Samurai films have a curious knack for expressing compassionate, humanist ideals via soul-crushing bleakness and violence. One would be hard-pressed to find a bleaker, more violent indictment of the romance of the samurai — and the culture of violence in general — than director Tai Kato’s blood-drenched and aptly named Brutal Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This is samurai drama stripped entirely of any pretense, robbed of the myth of the noble samurai code, and devoid entirely of any sense of heroism. In the eyes of this film, the samurai of the historic Shinsengumi clan are brutish exploiters and backstabbers at best, and murderous, paranoid psychopaths at their worst. The Shinsengumi were an actual group of samurai, charged with keeping the peace in Kyoto and defending the Tokugawa Shogunate from threats both foreign and domestic — this being the period in which Japan had finally been pried open to contact with the Western world. In popular Japanese culture, the Shinsengumi have been portrayed as everything from heroic defenders of the Japanese heart to thuggish throwbacks mercilessly defending their own power at the expense of progress. Brutal Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate is a particularly harsh look at them and at the entire concept of samurai.
When we reviewed 3 Seconds Before the Explosion, we stated that it was one of two Nikkatsu Studio espionage films released onto the home video market in the United States, both starring studio mainstay Akira Kobayashi. We also said that 3 Seconds Before the Explosion, daft though it might have been, was the more conservative and conventional of the two. That’s because the second espionage film, Black Tight Killers, was constructed out of some mad fever dream by director Yasuharu Hasebe and production designer Teruyoshi Satani after they stayed up all night at a psychedelic go-go cabaret, drunk on Suntory whisky and overdosing on a steady stream of pop art and spy movies. When they awoke the next morning, two things had happened. One, their clothes had vanished; and two, they had apparently made a movie about a photojournalist who gets tangled up with a gang of black leather clad go-go girl assassins who fling razor sharp 45rpm records and are armed with ninja chewing gum, among other things.
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.
I’m going to have to cram a bunch of history up front in this review, so if you already know most of it, please forgive me. I feel it sets the stage properly for those among you who aren’t nerdy enough to have a vast and swelling knowledge of the ins and outs of British censorship efforts, Italian slasher-thriller movies, and the joyous day those two tastes were plunged together into a scrummy treat known as the “Video Nasties” list. Let me first take back to a time when Samantha Fox was still a fox (maybe she still is; I haven’t seen her in years) and the world was just beginning to discover the pleasure of home video systems. England has always had a somewhat contentious relationship with cinema censorship, and certain types who like to get upset over idiotic things were worried about the fact that the rules governing the rating, licensing, and editing of films for release to British theaters had not been written in a language that would allow them to be applied equally to films distributed on video. This little lapse in the foresight of censorship laws to anticipate the invention and subsequent wildfire-like spread of VCRs meant that films previously cut or banned could be legally (more or less) distributed in uncut format on videotape. It seems like they could have solved this dilemma by simply adding “and videos, too” in biro at the end of the book of law, but that’s not how England does things.
Blue Movie Blackmail is known by a variety of names, the original being Si può essere più bastardi dell’ispettore Cliff? My Italian is nonexistent and Google Translate isn’t exactly helpful (“It may be more bastards Inspector Cliff?”), but I think the general gist of the name is something like ‘Is anyone more of a bastard than Inspector Cliff?’ When eventually looped into English (in a few cases by the Anglo cast themselves) it was released in the USA as the somewhat baffling Mafia Junction and in Britain as the rather more accurate Blue Movie Blackmail. It does also have the distinction of being shot mostly in London, so I may be able to relate some interesting titbits as a resident of these parts.
If you were one of the few who followed the joint Magic Lizard Twitter-thon that involved The Cultural Gutter, Die Danger Die Die Kill, WtF-Film, and Teleport City, you might recall that proclamations of Magic Lizard‘s status as the worst movie ever made were challenged — legitimately — by The Cultural Gutter, who maintained that even the deepest of wounds inflicted by Magic Lizard were mere surface abrasions when measured against the to-the-core cutting of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, a cheap and lazy starring vehicle for Martin and Lewis copycats Duke Mitchell (yes, the same Duke Mitchell who later went on to make Massacre Mafia Style) and Sammy Petrillo (yes, the same Sammy Petrillo who later went on to star in Doris Wishman’s Keyholes are for Peeping). The movie had previously been experienced as one of Drive-In Mob’s Tweet-alongs. And as you might guess from the title, Bela Lugosi shows up (though he barely seems cognisant of the fact) to earn himself a little more morphine money and does indeed encounter a gorilla from — but not in — Brooklyn. While the Cultural Gutter’s Carol boasts writing about comics as her primary forte, she’s no slouch when it comes to cinema, and so I did not take her challenge to Magic Lizard‘s throne lightly. In fact, I’d been hearing for years how awful Brooklyn Gorilla was from people possessed of substantial strength when it comes to tackling the very worst cinema has to offer.
If you’re in a deploring mood, there is much to deplore in the sexual politics of 1960s men’s magazines. But, putting aside the rather ungainly issue of the representation of women, can it truly be said that our newsstands’ depiction of men has improved all that much in the ensuing years? To my eye, the typical men’s magazine of today features a heavily photoshopped Ashton Kucher on the cover and, inside, an even more photoshopped spread of some skeletal romcom starlet in her underwear, along with a bunch of “fake it til you make it” columns on how to appear like less of an uncultured dick than you really are and some snarky article about how to nail the new temp in your office.
Regular readers to this site may have noticed my curious affection for the DTV martial arts flick. Thus it would be churlish of me to ignore Bloodmoon, a 1997 example of the genre, seeing as it features not one but TWO of my fellow Brits. A handful of Britkickers have made names for themselves as nasty roundeye bad guy types in Hong Kong martial arts films; the likes of Mark Haughton, Sophia Crawford and Jude Poyer have all spent time getting beaten on by Asian stars du jour. Probably the most successful of these is one Gary Daniels, a remarkable martial artist who has a Judge Dredd-style square jaw, the physique of Schwarzenegger and amazing kung fu/karate/kickboxing skills, coupled with the acting ability of a wooden badger. Daniels has appeared in some 30-odd films, but is still best known as the imposing ‘Pony tail fighter’ in Wong Jing’s lame Jackie Chan vehicle City Hunter.
Joining Gary in Bloodmoon is fellow Brit Darren Shahlavi, another action type who came to video by way of Hong Kong. He has a spectacular fight at the end of arguably the last of the New Wave of period martial arts films, Yuen Woo Ping’s Tai Chi II. Also appearing is American martial artist Chuck Jeffreys, who among his other acting and stunt credits was fight choreographer on Spider-Man (the 2002 one, not the woeful old TV show). Anyway, that’s far too much trivia on fifth-banana action stars for anyone, so on with the review of Bloodmoon.
Our story opens on the nighttime New York skyline with some reassuringly bad superimposed-moon special effects — so bad in fact that they make the Evil Dead ones look downright polished. We move to a boxing gym where a badass fighter named Eddie Cunningham (Hakim Alston) is training. A banner proclaims the gym as “Home of the light heavyweight CHAMPION of the World.” Pretty soon the gym is empty and the light heavyweight CHAMPION of the World is left to lock up, standard practice for boxing CHAMPIONS I assume. Suddenly a figure appears, who intones, “there is blood on the moon” (cut to shot of fake window with big red circle painted on it). This is our villain (Shahlavi), and he cuts an imposing figure; black leather trousers, lined opera cape, metal-tipped engineer boots, Gene Simmons hairdo and a curious mask which sits somewhere between a yin-yang symbol and one of Elton John’s more outlandish eyewear choices. After a reasonably spectacular fight the boxing CHAMPION is killed by our villain’s Iron Finger technique.
Next we see a figure on a high-powered motorcycle zooming around some of Manhattan’s more memorable landmarks, in case we’d forgotten we were in New York. Apparently to get to a seedy Harlem gym you have to go via the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, and Columbus Circle, stopping on Mulberry Street for some clams at Sal Anthony’s. Although I’ve visited “la grande pomme” three times admittedly I’ve never ridden a motorbike there, so maybe this is the best way. The figure pulls up outside the boxing gym, doing a little spinning jump kick to amuse the police officers guarding the entrance. This is Detective Chuck Baker (Jeffreys) and he is a droll fellow. So droll in fact that he does a few conjuring tricks over the bloody corpse of the boxing CHAMPION. In a line of dialogue so obvious it could have come from Ed Wood’s pen, he looks down at the corpse and says, “Boys and girls, it looks like we got ourselves a homicide.” No clue is too complex for this detective it seems.
On his return to the police station Chief Hutchins chews him out. A shockingly bad Frank Gorshin plays Hutchins, in fact I haven’t seen scenery-chewing on this scale since, um… Frank Gorshin in that episode of Buck Rogers with the Legion Of Death. Hutchins is upset because the killer is taunting him with emails featuring the words “Blood on the moon”. Clearly his expertise with basic email and cheap Photoshop effects means the police consider him to be a computer genius.Meanwhile in the back room of a bar, a Tough Man CHAMPION named Dutch (played by Mr. PPV, The Whole F’n Show, Mr. Monday Night himself Rob Van Dam) is attempting to copulate with a female on top of a pinball machine. Dutch is a bit of a sh*t, we know this because he… well, he looks like one, and is played by Rob Van Dam. Oh, and he calls the girl a ‘b*tch’. Not surprisingly (and because there hasn’t been a fight for about five minutes) the killer arrives and picks a fight with Dutch, using his nifty Iron Finger strike again (I’m not kidding, he actually has two iron fingers). That’s two CHAMPIONS dead then, I wonder if the cops will notice. Sadly the police aren’t going to make this staggering revelation for another hour or so, but bear with them as there’s plenty of fun to be had before then.
Killing Rob Van Dam just isn’t on, so the Chief calls in retired cop Ken O’Hara (Daniels). Now, forgive me if your name happens to be Ken and/or O’Hara but that particular nomenclature just doesn’t have the ring of a true action hero name. Usually he would have been called Steve Ninja or Barry Fist or something, but KEN… I kept wanting to refer to him as Stig O’Hara, the famous lead guitarist of The Rutles. Anyhow Stig, I mean Ken, is introduced to us playing on the beach with his young daughter. I’m not familiar with Manhattan having only visited there a few times (I may have mentioned it in passing), but I can’t recall any beaches. Anyway I digress once again. Some nasty Manhattan beach Hell’s Angels arrive and start to cause a ruckus. Ken, man of peace that he is attempts to smooth things over, until the foolish biker thugs decide to rough up his eight year old. Boo, meanies. This is all it takes for Ken to leap, punch and spinning jump kick into action. He’s still a man of peace at heart of course, as he says, “I didn’t want to fight them; I didn’t have a choice.”
Ken is a Mind Hunter, a super-smart serial killer profiler who quit the job when he got ‘too close’ to the mind of a killer he was tracking and incidentally was horribly injured. Yes folks, we now have a kung fu cop action buddy movie Manhunter ripoff. Chuck arrives at Ken’s house to find his (estranged, naturally) wife waiting to collect their daughter. Seems that all the profiling got in the way of his marriage too. Chuck tries to convince Ken to return, but Ken refuses. “I don’t do this anymore!” he cries, the acting very nearly detectable. Next time we see Ken he is walking around his house at night. There is a thunderstorm outside, mournful soft rock on the soundtrack and angst in the air. He gazes at a photo of an old Japanese guy with a horribly fake moustache before he slips into a monochrome flashback of his torture at the hands of a psycho. “Not again!” screams Ken, in slow motion naturally.
AT THAT VERY MOMENT, the Japanese guy with the fake moustache (Ken Kensei) is meditating in his dojo. He is Master Takaido, and we assume he is a CHAMPION at something. Bad facial hair possibly. Our villain enters and sets up a nifty live video camera-modem link before Master Takaido notices him and declares his spirit unclean. There then ensues a neat Katana fight that is being beamed live by computer to police HQ. Chuck realises that they are seeing the killer at work but is too late to save the Master. Good thing too because Chuck and Ken are still at the ‘mutual dislike’ stage. They won’t reach ‘grudging respect’, let alone ‘admiration and understanding’ for a good half-hour. Of course the two are now thrown together since Master Takaido is Ken’s former Sensei, but not before they accidentally bump into each other at the darkened crime scene and duke it out for a bit.
At the crime scene they also run into Takaido’s adopted American teenage daughter Kelly (Brandie Rocci), who is probably best described as ‘spunky’. She wants to be involved with the investigation, adding a new annoying wrinkle to the plot. Chuck and Ken shake her off long enough for them and their visible boom mike to see sleazy computer hacker Justice (Jeff Pillars), who can figure out the complicated email trickery. Naturally he is a repulsive fat weasel who downloads porn and pees in a thermos. They get a location on the killer, but it’s all a big trick and they end up surrounded by drug dealers. Of course they beat the crap out of them but there’s no masked killer to be found.
Meeting Kelly in the obligatory strip club, the petite blonde takes out a gang of unruly guys who are hitting on her. Ken neglects to help, claiming she is “a former national CHAMPION”. Good job the killer wasn’t there to overhear that, eh? Oh, hang on…who’s that guy in the Gene Simmons wig? Naturally the killer turns up at Kelly’s place shortly thereafter, and a fight ensues. A word on this. I have no problem with guys in wigs doubling women in fight scenes, even when the woman in question is wearing panties and a bathrobe. However if this is a road you choose to go down, it’s not a good idea to let said male stunt double do backflips in which his pink-cotton clad hairy nutsack is clearly visible.
After a short interlude while Ken saves his marriage by going on some fairground rides, our heroes find another dead guy, this time with the word “CHAMP” written next to the body in blood. This actually gives the game away to our doofus cops. “It’s been here all along!” says Ken. No shit, Sherlock. It seems that Master Takaido once held a tournament called the Masters’ Challenge, in which different martial arts champions fought each other. Most of them have been victims, except for two — have a guess if you think our guys pick the wrong one. Meanwhile the real killer lures Kelly to his house and kills her.
By the time Chuck and Ken find Kelly, the killer has kidnapped Ken’s newly reconciled wife and kid. He straps them to a bomb and demands Ken face him in Mortal Kombat…sorry, wrong movie. Naturally it only remains for Ken, Chuck, and the killer to face of in an abandoned factory, the discerning bad movie’s location of choice. If you think Ken kills the bad guy and saves his family…you’d be wrong actually. This movie has a very odd cop-out ending which makes very little sense.
Apart from all that, how is the movie? Well, I daresay there’s some acting in here somewhere but I’m buggered if I can find it. Gary Daniels has spent a long career saying very American-sounding lines in an English accent, something that never works very well. Jeffreys is OK, Rocci is irritating, and Shahlavi has an evil laugh that he must have borrowed from an 80s cartoon. Frank Gorshin deserved an award of some kind for his performance, which is hammier than the pork products stand at a pig auction. Still, all of them are better than the daytime TV rejects playing Ken’s wife and daughter.
Still, this is a kung fu movie so who cares about acting? How does he movie fare to those who like extra chop with their socky? Well, fortunately it does quite well. Director/choreographer Tony Leung Siu Hung worked on such Hong Kong fare as In The Line Of Duty 3, To Be Number One, and Satin Steel, and he puts together some nice action scenes. Luckily he has three very talented martial artists to perform them, with a decent cast of support victims, who lay just enough smack down before dying horribly. There are even some Crouching Tiger-style wire stunts, including at least two where the wire isn’t clearly visible.
My main criticism of the film is that it looks cheap – Ng See Yuen and Seasonal films, the folks behind seminal classics like Drunken Master, Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, and Secret Rivals produced it. The problem here is the same one that has dogged other Seasonal American productions; you get a lot more bang for your buck in HK than in the USA. The amazing computer graphics look like the sort of thing I could have done on my previous PC with the software that came free with my old printer. A shame, because with a bit more attention to detail this could have been a bargain-basement classic.
As it is the best thing to do is fast-forward to the fight scenes and try not to laugh at the killer’s costume. Or he’ll kick your ass, CHAMP.
Release Year: 1997 | Country: United States | Starring: Gary Daniels, Chuck Jeffreys, Frank Gorshin, Darren Shahlavi, Nina Repeta, Leigh Jones, Jeffrey Pillars, Brandie Rocci, Keith Vitali, Joe Hess, Rob Van Dam, Jen Sung Outerbridge, Michael Depasquale Jr., Ken Kensei, Joe Lewis, Rebecca Rogers, Hakim Alston | Screenplay: Keith W. Strandberg | Director: Kuang Hsiung | Cinematography: Derek Wan | Music: Richard Yuen | Producer: Ng See-Yuen, Keith W. Strandberg
I just happened to throw this movie on the other day, not planning to review it, just in the mood for a bit of 50s gothic horror. The next day, the news broke of the sad death of the film’s writer, Jimmy Sangster. As one of the small group responsible for The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula (Horror of Dracula as it’s known in the US) and The Mummy, Sangster helped change the face of horror movies. He penned many other excellent films both for Hammer as well as other studios, not to mention TV scripts and novels. He was also a witty and engaging speaker, happy to hold court on his life and work. He’s one of those people who, although he lived to the ripe old age of 83, you can’t help feel went too soon. So by way of a personal and entirely inadequate tribute, here’s my review of Blood of the Vampire.
The film opens with a title card informing us that it’s Transylvania, 1874, where those suspected to be vampires are staked through the heart before burial. We immediately see this in action, the eagle-eyed among you possibly recognising future Bond villain Milton Reid as the stake-weilder. As the burial party leaves, a deformed, mute hunchback named Carl (Victor Maddern, Circus of Fear), kills the lone gravedigger and swipes the damaged body. Carl then seeks out a drunken doctor (Cameron Hall), who previously knew the victim and performs a heart transplant on the body. The doctor then makes the mistake of asking for more money, which earns him a stabbing from Carl as an animated bat flutters by. Because, y’know, vampires.
Meanwhile, at the Transylvanian High Court of Justice, Dr. John Pierre (Vincent Ball) is on trial over the death of a patient. The judge (John Le Mesurier, Dad’s Army) claims the testimony Pierre is relying on, from his teacher Professor Meinster, says the alleged mentor has never heard of Pierre. Thus the defendant is sentenced to life imprisonment. In the courthouse lock-up, after being menaced by a crook played by Hammer and Carry On regular Bernard Bresslaw, Pierre is allowed a few moments to speak to his fiancee Madeleine Duval (Barbara Shelley). She vows to find out why Meinster responded in such a strange fashion. Madeleine gives Pierre a locket with a rather fetching image of herself inside. By the way, is it me or are there a lot of people with French-sounding names in Transylvania?
Soon Pierre is transported to different prison than the one he was expecting. The head guard Wetzler (Andrew Faulds, The Flesh and the Fiends) is unpleasantly sneery and confiscates the locket. Pierre is placed in a dungeon with a guy named Kurt (William Devlin, Treasure island), who explains the place is worse than Hell, with horrible fates awaiting the inmates. The hunchback Carl, who now lives at the prison, swipes the locket from Wetzler and is mesmerised with Madeleine’s beauty. Hey, it’s Barbara Shelley after all. Pierre is put to work with other prisoners digging graves. One of the sickly inmates collapses, and even Wetzler’s vicious doberman can’t compel him to continue. But on hearing the warden Dr. Callistratus has suddenly returned, the terrified sick man gets up and carries on working. Later, Pierre is Summoned by Callistratus (Sir Donald Wolfit, Dr. Crippen), a strangely vampiric-looking man. Callistratus reveals he deliberately send for Pierre to come to his jail; as a doctor he can assist Callistratus in his research. The warden is working on identifying the different blood groups (it was by not correctly understanding these groups that Pierre killed his patient). As a reward, Pierre gets better quarters, and the run of the prison so he can take samples from the prisoners.
Unbeknown to Pierre, Callistratus has a second laboratory in the basement. Here he has Carl drain the blood from the previously collapsed prisoner, which he then transfuses to himself. Callistratus makes some cryptic comments about his work will go more quickly now that Pierre is helping. Carl discovers Callistratus’s housekeeper (Barbara Burke) spying on them, and before long she’s also an unwilling blood donor. Back at the high court, Madeleine has tracked down Professor Meinster (Henri Vidon), who confirms the letter read out during the trial was a forgery. The chief of justice sends Monsieur Auron (Bryan Coleman, The Hand) of the prison commission to look into the matter.
At the prison, Kurt tells Pierre about the lab beneath the other lab, and of terrible experiments that take place there. Pierre tries to bluff his way in and Carl attacks him, making Callistratus angry (well, more angry – his default setting seems to be furious). He reveals that he is trying to cure a rare blood condition, one which causes healthy cells to change to a new blood group that attacks all others. Callistratus is trying to find a combination of groups that can be transfused into a diseased subject to cure the condition. Pretty sure that’s not really how blood groups work, but never mind.
Pierre and Kurt try to escape, but it’s a set-up. Kurt is savaged by the guard dogs, apparently to death. Callistratus refuses to call them off as an example to the other prisoners. He tells the authorities that Pierre was killed in the escape attempt. Of course the whole case was a ruse to get Pierre to the prison in the first place, including Auron (who’s in on the whole thing) forging the letter from Meinster. Madeleine doesn’t believe Pierre is dead, so sets herself up as the new prison housekeeper and goes undercover. She quickly finds Pierre is alive, and has discovered evidence of Callistratus performing experiments on the supposedly-dead Kurt. After night falls, Pierre sneaks into Madeleine’s room. Their happy reunion is interrupted by Carl, who is smitten with Madeleine thanks to the locket. Pierre picks the stupidest hiding place in the room (right next to a mirror), allowing Carl to see him. After leaving Madeleine’s room Pierre checks Kurt’s grave and finds it empty. He’s spotted by Metzler, and in the ensuing struggle the guard is killed.
Madeleine is summoned to Callistratus’s chambers, where Auron is also waiting. The prison official recognises her, but does not reveal this immediately. Instead he follows her back to her room and tries to force himself on her. Carl sees this and, thanks to his infatuation, attacks Auron. With things falling apart, Callistratus lures Pierre to the other laboratory, where Madeleine is chained to a wall. Callistratus explains that because of his experiments with blood, superstitious locals branded him a vampire and he was sentenced to die. He infected himself with a blood culture to feign death and enable him to survive a staking and heart transplant, but the infection is now causing his blood to attack the other cells in his body. Now with Pierre’s help, Callistratus thinks he’s made a breakthrough that will cure the condition.
As a final experiment, Callistratus intends to transfuse all of Madeleine’s blood into the barely-alive Kurt, who has been deliberately infected with the culture. Carl though doesn’t want the new object of his affections to be hurt, so Callistratus is forced to shoot him. What’s left of Kurt doesn’t feel like co-operating either, grabbing Callistratus long enough for Pierre to get the better of him. With the mad doctor as a hostage, Madeleine and Pierre escape from the prison. Our hero vows to return after clearing his name, but Callistratus won’t be around to face justice; with the last of his strength, Carl releases the dogs, who in a nicely poetic bit of payback rip Calistratus apart. The end.
Blood of the Vampire’s producers, Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker, met in the army film unit during World War II. At the end of hostilities, they partnered up to produce a slew of b-movies from 1948 well into the sixties. Berman and Baker were canny operators, keeping a close eye on what their successful rivals Hammer were doing. To this end they hired regular Hammer writer John Gilling to pen a bunch of the cheap thrillers the future House of Horror were making at the time. When Hammer had hits with sci-fi films based on television serials, they secured the remake rights to ATV’s The Trollenberg Terror (the resulting film better known as The Crawling Eye). Then when Hammer had an even bigger hit with their bloody, Eastmancolor gothic horror pictures, Berman and Baker wanted a piece of that action too. And what better way than by employing the proverbial goose laying all those golden eggs for their rival; Jimmy Sangster.
Blood of the Vampire was released in the summer of 1958, shortly after Hammer’s Dracula and around the time of The Revenge of Frankenstein, both also scripted by Sangster. As you’ve no doubt gathered from the synopsis, despite the vampire trappings (and the rather misleading opening scene) this is more of a Frankenstein story. In particular the theme of using prison inmates as raw material for medical experiments is remarkably similar to Frankenstein’s scheme in the aforementioned sequel, though in that particular film the unwilling participants are patients in a poor hospital. Also the theme of a disfigured servant falling for the female lead, with unfortunate consequences, is almost identical between the two films. I’m not complaining mind you; Sangster usually had to knock out finished scripts at some speed, often after the film had already been announced, and even the best writers only have so many ideas. What’s impressive is that even despite sharing elements, the two projects are different enough to be enjoyable on their own terms. The Revenge of Frankenstein is one of Hammer’s best films, and while Blood of the Vampire isn’t quite up to the same standard, it’s still very good. It’s also worth noting that Tony Hinds’ script for the last of the series, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, borrows heavily from this film.
The Hammer formula called for a distinguished actor in lead role. This was usually Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, though André Morell was an acceptable substitute. Berman & Baker went for the prestigious name of Sir Donald Wolfit, one of the famous group of actor/managers that included Sirs Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. Wolfit appeared in a number of genre films, most likely to fund his theatrical productions, though if you were to suggest to him he was a horror star you’d probably receive an angry response. Wolfit was by all accounts a nightmare to work with; unable to take criticism, awful to his stage companies, and known for filling them with mediocre supporting players who wouldn’t give him any competition. His peers saw him as something of a joke. After Wolfit’s death, his dresser Ronald Harwood wrote a play (later an Oscar-nominated film) entitled The Dresser (good title), about a dresser (see?) trying to keep an ageing, tyrannical leading actor called ‘Sir’ from going off the deep end. I’m sure it was totally fictional and in no way based on real life. Suddenly, Venerated Horror Icon Sir Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula sequels doesn’t seem so bad.
So with that in mind, how is Wolfit as Callistratus? Well, he’s pretty angry throughout; either because he’s a good actor and the part calls for it, or because he wasn’t pleased to be slumming in a derivative horror cheapie, or simply because he’s Sir Donald Motherfucking Wolfit. That said, it suits the character very well and thus he’s enjoyably nasty. Australian actor Vincent Ball is also good; he mostly did supporting roles in movies including a Carry On (Follow That Camel) and one of my favourite terrible British B-pictures, The Black Rider. Given the chance to step up to the lead, he’s great. After all of the interchangeable, rubbish Pauls and Hanses in Frankenstein and Dracula sequels, when the good-looking hero can actually act (and has a character), it’s worth taking note. Later Ball went back to Australia and worked on TV, including a stint in a soap much beloved of my wife in our university days, A Country Practice. Personally I wasn’t a fan; it was OK but it was no Young Doctors.
Then there’s Barbara Shelley, who requires me to find some way of expressing in words the action of gazing fondly into the distance and sighing. Barbara is one of my all-time favourite horror actresses. She was a step above the usual leading starlet, bringing a fierceness and determination to her characters even if, as written, they didn’t get much to do outside of being menaced. Her transformation from uptight wife to seductive vampire in Dracula, Prince of Darkness is among my favourite Hammer memories, and she was the company’s most prolific lead actress. At this point Barbara hadn’t yet appeared in a horror film for Hammer, though she gave an excellent performance in 1958′s The Camp on Blood Island (and had in fact made her film debut for the company in the little-seen 1952 thriller Mantrap). Her previous genre role had been as the titular Cat Girl in 1957, but this was her first foray into a gothic horror. Naturally, she’s brilliant. That fierce doggedness is very apparent in Madeleine, who despite her obvious fear still puts herself in harm’s way to save Pierre. Strong characters are a trademark of Sangster scripts; note that it was only after he stopped writing gothics for Hammer that those bloody Pauls and Hanses started to creep in.
One of Hammer’s selling points was their ability to make no-budget films look incredibly lavish and expensive, thanks to production designer Bernard Robinson. Blood of the Vampire isn’t quite on a par with Robinson’s work, but it’s pretty damn close. The prison sets are completed on an impressive scale, and only some dodgy matte paintings spoil the effect. Sadly the makeup is less successful, with Carl’s fake eye being the worst culprit. It’s plastered on with little care, can’t move or blink with Victor Maddern’s real eye and it’s not even the same colour. People complain about the prosthetics in Hammer films, but nothing Phil Leakey or Roy Ashton produced is as bad as this. Still, it’s an impressively gory film for the time, especially in the longer ‘international’ version (if you’re really interested this is available on DVD in Italy, though the print used is pretty poor).
Direction is by Henry Cass, who worked with the producers, Berman and Baker, often. His style is serviceable; he’s no Terence Fisher, but he gets the job done. It would be remiss of me not to mention that Berman and Baker found much greater success in the 60s on television. They secured the rights to Leslie Charteris’ character The Saint, which became a massively popular show starring Roger Moore. This led to a variety of other series including Department S and The Champions. But I digress.
I’ve just counted and for the second review in a row, I’ve managed to mention the word ‘Hammer’ multiple times for a film not made by that company. This time I’m doing slightly better; 20 uses on Legend of the Werewolf as opposed to 15 here. The problem is, it’s hard to discuss any gothic period horror, or indeed any British B picture from this era, without bringing them up. Such was Hammer’s (make that 16) influence that comparisons are inevitable, and a major reason for that influence was the pen of Jimmy Sangster. Personally I think that’s an awesome legacy.
Release Year: 1958 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Donald Wolfit, Vincent Ball, Barbara Shelley, Victor Maddern, William Devlin, Andrew Faulds , John Le Mesurier, Bryan Coleman, Cameron Hall, Barbara Burke, Bernard Bresslaw, Hal Osmond, Henri Vidon, John Stuart, Colin Tapley, Otto Diamant, Milton Reid | Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster | Director: Henry Cass | Cinematography: Monty Berman | Music: Stanley Black | Producer: Robert S. Baker, Monty Berman
As the kind of pop culture savvy, switched-on individual who reads Teleport City, I assume you’re familiar with Sam Raimi’s excellent 2002 adaptation of Spider-Man. But in case you’re not or just need reminding, here’s a quick recap of the plot. Peter Parker sees the girl of his dreams being wooed by a wealthy jock with a flash car. Deciding what he needs is a cool set of wheels, he uses his recently acquired spider powers to enter a wrestling contest for money, only to see through his inaction, his beloved Uncle Ben shot and killed. The 2009 Russian film Black Lightning (produced as all Russian movies apparently are by Night Watch’s Timur Bekmambetov) uses the same plot, but asks the one important question Spider-Man left dangling; ‘what about the car? What about the car??’
Moscow, 2004. Greedy industrialist Victor Kuptsov (Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Night Watch) is drilling for the vast diamond deposits buried under the city. Despite warnings that this will undermine the foundations of Moscow and possibly kill millions through earthquakes, Kuptsov pushes ahead, but is thwarted when his giant Matrix-style tunneling machine isn’t powerful enough. The only thing with enough energy to complete the plan is the MacGuffin-O-Tron, also known as the Nanocatalyst. This device fashioned from magic moon rocks can increase the power of any normal fuel to over a million times the power of nuclear energy, or something. It was designed in the Soviet days but the project was abandoned.
In the present day, some workers employed by Kuptsov discover the lab where the Nanocatalyst was discovered. There are lots of blueprints and so forth, and also an old, black 1960s GAZ-21 Volga automobile. Seeing the chance to make a profit, they decide to swipe the car and sell it. Which may have a certain significance to college student and our nominated Piotr Parkovich, a.k.a. Dmtry, Dima to his friends (Grigory Dobrygin). Dima is contentious, studies hard, and has serious hots for the new girl, Nastya (the extremely pretty Ekaterina Vilkova, Hipsters). Dima though is constantly upstaged by his rich buddy Maxim (Ivan Zhidkov), who drives a sleek white Mercedes (one of the things that tickled me about this movie is how everyone evil drives a Merc. I’m half-expecting to find an interview where one of the writers reveals a Mercedes killed his father). Seeing his son is pretty bummed out, Dima’s Dad (Sergey Garmash, Space Dogs 3D), a poor but upstanding tram driver, buys his son… an old, black 1960s GAZ-21 Volga. Didn’t see that coming, did you?
Dima is grateful but not exactly thrilled; this is hardly the car to impress Nastya. So he hides it and tries to get the bus to college, but misses it because of stopping to help an old drunk. And on this day of all days, when nasty Victor Kuptsov is giving a lecture at the college. Dima earns some cutting remarks from Kuptsov, who trots out the old bullshit that successful people help only themselves. But his words strike a chord in Dima, who wants to make enough money to impress the girl he loves. You can probably see where this is going…
Kuptsov meanwhile is annoyed that the Nanocatalyst is nowhere to be found, only a container of previously converted super-energized nanofuel (it’s blue and glowing so you know it’s crazy powerful). From the blueprints it’s apparent that the Nanocatalyst has been built into the missing Volga, so Kuptsov sends his army of heavies out into Moscow to find all the Volgas they can. Meanwhile all is not well in the Dima household. Dima’s new attitude of only looking out for himself and trying to make as much money as possible does not sit well with his poor-but-proud Dad. When Dima Sr. intervenes in a mugging, his son berates him for risking his life for someone else, causing a deep rift between them. Kuptsov’s men observe Dad getting angrily out of the Volga, but stick with pursuing the car. And then Dima makes a startling discovery: his car can fly. Aw, man. The Russians had flying cars back in the 1960s? Way to go, capitalism.
Through an old record he finds in the glove box, Dima tracks down a couple of the scientists who built the car. They are now married, Perepelkin (Valeriy Zolotukhin, Night Watch) and Romantseva (Ekaterina Vasileva). Perepelkin is suspicious, claiming they could never get the Nanocatalyst to work, the project was closed down and chief scientist Elizarov (Juozas Budraitis) was fired in disgrace. Romantseva is more sympathetic and gives Dima the manual for the car. Now that he can circumvent the horrendous Moscow traffic, Dima becomes the star of the flower delivery service he’s been working for. Finally he has some cash to splash around, and takes Nastya to dinner at a swanky restaurant. He discovers quickly that she’s not the rich sophisticate Max said she was, and if she fails the next college exam will have to go back to her family in the country.
Unfortunately with great wealth comes great assholery. Dima gets into a fight with Max, and says a few salacious (and untrue) things about Nastya, which she overhears. Even worse, when he goes to reconcile with his Dad, Kuptsov’s men get there first, and the mugger Dad thwarted earlier is in their employ. Dad ends up bleeding to death in a snowy side-street while Dima sits idly by, refusing to call an ambulance because it doesn’t fit with his new ‘looking out for number one’ philosophy. He realizes too late who the victim is, Dad having already passed away.
At home with his distraught Mum (Elena Valyushkina) and little sister Tanka (Katya Starshova), Dima has the revelation we’ve been waiting for since the opening credits, especially when Tanka tells him “you’ll have to be dad now.” Using the Volga’s super-radio which cleverly doubles as a police band scanner, Dima becomes a hoodie-wearing superhero. He saves a child from a burning apartment block, foils an armoured car robbery and saves a baby in one go, even catches the mugger who killed his Dad (the mugger’s fate is not revealed, but since I don’t think Dima ever knew it was him, this isn’t too much of an oversight – I quite liked the ambiguity, in fact). He also gives the Volga a spiffy new coat of paint, and soon the people and the press are going crazy over this hero they have dubbed ‘Black Lightning.’ My favourite scene in the film is a lovely little moment that pops up about now, when Tanka asks Dima if Black Lightning is real. He says yes, but nobody knows who he is. “I think it’s Dad,” she replies. Brought a little lump to my throat, I don’t mind telling you.
Kuptsov is getting extremely frustrated with his inability to capture the car and the Nanocatalyst. He recalls the three scientists from the original project and convinces them he’s building a new version of the car to help Black Lightning in his heroic work. It transpires that Romantseva and Elizarov were in love, but because Perepelkin wanted her for himself he faked the negative results, knowing Elizarov would be fired. Meanwhile Dima deliberately fails an exam, knowing his place will go to Nastya, who is genuinely struggling. She realizes he’s not the dickhead she thought he was, but in a romantic twist of fate that is equal parts brilliant and ridiculous, ends up thinking Maxim is Black Lightning. Max being a genuine dickhead, plays along.
Back at Kuptsov’s facility, Perepelkin finds out about the plot to drill for diamonds and destroy Moscow. Now eager to redeem himself, he tries to escape and get help even though it means likely death. Kuptsov lets him go, betting that Black Lightning will show up to rescue him. Nastya meanwhile has switched her allegiance back to Maxim, admiring his apparent selflessness and heroism. Discovering this, Dima almost lets Perepelkin die just to prove Maxim isn’t the hero, but of course he can’t. “Black Lighting will be there. He has to be there,” he tells Nastya, even though he knows he’s playing into Maxim’s hands (Max is hiding in the toilet at this point). And somehow, Nastya realizes that even though Maxim is apparently the hero, she actually loves Dima.
Unfortunately Dima falls into Kuptsov’s trap, failing to save Perepelkin and losing the Nanocatalyst to the bad guy’s super, rocket-armed flying Mercedes. Kuptsov re-starts the drill with the three scientists tied to it, and Moscow seems doomed. With only his small reserve tank of nanofuel left, Dima is able to stop the drill and recover the Nanocatalyst. Kuptsov is furious and, having worked out who Black Lightning is, kidnaps Nastya, demanding the Nanocatalyst in exchange for her life. Can Dima save the woman he loves and Moscow and defeat the man ultimately responsible for his father’s death? Does a Russian bear shit in the woods?
Y’know, I could say a lot of negative things about Black Lightning. Sure, it’s massively derivative of American comic book movies; as well as the Spider-Man series, it borrows bits of Iron Man, Batman Begins (the score is identical in spots) and Universal’s legal team may have been rubbing their hands over the Delorean-like design of Kuptsov’s flying Mercedes (Universal put the film out internationally though so I assume it was OK). Dima even has a Facebook account where people can ask him for help, Kick Ass style, but I guess those movies were in production at the same time so we’ll let that one go.
On top of that, the plot is pretty thin, and several of the elements could have been fleshed out better. In particular I’d like to have seen the car given a bit more… personality I guess. I don’t mean have it talk or think for itself, but it doesn’t register on-screen the way I think it’s meant to. Partly this is down to Dima’s character never seeming to have much of a bond with it; it’s just a tool for getting the job done. I do wonder if part of this is because the special effects, while good, are used sparingly, so the flying sequences are quite brief. Hey, I doubt they had $150 million to spend so that’s understandable. I also think it’s because Grigory Dobrygin as Dima isn’t a very good actor. He’s a little too blank, is better at being a jerk than a hero, and a times is even a little creepy. The rest of the characters are pure ciphers, though thankfully filled by good actors who make them work for the most part.
And then there are those pesky action sequences. I know that in a movie about a magic flying car it’s probably silly to complain about how much of the action seems to defy physics, but there are moments where I did roll my eyes (like when Black Lightning is flying vertically upwards with another car balanced upright on the front fender – I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t work). And a little more time spent on exactly what the car is capable of would have been nice. It seems like the only difference from a normal car is supposed to be the flying thing, and yet BL seems to be indestructible, can apparently go into space without ill effects despite earlier being shown not to be watertight, and a few other things. And honestly, when it comes to super-heroics a flying car is a lot less practical than a dude swinging from a web. Take the moment where a stolen armoured car is about to hit a woman and her baby. BL shunts it from the side, flipping it over. So now it’s still moving forward at speed towards the baby but completely unable to steer. Of course it stops in the nick of time but you get the idea.
And yet… for all its many faults, I found myself going along with Black Lightning, and getting genuinely invested in the outcome. There are some nice moments throughout, and so help me I wanted to see weird, creepy Dima get the girl. I mentioned the sweet little bit with him and his sister, and I all but cheered when Dima thinks he’s sacrificing his future with Nastya to do the right thing. I am something of a sucker for comic book movies, I guess. I even smiled a little at the joke stolen from the Moore-era Bond movies, when a guy about to knock back his fifth vodka sees the flying car and swears off booze forever. So while far from a classic, I’d give Black Lightning a pass, even though it has nothing to do with the DC comics character of the same name – a black guy who shoots lightning.
And so what if they never really address why a bunch of scientists, discovering a magic new power source, would turn it into a flying car? If I had the technology and the resources I’d build that shit yesterday!
Release Year: 2009 | Country: Russia | Starring: Grigory Dobrygin, Ekaterina Vilkova, Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Valeriy Zolotukhin, Ekaterina Vasileva, Juozas Budraitis, Ivan Zhidkov, Sergey Garmash, Ekaterina Starshova, Mikhail Efremov, Dato Bakhtadze, Igor Savochkin, Sergey Legostaev, Elena Valyushkina | Screenplay: Dmitriy Aleynikov, Aleksandr Talal, Aleksandr Voytinskiy, Mikhail Vrubel, Rostislav Krivitskiy, Vladimir Neklyudov | Director: Dmitriy Kiselev, Aleksandr Voytinskiy | Cinematography: Sergey Trofimov | Music: Yuriy Poteenko | Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Syuzanna Muazen, Pavel Ratner, Iva Stromilova, Aleksandr Voytinskiy, Mikhail Vrubel | Original title: Chernaya Molniya