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Jin yan zi

One of those learning-as-you-go films
Nominally a sequel to "Come Drink with Me," this film does bring back Cheng Pei-pei as the title swordswoman Golden Swallow...but, aside from that, bears little apparent resemblance to King Hu's 1966 classic. "Golden Swallow" was one of those learning-as-you-go films for Chang Cheh, who went on to become the elder statesman of Hong Kong martial arts cinema. Chang hadn't quite realized his vision, but was finding his way.

Wang Yu plays a thoroughly unlikable antihero, Silver Roc, who's out for revenge against the murderer of his parents. (Or his teacher. Or something.) Golden Swallow and another woman are in love with Silver Roc; an upstanding warrior called Iron Whip (Lo Lieh) has the hots for Golden Swallow, but can see that he's losing out to Silver Roc. Yang Chih-ching (Wang Yu's nemesis from the previous year's hit "The One-Armed Swordsman") portrays the lead villain, Poison Dragon. With smoother choreography, the limitations of the dreary soap opera-style plot might have been easier to overlook, but the scenes of combat prove unsatisfactory. There are lots of fights, certainly, but they're awkwardly choreographed and filmed. Chang Cheh knew that he wanted to create long, bloody fight scenes with a lone hero facing virtually impossible odds, and from here on out he began to fine-tune his approach. Beginning with "The Return of the One-Armed Swordsman" (1969), the fights got better and better.

"Golden Swallow" was filmed in Japan, and the film's gorgeous outdoor photography may be its strongest feature. It's a necessary step in the development of Chang Cheh's directorial style, but will be of interest primarily to Wang Yu/Shaw Brothers completists.

Frankenstein 1970

Anemic variation on the traditional Frankenstein theme
At the same time that Terence Fisher and Peter Cushing were infusing new life (pun intended) into the hoary cinematic tradition of Frankenstein at Hammer Studios in England, "Frankenstein 1970" emerged from Hollywood. It's a dull, halfhearted effort and would essentially be unwatchable without Boris Karloff, who portrays Victor, the last of the Frankensteins. A psychological and physical casualty of the Nazis (his face is badly scarred and he walks with a limp), Victor rents out his estate to a film crew who are shooting a Frankenstein movie. He needs the money to fund his experiments: specifically, he must purchase and install a nuclear reactor in his laboratory to revive the Frankenstein Monster.

It's not the world's worst premise, I guess, but the ridiculous part is that the Monster has actually been interred in the family crypt. I mean, why? In the average Universal Frankenstein film, the body was discovered in a block of ice or dredged out of a swamp; the rationale that Victor's ancestor preserved the body as a "never forget" monument to the horror he had wrought just comes off as silly. *Profoundly* silly, like the filmmakers were reaching desperately for novelty. To be fair, director Howard W. Koch was working with his hands tied behind his back, as Allied Artists had demanded significant cuts to the screenplay--eliminating virtually all on-screen violence. (In one scene, the Monster confronts a woman who screams and faints. Cut to Karloff closing the lid of his disposal unit and scolding the Monster: "I didn't intend for that young woman to die!" Or words to that effect. The film is full of limp, audience-disappointing moments like this.)

Boris Karloff is always fun to watch, and there's some nice dramatic tension in the scenes he shares with Rudolph Anders as a family retainer. But even the King couldn't carry an entire production singlehandedly, and that's what he was asked to do here. Had the script been shot as originally written, "Frankenstein 1970" might have been a more potent film. Even so, it's not the worst Frankenstein flick (that distinction easily belongs to "Lady Frankenstein"), and Karloff fanatics will want to see it.

Tange Sazen: Hien iaigiri

Nothing worth going out of your way to see, but not bad
Disfigured swordsman Tange Sazen was a very popular cinematic character in Japan during the 1930s. "The Secret of the Urn" (a remake of a 1935 film called "The Million Ryo Pot") appears to have been an attempt to revive the series, jazzing up the violence in direct competition with more recently successful characters like Zatoichi and Kyoshiro Nemuri. There's no immediately apparent reason why a new Tange Sazen series didn't pan out; Kinnosuke Nakamura's performance lacks the subtlety of a Shintaro Katsu or Raizo Ichikawa (who played Zatoichi and Kyoshiro Nemuri, respectively), but he was a good screen fighter and might have grown into the Sazen role in time. Perhaps the film's ultimate problem is that it's *so* much like the average Zatoichi or Nemuri picture as to be indistinguishable. All the formulaic clichés are here: dangerous, brooding swordsman haunted by his painful past actually has a heart of gold and works to bring down a petty official who abuses his power, etc., etc. Audiences had seen this story unfold many times already, and maybe they just weren't interested in watching a revamped Tange Sazen go through such familiar motions.

Top-notch sets, costumes and production values, and some exciting swordfights as well. (Tetsuro Tamba is relegated to a minor nonfighting role, for whatever reason.) For Hideo Gosha completists and hardcore fans of the Zatoichi and Kyoshiro Nemuri series, who have seen all of those films and crave something similar.


Early Cronenberg: rough around the edges, but fun
It may take many years of trial and error for the average director to develop a recognizable style, but David Cronenberg is certainly not a filmmaker whose work could be described as "average" in any sense of the word. He knew what kinds of themes and images interested him, and this is a jolting, visceral horror flick that still packs a punch today. "Shivers" was Cronenberg's third feature (the two preceding films were low-key arthouse releases, each of which barely exceeded the sixty-minute mark), and centers around a medical experiment gone nightmarishly awry. The single setting--an upscale apartment complex on an isolated island--lends the film a claustrophobic intensity, and it's one of the more artistically successful siege horror movies. Barbara Steele seems to have been cast primarily because she was a recognizable genre face, but Alan Migicovsky steals the show as a tall, cadaverous insurance exec who spends most of the film gagging and puking up venereal parasites while going about the mundane business of his day as though nothing's wrong.

Cronenberg's later films were much more polished, but I daresay that he's never directed anything more purely entertaining--or more representative of his aesthetic--than "Shivers." You'll enjoy it if you're a fan of his other work, or of '70s horror in general. (Those whose tastes extend to horror in other forms of media may notice some parallels with Harlan Ellison's short story 'The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,' which predates this film by a couple of years.)

Erinnerungen an die Zukunft

The dubious granddaddy of them all
In the beginning there was the book "Intelligent Life in the Universe," whose co-authors (Iosif Shklovsky and Carl Sagan) cautiously postulated that the ancient Babylonian legend of Oannes might represent an instance of paleocontact. There were also the Tassili frescoes, whose nominal discoverer (Henri Lhote) believed that they depicted extraterrestrial beings. And that was pretty much it.

Then, in 1967, came Erich von Däniken. Millions read his book "Chariots of the Gods?" and millions more saw this documentary film that was based on it. The viewer was presented with beautifully-shot footage of various archaeological ruins around the world (accompanied by Peter Thomas's shimmering, irresistible soundtrack), and the belief that "aliens built the Pyramids" became cemented in the popular consciousness. So, too, did the patently ridiculous notion that the Nazca lines of Peru were landing strips for alien aircraft. Von Däniken later conceded that he had simply made this up.

And that's the problem: he was happy to make things up if it sold books. Shklovsky and Sagan had emphasized very specific criteria in the interpretation of ancient legends as reports of contact between earthlings and intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms, hence their careful choice of a single legend which *might* represent such contact. In von Däniken's view, any legend or pile of ruins was fair game; if it was old, then it was attributable to aliens. It goes without saying that this total indifference to accuracy has done enormous damage to the field of Paleo-SETI.

(Incidentally, von Däniken's critics have been just as indifferent in their dismissal of the Paleo-SETI theory's particulars, and two wrongs don't make a right. Yes, von Däniken is a clown, but that doesn't explain away the Piri Reis maps, whose mysteries were documented well before the ancient astronauts craze in Charles Hapgood's "Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings." And yes, *some* of the Tassili frescoes were faked, but the two featured prominently in this film--the horned faceless figure and the so-called Great God Mars--evidently are not among the fabrications. This can be confirmed via a Google search, but of course most people won't bother.)

Shao Lin ying xiong bang

Lightweight but fun chop-socky outing
"Shaolin Abbot" (aka "A Slice of Death") is a lightweight but fun chop-socky outing obviously made in response to the box office success of Liu Chia-liang's "Executioners of Shaolin" and "The Thirty-Sixth Chamber of Shaolin" ("The Master Killer"). It's not a remake but rather a synthesis; screenwriter I Kuang and director Ho Meng-hua combine elements of both films to create a story which seems to take place in some alternate reality, since Abbot Chi San did not survive the destruction of the temple in "Executioners of Shaolin." Here the abbot is alive and well, played by Shaw Brothers veteran David Chiang, and he gathers a small band of followers (including Lily Li and Norman Chu) to help him oppose white-haired supervillain Pak Mei, once again portrayed by Lo Lieh. Pak Mei has his own array of henchmen, including Chiang Tao as a Tibetan holy man who wields a mean monk's staff.

Solid fight choreography by Tang Te-hsiang, and the role of a revered Buddhist monk is an interesting change of pace for Chiang. There's nothing here you haven't seen before, but "Shaolin Abbot" is an entertaining film that doesn't try to overstep its modest bounds. Six and a half stars.

The Velvet Underground

A narrative held hostage
This is not really a review of the film as such. As a documentary about a rock band, it's fine: just about average, I'd say. One could argue that it's a little too busy--sometimes distractingly so--from a visual standpoint, but I won't quibble about that. (At the very least, it ensures that the film doesn't have a staid PBS look.) Those who already are fans of The Velvet Underground will enjoy it; nonfans are unlikely to be converted. There's no substitute for locking the door, cranking up your stereo and hearing the music in all its weird glory for the first time. The VU were amazing, but the film gives you more of a sense of time and place than of the music itself, and this was a band that largely *transcended* time and place.

My problem is with the fact that director Todd Haynes glossed over Lou Reed's traumatic experience with electroshock therapy because his sister felt that it reflected negatively on their parents. Since Reed's death in 2013, she has stridently maintained that it was unfair of him to criticize Mr. & Mrs. Reed for subjecting him to electroshock therapy in his teens because, at that time, the treatment was not well understood and Lou's parents didn't realize how frightening and unpleasant it was going to be for him. He repeatedly referred to the experience in both song lyrics and interviews throughout his career, but his sister feels that he exaggerated its impact. And there you have it. You're not supposed to say mean things about my mommy and daddy, you guys, and if you do then I'm taking my ball and going home!

In the first place, Reed's sister isn't the one who had to endure the treatments, so she can afford to be a tongue-clucking backseat driver. Secondly, Lou is no longer here to speak for himself. Thirdly, the experience was incredibly significant to his body of work as a lyricist and to his identity as a musical artist. To dismiss that significance for any reason is asinine; the horror of electroshock is an unsubtractable part of Lou Reed's story. But Merrill was allowed to subtract it because, you know, bourgeois embarrassment and stuff.


The Ghoul

Fun if your expectations aren't too high
"The Ghoul" is not exactly what I'd call an overlooked classic, but it's fun if you like horror films of this vintage and your expectations aren't too high. Obviously the final product isn't very far removed from the stage play on which it was based: there's a lot of inane chatter and forced comic relief, but it should be remembered that, in the early 1930s, even movies about the resurrected dead were aimed at a general viewership. There was not yet a horror audience as such. But look at the cast! Boris Karloff as a terminally ill Egyptologist determined to win immortality via a rare jewel sacred to the worshippers of Anubis; Ernest Thesiger as his eccentric, clubfooted manservant; Cedric Hardwicke as Karloff's solicitor, who is unable to wipe the expression of craven villainy from his face; and Ralph Richardson as a young parson who seems to try his best to be helpful. These performers make the film worth watching despite its limitations.

Karloff had found fame in a nonspeaking role, and "The Ghoul"--like "The Old Dark House" and "Bride of Frankenstein"--doesn't give him much in the way of dialogue. The movie's main strength lies in the scenes of Karloff shambling around (in excellent monster makeup by Heinrich Heitfeld), wreaking havoc. It wasn't until later that filmmakers understood the advantage of giving him substantial speaking parts.

Wan ren zan

Rare serious drama from the Shaw Studio's declining years
During the late Ching Dynasty, the imperial treasury is robbed, and the Empress's senior minister sends a dogged, pitiless constable (Chen Kuan-tai) to apprehend the thieves. As he encounters everywhere the suffering of the common people, and as his men die one after another in the line of duty, the constable begins to lose faith in his mission...and in the imperial court itself.

"Killer Constable" has been floating around the home video market for decades, first on VHS and then on DVD, as "Lightning Kung Fu." That English-dubbed print is faded, blotched and scratchy, with the original title clumsily hacked off; it's a disgraceful state for any film to be in, but see it anyhow. It's that good. Director Kuei Chih-hung treats the subject matter with the gravity it deserves, and his artistry is evident despite the condition of the print. Chen Kuan-tai turns in a fine performance, as does veteran Shaw character actor Ku Feng (as one of the desperate thieves being pursued by the constable). Beautifully choreographed swordfights, too, the high point being the confrontation between Chen and Jason Pai Piao as a hired assassin.

Night Gallery: The Return of the Sorcerer
Episode 1, Season 3

Pretty good on its own terms
Clark Ashton Smith is an acquired taste. (It helps if you like the substitution of conspicuous ten-dollar words for plain old English that would have worked just as well.) One of his best and least effete stories is 'The Return of the Sorcerer,' on which this episode of "Night Gallery" is based. How faithful to Smith's tale is the small-screen adaptation? The mechanics of the plot are fundamentally the same, but the overtly horrific nature of the story is eschewed in favor of a languid, decadent atmosphere, with costumes and set pieces that look like something out of Théophile Gautier. (Tisha Sterling is essentially one of those set pieces. She's nice to look at, but there's really no reason for her character to exist...and of course the character did *not* exist in Smith's story. Bill Bixby is bland and inoffensive as the translator, and no one could have played John Carnby as well as hammy, leering Vincent Price.)

But it works! Director Jeannot Szwarc took the bare bones of the short story and superimposed upon them the sinister/humorous aesthetic that was a trademark of "Night Gallery." It's a neat reimagining of the Smith tale, not at all like the clunky, uncomprehending adaptations to which Hollywood so often subjects the work of H. P. Lovecraft. All in all, 'The Return of the Sorcerer' is one of the better moments of the series' third and final which time Rod Serling's involvement had, unfortunately, become minimal.

I tre volti della paura

Atmosphere counts for a lot in a film like this, and Bava was a master of atmosphere
In the first story, Michéle Mercier is a high-end prostitute who finds herself being stalked by a homicidal ex-boyfriend and a female former lover alike. In the second, Boris Karloff (in a jarring, disturbing performance) plays a freshly bitten vampire compelled to terrorize his loved ones. The third and final tale stars Jacqueline Pierreux as a thief haunted by her conscience...and perhaps by a vengeful ghost as well.

Atmosphere counts for a lot in a film like this, and director Mario Bava was a master of atmosphere. Individually, the stories are hardly milestones of originality (though the Karloff tale does feature a neat twist on a well-worn theme), but Bava, cinematographer Ubaldo Terzano and art director Giorgio Giovannini made "The Three Faces of Fear" that rarest of entities: a genre film as beloved by cinema snobs as it is by horror fans. It's the celluloid equivalent of Goya's Black Paintings. You should see the original Italian-language version if you can, of course, but only in the English-dubbed version will you find the most unintentionally hilarious line of dialogue in Boris Karloff's long career: "Can't I fondle my own grandson?!"

Nu zi tai quan qun ying hui

A martial arts movie packed with fights...which, let's face it, is the whole point
It would be easy to poke fun at some of the more ridiculous aspects of "The Dragon Tamers": the awkward all-girl mud wrestling scene that opens the film, for example, or the fact that Carter Wong would not have found it necessary even in 1975 to travel all the way from Hong Kong to Seoul to learn tae kwon do, since the Korean fighting art was world-famous and widely taught by that time. The point is that the film is packed with well-choreographed scenes of combat. Realistically, that's the only expectation the viewer is going to have, and that expectation is generously met. We're talking *lots* of fights here: Wong and fellow male lead James Tien go up against veritable armies of black-cloaked villains (led by Kim Ji-Joo and Yeung Wai) to prevent one especially disreputable tae kwon do school from bullying all the other schools. (Or something. The motivation of the villains is never really made clear, and the obligatory Z-grade English dubbing doesn't help.) And they're visceral, exciting fights, with opponents getting taken down by flying kicks to the head or painful-looking knifehand strikes to the throat.

There's not much reason for the presence of all the peripheral female characters (not even the final opponent whom Wong and Tien must confront after they've beaten all the male villains), and fans of John Woo will find little evidence of his signature directorial style in this early effort. If you crave hard-hitting fights by the dozen, however, you'll find them in "The Dragon Tamers." It's a fun viewing experience for fans of the genre.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

One of the true horror masterpieces of the early sound era
Altogether, there have been 123 film versions of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella, including numerous silent versions (some of them lost), the 1941 Spencer Tracy misfire and the low-budget Amicus knockoff ("I, Monster") starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Paramount's 1931 iteration was and is the one that counts, thanks to Rouben Mamoulian's assured direction, Fredric March's lively performance (one he obviously relished) as the dual title character, and the still-impressive transformation sequences that combine camera trickery with Wally Westmore's brilliant Hyde makeup.

This is such a great film. Naturally, parts of it (like Miriam Hopkins's broad portrayal of Ivy) will seem stagey and old-fashioned to the modern viewer, but "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was the first mature horror production of its day: the sort of thing Universal was aiming for during that same period without quite hitting the mark (due in part to that studio's seeming insistence on brief running times for its horror films). See it if you haven't; none of the other versions can be considered a substitute.

Xue men ying zhao

Formerly a minor star at Shaw Brothers, Chi Kuan-chun tries his hand at Jackie Chan-influenced kung fu slapstick in "The Eagle Fist." When a militia captain (Chi) attempts to arrest some bandits, an old vagrant (Cheng Kei-ying, the director and fight choreographer of this film) steps in and shows him just how inadequate his martial skills really are. The captain takes the vagrant as his teacher and learns some of the deadly nerve-locking techniques of the eagle claw style. The rest of the techniques can be found only in a manual stolen from the vagrant ten years earlier by a masked killer known as the Red Dart.

Will Chi track down the Red Dart and retrieve the manual for his teacher? Will you care? Doubtful, but the final fight scene does deliver if you can make it that far. (Don't get the notion that the filmmakers were doing you a favor, though. One decent fight is the least you can expect after ninety minutes of insufferable nonsense.) Long-faced and grave of expression, Chi Kuan-chun is not at all convincing in the kung fu comedy realm; he's a competent screen fighter but doesn't have much charisma, and the rest of the cast has even less. "The Eagle Fist" is a dreary, cheap-looking and excruciatingly unfunny film that simply doesn't do what it sets out to do. It's the kind of martial arts movie that gave the genre a bad name in the years before it achieved mainstream acceptance.

The Forgotten

One of the most enjoyable horror/exploitation films of the '70s
Lensed in Texas (where it had a brief theatrical run in 1972 before being picked up by a national distributor and retitled the following year) and originally entitled "The Forgotten," S. F. Brownrigg's "Don't Look in the Basement" is an especially tasty slice of '70s horror/exploitation cinema. Pretty psychiatric nurse Charlotte Beale (Rosie Holotik, who went on to star in two more choice low-budget scare flicks, "Encounter with the Unknown" and "Horror High") is the new hire at Stephens Sanitarium, a mental hospital in an isolated rural area. Tragically, Dr. Stephens himself has just been killed by one of his patients, and Dr. Masters (Annabelle Weenick), the acting director of the sanitarium, regards Charlotte with suspicion that sometimes veers toward outright hostility. The young nurse works hard to gain the trust of her motley band of patients (including Brownrigg regulars Gene Ross, Camilla Carr and Hugh Feagin), but strange things are afoot at the sanitarium...and the violence doesn't end with the death of Dr. Stephens.

Neither as brutal as "I Drink Your Blood" nor as overtly horrific as "Night of the Living Dead" or "Criminally Insane," Brownrigg's directorial debut earns a position in the first rank of American independent horror filmmaking via its mixture of grotesque humor and jarringly spooky atmosphere. You'll see the "surprise" ending from a mile away, but that doesn't diminish the odd intensity of "Don't Look in the Basement." It's the rare drive-in flick that's both fun and surprisingly, memorably substantive.

The Brides of Dracula

Fun, fast-moving sequel to Hammer's "Horror of Dracula"
Dracula is no more, but his vampiric curse still looms over the land in "Brides of Dracula." The Count's successor is Baron Meinster (David Peel), a grey-cloaked young nobleman who sets his sights on a gorgeous, unsuspecting schoolteacher (Yvonne Monlaur). Meinster lacks Dracula's imposing physicality, and most of the overt weirdness in the film is provided by the incomparable Martita Hunt, who plays Meinster's mother. But the star of the show is Peter Cushing, who returns as the brisk, resourceful Dr. Van Helsing and places himself in the path of destruction to protect Monlaur's innocence. (The scene in which Cushing has to painfully "disinfect" himself is my favorite Van Helsing moment in the entire Hammer Dracula series.)

One of director Terence Fisher's most satisfying films, in my opinion. There are no real surprises or curveballs, but "Brides of Dracula" is the kind of movie whose consistency works in its favor; it gives you everything you could possibly want in an old-fashioned horror costume drama. Eight and a half stars.

Nan yang tang ren jie

Could almost be considered an okay film, if not for the guys in gorilla suits
In the early twentieth century, a local no-good (Michael Chan) is banished from Shanghai and relocates to Malaysia, where he promises to mend his ways. He doesn't, of course, which necessitates a visit from the righteous Master Fok (Chen Sing)--better known as Huo Yuanjia--and his senior pupil (Bruce Lee imitator Bruce Li) to remind the exiled villain that there are no second chances. This low-budget prequel to the Bruce Lee classic "Fist of Fury" (aka "The Chinese Connection") almost works; the fight scenes are competent if not awe-inspiring, and the cast is full of Hong Kong screen veterans. But the viewer cannot take seriously what the filmmakers refuse to take seriously themselves, and when two very undernourished, upright-walking gorillas emerge as opponents for Bruce Li (whose acting and fighting skills should have landed him a decent role every now and then), it comes as little wonder that he never transcended the ghetto of Bruceploitation.

Tolerable if you're just looking for some martial arts action and aren't too fussy about the surrounding story. Otherwise, hard pass.

The American Folk Blues Festivals: The British Tours 1963-1966

Riveting performance footage
Riveting performance footage of American blues artists in the UK during the mid-1960's: Muddy Waters singing his pop crossover hit 'Got My Mojo Workin',' Howlin' Wolf alternately growling and wailing his way through an ominous 'Smokestack Lightning,' and Big Joe Turner merrily belting out 'Oh Well, Oh Well,' the kind of jump blues to which rock 'n' roll owes its very existence. ("She's yours, she's mine, she's somebody else's too," Turner shouts with a knowing smile, encapsulating the meaning of the blues in one deceptively simple line.) Bonus footage showcases Muddy playing two more traditional blues numbers--complete with his signature twangy lead breaks--and also features Sister Rosetta Tharpe's powerful performance of 'Didn't It Rain,' a clip which has found new fame on 21st century social media.

On 'Too Late to Cry,' Lonnie Johnson (the man who invented single-string lead guitar) sounds gracefully, eerily similar to his 1920's self despite the passage of decades. Considering the fact that Johnson had known and admired the original Sonny Boy Williamson, you have to wonder how he felt about being introduced by Aleck Miller, the imitation Sonny Boy!

Woman in the Dark

Interesting mainly for its fidelity to the source material
"Woman in the Dark" is based on a Dashiell Hammett novella of the same name, serialized in "Liberty" Magazine in 1933. Despite the fairly distinguished cast (Ralph Bellamy as an ex-con just trying to mind his own business, Fay Wray as the imperiled woman of the title, and Melvyn Douglas as the rich, vindictive louse whose affection for Wray is not mutual), there are no standout performances; the film is interesting mainly for its fidelity to the source material. Subtitled 'A Novel of Dangerous Romance' when it was first published, "Woman in the Dark" marked a turning point for Hammett as he moved away from the tough pulp minimalism of his earlier work towards a more suave, mainstream style, and this is reflected in the film. It *is* a hard-boiled crime story, of course, but a pretty anemic one compared to "The Maltese Falcon" or "The Glass Key." (And it looks cheap: not quite as cheap as a Poverty Row production from the same era, but nearly so.)

Not boring, but utterly average. As always, read the book first if possible; you'll see how difficult it was for filmmakers to capture the magic of Hammett's writing, even when the work they were adapting was not his most ambitious.

Za jia gao shou

One of those good old-fashioned kung fu films in which virtually the entire cast is recognizable
"The Dragon, The Hero" stars superkicker John Liu as a government agent who goes undercover to thwart an antiques smuggling ring. He's also a master of something called the "strike rock fist," which proves a bone of contention when he finds himself obliged to team up with Tino Wong. The villains are led by wheelchair-bound Peter Chen Lau, whose strange malady is only partially explained halfway through the movie; his henchmen include the rancorous Phillip Ko (with whom Liu and Wong square off in the film's climax) and, in a pointless but mildly amusing cameo, Bolo Yeung.

Lots of entertaining fights and training sequences, along with some nice outdoor photography. The entire cast performs well, even cornball Bruce Lee imitator Dragon Lee in a relatively minor role as Tino Wong's buddy. As other reviewers have noted, this is Godfrey Ho's best film by a mile; though he receives sole director's credit, I'd venture to guess that he had some assistance, given the superior choreography and Taiwanese shooting locations. The print featured on the Crash Cinema DVD has burned-on English subtitles which are difficult to read, but it's a clear, strong widescreen print that allows you to see all the action.

Mysteries from Beyond Earth

Typical '70s miscellany of paranormal subject matter
Typical '70s miscellany of paranormal subject matter: some of it worthwhile, most of it junk, and so hopelessly muddled together that it renders even the halfway interesting stuff pointless. Kinda-sorta based on Ralph Blum's "Beyond Earth: Man's Contact with UFOs," this film steps outside the bounds of the book to embrace a jumble of nonsense from black masses to psychokinesis to the hollow earth theory. A good example of the film's utter indifference to accuracy: narrator Lawrence Dobkin yammering about Tiahuanaco (and its alleged link to Atlantis) over dark, grainy footage of Teotihuacan (i.e., not Tiahuanaco). Folks who have read Blum's book should see "Mysteries from Beyond Earth" for its brief--but interesting--excerpts of Blum's chat with scrupulously honest UFO abductee Charles Hickson. Otherwise, I can't recommend this.

Mildly amusing if you're in the right mood; irritating if you're not. Dobkin wasn't doing himself any favors by appearing on-camera in that ridiculous toupée and ascot.

Dead of Night

Good concept, awkward execution
A '70s drive-in fright flick that enjoys an almost legendary reputation, "Deathdream" (aka "Dead of Night" and "The Night Andy Came Home") is W.W. Jacobs's classic short story 'The Monkey's Paw' set against the backdrop of an America coming to grips with the nightmarish reality of the Vietnam War. It could have been one of the most potent horror films ever made, but suffers from such poor pacing and awkward performances that all the glowing reviews left me genuinely baffled.

What went wrong? One critic called the dialogue "sophomoric," and he was right, but there's more to it than that: the entire production is handled with an almost inexplicable gracelessness. The script *is* shaky (a problem acknowledged by screenwriter Alan Ormsby on the DVD commentary track), filled not just with cringeworthy dialogue but also minor characters who were tired, outdated stereotypes (e.g., the goofy mailman, the goofy bartender and the goofy short-order cook) even when the film was made. However, it's the performances themselves which constitute the most glaring oddity; the...actors...recite...their...lines...very...slowly, and it's maddening. My best guess is that this was an attempt to compensate for a short screenplay. At any rate, the pacing is absolutely glacial, neutralizing any suspense that director Bob Clark might otherwise have been able to build. John Marley and Lynn Carlin are painfully miscast as Andy's parents. Richard Backus's performance is slightly better, but contains little subtlety and no pathos; it's impossible to believe that his staring, blank-eyed Andy was ever a living, breathing human being, and of course this damages the believability of the entire story.

Tom Savini's monster makeup is effective, and in the final twenty minutes, "Deathdream" fully embraces its status as a horror film. Unfortunately, that's not enough. The movie's reputation is such that you'll probably want to see it for yourself, but prepare to be disappointed.

Ninja bugeicho momochi sandayu

Pretty much what you'd expect from a period piece made by the Sonny Chiba/Japan Action Club team
It ain't Kurosawa (or even Hideo Gosha), but "Shogun's Ninja" wasn't aimed at that sort of audience. This film is a wacky, blood-spurting, action-packed feast for the eyes, and on its own terms it works beautifully. While reference is made to real historical figures and events, the emphasis is on over-the-top fighting (mostly with weapons, but there's the occasional empty-hand confrontation, too). The tone of the film is completely unreal: it may look like feudal Japan, but the setting is actually some alternate dimension in which fighters can do everything but fly, where warring ninja clans wage their battles in the treetops of lush enchanted forests, and where it doesn't seem even remotely odd when Hiroyuki Sanada, grieving over the deaths of his comrades, suddenly breaks into a torch-twirling interpretive dance. This kind of unbridled goofiness would become commonplace in action films of the '80s, and in "Shogun's Ninja" you can see the new, extravagant aesthetic taking shape as the decade began.

Sanada is a credible hero, Chiba mostly plays it straight as the villain (just as he had the previous year in Gosha's "Hunter in the Dark"), and Etsuko Shihomi is her usual winsome, martially astute self. Six and a half stars.

Enter the Devil

Interesting, if only sporadically effective, low-budget chiller
Interesting, if only sporadically effective, low-budget chiller set in a barren West Texas town near the Mexican border. People are disappearing in the desert and a sheriff's deputy (Dave Cass, the film's co-writer) is sent to investigate...but do the culprits really belong to a satanic cult, or to an altogether different kind of organization? "Enter the Devil" doesn't always make sense, and at times it looks more like a TV crime drama (or industrial training film) than a drive-in horror flick, but it packs the occasional punch. The scenes of human sacrifice, in particular, have a raw, nerve-jangling quality, and a sense of eerie foreboding hangs over the desert shooting location even during the film's quieter moments. Able character actor Josh Bryant heads up the cast, Irene Kelly provides the eye candy, and John Martin and Carle Bensen make a suitably crusty pair as the sheriff and the town doctor, respectively.

Flawed, but worth a look.

The Man They Could Not Hang

Now, this is more like it
There were a lot of truly wretched mad doctor movies in the '30s and '40s, but the subgenre *could* be fun when it wasn't hampered by the limitations of Poverty Row studios. "The Man They Could Not Hang" is an excellent example of this, and Columbia couldn't have chosen a more talented performer than Boris Karloff to play the film's unhinged medical researcher. To be accurate, Karloff doesn't start out as "mad," exactly: just a little overzealous. But an uncomprehending legal system and a narrow-minded public drive him over the brink, and he becomes more interested in revenge than in demonstrating the merits of his artificial heart device. The film is well-paced, and many familiar faces appear alongside Boris (like creepily mild-mannered Byron Foulger as the doctor's assistant, and Ann Doran in a role that suited her priggish real-life personality). Best of all, Karloff's character gets a gloriously spiteful FU moment at the end, when the main action is over.

No one will mistake it for a James Whale or Val Lewton film, but "The Man They Could Not Hang" is an entertaining B-picture. Seven and a half stars.

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