Tag Archives: G

Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster

godzilla-vs-the-sea-monster-1966

As of this writing, Godzilla is in hibernation following his last attempt at a cinematic swan song, 2004’s dreadful Final Wars. Come the teens, however, I am pretty confident that Godzilla’s masters at Toho will take him out of mothballs again to reinvent him — as they have done in the two previous decades — for a new era and prevailing sensibility. In the nineties they gave us an appropriately touchy-feely Godzilla series, with Mothra recast as a new-agey Earth Mother and a teary-eyed psychic on hand to clue us in to the monsters’ feelings. The Godzilla of the 00’s was leaner and meaner, aided by the fact that all of those shots of collapsing skyscrapers now had a disquieting edge of verisimilitude. I have no idea what version of Godzilla Toho has in store for us in the future, but I’m fairly certain it won’t be the goofy superhero we saw in his movies from the late sixties and seventies. That incarnation, I’m afraid, is one that’s lost to the ages.

Still, I’m happy to at least see evidence of a more forgiving attitude emerging with regard to movies like Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and its much maligned director, Jun Fukuda. For years it seemed that the more affable version of Godzilla presented therein and the man most associated with it were held in utter revulsion by those who considered themselves serious fans. As such, they became central to an official narrative of decline – a woeful spiral or ruin traced from the minute Godzilla did that little victory jig in Monster Zero and cemented into inevitability with the replacement of series mentor Ishiro Honda by the upstart Fukuda, leading inexorably to that dark day when Godzilla and Anguilas would speak to each other via cartoon speech balloons in Godzilla vs. Gigan.


Behind all of this ire seemed to be this notion that the “real” Godzilla had been hijacked and replaced by a buffoonish impostor, an idea that seemed to be what fueled the comparatively serious-minded tone of the G films of the nineties and beyond. But what this stance refused to acknowledge is the fact that Godzilla’s rich and varied history gives him all the chameleon-like properties of a true pop icon — that he is a piece of imaginational public property capable of being to each person whoever that person wants him to be, without encroaching in the least on the next person’s conception of him. Those who enjoy Godzilla most as the symbolism-freighted destructive juggernaut seen in his debut film can do so without having that enjoyment dampened in the least by the fact that, later down the road, he would be pitching cartoon boulders at a giant lobster, just as those who enjoy that later version are free to do so untroubled by the fact that, early on, Godzilla was a bit of a dick. Godzilla is a bit like Madonna in that way (while Madonna, as time passes, is increasingly like Godzilla in a number of other ways).

Sadly, the cropping up of misguided and pointlessly self-limiting orthodoxies in the realm of pop culture is exactly the sort of thing you’re going to see if you allow for a backwass notion like “serious fandom”, which, to me, is like the flipside of “casual zealotry”. I mean, I’m both capable of being serious and a fan of many things, but I strongly believe that when the notions of “seriousness” and “fandom” collide, only trouble, heartache and — in the unforgiving lense of hindsight — deep, gnawing shame can result. I feel this especially acutely in this case. because, to my thinking, to be too critical of Godzilla after a certain point becomes dangerously close to taking Godzilla for granted, which is something we should never do. You see, I’ve reached an age where I’ve taken stock of my life and determined which things matter to me the most. And I can tell you in all honesty that Godzilla ranks right up there with fine liquor, warm summer nights and the love of a good woman among those thing that make life most worth living. Sure, I wasn’t crazy about Final Wars, but if you told me that having no Final Wars meant having no Godzilla, I’d have to say, sure, go ahead and give Ryuhei Kitamura the keys to the franchise and let him have at it.

All of this ties in with what I think determines which of Godzilla’s different manifestations will be the one a particular person will hold closest to his or her heart, which can basically be described as a sort of primary attachment theory of Godzilla. In short, it’s all about which Godzilla was your first. In my case, it was Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. If memory serves — which it may very well not — the encounter took place via a short-lived Saturday night horror movie package called Shock-It-To-Me Theater that aired on one of the Bay Area’s local UHF channels. The host was a goateed guy called Asmodeus, who always wore a smoking jacket and dark glasses — and who actually puffed away on a cigarette as he introduced the movies, which should give you some idea of how long ago this was. Not long after, Asmodeus and Shock-It-To-Me would be driven off the air by the popularity of a competing horror show on another local channel, Creature Features, which was hosted by the recently departed Bob Wilkins, an unassuming guy in an off-the-rack suit and glasses who had a perpetually bemused demeanor and a lacerating, bone-dry wit.


Thinking back, it must have been tough for Asmodeus, who was more what would have been considered a traditional horror movie host at the time — complete with ominously intoned, pre-scripted dialog and a cobwebbed, gothic castle set from which to intone it — to be knocked off the air by a guy like Wilkins. Little did we know at the time that, with Wilkins, we were seeing the first glimmer of an ironic hipster sensibility that, by the time of Mystery Science Theater, would become part and parcel of our attitude toward “B” cinema as a whole. Anyway, it’s just as likely that I first saw Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster on Wilkins’ Creature Features. But, if that’s the case, at least my lapse in memory gave me an opportunity to give Asmodeus a shout-out, because, even though I was among the horde of young viewers who ditched him in favor of Creature Features, he was still a formative influence.

Anyway, what matters the most out of all of this is that my initial viewing of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, whatever setting on the TV dial it emanated from, had a soul-stirring effect on me. I remember being struck by a sense of wonderment at the fact that adults, who at this point in my life seemed to merely serve as delivery system for everything — vegetables, outdoor activities, Summer swimming lessons — that I wanted to have nothing to do with, had taken the trouble to create something that was so completely awesome — something that, judging by how it conformed so closely to my seven-year-old mind’s conception of what was cool, appeared to have been designed specifically with my pleasure in mind. Here were giant monsters fighting; perilous jungle adventures; an army of exotic, uniformed bad guys lead by a dude with an eyepatch; futuristic looking sci-fi sets; toy boats and planes that acted just like the real thing, and lots of explosions, all set to a driving, sort-of-rock-and-roll-sounding musical score that practically screamed at me that I was watching probably the most exciting thing ever seen.

Some time later I would see — and years later, come to love — the original Godzilla, but at the time it was the one film in the series that struck me as being the departure. My Godzilla was the grumpy but ultimately lovable defender of the Earth that I had seen in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, or in Monster Zero — or the grumpy but ultimately loving and protective father figure seen in one of my other youthful favorites, Son of Godzilla. And that hasn’t changed much in my adulthood, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, given that the list of things I consider cool has changed very little since I was seven, and has only been amended over the years to commemorate my discoveries of things like girls, punk rock and beer.


Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster began life as Operation Robinson Crusoe: King Kong vs. Ebirah, a rejected script for a proposed co-production between Toho and America’s Rankin/Bass Productions (yes, the Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer guys) that was intended to tie in with the latter’s King Kong Saturday morning cartoon series. That fabulous bit of synergy finally saw fruit with 1967’s wonderful King Kong Escapes, but before that transpired, Godzilla producer Tomoyuki Tanaka determined the need for a new Godzilla film for the upcoming 1966 holiday season, and further decreed that said entry should be oriented toward a teen audience and feature a South Seas theme. In response, the Operation Robinson Crusoe script was hastily retooled — primarily, it seems, by crossing out the name “King Kong” wherever it appeared and penciling in “Godzilla” in its place — and then mashed up with another shelved script, this one for a sequel to director Jun Fukuda’s successful spy spoof 100 Shot/100 Killed, titled 100 Shot/100 Killed: Big Duel in the South Seas. The resulting Frankensteinian creation was a beast bearing the cumbersome title Godzilla-Mothra-Ebirah: Big Duel in the South Seas.

For all the coulda-beens and shoulda-beens of its detractors, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, viewed today, seems like it was inevitably the Godzilla movie that was going to get made in 1966. This was, after all, the year in which the author of James and the Giant Peach was commissioned to write a James Bond movie in which spaceships eat other spaceships and a villain’s space-age compound is housed within a hollowed-out volcano. The collision between the stodgy, adult-driven popular culture of the early sixties and the encroaching influence of sixties youth culture and it’s defining mistrust for authority had resulted in camp becoming the dominant aesthetic in seemingly every pop culture producing country in the world, and it was no longer safe for any pop icon born of the old order to be presented without a conspicuous display of tongues being placed firmly in cheek. (In this sense, the Batman TV series sort of served as the signal head-on-a-pike to mark our crossing over into this new territory.) Also, recent years had for the first time seen the vast majority of Television shows and movies being produced in color, something that producers were demonstrably eager to exploit via the widespread use of pop art-inspired, comic book-like palettes of bright primary colors, a tendency that is well in evidence in some of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster‘s sets. Lastly, the influence of the aforementioned Bond films had reached critical mass by 1966, becoming so pervasive that even the Beatles couldn’t resist the urge to spoof them in Help!, which makes it unsurprising that Godzilla’s handlers would draw upon their tropes as well. In short, all of these trends listed above come together in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, resulting in it being probably the most overtly comical, modish, and giddily irreverent film in the Godzilla series.


Facilitating this new tone was the fact that a number of the key members of the creative team behind Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster were younger than those who had worked on the previous G films. Director Fukuda, here taking the reigns of a Godzilla movie for the first time, was not only thirteen years younger than Ishiro Honda, who had directed all but one of the previous six Godzilla films, but also lacked Honda’s strong attachment to the giant monster genre. Instead, he drew upon his previous experience directing fast-paced action and comedy films for his approach to the material. Composer Masaru Sato — who had previously scored Godzilla Raids Again, the one Godzilla film that you are most likely to have completely forgotten existed — was likewise a decade-plus behind the man he was replacing, Akira Ifukube. In contrast to Ifukube’s ominous, deliciously portentious scores to the preceding Godzilla films, Sato here delivers a soundtrack that is alternately whimsical and full of manic, cartoonish urgency, and also can be credited with being the first to place twangy, surf-music inspired guitars amid Godzilla’s musical backing. Finally, taking the helm as director of special effects for the first time — despite Eiji Tsuburaya’s credit here — was Tsuburaya’s first assistant, Sadamasa Arikawa, a transition due largely to Tsuburaya having his hands full with the production of his television series Ultraman. Though working, thanks to Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster‘s reduced budget, on a smaller scale than what Tsuburaya usually had to deal with, Sadamasa does a fine job, and even puts his own stamp on things with some camera work that departs significantly from his mentor’s typical style.

One member of the team who was not a stranger to Godzilla was screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, who had in fact had a hand in writing most of the previous entries in the series, as well as such other high profile kaiju films as Mothra and Varan. Despite this, he was able to raise himself — or lower himself, depending on your perspective — to the task of concocting for Godzilla a story that was enough of a briskly paced and carefree piece of froth to make the monster’s previous film forays seem like sober dramas by comparison, incorporating teen-friendly elements from the current beach party, action and spy films as he went along. This emphasis meant that the aspects of the story involving the film’s human characters would be front and center for much of the film, which is actually not that unusual for Godzilla’s movies. All of them depend quite a bit on their human-based storylines to fill out their running time, and to my mind those storylines are precisely what keep the Godzilla movies fresh, because you never remember them from one viewing to the next. With every screening it’s like you’re seeing — and then forgetting — them for the very first time.


In the case of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, what you are forgetting is about sixty percent of the movie, because Godzilla doesn’t really enter the action until about the fifty minute mark. Until that time we have the story of Ryota (Toru Watanabe), a kid who is determined to go off in search of his fisherman brother, who has been reported lost at sea, but whom Ryota is convinced is still alive. Ryota’s first stop in his quest is a dance marathon in which a sailboat is the first prize, an episode that gives Masaru Sato an opportunity to contribute some swingy go-go music — complete with suspicious echoes of the Batman theme — to the soundtrack. Finding he’s arrived too late to compete, he enlists the aid a couple of goofballs who have already been eliminated in helping him to steal a boat from a nearby pier, a boat that turns out to be the hiding place of fugitive safecracker Yoshimura (played by ubiquitous kaiju eiga star Akira Takarada). For reasons that are not entirely clear, the four men all decide to spend the night on the boat, but awake to find that Ryota has set sail during the night without their knowledge, and that they are now somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, Everyone takes this pretty much in stride, until, after a few days’ journey, their boat is cleaved in two by a gigantic claw that thrusts up from beneath the ocean’s surface.

Ryota, Yoshimura and the other two all wash up on the beach of Devil’s Island, which they soon discover to be the hideout of The Red Bamboo, an army of crisply uniformed terrorists who are building an arsenal of nuclear missiles within their space-age compound there — and who bear no resemblance to the Chinese whatsoever. The island’s coastline is guarded over by the sea monster Ebirah, a giant lobster/shrimp thing that is almost exclusively seen from the waist up, with its lower body hidden beneath the water line, and who, in an especially memorable and rare instance of kaiju movie gruesomeness, spears a pair of escaping fishermen on the end of his claw like shish kebab. In order to keep Ebirah at bay while they ferry supplies back and forth, the Red Bamboo must use a yellow liquid refined from vegetation found on the island that has special, Ebirah-repelling properties, the production of which they delegate to an army of slaves who they have captured from nearby Infant Island. Said slaves, of course, are those peaceful inhabitants of said island who are able to remain peaceful solely by dint of them having the giant moth Mothra on hand to kick ass whenever anyone gives them any trouble. As Ryota and his pals watch the unloading of the latest shipment of slaves, one of the females, Daiyo (also-ubiquitous kaiju eiga star Kumi Mizuno) breaks away from the pack and makes a run for it. The boys come out of hiding to aid in her escape and soon become the object of pursuit for the one-eyed Captain Yamoto (played by designated Godzilla series eyepatch model — see his role as Dr. Serizawa in Gojira — Akihiko Hirata) and his machinegun-wielding troops.


Meanwhile, over on Infant Island, the remaining inhabitants are trying to raise Mothra from her slumber to go and save their enslaved loved ones, aided, as always, by those tiny twin singing fairies of Mothra’s — who, for the first time, are not portrayed by The Peanuts, but instead by another twin singing act called Pair Bambi. This scene provides an opportunity for another one of the high points of Sato’s musical score, a version of the usual ‘hey, Mothra, wake up” ritual song that would fit right in on one of those late nineties lounge-exotica compilations. Mothra proves difficult to rouse, however, a delaying tactic that gives us the nagging feeling we’re going to be seeing some Mothra ex machina action during the final minutes of the picture.

It turns out, however, that Mothra isn’t the only sound sleeper among the monsters in the neighborhood, because, in the course of scrambling frantically around the island in their attempts to evade Capt. Yamoto and his men, Ryota and company stumble upon Godzilla, out like a light at the bottom of a deep subterranean pit in the island’s interior. As momentous a discovery as this is, the boys file it away for future reference, as there is still much more frantic scrambling around to be done, in and out of the Red Bamboo’s compound and the various caves and fissures of the island, all the while being narrowly missed by fusillades of machinegun fire from their pursuers. Finally, in the course of one of these pursuits, Ryota finds himself tangled in the lines of an observation balloon which comes loose from its moorings and sails away from the island. In one of the film’s most willfully preposterous moments — and the final red flag for anyone who’s actually been trying to take any of this seriously — Ryota’s involuntary balloon ride deposits him right at the feet of the Infant Island natives at the very moment that their Mothra waking dance seems to be taking effect. Not only this, but, In response to Ryota’s inquiry, the islanders produce Ryota’s missing brother, who has been among them all along.


Ultimately, the good guys’ escape from the island and the Red Bamboo’s comeuppance cannot be accomplished without Godzilla on hand to deal with the villain’s fearsome guardian lobster, and so a hastily contrived lightning rod and the felicity of frequent tropical downpours are employed to bring him to. A little groggy at first, and obviously not too keen on doing any heavy lifting, Godzilla’s first reaction upon seeing Ebirah is to lazily chuck some boulders at him to see if that will do the trick of driving him off. It doesn’t, and Ebirah just bats the boulders back at Godzilla, who in turn head-butts them like soccer balls back in his direction, making this the most gleefully stupid prelude to a monster battle in the series thus far. Finally, the battle is joined in earnest, and involves a lot of underwater sequences that were reportedly quite perilous for the suit actors, weighed down as they were by hundred-pound-plus monster costumes in addition to being submerged in gallons of water.

One of the common complaints about Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster is that it is cheap. It is indeed true that the financially troubled Toho assigned the film a budget that was meager in comparison to that of its predecessors. Still, this is not a film that overreaches its limits, and, for the most part, its planning and scripting evidences a shrewd allotment of resources, allowing it to be a slick and handsome looking entry despite it being staged on a somewhat smaller scale than earlier Godzilla movies. Though the setting of the action on a remote island cut costs by alleviating the need for Sadamasa Arikawa and his crew to build entire miniature cities for the monsters to trash, what miniatures there are are well up to the standard set by the other films, and the need for fewer indoor sets allowed the producers to invest more in the colorful interiors of the Red Bamboo’s compound.

The only evidence of shoddiness that is too glaring to overlook is that no one seems to have bothered, during the transitioning of the script from one featuring King Kong to one featuring Godzilla, to put much work into differentiating the latter from the former. For the most part that isn’t much of a problem, since both meet the screenplay’s primary requirement of being giant rampaging monsters, but it definitely becomes a bit troubling during the section of the film in which Godzilla seems to be taking an amorous interest in Kumi Mizuno. Admittedly, this episode is a bit of a low point for the Big G, especially since much of it involves him guarding over Daiyo while hunkering down on his haunches and just kind of staring off into the middle distance. It’s not a good look for Godzilla, and I couldn’t help thinking that all he needed was a newspaper to complete the appearance of him sitting on the can. Also a bit puzzling is the fact that the water-bound Ebirah seems like he would be even less of an appropriate opponent for King Kong than he is for Godzilla, making it hard to imagine what exactly Toho might have been thinking there. This is not to say that Ebirah is entirely crappy as kaiju go, but he does prove to be a bit overmatched, and, at the end of the day, it’s pretty obvious why he came to take his place alongside King Seesar and Hedora the Smog Monster in the pantheon of one-shot Godzilla movie monsters.


Despite its obviously misguided intimations of Godzilla’s interspecies horniness, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster also affords its mon-star his fair share of iconic moments, including an entrance that involves him busting out of the side of a mountain. There is also an instance of classic Godzilla bad-assery in which, after tearing off one of Ebirah’s claws, he clacks the thing together like a giant castanet in order to taunt him. Elsewhere, perhaps less iconic, but still indelible is Godzilla’s battle with the Red Bamboo’s air force, which is set to a musical accompaniment that would be more appropriate for the dancers on Shindig. Still, it isn’t these isolated moments that make the film so enjoyable, but rather the infectious and undeniably good-natured enthusiasm that courses through the whole thing. It just careens along like a hyperactive toddler on a sugar rush until the end credits roll, leaving you with a mild but entirely pleasant sense of exhaustion. Seriously, I don’t expect everyone to hold this movie in as high regard as I do, but it seems to me that to hate it would take quite a lot of concentrated effort.

After Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Jun Fukuda helmed the similarly silly Son of Godzilla before handing the reigns back to Ishiro Honda for Destroy All Monsters (the first of many “final” Godzilla films) and Godzilla’s Revenge, soon after which he returned to direct some of the most maligned entries in the series, including the almost universally reviled Godzilla vs. Megalon. It is perhaps for this reason that Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster is held by some in a negative light; not so much for what it actually contains, but for the fact that the glimmer of Godzilla vs. Megalon can be seen in its eye. Personally, I like the later Fukuda films — Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla especially — but, more importantly, I love Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, and to an extent that I could never hope to justify with rational explanation. Suffice it to say that I am helpless to its charms, and even today when I watch it I can’t help but bust out into a big goofy smile. Of course, that should be entirely understandable to anyone who loves Godzilla. It was my first, after all.

Release Year: 1966 | Country: Japan | Starring: Akira Takarada, Kumi Mizuno, Chotaro Togin, Hideo Sunazuka, Toru Watanabe, Toru Ibuki, Akihiko Hirata, Jun Tazaki, Ikio Sawamura, Pair Bambi, Haruo Nakajima | Director: Jun Fukuda | Writer: Shinichi Sekizawa | Music: Masaru Sato

Godless Girl

ggfeat2

Cecil B. DeMille’s final silent film, The Godless Girl, had the misfortune of being released in the shadow of The Jazz Singer, making it a casualty of the rapid shift in public tastes from pictures that didn’t talk to those that did. As a result, it became something of a footnote in DeMille’s career, which is a shame. For people, like myself, who entertain a fairly narrow conception of the director based on his association with Bible-thumpers like King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, viewing it can be an eye-opening experience — because even though it is, in part, concerned with the spread of atheism among the young people of its day, it doesn’t quite come down on that topic in the way you might expect.

Though an “A” picture in its time (it was produced at DeMille’s own studio in Culver City for a cost of $722,000), The Godless Girl bares all the hallmarks of a classic exploitation picture, in that it boasts sensational content housed within the legitimizing framework of social concern. This is not to say that DeMille was disingenuous in that concern — as we’ll see, he put a good deal of effort into insuring the accuracy of the film’s didactic content. He was, however, an entertainer first and foremost, and a crusader somewhere below that, and it would have been a betrayal of his instincts to not present the lurid details of his expose in a manner as thrilling to his audience as possible. That said, those parts of The Godless Girl dedicated to presenting the harrowing conditions of Coolidge-era reform schools might come off as tame to those steeped in the conventions of modern prison movies (in my case, for instance, the last reform school movie I watched subjected its inmates to depradations that would have made Pasolini blush).

The incident that inspired The Godless Girl was reported in the Los Angeles Times in 1927 and involved the discovery, on the campus of L.A.’s Hollywood High School, of pamphlets for an atheist student group. Tensions subsequently erupted between Christian-identified students at the school and those associated with the group, leading to a noisome confrontation at one of the group’s off-campus meetings. DeMille and his regular scenarist, Jeanie Macpherson, set out to blueprint a film based on this event and, somewhere along the line, also decided that said film should serve as an expose of the nation’s juvenile reformatories. To this end, DeMille commissioned six month’s worth of research on the topic that involved extensive interviews and information gathering, and even extended to him hiring a young woman to go undercover as an inmate in one such institution. This resulted in DeMille being able to make the claim that, no matter how titillatingly brutal the depictions of reform school life in his film might be, they were all based on documented facts and eyewitness accounts.

As fascinating as The Godless Girl is for being a sort of proto-youth-behind-bars movie, for me its real interest lies in the atheism-themed hijinks of its first act. Given DeMille’s Christian preoccupations, we — looking back upon the film from these ostensibly more enlightened and tolerant times — might expect The Godless Girl to demonize and vilify those who would renounce God. But the surprising fact is that, while DeMille certainly doesn’t advocate the atheist position, he takes pains to present zealotry on the part of the film’s believers as being equally divisive and intolerant as that of the atheist students. In addition, he clearly takes the position that the apparent ferocity of these beliefs, as expressed by his characters on either side, is merely the product of youthful enthusiasm, and in no way cancels out those characters’ essential decency (and certainly doesn’t make them deserving of the punishment that is meted out to them). The end effect is of a plea for calm and understanding, as if DeMille is trying to assure the adult America of 1929 that, yes, the kids really are alright — and, as such, it’s an authoritative, mitigating voice that no doubt would have served the country well during the many youth-focused hysterias that would sweep it during the generations to come.

The film begins with high school student Judy (Lina Basquette), the leader of the atheistic Godless Society, distributing fliers throughout the school for one of the group’s upcoming meetings. These fliers, displaying a gift for deft rhetoric sure to win many converts among the Christ-preferring members of the student body, read “Join the Godless Society – KILL THE BIBLE!” Predictably, much uproar and consternation ensues among both the students and faculty, not the least on the part of young Bob, the president of the student body and one of the school’s most outspoken mouthpieces for imposingly waspy piousness. Bob is portrayed by a ruthlessly handsome young actor named George Duryea, who would not long after enjoy considerable success as a cowboy star under the name Tom Keene — a somewhat vanilla career lived out between the exotic bookends of this film at its beginning and Keene’s role as Col. Tom Edwards in Plan 9 From Outer Space at its close. Interestingly, despite their mutually-antagonizing viewpoints, there are obvious sparks of attraction between Judy and Tom, and Judy even appears to get noticeably turned on by the righteous fury that Tom beams in her direction. Of course, given that DeMille was more of a “big picture” director who left actors to their own devices, this randyness on Judy’s part could easily have been a result less of the text than of the inclinations of the particular actress assigned to play her.

In Keith’s review of The White Hell of Piz Palu, he remarked upon how the naturalism of the acting in that film contrasted with what one would typically expect from a silent film of its day. Lina Basquette, on the other hand, provides pretty much exactly what one would expect — and, if she doesn’t, it is perhaps by dint of her performance being anachronistic even for its time. Eye bulging, breast heaving, and elaborate, spidery hand gestures are her best friends here, sometimes to the extent that she is at odds with the other cast members, none of whom are slouches in the histrionics department themselves. On top of that, when called upon to express any type of passionate feeling on the part of her character — be it ideological fervor, furious indignation, or what-have-you — Basquette seems to fall back upon an exaggerated carnality as her guiding principle. And, lord knows, no one can express exaggerated carnality like a silent movie actress. After all, while the relaxed standards of later eras may have allowed actors to do and say nasty things, these actresses were required to exude nastiness on a molecular level. In the case of Basquette, this overheated comportment — along with the corresponding reaction to it on the part of George Duryea — gives the distinct impression that much pain could have been avoided had Judy and Bob dedicated those energies spent on petty religious squabbling to what was actually on their minds. Again, whether this was DeMille’s intention is another matter, but it still provides The Godless Girl with an amusingly steamy little subtext, accidental or not.

Anyway, the fateful evening finally arrives, and it is time for the Godless Society’s meeting, held “in a shabby hall on a squalid street… where little rebels blow spitballs at the rock of ages”. (Anyone who holds up silent films as an example of purely visual storytelling is forgetting just how much editorializing tended to sneak its way into the title cards.) It’s during this scene that we’re put on notice that the film’s sober subject matter is not seen by DeMille as necessarily requiring sober treatment — a rude wakeup call delivered by the comic relief stylings of Judy and Bob’s classmate Bozo Johnson (Mack Sennett regular Eddie Quinlan), who, over the course of this sequence, will do several pratfalls and have a monkey run up his pants leg. This monkey, of course, is part of Judy’s characteristically fiery presentation to the group, and is introduced to the assembled blasphemers as “your cousin” — a reference that was probably pretty edgy at the time, given that the Scopes trial was a very recent memory. Despite this scandalous talk, the Society’s meeting is clearly being conducted in an orderly manner, and well within the limits of the law. This places in unflattering contrast the actions of Bob, who shows up at the meeting with his own sizeable God squad in tow, all of whom come armed with crates of rotten eggs and are obviously spoiling for a fight. They get it, of course — after a brief stand-off, during which the devout demand that the meeting be shut down and Judy stands her ground — and soon the scuffle devolves into a full scale melee, at its height spilling out onto the rickety stairwell outside the meeting room.

The multi-leveled set that represents the stairwell is a truly impressive construction, and in this scene is the setting for the first of two breathtaking set pieces that bookend The Godless Girl‘s action. (If you thought that the subject matter of this film would put a damper on DeMille’s predilection for spectacle, you were wrong.) The frantically battling crowd ends up surging out along the entire length of the structure like one giant writhing mass, causing the railings to bulge ominously with their weight. Finally, an unintentional shove from Bozo sends one of the Godless Society’s young female members — identified in the credits only as “The Victim” (Mary Jane Irving) — plummeting from the uppermost landing to her death. DeMille makes the interesting choice of shooting the girl’s fall from her perspective, and presenting it as playing out unnaturally slowly, so that we see the horrified faces of the kids lined up along the stairway watching her as she passes (perhaps affording The Victim the opportunity to say a few quick goodbyes to her friends among the crowd as she goes by — though, since it was shot from her POV, I couldn’t tell you if she was waving or not.)

Once The Victim finally touches down, a distraught Judy rushes to take her in her arms. Asked by the dying girl for reassurance that there really is something on the other side after all, Judy is only able to deliver a series of deliriously overwrought facial expressions. Fortunately, there is a kindly old cop on hand to tell the girl — in a soothing Irish brogue, I imagine — that the J Man is indeed awaiting her arrival with open arms and, probably, a gift bag of some kind, after which the child blissfully shuffles off this mortal coil. With the crime established, and the law present, it is now time for Judy and Bob, as the instigators of the riot — along with Bozo, for his apparent part in the girl’s accident — to be carted off to the youth reformatory.

The reformatory — represented by a surprisingly convincing set constructed by designer Mitchell Leisen on DeMille’s back lot — is a bleak, castle-like structure of brick and mortar with an electrified fence neatly bisecting its yard to separate the male and female inmate populations — a clear visual reference to the divisions wrought by intolerance and zealotry that DeMille is seeking to decry. Here, Judy and Bob, obviously upper middle class kids accustomed to a not inconsiderable amount of creature comforts, step up to the hard slap in the face that the institution’s harsh, military style of discipline has to offer them. For Judy, of course (being, you know, a girl, and all) the first insults are the unflattering haircut and the sack-like clothing (though, I’ve got to say that the hats look oddly fashionable), followed by the lack of privacy and the frequent dressing downs from the shrewish wardens. For Bob, the Civil War-like uniforms and the borderline-emo asymmetrical shearing he gets are also an issue, but are no doubt eclipsed by the frequent, enthusiastic beatings he receives.

Fortunately for Bob, he’s not alone in his confinement, because Bozo is right there with him — which, actually, upon consideration, has got to be nearly as awful for Bob as it is for us. So Judy is clearly the winner here. However, she also ends up with a friend and confidante on the inside: a tough talking, Bible-toting blonde by the name of Mame. Mame is played by Marie Prevost, an actress who is likely known to readers of Teleport City more for having the ignominious circumstances of her death immortalized in song by Nick Lowe than for any of her actual screen performances. It seems that the talkies were not kind to Marie, and, in January of 1937, a lethal combination of anorexia and severe alcoholism lead to her death from malnutrition at the age of 38. As legend has it, some few days passed before her body was discovered, and when it was, the cadaver showed signs of being the subject of some postmortem noshing on the part of Marie’s pet dachshund. Contrary to that legend, the police report at the time indicated that the bite marks were assumed to be the result of the dog trying to rouse Marie, rather than eat her. But being that consumption of humans by domestic animals has always been such a favored subject of popular song, Lowe couldn’t resist that spin, and so, in his song “Marie Provost”, blessed the world with that evergreen couplet, “She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner.” (As much of a fan as I am of Lowe — and that song, for that matter — I must say that I think it’s a little raw that, while making light of Marie’s pathetic demise, the singer didn’t even bother to get her name right.) Those sad facts aside, we can here enjoy Marie in her heyday. And I’m happy the report that, as the movie’s representative tough cookie, she’s blessed with all the best, colloquialism-riddled lines, variably referring to her fellow inmates as “Mama”, “Sister” and “Bimbo” while striking all manner of slouchy bad girl poses.

Back on Bob’s side of the fence, we see that one time-honored prison movie convention really is, in fact, time-honored, and that the boys’ wing of the reformatory comes complete with a sadistic head guard, billed only as “The Brute” and played by perennial silent movie heavy Noah Beery. In classic fashion, a battle of wills breaks out between Bob and The Brute, with Bob’s spirited refusal to be broken resulting in ever more severe beatings, blastings with the fire hose, and unwarranted stints in solitary. The Brute even delivers a crippling beat-down to Bozo, which, admittedly, is kind of awesome. Meanwhile, Bob and Judy’s separation has allowed for the nature of their true feelings for one another to dawn upon them, leading to a furtive tryst at the electrified fence. The Brute, unfortunately, is a witness to this meeting and, seeing it as an opportunity to forge new frontiers in bastardry, turns up the juice on the fence just as the two lovers are clasping onto its wires and gazing at each other longingly. Being that electrified fences are notoriously unsubtle, this incident leaves Judy with identical burns on each palm in the shape of a cross, something she chooses to see as a “sign” of some kind — probably related in some way to Jesus, and perhaps having something to do with the fact that she’s been making a halting journey toward Christian belief ever since setting foot within the reformatory walls.

Eventually an opportunity for escape arises when Bob gets the drop on The Beast during a scuffle in the solitary block. After locking the monstrous guard in one of the cells, Bob disguises himself as a laundry cart driver, collects Judy, and flees with her into the countryside beyond the reformatory gates. A brief, idyllic interlude follows in which the lovers enjoy their newfound appreciation for the simple fruits of freedom and the beauty of the open landscape before them. Both, we see, have undergone a shift in their beliefs during their confinement, with Bob coming to question his faith just as Judy is coming to embrace it, and the result is that each is now able to see and respect the other’s position free from the distorting influence of dogma. It’s a development that seems to indicate some confusion on the part of DeMille as to what his message is exactly, since the very harsh conditions that he’s decrying appear to be what has brought about the attitude of humility and tolerance that he is simultaneously making a plea for.

Of course, Bob and Judy’s liberty is short lived, and they are soon recaptured and returned to their prison, setting the stage for The Godless Girl‘s apocalyptic finale — a spectacular fire that consumes the reformatory as Bob struggles to free Judy, who is shackled to her bunk in a solitary cell. The fire effect here is achieved by the most analog means possible — i.e. by lighting the set on fire and forcing the obviously-in-real-peril-actors to struggle their way through it while being pelted by huge pieces of flaming debris from all sides. By reports, DeMille seemed to get a bit of a kick out of putting his actor in harm’s way like this, and was known to berate them when they objected to the notion of being killed in pursuit of his vision. Callous? Perhaps — but, hey, you sure can’t argue with the results. It’s a really riveting sequence, and you certainly have no trouble buying the looks of abject terror that play over the faces of Basquette and Duryea as it plays out.

Though our modern eyes might see The Godless Girl as containing, at best, the makings of a solid “B” type feature, DeMille clearly saw himself as making an epic, and the resulting two hour-plus running time of the original cut might come across to most as spreading the movie’s content just a tad too thin. Its final acts, after all, are largely comprised of prison movie tropes that have become all too familiar in the ensuing years — and the interest they hold pales in comparison to both the juicy subject matter and surprising even-handedness presented in the film’s opening moments. You have to wonder what this movie might have been like had DeMille not gotten distracted by his reformist crusade and instead tried to plot out a path to understanding between Judy and Bob that was less dependent on drastic dramatic interventions like sudden death and imprisonment. Chances are that, at the very least, audiences of today would get a clearer picture than the one hinted at of what popular attitudes regarding these — amazingly — still controversial issues were during the picture’s day. It’s a common assumption that attitudes in eras previous to ours were by their nature less “modern” than our own, even though the reality of our current era often renders that notion ridiculous. In light of that, The Godless Girl — just like any high school teacher worth his or her salt — might handily reminds us of the perils that lurk within the word “Assume”.

Release Year: 1929 | Country: United States | Starring: Lina Basquette, Tom Keene (as George Duryea), Marie Prevost, Noah Beery, Eddie Quinlan, Mary Jane Irving | Writer: Jeanie Macpherson | Director: Cecil B. DeMille | Cinematographer: J. Peverell Marley | Producer: Cecil B. DeMille

Geetaa Mera Naam

The character of the high-kicking female badass was fairly commonplace in Asian cinema by 1974, especially in films coming out of Hong Kong and Japan. But in Bollywood, not so much. In fact, until recently, the only such character in a seventies Bollywood film I would be able to name off the top of my head would be the one played by Zeenat Aman in the original Don. Still, the 1974 film Geetaa Mera Naam puts just such a character front and center, talking tough, sticking it to the man, and dealing out whoopass to all comers without a thought of depending on male chivalry for her fortunes. Just what would it take to get a film focusing on such a character made in the Bollywood of the early seventies? Well, in the case of Geetaa Mera Naam, it probably didn’t hurt that the film’s director was a woman, and that that woman was also the movie’s star — a star who intended Geetaa Mera Naam to be her farewell to her audience after a short-lived but eventful career as a beloved screen icon.

Continue reading Geetaa Mera Naam

Grapes of Death

grapes_of_death12

“Dreams and life — it’s the same thing, or else it’s not worth living.” — Baptiste, Jean Rollin’s Les Enfants du Paradis

From time to time, I notice there are certain directors whose films I undeniably love yet always preface a positive review of with some manner of disclaimer along the lines of “not for everyone” or “you have to be in the right mind.” More times than not, the director to which I’m referring is Jess Franco. However, this largely reflexive defensiveness could just as easily find itself employed in the shielding French director Jean Rollin. But I’m not going to fall back on any of that today, or any other day from here on out until I forget that I’ve just made this proclamation. I’m a big boy, after all, and its time to embrace my love of Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and any other thoroughly cockeyed Eurocult director without any caveats or attempts to justify my love out of some ill-conceived sense of guilt that, because of some glowing review I might write of Blue Rita or La Vampire Nue, someone is going to go out and watch those movie and then wonder what the hell is going on. But really, that’s not something of which I should be ashamed of or feel guilty over, is it? Because if more people were watching Diamonds of Kilimanjaro or Shivers of the Vampire, then that’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it? Provided you think the right direction is mod Euro starlets constantly taking off their clothes during psychedelic stripteases performed to crazy jazz music in some club decorated with pop art sensibilities on overdrive — and you all know that’s my vision of a perfect world. Also, I would be able to fly and turn invisible, and anything I carry is also invisible if I want it to be. And I am immortal.

I went through a couple decades and then some having never even heard of Jean Rollin. It wasn’t until Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs’ book Immoral Tales that I heard mention of Rollin’s name. While the description of Rollin’s films seemed interesting, it was the smattering of stills that really entranced me, and not just because they were frequently of unclothed women. They were also of unclothed men. Because, you know, the French and all. Unfortunately, my new knowledge of Jean Rollin was not accompanied by an ability to actually see any of the movies about which I was reading. At the time, pretty much the only source for Jean Rollin films was Video Search of Miami, and having once ordered a video from them, I knew to never do it again. But then I noticed whilst browsing the videos at a local establishment that they had a couple Rollin films of dubious legality and questionable reproduction quality, but whatever. It only cost a buck-fifty for the rental, so I picked up a little something called Raisins de la Mort. Raisins of Death? That didn’t sound too scary, even if the California Raisins sort of creeped me out. But it was also a zombie film, and up until very recently, when a long line of horrible shot on video zombie films did me in, I could never pass up a zombie film.


Then came the DVD explosion, and thanks to Redemption Video, a whole slew of Rollin films found their way into my collection and, it goes without saying, into my heart. Because, you know, the French and passion and all that. I learned a few things about Rollin, chief among them that the first of his films that I’d seen was not really typical of his output, which often revolved around vacant-eyed vampire girls in mod mini-dresses, when they had anything on at all. By comparison, Raisins de la Mort was almost an actual film. Most of the time, Rollin shot his films with the intent of achieving a surreal, logic-defying atmosphere. He also tended to shoot with almost no money, only amateur actors, and usually no script. The end results were often…complex…to digest. Rollin’s first film, La Viol du Vampire, was made more or less on a whim by Rollin and a group of enthusiastic horror film fans. It was never meant to be much more than a fan film, and Rollin’s goal was to pack a small theater with friends and friends of friends and have a fun night. As fate would have it, France happened to be in the middle of a slew of crazy demonstrations and riots, meaning that Rollin’s little homemade experimental art-horror film was one of the only new films theater owners could get their hands on. And thus, Rollin found himself with an actual release on his hands — albeit a poorly received release. Parisians may have been looking for a revolution in 1968, but not the one Rollin’s film offered them.

But Jean Rollin continued unphased. After all, he never intended for his film to be embraced by a wide audience. Rollin had been raised by artist and, as a child, surrounded by luminaries and lunatics from the fringe of the art world, including a number of Surrealists. Their vision of art obviously informed Rollin’s eventual work, and his repertoire is comprised largely of films that concentrate heavily on dreamy imagery, hallucinatory surrealism, and general weirdness. Sacrificed in the fray were things like logic, scripts, plot — little things like that. European cult film directors have often been criticized for shuffling these things to the back burner, just as they’ve been praised for their ability to create amazing imagery and mood. I’m torn, since on the one hand, I like scripts and plots and feel that film is a medium in which so many aspects of art — imagery, music, writing — must come together. On the other hand, I really like a lot of these relatively plotless movies, and I have a tremendous capacity for extracting meaning from apparent meaningless. That’s what you learn, kids, if you take film classes and work as a journalist who interviews both politicians and movie stars.

But that’s a discussion for a different Rollin film, because we’re here today to discuss one of his more accessible films, though it certainly has its fair share of Rollin’s signature oddity. Compared to most of his work, though, Grapes of Death, as it is known this week, is positively comprehensible and well-planned.


For many of the cult film fans who might be familiar with Jean Rollin without being Jean Rollin fans, it’s probably because of his infamous zombie film, Zombie Lake. The Internet certainly doesn’t lack for coverage of this masterpiece of complete and utter incompetence, and lord knows I’ve done my part. The big difference between Rollin’s usual bizarre output and Zombie Lake is that Zombie Lake is pretty much indefensible. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Zombie Lake. I might even watch it again tonight, but the incompetence on display there is purely born of a complete and total lack of interest in making a good movie, and not from some desire to make a weird, arty film. Given the reputation of Zombie Lake, which in turn has informed the opinion of many people who don’t know Rollin for anything but Zombie Lake, delving once again into the rich, creamy lather of a Jean Rollin directed zombie film would seem…well, about as enticing as doing anything involving rich, creamy lather other than getting a good shave with a straight razor and dollop of heated shaving cream.

And while Grapes of Death may not be quite as satisfying as a good shave delivered by a talented barber who smells of menthol blended with spices and lower woodsy notes, it’s still a heck of a lot better than Zombie Lake, and just as Rollin doesn’t deserve to be judged purely on the “merits” of Zombie Lake, neither does Grapes of Death deserve to be off-handedly dismissed and placed at the same low level as that green-faced Nazi zombie opus.


Grapes of Death is an episodic series of events following Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal), who finds herself on the run after she and her friend are attacked on a train by a young man who seems well on the way to having his face fall off. It turns out, we learn, that an experimental pesticide has contaminated the grapes used to make wine, thus turning much of France into — well, not exactly zombies, but close enough, especially in this post 28 Days Later era when the definition of zombie has been somewhat blurred. Rollin’s zombies showcase certain obvious characteristics of zombies as defined by the George Romero movies that have become more or less the de facto zombie rule handbook. Some of them shamble aimlessly about with their arms in awkward positions. They like to bite people. And their bodies and faces tend to decay and fester with oozing boils. But they also like to stab people with pitchforks, brandish torches, travel at a relaxed jog, and prepare dinner. Depending on the state of the infection, some people seem completely gone into a flesh-hungry zombie state, and some are still able to talk and even feel guilt and remorse over what they are being compelled by the infection to do.

Elizabeth wanders a bleak French countryside, encountering infected people from time to time and screaming in fear. Occasionally, she also meets uninfected people, but she still usually finds reason to scream in fear, since those people often end up on the wrong end of some bladed farm implement wielded by a grinning ghoul. Grapes of Death takes the unique approach of eschewing the standard “hunker down in a house and argue with each other as the living dead amass outside” for a much more freewheeling and wide open approach. Elizabeth spends most of her time outdoors in wide-open spaces. She is, at these times, relatively safe. It is only when she ventures into the closed quarters of homes or walled medieval style farm towns that the trouble begins, and the confined spaces always work against her. She eventually meet two uninfected farmers who avoided the infection because, although it is very un-French of them, they prefer beer over wine. Elizabeth’s fortunes seem to change once she meets up with these blue collar salts of the earth, but a rather large coincidence brings her into contact with her boyfriend (who we’ve never seen until he shows up at the end of the movie), and since things never end well for people in a zombie film…well, you get the picture.


In a crowded field of zombie films that tend to be largely identical to one another, few stand out. Those that do either accomplish this because they invented or are so good at executing the well-worn formula, or they have found some way to provide a unique twist on expectations while still conforming to certain expectations. Grapes of Death falls into the latter category. It is basically a zombie film, but it’s not like other zombie films. It’s open instead of confined; the zombies are cognoscente of their descent into murderous bloodlust, even if they are helpless to stop it; and although the film has plenty of gore (and gratuitous nudity), the scares come not from any sort of visceral punch but rather from the eerie atmosphere Rollin creates. The desolate French countryside Rollin uses as his location is at once familiar and strangely alien. What we expect of idyllic rolling hills and quaint old villages is subverted as soon as the oozy-foreheaded crazies start prowling about. Similarly, Rollin keeps seasoned viewers of zombie films off balance by delivering something other than what you expect, at least some of the time. And where as many zombie films, especially recent ones, rely on pumped up adrenaline and action, Grapes of Death meanders aimlessly across the French countryside at the same pace as its confused protagonist.


Coming out in 1978, Rollin’s pseudo-zombie dream was one of the earliest European attempts to mimic George Romero’s hugely influential Dawn of the Dead, though in tone and approach, Grapes of Dead has more in common with Jorge Grau’s oft short-changed 1974 zombie film Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. Both films share a pastoral rural setting turned sinister with experimental pest control methods being the culprit behind the madness. But Grau’s zombies are most definitely the living dead, where as Rollin’s zombies have more in common with creations from another George Romero film, 1973’s The Crazies. In fact, if I had to pick one film that was the most likely influence on Grapes of Death, it would be The Crazies, which is the tale of a small town that becomes infected with a virus that turns people into murderous nutjobs. Where Grapes of Death differs significantly from Romero’s film is in the mood. Romero, a former director of industrial and instructional films, has always been a largely clinical director, injecting a sense of matter of fact reason into fantastic events through his reserved direction. Rollin, on the other hand, allows the bizarre events of his film to dictate the atmosphere. Thus, while both films take place in somewhat foreboding, winterly rural locations, Rollin’s looks much more like something out of a fevered nightmare. In addition to the ragged countryside, punctuated by strangely shaped rock formations and mist, Rollin makes excellent use of crumbling old walled towns. Everywhere is a palpable sense of decay.

Both The Crazies and Grapes of Death inform the basic premise of more current films, like 28 Days Later, though whether or not those films played much role in influencing 28 Days Later is something I do not know. And of course, that movie takes yet another very different approach to the same basic premise.


Then there’s the trance-like electronic music score, minimalist and reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. Composer Phillipe Sissman only has this and one other work to his credit, and even here he doesn’t contribute much more than one weird synth theme that is used to remarkably good effect. It clashes with the natural setting around it, and with the decrepit, lived-in look of the film’s overgrown villages, but it works perfectly with the hypnotic mood of the film. It helps communicate the idea that something is not quite right.

Rollin’s film depends largely on young Marie-Georges Pascal, who like many of Rollin’s actors, was minimally experienced at the time. She appeared in a number of erotic films with titles like I Am Frigid…Why? and Hot and Naked. Although Grapes of Death is a great leap forward for her, nothing really ever came of it. In 1985, with her film career having gone nowhere, she committed suicide. Her eventual fate lends an additional level of melancholy to the film, especially given the downhearted ending. It’s obvious she has some talent, though, as she manages to create an interesting character even though she (like everyone else) has minimal dialog and spends an inordinate amount of time screaming as she witnesses one horror or another. It’s the simple everyman (or everywoman) quality that endears her to the viewer. Plus, she rarely does things that are completely and incomprehensibly stupid just so she can move the plot along. I guess that’s one of the benefits of not having much of a plot.


Supporting her are a cast largely unrecognizable to me, as like most Americans, if it isn’t Gerard Depardieu being flustered or Jean Reno punching someone, I don’t know many French actors. Some of them, like the two beer-loving guys who come to Elizabeth’s rescue, are experienced actors. But the only real familiar face to me is Brigitte Lahaie, the French porn star turned Jean Rollin muse. She appeared in many of his films and acted as sort of a muse, in much the same way Soledad Miranda (and later Lina Romay) did for Jess Franco. She has a small part here, as a woman who befriends Elizabeth (or so it would seem) and gives her protection from a town full of crazies. Of course, I’d always like to see more of her, but that’s what films like Fascination are for. She did star in one more of Rollin’s variations on the zombie theme, 1980’s strange Night of the Hunted, in which France is afflicted with mass memory loss and hysteria, causing Brigitte to have to wander around nude a lot for some reason I’ve never fully comprehended but am never the less happy to accept.


Grapes of Death may not be exactly what people expect from a zombie film, and even if it is Rollin’s most accessible and straightforward narrative, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rely heavily on weirdness and surrealism. I personally find it thoroughly hypnotic and imaginative. Especially after watching so many poorly-made carbon copy zombie films of late, it’s refreshing to return to something this unique. A year later, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie would come out and pretty much define the European (by then, almost exclusively Italian) zombie film for the next…well, to this very day. Fulci works in much the same way as Rollin and considers many of the same things important — the creepy atmosphere; the construction of striking, haunting imagery; the sense of decay generated by moody locations; and of course the disregard for strong scriptwriting. But Rollin is much more lyrical in his approach, and even though Grapes of Death has plenty of goo and gore (it was one of the very first — possibly the very first — French gore film), there is something decidedly different about it. If Lucio Fulci is the Chang Cheh of zombie films — all visceral punches and testosterone — then Jean Rollin’s Grapes of Death is like something from Chu Yuan. Poetic, dreamy, perhaps feminine in a way, even when naked women are being beheaded or run through with pitchforks.

It’s a shame that Zombie Lake, the movie that was too crappy even for Jess Franco, remains the best known Jean Rollin film. Most of his movies remained unseen for years, and even their initial releases played to scarcely more than a smattering of people. Grapes of Death is one of my favorite zombie films, or whatever those sort-of zombie, crazy bleeding people are called. I can, and often do, watch this and many other Rollin films over and over. Sometimes I may only half pay attention to them, like albums playing in the background, but keeping them in the corner of your eye or at the periphery of your consciousness suits them well. Of course, I also like sitting down and paying attention to them, as I think many (but not all) of his films are quite rewarding. If you are as tired as I am of movies where a group of strangers board up the windows and yell at each other for 75 minutes until the zombies bust in and eat everyone, Grapes of Death might be the remedy you’re looking for. I recommend you view it with a nice, fruity Cabernet Sauvignon.

Golden Buddha

When one thinks of the myriad espionage exploitation films that flickered across movie screens in the wake of James Bond’s unprecedented success as a film franchise, one generally thinks of the countless cheap though often entertaining Eurospy entries into the genre. After all, there were scores of them, and a lot of them weren’t half bad. The ones that were half bad were at least halfway enjoyable. The ones that weren’t even halfway enjoyable were called Agent for H.A.R.M. The desire to mimic James Bond and, in doing so, perhaps mimic a little of the success, was hardly the sole property of America and Europe, however. Bond was as big in Asia as he was everywhere else in the world, and Asian film industries were just as quick to cash in on the trend with their own particular twist on the superspy genre.

Continue reading Golden Buddha

Ghost of Yotsuya

kaid0

There’s a lot of things I love in life. Good food, good friends, travel, a fine kungfu film, a crappy kungfu film — the list goes on, but few things can make me all warm inside quite like a ghost story. Growing up in the rural South, ghost stories and folklore about haints, beasts, and certain death lurking in the woods were a given, and like many Southerners, I developed a healthy dark streak and affinity for the more macabre side of life — or death. Whichever. I think it probably comes from the fact that the South is a very bloody, death-filled part of America. From the Revolutionary War to the War Between the States, on to the struggle for civil rights, the soil of The South is as rich with the blood of countless Americans as it is with the history of America itself. You have to learn to deal with the dark stuff, and it’s a lot better to deal with it as “a spooky but familiar friend” than some sort of antagonist.

I can recount endless nights spent camped out in the back yard or propped up on the front porch swing swapping yarns with friends about local hook-hand killers, cave dwelling goatmen, and chanting devil worshipers. The spectre of evil was all around us, threatening our every moment of life, and it certainly made things a lot more interesting during slumber parties, though things went too far when our friend Roman’s mom decided to give us a good one by dressing up as an ax murderer and scraping on the basement window while we were all downstairs holding a seance to try to summon the spirit of the recently departed John Belushi.

A ghost story is a universal. The appearance may change, the clothing may be different, but the spirit, if you will, remains a constant. They reflect fears and fascinations that transcend race and geography. You won’t find a single culture on the planet that doesn’t have it’s fair share of spooky stories and tales of the dead come back to haunt the living. Whether you are squatting down by the fire conversing with some remote Amazonian tribe or sprawled on the front porch in the rural south, whether you are sitting cross-legged on the tatami mat of a Japanese living room or sitting at a table on the sidewalk of some narrow, winding Italian street, if talk turns to ghosts, we’re all speaking the same language.


For those not well-versed in the ways of Japan and Japanese films, the trappings of Nobuo Nakagawa’s classic Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan may seem strange and exotic. Set in medieval Japan, the film is full of samurai and demure kimono-clad ladies, gruff fishermen and haughty nobles. Even in today’s supposedly well-connected global community, it’s a history about which very few Americans know much beyond the most basic and stereotypical of facts. However, even those with a complete and total lack of knowledge regarding the formative years of Japan (you really should brush up on your history though), will instantly recognize the language underlying the Japanese being spoken — and I’m not talking about the English language subtitles.

Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan is one of the most famous of all horrific Japanese legends. It’s been told and retold countless times via literature, word of mouth, kabuki theater, and of course film. The 1959 version directed by acclaimed master of Japanese horror Nakagawa Nobuo is generally regarded as the best of the movie versions, and with plenty of good reasons. The story itself is simple enough, something that any fan of ghost stories will recognize regardless of the number of samurai with which one may be acquainted. The story opens with a group of jovial nobles out for a late night stroll around town. They are accosted by a young wannabe samurai named Iyemon. Iyemon wants to marry one of the samurai’s daughter, but since our man Iyemon is known as something of a screw-up and all-around crummy bastard, the samurai is less than enthusiastic about welcoming the ne’r-do-well into the family. In a fit of rage, Iyemon attacks the samurai from behind, killing him and his friends.

Aware of the fact that multiple homicides will not do too much to improve the town’s opinion of him, not to mention the fact that it won’t really help him get in good with the woman whose father he just sliced down, Iyemon and his partner in crime, Naosuke, make up a story about being attacked by a well-known local ruffian. Naturally, they valiantly defended everyone, but the gang that set upon them was just too many. His “bravery” ingratiates Iyemon to the slain samurai’s daughter, Oiwa. Iyemon vows to avenge the murder, which wins him even more bonus points and eventually Oiwa’s hand in marriage, which also gives him the social status he so desperately desired.

You can’t keep a slimy samurai clean, of course, and it isn’t long before Iyemon and Naosuke are up to their old treachery again. On a pilgrimage to visit a famous waterfall and pray for justice, Naosuke is endlessly annoyed by the brother of Oiwa and her sister, Osode, to whom Naosuke has taken a shine. Using not-so-subtle threats about exposing Iyemon’s guilt, Naosuke pressures his old “friend” into helping him kill off the brother. Being a despicable couple of guys, they stab him in the back and push him off a cliff while he is kneeling in meditation. Then, of course, they go running back with yet another story about how they were jumped by the same bandits, who were looking to kill them before they could seek out their righteous revenge. The two couples then split up to search for the non-existent bandits, and they wind up not seeing each other for a long time.

Time passes and Oiwa gives birth to Iyemon’s child. Contrary to what you might expect from a murderous, lying samurai, Iyemon proves to be a less than stellar husband, though he remains with Oiwa despite her failing health in order to continue sponging off her status in society, or what little of it remains after she loses most of what her father once possessed. Naosuke, meanwhile, lives life as a hustler, constantly promising Osode that he is spending his days seeking the villains who murdered her father. Until he has avenged that death, she refuses to marry or sleep with him, even when he does that thing where he grabs her and makes ugly kisses faces as she fights him off.


When Iyemon goes out for a stroll one night after gambling much of his wife’s money away, his presence foils some attempted thuggery. Even though Iyemon really didn’t do anything but take his hat off, the criminals bolt and the victims, who turn out to be some local nobles, lavish him with thanks. When he catches sight of the noble’s lovely daughter, he instantly falls for her in the most base and shallow ways. When the noble offers him a reward, Iyemon magnanimously refuses, reciting a speech about honor that Oiwa’s own father lectured him with seconds before getting stabbed in the back. Duly impressed by Iyemon’s spirit, he becomes a welcome guest in the home, while at the same time plotting a way to get out of his life with Oiwa.

A chance meeting with his ol’ murderin’ pal Naosuke results in Iyemon getting the bright idea to murder his wife. He immediately chickens out though, realizing that the ol’ “some bandits jumped us” shtick probably wouldn’t work for him a third time. Naosuke is just bored, however, and if that means he has to come up with something new in order to relieve the monotony of not murdering people all the time then blaming it on bandits who never materialize, well then he’s man enough to devise new schemes for bloodletting.

Naosuke drums up a plan in which he will hook Iyemon up with a special poison that will cause Oiwa to die a horrible death. Since the rumor around town is that Oiwa and her doctor, a portly gent named Takuestu, have been seeing one another on the sly (an untrue rumor, even though Takuetsu is fond of Oiwa), Iyemon can either claim he caught them in the affair and thus exercised his right as a wronged husband to kill his wife, or even better, he can just pin the crime on a jealous Takuetsu and be completely free from involvement. At first, he’s hesitant, but then he thinks about things for a while and realize that yep, murder is the way to go.

Iyemon plays nice for his suffering wife, talking to her like a decent gentleman for once and vowing to her that he will make amends for his less that spotless treatment of her in the past. In a touching display to cap off his tenderness, he then replaces her medicine with the poison that will cause her face to melt and result in an excruciatingly agonizing death. Being the sporting sort of man that he is, he then even arranges for a special visit from Takuetsu so he can be blamed for everything.

After Takuetsu unsuccessfully puts the moves on Oiwa — something Iyemon himself said she would like — Oiwa’s death begins. Her face begins to burn from the inside, as does much of the rest her body. Freaked out by the whole melting face thing, Takuetsu confesses to Oiwa that her husband enlisted him to seduce her, though now he’s not so into it. She surmises that she has been the victim of a horrible plot concocted by her rotten husband, but before she can extract any revenge, the poison runs its course and she dies. Iyemon reappears just in time to accuse Takuetsu, who he then kills. Just as the plan seems to be going perfectly, however, something in Iyemon’s already warped brain seems to snap. He nails the corpses to two wood panels and sets them adrift in a nearby river, expecting the current to carry them far away.

While all this is going on, ol’ Naosuke doesn’t want to not be performing some heinous deed as well, so he finally tracks down the villain he and Iyemon blamed for the murders that started this whole sordid chain of events, and in classic form, stabs him in the back. Her father’s murder now avenged, Osode will consent to marry Naosuke.


So things seem to be going pretty well. Naosuke has Osode, even though she is not wild about the marriage, and Iyemon is now free to chase his latest skirt. Nothing could be finer, at least until the ghost starts showing up. Seems like every time Iyemon tries to lie and relax after a long, hard day of being a jerkwad, there’s the gory disfigured apparition of his slain wife floating around and taunting him.

Naosuke, on the other hand, is out fishing for eels one day when he hooks the hair comb and kimono that had once been worn by Oiwa. Not realizing their nature, he decides to take them home, clean them up, and give them to his wife since nothing will impress a lady quite like giving her a wad of stinky stuff you fished out of the local swamp. Osode immediately recognizes the two items, however, both of which were family heirlooms. Just has her suspicions are being piqued, Oiwa shows up. It’s funny how people never seem to notice the deceased state of a loved one and just go about their business as if their friend isn’t all pale with a green supernatural light shining on them. Oiwa’s arrival is a little much for Naosuke to handle, what with him knowing she’s been murdered and all. He breaks down and confesses everything to Osode, right down to the fateful night Iyemon and he murdered her father. Needless to say, this is even less healthy for their relationship than trying to give her the swamp water-soaked rags of her murdered sister.

Iyemon isn’t faring much better. Now both Oiwa and Takuetsu’s bloody corpses are harassing him. In a fit of hysteria, he slashes out at the ghosts with his sword, which only results in him accidentally killing two innocent people. As if having the horrible decaying remains of your murder victims plaguing you wasn’t enough, Osode soon finds that her brother, previously left for dead, actually survived the attempt on his life. He confirms Naosuke’s confession by saying, “Yeah, they tried to kill me too.” Brother and sister then set off to seek revenge against Iyemon. By this time, of course, Iyemon’s madness is complete. The ghosts refuse to leave him alone. It could be that they are all in his head, and that his latest round of murders just pushed his already fragile mental state over the cliff, but that doesn’t really matter when you’re trying to deal with ghosts causing rooms to fill with bloody water and things like that.

As he stumbles insanely about the courtyard of the temple where he was seeking refuge, he comes face to face with Osode and her brother, both wielding swords and looking to get some justice for their father, Oiwa, and everyone else Iyemon stuck a sword into. Aiding them in their battle are the ghosts, of course, and Iyemon’s treachery is ultimately no match for them.

There is nothing that isn’t predictable about the story. After all, it’s a timeless classic with which everyone is familiar. We know Iyemon is going to murder his wife, and we know her ghost is going to come back for revenge. What makes a film a timeless classic, however, is that you can know every single plot point and still find yourself riveted to the screen. Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan manages to do just that. It doesn’t matter that you know what’s going to happen, just like it doesn’t matter if you already know some local legend about ghosts. It still sends a chill up your spine every time you hear it. Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan draws its power from its highly stylish look, deliberate and increasingly frantic pacing, and overwhelmingly eerie atmosphere.

The film is, for starters, stunning to look at. The art direction, use of sets, eerie lighting, and surreal atmosphere were obviously heavy influences on the better known but not necessarily better Kaidan from 1964. Director Nobuo Nakagawa was a big fan of European horror films, and you can sense a lot of what would become the Hammer Studios aesthetic in his film despite the decidedly Japanese trappings. Much like the later Kaidan, you could turn the sound off and simply look at this film, and it would be a wonder to behold.


The seemingly “normal” first half of the film is deceptive. You have your murderous samurai, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary. Well, unless you’re talking modern-day South Bend, Indiana. The minute Oiwa ingests the poison, however, the film spirals off into completely bizarre and chilling territory. Nobuo Nakagawa made a name for himself directing horror films that were, even by today’s standards, shockingly gory. Though this movie is not nearly as bloody and violent as his 1960 masterpiece Jigoku (which featured folks in hell getting sawed in half, nailed in the face with spikes, and other fun hellish past times), it’s definitely an eye-opener for the time. The disfigurement of Oiwa is wonderfully pulled off and genuinely nasty to look at. Likewise, a number of the surreal appearances of her ghost will drop the jaw of even a jaded movie-goer. Nakagawa’s imagination is as genius as it is warped, and I’d put many of the ghost scenes from this movie on par with my favorite ghost story of all time, The Haunting (not the remake, of course).

Everything else about the film is top-notch. The music is effective. The acting is accomplished. There’s a reason this is considered a hallmark in the history of Japanese horror films and why Nobuo Nakagawa is considered one of the great masters, if not the greatest master, of the genre.

Of course, this sort of film isn’t for everyone. Those who get kicks out of visceral gut-punch gore films and have no appreciation for the building of characters and suspense will no doubt be lost during the films lengthy build-up to the frenzy of the final half-hour. Myself, I happen to be a fan of horror films that take time to build suspense, and this one does so wonderfully. You know horrible things are going to happen. It’s just a question of when, and the waiting keeps you on the edge of your seat and, at least if you’re like me, far more enchanted and entertained than a rapid series of fifteen second gore effects.

I’m reminded of a story once told by Alfred Hitchcock when describing his philosophy on telling a good story. Imagine, he said, you have a scene where two men are sitting in a cafe discussing trivial matters. The scene goes on like this for a few minutes, and then suddenly, BOOM! A bomb goes off. The audience is startled, and you get that ten seconds of fright and giddy recovery time. Then it’s over. Now imagine the same scene, only this time the first thing you establish is that there is a bomb underneath one of the men’s seats, and that it will go off in three minutes. Then you continue with the scene same as before, with the men sitting there talking about pointless things. Now, the audience spends the entire three minutes on the edge of their seats, screaming at the screen that there is a bomb under one of the seats! What was a ten-second long shock suddenly becomes three minutes of nail-biting suspense and tension that will drive people crazy.

Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan, like the classic horror films that inspired it, operates on this level of tension and anticipation of grisly acts to come, and it pays off for your investment of time. It also helps that the minutes leading up to the final acts of retribution are well paced and often exciting. As Iyemon’s nasty deeds pile up, we keep waiting and waiting for the big payoff when the ghosts of the murder victims get their revenge, and when it finally comes, the revenge is sweet. So if you like build-up and tension, if you like horror tales that handle themselves as well-crafted stories rather than a succession of effects and cheap scares, then this is your kind of movie. If you dig the classic horror of the 1930s or the bloodier yet still artfully constructed horror of Hammer Films, then this is your type of movie.

It was definitely my type of movie. I was enraptured through the whole thing, marveling at the surrealistic and highly stylized set pieces, gleefully allowing the anticipation of horror mount until the final big pay-off, which was both eerie, shocking, and worth the wait. Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan is undeniably a classic of horror, regardless of which side of the ocean it comes from. It’s an ageless, multi-cultural tale of revenge from beyond the grave that can speak to and chill the bones of everyone, regardless of your standing within the ranks of the samurai.