.
Several years ago, I got a Netflix account. I did it for a variety of reasons, though the two biggest were the fact that the selection of movies at the average video rental store was abysmal and the price of a rental at the un-average video store was outrageous. Netflix — not to sound like a commercial for the service — offered an astounding number of titles, and because one of their main distribution centers is in Queens, the turn-around time for receiving new movies was lightning fast, provided the lightning is that ball lightning or swamp gas stuff that drifts slowly from Queens to Brooklyn over the course of a day and is often mistaken for a UFO or gnome. Let it be said right now that on my list of things to do before I die is see swamp gas or ball lightning, or at least photograph a weather balloon that could be mistaken for a UFO. But that is neither here nor there.
The mid-sixties were a time of increased experimentation and political outspokenness for filmmakers in Czechoslovakia, thanks to the increasing relaxation of government censorship that peaked in 1967 with the sweeping reforms of the Prague Spring, and which came to a crashing halt with the Russian invasion the following year. Of the films produced during that brief renaissance, Vaclav Vorlicek’s Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is far from the most radical or subversive. But it is just possible that viewing it would have been enough to convince the CCCP standard bearers back in Moscow that the Czechs were having entirely too much fun for their own good.