Drugs, Dwarfs, Tong Wars, Sex Slavery, and Vincent Price

8

“Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium!”

Now we could argue all day about whether or not this film is actually good. Whether it was politically correct in its portrayal of Asians and Asian-Americans. Whether it was sensitive to the actual tragedies of real human sex trafficking. Whether it even accurately depicts the effects of opium. At the end of the day Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962), starring Vincent Price (Theater of Blood, House of Wax, Comedy of Terrors, House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, Edward Scissorhands) and a mostly Asian cast, it’s just too weird of a movie not to geek out about.

4

De Quincey meets the mysterious Ruby Lo.

Confessions of an Opium Eater, directed by exploitation director Albert Zugsmith and apparently very liberally inspired by the memoirs of Thomas De Quincey, is a weird bit of exotic thriller pulp. It should rank alongside Coke Ennyday and the Mystery of the Leaping Fish* (1916) for weird, vintage drug movies or Big Trouble in Little China (1986) for Chinatown-is-magic action movies.

*Oh, it’s a real movie. Douglas Fairbanks plays a pseudo-Sherlock Holmes spoof with super Popeye crime-fighting powers whenever he snorts cocaine. The best bits are when he makes the bad guys O.D. and they shoot through the roof. For 1916, it’s hilariously cavalier about drug use.

7

One alternative American title for this movie was “Souls for Sale.” Fitting.

The movie begins with a somber, reflective voice-over narration as we see a Chinese junk drifting in the mists of a murky, bathtub sea. We get the credits and a skeleton washed up on a forgotten beach. Then we get almost 10 straight minutes of no dialogue; just drugged up Chinese women being loaded into a net and transplanted from ship to shore, where a small hook-filled battle erupts. There’s a lot of desperation and suspense and mystery already. Also a bad guy gets murdered by a random horse, which is always great.

Vincent Price (perhaps woefully miscast, but just maybe his out-of-place poetic, world-weary melancholy and hammy energy are actually what makes this movie so deliciously strange) plays Gilbert de Quincey, a mysterious turn-of-the-century sailor man with a cryptic tie to the Orient. De Quincey, a passive character who wanders about as if in a sort of dream, gets mixed up in the Tong wars going on in the nineteenth century streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. He meets a host of culturally sensitive Chinese characters such as the sneaky, deceitful merchant; the manipulative dragon lady; the bribe-able opium dealer; and the helpless lotus flower waif who needs a white man to save her from sex slavery. Like I said, it might not be the most P.C. flick, but, to its credit, the cast is nearly all an authentic Chinese cast (minus one dwarf, but we’ll get back to her later). The cheesy broken English is made even weirder when they awkwardly speak it when Vincent Price is not around (it’s sad because you know actors like Philip Ahn speak perfect English and they have to dumb it all down) and even sillier when Vincent Price talks to them using flowery Shakespearean language meant to evoke deep philosophical sophistication. Price waxes poetic like a jackass while his Asian co-stars are lacking definite articles and proper verb conjugation. Yet never a miscommunication.

2

A grateful Lotus embraces De Quincey.

De Quincey gets captured and lackadaisically falls for a lovely Chinese girl named Lotus (June Kyoto Lu) whom he rescues from axe-murderers. A nice secret dumbwaiter getaway and sewer battle ensues. He also meets a power-hungry Asian seductress, Ruby Lo (played very well by Linda Ho). She is the true puppet master of the devilish proceedings of Chinatown’s seedy underbelly and, once she gets enough treasure and opium, she will return to China and lead an army…that will do…something.

It goes without saying that Ruby Lo is a way more interesting that Lotus (and, by de facto, much sexier), but the real intriguing character is the fearless, tough-talking Chinese midget named Child (played by Yvonne Moray who also appeared in Wizard of Oz and Terror of Tiny Town). She’s like Zelda Rubinstein and Linda Hunt with even more chutzpah. She’s seen it all and doesn’t really care what the world has to say. She’s feisty and optimistic—even when facing certain death. She’s pretty much the best character ever. I liked the movie a lot before she shows up (arriving floating down a dark corridor in a suspended bamboo cage), but after that I loved the movie. And she’s not the only little person in this movie. Angelo Rossitto (Freaks, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome) has a bit part as a newspaperman in the beginning.

3

Yvonne Moray as Child.

Vincent Price is known for playing spooky killers and tortured killers and obsessed killers (he’s got a bit of a persona), so seeing him as a butthole action guy is kind of surreal. Anyway, this movie is weird for a number of reasons, Vincent Price being an action guy not least of them. The majority of the cast being Asian is unique for an early ’60s Hollywood movie (almost no objectionable “yellow-face”). The dialogue has only two modes: Vincent Price ham poetry and stilted Chinaman-ese. It really sort of fetishizes human sex trafficking and by that I mean it doesn’t exactly condone it (only the bad guys are involved in it), but at the same time the film tries to make it sexy. Between the floating bamboo cages, steamy dance numbers, seeming disposable nature of women, it’s all rather fetishistic. It’s hard to say your film is condemning using women as sex props when your movie pretty much uses them as sex props. I like secret trapdoors and hidden passageways and cool torture devices, but maybe it’s all too campy for something as serious as human sex trafficking. The atmosphere of the movie, aided by Price’s creepy, condescending line delivery and narration readings, is very eerie and dreamlike. The musical score helps that feeling too. The music sounds like vaguely hypnotic theremin tones. Then occasionally all music and sound will drop out and it’ll feel even weirder. There is really only one scene where our hero actually smokes opium…AND THAT SCENE IS ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT.

5

You’re tripping balls, man…

 Skulls and sawfish parade by along with a host of other phantasmagoric imagery and nightmarishly distorted countenances during his trip…and then he wakes up and we get a 1960s soundless stoner action scene with Chinese axe-throwers and Vincent Price running around in late 1800s ‘Frisco. It’s way too cool to even be real. Even the ending of this movie feels bizarre, like we’re all stuck in suspended animation. Does he die? What happens? Where are they going? Did they kill the bad guy? What’s happening? Who was the random guy at the end who was in disguise? Is it over?

1

I’m beginning to think this is not a Edgar Allen Poe adaptation.

I really don’t know what else to say. Watch this movie if you can find it. It’s weird. If you’ve read any of my reviews of other old movies you’d know I’m exceedingly forgiving of racism, sexism, and cheesiness in my vintage pulp. Take it all for what it is. Don’t be offended. It’s a peculiar and unflattering history lesson to watch these old movies. Moral of the story: locate Confessions of an Opium Eater and enjoy all it’s weird, uncomfortable, erotic dreaminess. Maybe make it a double feature with Reefer Madness (1936).

Picture References:

http://www.coffeecoffeeandmorecoffee.com/archives/2013/10/confessions_of.html

http://www.midnightonly.com/2013/04/21/confessions-of-an-opium-eater-1962/

http://scalisto.blogspot.kr/2013/06/albert-zugsmith-confessions-of-opium.html

6

A Very Bradbury October

Now I know most people don’t equate the Walt Disney studios with classic Halloween fun, but when Ray Bradbury and an evil carnival of damned souls are involved then it might just be the case that Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). Boy, that was a stretch. My pick for this week is the underrated, and oft times overlooked, piece of rare live-action Disney entertainment from the early 80s. Directed by Jack Clayton (The Innocents) and based on the novel by science fiction author Ray Bradbury (who also wrote the screenplay), Something Wicked This Way Comes is not exactly a classic, but sometimes the smaller films deserve a second chance to shine.

Halloween weather is a-comin'.

Halloween weather is a-comin’.

The film has all the rustic feel of a brisk autumn day during the early 1900s in a sleepy American town tucked away from civilization and ensconced in trees turning red and orange. I swear you can almost smell the pumpkins and feel the leaves crunching beneath your shoes.

The story begins when an old lightning rod salesman comes to town. Young Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) recounts the coming-of-age tale to the audience. Will’s best friend, Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), is always eager for exploring danger, but Will is the more cautious type (like his father). Will’s father, Charles Halloway (Jason Robards), is the town’s old librarian and at times feels overwhelming regret and even feels he is too old for his beloved son. It is the relationship between Will and his father that really make this movie something special.

It's coming.

It’s coming.

One day a mysterious carnival arrives in town: Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival. The tall, enigmatic, and poised Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) is the leader of the carnival and seems to grant the fondest wishes of all who are tempted by either his rides or his minions.

I want to see this parade crash into the Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.

I want to see this parade crash into the Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.

When people start disappearing, Will and Jim venture out to sneak a peek under the carnival tents, choosing to investigate the matter under cover of darkness. After witnessing a sinister magic carousel, the duo discovers some clues as to the fate of the lost townsfolk. Soon the two intrepid boys find themselves fleeing from the forces of evil in the form of Mr. Dark, the Dust Witch (Pam Grier), green clouds, and even a terrifying tarantula attack. Mr. Dark feels the boys know too much and will stop at nothing to catch them. Soon the boys have only one place to turn to: Will’s father. Charles Halloway may be old, but he is still a good father and will stand up to the forces of evil for his son. Maybe you don’t have to be an action hero if you have a pure heart.

Have you seen either of these tattoos?

Have you seen either of these tattoos?

This children’s horror flick is a treat for all ages. At a time when movies like Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981) and Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) were already setting the standard for darker family fair, Disney ended up giving Bradbury much more control over the final product for Something Wicked This Way Comes. The film didn’t do well in its initial release and although not spectacular, it has wonderful atmosphere and some genuine scares and plenty of peril, but beneath all the spookiness, wonderful set design, and magical special effects there beats a real heart and soul.

Don't get ahead of me.

Don’t get ahead of me.

Jason Robards (Once Upon a Time in the West, All The President’s Men, A Boy and His Dog, Magnolia) is pitch perfect as the aging father who aches with the sores of old age and the sorrows of all the things he didn’t do in life. Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Evita, The Brothers Grimm, The Pirates of the Caribbean) is quite good as the chilling form of evil incarnate who gladly sets the price of people’s dreams. The kids are well cast too and Pam Grier (Coffy, Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown) looks great as the phantasmic stately grim specter. The scenes in which Jason Robards stands his ground against the devilish Jonathan Pryce are fantastic and the finale is very satisfying too.

Merry-go-round time machine.

Merry-go-round time machine.

This gently pleasing family horror fantasy film is the perfect Halloween afternoon treat. I recommend it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 5, 2009

The Best Dwarf Movies That Aren’t Willow

Please listen to the Randy Newman song, “Short People,” before you read this article. It will make me seem far less insensitive.

Come with me...and you'll be...in a world of slave-dwarf manipulation...

Come with me…and you’ll be…in a world of slave-dwarf manipulation…

10. A nostalgic favorite, loved by many: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). People may bicker amongst themselves at social gatherings and brouhahas regarding which Dahl adaptation is better, but the intelligent ones among us already know it’s the psychedelic, charmingly dated Gene Wilder one. The Oompa Loompas (played by a large grouping of thespian little people) were a huge part of the film and were what made it so memorable. If there was no Wilder or awesome Grandpa Joe, you’d still be seeing orange faces with green pompadours singing in your sleep.

Adorable.

Adorable.

9. The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) is a typical 30’s cowboy musical melodrama. The twist is that the entire cast is comprised of (mostly German) dwarfs. What might have been a forgettable genre romp becomes a kooky, fun, possibly offensive, western adventure that’s difficult to forget. Whether it’s Shetland ponies thundering through the sagebrush or pint-sized bar fights, it’s hard not to appreciate this diminutive curio. It may have been made as an exploitative novelty, but I actually really like the movie.

Throw me a freakin' bone here!

Throw me a freakin’ bone here!

8. Mike Myers made a pretty solid sequel—despite Heather Graham—with Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999). Austin Powers and Dr. Evil are still funny, but it is the added character of Mini-Me (playe by Verne Troyer) that might be the most memorable part. Every scene between Dr. Evil and Mini-Me is sick and hilarious.

I think Dorothy takes the transition from black&white Kansas to this rather gracefully.

I think Dorothy takes the transition from black&white Kansas to this rather gracefully.

7. The Wizard of Oz (1939) is a Hollywood classic and a great musical fantasy, but all the technicolor in the world could not eclipse the Munchkins’ big scene when Dorothy first arrives in Oz, and then the terror of the flying monkeys piercing through the night sky only to savagely disembowel the Scarecrow. I don’t think this film gets enough credit for how surreal it is. Many of these little actors were in Tiny Town as well.

I know. I know. Only six dwarfs. Deal with it. They're all matadors.

I know. I know. Only six dwarfs. Deal with it. They’re all matadors.

6. This next movie only solidifies the stereotype that all Spaniards are matadors. Blancanieves (2012) is a Spanish retelling of Snow White as a 1920s silent movie. . . also, all the characters are matadors. The dwarfs (who are matadors too) don’t show up until about halfway into this bizarre film, but they add much heart and soul to the tragic yarn.

Welcome to Fantasy Island!

Welcome to Fantasy Island!

5. If you love the 80’s, chances are you like Oingo Boingo. This cock-eyed band produced a wild, acid-trip of a film to simulate the experience of their concerts. The Forbidden Zone (1982) is one crazy, hyperactive, super-surreal, mushroom-binge musical comedy about the Hercules family getting lost in the sixth dimension. And it’s way more weird and demented than it sounds.  Little man Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island) plays the horny King Fausto, ruler of the eponymous realm.

Badassery is afoot.

Badassery be afoot.

4. Werner Herzog might be one of the more interesting directors working today. Most famous for Grizzly ManFitzcarraldo, and Aguirre: The Wrath of God, this German weirdo also made movies where the entire cast was acting under hypnosis as well as a non-narrative collage of images attempting to conjure desert mirages. No wonder one of his earliest films was a black & white allegory about psychos escaping from an asylum only to imprison the warden, set fire to potted plants, tease blind people, and crucify monkeys. As the title might hint, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) is an entirely little person cast. And it’s nuts.

It's the "Citizen Kane" of movies.

It’s the “Citizen Kane” of movies.

3. How many Filipino 007-knockoff midgetsploitation flicks are out there? Counting For Y’ur Height Only (1980) there’s at least one. Weng Weng stars as a dwarf James Bond in this extremely low-budget action spoof that is a must-see for cult and schlock fans alike. Jet-packs, kung-fu, umbrella parachutes, copious amounts of shooting people, x-ray t-shades, and jammin’ discotheque rendezvous are here in spades. It’s grainy, awkward, and nonstop fun.

Make it a Browning/Earles double feature.

Make it a Browning/Earles double feature.

2. Tie! I really couldn’t decide and Harry Earles (Wizard of Oz) is featured prominently in both films. Freaks (1932) is Tod Browning’s controversial opus that stars actual circus sideshow performers. It’s a horror melodrama surrounding the plot of a rich dwarf (Earles) who is conned out of his money by a wicked trapeze artist who seduces him. It’s a breezy build-up to a genuinely disturbing revenge-filled third act. Earles stars again alongside Lon Chaney, Sr. in another Browning masterpiece, The Unholy Three (1925). It’s a crime melodrama about three circus renegades who embark on a life of crime. Chaney pretends to be an old woman and Earles pretends to be a baby. Throw in an mad ape rampage in the finale and you got yourself a deranged bit of pulp.

Bonus info: I'm actually only lukewarm about "Willow."

Bonus info: I’m actually only lukewarm about “Willow.”

1. Finally, the best dwarf movie that is not Willow is Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981). A young British boy is shanghaied by six time-traveling dwarfs on the run from the Supreme Being (Sir Ralph Richardson). They have a map of all the holes in the universe and use it to rob the greatest characters in history. . . until Satan (David Warner) screws up their plans. Despite Sean Connery, John Cleese, Shelley Duvall, Michael Palin, Ian Holm, and other guest stars, it is the Time Bandits themselves that make the film. Some were formerly Ewoks and Oompa Loompas, but now they get to show their faces and engage in a real twisted fantasy adventure. Kenny Baker (a.k.a. R2-D2) is even one of the main characters. It’s awesome, funny, very imaginative, and is my number one pick.

Honorable Mentions:

El Topo (1970). Alejandro Jodorowsky’s (Santa Sangre) most famous work has its share of dwarfs, amputees, and hyper-violent spiritual symbolism, but the dwarf woman he marries in the film doesn’t play large enough a role.

The Station Agent (2003). Peter Dinklage (Death at a Funeral) stars in this quiet drama, but there’s no monsters or dragons in this movie so it does not make the list.

Life’s Too Short (2011). Warwick Davis (Willow) stars in this amazing and hilarious series from Ricky Gervais. Alas, it’s not a movie so cannot make the list, but it is worth seeing.

Originally posted on net.sideBar on August 21, 2013.

Pulgasari Ain’t Sorry (longer version)

Where do we begin? There is actually quite a bit that can be said about the North Korean film Pulgasari (1985). First off, it is famous for being directed by Shin Sang-ok who was a prominent South Korean filmmaker until he and his wife were kidnapped by North Korea at Kim Jong Il’s behest. He was commanded to make great films for The Dear Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

A hostage director forced to make bad movies. Bananas. It’s like Misery.

"Rawr" means I love you in Pulgasari.

“Rawr” means I love you in Pulgasari.

Pulgasari has been compared to the Godzilla franchise quite a bit and there are definitely an abundance of similarities (Kenpachiro Satsuma, most famous for playing Godzilla in several movies, actually plays Pulgasari). It  also has some elements of Der Golem (1920) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). He also looks a little bit like the monster from Night of the Demon (1957). Unfortunately for Pulgasari the title just isn’t quite as memorable.

Here’s the set up: starving peasant farmers are being oppressed by an evil despot king. Ironic…especially considering that several people have stated Pulgasari is meant to be pro-North Korea propaganda. The despot king is allegedly meant to represent capitalism. I’m not so convinced and actually wonder if that was just director Sang-ok’s excuse and he’s really making a slam against the Kim family. Anyway, government officials tell the peasants that they need to make iron weapons for them because “some bandits are causing a ruckus at a certain location.” These bandits are never seen. The peasants say they don’t have any iron so the government makes them use their own farming equipment to make weapons. Hmm…a nepotist tyrant who spends money on weapons to fight imaginary foes while his starving people are forced to glorify their ruler. Sounds kinda familiar.

Pots and pans are all the peasants have and the government murders them to take them. They even run over an old lady with a cart. We get it! The king is evil.

P-p-p-p-puppy power!

P-p-p-p-puppy power!

Ami (Chang Son Hui) is a lovely peasant girl who does her best to hold the movie together when the monster’s not on screen. The story doesn’t really start until Ami’s old blacksmith uncle is captured by bad soldiers and starved in prison. Ami sneaks him food, but instead of eating the ball of rice, he molds it into a toy dinosaur and dies. The figurine comes to Ami who accidentally sticks herself and bleeds on it, bringing it to life (♫ Suddenly Seymour!). Soon the creature starts eating needles. Finding it cute, Ami and her brother go to sleep with it. By morning it has grown from a plastic toy into a latex puppet.

Cut to a laughing executioner about to behead Ami’s love interest, Inde…for some reason. Just as the blade is coming down, the executioner is attacked by a terrifying rubber puppet who saves the day. Cue the squirrelly Saturday-morning-cartoon music. Pulgasari eats the executioner’s sword and we learn that the rice-monster grows bigger when he eats metal. Makes sense. Soon Pulgasari developes from a hand-puppet into a small child (because midgets are euthanized) in a rubber suit. Pulgasari then wanders off and we don’t see him for a while. Cut to a scene of the government beating an old woman.

This movie has a hard time settling on a tone.

We learn that some people have been captured. I think Ami’s brother is one of them. Doesn’t matter. Inde leads an attack on the prison where they are kept, but they get there too late and—in a scene that Attack of the Clones must have ripped off—the folks they were going to rescue just die right then. A battle ensues and the governor is killed. This gets the attention of the bad king. The government elite forces really suck and the battles feel reminiscent of the ewoks fighting the stormtroopers in Return of the Jedi. Also the sound effects of the swords clanging are hilarious.

pulgasari self control

They say it’s not just the fat content. It’s the sugars mixed in with the fat.

A man-sized Pulgasari appears and rescues Ami from bad guys and then they feed him weapons to make him grow big and strong. Eat all your iron, Pulga. Soon he’s a giant, towering over all the people—much like Godzilla but with a slightly more gargoyle look. Clearly this is bad news for the evil king. The scenes where the baddies try to logically deduce the creature’s weakness is like watching Adam West decipher a Frank Gorshin riddle, but naturally no matter how random or absurd it always works. They first try to trap Pulgasari in a giant wooden cage by capturing Ami and threatening to kill her if he does not comply. Ami pleads with Pulgasari not to listen and thus a short-lived 3 Laws of Robotics head game ensues. He goes in the cage and then they set it on fire. Since the cage is wood and Pulgasari is magic, naturally the cage simply burns away and frees Pulgasari to rampage once more.

New plan: get a crazy lady to exorcise the blacksmith’s spirit out of Pulgasari so he’ll fall in a hole and they can put rocks on him. Again, amazingly it works.

Later some dying guy informs Ami that Inde has been captured. It was at this point in the film where I realized that we never see anyone get captured. We only hear about it. Minor detail, but I notice things like that. I wonder if director, Sang-ok, could not bring himself to film another abduction after having lived through a real one. The memories! Sure enough Inde has been captured and they hang him. Inde’s only been peripherally involved in the story so we’re not too distraught by his permanent absence, but Ami sure is. Ami releases Pulgasari again by cutting herself over the rocks where he’s buried. This alarms the bad guys once more so they invent a weapon to stop Pulgasari once and for all. It is the greatest destructive invention of all time. With it they “can kill 104 Pulgasaris” and take over the world! The weapon is your standard cannon. . . oh, and it doesn’t even scratch Pulgasari.

Oh, man. Did I do that? I was so wasted last night.

Oh, man. Did I do that? I was so wasted last night.

Pulgasari destroys the king’s palace and squishes him. Hurray. The peasants are saved. But now there’s no more iron for Pulgasari to eat. Ami begs Pulgasari to go away and disappear rather than eat their farm tools. She knows that they will have to invade other countries and take over the whole world to feed him iron forever. Naturally. Finally Ami tricks him into eating a funeral bell (I think). Pulgasari turns into stone and then explodes. A tiny Pulgasari emerges from the rubble and transforms into a blue ball of light that goes into Ami…who is dead now for some reason. The end.

Pulgasari is your typical giant suitmation monster movie. Standard kaiju. Nothing special. The story is actually a bit more complex than your average Godzilla movie and the period setting gives it a nice mythical flavor. Pulgasari is a good guy fighting a corrupt government in order to help poor peasant farmers. He’s like a rubber reptile Robin Hood. Not a bad premise. It’s not dumber than most of the movies in the genre, but something just never felt right for me. The original Godzilla (1954) was a legitimate film with political undertones and clever metaphors. The rest of the franchise was silly, but most of them had the spirit of fun about them along with hokey environmentalist messages. Gamera (1965) and its sequels were also colorful and fun. The British film, Gorgo (1961), was dopey but I still liked it. Pulgasari has a decent development and cool costumes, but it also has yucky colors, a bad score, and instead of the spirit of fun it has the spirit of North Korea. Eww. It just feels kind of oppressive and grim. It never pulled me in. At times it takes itself too seriously and then at others it’s just too cartoony. I still enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as some other kaiju flicks.

The American Godzilla (1998) gets a lot of flack and I think I know why. Despite the story actually being more complex and the characters being more developed than most Godzilla films and other knockoffs, it just does not have the same feel. Something is missing. Pulgasari is kind of like that. And you what? I don’t necessarily hate either of them. Watch Pulgasari. It ain’t that bad.

Hell's bells, son! It's original artwork! Yes, I realize Kim Jong-Un was not in power at the time this movie was made, but perhaps its legacy still haunts him to this day.

Hell’s bells, son! It’s original artwork! Yes, I realize Kim Jong-Un was not in power at the time this movie was made, but perhaps its legacy still haunts him to this day.

I’ve got to wonder why they needed to go through all the trouble of kidnapping a foreign director to make a cheese-ball Godzilla ripoff. I’m pretty sure anyone could have directed this film. It’s not particularly arty or even that good. Maybe he botched it on purpose. Shin Sang-ok directed several movies for militant executive producer Kim Jong Il, but this is the most famous one outside of North Korea. I’m not convinced it’s chiefly a propagandistic movie. North Korea fascinates me. As a firm believer in the anthropological and cultural significance of movies from around the world and from different times I find Pulgasari rather telling. Kim Jong Il may have produced it and maybe he loved it, but I must say I expected a little more polish and professionalism from the people who brought us the Arirang Grand Mass Games and 4 year old cello virtuosos.

Check out article on The Red Chapel “documentary” in North Korea.

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle May 6, 2013.

Picture references:

http://www.zekefilm.org/2013/01/17/film-review-pulgasari/

http://areaoftheunwell.blogspot.kr/2009/08/any-old-irony.html

http://shelf3d.com/Search/movies%2Bto%2Bdownload%2BPlayListIDPL12q-6co85IFOXbnTGvINiFOtAByJiH-4

Just Imagine…1980

This one came out of nowhere.

The year is 1880. A crystal baritone narrator reminds us of how far we’ve come in 50 years. No more horses and buggies cluttering up New York City. No more frilly clothes. And no more drunks stumbling in and out of saloons. No, siree. We’ve come a long way since 1880. Now in 1930 we are at the very height of style, efficiency, and modernity.

…or are we?

Our narrator quickly challenges our perceptions of modernity and dares us to see 50 years into the future: 1980!

just imagine 1

Yes, folks, that grand, stream-lined future utopia with flying cars over Manhattan, government arranged marriages, flights to Mars are underway, immigrants from the past are being thawed out in laboratories, you can order a baby like ordering a sandwich, and we’re that much closer to ending Prohibition. Yes, folks, the possibilities are endless. Remember, this is the year 1980!

Just Imagine (1930), directed by David Butler, is exactly what you’d expect from an obscure vintage science fiction musical romantic comedy rife with racial stereotypes and bizarre space-age predictions. I think. It’s hard to think of what that wild genre-bending combination might look like without some semblance of precedent.

I’ll square with you. The movie isn’t half as good as its premise. It’s actually a bit of a mess, but that might be part of the reason I liked it. There’s a reason why this movie is largely forgotten, but there’s also quirky anthropological reason enough to watch it today.

just imagine 5

Here’s some of the plot. J-21 (everyone in the future has numbers instead of names) is in love with Jane Parker from the Tarzan movies (Maureen O’Sullivan), but the government will not approve their marriage and so she is sentenced to marry another fellow. Enter one recently thawed immigrant from 1930 (El Brendel) to help our lovestruck protagonist. I like that the scientists who wake him up don’t have any further interest in him. It’s like they just did it as part of a science wager. His savior even threatens to kill him again when the dazed relic inquires as to what he should do now that he is awake and 50 years in the future.

The immigrant guy is given the name Single-0. He befriends J-21 and thus a solid comaraderie is forged. Some forgettable songs, awkward Vaudeville era jokes*, and then somehow we wind up in a spaceship to Mars. Naturally it is inhabited by scantily clad women. Seems to have been an epidemic in films from this era. Every other world is ruled by near-naked feminists who need a wooden male character to set them free from their own oppression.

*Not to besmirch Vaudeville but the writers and performers in this movie are just not up to Marx Brothers/Laurel & Hardy/W.C. Fields standards.

just imagine 4

I honestly have already forgotten most of the plot and what the characters actually did. But I do remember flying cars, a trip to Mars, and one or two shots that look to be inspired from Metropolis. It’s not that substantial or memorable of a movie apart from its premise, but it’s not bad. It’s just dated. But its datedness is what makes it so interesting. Just Imagine is a fun alternative view of a space-age world that is both their (1930’s) optimistic future and our wildly inaccurate past. And that makes it kind of cool.

The most fascinating aspect of this weird movie concerns the view on Prohibition. In 1930 Prohibition was still on. It would be only three more years before the Twenty-first Amendment, but they didn’t know it in 1930. In their version of 1980 Prohibition is still in effect and people keep hearing that it’ll end in another few years. Single-0 says that’s what they said back in 1930. The best song in the movie concerns astronauts being able to drink in space. I mentioned this film’s future outlook as optimistic, but it’s actually a bit more of a give and take. Some things are better while others are not. We have gained efficiency but lost a little humanity along the way, but the human spirit carries on with effervescence and optimism.

Just imagine 2

So what is Just Imagine? It’s an awkward transition into talkies. It’s an underwhelming musical. It’s a creaky romance. It’s not a great comedy. But it does have enough of its own quirky energy to keep you entertained. It’s fun to think about the future and it might be even more fun to think about what previous generations thought the future would be.

One Groovy Bat

Blacula. Still not cornier than Duckula.

Blacula. Still not cornier than Duckula.

As a fan of Dracula (from Lee to Lugosi) and blaxploitation cinema (from Coffy to Dolemite), I have a hard time resisting the nocturnal urban lure of Blacula (1972). By the 1970s Count Dracula had seen countless screen re-imaginings and misrepresentations. The movies were hammering the final nail into the classic icon’s coffin, but there was always the occasional hit that kept him from staying in the grave permanently. Blacula may not be considered a great film, but for what it is—a movie about a black Dracula—it’s actually a really enjoyable romp through the supernatural…and it’s got soul. Sure, it has it’s fair share of cheese and hokiness, but even the immortal Bela Lugosi version from 1931 wasn’t perfect and was certainly not lacking in the melodrama department.

Dracula is a racist.

Dracula is a racist.

The story of Blacula begins exactly as it should: in Transylvania in the year 1780. The African noble, Prince Mamuwalde of the Ebani tribe (played by impeccably William Marshall), is having a little chat with the notorious Count Dracula. Mamuwalde urges the Count to aid him in his efforts to end the slave trade, but the Count evidently likes the slave trade and, additionally, has developed a fancy for Mamuwalde’s wife, Luva (Vonetta McGee). Dracula feels it is perfectly acceptable—nay, even complimentary—to take Luva as a concubine. When Mamuwalde refuses the diabolical insult, the Count reveals his vampiric powers and has his undead minions attack the Prince and his wife. Pay attention to the disappearing and reappearing candles during the scuffle. Biting Mamuwalde on the neck, Count Dracula curses him with an unquenchable lust for human blood and seals him shut in a coffin, leaving Luva to die alone in the stone room with her trapped husband.

Where was Luva's skeleton when the coffin was exhumed again in the 1970s???

Where was Luva’s skeleton when Blacula’s coffin was exhumed again in the 1970s???


Then the awesome animated credits pop up. It’s very Fistful of Dollars, but with a funkier score.

Flash-forward to 1972. Two gay interior decorators are buying stuff in the Count’s old castle and, naturally, just have to have the coffin, unaware of the horror within. While unpacking their Transylvanian bounty they unleash a very cramped Blacula. Bewildered and stiff, Blacula discovers the unstoppable desire to snack on human blood. He makes short work of his first two victims.

Never sass a vampire, lady.

Never sass a vampire, lady.

Blacula wanders the streets of Los Angeles and chances upon Tina (Vornetta McGee again), a dead-ringer for the deceased Luva. The encounter proves incredibly taxing on Tina as she frantically flees the strange man as a chase reminiscent of a Pepé Le Pew cartoon ensues, ending with one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie: Blacula’s pursuit of Tina is punctuated by him getting hit by a taxi cab and a rattled female cabbie berating his apparent lack of intelligence as he casually rises up off the ground, muttering about the collision ruining his reunion with his reincarnated lover. When at last he realizes the cabbie’s antagonism he snaps into vampire mode (developing fangs, some super-gnarly eyebrows, a rather pronounced widow’s peak, and cheek-burns) and bites her. Awesome.

Autopsy.

That’s weird. The deceased is completely drained of blood, clutching a crucifix, and has two small holes on her neck. It must have been a car accident.

Things get more coincidentally complicated when Tina’s sister, Michelle (a very fine Denise Nicholas), is the girlfriend of Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala—easily the coolest name ever) who is investigating the mysterious murders of the gay interior decorators and the cabdriver. The deep holes in the necks and the absence of blood in their bodies seems suspicious, so Dr. Thomas reads up on the occult.

Clubs back in the day.

Clubs back in the day…

At a night club, Tina, Michelle, and Gordon are treated to a special guest. It is Blacula, arrived to return the purse Tina dropped when she ran away. He apologizes for frightening her and joins them for drinks. The sight of this caped, eloquent, and charismatic aristocrat (with the diction of a god!) against these modern settings doesn’t seem to bother anybody. And the stranger’s deep poetic voice with its enchanting cadences (seriously, I want William Marshall to read me bedtime stories) echoing back to time’s long past captivates his new friends. Things are going well, bloody Marys are ordered, Tina is warming up to Mamuwalde, and then someone snaps a picture of them and the gallant ex-prince excuses himself…to kill the photographer just as she’s developing the pictures and discovers that Blaculas don’t show up on film.

No pictures!

No pictures!

The movie goes on with many things happening at once. Blacula courts Tina like a true gentleman while Dr. Thomas digs up corpses and realizes they’ve a vampire epidemic on their hands that the police station will never believe. Also, several characters that Blacula has bitten earlier in the film become vampires themselves and start biting everybody indiscriminately. Apparently you never truly die from a vampire bite, you only become a superhuman vampire with greenish skin (there is one cop and a guy with a hook hand we never see again after they get bitten, but seeing as how every other character survives to be vampires I just bet those two guys are still wandering around somewhere). It almost reminds me of Cannibal Apocalypse (1980) starring John Saxon (Enter the Dragon), a particularly terrible movie where so-called cannibals bite people and then those people in turn become “cannibals” who only desire to bite other people and make them “cannibals” (yeah, nobody ever dies. They just become oppressed minorities with weird nibbling habits fleeing government retaliation. Like Blacula the only characters who truly die are the ones who get killed by normal means).  A highlight of Blacula is the police raid on a warehouse full of vampires bitten by one of the gay guys from the beginning. People get shot, attacked, bitten, and set on fire. Major points for all the full body burns, but I can’t help but wonder about this scene. The gay vampire seems to have bitten (by far!) the most people. Is Blacula making some kind of commentary about promiscuity or the spread of social diseases during the 70s? Should we be offended?

These vampire zombies are fabulous.

These vampire zombies are fabulous.


As Tina falls more and more in love with Blacula/Mamuwalde, Dr. Gordon Thomas and the cops get closer and closer to unmasking the vampire and discovering its daytime coffin hideout. Actually, the romance between Tina and Blacula is the least interesting and least believable part of the movie, but the movie seems to know that and focuses on other things while that stuff is happening. By the time Gordon and the cops find Blacula’s hideout in a chemical plant, Tina has already agreed to be Luva II for the undead Prince Mamuwalde (it’s like The Mummy). Time is running out and cops with spherical helmets—seemingly from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs —fill the chemical plant, putting Blacula on the defensive. Comically, the cops are very easy to kill. Gently bumping their big, stupid helmeted-heads against a wall takes them out in a flash. Something I noticed the second time I watched it; I wonder if Dr. Gordon Thomas is safe from vampire attacks because he’s always wearing a turtleneck.

SPOILER ALERT: skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoiling the epic finale of Blacula.

Will our heroes stop Blacula before he seduces Tina? Tune in next week...

Will our heroes stop Blacula before he seduces Tina? Tune in next week…

One dopey cop catches Blacula and Tina running away down a hallway and discharges his firearm, killing Tina. Blacula dispatches the policeman by gently bopping his helmet head on a pipe and punching him. With no time to lose he bites Tina to ensure she will have eternal undead life as a vampire with him. Angered and vengeful, Blacula storms through the dark chemical plant killing cops left and right. Guys get stuff dropped on them, they get thrashed, and some guys get thrown off ledges, but soon Dr. Gordon gets to the coffin, hands the stake to the police sergeant, opens it up, and the sergeant rams the stake into the body…only to discover it’s Tina! Tina sits up (now with vampire fangs) and claws at her bleeding chest and finally dies. Her sister Michelle screams in horror and cries as Gordon stands off to the side (probably tacitly reflecting on the grim turn of events and thanking God Almighty he gave the stake to the sergeant). Blacula appears and everyone backs away with fear and respect as he steadily approaches Tina’s dead body. A beaten and heart-broken vampire, Blacula announces that he has lived again only to lose Luva twice. With a heavy heart Balcula turns and marches up the stairs and into the dawn’s early light to commit vampire suicide. He stumbles as the sun’s cruel rays burn him and he at last collapses and his flesh melts away revealing a maggot-filled skeleton.

That might take more than a Tums.

That might take more than a Tums.

For the all the questions Blacula raises, the film is kind of awesome. Perhaps Mamuwalde’s acclimation to life in the 20th century was a bit too easy, but maybe they didn’t want to rely on simple fish-out-of-water jokes like the George Hamilton movie Love at First Bite. I do wonder how he innately knew that cameras—an invention he would have never been introduced to beforehand—would not pick up his image, but that’s nit-picking, I guess. There are some continuity errors, but the editing is pretty good for the most part. The plot moves quickly and the characters (with the possible exception of Tina, unless Mamuwalde put some spell on her to make her fall in love with him) have believable motivations and are interesting and engaging. William Marshall takes the role very seriously and commands every scene he is in. Another actor might have tried to bring humor to the part, but Marshall plays it completely straight and, you know something? It works. Any Dracula character needs one essential ingredient: charisma (unless you’re the gnarled Nosferatu type). William Marshall has great charisma and screen presence as Blacula and he elevates the entire film. It’s a fun Halloween movie with classic horror-tragedy and some great action. Unlike the Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee Draculas, Blacula is almost a good guy. He is the victim of Dracula’s evil and is driven more by love than by wrath. He is a compelling character with a life full of tragedy. Maybe Blacula isn’t quite as raucous or ground-breaking as other blaxploitation movies like say Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but for my money it’s pretty entertaining.

There's a distasteful joke concerning my imminent evaporative death right behind me, isn't there.

There’s a distasteful joke concerning my imminent evaporative death right behind me, isn’t there.

The sequel, Scream Blacula Scream (1973) is not as fun. Blacula’s not in it as much and it doesn’t have the same quick pace and much of the magic is gone, but Pam Grier is in it and the last scene in the house is pretty neat. I like the first movie and I hope you will too. For great soul horror this Halloween look for Blacula.

Top 10 Reason to See Blacula

1. Blacula totally sticks it to the Man (by gently bopping their helmeted heads against walls).

2. It’s got a great funky score.

3. Thalmus Rasulala’s mustache.

4. Denise Nicholas is real pretty.

5. William Marshall’s commanding and elegant performance.

6. If we all watch it maybe we can bring back the cape look.

7. People get set on fire.

8. Blacula was the first movie to win the Saturn Award for “Best Horror Film” (to put this in perspective: other great films to win since include The Exorcist, Young Frankenstein, The Wicker Man, The Fly, The Silence of the Lambs, and Army of Darkness).

9. It’s a cherished classic from the blaxploitation genre.

10. Remember Twilight? Me neither, watch Blacula.

Good evening.

Good evening.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 30, 2010

The Toys are Back in Town

It was dark and we were returning from Albany. As the heavy Northeastern rains pummeled the little gold Chevy with the raging gusto of a typhoon we thought back on the evening’s occurrences. We had done something we had joked about doing but perhaps never fully planned on it actually happening. The wipers blinked for the windshield and the events of barely an hour ago finally took root in our stuffed brains.

We had watched Toys (1992) again.

Every so often a filmmaker has a passion project. Something that only he or she understands. Sometimes it’s a masterpiece. Like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Sometimes it’s not. Like John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974). Toys is not.

Perhaps director Barry Levinson gets crapped on too much. True he did Envy (2004) and Man of the Year (2006), but he also did stuff like Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Rain Man (1988), and Wag the Dog (1997). Not so small confession: I actually liked Sphere (1998) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). He’s got some solid films under his belt. So why shouldn’t Barry Levinson get to make his huge passion project that only he understands? Because it’s Toys. That’s why.

Most folks probably don’t even remember Toys. It did poorly when it originally came out and never really became popular. I suppose it has a strange cult following in the right circles. Toys is one of those films that haunted me in the video stores of my childhood. Such an appealingly surreal cover…and starring Robin Williams. The portrait of whimsy which was its VHS box was in curious contrast to its PG-13 rating. When I finally saw it years ago I was confused. In many ways it resembles a competent film. It has absolutely fantastic set designs and art direction—courtesy of Fernando Scarfiotti (The Last Emperor) and Linda DeScenna (Blade Runner). In this way it still resembles a sumptuous and imaginative children’s story. The story isn’t even all bad. It’s a simple tale of the clash between silly gentle toys and encroaching war toys and violent video games. It even has a pretty interesting cast that includes Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), Michael Gambon (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover), Robin Wright (The Princess Bride), Joan Cusack (Toy Story 2), LL Cool J (Deep Blue Sea), Yeardley Smith (The Simpsons), Arthur Malet (Hook), Jack Warden (Being There), Jamie Foxx (In Living Color), and even Donald O’Connor (Singin’ in the Rain). Weird lineup? I said interesting cast.

I did appreciate bits of it a little more on this second and more recent viewing. I must admit that there are a few delightfully askew ideas sloshing around in this clunky and embarrassingly slow and unengaging movie, but ultimately things never seems to click. It’s like Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980); it’s bad, but it’s weird-bad and you can’t look away. Robin Williams is a somewhat undefined childlike toy inventor named Leslie Zevo. When Leslie’s kindly father (O’Connor) dies the toy factory is given to Papa Zevo’s warmongering nephew Lt. General Leland Zevo (Gambon) who has an unquenchable desire to please his own stern and dying military father (Warden). Obviously the General takes over and the factory ceases production of cuddly whimsical toys in favor of manipulative violent tools to groom young minds for military service and destruction.

There’s a desperation in the film. Despite some pretty and intriguing images (occasionally inspired by Rene Magritte it would seem) it feels empty, exhausting, and slow. There’s no heart. The dialogue is all hushed whispers, like Mr. Rogers on Valium. Toys is so quiet! A movie this big and zany looking deserves a little energy and life. Robin Williams is bizarrely understated and doesn’t have a strong character and he’s hard to relate to as Leslie Zevo, not to mention the fact that he’s been a lot funnier in other things. The music’s kinda bad too and awkwardly dates the project. Sorry, Hans Zimmer.

Then there’s the pacing which feels off and despite amazing sets and some great subtle visual gags involving the scenery, the film feels joyless and extremely talkie. This is probably why the film was not aimed at kids. While it has an infant sort of logic to it and the colors are tantalizing, the movie would put them to sleep. Then there’s the one real reason the kids shouldn’t see it: Robin Williams’ sex scene with Robin Wright. That’s right. There’s steamy premarital Robin on Robin action in this flick. OK, so you don’t see anything, but you hear them and you see her take her bra off and then it falls on a spying robot. Then you see Jamie Foxx becoming aroused in a spy van as he listens to Williams’ sex grunts. It’s sick.


Towards the end Williams gives a mash-up of about thirty inspirational speeches to an impromptu army of gentle toys just before they get slaughtered in battle. Can you not seize the day hard enough? I sure can’t. Who is he talking to? The audience? Himself? I wonder if the non-sentient toys can sense him just going through the motions. He seems about as disinterested in the project as Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Bill Murray had more energy in Ghostbusters 2 for godsakes.

The best things in Toys are the small cute touches like a Zevo car having to stop in the hallway for toy ducks to pass, but they are not enough. Toys is mind-numbingly slow. And I’m a Tarkovsky fan! The characters are inexcusably shallow and uninteresting (Gambon having the most interesting character but he still feels half-baked). The few jokes there are are forgettable, too understated, and spookily quiet. It’s not really a children’s movie and it’s not really an adult movie. I can’t even defend it as an art movie. What is Toys?

Toys is Barry Levinson’s Zardoz.

Forget what Toys is. What the blazes is a sea swine? There’s an unexplained amorphous cybernetic amphibious creature towards the end whose existence is accepted a little too readily by the characters. Is it a real animal the General has tampered with genetically? Is it a squishy robot that needs to live in murky water? If it resembles more of a snail-like graboid where do they get off calling it a “swine?”

I get what is trying to happen and what the story is trying to do and say and maybe the advent of drone warfare makes the film eerily more prescient, but I don’t think it all congeals into an appealing whole. It’s a sloppy, clunky shipwreck in a sea of nursery and bubble-bathtub softness. So why did I take the time to write about Toys if I hate it so much? Well, I guess I don’t hate it. I admire what was trying to happen and I really do love the art design and a few of the set gags. I guess I don’t know why I wrote about it. Something about Toys, although it is largely a forgettable experience, sticks in the back of my mind, so much that we had to watch it again years later just to see if it was real. Toys really is not a good movie and I don’t know how pleased Levinson was with the final product, but it’s nowhere near as weird-bad as Super Mario Bros. (1993) which might even be weirder in addition to being worse.

Ultimately it’s bad, but it’s uniqueness makes it sort of something special. At the end of the day maybe we can at least say Toys was weirder than Howard the Duck (1986), but maybe just as hard to watch. So go watch it. What do I care.