Friday, January 24, 2014

DEVIL DOLL (1964)

Among groups whom cinema has treated unfairly, magicians and hypnotists are likely to be the most maligned.  Even in the bad old days, at least Sidney Poitier or Mantan Moreland would garner some audience sympathy.  But can you think of one example of an admirable movie stage magician?  They all debut looking like this and then the movie happens and all the stereotypes get reinforced all over again.


The Great Vorelli sure isn't smashing those stereotypes.  Like pretty much all horror movie wizards, he plays it straight on stage and saves his sneering and grimacing for the backstage area.  Vorelli is a pretty solid hypnotist, but his most lucrative gimmick is a dummy named Hugo.  The majority of their act is meh/whatever, your standard sawdust jokes and such, but when Hugo walks off on his own and delivers his lines right at the footlights, rave reviews.


DEVIL DOLL obviously didn't have gobs of money at hand, but they could've done a better job at Hugo's design.  I like the chola eyebrows, but otherwise he looks really cheapjack.


Vorelli and Hugo cross paths with rich British babe Marianne, who is dating an American named Mark ENGLISH(!!!).  Yvonne Romain is pretty resplendent, looking a lot like a Russ Meyer girl from the white cliffs here, and I admire her commitment to makeup, which extends even to sweaty semi-comas.  Plus, chola eyebrows, again!


So crass, as if looks are the most important attribute an actress brings to the silver screen.  But it fits well with DEVIL DOLL's general atmosphere of burgeoning sleaze.  You can feel this movie pushing hard against the loosening standards—tight shots of hands fumbling at legs abound, heaving breasts are barely contained in diaphanous blouses.


But probably the proto-scuzz par excellence here happens when we spend five minutes watching Vorelli's Botticelli-blonde assistant wrapped in a sheet.  DEVIL DOLL teases the viewer for aeons before finally delivering a split-second nip-slip.  Allegedly, there's another cut of the film that includes legit lengthy nudity, possibly intended for more lawless regions.


The slight sex distracts from the seedier elements of DEVIL DOLL.  If you've wasted your life watching lots of exploitation, you'll recognize a lot of artifices here that recall the grand old masters.  We get plenty of close-ups of feet walking, straight outta the Doris Wishman playbook.


And it's rare to get anything other than a set-concealing tight shot, pretty reminiscent of some of H.G. Lewis's oeuvre.  


The best economy element here, though, is the amazing "front page" newspaper that pops up briefly.  This won Most Believable Prop at the 1964 Academy Awards.


This was intermittently interesting.  The uncertain eroticism and the budget-minded filmmaking were compelling, but it did get draggy and grating at times.  I wouldn't go out of your way to see it, but, if it happens on accident, you probably won't feel too cheated by the experience.  Probably right in the middle of the rankings for killer-doll films.


RATING: 5

Sunday, January 19, 2014

RAZE (2013)

No screenshots, sawry.

Here are complete spoilers and also the entire plot of RAZE: women are abducted by a secret society and forced to fight to the death.  To convince them, their loved ones are threatened.  If they lose, their loved ones die.  One woman is Sabrina (Zoe Bell), who has a daughter.  Another is Teresa (Tracie Thomas), who is black.  Then there is blonde Cody (Bailey Anne Borders), who has a mom.  Don't forget about Phoebe (Rebecca Marshall), she is the mean one.  Blood blood blood, 2xtreme gritty visuals, the end and thanks for the money.

What's the deal with this society?  They reference Maenads and one lady wears this toga-type thing, so are they some ancient holdover from Dionysian cult heydays?  Where are the fights happening?  It looks like the inside of a large chimney.  How can the society identify family members and, more than that, plant cameras to follow them everywhere?  How can it kill them without interference from law enforcement agencies?


RAZE doesn't bother examining these questions.  It is literally just a movie about women killing each other.  Additionally, it has been nearly ten years since HOSTEL and people still keep making movies in that mold: ugly, unpleasant and unengaging to watch, with gobs of violence daubed on to make things slightly less dull.  This could have tapped into some of the old-timey women in prison greatness with more outrageousness, more exploitation elements, but it's played so seriously and so straight that it lacks charm.  It seems dumb to demand that a movie about women killing each other be more fun, but at least it would have made for a better watch.

Or!  It could have been a message movie, since "women forced to fight each other by dominant social group" practically writes its own interpretative academic articles.  But RAZE doesn't do that, either.  It also doesn't really "do" characters, since we land in medias res with our ladyfighting.   Maybe if we'd seen any of their lives prior to kidnapping and imprisonment, it would be easier to care.  Or maybe if we got some insight into this society after the inevitable uprising.  But we don't and, as it stands, meh.

The fights are pretty well-staged.  Some are effectively brutal, but since they don't have any wider context, the violence doesn't have much of a reach beyond simple spectacle (cf. something like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST).  Maybe people who love MMA or girl-fighting fetish videos will get a kick out of this, but it didn't make any impact on me.   

RATING: 4

Monday, January 13, 2014

MEATBALL MACHINE (2005)

Dear ethnocentrist,

Everything changes, especially Japan.  You might think it's all still a land of samurais and anime eyes and movies that want you to be afraid of assorted girl hair.  But OMG you're baka, as Japan since 2000 has developed quite a thing for goofy, gory sorta-horror.  The exquisite VAMPIRE GIRL VS. FRANKENSTEIN GIRL, the excruciating ROBOGEISHA, and now this MEATBALL MACHINE, which marries splatterpunk to cyberpunk.  


No matter what brands of punk it uses, it's still clearly in the gross-out vein of the titles I mentioned up yonder.  Gore pours, but before that happens, we get close-ups of realistic vomiting and a close-up of the spit that a transvestite spits on a boy in a garbage dumpster.  Japan, the land of honor! 


The plot is actually pretty promising.  Tiny alien parasites have invaded Earth.  When they infect people, they somehow affix all this metal shit to then, including snowman-style button eyes and a panoply of cutting and drilling weapons.  The aliens then sit inside their hosts and pilot them like steamships or mecha robots.  When one infected meets another, they fight to the death and the victor gets to pluck the alien pod from his/her opponent and eat it.  


So it's pretty much SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK again.  But, really, it kind of is.  MEATBALL MACHINE adds in a romantic subplot involving a schlubby guy, Yoji, and his unexpressed love for lovely Sachiko.  Circumstances finally pull them together and they have a magical, hilariously awkward kiss while seated four feet away from one another.  Since this is a movie about cyborg-creating alien parasites and romance, you know one's going to spoil the other.


I might be an old softy, but I really dig romantical elements in these kinds of films.  It worked great in VAMPIRE GIRL and it's fine here, too.  The problem is that MEATBALL mostly ditches those developments in favor of splattery action about midway through.  The film becomes wholly concerned about people in GWAR outfits hitting each other.  Okay, but it seems like it just abandons the things that made it special in favor of a more conventional approach.


Still fun and worth a whirl.  


RATING: 6

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

PERKINS' 14 (2009)

Some are despised and rejected in their own time, only to be celebrated by more enlightened future generations. Melville, the Velvet Underground, and now PERKINS' 14 may be added to that list of luminaries.


Let me be clear.  Mistakes were made.  People behave idiotically, as if they were in a penny-pinching horror film.  The plot involves Olympic reaching competition levels of reaching. Shots are as dark as the pillars of some Hindoo shrine.  PERKINS' in the title should be PERKINS'S. 


And yet this leapt right over my low expectations, expectations that were made even lower by the general scorn people on the Internet seem to have for it.  Even Netflix was so dismissive of the film that it got its synopsis this wrong: "Unbalanced by the brutal murder of his parents, Robert Perkins (Richard Brake) kidnaps 14 people from a nearby town and brainwashes them into serving as his band of psychotic bodyguards".  Not exactly.  RONALD Perkins does kidnap children and works on their brains, but they generally emerge more of pseudo-zombies of the 28 DAYS LATER type than bodyguards.


When Perkins gets arrested, a chain of improbable events results in the loosening of said pseudo-zombies.  It's a small town, so, yes, an invasion of 14 people really can do some serious damage.  If you can't handle dumb premises, you shouldn't watch horror movies.  Go back to your scarlet armchair and works of classic literature by the fireplace.


So, granted, there are flaws here. The premise as conceived is pretty rad, but the telling certainly could've been improved.   But there are also things to like!  I dug the hell out of leads Patrick O'Kane (as a policeman whose child disappeared ten years ago) and Mihaela Mihut (as his secretly-cheating wife).  My fave scenes in the film involved an attack on the cuckolding wife and her mister, because the cop saves the day and skips right over any kind of marital spat jealousy thing.  It seemed pretty realistic that he'd prioritize saving her life over freaking out about adultery.  Also, blood happens.


I didn't love the last third or so of the film, since we move into confined-spaces horror at the jail building and there's less time for acting and character stuff.  The plot pretty much ends and we get a lot of stalking and splatter.


Plus a lot of this portion is poorly-lit, even though the film does some cool stuff with shadows and light.


Overall, though, I'd say that PERKINS' 14 is modestly enjoyable.  No games will be changed by this, no lives will be altered, but it seems weird that so many people are so down on a fun little effort.


RATING: 6

Saturday, January 4, 2014

CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC (1980)

If living with vanity projects is a sin, then let me be guilty.  My beloved VIVA KNIEVEL makes a strong attempt at being The Template for vanity projects—it's constructed around its real-life protagonist being the greatest guy, sort of a proto-Jesus figure who ramps motorcycles over flaming cars.  Then, when he's done doing that, he's enriching the lives of crippled children with his mere presence.  CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC can't reach VIVA KNIEVEL's delusional heights of self-love, but this pseudo bio-pic of the Village People has plenty of disasterpiece charm to spare.


From our modern perches, we can look back and be confused and entertained that their contemporaries could overlook the sea of homoerotica that engulfed the Village People's entire, like, lives.  But CAN'T STOP can't stop repressing its sodomiting (sort of).  It's suggested, brutally and blatantly.  But the overt romance only happens between boys and girls.  It's not as strangled and stifled as some David DeCoteau films, but there is a weird appeal in seeing an obviously gay boy sexily dancing with a girl while looking like he might vomit all over the disco at any moment.  Vaginas are like Kryptonite in this movie.


Record store clerk Jack Morrell (Steve Guttenberg) ditches his job and dreams of songwriting stardom and cans of Dr. Pepper.  But, first, he must assemble a group of all-guy singers with the help of his platonic retired-model woman friend Samantha (Valerie Perrine).   Coincidentally, they find a bunch of dudes in various occupational sectors—construction worker, cop, cowboy, Indian—and embark on a trip to stardom.  *Note that the cop in this movie is not the original Village People cop. 


For a movie that's about the Village People, CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC is remarkably concerned with lots of characters who are not the Village People.  We get a glut of scenes orbiting around Samantha's romance with uptight square Bruce Jenner and that's fine because Valerie Perrine is cute and fun in a P.J. Soles way.  There's just a lot of this irrelevant material. 


Perrine was a good choice for the safe lady friend and the movie utilizes her in all kinds of strange, interesting ways, like when she gets dolled up to seduce a record exec and gets shot through cheesecloth painted with Vaseline.


Meanwhile, people with more unfortunate heavy makeup are shot without gaussian blur, which makes me think that director Nancy (Rosie the Paper Towel Lady) Walker didn't really know what she was doing.  There are definitely odd choices here.  Samantha's eternal and flavor-changing ice cream cone is a good example.  So is this:


 But perhaps the weirdest thing in this very weird movie is Steve Guttenberg.  STEVE GUTTENBERG!!!


Guttenberg's performance is enthusiastic to the max, like he's been threatened with a gun and given an imperative like "Affirm life!" or "Entertain!"  In early scenes, he's bounding down New York streets on roller skates.  As the film proceeds, his performance gets a little less hyper and, to be fair, Perrine is also super-smiley throughout the film.  But I can't help but think that Guttenberg really regarded this as his big break and let his excitement seep into his acting.  If a three part Steve Guttenberg biopic ended with a disappointed Guttenberg looking at the box office receipts for CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC and then his agent calls and he says, "I'm not interested, I don't think this acting thing is for me" and the agent says, "But I have this great script, it's called POLICE ACADEMY!", then it would make me feel like this:


Yes.  CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC has its appeal.  Some of the songs are really good and not just the Village People standards.  If you don't love "Magic Night", you're an all-time loser, case closed.  Scab Cop is a good lead singer and a lot of the songs are well-composed. 


And the atmosphere of repression gives the film a really weird feel, with all kinds of lurid hints sandwiched between these inane unfunny Lifetime-style comedic scenes.  Gay comedy as represented by this film is pretty much the same stuff that your aunt would find hilar.  It's pretty far away from the John Waters world that you and I might prefer.


Up until they go to the YMCA and then it explodes into a big burgeoning mushroom of same-sexuality!


Really, the YMCA stuff should have been the film's climax.  Anything else is illogical, and yet we get much more film following.  CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC, a movie about disco (which rarely had songs of impressive length), lasts for over two hours.  Sheer insanity and it really starts to drag by the time you're done.


Like disco itself, CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC consists of a few guilty-pleasure highlights fighting to be heard amidst a gross bloat of disinterest.  Worth seeing, though, for its baffling mix of stuff.

RATING: 5

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

CRIMINAL WOMAN: KILLING MELODY (1973)

Explosive exploitation from the land of fried fish balls, CRIMINAL WOMAN is a super-solid example of the sukeban/pinky violence genre.  The film isn't coy about flashing its charms right from the start.  We're pitched into an opening that offers dancing breasts, knife violence, and rollicking roadside strip club jazz, a gallimaufry of this film's ample scuzzy charms.


Would-be knife murderess Maki has good reason to be steamed.  Her dad was done in by the local yakuza.  And when she tries to get payback, she gets arrested and heads to jail.  The jail scenes arguably have the movie's best moments, especially the "how'd you get here?" flashbacks for each girl.  Disclaimer: ladies drinking booze on motorcycles while pursued by cops is awesome in the movies, but don't do it in real life, OK.


Also don't join girl-girl knife fights with strap match mouth stipulations, unless you have a really good reason.


The jail stuff is really just the prologue, though, as we fast-forward a number of years and catch up with our bad girls, ready to wipe out the local criminal scum.  This portion of the film is a few steps below the jail stuff, but it's still loaded with fun.  We get maidens using their girl guiles to outsmart gangsters in tailored suits, and PS many explosions.  What's not to love?


Plus the post-jail period introduces us to Tetsu, the son of a local yakuza magnate.  He will win your heart with his gruff swaggering and his omnipresent magnum of gas station wine.


There's also one incredibly well-mounted house attack, with a group of suited yakuza attacking another triad in Saturday dress.  These scenes are sharply edited and feature very energetic dying by the fatally-wounded actors, always a pleasure to see.  


Just as with the jail stuff, though, the placement of this scene steals the thunder from the rest of the film, as the action here won't be matched by the lady killing that follows.


No one can deny that ladies in pantsuits fighting to the death is a great thing.  And yet these scenes lack the tension or the action of the home invasion and CRIMINAL WOMAN does sort of fail to stick its landing.  That's a very minor criticism of a very enjoyable film and it should not hinder you from seeing this immediately.  How craaazy is it that Japan, not famous for progressive gender politics, had this boom of woman-driven action films well before epic yawners like CHARLIE'S ANGELS and THELMA & LOUISE?  


RATING: 7