I wish there was a better way to describe the late, Javanese-born actress Suzzanna than as “the Queen of Indonesian Horror”, but that title is as accurate as it is shopworn. Over a career that spanned more than three decades, Suzzanna — born Suzanna Martha Frederika van Osch — starred in dozens of features, most of them in the horror genre, and portrayed a wide variety of formidable, supernaturally empowered women, including various figures from Southeast Asian folklore and even a distaff version of Freddy Krueger.
Researching the history of Japanese yokai in cinema is a difficult task. At least, it’s a difficult task if, like me, you don’t read Japanese and are kind of lazy. Almost all of the English language writing about movies involving these bizarre and multitudinous creatures from Japanese folklore focuses on the three loosely related yokai movies released by Daei in the late 1960s — Spook Warfare, 100 Ghosts, and Along with Ghosts — or on Takashi Miike’s more recent take on those old movies, Great Yokai War. A few people will talk about the history of yokai in popular Japanese culture and the role Shigeru Mizuki and his manga series, GeGeGe no Kitaro, played in turning this bizarre assembly of ghosts, demons, monsters, and goblins into pop culture icons. But beyond that, the field of cinematic yokai studies is largely empty even though, as Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo illustrates, someone was out there making yokai movies even before Mizuki published his comic book.
I am breaking little new ground when I point out that the original 1954 film Godzilla was a serious sci-fi horror film that is taken seriously by serious critics (seriously!), even the more annoying ones who usually refuse to give genre films the time of day. Few people would argue that it was a cinematic milestone, that it was to the crossover scifi/horror film what Citizen Kane was to movies about grumpy newspaper moguls and what Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was to the road trip film. Whatever the franchise may have become, Godzilla’s contribution to film history was as big as the monster itself, and not even Michael Medved will argue that one. Or maybe he will. I don’t really know him personally, so I can’t account for him.
Amazing, isn’t it, the kinds of ridiculous crap they used to play on broadcast television back in the days before cable? I saw Jess Franco’s lurid, sleazy, wholly indescribable The Girl from Rio on afternoon TV under its alternate title, Future Women. It was on WDRB-TV 41 in Louisville, a scrappy independent station that was, for at least part of its lifespan, actually run out of someone’s garage studio. At a time when there were only three broadcast channels plus PBS (which, back then, was actually watchable thanks to their affection for 60s and 70s British spy and science fiction shows), having WDRB pop up was a real treat, especially for a kid like me. WDRB was more than willing to broadcast all sorts of weird stuff the majors wouldn’t touch, and it was thanks to them that I first saw Godzilla, kungfu movies, and a whole pile of Eurosleaze horror cinema.
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.
If you are familiar either with me or with my work on this site, it probably comes as no shock that I rank Gymkata as one of the most valuable players on an amazing and occasionally sparkly team. I’ve been pushing this movie on people for decades, armed at first with little more than my cherished VHS copy in its oversized gray MGM/UA box. Since then, and much to my delight, Gymkata has become a touchstone of pop culture references. People know it, even if they haven’t seen it, and knowing, as you know, is half the battle. And while some people get irritated when something they’ve been name-dropping for years suddenly gets embraced by the larger mainstream non-mainstream society (Chuck Norris karate jeans being the most recent example), I bear no ill will toward those who are late in coming to Gymkata. Lord knows there are plenty of things for which I showed up late. I don’t consider it to be some secret to be guarded jealously and to the death by fanatic soldiers armed with weird masks, AK-47s, and scimitars. As far as I’m concerned, the more people who have the word “gymkata” on their lips, the better.
Born as I was in the early days of the 1970s, I am by law required to identify myself as part of the Star Wars generation. And to some degree I suppose that’s accurate. I’m not going to try and retcon myself into some cool iconoclast who hated Star Wars when he was five years old. I loved it. Saw it in the theaters, saw it at the drive-in, saw it more times than I care to count at my friend’s house when it finally came out on VHS. But Star Wars was not the sole reflection of my science fiction tastes. I started in on sci-fi at a very young age, exposed pre-concrete-memories to a lot of trippy hippy sci-fi freaks — the benefits of growing up with parents who were still in college. Neither of my parents were full-on hippies. My mom was a bookworm with hippy tendencies but too much anger, and my dad was basically one of those easy-going jock stoner types with a taste for Uriah Heep. So I was around a lot of college weirdos, some of whom helped invent stuff like Dungeons & Dragons, and some of whom played football or were on the swim team back from that strange era when even athletes had long hair and Fu Manchu mustaches and lava lamps. I was a kid obsessed with comic books superheroes, robots, ray guns, and Ultraman. I “read” a lot of old sci-fi comics as well, or read them as much as any three-year-old can, which is to say I looked at them and drooled. But I guess the crazy covers and artwork were the sort of colorful eye-candy to me that Teletubbies or Yo Gabba are to modern children. All things considered, I prefer my version.
Indian spy movies from the 60s tend to be delightful despite themselves. The typical Bollywood film’s emphasis on communal values and lack of irony made them ill suited for portraying the kind of smirky hedonism so often displayed in Western examples of the genre. As a result, big budget, mainstream espionage thrillers like Aankhen featured mother loving, teetotaling heroes who stood out against such decadent trappings as almost a kind of rebuke. Meanwhile, in the genre ghetto of India’s B movie industry, attempts were being made at churning out spy films that hued a little closer to the European model. Unfortunately for these films, while the attitude might have been there, the cash wasn’t. Given that, the end products were frequently films that tested the notion of just how sparely represented the basic tropes of the spy genre could be in a film without it falling short of being a spy film at all.
Gallants is the sort of movie that seems custom made for lapsing into bouts of nostalgia, and nostalgia is a dangerous thing. For me, and maybe this only makes sense in my own head (where it also makes sense to advance Manos: The Hands of Fate as a work of profound importance), you can look at and even celebrate the past without becoming nostalgic. Nostalgia is a particular way of looking at the past, one resigned to belief that the past is as good as it ever was, and it’ll never be that good again. I just can’t reconcile myself with that degree of fatalism, though the older one gets the more often one struggles with that sort of pessimism — especially when one turns on the FM radio and hears that dreadful racket the kids these days refer to as music. What’s wrong, old man??? Justin Beiber too bold for ya? Go back to the nursing home and listen to your safe old Dead Kennedys and Naked Raygun albums, grampa!
Back in October of 2003, when I was still gainfully employed as a writer at Toyfare magazine, I was given the following assignment: using my vast and shameful knowledge of things both Transformer and GI Joe, I was to write an article, using a series of pre-determined questions and criteria, pitting the two iconic toy lines against each other in a battle for overall supremacy. Hey, it’s the sort of things we did back then as grown men and women. I can’t say I went into the article without some degree of personal bias. I had a huge GI Joe collection when I was in middle school. My Transformers collection was OK, but GI Joe is where all my time and money went — partly because there was so much more you could buy, and partly because collecting GI Joe figures was a lot easier on a lawn mowing allowance than collecting the much pricier Transformers figures. And for a kid with a big, wooded back yard, the potential play value of GI Joe was considerably more substantial — and yes, I was eleven years old; I played with my GI Joes.