Elvis Presley didn’t like his own movies, except maybe Flaming Star and King Creole. He idolized “angry young man” actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean and always hoped that with the right coaching, he might be able to count himself among their ranks. And maybe he could have. King Creole certainly shows impressive flashes. It’s entirely likely that if the proper director or producer had taken the young singer under wing and pushed him along in the right direction, Elvis could have picked up where James Dean left off, or at least gotten close. We’ll never know, unfortunately, because while Elvis dreamed of being the next Dean or Brando, his manager (the eternally villainous Colonel Parker) and studio executives saw him as little more than a bubblegum sweetheart and refused to cast him in anything but family-friendly Frankie Avalon roles.
Karate Robo Zaborgar presented me with the sort of soul-searching conflict that often plagues those of us who worry about the higher philosophical questions in life. On the one hand, it was a presumably loving spoof of one of my favorite genres — the old “tokusatsu” superhero shows of the 1970s, with their karate cyborgs, fringed jeans, motorcycle helmets, random explosions in rock quarries, and theme songs dominated by jazzy trumpets. On the other hand, I watched a similar movie last year — Takashi Miike’s Yatterman — and still consider it one of the worst, most unenjoyable movies I’ve seen in the better part of a decade. My bottomless disdain for Yatterman comes despite the fact that I generally like Miike as a director. Karate Robo Zaborgar, by contrast, was directed by Noboru Iguchi, a director who has yet to make a movie I didn’t dislike. His stock in trade is slapstick splatter send-ups of popular Japanese genres, but done with such juvenile laziness and awkward, ill-realized timing that what should have been outrageous comes across merely as tedious.
Yatterman is a colorful, overblown, largely idiotic live-action adaptation of an anime series from 1977. It’s also a painful illustration of every weak point wildly hit-or-miss director Takashi Miike possesses, while at the same time it fails to highlight any of the thing he does well. Miike’s staunch unwillingness to make anything less than 14,000 movies a week means that if nothing else, he became by virtue of quantity alone a force to be reckoned with in the reeling, post-bubble Japanese film industry, when more and more directors retreated into the realm of the low-budget direct-to-video (and later, DVD) market. Miike’s prolific nature meant that he produced a few incredibly bad movies, a whole lot of mediocre ones, and a few that either were or teetered on brilliant.
Hong Kong stuntman-turned-star Lam Ching-Ying made a whole slew of vampire comedies following the success of his turn in 1985’s Mr. Vampire, and Vampire vs. Vampire is inarguably one of them. Coming on the heels of two official Mr. Vampire sequels, the film stands out for a couple of reasons, not the least being that it marks Lam’s debut as a director. But, to me, the most interesting aspect of Vampire vs. Vampire is the fact that it pits Lam’s character against a Dracula-like, Western style vampire — rather than the jiang shi, or hopping vampires, seen in the previous entries — and in doing so sets some choice gothic elements against the series’ familiar backdrop of Chinese folk magic.
Old Hong Kong movies use the presence of a Taoist priest as a license to print crazy, despite the real world practice of Taoism’s emphasis on quiet contemplation and equilibrium with nature. As these filmmakers would have it, that age old philosophical tradition is all about people shooting cartoon lightning bolts out of their hands, repelling one another with weapon strength, supersonic laughter and, of course, watermelon monsters. In short, exactly the type of religion that might get me to turn my back on my secular ways once and for all.
It is logical, and it seemed easy enough, to begin a discussion of The Cat and the Canary with a discussion of the history of “old dark house” mysteries — those movies where a disparate and largely shifty group of people convene upon a mysterious old mansion and find themselves embroiled in — and probably accused of — either a murder or a theft. Lots of skulking, staring, and clutching hands appearing from behind curtains or the doors of hidden passages ensues. From the silent era to the end of the 1930s, there was a dizzying number of “old dark house” films produced. They were cheap to make, easy to write, and demanded little from the production company or the audience. At their worst, old dark house mysteries were harmlessly entertaining. Often they were much better than that. The formula was so adaptable that it could be grafted onto pretty much any type of movie. Even established series like the Bulldog Drummond and Charlie Chan movies fell back from time to time on the old dark house motif. From horror to comedy to crime to thriller, it was easy to crank out an old dark house version of the genre and keep everyone at least moderately satisfied.
I cannot count “point of view” films among the styles of film making for which I possess much tolerance. Aside from rarely being the least bit convincing as “found footage,” relying as they do on the conceit that assorted people would continue to film an incident long after the extreme danger factor would move just about any human in the world to put down the camera and run, there’s just not too much about them that I find appealing. They’re too jittery, too shallow, too… well, obnoxious. The POV films I’ve seen to date have either proved to have remarkable little staying power (The Blair Witch Project, ground zero for this trend, was fun the first time when I knew nothing about it but becomes less impressive after that) or were simply unwatchable from the get-go (Diary of the Dead). Maybe if they spent less time on characters bickering and screaming “What is that???” while flailing a camera around, I would warm to them.
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.
It makes me happy to wake up and discover, more or less totally by accident, that the world of film is still surprising and delightful. I have no idea how I heard of Norwegian Ninja. Perhaps appropriate to the subject matter, awareness of the movie simply popped into my head with no external stimulus at all, like the world knew that I needed to know Norwegian Ninja existed, and the cosmos took whatever metaphysical steps were needed to enlighten me. There it was all of a sudden on my television, and I was pretty happy. After this and Troll Hunter, maybe I should start paying attention to Norway beyond making jokes about the black metal scene and how their scary devil make-up isn’t as scary as they think it is when all those people pose for a photo out in their back yard.
These days, it seems like Japan makes about five zombie movies a week, each one more half-assed and dreadful than the last. Once, long ago, when Italy and the United States had lost interest in the zombie film, Japan decided to start cranking a few out. They started out modest but promising, and by the time we got to Wild Zero and Versus, I do believe that I naively exclaimed that the zombie film was well served by Japanese stewardship. Then they made Stacy, and I started to wonder if maybe I had celebrated prematurely. A few years ago, the United Stated rediscovered the zombie film, and zombies themselves became a pop culture phenomenon that ultimately degenerated into hipster zombie parties and zombie olympics and such. Japan wasn’t going to miss out on things, and a whole slew of cheap, new Japanese zombie movies were soon flooding the market. They were and continue to be high on wackiness and low on watchability, pretty much like their microbudget counterparts in America.
You would assume upon hearing the title that Zombie Hunter Rika is yet another entry in the seemingly never-ending parade of disappointing slapstick splatter movies that are getting pumped out of Japan at a remarkable rate. While it does contain some material that would be at home in a film by Noboru Iguchi, Zombie Hunter Rika is actually more of a straight-forward zombie film — or as straight-forward as Japan has ever made them. Think less Machine Girl, more Junk. It’s also kind of lame, but not so lame as to become totally unwatchable, which already makes it one of the best Japanese cult films in years. It’s a sad statement on the merits of the Japanese cult film when “I really only wanted to gouge out one of my eyes to escape it, rather than both of them” is seen as praise. But really, Zombie Hunter Rika isn’t even that bad. I still had both my eyes by the time it was over. It’s sort of bland and lacks energy in spots, and like all recent Japanese cult films, it has a stuttering, awkward pace. However, it also has just enough inspired moments to make it worth watching if you’re already a seasoned viewer of crappy zombie movies.
From what I gather, Zombie Hunter Rika is supposed to be the third film in a loosely related trilogy, but this is a trilogy only in the same sense that, say Dawn of the Dead, Zombie, and Zombie 3 form a trilogy. I have scheduled but have not, as of this writing, watched Zombie Self Defense Force, the supposed first film in this “Nihonbi” series. The second film, The Girls Rebel Force of Competitive Swimmers, is a largely a pinky sex film that has zombies thrown into the mix. I guess Zombie Hunter Rika falls closer to the Zombie Self Defense Force end of the spectrum, but with a little nudity thrown in to make the kids happy. I guess I will eventually discover what’s expected to link the three together, beyond them being about zombies eating Japanese people. It’s the sort of Bob Woodward-esque commitment to uncovering the story that keeps me going.
Rika and her best friend live in a world that makes almost no logical sense. There are apparently zombies, and the killing of zombies is a sport that creates pro wrestling style internet superstars like the famed Zombie Hunter (one of the worst white guy actors in Japanese movie history — which is a tremendous claim, I know). At the same time, life seems to go on as normal, and when zombies attack a small town, no one else seems to notice or be prepared for it. Some zombie films bend over backward to explain why it’s all happening. Others go with “we will never know what caused this.” Zombie Hunter Rika seems to be taking the approach of “whatever, man.” Rika and her friend fin themselves trapped on the wrong side of zombie gut munchers with her semi-catatonic sword master grandfather, his conniving new wife, her conniving rockabilly-esque brother, a few couple slapstick locals, and a benevolent zombie who has strapped a metal grate to his face to stop himself from eating people. When Rika loses her arm, they conveniently find the big muscular arm of a slain zombie hunter, graft it to her, and thus is born the world’s most powerful schoolgirl zombie slayer.
Shot on video, amateurishly made, but decently acted, Zombie Hunter Rika benefits greatly from diminished expectations. That it managed to be even moderately entertaining makes it seem like some great accomplishment. Some of the jokes are actually kind of funny. The conniving brother has a great fight scene against a gang of zombies in which he…well, it’s really hard to describe. But let’s say you had a friend who was actually kind of good at martial arts, and he got in a real world version of a Tony Jaa fight. It’s like that. There’s an air of competence about it, but without precision choreography, there’s also a lot of awkwardness, falling down, and flailing about. It was probably the best art of the movie, and it comes pretty early on. Action direction was done by Tak Sakaguchi, best known as the mysterious anti-hero in Versus but also one of the crew along with Noboru Iguchi responsible for the wave of aforementioned slapstick splatter movies. There’s an obvious jump in the energy level whenever Tak steps behind the camera to take over for regular director Ken’ichi Fujiwara.
The rest of the film follows the standard zombie film trajectory of a group of people holing up in a house to defend themselves. For the most part, the writing is really dumb, and the way the script has its character act in the middle of a zombie apocalypse just doesn’t make a lick of sense. Things start to drag during the second act, but no sooner are you starting to feel your patience wearing thin than they graft that arm on Rika and the film wakes up again for the finale. Things get insane in that way that seems unique to weird Japanese films but common to them all, if that makes any sense. A sort of predictable unpredictability, where you don’t know what crazy shit they’re going to make up, but you know they’re going to make up a lot of crazy shit. It’s film writing via getting a bunch of cult movie nerds drunk then letting them finish a script. Throw in a lot of zombie gore and some gratuitous boob shots, and you have a film that manages just barely to be on the enjoyable end of the bell curve.
Release Year: 2008 | Country: Japan | Starring: Mina Arai, Lemon Hanazawa, Kotaro Kamijo, Ryunosuke Kawai, Eiichi Kikuchi, Risa Kudo, Yuya Matsuura, Mai Minami, Tsugumi Nagasawa, Akina Serizawa, Takeshi Yamamoto | Screenplay: Ken’ichi Fujiwara, Takeyuki Morikaku | Director: Ken’ichi Fujiwara