Sunday, October 4, 2009

Celluloid Horrors Movie Reviews

The Demon (1978)

Screenwriter: Masato Ide, based on a story by Seicho Matsumoto
Director: Yoshitaro Nomura
Sokichi: Ken Ogata
Oume: Shima Iwashita
Kikuyo: Mayumi Ogawa
Riichi: Hiroki Iwase

What is the most horrific category of crime a human being can commit? Without too much thought, most people will say murder. Now a second question: what type of murder is the worst? Serial killing? Terrorism? Political assassinations? Though all these are heinous in the extreme, in answer to that second question, most will think “the murder of a child”. So why does murdering children carry such an extra freight of evil over the killing of adults? We prize our children for the most obvious of reasons: they are our legacy, they are a part of us, and they are innocent. These are the keys to understanding where the ultimate horror of this film lies.

THE DEMON, the 1978 film based on a story by Seicho Matsumoto and directed by the talented Yoshitaro Nomura, is the story of three illegitimate children abandoned by their mother on the doorstep of their father and his horrid wife. The father, Sokichi, has been carrying on an affair with the mother for seven years, and now his chickens have literally come home to roost. Enduring an all day trip from another city to drop the children off at their father’s printing shop/residence, and after initially bedding down there, the mother Kikuyo runs out in the middle of the night and disappears.

Sokichi’s wife Oume is stunned, not only by the news that he has been deceiving her for seven years, but also by the fact that she is an instant mother. Barren herself for reasons unexplained in the film, her resentment and rage are mountainous. From the very first moment she treats the three children, 5-year Riichi, 3-year old Yoshiko and 18 month old Shoji, with shocking cruelty and brutality. In the beginning, the story more resembles a fairy tale or fable than it does horror, paralleling Cinderella with the three children menaced by their wicked stepmother. But as the cruelties pile one on top of another, unlike in fairy tales, the distance between the viewer and the characters begins to disappear, and the horror grows. The viewer experiences a feeling of helplessness that must be akin to what these three innocent children are suffering, but the viewer in his or her adult wisdom knows what is coming, while the children do not, and are thus incapable of avoiding their fate. It’s like watching a car bear down on the back of a heedless deaf person – you want desperately to warn them, but you cannot. The subject matter here is so touchy that you would be hard pressed to name many popular books or films that deal with it directly. People just aren’t thrilled at the idea of watching children brutalized. But THE DEMON draws you in gradually with the same fascination with which one watches a train wreck.

Sokichi is the epitome of a weakly evil person. When the mother, forced to spend the night at the printing shop with her children since the last train of the day has already gone, becomes loudly upset, Sokichi contemplates leaving his wife’s bed to see what is wrong. As he begins rise, Oume slashes him with a razor to stop him from going to the woman. Sokichi meekly takes this punishment and sinks back into bed. All throughout the movie there are examples of the shrewish Oume’s monstrous behavior, to which Sokichi almost invariably gives in. But this isn’t just the story of a wicked stepmother. Sokichi ultimately bears responsibility for what happens. He is at first silently and later actively complicit in the crimes, surely earning a spot for himself in hell if such a place actually exists.

A key subtext in the film is the relationship between the father and the oldest boy, Riichi. It lends an extra dimension to the climax of the film, elevating it from a simple suspense tale ala THE STEPFATHER to something more, making it a film which has something to say about what separates human behavior from the behavior of animals merely concerned with their own comfort and survival.

The horror here is the absolute abdication of parental responsibility and the complete lack of love that Sokichi demonstrates. As a father, Sokichi had a duty to not only protect but to love his children, but he shirks both responsibilities. Oume shows an utter lack of morality as she plots and schemes, with and without Sokichi, to rid herself of these unwanted “pests”, but she is a garden variety monster. Sokichi and Kikuyo are the true demons here. They both have the power to prevent the tragedies, and neither cares enough to take the right action. One abandons the children to their father, and the other abandons the children to their fate without lifting a finger. I won’t give away any more of the plot, but suffice it to say that there are surprises in store, despite what you think you may now know about this film.

This is not an easy film to watch. There were parts where I was so upset that I almost wanted to turn off the DVD player. Not because of anything graphic or tasteless, but because of the sheer cruelty of the experience. But the film is so well made, the performances so spot on, that the viewer will be mesmerized. Maybe it’s because I am a father that it hit me so hard. Perhaps childless viewers won’t be quite as affected. But I rather doubt that will be the case. Normal human beings care about children, and tend to have a natural instinct to protect them. My guess is most everyone who watches this film will be as disturbed as I was.

--John Miller

Terror Beneath the Sea (1966)

Director: Hajime Sato
Cast: Sonny Chiba, Peggy Neal, Franz Gruber, Steve Queens, Andre Husse, and Erik Neilson

Can ya'll say Sonny Chiba? Hell, yeah!
Chiba, last seen in Tarantino's Kill Bill films, has come a long way since starring in Terror Beneath the Sea, in which he plays Ken, an intrepid journalist.
During a Naval demonstration of a new weapon, a mysterious undersea man swims by the submarine. This sparks Ken and his beautiful sidekick, Jenny (read main squeeze), to investigate. They dive undersea, only to be captured by a crazy scientist intent on creating an army of fish men to take over the world (or at least the oceans of the world), using a top secret Processing Formula. Don’t panic, as the Processing Formula consists of getting a shot and then having to stand around in a gas chamber for ten minutes while all the actors grimace and frown and say things like 'proceed', and some funky electronic music plays in the background. Then a dubbed German scientist chains you to a table and does some half assed operation. this is the part you can safely fats forward through. You ain't gonna miss anything. Chiba does nothing but grasp Jenny and look intense for the camera.
After this silliness if over, Ken and Jenny are offered the chance to join our crazy world dominating scientist because...well, that's never made exactly clear, seeing as how they're just a couple of meddling reporters. Maybe he's going to start his own undersea newspaper or something. The Daily Coral has a nice ring to it.
Ken and Jenny attempt to escape and are sentenced to become fish people as well. They get injected, stand around for a while in a gas tank, listen to the tunes, have a bunch of crap smeared on their faces by the special effects crew, and generally do a lot of kicking and screaming for no reason.
Meanwhile, and this is where the story gets dicey, there's a special agent scientist and his friends flying around in a plane over the ocean looking for them, a kidnapped scientist is dragged into the picture to do some more grimacing and yelling, and a submarine full of dubbed dolts attack the undersea facility, thereby pushing the story into a state of denouement, as the fish men attack their masters.
For an actor known for his fight scenes, there are precious few in Terror Beneath the Sea. Chiba has two rock em' sock em' scenes and they're short, and have been sped up to make them look more intense.
The stars of this film are the terrible fish men. Those rubber suits just look weird and might even give you a nightmare or two, with those alien bird eyes and those pointed faces. All in all it might keep you away from sushi for a bit.
The production values are typical Tokyo cheap and the director Sato doesn't show near as much verve as he did in his cult classic "Goke". The music is strictly background, except during the transformation scenes. There are no extras on this stripped down DVD.

--Nickolas Cook

I Eat Your Skin (1964)

Director: Del Tenney
Cast: William Joyce, Heather Hewitt, Betty Hyatt Linton, Dan Stapleton, and Walter Coy

Egads! The horror, the horror...
Written, produced, and directed by the same man who brought us the 'classics' "The Horror of Party Beach" and "The Curse of the Living Corpse" we have one of drive-in culture's landmark films, "I Eat Your Skin". But, hey, let's get this straight right off the bat: There is no skin eaten in this movie. That being said, one CAN feel brain cells dying. Swiftly. Never to be reborn again.
This bottom of the barrel schlock fest (originally known as VOODOO BLOOD BATH) sat on the shelf for six years before it was rescued from cinema obscurity by a distributor who got the nifty idea to make it part of a nation wide drive-in double feature with the infamous (and just as lame) I DRINK YOUR BLOOD.
The plot is simple: A cancer researcher on a remote Caribbean island discovers treating the natives with snake venom turns them into bug-eyed zombies. But his employer has no interest in seeing bug eyed acting, and forces the scientist to create an army of the creatures in order to conquer the world. There's a pretty daughter with all the acting skills of a Tonka toy, a vulpine evil scientist, and an ass load of pissed off natives sporting the latest in bone-wear and fake spears. The natives seem pretty embarrassed by the whole thing, but some of them try hard to keep a straight face while mumbling 'voodoo' rites and dancing around (actually the dancing isn't bad, really).
Slow is a nice way of putting it, as brash, young thriller writer William Joyce dashes from one end of the darkened island to the other, always without breaking a sweat, and his shirt open to display his hirsute acting talents. He falls in love, fights zombies, an evil scientist, and is just an all around funny, charming guy. His agent and agent's wife are along for the ride.
And who said being a writer was boring, eh?
The production values are typical for a Z-grade studio, working on a less-than shoestring budget. The music is early 60s lounge lizard. And the effects range from derisive snicker to downright tear-inducing, side-clutching guffaw.
But if you want a laugh, and looking for your own homemade version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, "I Eat Your Skin" is just what the evil zombie scientist ordered.

--Nickolas Cook

Lifeforce (1985)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Steve Railsback, Mathilda May, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay and Patrick Stewart

In a not too distant future, a British/American joint space crew goes to study the oncoming Halley’s Comet as it makes its way towards Earth. They discover a long tubular alien space craft hiding in the comet’s tail discharge. Inside, they find a race of shriveled bat-like creatures hanging around, and three humanoid aliens, which seem to be in suspended animation. They gather the human looking aliens and start the return trip home. But all communication ceases suddenly and a new crew is sent to rescue the first crew. They find the ship has been almost completely gutted by fire and the only things left are the three humanoid aliens, still seemingly asleep.
Back on earth, scientists are about to do an autopsy on possibly the hottest alien ever to go naked (Mathilda May), when she awakens and sucks the life force from her guard, leaving the burned out husk of his body behind. The government scrambles to capture her, but she escapes using vast mental powers. A special agent is assigned to captain the search.
Shortly afterwards, the lone survivor (Steve Railsback) comes hurtling back to earth in a capsule and no memory of what’s happened to the rest of his crew.
Seems he’s got some sort of strange psychic link with the naked alien and the government uses him to track her down. She has the ability to transfer her life force into host bodies, and winds up in a variety of bodies, including good old Capt. Picard at one point.
Adding to the danger, everyone who the space vampires suck the life from become new vampires and soon they’re attacking the living for their life force. The space vampire disease spreads across the country , until things go from bad to worse (from weird to sort of convolutedly unbelievable, even for a horror film) and soon all of London is overrun with the humans-cum-space-vampires (which resemble zombies more than vampires) and soon Railsback and fellow government special agent Peter Firth are trying to fight their way back into London to stop the female alien from transmitting her collected human life forces into her alien mother ship. Apparently, we humans make a pretty good space fuel.
I won’t spoil the end of the film for you, but suffice it to say, it tends towards ambiguity.
Tobe Hooper is one of those director’s who, when he’s on, can make some really great flicks. Unfortunately, LIFEFORCE isn’t one of those flicks. Oh, it’s decent entertainment, but it’s hardly a TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or even a good time FUNHOUSE. And the problem may lie in the fact that he was trying desperately to escape the stricture of straight horror by using a sci-fi horror story instead (and one written by the great Colin Wilson to boot). It just doesn’t jell most of the time and there’re very few scares to be had. It’s mostly entertaining for Mathilda May walking around stark naked for a good amount of the film. The acting is a bit histrionic and uncontrolled, the special effects decent, but not really ground breaking, even for its time. What you got with LIFEFORCE is a movie that pays heavy homage to the classic Quatermass films of the 50s and 60s, thoroughly British thinking man’s sci-fi/horror movies that usually had something to do with strangely ambivalent alien invasion, which were usually short on bombast and heavy on science. After all is said and done, Hooper does a decent job of capturing the spirit of the Quatermass films.
Unfortunately, US audiences for the most part in 1985 didn’t know diddle squat about them, and saw this as a scattered and too slow mess of UK/US accents.
This is a movie for Hooper or horror completists, or perhaps for the stray Quatermass fan here and there. Are there any left alive in this age of CGI madness and boom-boom-clap-clap moviemaking?

--Nickolas Cook