July 03, 2015

The Crimson Cult

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Vernon Sewell - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Talk about timing. What's best about this new blu-ray is that it comes with a 2012 documentary, taken from a television series, British Legends of the Stage and Screen, devoted to the career of Christopher Lee. We get to see Lee talk about the false starts to his acting career, how he almost became an opera singer, a bit about his parents and other relatives - Ian Fleming was his cousin, and his his thoughts on his iconic role as Dracula. There are clips from various films, including The Man with the Golden Gun, The Three Musketeers, and the film he was most proud of, Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Lee also talks about how he preferred to play Dracula as the character described by Bram Stoker, although no clips from the Jesus Franco film, that come a bit closer to the novel, are included here. There's only so much that can be stuffed in a forty-five minute documentary, but for the most part, this is a nice overview of Lee's life and films.

While the blu-ray is packaged as The Crimson Cult, what we see bears the original British release title of Curse of the Crimson Altar. Lee, along with Boris Karloff, Barbara Steele and Michael Gough, share top billing. Most of the screen time is given to Mark Eden and Virginia Wetherell, and if you are like me, you'll realize that you've seen them in other films after check the IMDb, but not recalled a single performance. I am also assuming that this is more complete than the version released in North America by American International Pictures.

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Eden plays an antiques dealer, looking for his brother who disappeared in a small town. His search brings him to the estate of a country squire played by Lee, who lives with his niece, played by Wetherell. The squire most frequently socializes with an elderly historian, played by Karloff. Karloff is usually seen with his aide, a guy in a black chauffeur's uniform and sunglasses, who looks virtually like Elton John. Spending a couple of nights at the estate, his sleep is disturbed by nightmares involving Steele as a witch, demanding that Eden sign his name in blood. Meanwhile, Michael Gough creeps around as demented butler with a serious speech impediment.

This is a film in which a grab bag of parts are stuck together in the hopes that no one will notice how not all of it fits into a coherent whole. There is a partial quotation in the beginning, from an unnamed author, about drugs used for hypnotism, superimposed over some kaleidoscopic images. And while Eden's character is supposedly hypnotized, that really the last time there is a reference to drugs. The swinging party hosted by Wetherell and her hedonistic friends seems to have been included, along with the drug reference, to make what is essentially a gothic horror film relatable to those kids who flocked to Roger Corman's The Trip, released at about the same time as this film was produced. There's also a bit of nudity provided by Wetherell, thanks to the newly relaxed production code.

There is one moment, maybe too cute, maybe too meta, where our young couple takes a tour of Lee's mansion, and Wetherell states, "It's like a house from one of those old horror films.", and Eden replies, "It's like Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment." And pop up, Karloff does, in one scene, barely getting a grip on his chair, falling back. This was one of Karloff's last films, and as frail as he was during the filming, his way with words never failed him as he grins just enough while mentioning that his collection is of "instruments of torture".

The film takes place during a local holiday marking the celebration of the burning of a witch named Lavinia. We get to see Steele wearing some kind of hat shaped like ram's horns with long feathers. In her coven is a whip wielding woman with some kind of swirl design black pasties covering over her nipples, and a blacksmith in a black leather speedo. While the scenes fail to inspire dread, this might be campier than anything in Rocky Horror.

Alas, Christopher Lee doesn't do much here except look dapper.

The commentary track with film historian David Del Valle and Barbara Steele doesn't do much in terms of providing any insight into the making of The Crimson Cult, but does allow for Steele to tell stories about various high and low points in her own career.

A more curious inclusion is an interview with Kendall Schmidt. A music composer, Schmidt was hired to create new music scores for a number of A.I.P. films after the library had been bought by Orion Pictures. While it is explained that this was done for legal reasons, it doesn't explain why this was an issue for this particular studio. I can understand the rights issue regarding specific songs, which has caused some films to not get home video releases. There is something odd when finding out that Schmidt not only was hired to replace the original score by Peter Knight for this film, but also the music by Gino Marinuzzi for Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires, and that of Paul Ferris for Witchfinder General, among titles mentioned.

July 01, 2015

For the Emperor

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Hwangjereul Wihayeo
Park Sang-jun - 2014
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

A small army of hooded thugs gather in the corridor of a building. The lights are off. The only illumination is from flashlights going in multiple directions. There's a gang war with men knifing each other. It's hard to tell exactly what's going on, but the flashing lights give the scene a kinetic quality. Sometimes the pleasure of genre films is just doing enough to make it stand out from other films.

While not specifically recalling other films, there is even a moment when the mob connected attorney declares that he needs some popcorn in anticipation of another plot twist coming up.

The original Korean title, according to Wikipedia, refers to the name of the loan company that the characters work for, Emperor Capital. Behind the fancy office building, and gentlemen wearing coats and ties, is a loan shark operation, one that will see you beaten and blood if debts are not paid in a timely manner.

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Hwan, a formerly promising young baseball player, is having a terrible season. Making matters worse, he's busted in a gambling raid and has additionally been revealed to have been involved in fixing games. His own indebtedness is causes him to be attacked by a gang who collects money. Hwan ability to take on the gang brings him to the attention of Emperor Capital's CEO. Hwan works his way up the ladder of the organization, also gaining the attention of a glamorous prostitute known as Madame Cha, and the real head of Emperor Capital, an older gangster who works behind the scenes. The basis for the film is a comic book by Kim Seong-Dong. It is also the second film directed by Park Sang-jun. And in some ways the story follows a familiar pattern of the rise of a young gangster, and the power struggles that take place within organized crime.

The lights of Busan are seen from a distance, and appear glittery and golden. The film could be said to be about Hwan seduced by what he sees - money, power, respect, sex. It may be too obvious to have Madame Cha working out of a bar called Temptation. Park Sang-jun is also less than subtle with several shots angled in a way to help emphasize the breasts of actress Lee Tae-im. Hwan and Madame Cha get together, but it is later that one has to ask who seduced whom? Lee Min-ki as Hwan and Lee Tae-im are in the kind of scene that Hollywood might have made forty years ago - hot, nude, with bodies tangled. Not exactly "Last Tango in Busan", but viewers on this side of the globe might forget this is, for South Korean audiences, a mainstream movie.

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June 29, 2015

Hard to be a God

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Trudno byt' bogom
Aleksei German - 2013
Kino Lorber BD Region A

Throughout Hard to be a God, I felt like I was caught in the midst of a painting by Pieter Breugel the Elder. The density of people and details sometimes was overwhelming. Yes, the era depicted in German's film is a few centuries earlier that the scenes in Breugel's work, but there is, for me, an undeniable similarity with the cramming of people and animals within a limited space. The faces, especially, are remarkably like those found in Breugel's paintings.

Only rarely do you come across a face that might be remotely photogenic. There's snot and grime on most of those faces. Some of the teeth, if someone has close to a full set, look like the sharp set from the mouth of an animal. The film takes place on a planet that is similar to our own, but the civilization, such as it is, resembles that of a small European village in the Middle Ages. With almost constant rain, the streets are essentially muddy trails. It's impossible to not be streaked with mud and shit. Dirt and disease seem to be everywhere.

A group of scientists visit the planet primarily to observe life, but end up being involved in the political conflicts that prevent the possibility of a "renaissance". The science fiction aspects are set aside quickly, so that what is seen is a story of intrigue captured by a periodically acknowledged omniscient camera. The camera follows the action, sometimes seeming to be lost in crowd, sometimes having the field of vision partially obscured by some bit of bric-a-brac, hanging nearby. The only indication that one of the men is from a more contemporary time is when he plays a jazzy tune on a clarinet type instrument. And the basic premise goes against the more familiar stories of scientists, or the humble "Connecticut Yankee" sharing their magic with those relying on more primitive technology.

Aleksei German spent about six years simply in the filming. And there are far more details than can be absorbed in a single viewing. Another five years was spent on the editing, which was completed under the supervision of German's son and wife, screenplay collaborator Svetlana Karmalita. Some of the delays were due to German's own ill health. The legendary fastidiousness of German makes Stanley Kubrick look slap-dash in comparison.

There is an accompanying documentary, partially about the making of Hard to be a God, but also a look back at German's career. The glimpses of his previous work makes me hope that German's previous five films become more readily available. A booklet that includes a statement by German, and essays by his son, Aleksei German, Jr. and Aliza Ma, of the Museum of the Moving Image, help provide greater context for both the film and the filmmaking.

June 28, 2015

Coffee Break

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Rock Hudson in The Spiral Road (Robert Mulligan - 1962)

June 25, 2015

Der TodesKing

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Jörg Buttgereit - 1990
Cult Epics BD Region A

There's a scene in Der TodesKing where a young woman is reading aloud from a book, more or less, to a little girl sitting next to her. I wish I knew the source of the passage read because it seems even more appropriate, and timely, at this moment. I'm roughly paraphrasing here but the essence is that there are people who, considering their lives meaningless, hope to give their lives meaning by suicide, or suicidal acts that will bring some attention, and therefore meaning, to their lives. The title translates as "The Death King", an entity that makes people want to kill themselves. The film is composed of seven vignettes, one for each day of the week, bridged by footage of a decomposing body.

There is a history of artists who have depicted death. And as exploitive as Der TodesKing may seem in writing about certain scenes, there is a serious intent behind some of the moments that are clearly designed to be shocking. These moments may briefly bring to mind Takashi Miike and John Waters, but Buttgereit, more than any filmmaker I can think of, appears to be obsessed with death of the unnatural kind, whether by choice or circumstance.

There is one scene that manages to be both appalling and hilarious at the same time, where you might find yourself laughing while covering, even partially, your eyes. A young goes to a video store, one that has a big poster for Nekromantik. We are able to scan some of the titles available, including Citizen Kane, Breakfast at Tiffany's and Ms. 45. The young man takes home a film similar to Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S., about a female Nazi officer named Vera. In the film-within-the film, Vera supervises the, um, shall we say, extreme circumcision using a hedge clipper. We see the surgery in close-up, in its sepia glory. The young man watching the movie is interrupted by his girl friend, home with groceries. He shoots her in the head. Punching out the photo of the girl's mother, he takes the frame and places it over the part of the wall splattered with blood and bits of brain. It's gross and funny, and seems to encapsulate whatever Buttgereit might want to say about art and violence.

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Buttgereit also has his restrained side, as in a scene composed of shots taken on a bridge known for the high number of people who have leapt to their death. The names of several people, their ages and occupations, are superimposed a montage, a study of of the bridge from its highest points. There is also one visually dazzling moment that should be credited to producer-cinematographer Manfred Jelinski, with the camera making a series of 360 degree pans around the apartment of Hermann Kopp, with Kopp in various stages of preparation for his suicide, and in a different part of the small studio each time the camera catches him. Also, Buttgereit replies to Jean-Luc Godard's famous adage by presenting a girl and a gun, actually two guns, and a camera harnessed to her, allowing her to shoot bullets and film simultaneously.

Also included here is a commentary track by Buttgereit and co-writer Franz Rodenkichen, a documentary on the making of Der TodesKing which shows how the disintegrating corpse was created, a documentary, Corpse Fucking Art - about the Nekromantik films. Additionally, the superb soundtrack, not unlike the music played by the Kronos Quartet at their peak, is an extra bonus.

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June 23, 2015

Cross

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Dai6 Leok6 Gaai3
Daniel Chan, Steve Woo, Lau Kin Ping and Hui Shu Nin - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

If there was a film that really needed a "Making of" supplement, this could well be an extreme example. Begun in 2010 by writer-director Daniel Chan, the film was completed the following year by Steve Woo, Lau Kin Ping and Hui Shu Nin. I have not found any information as to what happened during the production. As Chan is still alive and has completed three films since that time, I might guess that there was a possible difference of opinion with the producer of Cross, that has both shortened the running time with a significant amount of footage being replayed as part of of several flashbacks, and has provided the story with a resolution that leaves a few plot holes.

The basic premise may be troubling for some. Simon Yam is a devout Catholic, whose wife commits suicide rather than endure the pain of dying from leukemia. At the wife's funeral, the priest presiding over the burial unsubtly reminds Yam that suicide is considered a sin, and it's up to the discretion of God as to whether the wife will be allowed into heaven. Racked with guilt about how the wife died, Yam finds a website, an online forum of people contemplating suicide. Some of these people seem to be in hopeless situations. Rather than letting these people sin against the church as his wife did, Yam turns into a serial killer, murdering these people to keep them from killing themselves. It seems like an extreme case of euthanasia, rationalized by Yam. Due to one of the killings being a bit messy, Yam turns himself in to the police.

Where the narrative gets even messier than the murders is when there is the suggestion that Yam was manipulated in killing his victims. There is one plot line that is left dangling. The other plot line that appears to provide an explanation still has lapses in logic. It's as if the producer decided to cut his losses by presenting something that almost runs the length of a feature, what with the re-used scenes and about five minutes of closing credits, and hoped that no one noticed that none of the filmmakers who followed Chan were really paying attention to what had transpired in the first forty-five minutes.

Chan's screenplay was a prize winner at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in 2010, so I have to wonder what was originally intended here. The only interview excerpt I could find from Chan has him discussing his love for Hong Kong gangster films. Whether intended or not, there is some connection here to that very Catholic filmmaker, Alfred Hitchock, though not with his priest in peril, I Confess, but with Stage Fright, and its reminder to the audience to not not believe what they see.

June 21, 2015

Coffee Break

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Gregory Peck in The Stalking Moon (Robert Mulligan - 1968)