Thursday, January 19, 2017

Friday's best pop song ever

Party in Hell (Iran, 1956)

While popular with Iranian audiences, Party in Hell was controversial in its day—perhaps for its combination of traditional religious imagery and broad slapstick comedy. The religious imagery I’m talking about is, of course, its depiction of hell and purgatory. But from which tradition that imagery is derived is open to question. There are indeed many similarities between the Muslim and Christian conceptions of Hell, but when Party in Hell introduces Biblical figures like Adam and Eve into its narrative, it seems to indicate the latter as its primary source. Of course, this question could be easily set to rest if I’d had access to a translated version of Party in Hell, which is why you don’t pay money to read this blog.

It seems that the makers of Party in Hell were as or more familiar with the story of Scrooge as that of the Bible, as that is the story that is here being warmed over for our delectation. Popular stage comedian Reeza Arham Sadr plays Haji Jabbar, a wealthy merchant who is as tyrannical as he is stingy and grasping. In fact, the film does such a good job of establishing Haji as a complete bastard that it is difficult to swallow the comic antics his character falls back upon during its phantasmagorical second half. Haji is shown gleefully evicting a destitute mother and her starving children and then brutally manhandling his daughter Parvin (Roufia) in a rage over her wanting to marry her penniless lover. Parvin then sings a sad song to a caged bird, because, as with so many national cinemas, music was a key part of Iranian popular cinema—or, more accurately, Film Farsi—at the time. Seemingly, it’s only in America that making a lightweight musical romance with major studio backing is seen as taking some kind of tremendous artistic risk (yes, La La Land, feel the stink eye.)

Eventually, Haji becomes gravely ill and takes to his bed, whereupon he is visited by the angel Azrael, who ignores his pleas and whisks him off to purgatory. Party in Hell was considered quite technically advanced in its day, and it’s true that no small amount of modestly budgeted movie magic was expended in realizing its comically surrealistic vision of the underworld. Haji and his conscientious assistant Ahmad (Ezzatollah Vosough), who is also there for some reason, take in the sights as Haji ceaselessly wails and moans pathetically. What they see are monstrous, fog enshrouded idols, dark winged angels, craggy, desolate landscapes, hideous sleeping monsters, and horned demon sentries. Occasionally they will catch a glimpse of hell itself, seeing tormented souls hung by their heels and toiling at a giant stone wheel while pits of white hot lava roil angrily nearby. They even see Hitler, Genghis Khan and Napoleon greedily pawing at a globe that they have been circling predatorily for, one assumes, eternity. Then someone will stumble or hit their head and there will be a slide whistle or “boing-g-g” sound to accompany it, because this is a comedy.

Much of Haji and Ahmad’s tour through limbo has the feel of a twisted travelogue, like a God-fearing, Middle Eastern take on a Mondo movie. At one point, the pair comes upon a group of grass-skirt wearing movie savages, who entertain them with their native dances. At another, they stumble upon a sort of sock hop of the damned, populated by clean cut rock and rollers who shake and shimmy to an American rockabilly record. Haji has, by this point, stopped his obnoxious caterwauling, to the point that he happily participates in the dancing, though at another point he and Ahmad are happy to sit back and ogle the many scantily clad women on hand. You get the message that purgatory is actually pretty fun, until the two of them are presented to a white bearded figure who gives them a few more buzz-killing peeks at hell and its torments before setting them free.

I think that comparing Party in Hell to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol should count as a spoiler alert, so if you are shocked to learn that, upon waking from his dream, Haji is the picture of magnanimity, approving his daughter’s marriage and gifting his fortune to charity, you should probably clean your glasses and start this review over. Of course, Haji then dies, after which he is shown being transported to heaven in an ornate flying palanquin which is born on the shoulders of angels. Given what a shit Haji has been shown to be previously, this seems like a disproportionate reward, to say the least--but by this point it seems that Party in Hell has less interest in harsh moralizing than in just being entertaining. It’s difficult to imagine a film like it being made in the religiously conservative atmosphere of the post revolution years, just as it is to imagine the festival darling that Iranian cinema would become based on this movie’s comparative frivolity. Seemingly, that cinema had to go through a purgatory of its own before it could reach maturity.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

El Asesino Enmascarado (Mexico, 1962)

Miguel Aceves Mejia began his career as a singer of renowned versatility and grace, earning from his fans the moniker “King of the Falsetto”. In the late 50s, he moved into film, making over 60 films in the ensuing years, many of them westerns. Among these was a series of three films he made for Sotomayor, in which he played the singing lawman Sheriff Miguel. El Asesino Enmascarado was the second of these films, following closely after El Rey de la Pistola and immediately preceding Camino de la Horca, both of which were made during the same year.

El Asesino Enmascarado begins on a jaunty note, with Miguel belting out a robust Ranchero number as he rides his way homeward across the range. This introduction, combined with the fact that Mejia is joined in the cast by a pair of popular songbirds of the day, might lead you to the think that the movie will be a musical, although, aside from a scattering of diegetic songs during the first act, that is not the case.

One of those aforementioned songbirds is Lilia Prado, a beloved singer, dancer, and actor who appeared in over 100 films over the course of her career, including Luis Bunuel’s Wuthering Heights and Illusion Travels by Streetcar. Here she plays Lola, a saloon singer who appears to be intended as Miguel’s love interest. As such, she is none too pleased when a mysterious female card sharp named Luz arrives in town and strikes up a flirtatious rapport with Miguel. Luz is played by Ana Bertha Lepe, another beloved Mexican entertainer who also played one of the man crazy Venusian ladies in La Nave de los Monstruous. Lepe sings a lot in her movies (the lucha also-ran El Asesino Invisible, in which she played herself, was little more than a showcase for her talents), so it’s a little surprising that she doesn’t sing here. She does, however, prove herself handy with a whip in one of the film’s early fight scenes.

Luz spends her days emptying the townsfolks’ pockets at the poker table and attracting unwholesome stares from her fellow bar patrons. When she is not doing this, she shares an upstairs room in the saloon with a mysterious, black garbed man whose face we never see (though, if we did, we’d know that he was played by Joaquin Cordero.) Could he be the masked killer who has suddenly started picking off townspeople left and right? Probably, but we must first wait for Sheriff Miguel and his partner Ramon (Luis Aragon) to do a lot of nocturnal snooping and fist fighting before we can find out for sure.

El Asesino Enmascarado is exactly the kind of cheap and efficient B film that the Mexican film industry reliably churned out in great numbers during the 50s and 60s. In a lot of ways, it feels like a TV western, with most of the action confined to either the saloon set or a limited number of outdoor locations. Director Manuel Munoz and cinematographer Fernando Colin compensate for this by setting a lot of the film’s action at night and utilizing a noirish play of light and shadow in their compositions. Munoz also keeps things commendably fast paced, cramming a lot of plot and—often surprisingly violent--action into a brisk 90 minutes.

To be honest, El Asesino Enmascarado is not a film I would have sought out if not for the fact that it was the second film on a double feature disc that also contains El Charro de las Calaveras, a supernatural western in which a woman carries around what appears to be the head of “Black and White” era Michael Jackson in a box. That’s some pretty formidable company for a film as straightforward and inoffensive as El Asesino Enmascarado. Though I would recommend it to any Spanish speaking fan of B grade westerns, who I think would find it pretty satisfying—especially if enjoyed con muchas cervezas.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Girl Divers of Spook Mansion (Japan, 1959)

In addition to their economical cars and improbably clean public restrooms, Japan deserves mention for the micro-specificity of some of the subgenres found within its exploitation cinema, whose founding principle seems to have been "No fetish left behind." A perfect example of this is the Ama, or “girl diver”, films of the 50s and beyond.

As some of you probably know, the Ama was a community that lived in pockets along the Japanese coast. Their women were known for their diving ability, and they supported the community with the abalone, pearls and other bounty they harvested from the bottom of the sea. Of special interest to filmmakers of the day was the fact that they performed this task clothed only in a tiny G-string, with the rest of god’s gifts exposed to the open air—and the camera. Never mind that the most competent of the Ama were well into middle age; those hags would be nowhere to be seen in the movie version of diving girl life, replaced to a one by pulchritudinous young lasses with hourglass figures.

Shintoho, at the time Japan’s premiere producer of low budget programmers, was the first studio to seize upon the diving girls’ exploitation potential, putting out a series of several Ama pictures starting with 1956’s Revenge of the Pearl Queen starring Machiko Maeda. Girl Divers of Spook Mansion, directed by Morihei Magatani, came later in the cycle and appears to have come at a time when Shintoho was trying to liven up the genre by way of a little cross-pollination. At this time, the studio was also enjoying success with a series of Kaidan, or “Ghost”, movies in the vein of Masaki Mori’s Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan. As the title suggest, Girl Divers of Spook Mansion, is clearly an attempt to combine strengths (though it was not the first Ama film to combine genres, as other Ama films tended to feature elements of Shintoho’s popular crime films.)

In the film, Ama series regular Yoko Mihara plays Kyoko, a former diving girl who has left her village behind to become a big city police woman. As our story begins, she has returned home at the request of her friend Yumi, a young diving girl played by Supa Giantsu/Starman regular Reiko Sato. As advertised, Yumi lives by herself in a creepy old mansion that is more loaded with scary gimmicks than the Haunted House at Disneyland: Gloomily lit taxidermy, rope-like cobwebs, live snakes hanging from the rafters, hidden passages, black cats that jump out of nowhere, and a cackling, mentally defective hunchback who lurks about the grounds for no ascertainable reason. The black cat, I must mention, does not make that “raeerr!” sound that cats do when they jump out in Western movies, perhaps because the Japanese know that cats don’t actually do that—there presumably being no word for “boo!” or “psyche!” in cat speak.

Yoko tells Kyoko that she is being tormented by the ghost of her younger sister Kayo (Zatoichi regular Masaro Banri), who, in a flashback, we see going mad and throwing herself into a well on the mansion grounds. Her ghost is only visible to Yoko, but when Kyoko sees Yoko faint at the sight of it, she starts making an earnest attempt to get to the bottom of what’s going. Finally, stumped, she reaches out for help from her detective friend Nonomiya, who soon after arrives in the village. Nonomiya is played by Battles Without Honor and Humanity’s Bunta Sugawara, who, while bringing a not unwelcome presence to the film, undermines any potential for a female empowerment message that the film might have promised via his role as a male rescuer/white knight. It’s just hard to believe that these women, who are able to dive to depths of thirty feet in ice cold ocean water without scuba gear—or clothes, for that matter—wouldn’t be able to hold their own against a ghost.

Anyway, Nonomiya joins Kyoko in chasing after shadows and stumbling upon secret chambers, eventually to hear word of a treasure that is hidden somewhere on the property. Meanwhile, the perpetually cigar chomping Professor Mizuki (Jigoku’s Yoichi Numata) and his ever-present pith helmet make themselves a constant, suspect presence. Could there be more to this whole ghost business than meets the eye? Hmmmmm?

If you have gotten this far in my synopsis of Girl Divers of Spook Mansion, you have probably observed that its main characters being diving girls has no impact on the story whatsoever, and that it has as little to do with diving in general as it does bobbing for apples. And you’re right; rather than making day-to-day life in the Ama village an element of the plot, the movie instead uses it as just a backdrop for the action. This means that horrific scenes of leering female ghosts emerging from the shadows are often followed by long, documentary style underwater sequences that show the scantily clad diving girls from low angles that provide plenty of ass and crotch shots. Of course, censorship standards of the day prohibited the filmmakers from having their diving women be actually topless. Instead they dress them in brief half-shirts made of a cheesecloth-like fabric that becomes virtually invisible when soaked in water, which it, of course, is. The end result is like an artfully lensed wet tee-shirt competition.

Many people who have seen it (including Jasper Sharp, from whose excellent book Behind the Pink Curtain I gleaned most of the factual information used in this review) describe Girl Divers of Spook Mansion as boring. I suppose that has something to do with expectations. Indeed Girl Divers sets itself up for a fall with its delightfully kitschy credit sequence, which depicts the various diving girls in a series of pulpy tableaus reminiscent of Bloody Pit of Horror (a comparison that I do not make lightly): one girl embraces a skeleton, another is picturesquely tangled in a fishing net, another is decorously draped over the edge of a giant stew pot, etc. This primes us to expect an entertainment with a lot of reckless exploitation movie energy, where instead we find the cautious rhythms of a supernatural mystery.

And as a supernatural mystery, Girl Divers of Spook Mansion works, albeit in a cozily timeworn way that some might find laughable dated and other, more sentimental types (like me) may delight in. Director Magatani and cinematographer Kagai Okado brings just the right amount of old school creep to the ghost scenes, employing a dramatic chiaroscuro lighting scheme and a lot of weird, forced perspective compositions. That these are bracketed by a lot of rather prosaic T&A footage makes them, to me, seem all the more otherworldly and strange.

Then again, my charitable attitude toward the film may also be due to the promise of Girl Divers of Spook Mansion’s title, which, while not entirely delivered upon, is one that I don’t want to let go of. In this way it may be the Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power of Japanese exploitation cinema. In any case, if you don’t plan on watching the film, I would suggest that you instead plan a roughly 80 minute activity that is more intriguing to you than the idea of Girl Divers of Spook Mansion. Otherwise, you may find yourself haunted.