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Cat People

I can appreciate the effort, but the overall effect is anemic
Legendary producer Val Lewton's first horror vehicle for RKO, "Cat People" is one of those movies that generally excite critics and film professors more than fans. It's beyond question that "Cat People" occupies an important position in horror cinema history, and students of film should make a point of seeing it...but it's a tough slog. The scenes of implied horror are beautifully executed (and you can see their lingering influence even in more explicit genre films like Terence Fisher's "The Curse of the Werewolf"), but the long passages of dialogue that separate them are tedious and occasionally painful. Neither Simone Simon nor Kent Smith had sufficient screen presence to give the film any weight, and the exquisite tension that characterizes subsequent Lewton productions like "Isle of the Dead" (my personal favorite) and "The Body Snatcher" (his best) is absent here. "Cat People" is an interesting mood piece, but the mood is a little *too* restrained and self-consciously set. Lewton hadn't quite yet mastered his craft.

Fung yu seung lau sing

Wang Yu (on his way down) and Jackie Chan (on his way up) meeting briefly in midair
Ho-hum swordplay drama distinguished only by the fact that it features Jackie Chan in a rare villainous role. Chan was just two years away from superstardom (though from this vantage point, it must have been difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel), while ill-used Wang Yu's career was winding down. His face had begun to look doughy, and his performance as the hero is tired and dispirited. The action is mostly watchable, but the finale relies on a cheap special effects gimmick where good, solid choreography would have served the film much better. Some of the static dialogue scenes could have been trimmed down, too; 104 minutes is a tad lengthy for a low-budget fight flick. Avoid "The Killer Meteors" unless you're intent on seeing every foot of celluloid from Chan's early career.

Criminally Insane

An effective horror film
"Criminally Insane" is an effective horror film, so anything else you'd like to call it (such as tasteless or crude or exploitative) is superfluous. Director Nick Millard might not have had any money, but he had intelligence and heart and a flair for storytelling--and he obtained a bravura performance from Priscilla Alden as Ethel. (Also good are Lisa Farros as Ethel's pitiable sister and George 'Buck' Flower as the businesslike cop.) In anyone else's hands a movie like this would have become a hopeless grotesquerie, but Millard gave it psychological depth; you'll find yourself wondering what he might have been able to do with an actual budget as you watch the jarring fantasy scenes near the end. One of the best American films of its type, right up there with David Durston's "I Drink Your Blood".


The greatest Lou Reed performance ever filmed
It is an irremediable shame that so few of Lou Reed's live performances were captured on film. There's the 1993 concert movie of The Velvet Underground's reunion, of course, and a handful of solo performances (most of them from Lou's later years except 1983's "A Night with Lou Reed"), but even for the casual fan there's very little to choose from...and for an artist of Reed's caliber it's inexcusably *too* little. Fortunately for us all, one of the options is "Berlin", Julian Schnabel's superlative eighty-minute document of Lou's performance of the album of the same name from beginning to end (plus a lengthy encore). Thirty-three years after the album's release, the "Berlin" song cycle was as vital and compelling as ever, Reed's gritty, unflinching delivery on classics like 'Lady Day' and 'The Bed' enhanced by a twelve-piece band and various backing vocalists including the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. This was not a mechanical run-through of the ten tracks from "Berlin": it was a recreation of the album itself, in both sound and spirit, and it's amazing. (The encore features an exquisitely disturbing rendition of 'Rock Minuet', a late-period masterpiece from Lou's 2000 album "Ecstasy", as well as a couple of Velvet Underground favorites.)

If you're going to own just one Lou Reed concert film, this should be it. "Berlin" is a perfect example of the brilliance of Reed's musical artistry.

I Bury the Living

One of the really good ones--don't miss it.
Relying on Louis Garfinkle's tense screenplay, a convincingly haunted performance by Richard Boone and atmospheric black-and-white cinematography, "I Bury the Living" is one of the finest psychological horror films. It's not quite on a par with the Val Lewton productions of the previous decade, but it's close. Yes, Theodore Bikel's grizzled old Scotsman will elicit eye rolls from most viewers and the silly cop-out ending does cheapen the proceedings somewhat, but these defects don't spoil the nerve-jangling ride. "Is this really happening? (Wipes cold sweat from brow) Yes, it appears so!" That's essentially the dynamic of this film, and it'll be right up your alley if you're a fan of "The Twilight Zone" or "Carnival of Souls".

Solimsa yongpali

Just about what you'd expect from Dragon Lee and Godfrey Ho
Lousy production values, Dragon Lee performing his battery of awkward fighting mannerisms (I really hate that stupid back-bobbing thing he does when he goes into the praying mantis stance, almost as much as the inexplicable fact that he appears to be trying to hold his nunchaku in the fold between his palm and wrist, as though he's got floppy little T-Rex hands that can't quite get a grip on the weapon) as felled extras drop to the ground before him, ridiculous hairpieces sliding off their heads...yes, "Martial Monks of Shaolin Temple" is another miserable no-budget effort from director Godfrey Ho and the folks at Filmark/Asso Asia. Do these films have a fan base? Yes. But good god, what kind of wretched twilight people could possibly receive a thrill of pleasure from watching a movie like this?! We're not talking about bad filmmaking: we're talking about utterly *abysmal* filmmaking on every level. It's the sort of device you might employ if you wanted to torture information out of someone without subjecting him to any physical harm. I suffered through it to see the consistently amazing Hwang Jang Lee (Wong Cheng Li) kick his way through the opposition, and for that I give the film two stars. But I did suffer, and so will you if you insist on watching this monstrosity from beginning to end. As anyone who's reading this review must be aware, the talented and dynamic Hwang was slumming in these sad little productions.

Yan ku shen tan

Weird, awkward mix of martial arts action and T&A
It's poodle-permed Byong Yu versus the world (dancing lesbian abortionists, a murderous bandit gang and corruption within his own police department) in "The Association", a weird, awkward mix of martial arts action and T&A from Golden Harvest Studios. The high point is a short but superbly choreographed clash between Byong and Hwang In-shik: this occurs roughly halfway through the movie, which thereafter struggles to reach an anticlimax. There's just enough cheesecake to be distracting and the fights are too few, but they're fine examples of GH's signature blend of Chinese and Korean fisticuffs. (Angela Mao Ying gets a chance to shine in the film's opening moments.) Nice-looking sets and costumes, too. All in all, "The Association" is fairly entertaining as long as you don't take it seriously...and how could you?

Blood of the Vampire

Pretty fair Hammer imitation
Pretty fair Hammer imitation, the resemblance aided considerably by the presence of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and lovely female lead Barbara Shelley (who appeared in Hammer films like "The Gorgon" and "Dracula, Prince of Darkness")...but it's Sir Donald Wolfit who carries "Blood of the Vampire". Wolfit is no vampire, however, despite the fact that he's made up to look like Bela Lugosi: he's an unhinged scientist and prison warden who conducts grisly experiments on his inmates in an effort to cure himself of a rare blood disease. The action begins when he enlists the help of a wrongly convicted doctor who has just arrived to serve his sentence.

Hardly a classic, but there's lots of bleak prison atmosphere, bloody mad doctor antics and lush Hammer-esque color. It's obvious that Wolfit would rather have been elsewhere, but I loved watching him summon all his dignity to soldier through a performance that must have seemed many rungs down the ladder from his beloved King Lear. You won't find a more striking example of a gifted actor making the best of things.

Tsar to Lenin

What was and what might have been
As another reviewer has observed, the narration of this film has a distinctly propagandistic flavor: one that is bound to elicit laughter or even scorn from modern viewers. Assailed from without by a deeply socialist-phobic Europe and from within by intellectual snobbery and a rigid attachment to Marxist dogma (certain aspects of it, at any rate), the Bolsheviks blew it. Eventually they switched gears, but not soon enough to truly salvage their credibility as revolutionaries; their first priority had been to maintain power, and today they are remembered not for shaking the world in 1917 but for the appalling decisions they made afterward. For some reason the atrocities committed by Nicholas II are no longer touched upon, as if everyone had tacitly agreed that they were irrelevant to the discussion. "Tsar to Lenin" demonstrates otherwise, and therein lies its importance. This *was* a necessary and fully justified revolution, and in an age when the working class faces oppression on an almost infinitely greater scale, Lenin's example should be a source of hope for those of us who believe that things can--and must--change. Just be sure that you understand what took place before and after this crucial moment in history.

The Body Snatcher

Val Lewton's masterpiece, and possibly Karloff's single greatest performance
Boris Karloff was capable of playing a truly nasty villain when the script called for it, and he never had a juicier opportunity than in this film. Bela Lugosi gets a small, thankless role as a simpleminded blackmailer (of whom Karloff's grave-robbing character makes short work), but as Dr. McFarlane the formidable Henry Daniell holds his own against the King. Their scenes together are wonderful, invoking a complex interplay of character conflicts that today's horror movies can't touch. If you know someone who is unfamiliar with the Val Lewton oeuvre but might be receptive to the RKO producer's brand of restrained, psychologically reflective horror, steer him--or her--toward "The Body Snatcher".

The Who Rocks America 1982

A bit past their prime, but still a strong performance
The band's swan song as a touring entity (until 1989, that is), "The Who Rocks America" finds them in slightly battered but still very listenable and watchable form. Kenney Jones has settled comfortably into his role as replacement drummer despite vocalist Roger Daltrey's reported antipathy toward him, and they pack twenty-two songs into their 115-minute set. (A few career highlights like 'Magic Bus', 'Behind Blue Eyes', and 'You Better You Bet' are notably absent.) This is not The Who at the top of their game--Daltrey's voice, in particular, is beginning to display some wear and tear--and therefore not essential, but it's fun for diehard fans. Pete Townsend's playing is fine throughout; he's correctly regarded as a great songwriter, but underrated as a guitarist. Highlights: bassist John Entwistle's performance of 'Boris the Spider'; the 'Pinball Wizard'/'See Me, Feel Me' medley; and 'Naked Eye'.

Huang Fei Hong xiao lin quan

Wong Fei-hung in Thailand
Beginning in 1949, Kwan Tak-hing portrayed real-life Cantonese martial artist/herbalist/acupuncturist Wong Fei-hung in some seventy films. Four years after the conclusion of that long-running series, Kwan returned to the role in Golden Harvest's "The Skyhawk", a film in which Wong's Confucian ethics clash with the trend toward exaggerated violence in Hong Kong's basher subgenre. This conflict is never resolved, but there's some top-notch fighting as Wong and his young students (Carter Wong, Sammo Hung) challenge an evil gambling boss and his hired thugs (led by shaggy, wild-eyed Hwang In-shik) against the exotic backdrop of Thailand. Kwan Tak-hing was in his late sixties at the time and is doubled in two or three of the more strenuous scenes, but masterfully fends off a legion of much younger opponents with staff, fighting fan and his bare hands. If you've never seen him in action, "The Skyhawk" is a good place to start.


Interesting but ultimately frustrating
Brilliant premise, and even more timely now than it was in 1983. Good performances from James Woods, Deborah Harry and Sonja Smits. Wonderfully queasy special effects. But when a film begins as strongly as does "Videodrome", it's hard to watch it turn into an opaque stew. David Cronenberg poses a vital question (what happens when violence begins to turn people on sexually?) only to leave it unanswered and, while ambiguous endings *can* work in horror and sci-fi, they're best suited to subject matter that's esoteric to begin with. "Videodrome" is just the opposite: the movie addresses such a legitimate real-world issue that it practically screams for a more coherent ending than the one it's got. Cronenberg takes you on an entertaining ride, yes, but don't expect it to make sense. (I found "Shivers" and "Rabid" more satisfying.) Six and a half stars.

Mang quan gui shou

One of the better films starring Ho Tsung-tao (Bruce Li)
When Jackie Chan became a Hong Kong superstar in the late '70s, Bruce Lee imitators like Ho Tsung-tao (Bruce Li) and Huang Kin-lung (Bruce Le) found themselves obliged to change with the times. Wearing a yellow tracksuit and clumsily flailing a nunchaku no longer impressed audiences; now they demanded more complex, ambitious fight choreography, resulting in the emergence of a few decent films from the Bruceploitation camp. One of them was "Blind Fist of Bruce", in which Ho plays a browbeaten bank manager who learns kung fu from a blind beggar (Simon Yuen, Jackie Chan's tipsy sifu in "Drunken Master") to fend off a gang of criminals led by Tiger Yang. There's nothing earth-shatteringly good here, but the lengthy final fight is worth sticking around for, and the film as a whole is a considerable improvement on Ho's earlier work. He could have joined the ranks of mid-level stars like Don Wong Tao and Tan Tao-liang had he not already been fatally typecast as a Bruce Lee clone.

Three on a Meathook

Yet another film based (very loosely) on the Ed Gein case
An isolated farmhouse, a surly middle-aged redneck who smokes an unusual kind of meat ("It's the only meat like it in these parts," avers his troubled son), and lots of slinky female victims are the ingredients of this dreary, no-budget "Psycho" knockoff. It's awkwardly funny in spots, but not fun: without all the horror props that played such a major part in his previous film "Asylum of Satan", director William Girdler's limitations are painfully evident. Charles Kissinger turns in a decent performance as the aforementioned purveyor of smoked meat, and there are some appropriately low-rent gore effects by former Herschell Gordon Lewis acolyte Pat Patterson, but the film loses steam about twenty minutes in and never recovers. If you grew up renting horror movies every Friday night at your local VHS outlet, you might be able to muster some affection for "Three on a Meathook"; if not, you'll probably just feel mildly annoyed.

Black Flag Live

Interesting "Slip It In"-era show marred by poor sound
Greg Ginn and Company play nearly all of the "My War" and "Slip It In" albums in this very intense live performance, along with a smattering of highlights from their earlier EPs. (Bizarrely, this set bypasses the band's career-defining longplayer "Damaged", jumping straight from the 1981 A-side 'Six Pack' to 1984's "My War".) Unfortunately, the audio is conspicuously poor. While less-than-perfect sound is forgivable and even expected in a punk live recording, the mix here is so bad (bootleg quality, in fact) that it constitutes a hindrance. Still fun to watch, but mute the volume on your TV and play Black Flag's "Live '84" instead: it's the same setlist with vastly superior sound.

The Phantom of the Opera

Erik (Professor Petrie) gets the Hammer treatment
My favorite version of the oft-filmed Gaston Leroux tale and one of the most attractive costume dramas ever committed to celluloid, Hammer's take on "The Phantom of the Opera" has, unfortunately, gotten lost in the shuffle. Part horror movie, part operetta and part melodramatic love story, it's easy to see how the film might try the patience of present-day viewers...but if you're familiar with this kind of cinematic storytelling, and especially if you're a fan of Hammer Studios and director Terence Fisher, you should see it. Herbert Lom plays a harsh, commanding Phantom, and Heather Sears--by virtue of the fact that she's not movie-star pretty--is a very believable, and likable, Christine. The cast is also enlivened by Michael Gough as the slimy, stereotypically villainous Lord Ambrose d'Arcy, and delightful Hammer regular Thorley Walters as his whipping boy. Edward de Souza is a little stiff as Christine's love interest Harry, but he's the sort of goofy, overly earnest hero you expect in a movie of this type. The horror is restrained; the Phantom's unmasking doesn't occur until the end of the film (and it's a memorably gruesome moment, courtesy of makeup artist Roy Ashton), but you'll find it worth the wait. Seven and a half stars.

Der Student von Prag

A milestone in the history of horror cinema
Predating the German Expressionist movement in film (predating even World War I), this is the granddaddy of them all: the very first full-length horror movie. Being the first, we do not demand perfection from it; this film is as raw as William Burroughs's debut novel "Junky" or the first Stooges album, and suitably so. But the viewer will be pleasantly surprised that "The Student of Prague" still packs a punch after more than a century. From Paul Wegener's haunted, compelling performance as Balduin to the imposing backdrop of Prague with its spectral spires, there is much to appreciate in this film...and on its own terms, not just in its perceptible influence on numerous later productions. (Those who have seen "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari", however, will note the visual debt that film's title villain owes to Scapinelli, the leering, top-hatted sorcerer portrayed by John Gottowt in "The Student of Prague".) A must-see for all students of film history.

Ze wang

Uninspired '70s basher with a tasty (if discordant) jazz soundtrack
"Thunderfist" is one of those Chinese martial arts movies that someone (exploitation producer Harry Hope, in this case) exported to the United States in the wake of "Five Fingers of Death" and the Bruce Lee films. They went to considerable trouble with this crime drama about a stolen jade statuette, chopping off the original opening credit sequence and appending a lush soul jazz soundtrack by Lamont Johnson...which is odd, since it's a substandard film in every way. Steve Yu is a thoroughly ordinary male lead and the fights (despite being choreographed by members of the illustrious Yuen family) are routine, halfhearted affairs. The film's most memorable image is the absurd Boulanger mustache glued to the upper lip of veteran Hong Kong character actor Wei Ping-ou, who plays a corrupt police captain. Between the flat, unnuanced English dubbing and the fact that the luxuriant musical score (which, if we're going to be honest, sounds like it was written for a porn flick) plays over entire fight sequences, "Thunderfist" makes for a jarring viewing experience. Obviously, the distributors couldn't tell the difference between a good Chinese martial arts film and an also-ran. I'm sure the meager box office returns on this clunker set them straight.


What was it?
In 1859, proto-science fiction author Fitz James O'Brien wrote a story called 'What Was It?' (about an invisible humanoid figure that is briefly captured but never identified), and that's likely to be the question on the lips of most viewers after seeing the Roger Patterson-Bob Gimlin Bigfoot film for the first time. Because, while these fifty-nine seconds of mostly shaky footage have been lauded as the gold standard of evidence in favor of Bigfoot's existence, they do not--in and of themselves--actually prove anything. Patterson and Gimlin were the only witnesses to the event, and the circumstances under which the film was shot remain ambiguous. Skeptics are unlikely to be swayed by the fact that a number of scientists (Grover Krantz, Dmitri Donskoy, Jeff Meldrum, et al.) from various disciplines have concluded, after careful analysis, that the film is genuine. But the real value of this footage lies in its capacity to induce wonder. In 2017, people still watch in utter fascination as the creature briefly turns to look at Patterson and Gimlin before lumbering into the autumn woods, and the passage of five decades has not diminished the power of this moment. *Are* there more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in Horatio's philosophy? Perhaps, and the possibility that this film represents a close encounter with one of them explains its enduring appeal.

Liang shan guai zhao

Once upon a time, before you could obtain beautifully remastered prints of Shaw Brothers classics on DVD for just a few bucks, wretched films like "Goose Boxer" served a purpose. In their oversized clamshell cases, they sat undisturbed on a dusty shelf in your local mom-and-pop video rental store, and when you were jonesing for a little kung fu action you took your chances with them. Most were thoroughly mediocre. Once in a while you stumbled across an exceptionally good film (like "Bandits, Prostitutes and Silver") or, if the universe wanted to screw up your weekend, a bonafide dumpster fire like this one. Poor production values, ridiculous dubbing, slapstick comedy that makes the most ludicrous performances of the Three Stooges look sophisticated in comparison: that's why these ninety minutes feel like a lifetime. There's some fairly decent choreography amidst all this nonsense, but time and time again it's subordinated to the comedy (even at the end, which is the one moment in any martial arts movie when the viewer can reasonably expect to see a good fight, no matter how awful the rest of the film has been). To give you an idea of what you're in for, Charles Heung gets a face full of goose dung in the opening credits; as the film concludes, he dispatches villain Li Hai-sheng with the assistance of a midget who was defecating in the woods a few minutes earlier. Lots of lulz if you're in grade school, perhaps...but, if not, "Goose Boxer" is a dismal waste of time and money.


A film overwhelmed by its own amateurishness, "Phantasm" is widely regarded as a classic...which only proves that the word "classic" means different things to different people. Presumably, the same criteria that a film in any other genre must meet to be considered a classic are applicable to horror movies, too: things like plot, characterization and atmosphere. "Phantasm" has none of these. It's just a patchwork quilt of visuals, a ninety-minute-long exercise in throwing nutty, surreal images at the wall to see what sticks. This gimmicky onslaught is accompanied by poor acting, crummy dialogue and lots of screaming (because, you know, it's a horror movie). But why are all these strange things happening to the characters? Why have Angus Scrimm and his army of dwarf slaves singled out these young men? Why is a shiny metallic ball equipped with multi-pronged blades hurtling through the corridors of the mortuary? Well, just because. It's like a story that one twelve-year-old kid might tell another, making it up as he goes along: "So there were these guys, and one day some really scary stuff went down." That's the level of intellectual sophistication one finds in "Phantasm". It scores a couple of points for sheer novelty, but that doesn't make it a good or even tolerable film.

The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle

Headache-inducing nonsense
As far back as the spring of 1977, Malcolm McLaren had been trying to get a film about the Sex Pistols off the ground. At that time, the punk craze which the Pistols had spearheaded was flourishing in the UK even as McLaren "managed" the band into a blind alley; by 1980, when this abomination of a film was finally released, the Pistols were no more and punk had splintered into a confusing variety of subgenres. What does "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" tell the viewer about the Sex Pistols and why they mattered? Sadly, not much. 'That film was us preventing the whole thing from turning into a dreadful tragedy and turning it into a fantastic enigma,' McLaren said years later in "England's Dreaming", Jon Savage's definitive book on UK punk. 'That's what we tried to do, to lie incredibly.' In that regard they succeeded, but McLaren's statement was pure bullshit: he and director Julien Temple lied out of necessity. Vocalist John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) had left the band in early 1978, and budgetary constraints prevented the hiring of actors for anything more than a few minor roles, so McLaren *had* to take center stage. The end result was a long, disjointed rant (padded with live footage, interviews, animated sequences and painfully unfunny scenes intended as comic relief) about how causing the Pistols to self-destruct had been his master plan all along, and it's terrible. Only during a performance of the title song does it look as if anyone's having any fun. McLaren repeatedly insists that the music itself was meaningless, that he was interested only in attracting adolescent fans 'who loved to dress up and mess up.' Which begs the age-old question: was punk ever about music, or was it just a pose? That query will elicit a broad range of responses from the various participants in the movement. But ask guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook (who had formed the group before McLaren entered the picture, and for whom the Sex Pistols were a labor of love) and they'll tell you that the Pistols were a rock 'n' roll band, plain and simple. They're right. The gestures--the haircuts, the silly clothes, the pretensions of revolution--were empty. It's the music that endures.

Nemuri Kyôshirô: Enjôken

A breath of fresh air...beautifully directed, acted, and shot
This is the fifth entry in the popular Sleepy Eyes of Death series starring Raizo Ichikawa as Kyoshiro Nemuri, Master of the Full-Moon Cut...and my first encounter with these films after having read about them for years. I was not disappointed. "Sword of Fire" is a surprisingly restrained effort from director Kenji Misumi, and that's not a complaint: in fact, this just might be my favorite among the many Misumi films I've seen. (Strangely enough, "Sword of Satan"--the next film in the series--has much more of the bloody, garish ambiance usually associated with Misumi, though it was directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda.) The story is compelling, racing along on greased wheels like the best hard-boiled detective novels, and the sword fights are satisfying if infrequent; the final confrontation, especially, is choreographed to graceful perfection against and within the backdrop of a massive, forbidding pagoda. As Kyoshiro Nemuri, Ichikawa is as dour and tight-lipped as his character's reputation suggests, but Nemuri demonstrates that he's not quite the unprincipled rogue everyone believes him to be. Based on what I've seen so far, this is a high point in the series. If you're a fan of the Zatoichi and Lone Wolf & Cub films, you'll want to own it. (Eight and a half stars.)

The Vampire Bat

I got the public domain, Poverty Row horror blues...
...And so does this film, which never quite transcends its shortcomings despite a very solid performance by Lionel Atwill as the outwardly gracious but secretly diabolical Dr. von Niemann. It's one of the best performances of the underrated Atwill's career, in fact, but that's not enough to distinguish "The Vampire Bat" from the usual Poverty Row fare. (In addition to Atwill you get Fay Wray and Melvyn Douglas, Dwight Frye doing his Renfield schtick and the noisy, tiresome antics of Maude Eburne as Aunt Gussie.) These productions always looked and sounded like what they were: low-rent. I recall that the writers of the old VHS review guides considered this film one of the rare triumphs from Hollywood's lesser-tier studios, but objectively speaking it's just not that good. See it if you're a 1930s/'40s horror completist.

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