Tag Archives: 1970s

Grapes of Death

grapes_of_death12

“Dreams and life — it’s the same thing, or else it’s not worth living.” — Baptiste, Jean Rollin’s Les Enfants du Paradis

From time to time, I notice there are certain directors whose films I undeniably love yet always preface a positive review of with some manner of disclaimer along the lines of “not for everyone” or “you have to be in the right mind.” More times than not, the director to which I’m referring is Jess Franco. However, this largely reflexive defensiveness could just as easily find itself employed in the shielding French director Jean Rollin. But I’m not going to fall back on any of that today, or any other day from here on out until I forget that I’ve just made this proclamation. I’m a big boy, after all, and its time to embrace my love of Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and any other thoroughly cockeyed Eurocult director without any caveats or attempts to justify my love out of some ill-conceived sense of guilt that, because of some glowing review I might write of Blue Rita or La Vampire Nue, someone is going to go out and watch those movie and then wonder what the hell is going on. But really, that’s not something of which I should be ashamed of or feel guilty over, is it? Because if more people were watching Diamonds of Kilimanjaro or Shivers of the Vampire, then that’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it? Provided you think the right direction is mod Euro starlets constantly taking off their clothes during psychedelic stripteases performed to crazy jazz music in some club decorated with pop art sensibilities on overdrive — and you all know that’s my vision of a perfect world. Also, I would be able to fly and turn invisible, and anything I carry is also invisible if I want it to be. And I am immortal.

I went through a couple decades and then some having never even heard of Jean Rollin. It wasn’t until Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs’ book Immoral Tales that I heard mention of Rollin’s name. While the description of Rollin’s films seemed interesting, it was the smattering of stills that really entranced me, and not just because they were frequently of unclothed women. They were also of unclothed men. Because, you know, the French and all. Unfortunately, my new knowledge of Jean Rollin was not accompanied by an ability to actually see any of the movies about which I was reading. At the time, pretty much the only source for Jean Rollin films was Video Search of Miami, and having once ordered a video from them, I knew to never do it again. But then I noticed whilst browsing the videos at a local establishment that they had a couple Rollin films of dubious legality and questionable reproduction quality, but whatever. It only cost a buck-fifty for the rental, so I picked up a little something called Raisins de la Mort. Raisins of Death? That didn’t sound too scary, even if the California Raisins sort of creeped me out. But it was also a zombie film, and up until very recently, when a long line of horrible shot on video zombie films did me in, I could never pass up a zombie film.


Then came the DVD explosion, and thanks to Redemption Video, a whole slew of Rollin films found their way into my collection and, it goes without saying, into my heart. Because, you know, the French and passion and all that. I learned a few things about Rollin, chief among them that the first of his films that I’d seen was not really typical of his output, which often revolved around vacant-eyed vampire girls in mod mini-dresses, when they had anything on at all. By comparison, Raisins de la Mort was almost an actual film. Most of the time, Rollin shot his films with the intent of achieving a surreal, logic-defying atmosphere. He also tended to shoot with almost no money, only amateur actors, and usually no script. The end results were often…complex…to digest. Rollin’s first film, La Viol du Vampire, was made more or less on a whim by Rollin and a group of enthusiastic horror film fans. It was never meant to be much more than a fan film, and Rollin’s goal was to pack a small theater with friends and friends of friends and have a fun night. As fate would have it, France happened to be in the middle of a slew of crazy demonstrations and riots, meaning that Rollin’s little homemade experimental art-horror film was one of the only new films theater owners could get their hands on. And thus, Rollin found himself with an actual release on his hands — albeit a poorly received release. Parisians may have been looking for a revolution in 1968, but not the one Rollin’s film offered them.

But Jean Rollin continued unphased. After all, he never intended for his film to be embraced by a wide audience. Rollin had been raised by artist and, as a child, surrounded by luminaries and lunatics from the fringe of the art world, including a number of Surrealists. Their vision of art obviously informed Rollin’s eventual work, and his repertoire is comprised largely of films that concentrate heavily on dreamy imagery, hallucinatory surrealism, and general weirdness. Sacrificed in the fray were things like logic, scripts, plot — little things like that. European cult film directors have often been criticized for shuffling these things to the back burner, just as they’ve been praised for their ability to create amazing imagery and mood. I’m torn, since on the one hand, I like scripts and plots and feel that film is a medium in which so many aspects of art — imagery, music, writing — must come together. On the other hand, I really like a lot of these relatively plotless movies, and I have a tremendous capacity for extracting meaning from apparent meaningless. That’s what you learn, kids, if you take film classes and work as a journalist who interviews both politicians and movie stars.

But that’s a discussion for a different Rollin film, because we’re here today to discuss one of his more accessible films, though it certainly has its fair share of Rollin’s signature oddity. Compared to most of his work, though, Grapes of Death, as it is known this week, is positively comprehensible and well-planned.


For many of the cult film fans who might be familiar with Jean Rollin without being Jean Rollin fans, it’s probably because of his infamous zombie film, Zombie Lake. The Internet certainly doesn’t lack for coverage of this masterpiece of complete and utter incompetence, and lord knows I’ve done my part. The big difference between Rollin’s usual bizarre output and Zombie Lake is that Zombie Lake is pretty much indefensible. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Zombie Lake. I might even watch it again tonight, but the incompetence on display there is purely born of a complete and total lack of interest in making a good movie, and not from some desire to make a weird, arty film. Given the reputation of Zombie Lake, which in turn has informed the opinion of many people who don’t know Rollin for anything but Zombie Lake, delving once again into the rich, creamy lather of a Jean Rollin directed zombie film would seem…well, about as enticing as doing anything involving rich, creamy lather other than getting a good shave with a straight razor and dollop of heated shaving cream.

And while Grapes of Death may not be quite as satisfying as a good shave delivered by a talented barber who smells of menthol blended with spices and lower woodsy notes, it’s still a heck of a lot better than Zombie Lake, and just as Rollin doesn’t deserve to be judged purely on the “merits” of Zombie Lake, neither does Grapes of Death deserve to be off-handedly dismissed and placed at the same low level as that green-faced Nazi zombie opus.


Grapes of Death is an episodic series of events following Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal), who finds herself on the run after she and her friend are attacked on a train by a young man who seems well on the way to having his face fall off. It turns out, we learn, that an experimental pesticide has contaminated the grapes used to make wine, thus turning much of France into — well, not exactly zombies, but close enough, especially in this post 28 Days Later era when the definition of zombie has been somewhat blurred. Rollin’s zombies showcase certain obvious characteristics of zombies as defined by the George Romero movies that have become more or less the de facto zombie rule handbook. Some of them shamble aimlessly about with their arms in awkward positions. They like to bite people. And their bodies and faces tend to decay and fester with oozing boils. But they also like to stab people with pitchforks, brandish torches, travel at a relaxed jog, and prepare dinner. Depending on the state of the infection, some people seem completely gone into a flesh-hungry zombie state, and some are still able to talk and even feel guilt and remorse over what they are being compelled by the infection to do.

Elizabeth wanders a bleak French countryside, encountering infected people from time to time and screaming in fear. Occasionally, she also meets uninfected people, but she still usually finds reason to scream in fear, since those people often end up on the wrong end of some bladed farm implement wielded by a grinning ghoul. Grapes of Death takes the unique approach of eschewing the standard “hunker down in a house and argue with each other as the living dead amass outside” for a much more freewheeling and wide open approach. Elizabeth spends most of her time outdoors in wide-open spaces. She is, at these times, relatively safe. It is only when she ventures into the closed quarters of homes or walled medieval style farm towns that the trouble begins, and the confined spaces always work against her. She eventually meet two uninfected farmers who avoided the infection because, although it is very un-French of them, they prefer beer over wine. Elizabeth’s fortunes seem to change once she meets up with these blue collar salts of the earth, but a rather large coincidence brings her into contact with her boyfriend (who we’ve never seen until he shows up at the end of the movie), and since things never end well for people in a zombie film…well, you get the picture.


In a crowded field of zombie films that tend to be largely identical to one another, few stand out. Those that do either accomplish this because they invented or are so good at executing the well-worn formula, or they have found some way to provide a unique twist on expectations while still conforming to certain expectations. Grapes of Death falls into the latter category. It is basically a zombie film, but it’s not like other zombie films. It’s open instead of confined; the zombies are cognoscente of their descent into murderous bloodlust, even if they are helpless to stop it; and although the film has plenty of gore (and gratuitous nudity), the scares come not from any sort of visceral punch but rather from the eerie atmosphere Rollin creates. The desolate French countryside Rollin uses as his location is at once familiar and strangely alien. What we expect of idyllic rolling hills and quaint old villages is subverted as soon as the oozy-foreheaded crazies start prowling about. Similarly, Rollin keeps seasoned viewers of zombie films off balance by delivering something other than what you expect, at least some of the time. And where as many zombie films, especially recent ones, rely on pumped up adrenaline and action, Grapes of Death meanders aimlessly across the French countryside at the same pace as its confused protagonist.


Coming out in 1978, Rollin’s pseudo-zombie dream was one of the earliest European attempts to mimic George Romero’s hugely influential Dawn of the Dead, though in tone and approach, Grapes of Dead has more in common with Jorge Grau’s oft short-changed 1974 zombie film Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. Both films share a pastoral rural setting turned sinister with experimental pest control methods being the culprit behind the madness. But Grau’s zombies are most definitely the living dead, where as Rollin’s zombies have more in common with creations from another George Romero film, 1973’s The Crazies. In fact, if I had to pick one film that was the most likely influence on Grapes of Death, it would be The Crazies, which is the tale of a small town that becomes infected with a virus that turns people into murderous nutjobs. Where Grapes of Death differs significantly from Romero’s film is in the mood. Romero, a former director of industrial and instructional films, has always been a largely clinical director, injecting a sense of matter of fact reason into fantastic events through his reserved direction. Rollin, on the other hand, allows the bizarre events of his film to dictate the atmosphere. Thus, while both films take place in somewhat foreboding, winterly rural locations, Rollin’s looks much more like something out of a fevered nightmare. In addition to the ragged countryside, punctuated by strangely shaped rock formations and mist, Rollin makes excellent use of crumbling old walled towns. Everywhere is a palpable sense of decay.

Both The Crazies and Grapes of Death inform the basic premise of more current films, like 28 Days Later, though whether or not those films played much role in influencing 28 Days Later is something I do not know. And of course, that movie takes yet another very different approach to the same basic premise.


Then there’s the trance-like electronic music score, minimalist and reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. Composer Phillipe Sissman only has this and one other work to his credit, and even here he doesn’t contribute much more than one weird synth theme that is used to remarkably good effect. It clashes with the natural setting around it, and with the decrepit, lived-in look of the film’s overgrown villages, but it works perfectly with the hypnotic mood of the film. It helps communicate the idea that something is not quite right.

Rollin’s film depends largely on young Marie-Georges Pascal, who like many of Rollin’s actors, was minimally experienced at the time. She appeared in a number of erotic films with titles like I Am Frigid…Why? and Hot and Naked. Although Grapes of Death is a great leap forward for her, nothing really ever came of it. In 1985, with her film career having gone nowhere, she committed suicide. Her eventual fate lends an additional level of melancholy to the film, especially given the downhearted ending. It’s obvious she has some talent, though, as she manages to create an interesting character even though she (like everyone else) has minimal dialog and spends an inordinate amount of time screaming as she witnesses one horror or another. It’s the simple everyman (or everywoman) quality that endears her to the viewer. Plus, she rarely does things that are completely and incomprehensibly stupid just so she can move the plot along. I guess that’s one of the benefits of not having much of a plot.


Supporting her are a cast largely unrecognizable to me, as like most Americans, if it isn’t Gerard Depardieu being flustered or Jean Reno punching someone, I don’t know many French actors. Some of them, like the two beer-loving guys who come to Elizabeth’s rescue, are experienced actors. But the only real familiar face to me is Brigitte Lahaie, the French porn star turned Jean Rollin muse. She appeared in many of his films and acted as sort of a muse, in much the same way Soledad Miranda (and later Lina Romay) did for Jess Franco. She has a small part here, as a woman who befriends Elizabeth (or so it would seem) and gives her protection from a town full of crazies. Of course, I’d always like to see more of her, but that’s what films like Fascination are for. She did star in one more of Rollin’s variations on the zombie theme, 1980’s strange Night of the Hunted, in which France is afflicted with mass memory loss and hysteria, causing Brigitte to have to wander around nude a lot for some reason I’ve never fully comprehended but am never the less happy to accept.


Grapes of Death may not be exactly what people expect from a zombie film, and even if it is Rollin’s most accessible and straightforward narrative, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rely heavily on weirdness and surrealism. I personally find it thoroughly hypnotic and imaginative. Especially after watching so many poorly-made carbon copy zombie films of late, it’s refreshing to return to something this unique. A year later, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie would come out and pretty much define the European (by then, almost exclusively Italian) zombie film for the next…well, to this very day. Fulci works in much the same way as Rollin and considers many of the same things important — the creepy atmosphere; the construction of striking, haunting imagery; the sense of decay generated by moody locations; and of course the disregard for strong scriptwriting. But Rollin is much more lyrical in his approach, and even though Grapes of Death has plenty of goo and gore (it was one of the very first — possibly the very first — French gore film), there is something decidedly different about it. If Lucio Fulci is the Chang Cheh of zombie films — all visceral punches and testosterone — then Jean Rollin’s Grapes of Death is like something from Chu Yuan. Poetic, dreamy, perhaps feminine in a way, even when naked women are being beheaded or run through with pitchforks.

It’s a shame that Zombie Lake, the movie that was too crappy even for Jess Franco, remains the best known Jean Rollin film. Most of his movies remained unseen for years, and even their initial releases played to scarcely more than a smattering of people. Grapes of Death is one of my favorite zombie films, or whatever those sort-of zombie, crazy bleeding people are called. I can, and often do, watch this and many other Rollin films over and over. Sometimes I may only half pay attention to them, like albums playing in the background, but keeping them in the corner of your eye or at the periphery of your consciousness suits them well. Of course, I also like sitting down and paying attention to them, as I think many (but not all) of his films are quite rewarding. If you are as tired as I am of movies where a group of strangers board up the windows and yell at each other for 75 minutes until the zombies bust in and eat everyone, Grapes of Death might be the remedy you’re looking for. I recommend you view it with a nice, fruity Cabernet Sauvignon.

Count Yorga, Vampire

At the time of Yorga’s release, there were very few people making vampire movies. Hammer was pretty much the only game in town, and they were still setting their vampire films in the Victorian era. Devils of Darkness was one of the first vampire films to transport a vampire into the current era, at least since the 1932 Tod Browning production of Dracula, which was set in what was then modern-day London. However, one can argue that the differences between the London of 1897 and 1932 is markedly less than the difference between 1897 and 1970, and so for our purposes here, Devils of Darkness is a more substantial foray into an unfamiliar time period than Dracula. It’s also less substantial because almost no one saw Devils of Darkness, and without a dedicated distributor or studio, it quickly faded from memory and was almost totally forgotten until it finally found its way to DVD in 2007. Which means that Count Yorga, Vampire, is really where we can say this short-lived trend began.

Continue reading Count Yorga, Vampire

Satanic Rites of Dracula

What a long, strange trip it’s been for Hammer Studio’s lord of the undead, the prince of darkness, the king of vampires, Count Dracula. When first we met him back in 1958, he was a snarling beast, a barely contained force of nature that ripped into his prey with lusty abandon and was explained by his arch-nemesis Dr. Van Helsing in purely rational, scientific terms. Dracula, and vampirism in general (as expounded upon by Van Helsing in Brides of Dracula), was nothing more than a disease, like any other disease, and what we regarded as “supernatural” was really nothing more than an explainable part of the rational world that humanity had simply not yet learned how to explain. As Hammer’s Dracula series progressed, however, Van Helsing faded from the picture and was replaced by a procession of forgettable guys named Paul, usually in league with some sort of religious authority figure. In Dracula, Prince of Darkness, we have a monsignor who seems to have some degree of faith in faith’s ability to defeat Dracula, but he’s far more reliant on his trusty bolt-action rifle than he is on the Lord Almighty.

Continue reading Satanic Rites of Dracula

Dracula A.D. 1972

And so we enter the dire straights of Hammer Films in the final throes of a long, drawn-out death much like those experienced by Dracula himself. As has been detailed elsewhere and will be summarized here, by the 1970s, England’s Hammer Studios — the studio that pretty much defined and dominated the horror market through the 50s and 60s — had fallen on hard times. The old guard had largely retired or died, and the new blood was flailing about, desperately trying to find the direction that would right the once mighty production house. The problem was that everyone felt like they needed to update their image, but no one actually knew how. In retrospect, though they may have seemed painfully antiquated at the time of their release, many of Hammer’s releases during the 70s were quite good and often experimental (by Hammer standards, anyway). This movie isn’t really one of them, but it’s still pretty enjoyable in a completely ludicrous way.

Continue reading Dracula A.D. 1972

Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess

Things in the Japanese film industry were chugging along during the 1960s. The gradual erosion of restrictive post-war regulation of the Japanese film industry by occupying American forces (samurai and yakuza flicks were banned, as was just about anything that would “inspire the Japanese spirit”) meant that writers and directors were coming out of a long creative hibernation and finally getting to flex their brains again. Inoshiro Honda and Toho Studios were cranking out a steady stream of highly enjoyable fantasy, science fiction, and monster movies built on the foundation of the enduring success of Godzilla. Akira Kurosawa was making movies that no one would watch until Americans started discovering them in the 1970s. Takakura Ken and Akira Takarada were burning up screens as Japan’s two biggest matinee idols. Japan had yet to befoul the world by making M.D. Geist. All in all, not a bad time to be a film fan.

Continue reading Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess

For Y’ur Height Only

When it comes to humorous material, For Your Height Only pretty much writes itself. I wrote in the review of Nigahen about what I call the Something Weird Phenomenon — when a movie’s basic description turns out to be far more entertaining sounding than the movie itself. The Filipino action film For Your Height Only can be summed up as, “A three-foot tall midget superspy in a leisure suit uses a boomerang fishing hat, jet pack, and kungfu to tear a bloody path through the criminal underworld.” One would think, with a description that fabulous, that surely For Your Height Only would be another example of the Something Weird Phenomenon. It is a monumental feat, accompanied by angels blowing mightily upon trumpets of gold, that For Your Height Only manages to live up to and perhaps even surpass the expectations instilled in the viewed by so striking a summary.

Continue reading For Y’ur Height Only

Clans of Intrigue

It’s no secret that since the tail-end of the 1990s the Hong Kong film industry has had a rough time. After being gutted by gangsters for decades and plagued by the most rampant video piracy in the world resulting in films being available on bootleg VCD before they even opened in theaters, Hong Kong’s once illustrious cinematic juggernaut found itself on thin financial ice. Big stars were either getting to old to perform as they once had or were simply packing up and heading for the greener pastures of America. The new generation of stars, culled primarily from the ranks of teen models and pop idols, did little to spark interest in the new generation of films.

Continue reading Clans of Intrigue

Battles without Honor and Humanity

battles-03

If I say “post apocalypse film,” then chances are, one of two things will pop into your mind. If you are my age or younger, or slightly older for that matter but not by much, then it’s entirely likely you’ll immediately picture Road Warrior and its many imitators often of an Italian origin. Pink mohawked men running wild in the desert atop supped up dune buggies while a stoic hero in leather mumbles and saves some band of peaceful folk trying to re-establish civilization. If you’re older, or more in tune with the length and breadth of exploitation film, then you might also drum up less-than-fond memories of those old 1950s atomic paranoia films, or the more interesting sci-fi films set after such a war had devastated the world and left it populated by nothing but nubile, sexy young women and virile, two-fisted scientists from the 20th century.

What you won’t think of, I’m willing to bet, is a gritty Japanese yakuza film set in the years immediately after the end of World War II, but that’s exactly what Battles Without Honor and Humanity can be construed as. It is, after all, taking place in the wake of the one atomic war we’ve actually had, and you can’t get more post-apocalyptic than Nagasaki or Hiroshima after the Bomb. And while you may not, thankfully, spy any pink-haired men in assless leather pants or bodybuilders in a Quiet Riot mask imploring a bunch of people in shoulder pads and burlap sacks to, “just walk away,” and while there may be no rolling deserts in sight, there are roving gangs of hooligans in leather jackets wreaking havoc on the innocent. The only real difference is that in the postwar chaos of Hiroshima, no hero emerges to defend the honor of the downtrodden. Everyone is too desperate, too defeated, too decimated to worry about heroism or honor – a state that seems foreign and inconceivable in a nation preoccupied with such notions. Here the hooligans are no better off than the citizens, and everyone is wracked by a panicky confusion that manifests itself either as defeatism or rage. This being a yakuza film, we’ll focus on the group of people who react with rage.

But if this is a post-apocalypse film of a different color, it is also a yakuza film quite unlike most anything that had come before it, and that difference stems entirely from the challenges facing postwar Japan, when survival suddenly seemed a hell of a lot more important than honor. Honor was paramount as a theme in yakuza films. Always there is the righteous gangster with an impeccable sense of honor and loyalty who stands in stark contrast to his foil, who will inevitably be the yakuza or samurai who has turned his back on “the code.” Even among thieves, there is still honor. Maverick director Kenji Fukasaku, however, would put an abrupt and bloody end to the classically romantic notion of the honorable gangster. After all, it is and always has been a load of crap. But no number of backstabbers, internal wars, hits, or squealers ratting out their fellow gangsters to the police seemed able to tarnish this idea of honor bound warriors abiding by a code of fair play, loyalty, and decency.

Fukasaku’s films sought to debunk this myth by portraying the yakuza as what gangsters and criminals often were – petty, vindictive, deceitful, and ready to exploit any vice if it’ll increase their power or the size of their bank account. He never dismissed the notions or any of the other conventions that were expected of the yakuza film as set down by the great icon Takakura Ken, who starred in dozens of post-war yakuza films that all seem to start with him being released from prison. Fukasaku knows the genre inside and out, and he makes sure he includes each of the clich├ęs – the main character fresh out of prison, notions of honor, someone cutting off a pinky, so on and so forth; Once they’re in there, however, he twists them around wildly and turns them inside out in a way that hadn’t been done since yakuza genre deconstruction got its start under Seijun Suzuki in films like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. At the same time, however, he hasn’t set out to simply make a movie full of seedy characters in sunglasses shooting each other and selling drugs to little kids. At the center of it all is the motivation, the reason, these men have abandoned honor, and that is the war.

It all comes from a long lineage and the yakuza film’s peculiar position as one of the true Japanese cult genres. Samurai films were obviously Japanese, but they were also easily adaptable to other genres – as a good many Western has proved. And although they had in them the ideals of honor and loyalty, there were also swashbuckling sword films that could be, at least on the surface, translated into any number of other genres, such as sci-fi or fantasy. Yakuza films, on the other hand, are often so obsessed with the esoterica, Japanese tradition, secret codes, handshakes, and minutiae of their subject matter that it can’t be repeated without losing almost all its meaning. Strip it away, and you just have another gangster films, and while yakuza films were, on the surface, gangster films, they were also something quite different. There aren’t very many action-oriented shoot-em-ups in the yakuza genre. Most of them are fairly slow-moving, and that’s because most of them aren’t about the crime as much as they are about the criminals and the counter-culture they inhabit. A yakuza film without it isn’t a yakuza film; it’s just an action film. At their core and below the violence and gruff men shouting at each other, these are movies about a culture with roots stretching as far back as the Tokugawa Shogunate that first unified Japan and introduced to it a whole class of disenfranchised wandering samurai, or ronin, who basically lost their jobs when the petty warlords and regional masters become obsolete under the one government, one country system.

Suddenly, and in a way that eerily mirrors the post-bubble Japan of the early 21st century, these men who thought they’d been guaranteed jobs for life as noble samurai were out on the streets with nowhere to go and no one in need of their skills. Bands of ronin started forming their own societies, some acting almost like local police defending villages from marauders and greedy officials (like the chaps in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), others acting like local thugs. These bands of ronin eventually became known by the name yakuza – Japanese for the unlucky 8-9-3 combo in dice gambling that means you just lost. The early yakuza films dealt primarily with these historic and usually heroic samurai. 1927’s Chuji’s Travel Diary was the first of the bunch, but others quickly fell in and began writing the rules by which the genre would play. After World War II, however, yakuza films were more or less banned under the thinking that, to keep the Japanese from standing up to fight again, you had to strip them completely of their dignity and take away anything that might showcase that famous fighting spirit. Hey, it was MacAurthur’s idea, not mine.

The result, of course, was the desperation we see in the beginning of Battles Without Honor and Humanity. When we first meet our rowdy bunch of central characters – and there are a lot of them, with plenty more on the way, so you better keep a flow chart handy – they are bitter hustlers trying to stay alive in the turmoil and madness of post-bomb Hiroshima. Ostensibly, our main character is a young hustler named Shozo, played by yakuza film staple Bunta Sugawara. Sugawara became one of the most recognizable and beloved faces in the yakuza films of the 1970s, thanks in large part to his partnership with director Kenji Fukasaku. Shozo and his mates live in a world without a future. They’ve just survived the most horrific single attack man has ever seen (and no, I’m making a pro- or anti-atomic bomb statement there – I think proponents and opponents of dropping the bomb on Japan can agree at least on the fact that it was a pretty big deal), and in the aftermath, they find themselves at the mercy of an occupying force determined (so the story goes) to strip them entirely of what little dignity they may still retain. In such an atmosphere, honor and humanity was a distant consideration to simply staking out a claim, and if the myth of the yakuza code had ever been real, it was certainly killed in the atomic blasts.

When, in 1951, the Japanese regained much of their freedom as a nation, period films were back in action, but most of these were samurai films. They were the best way for the Japanese to recapture their lost glory and start to rebuild a sense of self-worth. Honor, nobility, self-respect – these were the things that made the samurai movie tick. And loyalty – loyalty was essential, both to the samurai and to the mid-century Japanese who were trying to forge a new nation and establish a new government unlike any they’d had before. The era of shoguns and emperors had given way to the Japanese Diet, or parliament, and democracy.

If there weren’t many yakuza on the screen, then it was compensated for by the fact that so many of them were involved behind the scenes. Bored with turf wars among themselves and with the Chinese and Korean minorities who formed their own gangs, the postwar hooligans saw money to be made in the newly revitalized Japanese film industry. Many of them became involved as scouts, producers, and a few even became studio heads. Eventually, of course, yakuza films started creeping back onto screens, this time set primarily during the period of rapid modernization just prior to World War II and involving a heroic gangster usually stubbornly clinging to traditional Japanese clothing facing off against corrupt gangsters who had usually sold out and started wearing Western style suits – very similar to what we’d see again in the 1970s when Hong Kong kungfu films invariably featured a guy in that traditional Chinese shirt and pants and slippers kicking the crap out of a bunch of thugs in bell bottoms and those Little Rascal caps.

When the yakuza films started toying with a more modern, post-war setting, the films were still richly melodramatic and steeped in nostalgia for the old ways. Takakura Ken became the poster boy for the new yakuza film and starred in more than a sane person would want to count. By the end of the 1960s, the social upheaval that was engulfing much of the world was just as strong in Japan as anywhere else, and people weren’t buying these sentimental doomed heroes bound by codes of honor and love. Seijun Suzuki had started messing with the truisms of the yakuza film, but his wild pop-art experiments were more a rebellion against assembly line, characterless filmmaking than they were against the yakuza genre itself. The real hit on honor-heavy yakuza films came in 1967 with the release of Junya Sato’s Organized Violence starring Tetsuro Tanba (best known to Western audiences as Tiger Tanaka from the James Bond film You Only Twice) and Sonny Chiba. In 1973, Kinji Fukasaku upped the ante with Battles Without Honor and Humanity, a cutthroat, unflinching, and decidedly unromantic look at the world of post-war gangs in Japan.

At the center of the maelstrom is Bunta Sugawara, a former matinee idol turned iconic bad boy and sporting a severe flattop and all-around stern, militaristic look. After striking back at some rowdy American GIs, typically portrayed as loud-mouthed, swaggering, and ready to beat up or rape anyone in sight, Bunta’s Shozo goes to prison, where he becomes blood brothers with another inmate, Hiroshi, played by Tatsuo Umemiya. When he gets out, Shozo is taken under the wing of the boss of Yamagumi Gang, but he quickly learns that the yakuza world is not as it was, if it was ever that way in the first place. His boss is a coward, ready to backstab at the drop of a hat, and equally ready to cower and sob if he can’t get a sucker punch in. Shozo is bewildered by the array of gangsters all fighting amongst themselves and jockeying for political alliances and territorial gains. It gets to the point where so many players are introduced and so many loyalties switch back and forth that it soon becomes impossible for the viewer to keep everything straight – which is precisely the effect Fukasaku is going for, as it mirrors perfectly the feelings of the confused and frustrated Shozo, who wanders through this madness in a half-dazed state, harboring still some notion of loyalty and honor that manages, paradoxically, to both make him the center of attention and marginalize him completely, to keep him in the crosshairs but also safer than most. When an old friend makes a dramatic power play, Shozo is caught between him and his old boss, who is hardly worthy of Shozo’s continuing loyalty.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity was based on a book by journalist Koichi Iiboshi chronicling the history of the real life Mino gang. As such, the film rings especially factual in its documentation of dirty yakuza life, playing at times almost like a series of yakuza home movies. The film is brutally violent but not action-packed. The drama between the character, and the stripping away of every lofty romanticized delusion regarding the yakuza and the yakuza film are the film’s primary weapons. When the violence does come, it is fast, ugly, and street-style. You’ll see no white-clad gangsters with two guns leaping through the air in balletic slow motion. Instead, there is only sweating, grunting, screaming, and blood. Fukasaku employs a lot of street-level hand-held cameras – something that was in vogue at Toei Studios, owing mostly to the fact that they were cheap, easy to use, and resulted in faster shooting schedules. The effect was often detrimental to the film, as in many of the Sonny Chiba karate flicks whose action was undermined by blurry, shaky handheld camera work. Here, however, it serves to throw you into the thick of the action and further confuse you and make you relate to Shozo and makes the movie feel even more like a piece of guerrilla documentary filmmaking.

Although the sheer number of characters keeps you from ever becoming too emotionally attached to any one person, Shozo included, it’s still an emotionally engaging film. It’s the entirety of the situation that pulls you in, the mere act of watching these people pull themselves – and ultimately, their entire country – out of the ashes only to self-destruct once the hard part was over. It’s a common occurrence that continues to play itself out on a daily basis. It’s easy to find unity when there is a common struggle, but once the struggle has been surmounted, once the battle has been won, people find it’s even harder for them to hold things together. The experiences in the desolation of Hiroshima pulled these men together, and the increasingly secure and prosperous times that followed tore them apart. The peace, as they say, is always harder to keep than to win. Compare these post-war yakuza, then, to something like the criminal gangs and militias of Chechnya. Like the yakuza, they banded together against a common enemy, in this case the Russian army and the utter ruin visited upon the country of Chechnya.

Like Hiroshima after the bomb, Chechnya has been reduced almost to ashes, its infrastructure shattered, its people hopeless and angry, and its future even bleaker than that of Japan at the close of World War II. Gangsters became politicians became resistance fighters and military heroes, and after years of bitter struggle the inhumanity of which may be unparalleled in the 20th Century, even by the standards set by such atrocities exhibitions as Sierra Leone and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Russians finally withdrew, claiming a bogus victory in the war and leaving the Chechens with a wasteland to rebuild. Unfortunately, the men who proved so valiant, fearless, and admittedly bloodthirsty and brutal in (and out of) combat could not rebuild the nation they defended. The war had been their element, but peace and rebuilding proved too much. In the end, at least for Chechnya, it didn’t matter, since as soon as Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia, he made a point of resuming hostilities with a shocking ferocity that should leave the world aghast if the world ever bothered to pay attention to some bunch of mountain rabble with ties to fundamentalist Islam. The bitter cold of the Caucasus Mountains seems an odd place for jihad, accustomed as we are to seeing it played out on the sands of the Middle East. But then that whole area where the Middle East collides with Europe and Asia is a fascinating, confusing, and endlessly tumultuous corner of the world that few people seem to understand or take much interest in.

That nations are often built on the backs and from the sweat and blood of criminals is a frequent theme in history, and indeed most human history is little more that a chronicle of criminal acts committed in the name of god, king, and country. Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York sought to examine that very piece of the history of New York in particular and the United States as a whole, as did Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather before it. Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity does the same for Japan, and later entries into the series would trace the development even further, going so far as to make the claim, perhaps not outrageously, that much of Japan’s emergence as a global economic power is the result of the machinations of driven but corrupt criminal gangs. For the first entry in the series, we see simply their emergence from the war and subsequent failure to work cohesively without the immediate threat of US occupation. Left to their own devices, boredom sets in and brings with it violent internal conflict and turf wars. They were born of chaos and need chaos to survive. If there is no external threat to unite them, after all, then they will create an internal one to rip themselves to shreds.

Fukasaku’s film is not completely devoid of the yakuza genre trappings; it simply presents them so that it can dispel them. Indeed the beginning, in which Shozo is sent to prison and we meet him again as he is released after some brief scenes while incarcerated, could be the opening to any of a number of Takakura Ken films. The only difference is that there is very little in the way of nobility to any of it. Takakura Ken was always a majestic figure who radiated righteousness and honor even as a criminal. He was strong, confident, and trustworthy. Bunta Sugawara, however, plays his part with a sullen shiftiness. He never radiates confidence of nobility as much as he does awkward discomfort and confusion. Both actors and characters steep themselves in the melancholy, however, and Bunta’s Shozo might ultimately be what one of Takakura Ken’s yakuza figures would be like if he came out of prison and was faced with the ream world of organized crime, where men hardened by the experience of the war had little use for outdated romantic notions of the noble yakuza.

Fukasaku plays with other genre conventions as well. The obligatory pinky-chopping scene (chopping off a finger being the traditional way to atone for some offensive transgression of the code in the yakuza world) is played for laughs on an almost slapstick scale. Shozo, like Takakura Ken’s many yakuza characters, leaves prison to find the world is not as he left it, but rather than standing in stark contrast to it like one of Ken’s Walking Tall-esque gangsters, Shozo becomes a participant in it, maybe not as active as others, but a participant none the less. And no, he won’t be making any moving or eloquent speeches. If Takakura Ken was the Elvis of the yakuza film, then watching Bunta Sugawara must have been like The King seeing The Beatles for the first time.

By the time the final shots are fired and the groundwork is laid for future films, the viewer is exhausted, physically and emotionally, partly from the not-so-simple task of trying to keep straight all the betrayals and factions that come into play in this battle between the Doi and Yamagumi gangs. Besides Shozo, who is relegated almost to the role of spectator, there are very few people for whom to root, no honorable yakuza. There are only backstabbers, petulant childlike bosses, and the occasional visionary who wants to run the yakuza like a corporation and reap huge profits as a result – the road that would eventually win out, as it was. Bunta Sugawara remains, through it all, a solid presence with a deadly gaze. In effect, he’s seeing things the same as we see them and is just as confounded by it all. His performance is one of subtlety, which is often how people try to describe a bad performance they don’t want to call bad. Chuck Norris, for instance, is more bad than he subtle. Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, was subtle and deadly good at it. Bunta is more Clint.

If the film has any weakness, it’s in some of the period costumes. The film is set in the 1940s and early 1950s, but some of the cars and fashions on display are without a doubt early 1970s. It’s a good idea not to sweat a detail like that. Kinji isn’t Akira Kurosawa after all, who demanded that whole sets on Tora! Tora! Tora! be destroyed and rebuilt because the shade of paint on the battleship wasn’t historically accurate. That might be why Akira Kurosawa was replaced on that film by.hey, Kinji Fukasaku! So just let the big collars and ’70s shades slide. The film is trying to accurately dissect the yakuza, not the fashion trends that surrounded them.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a demanding film, especially for audiences who don’t speak Japanese or aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the yakuza genre. People looking for knockdown, wall-to-wall action are going to be disappointed. The action here come sin spurts and is ugly, unchoreographed, and very real. First and foremost this is a drama and a societal study, a philosophical film but stripped of lyricism and poetry. It is more like the streetwise wisdom delivered by some old crank. After all, you don’t sit down to watch Goodfellas or Miller’s Crossing for the action scenes. This is crime drama, and as crime drama and modern day film noir, it’s complex and engaging on multiple levels and remains one of the best and most unconventional yakuza films around. It does require a lot of the viewer, but then most good films do. Unlike many films in the crime genre, it can’t be enjoyed on a purely popcorn level. It’s not one of those movies where you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. You have to actively engage it and work at it, and even then it’s the film’s point that sometimes you’re going to be lost, just like Shozo.

If you aren’t interested in the yakuza as a social phenomenon or cultural study and not just as an action movie cliche, then Battles Without Honor and Humanity won’t do much for you. Not that the movie is dull or lacking in action, but it’ll seem that way if you were expecting something more.modern, I suppose. Guys in sharp suits posing and doing Hong Kong style kungfu fights, that sort of thing. Even contemporary Japanese audiences don’t seem that interested or able to grasp what a film like Battles Without Honor and Humanity was attempting to accomplish. This is a completely brilliant film, and like most brilliant films, it just isn’t dumb enough for some people.

It was a major hit at the time and made Kinji Fukasaku’s career. It’s odd that until the release of Battle Royale, the director was best known in the West for the movies that least defined his oeuvre. Sci-fi quickies like The Green Slime were hardly Fukasaku’s calling card, but since the yakuza films, and especially the kind of yakuza films Fukasaku was making, were and to some degree still are fairly inaccessible to most audiences, it’s Green Slime and Message for Space for Kinji. Or at least it was until, as an aged man with failing health and nothing to lose, he set Japan — and this time a good portion of the rest of the world — afire again with Battle Royale, another movie that seeks at its heart to pick away at Japan’s notion of itself as an orderly and honorable country in much the same way a chicken in Battles Without Honor and Humanity picked away at the dismembered pinky of a disgraced yakuza.

Films like this would later become some of the most popular films among real-life yakuza, who would gather in old theaters and watch them and pine for the days when crime was nasty and tough and violent instead of white-collar and dull and corporate. It probably has a lot to do with films like Battles Without Honor and Humanity being so grounded in the reality of the situation and with the fact that many of them involved real gangsters. Heck, Noboru Ando was a real life yakuza who eventually starred as himself in a series of more or less autobiographical film adventures about his seedy life. It’s the ultimate irony that these guys would get nostalgic for a type of film that made a point of dismantling nostalgia, romantic for a film that strove to strip away any notions of romanticism from its subject matter. It’s also a sign that when Kinji Fukasaku made this film, he was doing more than making a film; he was documenting an entire culture and way of life.

Scars of Dracula

And we were doing so well! Most movie studios can’t sustain the quality of a film series beyond two films — and quite a few have problems even getting that far. It was no small feat, then, that Hammer managed to produce not one, but two consistently good series. Their Dracula and Frankenstein films set the benchmark for quality horror during the late fifties and throughout the 1960s. And you know, they almost made it to the finish lines with both of them. The Frankenstein series featuring Peter Cushing as the titular mad doctor lasted six films, with only the third film being a misfire, and not a very bad misfire at that. By the time Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was released, it was clear that the series was at its end, both creatively and financially. Still, it managed to go out with a dash of class, and the final film features the second worst monster in the series (the honor of worst, in my opinion, goes to Kiwi Kingston’s shrieking slapdash Karloff wannabe from Evil of Frankenstein) but one of the best stories and finest performances from Cushing. Even if the final film was not a financial success, everyone involved could hold their heads up high and be proud of all six movies.

And then there was the Dracula series starring Christopher Lee.

Continue reading Scars of Dracula

Taste the Blood of Dracula

Last time we saw the prince of the undead, he was impaled on a cross and turned into that pink sawdust bus drivers sprinkle on the floor when kids throw up. For just about anyone, even the common vampire, that would signal the end, once and for all. But this is Dracula we’re talking about, and if Dracula Has Risen from the Grave proved to be a financial success for England’s Hammer Studio, then you could bet good money on the fact that they’d find yet another way to bring the Count back from the dead, even if he’d been impaled on a cross and even if series star Christopher Lee was back out on the streets again telling anyone and everyone who would listen that the Dracula movies were awful and he would absolutely, positively, under no circumstances ever play Count Dracula again. Anyone who knows the cycle knows that means that the next film in the cycle, Taste the Blood of Dracula, stars Christopher Lee as the titular count, and that in turns means we’d have to read even more quotes from Lee about how he was practically forced to do this film, but that he’d sure as heck never do another one.

Continue reading Taste the Blood of Dracula