So far, our examination of old fashioned vampires in modern day settings has covered Dracula, in the Hammer Studios films Dracula AD 1972 and Satanic Rites of Dracula, and some guy named Count Sinistre, from the previously obscure British horror film Devils of Darkness. But this trend of placing traditional vampires in a modern (well, 1970s) setting actually started in America, with a low-key film called Count Yorga, Vampire.
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.
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.
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.
As Japan continued to distance itself from the wreckage of World War II and rapidly match the prosperity of the United States, more and more people started buying and watching television sets. As it had done in the United States some years before, this trend sent the movie industry into a panic, and not without good reason. Profits declined, attendance dropped, and back then, they couldn’t blame it on Internet downloading. The solution many film companies came up with was simple enough, and matches in many ways what cable channels like HBO have done: if you need to compete with broadcast television, do so by packing your features with the kind of stuff you can’t put on TV. This means, as you can guess, more sex, violence, and people calling each other “cocksucker.”
Suffice to say that in the 1970s, cinema censorship laws became increasingly lax both as a way to help salvage the industry and simply because the natural trend after severe restriction is usually toward greater leniency, Japanese studios started cramming more violence and tits into their movie. In other words, they started making the sort of films about which Teleport City can get enthusiastic. Shintoho opened the gateway during the late 50s and 60s by continuously pushing the envelope on crime and action films centered around female protagonists and seedy environments. Nikkatsu Studio blazed the trail with a series of films that became known as “Roman Porno” films — though disappointingly, these are not a bunch of Japanese movies about decadent ancient Romans; it was just a shortening of the phrase “Romantic Porno,” because saving yourself the second it takes you to pronounce the one additional syllable in “romantic” adds up to several seconds over a lifetime, or several minutes if you are in the industry and thus more likely to be saying “romantic porno.”
Nikkatsu was one of Japan’s first film studios. During World War II, the consolidation toward the war effort of Japan’s limited resources resulted in Nikkatsu becoming part of Daiei Studios, probably most famous to readers of Teleport City as the eventual home of Gamera. After the war, Nikkatsu returned to its independent status, but Daiei got to keep all the production facilities. Nikkatsu had to start from scratch, and they financed the rebuilding of their studio by relying heavily on distributing foreign films rather than making their own. Audiences that still had to deal with the aftermath of the war looming outside their door (if indeed they still had doors) were ravenous for any form of escape, and American administrators were much happier to see Japanese audiences flocking to American westerns and action films rather than reviving their own films.
When Nikkatsu had built up the capital it needed to finance the establishment of new facilities and begin production again, it opted to look to the foreign films it had been distributing with great success as inspiration for their own films, rather than returning as most studios had to the standard set of pre-war genres (some of which, as mentioned, were banned by Allied administrators). Thus, American and French new wave films became the models Nikkatsu would look to, which meant the resulting films were considerably different from anything else being made in Japan at the time.
The new Nikkatsu was built around a core of stars, and it began attracting the attention of filmmakers who were interested in experimenting with film and making movies that other, more traditional studios, weren’t willing to chance. Thus, Nikkatsu soon became the home of people like the maverick director Seijun Suzuki, whose films were often so inventive and outlandish that even liberal Nikkatsu sought to reel him in by slashing his budgets and forbidding him to use color film stock — a move that resulted in Suzuki making Branded to Kill, the most off-beat and cracked-in-the-head films in his repertoire (at least until he remade it as Pistol Opera).
Although well-respected now, Suzuki’s films weren’t exactly the sort of thing that could save a studio. Quite the opposite, frankly. As the film industry crisis grew more pressing throughout the 60s, Nikkatsu decided that it was time to ramp up the nudity. Thus the birth of Roman Porno. The term was meant to differentiate the Nikkatsu films from straightforward pornos, which have always existed in the underground and, during the 1970s, were really starting to make their mark on society in a much bolder and more mainstream fashion. The Nikkatsu films, by contrast, still boasted a budget, recognizable actors, and even respectable writers and directors. Of course, they were still sleazy melodramas full of gratuitous nudity, too, and that’s what made the m special. The Nikkatsu films tended to explore increasingly bizarre sexual territory, delving frequently into the world of S&M and rape. They were also cheap and easy to make and helped keep the studio afloat when so many other, less daring (or sleazy, or opportunistic, if you prefer) studios were tanking in the great industry collapse that plagued the 70s. A similar crash took out the British film industry around the same time (Hammer Studios being one of the most famous casualties), and the attempt to salvage operations by increasing the levels of sex and violence in the films was pretty much a world-wide phenomenon.
Also badly in need of an injection of life, Toei Studios decided to jump on the sex and violence bandwagon, though they tended to take a decidedly different approach than the Roman Porno movies of the infamous Nikkatsu. Toei was doing well with a variety of action-oriented films, so they decided that they should stick with the action movies, but jam them with more nudity and even greater amounts of violence. Thus was born the pinky violence film. Once Toei established the framework, plenty of other studios followed it. Even Nikkatsu flirted with it when they made their Stray Cat Rock films with Meiko Kaji before committing themselves almost entirely to Roman Porno movies. These pinky violence movies tended to exist within an established number of settings: they were either turn-of-the-century female samurai/gambler movies (Sex and Fury, Female Yakuza Tale, and the Lady Snowblood movies starring Meiko Kaji and based on manga by Kazuo Koike — the man who brought Lone Wolf and Cub to the world) derived from less sexual but scarcely less violent precursors like the Crimson Bat and Red Peony Gambler films; or they were “girl gang” or “juvenile delinquent girl” (sukeban) movies. From time to time, a women-in-prison film would get thrown into the mix, the most famous being the Female Convict Scorpion movies starring Meiko Kaji (if you’re going to watch Japanese exploitation films, you’d best get used to seeing her name).
For the most part, though, girl gangs ruled the roost, because they were easiest to film. They didn’t require period sets or costumes. Directors could shoot guerilla-style at various locations around Japan, usually without worrying about casting extras or getting permits (which is why so many of these films — Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess included — feature shots of the characters walking down the street surrounded by onlookers gawking directly at them or into the camera). And you could make the same movie over and over with only a few tweaks to keep it interesting (this movie has a gang of girls just out of reform school; that movie has a biker gang; and so on).
What made these exploitation films interesting is…well, no. Tits and violence made them interesting. But what made them intellectually interesting is that they became the playground for a lot of inventive directors who felt the more traditional films hamstrung them and wouldn’t allow them to explore wild new directing styles and story content. So amid the boobs and bloodshed, you often got films with highly creative and ground-breaking direction, as well as plots that tackled all sorts of subjects (violence against women, Japanese racism, war crimes, et cetera) still considered taboo in the Japanese mainstream. Sometimes the messages were there as cheap justification for the exploitation. Sometimes, the exploitation was there to make the message easier to express. Whatever the case, it made for some completely wild films that offer up all sorts of potential for discussion.
For the most part, these films remained unseen by all but a few hardened tape traders in the United States, who would suffer bad VHS dupes and no translation just for a chance to see the psychedelic madness of 1970s Japanese pop exploitation. Luckily, the relative cheapness of DVD over VHS, as well as an increasingly receptive group of Japanese studios (previously, they were notoriously antagonistic toward foreign distribution and charged insane prices to license their titles — something anime companies still like to do), the hitherto untapped reservoirs of Japanese yakuza and pinky violence movies are finally seeing the light of day in the United States. For fans like me, the efforts of companies like HVE, Kino, Diskotec, and Panik House are enough to bring to the eye a sweet, sweet tear of joy. Finally, I have something other than the three-hundred different budget DVD versions of Sonny Chiba’s Street Fighter and Legend of the Eight Samurai.
In 2006, Panik House released the only DVD besides Space Thunder Kids that I’ve purchased in the past year (Netflix and the purchase of a new car and thus new car payments have combined to quell my once lusty DVD buying habit): The Pinky Violence Collection. Collecting four notable girl gang movies (and one audio CD) into an eye-blistering hot pink package stuffed with liner notes from author Chris D. (author of Mavericks of Japanese Cinema), it was pretty easy for the set to convince me to part with my cash during one of those Deep Discount DVD sales.
Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess is the first of these films we will be sampling, although it turns out that while it is certainly a great film, it’s not exactly what you might call indicative of the trend as a whole (neither, for that matter, was Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter). As with the Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, Worthless to Confess is part of a series of films that, to date, have only seen the one film released (when oh when do I get the rest of my Stray Cat Rock movies? I just can’t get enough Meiko Kaji in a big, floppy hat like those psychedelic trolls used to wear). In the case of the Delinquent Girl Boss films, Worthless to Confess is the final in the series, though it would seem that, at the very least, this film is a self-contained adventure that has very little carried over from the earlier films. I don’t know if the other three were more connected to one another, but the point here is that you really don’t need to go into this film worried that you haven’t seen the previous three, except in the capacity of really wanting to see the first three films because you figure they’re probably pretty cool.
These Zubeko Bancho films were considerably less sleazy than most of the pinky violence films, and the women in them are treated with much greater kindness than you’d see in films like, oh let’s say Terrifying Girl’s High School. Unfortunately it’s hard to make statements about th Zubeko Bancho series as a whole, having not seen the rest. There’s not a lot of information floating around about them. I’m not a casual fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I also fall fairly short of “dedicated scholar.” I guess I’m a lazy scholar. I haven’t put forth the effort to track down and watch all the films in the series (I can’t even find cast and credits list for the other movies. Hell, can’t even find a complete list of titles for the series), so remember that the bold, sweeping statements I make are based pretty much entirely on seeing this one, final film in the series. What can’t be gleaned from it has been cribbed from various liner notes and the scant other resources I managed to turn up.
I don’t want to stray too far into the realm of plot synopsis, but I do want to lay out the opening scene of this film, as it sets a thematic tone for everything that comes after. We open on a group of juvenile delinquent girls at reform school movie night, where they are supposed to be suffering through a documentary about the flora and fauna of the Hokkaido region. However, the projectionist has been convinced by the girls that he should show one of Takakura Ken’s Abashiri Prison films instead. As the girls go nuts over seeing yakuza matinee idol Takakura Ken leaping about in the Hokkaido snow, slicing chumps down with his trusty katana, prison officials try to figure out what kind of nature documentary this is. Once they figure out Hokkaido’s Great Outdoors is actually one of the Abashiri Bangaichi movies, they pull the plug, resulting in a modest riot of shoe and panty flinging.
Opening with a salute to the Abashiri Prison series means rather a lot to this sort of film. The most obvious is the simple act of homage. During the 1960s, Takakura Ken was one of the biggest (perhaps the biggest) stars in Japan, thanks in large part to his frequent appearances as a noble yakuza fighting battles full of honor and humanity. The Abashiri Prison series was his long-running string of films that all seem to start with him as a yakuza freshly released from Abashiri Prison with visions of “going straight” only to get caught up in some sort of gangland turmoil so that the film can end with him going back to Abashiri Prison as some trumpet-heavy closing theme song wails in the background. I believe if you totaled all the films, Takakura Ken served 1,700 years in Abashiri Prison over the course of the series.
Like most movies that become pop culture phenomenon, the first Abashiri Prison film wasn’t meant to be very much more than a quick, cheap yakuza film. But something about the movie and it’s story of a man who proudly clings to the tradition of yakuza nobility and honor even as the world around him descends into cynicism resonated with young Japanese audiences, who perhaps saw it as a metaphor for Japan’s struggle in the wake of World War II. Here, after year of waiting, was a film that grandly celebrated these mythical Japanese qualities. Folks ate it up, and a franchise was born.
Most of the Abashiri Prison films were directed by a guy named Teruo Ishii, who directed a series of sci-fi and crime films during the 50s and 60s. In 1965, he helmed Abashiri Prison, and suddenly he was one of the most successful directors in Japan. But since Japan didn’t really embrace the auteur theory or create cults of personality around directors, you can’t really say Ishii became a superstar. Still, he was successful enough to throw his weight around the studio a bit, and he followed up a successful string of Takakura Ken yakuza films by doing what any good director would do: going completely off the deep end and indulging in a career full of increasingly bizarre, sick, and twisted sex and violence films that include titles like The Joy of Torture, the still-banned Horror of a Deformed Man, Hell’s Tattooers, and a couple Yakuza Punishment films. Ishii’s film’s pushed the envelope for the amount of deviant sex and weirdness a director could cram into his films, and his late 60s work definitely kicked down the door and made Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno films viable.
Oddly enough when everyone was enjoying the fruits of the tolerance for perversion and sex that Ishii helped sow, Ishii himself opted to shift gears yet again, working primarily on a parade of Sonny Chiba karate films (including Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, the superb Executioner, and Karate Inferno). In 1973, he contributed to the pinky violence trend by directing Female Yakuza Tale, a sequel to director Norifumi Suzuki’s Sex and Fury (both starring Reiko Ike — whose name you’ll be seeing pretty much as often as Meiko Kaji’s). Ishii remained sporadically active throughout the 80s and 90s before dying in August of 2005. While he may not have the name recognition of, say, Akira Kurosawa or Inoshiro Honda, you can’t really fault a guy whose final film was titled Blind Beast vs. the Dwarf.
But during the 60s, the attention all focused on the star, and it was Takakura Ken and his movies that served as the template for yakuza films throughout the 1960s, until Kinji Fukasaku turned the genre upside down in Battles without Honor and Humanity, the film that dared postulate that maybe not all these yakuza guys were noble anti-heroes with swank theme songs; that many of them were, in fact, wretched scumbags and cowards. Curiously, the yakuza seemed as enthusiastic about this portrayal as they’d been by the Takaura Ken films of the previous decade, probably because as weasely and pathetic as most of the characters were, at the end of the day there was still Bunta Sugawara up there on the screen, standing tall and looking cool and letting all the junior yakuza types fancy they were like him rather than like the squealing, flailing goofballs that comprise most of the cast of characters.
Worthless to Confess definitely features more of the latter type of yakuza, though the girls in the movie are considerably more honorable than the gents, but where Kinji Fukasaku’s films are relentless deconstructions of the yakuza myth, Worthless to Confess is more of a “between two worlds” look at yakuza who are undeniably like Fukasaku’s cowardly, backstabbing scumbags but exist in a world that acknowledges the existence of the Takakura Ken yakuza movies that created (or at least helped perpetuate) the myth in the first place — sort of like making a zombie movie set in a world where zombie movies exist. Ken represents the image to which the yakuza strive, while Kenji represents the reality of what they achieve. And somewhere caught in the middle of it all, the women in the movie are more Takakura Ken than the yakuza around them, and like the matinee idol, star Reiko Oshida lives a life that follows the Abashiri Prison pattern of getting out, trying to go straight, getting caught up in turmoil, and ultimately winding up right back in the same place you were at the beginning of the movie.
Oshida (who has very few film credits to her name, unfortunately, but was a member of the cast of Playgirl, a TV show about a cast of swingin’ crime-fightin’ chicks) plays Rika, a small-time delinquent serving a sentence in a women’s reform school where she meets a variety of other inmates, including a woman named Midori (Yumiko Katayama, another Playgirl alumnus), whose boyfriend is a small-time yakuza punk (though like all small-time yakuza punks, he thinks he’s a major player) and whose father, Muraki (yakuza film mainstay Junzaburo Ban, who was also in the Akira Kurosawa film Dodes’ka-den), is a kindly auto mechanic. When Rika gets out, she takes a job in the old man’s garage and discovers that Midori is bleeding her father dry in an attempt to pay off her deadbeat boyfriend’s ever-escalating gambling debts. The local yakuza are keen to see the guy get in so much debt that Midori will pressure her father to sell his garage, and Rika is keen to protect the old man and try to straighten Midori out. Needless to say, in order to do so, she’ll have to reassemble the old gang from reform school.
A lot of the pinky violence films that hit the market during the 1970s weren’t aiming to do much more than cram as much T&A and violence onto the screen as they could get away with. And really, just like there’s nothing wrong with seedy cheerleader sexploitation movies, there’s nothing wrong with Japanese girl gang movies that really don’t want to do more than pack the screen with boobs and bloodshed. However, there were also certain movies that managed to fulfill the basic demands of the genre without indulging in the excesses of their contemporaries and while filling in the sex and violence gaps with better stories and better characters. Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess is definitely the Swinging Cheerleaders of the pinky violence trend. It has the T, has the A, and has the violence, but not in the doses that other films (including other films in the Panik House collection) boasted. Instead, it boasts a more complex plot, more sincere melodrama, and more likeable characters. It’s a more ambitious movie, and a better one as a result (keeping in mind that greater ambition doesn’t always equate with a greater movie — right, Chronicles of Riddick?).
For starters there’s Reiko Oshida. Meiko Kaji and Reiko Ike were the queens of Japanese exploitation cinema during the 1970s (populating a lofty dais alongside Pam Grier from the United States and Chen Ping in Hong Kong), but you’d be hard-pressed to find a cuter, more personable, and more charismatic leading lady than Reiko Oshida. Meiko Kaji looked dangerous, mysterious, and alluring. Reiko looks like the cute girl next door who just took a few wrong turns here and there, but is basically sweet and likeable even if her wrong turns means she also affects a take-no-crap toughness. The character Rika is instantly likeable and, unlike many of the anti-heroines in these films, never really does much that make her the least bit unlikeable. She gets out of prison, smiles, and helps people out. It’s a shame Oshida didn’t make more movies, girl gang or otherwise, because she emanates an immediate and undeniable warmth. Plus, she’s just as engaging once she’s “pushed over the edge” and breaks out the red overcoat and katana for the film’s outrageous finale as she is as the sweet girl who just wants to build a decent life for herself.
The film perpetuates this impression by steadfastly refusing to make Reiko Oshida drop her drawers — something practically unheard of for the lead in a pinky violence girl gang movie. But the director (who was also the scriptwriter) was adamant that her lack of nudity was essential to the overall success of the story, and he fought tooth and nail to keep his vision intact. What nudity there is in the film is handled by co-stars Yumiko Katayama (who plays Midori) and Yukie Kagawa (who plays Rika’s pal Mari). While Rika’s lack of nudity is used as one more way to make her seem different and more innocent than the rest of the cast, it should be noted that none of the girls who lead sexy and promiscuous lifestyles are looked down upon because of their choices. Mari ends up working in a scummy nude modeling club, but the scumminess is seen as entirely belonging to the assholes who go there and treat her poorly. For the most part, sexual liberation and freedom is treated as being OK.
Oshida is buoyed by a spectacular supporting cast. Yukmiko Katayama, who also didn’t have much of a career in film before or after this movie (she appeared in one other pinky violence film, Criminal Woman: Killing Medley, which also appears in the Panik House collection), is wonderful as Midori, the most complicated of all the women. She’s the more classical pinky violence anti-heroine in that she does a lot of questionable things before finally being redeemed in time for the big showdown. Her boyfriend and the yakuza are suitably slimy, and you spend most of the movie in eager anticipation of the comeuppance you know is going to be delivered unto them.
The rest of the cast performs with solid skill. Pinky violence regular Tsunehiko Watase plays a truck driver who falls for Rika and gets to be the only really decent or dependable guy in the whole movie. Mari’s husband is a sickly yakuza who also happens to be the truck driver’s brother. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s a load on his brother and wife, and although he dreams of taking Mari away and starting a clean life, he also can’t divorce himself from the delusions associated with being a yakuza. He just has to prove himself, just one time, then he can go. Unfortunately, he ends up being told to prove himself by killing Midori’s father (unaware, however, that he is her father). There’s also a Lou Costello-type assistant mechanic who is there for comic relief that is neither especially funny nor especially painful — which is about the best you can hope for when it comes to comic relief. And finally, Nobuo Kaneko hams it up royally as the fey yakuza Boss Ohyu. Nobuo is probably best known for playing the even more cowardly and spineless Boss Yomimori in Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles without Honor and Humanity series. He also shows up in some Seijun Suzuki films.
Anchored by a quality cast and a sparkling leading lady, screenwriter/director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi is able to delve into deeper territory than is visited by the average pinky violence film — in much the same way as Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter. Themes of “female empowerment” and liberation are often grafted onto these films as an easy way to deflect some of the criticism and charges of misogyny that dog such exploitation fare. Usually, these feminist messages are disingenuous and no more meaningful or sincere than when a male scriptwriter uses a female penname to write a porno film, so that the producer can go, “How can it be degrading to women? It was written by a woman?” Now, you know me, and you can probably guess that the honesty of intention in a feminist message isn’t exactly something that plays a big factor in helping me decide whether or not I like a movie. However, it is nice to come across the occasional movie that does indeed manage to be both exploitive and pro-woman. The women in Worthless to Confess are all basically good people. They’re treated with respect from beginning to end, and the movie doesn’t indulge in any of the leering rape nudity that show sup in so many other pinky violence movies. Rika and Midori both find themselves on the receiving end of some yakuza torture and sneering, but it is relatively restrained by pinky violence standards, and cut short before anything really nasty happens.
There is also no weird sex in the movie. One character is alluded to as being a lesbian, but for the most part the characters who do have sex, have pretty normal sex — which is distinctly abnormal in a pinky violence film. Worthless to Confess is also unique in its portrayal of the family. In most pinky violence films, families are ridiculously dysfunctional; full of shrieking psychotic mothers, incestuous fathers, or parents who simply don’t give a damn about anything. Worthless to Confess gives us a kindly and respectable father figure, though, and Rika and her gang really don’t want much more out of life than to find a place they can call home and a group of people to whome they can refer to as family. For once, the family and father figure is OK rather than all twisted and weird.
At the same time, most of the men besides Midori’s dad and the truck driver are scheming, backstabbing scumbags. The only men who can be trusted are the hard-working, regular Joes — the truck drivers and the auto mechanics of the world (though Midori’s dad has a great twist in his story that reveals him to be a little more than just a simple, hard-working auto mechanic). Most can’t be trusted or, at the very least, can’t be depended upon. If they aren’t slimeball yakuza tripping over pachinko machines and getting their asses handed to them in fights by Rika, then the men are asexual girlie men. Gang girl Choko, for instance, is married to a nice but ineffectual goofball who cowers behind her at the club when yakuza start throwing their weight around. He spends much of the film in an apron and head scarf, making food and drinks for Choko and her pals.
There’s really not much action in this movie, but you don’t even notice since the characters are so engaging. The first fight scene doesn’t come until the forty-five minute mark, which is very different from, say, Girl Boss Guerilla, which can’t go more than five minutes without some chick pulling off her shirt and starting a knife fight. Variety is nice, of course, so while I certainly appreciate a movie like Girl Boss Guerilla, I can also appreciate the more reserved approach of Worthless to Confess. Of course that reserve goes out the window the second Rika and her girls throw on hot pants and go-go boots, break out their swords, and slice their way through a pop art club full of whimpering, worthless yakuza assholes. If Worthless to Confess lacks the nonstop insanity of many of the zanier entries in the world of pinky violence, it makes up for it with a finale that is off-the-charts awesome, doubly so since the movie has spent the last eighty minutes or so making you actually care about what happens to these women. The sight of Reiko Oshida and her crew walking down the street in formation wearing blood red trenchcoats, which they throw off to reveal their battle outfits and katanas as they explain their intention to slaughter every goddamn yakuza in the club, is an absolutely fantastic procession of images.
Yamaguchi’s handling of bad-ass female characters manifested itself elsewhere in his career as well. He directed Etsuko Shiomi’s Sister Street Fighter trilogy, which is all about a tough gal sticking it to The Man. He also directed a few Sonny Chiba karate films and something called Wolfman vs. the Supernatural, which I feel like I really need to see. It’s obvious that Yamaguchi favored action and plot over sex and titillation, and while I have no problem with any mix of those three elements, his focus on developing characters and telling a more complete and complicated story means that, while Worthless to Confess is not the most outrageous or the most typical pinky violence film, it is one of the very best and most enjoyable.
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.
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.
Rough times for the industry means rough times for fans as well. Here in the United States, folks were hit with the double whammy of there being very few films worth seeing, and the few that were worth seeing were often snapped up by domestic distributors like Disney and Miramax, who would then do one of two things. They’d either stick the film in their vaults and forget about it, effectively eliminating it from circulation in the United States, or they’d do a horrendous dub chop, cut the film to ribbons, and mix in a cheap hip-hop soundtrack, being certain to include the song “Kungfu Fighting” by Carl Douglas in any and every Asian film possible. I really wonder at this point if the people who decide to put that song in these movies think they’re the first to do it. Did they miss the last ten releases from their same company using the same song? Will the hilarity never be exhausted?
Of course, die-hard fans could always shop overseas and find most (but not all) titles available online in their original language and uncut, widescreen format. It was still a lot of hassle just to see a subpar film like Legend of Zu. Luckily, nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of decent new films, the void was filled by the past.
When Celestial Entertainment announced they’d inked a deal to release everything in the vaults of the Shaw Brothers studio onto DVD, complete with digital remastering, subtitles, and extras, many people had a “believe it when I see it” attitude. After all, such a deal seemed far too good to be true. The Shaw Brothers, of course, were one of the premiere studios in the history not just of Hong Kong cinema, but of global cinema as a whole. Along with Cathay Studios, the Shaw Brothers defined Hong Kong cinema and helped create what many consider the Golden Age during the 50s and 60s. Unfortunately, after their initial release into theaters, the vast majority of Shaw Brothers films disappeared, locked away in secret vaults and jealously guarded like some crazy long-haired drunken monk guards the manual for his secret style of Wild Toad Kungfu. A few titles snuck out in badly cropped formats with those subtitles where only about four words are visible and the rest run off the sides and bottom of the screen. More made it into the bootleg realm, also in inferior formats and often dubbed and edited. And even those that did make it out were almost exclusively the kungfu films of Chang Cheh and Liu chia-liang – fine films, but a tiny smattering of what lie hidden somewhere out there near Clearwater Bay.
In December of 2002, however, dreams became a reality, and the first batch of remastered Shaw Brothers films hit the DVD market. Suddenly, the dearth of quality new productions seemed less important. As long as Celestial kept a steady stream of old classics coming our way, it didn’t really matter that new films offered nothing worth taking note of. There were more than enough unearthed classics to keep fans busy for years, and with such an aggressive release schedule (they do have over 700 films to get through, after all), there’d be little down time between waves of rediscovered treasure.
Initially, I’d been excited primarily about the idea of getting my hands on beautiful copies of all my old favorites. The first day, however, my focus shifted dramatically, and I fond myself far more excited about the prospect of delving into the unknown, the films and directors and stars I’d never seen before. And there are plenty of them. From weepy melodrama to pop-art go-go musical extravaganzas, I was in for one treat after another. And one of the yummiest treats was discovering, at long last, the films of Chu Yuan, aka Chor Yuen.
Chor Yuen is probably most recognizable as the evil Mr. Koo from Jackie Chan’s Police Story. Before he was whacking Jacking with an umbrella and causing him to fall off speeding double-decker busses, Chor Yuen made a name for himself as one of the most accomplished and artistic martial arts directors in movie history. Where most kungfu films were happy to point the camera at a couple guys and let them wave their arms in each other’s faces, Yuen was determined to maintain and build upon the more stylish, lyrical, and poetic artistic approach of early masters like King Hu while throwing in plenty of visual flare that seems to have been derived from ground-breaking Italian productions like those of Mario Bava: lots of mist, splashes of brilliant color and surreal lighting, and unique use of the camera as something more than just a thing to point at people.
Equally detailed are the sets employed in each film. While cheaper, less ambitious films just plopped the hero and villain down on top of that grassy hill or the rock quarry looking thing where 90% of all kungfu fights in the 1970s took place, Yuen placed his films amid lavish sets that became as essential to the film as the characters themselves and help lend to them a dreamlike elegance missing from so many of the more straight-forward films of the era. Each scene looks like a painting, filled with swirling mists, swaying cherry blossoms, and flowing silks. Yuen’s “villain lairs” were often more outlandish and inventive than anything seen even in the wildest dreams of the old Batman series. They were caves full of spooky lighting and boiling pits of fire, or temples filled with sparkling gems and booby traps.
The final piece of Yuen’s puzzle comes in the form of fabulously labyrinthine plots where every single person has something to hide, nothing is what it seems, and everyone will be crossed and double crossed as often as possible. Part fever dream, part detective novel, the stories behind Yuen’s films were often the handiwork of famed martial arts novelist Lung Ku. Martial arts adventure novels in China have always been astoundingly complex, filled with hundreds of characters and sometimes dozens of main characters. Most famous among the classic tales is The Water Margin, also known as Heroes of the Marsh and 108 Heroes. These novels have served as the basis for scores of movies including new wave classics like Swordsman (written by Louis Cha) and Golden Age gems like Brave Archer (also from the pen of Lung Ku). Despite the era and despite the author, all the film’s share the traditional love of complex, sometimes confounding plots.
Previously, deciphering the events in one of these movies was a Herculean chore. The only versions available were often cropped on the edges so that fully half the action fell off the screen, and subtitles went with the picture. For any given line of dialogue, you were lucky to get three or four words that didn’t drop off the bottom or the side edges of the screen. Thus, if any character said something more complex than “Yes,” or “Kill him!” you were in trouble. Since films of this nature offered so many twists and turns and so many characters with secret identities and agendas, keeping track of the plot was well nigh impossible. Luckily, the DVD releases of these films rectify the situation, providing viewers with the full scope of action and subtitles that are actually placed in a position where you can see them. From time to time, even this doesn’t make some of the more outrageous plot twists any more comprehensible, but at least we’re in a better position to enjoy what’s going on. And what better place than one of Chor Yuen’s coolest films to begin?
Ti Lung stars in Clans of Intrigue as the accomplished swordsman Chu Liu-hsiang. His heroics and reputation have earned him a life of luxury which he spends in his decked-out palatial boat where he is attended to by three drop-dead sexy female assistants, not unlike Derek Flint or L. Ron Hubbard. His idyllic life is upset when a maiden from the Palace of Magic Water (played by Bruce Lee film veteran Nora Miao) arrives to accuse him of murder. Seems that someone has assassinated the leaders of three of the great martial arts clans, and the word around that ever-tumultuous Martial World is that Chu is the man responsible for these heinous deeds.
Determined to clear his name and unmask the true killer, Chu sets off on a investigative quest that bring shim into contact with a variety of clans and killers, all of whom seem to have some strange secret that connects them to the murders. Along the way, he first fights and then befriends a swordsman for hire (played by the impressive Ling Yun) and the daughter of one of the slain clan leaders. He’s also badgered at every turn by a mysterious masked killer in red and a variety of icily beautiful hit women from the Palace of Magic Water, who are lead by Betty Pei Ti. And did I mention the mysterious monk or the subplot about orphaned ninjas?
Clans of Intrigue, like most Chor Yuen – Lung Ku collaborations, keeps the viewer guessing primarily by providing a twist at every single opportunity. While it’s not always the most logical turn of events, it certainly keeps you watching and paying attention. Unlike the more brutal kungfu dramas of Chang Cheh, Chor Yuen emphasizes story and characters over kungfu action. Ti Lung is more than up for the challenge of carrying a character-driven story, even though his character is in many ways the least complex. Ti Lung was always one of the best all-around performers at the Shaw Bros studios. He was handsome, majestic, and equally adept at drama, comedy, and deadly kungfu action – all of which he gets to display here. The character of Chu Liu-hsiang is rarely serious or at a loss for words, and his reaction to everything seems to be to smirk, make a joke, then kick some ass. It’s nice to see him in a role unlike hi usual Chang Cheh roles, where he would invariably have to take off his shirt and get stabbed in the belly.
His polar opposite is the mysterious swordsman in black played by the enigmatic Ling Yun. With motives less pure than those of his compatriot, Yuen’s grim killer-for-hire is the straight-man of the duo. The rest of the cast round out the film nicely. Nora Miao is as beautiful as she is talented, and Chor Yuen always gives his female characters something interesting to do – another of the many things that set him apart from his contemporary Chang Cheh and links him more to past masters such as King Hu (who, incidentally, directed Yuen Hua alongside Cheng Pei-pei in the ground-breaking Come Drink With Me) or another of Shaw’s up and coming directors, Liu Chia-liang — who made a hero out of Kara Hui Ying-hung when very few heroic female characters existed in the Chang Cheh dominated kungfu films. After the trendiness of wu xia (fantastic swordsman) films wore off and was replaced in the 1970s by grittier, more brutal, and less lyrical kungfu films, female heroines tended to disappear from Shaw Bros martial arts epics, thanks primarily to Chang Cheh’s domination of the market. He was much more interested in male bonding than in women, and his films reflect his own macho tastes. Contrary to reports that Shaw Bros. producer Mona Fong was the driving force behind eliminating women from heroic leading roles (out of jealousy, as the story goes), it seems the blame lies far more on Chang Cheh. It wasn’t until Chor Yuen and Liu Chia-liang became the dominant forces behind the studio’s martial arts films that we saw a return of the valiant female fighter.
As the heroic Black Pearl, Shaw Bros stalwart Ching Li is simply wonderful. With her “best friend’s cute little sister” good looks and quality acting chops honed in dramatic roles like the schizophrenic young woman in When Clouds Roll By, Ching Li was a real force to be reckoned with. Chor Yuen was certainly fond of her, and he used the talented young actress in both Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat as well as Killer Clans, Magic Blade, and the director’s comedic blockbuster House of 72 Tenants among others. She also has the distinction of being one of the only female stars to every carve a decent character out of a Chang Cheh film, that of the doomed woman in Blood Brothers. She also got to do some ass-kicking in Chang’s early Ti Lung – David Chiang “spaghetti western” kungfu film Anonymous Heroes. Her mixture of true acting ability and athletic prowess made her one of the most versatile and enjoyable to watch female stars in Shaw Bros film history — quite a feat when youn consider that puts her int he company of women like dramatic actress Linda Lin Dai, Ivy Ling Po, Lily Li, and kungfu superstar Hui Ying-hung.
The venerable Yueh Hua stars as Ti Lung’s friend and ally, Monk Wu Hua. As with nearly everyone else in the film, he is far more than he appears to be, and his role in the story keeps you guessing as to his true motives and history. Yueh Hua plays the character with a wonderful subtlety that imminently displays why he was considered one of the Shaw Bros. most treasured performers. Few and far between are the films with such an impressive ensemble cast of men and women who are actually allowed by the story to live up to their potential as both characters and actors.
Another of Chor Yuen’s trademarks was his eye for beauty and his tendency to add a little flesh and spice to his films. A naked female rear here, the glimpse of a breast there did a lot to titillate viewers even though it was shot with the same striking artistry as the rest of his film. Clans of Intrigue is no exception to the rule, and Yuen serves up some decidedly adult fare with the lesbian overtones between Nora Miao and Betty Pei Ti. In fact, there are versions of the film that contain a steamy kiss between the two women, though that particular instance is missing from the official cut of the film as was presumably only added for international distribution. Its absence, and the absence of a flash of frontal nudity during a bathing scene involving Betty Pei Ti, have lead some to claim erroneously that Celestial – the company who has remastered and released the film onto DVD – censored the print. This is not the case. The moments were never officially part of the film as it played in theaters, though those of you in desperate need of seeing Bruce Lee’s favorite female co-star kissing another woman can still get an eyeful thanks to the DVD’s stills gallery. Neither scene is vital to the movie of course, nor has any real bearing on the action that isn’t communicated through other scenes. It’s just, well, you know us and our fondness for nudity.
That’s not the only place the film plays with gender, however. In a series of twists that foreshadow the gender-bending antics of Hong Kong new wave films like Ching Siu-tung’s Swordsman II and Swordsman III: The East is Red, as well as Ronnie Yu’s Bride With White Hair, we get not only the cult of sword-swinging lesbians but also a character who is able to change genders at will and wreak all sorts of havoc as a result. And while it’s not exactly part of the gender bending subtext, the shots of a paralyzed Ti Lung sitting in a flowery white swing above a misty perfumed pond look like something right out of your better gay nightclub floor shows. Not that toying with gender was anything new. Kungfu films have always enjoyed doing things like taking beauties such as Cheng Pei-pei and Shang Kuan Lung Feng and dressing them up as men. Unconvincing men, but men never the less. And Hong Kong entertainment in general has a fondness for men in drag that remained unsurpassed until the advent of the Spanish-language cable network Galavision.
All of Yuen’s work in these adaptations of Kung Lu novels, and indeed much of the director’s work in general, is infused with a more feminine quality than the films of other directors in the genre, even other directors like Liu Chia-liang who appreciated female heroines. Part of this comes from intricate delicacy of Yuen’s set-pieces. They are, as stated previously, absolutely gorgeous. Part of it comes from the fact that his female characters are allowed to be strong and feminine where most female kungfu stars were simply women acting the same as the men. There’s nothign wrong with that, of course, but the fact that Yuen protrays his women as women, with their own unique character traits, makes for deeper, more interesting figures.
It’s perhaps ironic, then, that Chor Yuen is also known for upping the anty when it came to exposing female flesh. Not that nudity was anything new to the kungfu film, and in fact in comparison to many films fromt he same era, Chor Yuen’s films are relatively tame in the amount of nudity they show. They only seem saucier because the director handles it in a very adept way. It’s not the amount of flesh that is revealed, but the way Chor Yuen reveals it. There is nothing vulgar or obvious about his handling of the saucier bits. They’re quite poetic, and because of that, quite erotic. It’s that classy handling of the material that makes it seem much naughtier than it really is. It’s because he makes what little nudity there is really count, instead of just giving us a parade of gratuitous boob shots during rape scenes. It’s, well, hot. As such, even his coy use of female nudity seems artistic and feminine in its touch. And that’s the touch that probably explains why, despite his fondness of nubile young nudes, Chor Yuen has garnered so many female film admirers who are turned off by all the chest-beating maleness of Chang Cheh. Chor Yuen’s heroines can be naked without ever seeming debased, and his heroes can read poetry and give each other flowers without seeming wimpy. Like everything else surrounding the director’s work, it’s really quite refreshing and very unique.
As an action film, Clans of Intrigue doesn’t disappoint, though it is heavier on discussion than some people might want. Chor Yuen’s work is the missing link between the classic wu xia films of the 1960s like Come Drink With Me and Temple of the Red Lotus, and the wildly over-the-top new wave swordsman films of the 1980s such as the Swordsman trilogy and Zu. Although the relative obscurity of Chor Yuen’s body of work has caused it to be overlooked when drawing the map of Hong Kong film trends, its availability on DVD will hopefully allow the director to take his rightful place as one of the most innovative and influential directors in action film history. Without his work, it’s likely the much-talked-about flying swordsman films of the 1980s and 1990s wouldn’t have come to pass, or at the very least, would have looked remarkably different. Directors like Ching Siu-tung and Tsui Hark owe a tremendous debt to Chor Yuen. That said, Clans of Intrigue is not the kungfu blow-out as delivered by guys like Chang Cheh. While it certainly doesn’t skimp on the sword fighting and jumping over high castle walls, it’s not the center of attention. That position belongs to the esoteric plot.
But when the action does heat up, it’s frequently fast-paced and impressive. The final duel between our trio of heroes and the characters eventually unmasked as the villains of the piece is phenomenal. For starters, you’ve never seen so many double-crosses in such a short amount of time. Moreover, one of the characters, upon having their hand chopped off, angrily picks up said hand and flings it with such force that impales another character. You just can’t get much tougher than that, unless you’re the guy in Story of Rikki who uses his own intestines to strangle his opponent.
The Chor Yuen films have been the definite highlight of the recent Shaw Bros. DVD releases, and Clans of Intrigue is a sumptuous example of why. It is extravagantly filmed and directed, sporting eye-popping artistry and visual flare, lavish sets, mind-numbingly complex plotting, beautiful women, heroic men, and sword fights galore. While the team of Lung Ku, Chor Yuen and Ti Lung would top themselves the same year with the exquisite Magic Blade, Clans of Intrigue proved vastly popular – and rightly so. It’s a tremendously impressive film, and it spawned a sequel called Legend of the Bat, reuniting Ti Lung and Ling Yun in another tale of intrigue and deception. If you are looking for a good introduction to one of the most astounding and unjustly unrecognized talents in Hong Kong film history, then Clans of Intrigue is indeed a grand place to begin.
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 clichés – 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.
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.
Like Frankenstein, Dracula started strong and managed to maintain the course for five films. Had they stopped with Taste the Blood of Dracula, it too would have retired a successful and respectable series. It was clear, in fact, by the fourth film that no one had much of an idea left regarding what to do with the character of Dracula. Another film in which a group of travelers end up at Dracula’s castle and are preyed upon for the remainder of the film just wouldn’t cut it. With Taste the Blood, Hammer tried to go in a different direction and make a movie where Dracula was a presence without being an actual character. American distributors, however, refused to buy a Dracula movie that didn’t have Christopher Lee skulking about in an opera cape, and so the Count was forced into the story in a rather awkward fashion that gave him very little to do beyond stand in the shadows and count. And that’s not what his title is supposed to mean.
Still, Taste the Blood was quite a good film even if Dracula’s physical presence has little to do with the plot. Like I said, had they wrapped it up with this one, everything would have ended on a positive note. But where as the financial failure of Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell sealed its fate as the final film in the Frankenstein series, Dracula had the artistic misfortune of scoring yet another box office hit with Taste the Blood. And so it was that a sixth Dracula film was to be made, regardless of whether or not anyone had anything interesting to put forward.
Scars of Dracula isn’t an abominably bad entry into the series. It’s just completely derivative and pointless, falling back onto the tiresome “doomed souls visiting Castle Dracula” and trying to set itself apart by giving Christopher Lee’s vampire count more lines in this one movie than he’d had in all the others combined. They don’t fool anyone, though, and while Scars boasts some memorable moments, the gestalt experience is one best forgotten. We have yet another Paul in this film, as well as another Klove (Patrick Troughton, best known to sci-fi fans as the second Doctor Who, or the Hobo Doctor as I call him). I think that’s two Kloves to four Pauls, and add them to the three or four Hans’s from the Frankenstein movies. Okay, two Kloves is one thing, but what’s the deal with Paul? Didn’t someone look back and realize they’d named the last three stiffs (you can hardly call any of them heroes) Paul, and thus they should go for a different name this time out, like Steven perhaps, or Beauregard? Well, by the time this series is over, a preponderance of Pauls will be the least of our concerns.
The movie wastes no time in letting us know we’re in for a bumpy ride as we go immediately to the lamest Dracula reincarnation yet. Now, if you recall the finale of the last film, Dracula was transported to London then disintegrates in an old church, leaving nothing but his trademark little pile of dust. When this film begins, however, Dracula is lying in his coffin back at Castle Dracula. A floppy giant rubber bat wobbles awkwardly into the room on visible wires and proceeds to drool a little of blood onto Dracula’s dust. Voila! The prince of darkness rises again!
Now you know, even ignoring the horrid continuity between this and the previous films (which went to great lengths to connect itself logically to the end of Dracula has Risen from the Grave), there’s no way to ignore that the ragged-looking bat prop is one of the single worst special effects in the history of Hammer horror. Someone wanted lots of bats in this movie; the least they could have done is check to see if anyone at Hammer could create them in a remotely believable manner. No hyperbole here — this thing would be embarrassing in a teenage goth’s shot-on-video horror short. How it managed to flop and wiggle its way into an actual professional production is a mystery to me. Maybe if they’d stopped at one bat, things wouldn’t be so bad. But we’re going to get lots of them, and each one will somehow manage to be more pathetic looking than the last.
Astoundingly, the scene manages to get even worse as Dracula (Christopher Lee yet again) sits up and the bat begins squeaking at him while Dracula nods his head and listens intently. I expect this sort of thing in a Lassie movie, maybe even in a tender scene shared between Godzilla and Anguilas, but Dracula? “What’s that, lad? You say a busty wench is down in the churchyard? Let’s go!” I mean, yeah, they stop short of having Dracula jump up, yell “Alakazam!” then shrink down to action-figure size so he can ride the bat around, but I’m sure if it had occurred to them, that would have happened too. When Christopher Lee complained about how dumb Dracula films were, it was usually unjustified in my opinion. This time, though — well, it’s pretty easy to see his point with this one.
Well, Dracula gets his busty wench kill in for the day, but this angries up the blood of the local peasants, and for once they don’t just sit around in the tavern staring ominously at each other. In fact, one almost has hope when Michael Ripper, appearing as “Angry Barkeep” for the nine thousandth time, decides they should round up a good old-fashioned torch-wielding mob and kill Dracula off once and for all for the fifth time. Now, this is all right! A torch-wielding mob of peasants within the first ten minutes of a film? That’s something I can live with. Unfortunately, they prove to be the most incompetent torch-wielding mob of peasants in the history of horror films, as they proceed to storm angrily up to Castle Dracula and knock on the door. I mean, they do it firmly and with stern looks on their faces, but if you’re going up the mountain to kill a murderous vampire and burn his castle to the ground, stopping to politely knock on the door sort of undercuts your entire message. It gets even worse when, despite the fact that they must be aware that Dracula and/or his hairy servant Klove noticed the huge mob of torch-wielding peasants coming up the road, Michael Ripper knocks again and says, “Open up! I’m quite alone!”
Since Dracula is asleep, I assume this all takes place in the daytime, so really, brandishing the torches angrily in the air probably lost some of its effect as well. But when you’re the kind of mob that can be stymied in its rage by a butler who refuses to open the door, torches in the daytime are the least of your concern, though you should probably be concerned regarding the efficacy of trying to burn down a stone structure. When they do gain access to the castle (I can’t remember if Ripper pulled the old “Okay, I guess I’ll leave then,” and made fake footsteps like he was walking away so that Klove would let down his guard and open the door), Klove doesn’t seem especially upset. He may be a hairy hunchbacked servant, but even he knows that trying to burn down a stone castle with torches may damage a few tapestries, but that’s about it. Still, the mob seems to consider it a job well done even though both Klove and Dracula survive. And, umm, the castle is still standing, too. Bravo, gents! Now let’s all go down to the tavern for a pint! When they return from their glorious triumph of getting a few walls slightly sooty (Klove will be scrubbing them for days to get them clean again), they discover that Dracula took the opportunity to send more floppy fake bats down to the town to massacre every last woman and child. This sort of puts a damper on their gaiety for the evening, and one has to wonder how a trio of floppy bats managed to massacre so many people and pull out so many eyeballs.
The story then shifts to another town, where the movie solidifies its place in the pantheon of bad films by featuring a wacky comedy sequence in which the philandering Paul (Christopher Matthews) gets chased around by the angry burgomaster after being caught in bed with the burgomaster’s daughter. Thankfully, the film stops short of piping in Benny Hill music, but then maybe this entire painful sequence would have been better if they’d thrown in a little “Yakkity Sax,” sped the whole thing up, and allowed Paul to pause for a second to pat an old man on the head. The Scooby-Doo style chase eventually leads to the birthday party of young Sarah (Jenny Hanley), who loves that rascally Paul even though his far nicer, less whorish brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) loves her. Eventually, Paul ends up at Castle Dracula, and yes, we realize we’re going to get another one of those “Whatever you do, don’t go to the castle” movies where everyone goes to the castle.
And that’s just the first third of the film. It doesn’t get any better from there despite the fact that Christopher Lee gets so much more screen time than usual. He hisses and seethes and screams and snarls his way through a series of unmemorable lines as he engages in all manner of brutality, including branding Klove with a hot poker, stabbing someone with a sword, impaling people on pointy light fixtures, and going nuts with the whip (once again on Klove). In fact, this is the first Dracula film where you expect the Count is more likely to just haul off and punch someone in the face than flash his mesmerizing red eyes at them and bite them on the neck. He seems to forget for most of the movie that he actually has vampire powers, and instead acts like a schoolyard bully, albeit a schoolyard bully with a tendency to wear a big cape for no discernible reason. This means Scars of Dracula has more gory action in it than any of the previous films, but none of it has much of an impact. Where’s the fun of watching Dracula slap Doctor Who around? Okay, maybe that sounds a little fun. Dracula also stabs a female vampire with a dagger. For some reason, this kills her. At this point, though, I don’t even care. I guess if Dracula isn’t going to bite people like a normal vampire should, then other vampires can be killed with daggers and so forth. I guess some vampires fear a wooden stake, and others fear a wiggling rubber dagger.
On the hero front, what can you say? This film gives you a milquetoast lead in Simon, and a standard issue cowardly priest (Michael Gwynn, who played the “monster” in the far superior Revenge of Frankenstein). You keep waiting for the priest to rise to the occasion and stop collapsing in his pew aisles and weeping, but that’s about all he ever does. The Dracula series had been following an interesting trajectory, starting with Van Helsing’s explaining Dracula in purely rational terms as a social disease to an increasingly supernatural demon to be combated not with science and reason, but with faith. Here, however, even that is chucked out the window in favor of having Dracula be nothing more than some asshole who happens to command a fleet of shaky rubber bats. Simon sort of drifts from one scene to the next until he eventually finds himself standing on the roof with Dracula, about to be killed until a bolt of lightning shows up to do his dirty work for him. Boy oh boy, we’re a long way from Van Helsing, aren’t we?
I did say that this film had some memorable moments, didn’t I? I mean, memorable because they’re good, not because they’re so awful. I guess what I meant to say is there’s the one scene worth remembering. One of the most notable sequences from the Bram Stoker novel involves Jonathan Harker observing Count Dracula entering and exiting the tower of Castle Dracula by crawling up and down the wall like a spider. For one reason or another, this scene had never been included in any theatrical version of the story, so scriptwriter Anthony Hinds and director Roy Ward Baker figured now would be as good a time as any. It does show, if nothing else, Dracula has learned the benefits of putting his crypt in an impenetrable tower with no entrance or exit save for the one window way up high that only a guy with spider climbing abilities can get to. It certainly makes more sense than keeping it on the ground floor with an unlocked door, as was his practice in previous films. Of course, once Christopher Lee went crawling up and down walls, there was no stopping Dracula. Frank Langela did it in hazy slow motion with billowing cape and romantic string music playing. Gary Oldman did it all herky jerky while wearing a big red robe. It just goes to show you that a scene of Dracula scurrying around don the wall may be cool, but it can’t save the whole movie.
Even the trademark Hammer look isn’t on display here, as cheap budgets make for cheap sets. Fire damage explains away the spartan appearance of Dracula’s castle, but that doesn’t make it interesting to look at. More than ever, the people who made fun of horror movies with cardboard characters and cardboard sets had plenty of ammo for their attacks. It can be fun, but you never once forget you’re watching a substantially lower quality movie than previous Dracula entries. There’s a reason this emerged as the goriest of all Dracula films, and one of the goriest Hammer films, period: they had to cover up the threadbare production with something.
Scars of Dracula isn’t quite a disaster, but it’s everything bad about Hammer films, and everything that critics unjustly accused Hammer films of being — only this time, there was no defending the product. Hammy acting, clumsy comedy, wretched special effects, weak characters — heaving bosoms is about all this one has going for it, and you can get those in any Hammer film, even the good ones. 1970 was simply not a good year for Hammer, with this, the awful Horror of Frankenstein (not part of the actual Frankenstein series, and not starring Peter Cushing), Creatures the World Forgot, and Lust for a Vampire overshadowing the studio’s two good films from that year: the wonderful Vampire Lovers and the acceptable Lady Bathory exploitation film, Countess Dracula. Scars of Dracula ends up being a highlight reel for anyone who ever wanted to showcase the lowest common denominator Hammer film.
Hinds was a good scriptwriter, and Baker was a more than competent director. So what went wrong? It can only be that, in the end, no one but the accountants gave a damn about making another Dracula movie. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. Scars of Dracula once again made money, which meant that, impossible though it may be, yet another Dracula film would inevitably be made. Fans grew hopeful when they heard Peter Cushing was back in the game as Van Helsing. They grew suspicious when they found out Dracula would be visiting the year 1972.
It didn’t take long for the genres of horror and science fiction to start mingling. It’s a natural marriage, after all, and the two often blend seamlessly, the best and among the earliest example likely being the first two Universal “Frankenstein” movies. Throughout the 1950s, horror and science fiction were frequent bedfellows as atomic terrors ran amok across assorted landscapes. Increasingly, however, it was the science fiction element of the films that was in the forefront, with the horror placed in the background unless one was genuinely terrified of superimposed grasshoppers. By the middle of the 1950s, science fiction was still enjoying the occasional big budget celebration a la This Island Earth (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956) while horror films were becoming increasingly cheap, b-movie quickie affairs. Not that that means there weren’t plenty of gems in the mix, but compared to science fiction, horror was lagging.
It was in this setting, however, that England’s Hammer Studio decided to mix the two together once again in what they hoped to be a high-class concoction, first as a television series and then as the film The Quatermass Experiment. Although horror was often regarded as a dying genre, Hammer proved that handled properly and with respect, fans were still ready to turn out for a good horror-scifi half-breed. Two more Quatermass films were made, the latest being 1967′s superb Quatermass and the Pit, which sees the good doctor and investigator of all things extraterrestrial and paranormal grappling with an alien carcass discovered beneath London and possessed, seemingly, of a Satanic nature as well.
Which brings us nicely, if rather half-assedly, to Horror Express, a film that seems to draw from both the feel of a Hammer film as well as that of a ripping HG Wells story without actually being from either source. The idea of gods, angels, and devils as space aliens is no longer especially new and novel, though few serious (or even comical) studies of the notion exist in film. It’s a favorite of conspiracy theorists and UFOlogists, however, with the best-known proponents of the idea being those who believe that “ancient astronauts” visited Earth thousands of years ago and helped with everything from the erection of the Egyptian pyramids to the construction of Incan, Mayan, and Aztec pyramids to the carving and raising of the ominous heads on Easter Island. Apart from the notion that aliens were jetting through the cosmos showing off their masonry and stone-carving skills is the theory that so-called holy beings, your Jesus and your various angels and maybe even a Greek god or two, were beings from another planet whose miraculous powers were rather run-of-the-mill back home but really something here on Earth where we didn’t have the ability to turn water into wine. Thus these creatures would be perceived as gods and angels, and the naughty ones as demons and devils, by us backward shepherds here on planet Earth.
It’s not a completely daft idea, as far as such theories go, at least no more so than Jesus being the son of a supreme being who created everything out of nothing and, with the entire universe at his disposal, whiled away the centuries picking on Job and pulling stunts like, “Abraham, sacrifice your son! No just joking! Dude, I can’t believe you were really going to sacrifice your son.” The idea that these angels, that perhaps even Jesus himself were aliens isn’t entirely insane, especially when you take into consideration the power of Jesus to appear as a blond-haired, glowing white guy despite his Jewish-Arabic origins.
Horror Express is not a Hammer film, it could easily pass for one thanks to its quick pace, period setting, and the presence of Hammer’s two biggest stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and while it doesn’t present us with the scenario of our deities being space travelers, it does rely heavily on the notion that beings from other worlds have visited this planet long before the presence of mankind in our current form, and that if said beings were perhaps trapped in the body of a monkey for two million years only to find themselves awakened on a train going through Siberia, they’d be annoyed. Lee stars as Professor Saxton, an intrepid scientist-adventurer the likes of which we simply do not see enough of these days. On an expedition to the far north of china, his team uncovers the remarkably well-preserved mummy of an humanlike ape Saxton assumes to be the missing link, not to mention being one of the greatest anthropological or archaeological discoveries of all time. Hey, consider that some people think of a particularly nice chunk of pot shard to be one of the greatest discoveries of all time, and you can understand why Saxton is so excited about his Peking Man.
Sexton immediately returns to the city with his find and books passage to Europe on board the Trans-Siberian Express, only to discover that much to his chagrin his number one scientific and one-liner rival, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), is also along for the trip and keeps bugging Saxton about seeing what’s in that padlocked box. A Chinese thief at the station doesn’t see fit to badger Saxton and, assuming the crate is full of jewels or fine women’s lingerie, goes about taking a peek. When the police find him, he’s dropped dead with blood pouring from his sockets and his eyes turned completely white. Saxton, being a fine, condescending British scientist, doesn’t think much of the incident. The guy was a thief, after all. A mad Russian monk with wild unkempt hair and beard (is there any other kind of Russian monk), however, sees the entire affair as a sign that whatever is contained within the crate must surely be the work of Satan. To prove his point, he attempts to draw a cross on the box, only to discover that being the wooden container of all things Luicferian, the cross will not show up. Whether or not something less holy, like perhaps, “Springsteen 4 Ever!” would have showed up is one of the mysteries that shall remain forever unanswered.
Although the cross incident impresses the locals, Saxton dismisses it as a simple parlor trick, and points out that the guy is bugging his eyes out and ranting and raving about Satan. So all aboard the horror express, including Saxton, Wells, the crazy monk Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza, who acted in Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and One on Top of the Other, among many European cult films), a suspicious Russian police inspector named Mirov (Euro-cult veteran Julio Pena, who also starred in films like Horror Rises from the Tomb, Werewolf Versus the Vampire Women, A Pistol for a Hundred Coffins and Sergio Corbucci’s The Mercenary), a mysterious female spy, two Russian nobles, and a whole host of other people whose only job is to fill up the dining cart. In other words, it’s a regular Agatha Christie gathering, the kind you always get on these old trains but rarely, if ever, on modern trains. See, therein lies the problem with modern rail travel: not nearly enough intrigue. Used to be that for the price of a ticket, you’d get spies menacing one another with stilettos, upper-class society types embroiled in murder mysteries, and alien-possessed monkey-men throwing things at Peter Cushing. No more. Maybe instead of offering the usual “first class, second class, et cetera” nonsense they should offer something like, “first class, second class, and turn-of-the-century intrigue class.”
Needless to say, it isn’t long before the ape-man claims another victim, this time a porter whom Wells had bribed to take a peek into the box and report back to him. Then the ape-man picks the lock and disappears, much to Saxton’s annoyance. Faced with no other reasonable possibility, Inspector Mirov and the two British scientists are forced to assume that a two-million year old ape man has somehow been revived, learned to pick modern locks, and is currently at large and turning people’s eyes white. An autopsy on the baggage handler also reveals that the brain is as smooth as a baby’s bottom, disregarding then the obvious statistically rare and dismissible occurrence of an ugly, pockmarked baby bottom. It’s clear that this is no ordinary two-million year-old missing link. As the list of victims grows, Wells, Saxton, and Mirov join forces to uncover the mystery at the heart of the creature’s rampage. Things only get harder when they realize that the creature itself is not the ape-man, but an entity inside the ape-man which is able to leap from one body to another when the need arises. This revelation prompts the best line in the entire movie, in which Mirov turns accusingly to Saxton and Wells and proclaims, “Even one of you could be the monster!” to which Cushing’s Wells replies indignantly, “Impossible! We’re British, you know!”
Eventually, it is discovered that the entity is a space alien, marooned on the planet millions of years ago and really keen on getting the hell out of here. The creature’s trump card in attempting to get Wells and Saxton not to kill it is that it’s seen millions of years of earthly history prior to being frozen and can provide them with knowledge immeasurable. It’s a tempting Faustian deal, but one the stolid British researchers resist, though the crazed monk, fearing that this beast is Satan himself, decides to cast his lot with the side whose physical manifestation is running amok on the train. AN impromptu stop at a remote Siberian outpost allows Cossack soldier Telly Savalas to board the train with his troops and either get to the bottom of things in a quick and efficient manner or provide more corpse fodder for the creature, who also reveals an ability to revive the bodies of its victims and send them, zombie-like, shambling through the claustrophobic train cars in a final horrific onslaught against the living. You guess which eventuality comes to pass.
Horror Express is a ripping good yarn with a fast pace and a snappy wit. Cushing and Lee are superb in one of their countless pairings, and each horror veteran crackles with energy as they dig deep into their characters and revel in the story around them. Though there are a couple tongue-in-cheek touches to the film, the film itself is never completely tongue-in-cheek. Rather, it simply relies on clever twists and a wicked sense of humor to carry the admittedly zany plot. There is plenty of ammunition on hand for those who wish to pick apart the logic of a film about an ancient alien consciousness riding the rails with Telly Savalas, but the spirit of the film is so high and the performances so winning that one scarcely has time or cause to pause and think about the absurdity of the blood from the eye of the creature acting as sort a microscopic slideshow. That the creature’s memory is contained in the fluid of the eye is in itself not a bad idea, but the fact that Lee and Cushing can extract a drop of blood and look at it under a microscope to enjoy various pictures of dinosaurs and the earth from outer space is, well, you know, as outlandish as the fact that people are only mildly surprised when a two-million year-old monkey mummy springs back to life and starts killing.
There are also a series of coincidences that the alien must have been eternally thankful for – such as the fact that it needs to figure out how to get out of the locked box, only to be able to absorb the skills of a Chinese thief. And it needs to learn some way of building a rocket capable of escaping earth’s atmosphere only to be put on a train alongside a female spy stealing a sample of an indestructible metal to be used in the construction of, perhaps, rockets. And that the creator of the metal, the formula of which is so secret that only he himself knows it, is also on board.
But honestly, none of this matters, because what Horror Express wants to be is a faced-paced, fun horror-scifi thriller, and that’s exactly what it is. Cushing’s Wells is hilariously pompous yet thoroughly likable, and Christopher Lee gets to play yet another stern but heroic man of reason, something he proved considerably adroit at in The Devil Rides Out. The supporting cast is comprised of Eurocult veterans, largely from Spain, all of whom have extensive experience in horror, historical adventures, and spaghetti westerns, among others. And then there’s Telly. Although a big enough name thanks to turns as Kojak on television and as Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service so that he’s never been identified as a horror film icon, there’s no denying that when Savalas made a rare appearance in such a film, it was usually going to be pretty good, not to mention pretty weird. In the same year as Horror Express, Savalas appeared in Mario Bava’s superb mindwarp of a horror film, Lisa and the Devil. He goes pretty far over the top here as a sadistic Cossack soldier, but his performance, while bordering on camp, works within the context of such a playful film. I only wish he’d shown up earlier, but I guess too big a dose of his character would have ruined the performance.
Part of the reason Horror Express got made was that the producer purchased the model train that was used in the bigger budget historical epic Nicholas and Alexandra and figured, heck, if he owned this really keen train set, he might as well make a crazed scifi-horror film around it. Exteriors are appropriately bleak and hopeless looking, bringing to mind when combined with the mind-stealing alien life form the sci-fi classic Thing from Another Planet, remade in the 1980s by John Carpenter simply as The Thing. Horror Express shares quite a bit with Thing from Another Planet, in fact. From the icy setting to the alien to the claustrophobic interiors and growing sense of paranoia that infects the passengers. Much of the film is beautifully shot, with exquisite sets and decoration, and some of the scenes are genuinely eerie, the most prominent being the horde of white-eyed ghouls shambling through the darkened train cars as the remaining passengers scramble for safety. Cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa has a ton of horror, science fiction, and spaghetti westerns to his credits, and he works wonders within the confined spaces of the train. Coupled with a superb score, the film has a nearly overwhelming sense of dread that is tempered only by the spriteful performances of Lee and Cushing.
The monkey man make-up is neither dazzling nor awful, and though we probably get too clear a look at it too often for its own good, it’s hardly of a quality that would destroy a film, especially one so heavy with wit and stand-out performances. There are some fairly gory special effects, but nothing out of the ordinary for what other studios, including Hammer, were doing at the time. Some bleeding eye violence, some gratuitous brain surgery, that sort of thing. If you miss the days when horror and science fiction, while not exactly being intelligent, were at least willing to play with lofty ideas and theories and mix them together with charm and drollness, then by all means hop on board the Horror Express and please forgive me for statements like that. I hadn’t sent he film until I sat down to watch it for this review, and the only reason I don’t regret having missed out for so long is that it gave me the chance to have such a wonderful, rollicking good time at the horror films to discover.
What the hell? It’s rare these days that I have that reaction to a film. By this point, I really have seen just about everything, and the one thing that keeps that from being a depressing revelation is that sometimes something will pop up to remind that I haven’t seen anything. This movie was apparently based on a book called The Disoriented Man, and while watching it, that was definitely an apt description of me. Scream and Scream Again seems for much of its running time to be three completely different movies. By the end, of course, things will be tied together, but not in a way that necessarily makes much sense. The end result is not unlike watching one of those Thomas Tang/Godfrey Ho ninja movies where they’d buy bits and pieced of a couple old Hong Kong films, splice them together with some scenes from some unfinished Italian action film, then stick in a series of newly shot scenes featuring white guys in red and yellow ninja outfits with headbands that say “Ninja!” on them and call the whole hideous Frankenstein’s monster a movie.