First off, this post has nothing to do with Lou Reed. I was just looking for an image that conveyed the idea of New York -- and, hey, nothing says New York like Lou Reed, right? So, anyway, yes, I'm off to NYC for a few days. I'm going to do my best to post while I'm on the road, but if I don't, don't take it personally. It's not that I love you any less. It's just that I'm too busy doing all kinds of glamorous and desperately important things. So, in the meantime, play safe, keep it real, and don't let go of your buddy's hand. I'll be back to my usual compulsive posting schedule upon my return.
My review of Web of Death, another gorgeous-looking fantasy wuxia from Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen, has just been posted over at Teleport City. You can check it out here. In the meantime, because the tiny screengrabs accompanying the review simply don't do Chor's vision justice, I've included some larger versions of those images below -- just as I did in connection with my earlier review of his Murder Plot.
Darna and the Giants is the eighth film in the Darna series and the second to star Filipino screen icon Vilma Santos in the title role. Just as in the previously reviewed Darna vs. the Planet Women, the story centers around a flying saucer load of alien invaders who just happen to choose as their first target of conquest the small rural village in the Philippines where Darna's alter ego Narda lives along with her little brother Ding and their Grandmother.
This is the film that provided my first introduction to the screen exploits of Darna, coming to my attention by way of the 2003 Filipino comedy Crying Ladies. One of the running jokes in that latter film involved one of the main characters -- a washed-up aspiring actress by the name of Aling Doray, played by Hilda Koronel -- who was constantly crowing about her star turn alongside Vilma Santos in Darna and the Giants. The payoff to this gag occurs toward the end of the film, when we finally get to see a snippet of Darna and the Giants playing on television, and learn that Aling's role consisted solely of her being unceremoniously stomped upon by one of the film's titular giants. While undeniably funny, I'm sure that this business was even more so to the movie's Filipino audience, to whom both Darna, Vilma Santos and even Darna and the Giants would be cozily familiar cultural touchstones. Never content to be on the "out" side of a pop cultural in-joke, this reference -- along with the immediately apparent Z movie charms evident in those brief clips from the film shown in Crying Ladies -- propelled me on a mission to track Darna and the Giants down.
Now that I have seen the film -- twice, in fact -- I can appreciate even more just how ignominious poor Aling's turn in Darna and the Giants really was. Because an awful lot of people get stomped upon in it. So many, in fact, that you'd think that, by its end, the ground for miles around Darna's village would be covered with a thick paste formed from those anonymous masses of humanity unfortunate enough to have found themselves under the giants' trundling heels. And no matter how silly that may sound, be forewarned that Darna and the Giants, unlike so many cinematic superhero larks of its day, is no tongue-in-cheek affair. Indeed, much low-rent-gore-infused carnage and melodramatic tearing of hair comes in the wake of the giants' rampage. It's no laughing matter, despite the fact that the forced-perspective effects used to bring these rampages to life are so reminiscent of those "I'm crushing your head" sketches from Kids in the Hall.
The aliens' presence in Narda's village is first made known by way of what appears to be a devastating earthquake. Swallowing her magic stone, Narda transforms into Darna and, after paying a call on the makeshift hospital where the quake's survivors are being treated (where, in a nice example of the rural homeyness of these pictures, the staff and villagers alike all greet Darna with the easy warmth of old friends), heads off with Ding to investigate the cause of the disaster. Soon they comes upon the flying saucer captained by the evil warrior queen X3X (played by Filipino singer/actress Helen Gamboa). X3X, they find, has been capturing villagers and turning them into gigantic, rampaging automatons, and it is the footfalls of these behemoths, rather than any kind of seismic activity, that has been causing the ground to tremble. Unfortunately, before she can act upon this information, Darna -- or rather, Narda, because she has somewhat ill-advisedly changed back into her civilian guise while snooping around the saucer -- is captured and strapped head to foot with young Ding (here played by Don Don Nakar) in a giant stabbing machine.
The aliens, however, have underestimated the lack of squeamishness that comes from living with a sibling in close quarters, and Ding is able to pry the tape off of Narda's mouth with the use of his extremely grubby-looking bare feet, after which he flicks the magic stone into his sister's mouth, effectively calling Darna Time. Darna then flies forth and dispatches a number of the caveman-like giants in a variety of gory manners, blinding one, grabbing another by his topknot and dropping him into a volcano, and lacerating another's face with a church bell.
And speaking of church bells, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Darna's movies -- or Filipino pulp cinema in general -- that Jesus also gets in on the action in Darna and the Giants. This time around the J-man makes his appearance when one of the giants, a fetching and horny (and I'm referring there to her viking-style helmet, so, Jeez, get your mind out of the gutter) female ogress, rips the roof off a church and, upon seeing the image of Christ on the crucifix, is jolted into remembering her God fearing, pre-giantess existence. This literal come-to-Jesus moment results in the big lady renouncing her villager squashing ways and turning upon X3X. It doesn't work out too well for her, but, hey, at least she's not going to Hell!
X3X's fatal weakness turns out to be the thing that she considered to be her greatest strength. In an odd chunk of English-only verbal exposition (the rest of the film's dialog is in Tagalog), she explains to Darna that she keeps her brain -- "the most superior brain in the entire universe" -- separate from her body, so that it "cannot be affected by the ailments of the other organs... or damaged by emotional strain or nervous tension". The flaw in this brilliant scheme, however, is that X3X's vanity has prevented her from safely locking her most superior brain away in a safe place, and she has instead placed it on display inside a glass thingy situated right in the middle of the flying saucer's control room. This makes it fairly easy for Darna to break glass in case of emergency and brain X3X's brain, with the result that X3X's head explodes, after which she collapses and is -- apparently -- eaten by her dog.
With its combination of goofy comic book escapades, overwrought melodrama, and rough-edged exploitation movie style violence -- not to mention the adobo-like hodgepodge of other elements typical of Filipino B cinema (we get to see Grandma sings a sassy song, and there is a funeral-themed comic relief sequence) -- Darna and the Giants is far and away the most entertaining of the Darna films that I've seen thus far. Like Darna vs. the Planet Women, it is not a particularly well-made film, but it has a scrappy enthusiasm and naive charm that is more than enough to put it over. Vilma Santos is as spunky and endearing as ever, and the many faux kung fu battles she takes part in, while no more convincing than those in Planet Women, benefit greatly from her spirited commitment. Still, even if I was a better man, and immune to these qualifier-dependent attributes, the irrepressible nerd in me would ultimately be felled by the cut-rate kaiju action provided by the movie's village stomping giants. So, in short, you might not love this movie overall, but I guaranty that you'll find something in it to make you smile. Unless, of course, you're some kind of soulless, towering juggernaut... in which case, well, heh heh, good on you! And, hey, nice helmet!
Rejoice, world, for Pistolwali is a film filled with violence, raunchy go-go dancing, towering pompadours, even more violence (with gore), and garage guitar music. "Oh, then," I can hear you saying. "It must be one of those crazy, Telugu language, female revenge films from southern India." And your assumption is correct. Tollywood has struck again.
It feels strange to use the word "restraint" in any connection with 1970s Bollywood cinema, but it is exactly that, in degree, that most distinguishes films of Pistolwali's type from the action films that were being produced in India's filmmaking capital at the time. In the case of Pistolwali -- as with the previously reviewed Kaun Sachha Kaun Jhoota -- all efforts seem to have been expended to insure that the finished product would be nothing less than a chaotic and blood-soaked live action cartoon. No amount of under-cranked camera work, apparently, could be over-used toward the end of speeding up the numerous fights and chase scenes, nor of the use of fisheye lenses to accent the grotesquerie of a villain's face or send bodies hurling toward the audience. Furthermore, the camera is unafraid to go places that Bollywood cameramen might shy away from, often nestling in the crotches of the actors as if mounted on the head of an over-friendly dog.
The action in Pistolwali is correspondingly outlandish. At one point the villains, rather than simply stealing a woman from her bed, instead hitch her bed up to their horses and drag it and her out of her home and across the prairie, her screaming in protest throughout while still tucked snugly into her bedclothes. The actors contribute to this general state of over-ness by mugging and gesticulating to a degree seldom seen since the silent era. And this is not to mention the abandon with which they throw themselves into the plentiful stunt sequences -- a quality that, to my mind, makes these films just as close kin to the action films being made in Turkey at the time as they are to those being made in Bollywood. In fact, I think there could be no better demonstration of the aforementioned differences between these two branches of Indian cinema than to compare Sadhana's daintily staged fight scenes in Geetaa Mera Naam -- a film that, I'm now realizing, owes a heavy debt of inspiration to these woman-centric Telegu revenge films -- to the frenzied smack downs participated in by Pistolwali's female star, Jyothi Laxmi.
Laxmi, while far from a classic beauty, definitely has the whole ugly-sexy thing working for her. Our introduction to her, in which she does a hip-thrusting hoochie coochie while splashing around in a revealing -- by Indian cinema standards -- swimsuit, is not one to soon be discarded from memory. This is an actress who is an ultra-curvy example of 100% pure womanhood, and were she ever to meet with an unfortunate, Planet Terror-style accident, she could no doubt employ the whole of Keira Knightley as a peg leg. These generous proportions not only make her a welcome sight, but also lend a considerable amount of credibility to those scenes in which she is seen lustily hurling her male opponents about like so many pompadoured ragdolls.
Laxmi, while also a much in demand item girl, headlined quite a few of these Tollywood thrillers during the late sixties and seventies, a number of them for Pistolwali's director, K.S.R. Doss. These include the alluringly titled Lady James Bond, as well as a remake of Indian stunt queen Fearless Nadia's breakthrough film Hunterwali. (Pistolwali is also a remake of an old stunt film -- this time not starring Nadia -- that was released under the same title in 1942.) Director Doss was also responsible for the awesome-sounding revenge flick Rani Mera Naam, a vehicle for Kaun Sachha Kaun Jhoota star Vijaya Lalitha. Based on all of the above, you can rest assured that Doss and Laxmi are two figures whom we will be hearing much more about in the pages of 4DK.
One mild word of consumer warning for those wanting to seek out Pistolwali: Despite her prominent billing on the VCD packaging and in most internet listings for the film, Helen's appearance here is limited to one mid-film item number. That number, however, is a real keeper, more for the strange way in which it is edited and shot than for Helen's actual performance, though the translucent blue contact lenses she's wearing certainly make their contribution to the weirdness. Those with a more unsavory interest in Helen will also be pleased by the prevalence of friendly-dog-cam used in this sequence. Elsewhere, aside from an odd, Egyptian-themed number spotlighting Laxmi, the film's song picturizations are fairly stripped down. And while the songs themselves are suitably peppy, the real aural highlights are to be found in the film's background score, a fuzz-toned amalgam of Spaghetti Western guitar twang and farfisa-driven garage rock, with just enough Indian flavor thrown in to keep you from becoming hopelessly disoriented.
I must confess that, as much as I enjoyed Pistolwali, its sugar rush pacing and cyclical fight-chase-fight structure did eventually leave me feeling a bit fatigued. However, as my Tollywood hangover dissipates in the cool light of day, I find myself already looking forward to my next encounter with the work of Ms. Laxmi and Mr. Doss. As with all of those movies that I most enjoy covering on this site, these are films that, while cobbled together from familiar elements, offer an experience that cannot quite be duplicated by any other branch of world cinema. Their uniqueness alone is enough to warrant repeat visits, if only to re-verify that such a thing actually exists in the world.
The Sexy Killer, I’m happy to report, is a film with a strong anti-drug message. Drugs, according to The Sexy Killer, will cause a person to slash another human being to ribbons with a cleverly disguised straight razor while wearing almost no clothing. And that’s just the people who don’t use them. I’m referring there, of course, to The Sexy Killer’s heroine Wanfei, as portrayed by resident Shaw Brothers sexploitation starlet Chen Ping. Wanfei, as she states unequivocally throughout The Sexy Killer, hates drugs, and were you to suggest otherwise, she would very likely whip her shirt off and start hacking away at your face with a special face-hacking implement that she had designed for specifically that purpose.
Interestingly, this is about all that we get to know about Wanfei’s character – or at least for the most part of The Sexy Killer’s running time it is. The film begins with a brisk prologue set in a nightclub filled with drug-taking naked people. If all of the nakedness and flagrant drug taking hadn’t already clued you in, both the preponderance of beaded curtains and the erotic wall murals populated by intertwined, big-bootied figures will surely hip you to the fact that this establishment’s habitués are all about “getting it on” while being completely “wasted”.
In that spirit, we are soon taken to a private room upstairs, where Wanfei’s younger sister is being coerced into an act of prostitution in exchange for the drugs that will feed her addiction. Later, Wanfei’s policeman friend, Weipin (Yueh Hua) – not only the last honest cop in Hong Kong, but also an anti-drug crusader of such zealotry that he’s earned the nickname “The Drug Smasher” – leads Wanfei to the aftermath of this scene, where she is inspired to make her first emphatic pronouncement about how much she hates drugs. From there, it’s only a matter of a convenient jump cut before we get to see Wanfei suddenly behaving as if she were a well-oiled machine built for the soul purpose of violently killing drug dealers – despite the fact that we’ve really been given no insight as to what it is in Wanfei’s background that makes her choose this particular approach over, say, community organizing or starting some kind of outreach program.
To be fair, The Sexy Killer does later tell us a bit more about Wanfei. She apparently works as a nurse, for one thing, and, more importantly, has a boyfriend who is a popular young up-and-coming politician. Unfortunately, this boyfriend also turns out to be elbow-deep in the whole drug business, which ends well for no one except Yueh Hua’s character Weipin, who gets to be all smug about the fact that he’s been telling this to Wanfei all along. Weinpin is, of course, smitten with Wanfei, and, after watching her making all kinds of crazy ecstatic faces while mercilessly slaughtering lowlifes for ninety minutes, it’s hard to imagine why he wouldn’t be.
Directed by Sun Chung, The Sexy Killer owes more than a small debt to Jack Hill’s Coffy, and is also a spiritual sibling to Japanese Pinky Violence films in the vein of Norifumi Suzuki’s Girl Boss films. Of course, Suzuki would never have bothered with the kind of prophylactic moralizing that Chung employs here, but the graphic lengths that Chung goes to explore the sexual depravity of the film’s villains – one of whom announces that his ambition is to make the “whole world” addicted to drugs – clearly demonstrates just how shallow his commitment to those morals runs. What we have here, above all, is an agreeable amalgam of sleaze and style, centered around that most perversely thrilling of seventies movie archetypes: the wild-eyed, hot pants-clad girl with an axe to grind, a shotgun to blast, and a platform boot to high-kick directly into the face of any creep who dares cross her.
While the film makes an effort to busy up its plot with some internecine battles between the drug dealers, I can’t say that I was inspired to bother keeping track of who was backstabbing whom. Instead I was happy just to let my attention skip from one gory set piece to the next, finding my ultimate reward in the movie’s fittingly combustive finale. This sees Wanfei send her car crashing through the walls of the big boss’s mansion and then methodically blowing away his army of foot soldiers with her trusty shotgun, after which she sends the boss himself to hell amidst an explosion of water from his ruptured waterbed.
Personally, I don’t subscribe to the whole notion of the “guilty pleasure”. But I’ll grant that The Sexy Killer’s pleasures are inextricably entwined with its trashiness. Those who are so inclined will doubtless find within it many opportunities to experience wave after wave of masochistic shame. And if I’ve just described you, have at it! (And furthermore: Oh snap!) Given my personal threshold, I’d simply describe it as a pleasant diversion – non-essential, but definitely satisfying if you’re in the mood for something along these lines. If you don’t just feel like watching Coffy again, that is.
Really, can you think of two cinematic aesthetics more opposed than those of Hollywood and Bollywood during the 70s? While Hollywood had Friedkin and Scorsese, Bollywood had Manmohan Desai and Rajkumar Kohli. Where Hollywood’s films were full of urban grit and cinema verité style, Bollywood’s were full of blinding color and outlandish levels of artifice. This did not, however, deter Indian B movie king Mohammed Hussain from forging ahead with a remake of Don Segal’s Dirty Harry -- one in which he attempted to meld those two very different sensibilities with very interesting results. Read my full review of Khoon Khoon, just posted over at Teleport City.
It seems almost as superfluous as it does inevitable that Dara Singh would star in a version of The Thief of Baghdad. This is a Dara Singh movie, after all, and whether it be called The Thief of Baghdad or Advise & Consent, we know what it’s going to contain: A cruel tyrant, a beautiful princess, a buff commoner hero, lots of wrestling, and, if we’re really lucky, some kind of weird looking dinosaur. Were I given the task of naming this film, I would call it Genie vs. Cyclops – not just because that accurately describes one albeit brief portion of the film, but also because… well, who wouldn’t want to see a movie called Genie vs. Cyclops? In any case, there’s definitely the germ of a good Sci-FI Channel original movie in there somewhere. Now on with the visual evidence:
(Okay, maybe he’s more of a tri-clops.)
And then there’s this thing:
The film was produced under the banner of the Bohra Brothers, a team comprised of director Shreeram Bohra and his brother, producer Ramkumar Bohra. Like the Wadias before them, the Bohras were responsible for a number of low budget Indian stunt films, including the Dara Singh version of Hercules and the awesome sounding Doctor Shaitan, about a mad scientist who tries to conquer the world with an army of atomic zombies. In the best spirit of this type of filmmaking, the Bohras infuse their oft-told tale with a lot of funky energy, from the inclusion of a go-go dancing blood cult to the frequent use of the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out” as musical accompaniment to the fight scenes. As can be seen from the screengrabs above, the brothers also don’t scrimp on the cut-rate special effects thrills – provided, this time around, by cinematographer/fx man B. Gupta – making sure that, in addition to the beasties already mentioned, we get more than our fair share of flying carpets, flying horses, spectral sorceresses, free-floating heads, and magically appearing wrestlers. The boys even throw in a talking dog for good measure.
Visual magic aside, one of the things I enjoyed most about The Thief of Baghdad – coming to it as I did fresh from watching Dara Singh’s acting debut in King Kong – is seeing how comfortable Dara had become in his role as movie star by the time of making it. No longer just relegated to stunts and mute flexing, he now gets to woo the leading lady and even has a couple of songs picturized on him, all the while projecting an effortless charisma. He even seems comfortable hamming it up through the many comic masquerades the plot requires him to undertake, including one pretty chilling instance of drag.
While it certainly has it’s fair share of visible seams, the film gets by to a large extent by way of a lot of audacious flash and color. My favorite aspect of its set design was the abundance of crazy looking giant idols, a welcome sight for me in any pulpy Bollywood adventure. Check out a few examples:
With a fast pace, perky tunes, popping color and a spirit of reckless fun, The Thief of Baghdad is a movie that’s easy for me to recommend. If for nothing else, see it for the genie and cyclops battle, Helen’s climactic knife dance, and Dara Singh looking like he’s having the absolute time of his life, whether he be flinging a bad guy over his head, crooning a love ballad, or queening in up in a veil and gown.
Moti sez: “I’m gonna tell all my bitches to see this movie!”
1964’s Magic Carpet is another “Arabian Nights” style fantasy from director and Bollywood special effects pioneer Babhubai Mistry. I was really looking forward to this one, but unfortunately the quality of the Golden Plaza VCD that contained it was so awful that it actually defeated my attempts to watch it in its entirety. And if you only knew the amount of visual muck I’m willing to wade through in order to watch an obscure old Indian B movie, you would marvel at what a profound degree of awfulness that would have to be.
Ah well, sometimes we review, and at others we merely catalog. So in this case, having only watched half of Magic Carpet’s first disc and intermittent bits of its second, I can only report to you on its objective contents and provide a few impressions. In other words, I won’t be employing my critical faculties to much of an extent beyond simply confirming that Magic Carpet exists. Which it does. Of this I am certain.
And it has people in it. Actor-like people, in fact. And not only that, but ones that you will easily recognize if you are a fan of the Zimbo movies like I am. (And if you aren’t… pssst… come closer… yes, that’s it, right up to the monitor… WHY NOT!?!?!?!!!!!) As our handsome hero we have Zimbo himself, Azaad, continuing his trend toward pudginess from when we last saw him in Zimbo Comes to Town, and as his lovely leading lady, yes, it’s Chitra! Rounding out the Zimbosity of the proceedings is the presence of Master Bhagwan as Azaad’s roly poly comic relief sidekick, as with Chitra, inhabiting pretty much the same role he played in the Zimbo movies. At this point, one might think that he or she wasn’t being too optimistic in hoping for an appearance by Pedro, the Ape Bomb in Magic Carpet, but, alas, it is not to be. Pedro!
Also on hand is the phenomenal Bela Bose, whose appearance is probably the one factor that made me most regret my inability to watch the whole of Magic Carpet, and which is entirely to blame if I later express my frustrations by airmailing some poo to the offices of Golden Plaza. Bela fronts at least one musical number, as far as I could see, and also has a substantial supporting role. And as the villain of the piece we have B.M. Vyas, playing an identical role to the one he played in Char Dervesh, though without once changing into a giant spider. Vyas essentially plays a power hungry baddie who, with the assistance of an evil wizard, hopes to both seize control of Baghdad and seize the heart of the beauty Banafsha, played by Chitra. The only thing standing between him and his misguided dreams of regime change is our marginally doughy hero, Naseer (Azaad).
One thing that is obvious from even the most cursory examination of Magic Carpet is how direly cheap it is. The tight camera compositions do nothing to hide just how tiny and makeshift the sets are, and when we do get out into the open for some location shooting, it’s always in that little palm-tree lined clearing that seems to show up in all of these 1960s Bollywood stunt movies – and which it is only now dawning on me is the same place from film to film. Perhaps this is Babhubai Mistry’s backyard? What few special effects there are in the film are unambitious, leaving it to depend for its thrills on what seems to be an awful lot of swordfights, all of which appear to be limited in their choreography by the clearly cramped quarters in which they take place. This is definitely a film that fairs poorly when held up against a film of similar theme and vintage like Char Dervesh (on which Mistry served as art director), which I’m beginning to think of as the gold standard for this particular type of Indian fantasy film.
So, though I obviously can’t say for certain, I suspect that Magic Carpet is fairly minor, and likely only worth watching for those who are Babhubai Mistry, Bela Bose, or movies-that-star-more -than-half-the-cast-of- Zimbo completists. But I still wish that I had seen it all so that I could slag it off more authoritatively.