Friday, January 17, 2014

GUEST POST: Scott Davis's Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013

When I was asked to create this list, I was given a simple task. Make a list of five older films that I discovered in 2013. The films were meant to be somewhat obscure, so while I may have thrilled to everything from Marcel Carne's CHILDREN OF PARADISE (1945) to Adam Green's HATCHET II (2010), they didn't belong here. Should be simple, right? Not quite. Of the nearly five hundred films I saw in 2013, narrowing it down was hard. So, I expanded the list to ten films. Ten films spread nearly fifty years apart, all very different and all amazing in their own right. 

And me? I've been reviewing these things for years. I currently co-edit the website Film Geek Central. I also have a web series called Moviocrity that I'm pretty proud of, even if it's slow to grow. You can check that out on YouTube right now and possibly a few other venues in the near future. I'm working on the second season right now. I am always willing to write about my love of cult and exploitation cinema, be it in these lengthy articles or on podcasts such as Astro Radio Z and Film Jerks. 

I may as well make peace with it. This obsession has been with me for decades and never seems to decrease. So, here are a few of the films I was happy to discover last year, ranked in chronological order.

BLACK LIZARD (a.k.a. KUROTOKAGE) (1962) – BLACK LIZARD is based on a classic piece of Japanese pulp literature by Edogawa Rampo, a popular writer whose chosen pen name was meant to phonetically resemble Edgar Allen Poe. But BLACK LIZARD, or KUROTOKAGE as it is called in its original language, is not a horror film. Rather, it's the cat-and-mouse chase between the conceited yet dauntless Detective Akeshi (Minoru Oki) and the sexy, diabolical criminal mastermind, Black Lizard. The film plays like a serialized pulp novel come to life as Akeshi tries to protect a wealthy businessman and his daughter.

Akeshi begins by narrating the film in what will be the first of a few instances where the fourth wall is not just broken, but shattered. Style is the name of the game here as moods are signified by various lighting effects. There are odd interludes of humor, occasional political discourse and the inevitable slip into melodrama as Black Lizard falls for her nemesis. If all of that isn't enough, there are musical numbers spread out just far enough for you to forget about them before they take you by surprise again. And that Black Lizard sure can dance. 

This story has been filmed numerous times, most notably by Kinji Fukasaku. whose version consisted of a celebrated female impersonator portraying Black Lizard. That has contributed not only to this film being confused with Fukasaku's work, but also in it being unfairly overlooked.

BLOOD BATH (1966) – There is no reason for BLOOD BATH to work. And if you ask a great number of people, including the many filmmakers involved with the project, it doesn't. And yet, BLOOD BATH is a film I can't take my eyes off of. It absolutely fascinated me. 

The film follows the aspiring artists in a European city, holdovers from the beatnik days. No one is selling nearly as many paintings as Antonio Sordi (William Campbell), whose paintings of women in the throes of death ignite the morbid curiosity of his patrons. If you've seen more than a few horror films, you've probably already guessed that Sordi isn't faking his paintings. He actually is murdering young women, painting them and then disposing of them. What may surprise you is that Sordi believes himself to be possessed and cursed by the spirit of a long-dead temptress, which causes him to turn into a bloodsucking vampire. Didn't see that one coming, did you?

And that's because BLOOD BATH was assembled from three different films. Roger Corman enlisted a Yugoslavian filmmaker to create a horror film starring Campbell and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola. What he got instead was a film about an art heist that even Corman didn't think he could sell. Corman hired the great Jack Hill (SPIDER BABY, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, COFFY) to ditch the heist material and turn it into a horror film, as was originally intended. Hill added the bulk of the storyline, about the artist who kidnapped, tortured, murdered and painted local women. He also added much of the material with other local artists, a cast of characters that include Jonathan Haze and a young Sid Haig. Still, Corman didn't think it popped. So, it sat a bit longer. Corman then brought in Stephanie Rothman (THE STUDENT NURSES, THE VELVET VAMPIRE, GROUP MARRIAGE) to have another go at it. Rothman added the vampire material and the haunting visuals of Sordi's old lover, tempting him from beyond the grave. Three directors, three completely different films, all mashed into one. Total chaos. It shouldn't work, but BLOOD BATH is an astonishing entry into the field of exploitation cinema.

NAVAJO JOE (1966) and THE MERCENARY (1968) – Any time is a good time to catch up with the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci. What separated Corbucci from the dozens of other Italian filmmakers trying their hand at the genre is that while Corbucci made a great number of spaghetti westerns, he rarely made the same spaghetti western. 

NAVAJO JOE features a young Burt Reynolds in the title role, the sole survivor of a massacre that has left his entire tribe, including his wife, dead and scalped. But it was not a warring tribe that did the scalping but a group of bigots led by the bloodthirsty Duncan. These bandits set their sights even higher as they enter into a conspiracy with a doctor to rob a train of its gold and kill the townspeople who are depending on the money to build a new future. Joe puts a wrench in their works when he shows up, taking revenge for his slain people. His task is made harder by the townspeople more likely to trust a wealthy white gentleman like their local doctor over someone who they deem to be savage. Joe does indeed show Duncan's bandits what savagery is, as he methodically kills them, often with a knife or his bare hands. 

THE MERCENARY (a.k.a. A PROFESSIONAL GUN) in turn stars Tony Musante as an early 20th century Mexican freedom fighter who is short in brains, big in spirit. He hires and befriends Kowalski (Franco Nero), a Polish gun for hire who adds a sense of intelligence to his operation. The group is pursued by a bounty hunter (Jack Palance) whose bloodthirstiness is only matched by his persistence. Oh, and the name of Palance's character? Curly, the same name given to his character in CITY SLICKERS (1991).

Both of these films have a completely different feel and are equally amazing to behold. Time and again, Corbucci proved that just because they were all there because of Sergio Leone, that didn't mean they had to copy him.

TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971) – I'm not sure how obscure TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is. But it does seem like it will always be a cult film amongst cult films. Monte Hellman's approach isn't necessarily easy on the viewer, something that turns off the Redbox generation. But while TWO-LANE BLACKTOP may not be easy going, it is intensely rewarding.

The film follows two cars and the people inside of them. Inside the '55 Chevy are the Driver (James Taylor) and his Mechanic (Dennis Wilson). The two share a symbiotic relationship, roaming the countryside looking for people to race and... what, exactly? It's a mystery that they keep very close to the vest and the film persists in exploring. Their car is a character in itself, something that has been shaped into a creature that looks like it should live on the road. They continue to encounter a G.T.O., pristine and factory-made. Both the car and the man driving it (Warren Oates) seem like the complete opposite of the Driver and Mechanic. The one thing they do have in common is their need to be behind the wheel, to race, to go faster and faster. Everyone's life is complicated by the appearance of the Girl (Laurie Bird), a vagabond who travels in both cars and is a source of humanity in all of its strange entanglements.

This is not a car movie in the sense of GONE IN 60 SECONDS (1974) or even VANISHING POINT (1971). It's odd that many viewers will search TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, hoping to find a clear road to follow. But virtually everything in the film is about what is underneath the hood, if I can be forgiven a shameless stab at metaphor. This film, like Hellman's brilliant 2010 film ROAD TO NOWHERE is a film that continues to creep into your psyche long after it's over.

BOARDINGHOUSE (1982) – From the artistic beauty of Hellman's thought-provoking character study to the abject insanity of BOARDINGHOUSE. Who says I'm not eclectic?

Jim is a successful man on the move, sporting a look and attitude that scream early 80s California chic. After inheriting a house that was the site of a number of mysterious deaths, he opens the place up to a number of young, attractive women. The group lives as sort of a family, though one prone to frolicking in jacuzzis. Jim is also mastering his own telekinetic powers through intense discipline and is able to make bars of soap zoom around the tub at will. The girls are soon haunted by strange visions which later manifest themselves as a mystical force begins to murder them one by one. 

BOARDINGHOUSE was presented in a process called Horror-Vision. Which is just a William Castlely way of saying the film was shot on video and then blown up to 35mm for theatrical showings. Check the date on this film and you will discover that this is the first film to undergo this process. This makes BOARDINGHOUSE stand out visually, but what really sets the film apart from the pack is the dizzying number of directions it veers off into. The theatrical cut is 100 minutes and doesn't drag, mainly because there is always something out of the ordinary lurking behind every single corner. Even the most jaded connoisseur of exploitation will be bowled over by this one.

Oh, and if that theatrical cut isn't enough for you, the limited edition DVD from Slasher Video boasts a new director's cut that runs an hour longer!

VARIETY (1983) – New York is a cleaner, safer place than it was when I was a kid. The influx of gangs and drugs made it dangerous place to hang out, especially in the neighborhoods I was interested in. During the Giuliani years, the city got a makeover. They got rid of the panhandlers and “renovated” 42nd Street. Unfortunately, this consisted of destroying much of the culture that had built up around it. Gone were the true grindhouse theaters and surrounding businesses. Now, New York is place where you can have a safe experience, under the watchful eye of the Disney Store and the various other corporate eyesores that have taken the old 42nd's place. And the hardships the previous incarnation had laid bare on its streets? They're still present, locked behind closed doors, just like the tourism board prefers it.

VARIETY takes place in that glorious era of yesteryear and makes for an excellent time capsule. It involves a young woman named Caroline (Sandy McLeod) who sells tickets at a Times Square adult movie theater in order to make ends meet. A student of human behavior, Caroline slowly becomes fascinated with the films that are being shown at the theater and the assortment of characters who watch them. She becomes more and more engrossed in this world, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend (Will Patton). Eventually, she is drawn to a mysterious and dangerous figure and her curiosity takes on a whole new shape.

McLeod is fantastic in Bette Gordon's overlooked but crucial indie film. Visually, the film captures early 1980s New York like few other films really could. The cast is populated by several notable actors and personalities, including Spalding Gray, Luiz Guzman, Nan Golden and Cookie Mueller. The soundtrack, sparse as it is, is composed by John Lurie. Cinematographer Tom DiCillo would of course go on to direct films such as JOHNNY SUEDE (1991) and LIVING IN OBLIVION (1995).

THE EMERALD FOREST (1985) – While many people celebrate John Boorman for films such as DELIVERANCE (1972) and EXCALIBUR (1981), it seems as though many overlook this, one of his best films.

Bill Markham (Powers Boothe) brings his family to the Amazon rainforest, in order to construct a massive dam. Shortly after arriving, his son Tommy disappears. For several years afterward, Bill searches the vast forest whenever he can, learning survival skills and the value of a gun as he does so. Eventually, he does come face to face with his son (Charlie Boorman, son of the director), who has grown into a young man. His son had been taken by one of the rainforest's indigenous tribes. Tommy now considers the tribe his family, his childhood among the Markhams a long ago dream. Most films would end here, but THE EMERALD FOREST isn't done exploring. Bill must come to terms with the fact that Tommy's life is now with his tribe, which puts him in danger from cannibals, a criminal underground and the ever-encroaching threat of modern civilization. After finding his son, he has to search his heart and wonder whether he's ready to lose him again.

A beautiful film that was shot in the Amazon rainforest, THE EMERALD FOREST wears a lot of hats. It's a drama, an action thriller and a statement outlining the cost of deforestation.

PUNK VACATION (1990) – Here is a film from the old VHS days that was pretty much forgotten until Vinegar Syndrome released a beautifully restored Blu-ray/DVD package last year.

The set-up is the same as so many other action thrillers of the era. A roving band of no good, Reagan-hating punk rockers tear into the outskirts of town and kill the beloved old timer who runs the local grease pit. His daughter, Lisa (Sandra Bogan), tries to even the score and is kidnapped for her troubles. All of this infuriates Lisa's cop boyfriend Steve (Stephen Fiachi), who wants to rescue her and take care of this before it gets out of hand. Ramrod (Roxanne Rogers) is the leader of the punks and plots a massive takeover of the town, which isn't the relaxing trip some of her horde had planned. Yes, the title is accurate and the punks, so help me God, really were on vacation. The town is more than willing to strike back with deadly force if necessary, much to the mild perturbability of our hero.

What sets this film apart from so many similarly-themed films of the mid-1980s is the quirky script. The punks will threaten to rape and kill people one moment, and then wonder aloud if maybe they should chill out and take a correspondence course the next. It's the type of film where a character will say, apropos of nothing, “That girl hasn't been the same since she joined that Chamber of Commerce.” And of course, I don't have to tell you that the “punks” presented in this film aren't real punks. They're sociopaths sporting ROAD WARRIOR (1981) makeup jobs and presenting a threat to 1980s conservatism. The extreme version of the stereotype presented on so many investigative reports and action films during the “Where's the Beef?” years. And yet, the film takes the odd detour to show them concerning themselves with the mundaneness of everyday life. Subversively, PUNK VACATION doesn't paint a great picture of the townies, as every one of them, from the Guns & Ammo-loving sheriff to the sweet and innocent heroine is all too ready to spill massive amounts of blood when the undesirables make their presence known. Operating on a number of levels, PUNK VACATION is one kooky trip.

MARK OF THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES (2002) – Ted V. Mikels has continued to work as an independent filmmaker since the 1960s. This film was the first sequel to his 1968 cult classic, THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES, a film I love so much, I devoted an entire episode of my show Moviocrity to its many pleasures. 

The 1968 film involved a mad scientist (John Carradine) who had perfected a means of transferring a person's brain into a solar-powered robotic creature that would hopefully be able to impart knowledge, take care of grunt work and survive long space voyages. This 2002 film ports over the old concept of the Astro-Zombies, as demonstrated by the living head of Carradine (a hilarious-looking model) and the presence of the late Tura Satana. Tura plays the sister of the character she played in the first film, trying to use the secret formula of the Astro-Zombies to make her rich and powerful. But that's where the similarities to the original end, as the real Astro-Zombies show up as remote controlled creatures carrying out orders to kill from a race of alien invaders. 

There's more, much more in fact. MARK OF THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES brings in angles involving alien abduction, murderous robots, international intrigue, spies, mad scientists, revenge plots and that's just the tip of the iceberg. As is the case with many of his recent productions, Mikels has assembled a group of dedicated individuals to serve double and triple duty on the cast and crew. The sets and costumes are the kind you would find in your local school assembly and the whole thing sports cable access production values. The only thing more fun than trying to figure out what's going on in MARK OF THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES is wondering what Mikels will come up with next.

Mikels didn't stop here, by the way. He has since directed two additional sequels, bringing the number of total ASTRO-ZOMBIES flicks up to four.

LOVE (2011) – One of the most celebrated films of 2013 was Alfonso Cuaron's GRAVITY (2013). It was a great film, no doubt. But I would also direct you to another film that focused on a lone astronaut's struggle to stay alive.

Lee Miller (Gunner Wright) is the last astronaut living at the International Space Station. Close to the end of his time in space, he receives a message from Mission Control, stating that something has happened on Earth and they are unable to bring him home. It is the last contact he has with the surface world. He is shocked, hurt and very worried about his future. He goes into survival mode, sealing off parts of the ISS in order to save air. He makes the many repairs necessary with whatever he has and tries to stay alive. Years pass and he grows more and more isolated. Life becomes a daily routine that Miller undertakes just to retain his sanity. Along the way, he discovers of all things a journal belonging to a soldier during the Civil War. He reads the journal entries, which continues him on a journey of discovery.

Director William Eubank spent more than four years making this film, constructing sets meant to represent the ISS and Civil War locations in his own backyard. LOVE was produced by Angels & Airwaves, a band that has tons of devoted fans, though I admit I am still unfamiliar with most of their work. You don't have to be a fan to appreciate this amazing vision, a smart and cerebral science fiction film in the tradition of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and SILENT RUNNING (1972).

And that's it for now. A little more than what was asked for. Sorry about that, but starting these things isn't hard. Stopping is. It will be quite a trip to see what 2014 has in store.