With a few exceptions scattered throughout the past hundred years or so of feature filmmaking, the French never really embraced the horror film. Instead, drawing from a literary tradition capped by the writing of Gaston Leroux and Victor Hugo, the French response to what we in the United States (and Britain, and Italy, and Japan, and…well, most of the world) define as horror was cinema fantastique. Certainly it had elements of horror, sometimes more overt than others, but more traditionally recognizable characteristics of horror were mixed into a dreamy mist that also included romance, science fiction, mystery, and melodrama all spun with a disregard for logical narrative structure and progression in favor of a dreamlike (or nightmare) quality. It did not matter if one scene connected to the next, or if there was a rational explanation for a particular image or action. That was not the point. The language of cinema is vast, figured directors working within this nebulous genre of cinema fantastique, and the idea that film has to conform to a particular structure or style or storytelling — or that it need tell any story at all — is tragically limiting. Of the many films that make up the body of cinema fantastique, few have developed an enduring reputation, good and bad, quite like Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage, aka Eyes without a Face.
I’ve been sitting here trying to think of an adequate way to describe exactly what it is that Sonny Chiba does and wears in this second film in Kinji Fukasaku’s highly enjoyable, highly influential Battles without Honor and Humanity series of films that delve into the world of organized crime and the role it played in rebuilding post-war Japan. The closest I can come up with to summarize the acting display by Chiba is to say that you should try to imagine William Shatner and Jimmy Walker being merged into one creature, which the director then instructs to “stop being so subtle.”
People unfamiliar with genre films sometimes have this weird idea that the movies all carry themselves with an air of complete seriousness, that a particular type of film can’t possibly be aware of its own cliches and pitfalls until some smarmy mainstream director steps in and makes a spoof. That spy movies, even James Bond, can’t be aware of their own absurdity. Or that horror has never noticed its own cliches. The fact of the matter is that genre films are far more aware of their own short-comings and trappings than most mainstream films. For better or for worse, genre films — science fiction, horror, sexploitation, action, and so forth – have been self-referential and satirizing themselves since the early days. The Italian sword and sandal films that were so popular during the first half of the 1960s were no exception.
“Demobilized officer, finding peace unbearably tedious, would welcome any excitement. Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection.” — Bulldog Drummond, 1929
Basil Dearden’s 1960 caper film League of Gentlemen is a little bit like if, instead of ending up solving crimes for a living, Bulldog Drummond ended up committing them; as if his humorous classified ad was answered by a fellow demobilized officer putting together a crew for a heist. Surely the overly complicated ladder theft that results would appeal to Drummond’s sense of humor. Unlike the old Bulldog Drummond movies however, beneath the breezy, dryly comical veneer of League of Gentlemen is the sort of political and social unrest that characterized much of Dearden’s work in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. The man was a master at making mainstream, commercial films that packed powerful, at times very pro-counter culture messages.
“There is no monster in the world so treacherous as man.”
So we are reminded at the beginning of Larry Buchanan’s Creature of Destruction and, just in case we forgot, at the end of the film as well. I like a film with a message, but the message is considerably less interesting if the film has to print it out for you. But hey – at least the guy was trying, which is more than can be said for most films. And in the end, this film is made in the tradition of sci-fi and horror films of days gone by, when such films had messages and delivered them with all the subtleties of a stoic military general surveying some scene of mass carnage and reflecting on the follies of man. Creature of Destruction is Buchanan’s homage by way of remake. In this case, it’s a remake of 1956’s The She-Creature, a movie that never exactly called with deafening thunder to be remade.
My introduction to New York’s underground film scene came in the form of the “cinema of transgression,” as movement figurehead (eh, more or less) Nick Zedd dubbed it. Specifically, it came in the form of Richard Kern, whose crude, short films and videos were widely circulated on VHS in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was the work of Kern and Zedd that almost entirely formed my opinion of the movement, because that was basically all you could get. Film Threat magazine had taken an interest in Kern and released a number of his films on VHS. And so when it came to New York’s underground cinema, I knew what he and Zedd had done, which was sloppy, nihilistic, destructive, ridiculous, angry, and absurd. It wasn’t until I moved to New York some years later that I discovered the depth of my ignorance, that Kern, Zedd, and the Cinema of Transgression were the second wave of the New York film underground, that they had grown from a whole group of films and filmmakers who have preceded them in the late 1970s.
Genghis Khan is certainly one of the great figures in the history of the world. When you say “Mongolia,” he’s the first person of whom you’re likely to think. He conquered China, swept westward, and eventually had a chain of shopping mall formal wear rental stores named after him. Were it not for Genghis Khan’s contributions to society, I would have been at a loss as to wear to rent my tux for the prom back in 1990. But aside from all that, he was one of the world’s great conquerors, and whether he was a hero or a villain depends largely on whether or not he conquered in your name or just plain conquered you. Certainly as with all history’s epic conquerors — Ramses, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Vlad Tepes, and Bono from U2 — Genghis Khan is a person who lends himself to having a sweeping, vast, and complex movie made about his life and influence. And like most of the conquerors throughout history, he’s still waiting for that movie to be made.
Green Snake is set in a world between myth and reality. Zhao Wen-zhou stars as a young monk who spends his days hunting down demons and spirits who have crossed over from their own realm into the realm of mortals. Some of them come with malicious intent, but many of them seem only to want to run wild and free in the physical world for a brief time. The monk operates under the notion that the two worlds simply cannot cross paths, harmless intentions or not. The opening scene of the monk chasing an old wiseman who is actually a spider demon through a field as they both run through mid-air sets a beautiful but disturbing tone for the film. It’s incredibly lush and over-saturated with dreamlike color. The hallucinatory beauty seems eerie, however, not at all peaceful, sort of like those old fairy tales where things are actually creepy and sinister.
There was a period, brief but never the less real, when we paid to see television shows in the theater instead of watching them for free on, you know, television. This started back when some crafty producer would take a couple episodes of a TV show and splice them into a single movie — even if the plots of the two episodes had almost nothing to do with one another. And in 1979, producer Glen A. Larson managed to get not one, but two pilot episodes released as feature films. Granted, these were substantially expensive and ambitious (in their way) pilots, but still. He was asking people to pay money to see something they’d see for free at home. He was able to do that because of Star Wars. And we did it. I did it. The first of them was Battlestar Galactica. The second was Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. When I saw them both in the theater I remember liking Battlestar Galactica, but Buck Rogers? Buck Rogers I loved. And years later I still love it. This movie/television pilot is also the reason I discovered Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
It’s difficult to freshen up a hoary old concept without losing the essence of what made that concept eventually become hoary. Reinterpretations of classical monsters often go so far afield from the original idea that they might as well be called something else — the werewolves in the Underworld series for example, or the vampires in the Twilight series. Every now and then, however, someone hits on just the right combination of innovative twist and respect for tradition that can liven up a well-worn genre without turning it into something unrecognizable. Screenwriter Karen Walton’s Ginger Snaps accomplished just that. It took the werewolf movie and turned it upside down without ever disrespecting it or feeling like it needed to distance itself from being a werewolf movie. It was a fantastic surprise of a film that pleased a lot of people. Equating lycanthropy to the struggles of pubescent high school girls also gave film critics a lot to write about. It’s always fun to stumble across a movie that is interesting to discuss.