Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Infernal Brains Podcast, Episode 8: THE WORST!

This latest is a very special episode of The Infernal Brains, for in it Tars Tarkas and myself draw upon our vast respective trawlings through the world of obscure global cinema to share with you, our fans, those particular films that have most horrified and sickened us -- films that, as this podcast will make painfully clear, still haunt us to this very day. Yes, people, it's The Worst of The Infernal Brains! As per usual, you can download the episode here, or stream it below while weeping uncontrollably at the shocking visual evidence provided by the accompanying slideshow.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Fury of Hercules (Italy/France, 1962)

One of the things I love about the bustling Italian film industry of the 1960s is how its constant demand for onscreen talent made it a stopping point for such a wide array of characters from across the pop cultural landscape. Body builders, beauty queens, and stars both down-trending and slumming from around the globe all made their way to Rome at one time or another to get a piece of the action, as well as did performers and artists from other disciplines who just needed the extra cash. It is for this reason that today we can look upon such surreal spectacles as that of Southern California born muscle/stuntman Brad Harris locked in mortal battle with iconic French pop provocateur Serge Gainsbourg.

The Fury of Hercules was the second of two peplums that Gainsbourg appeared in for director Gianfranco Parolini during 1961, both of which were filmed in Zagreb and starred Harris (an apparent favorite of Parolini’s who would later star in the director’s Kommisar X eurospy series.) These followed close on the heels of Gainsbourg’s Italian screen debut in another sword and sandal adventure, Nunzio Malasomma’s Revolt of the Slaves, in which he also played a heavy. The singer was well into his career as a songwriter-for-hire and cabaret performer by this time, but was a few years off from the pop success that would lead to the legendary status he holds today, so it can be assumed that these were acting gigs taken to keep food on the table. It was an arguable boon, then, for Gainsbourg that his distinctive look –- which the recent biopic Gainsbourg, A Heroic Life explicitly paralleled to the caricatures of “the evil Jew” found in Nazi propaganda from the 40s -- made him an apparent strong candidate for playing villain roles in the Italian genre films of the day.

Fury finds Harris’s Hercules arriving in the city of Arkad, hoping to pay a visit on its king, a friend of his from previous adventures. Instead, Hercules finds that the King has died, and that his daughter, Queen Canidia (Mara Berni), who has risen to the throne in his stead, has fallen under the sway of her power hungry advisor Menistus (Gainsbourg). Under Menistus’ guidance she has turned Arkad into something of a national security state, following his directive to build an enormous wall around the city at the expense of many slaves’ lives. In response, a rebel movement has sprung up within the kingdom, one on which Menistus hopes to pin the blame for his planned murder of Canidia, after which he intends to seize power. After a number of failed attempts on the part of Menistus and his cronies to get Hercules out of the way, the hero joins up with the rebel forces and leads an attack that will end his malevolent reign once and for all.

Given the flat, American-accented dubbing of his character in the English version of the film that I saw, it’s difficult to gauge Gainsbourg’s performance in The Fury of Hercules. I will say, though, that it stands out against the typical scenery chewing of Italian genre movie villains of its day for its very low key nature. Rather than furiously projecting menace, Gainsbourg instead relies upon what seems to be his natural ability to exude an air of casually sinister, feline decadence. Menistus seldom shouts or declaims, but instead quietly insinuates his menace, like the hushed narrator of one of Gainsbourg-the-singer’s more debauched lounge numbers.

As for The Fury of Hercules as a whole, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill peplum, one that would likely rate little more than a dismissive footnote for any chronicler of Gainsbourg’s career. Even so, its classic B movie trappings -- styrofoam boulders, inopportunely blinking corpses, mangy gorilla suits -- might make it an irresistible anecdote to include in the tale of a figure ultimately destined for greater things. As for the man himself, I sincerely doubt that the film would rank very highly in the hierarchy of memory for one who counted bedding Brigitte Bardot among his many accomplishments, but I would nonetheless be curious to know what Gainsbourg made of the whole adventure. He was, after all, a man with both an artistic soul and a keen knack for pop exploitation (this is, don’t forget, the guy who once promoted himself by tricking a teen starlet into singing a song about a blowjob) and here he was, not just commenting on, but actually collaborating in the very trash cultural “Pop! Bang! Whizzz!” that he would later ironically celebrate in the song “Comic Strip”.

At the end of The Fury of Hercules, Menistus dies an ignominious death at the hands of his oppressed subjects, which I have to admit was an outcome I found a little disappointing. Perhaps made greedy by the many possibilities suggested by the film’s odd confluence of talent, I was really hoping to see Hercules toss Serge Gainsbourg into a volcano or something -- not the least so that I could have the pleasure of typing that sentence. Of course, the producers very well may have thought that having the hulking Harris square off physically against the slight crooner would have undermined their hero’s sportsmanlike image, and I don’t blame them. Still I am grateful that, for a brief moment, such a possibility even existed. And for that, Italian cinema, I thank you.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Casus Kiran: Yedi Canli Adam (Turkey, 1970)

In my review of Casus Kiran, Turkish director Yilmaz Atadeniz’s remake of the 1942 Republic serial Spy Smasher, I described that film as being “in constant, rapid motion from beginning to end, presenting more of a continuous event than an actual story”. I further went on to opine –- quite pithily, if I do say so myself -- that “trying to impose the strictures of plot upon it is sort of like trying to identify the conflicts and character arcs within a hurricane or brush fire”. With that in mind, you’d have to think that any sequel to such a film would have no choice but to pick up where the former left off -- to just keep rolling out that one continuous event to the point when all allotted time and resources were exhausted.

Add to this the fact that all Turkish pulp superhero films of Casus Kiran’s ilk, when taken as a whole, are themselves something of a blur and a picture like Casus Kiran: Yedi Canli Adam (“Spy Smasher: The Man With Seven Lives”) comes across as being more intended to further obscure such distinctions than it does to expand upon any particular previously existing property.

Of course, simply picking up where Casus Kiran left off is not an option for Yedi Canli Adam, because seemingly much has changed in the intervening years. Producer-and-distributor-turned-star Irfan Atasoy indeed returns in the lead role, but is mostly surrounded by new faces. And even the costume he wears as Spy Smasher has been changed, now more closely resembling the getup worn by the hero of Atadeniz protégé Cetin Inanc’s earlier Iron Claw the Pirate, a film that was already tough enough to distinguish from Casus Kiran as is.

Also subject to the old switcheroo is Spy Smasher’s sexy lady sidekick, played in the original by Sevda Ferdag and here by Feri Cansel -- playing a character who, in accordance with Turkish pulp movie naming conventions, appears to also be named Feri. Happily, what has not changed is the fact that Spy Smasher and his sexy lady sidekick have just about the best marriage in all of superhero-dom. They just really enjoy beating up and killing their enemies together, and often trade admiring glances and laugh lustily while doing so. You get the sense that they have really amazing sex afterward. Furthermore, while she is twice more likely to end up picturesquely tied to a post, Feri is the Smash-meister’s equal in both dishing out and taking punishment, and is also no slouch when it comes to talking some vicious smack (something that, even in an unsubtitled Turkish film, needs no translation).

One lamentable way in which Yedi Canli Adam does maintain the status quo, I’m sorry to say, is in its inclusion of an in-name-only comic relief sidekick for our heroes. That character, Bitik, is this time, however, kitted out in a Sherlock Holmes outfit. Atadeniz apparently really liked this idea of a gibbering comic foil named Bitik annoying his superheroic betters by bumbling around in a deerstalker and cape, because he also included that character in his subsequent film The Deathless Devil. There, however, the character was portrayed by Erol Gunaydin, a different actor from the one who plays him here, although Erol Gunaydin is, in fact, in Yedi Canli Adam, only playing an entirely different role. Yilmaz Atadeniz, you have officially blown my mind.

And then there are our villains. While Casus Kiran made one of its rare concessions to the actual plot of the film it was ostensibly remaking by featuring a mysterious hooded villain in the grand 1940s movie serial tradition, Yedi Canli Adam’s choice of heavy is more indicative of its time. Here the bad guy is a foppish, floppy haired libertine in ascot and shades, with a crew who are a bit scruffier than the generic black hats seen in the first film, some of them even having the beardy look of student radicals. In keeping with that, the gang conducts much of their business surrounded by blissed out hippies in a psychedelic nightclub, a setting that provides for such indelible musical moments as a group frug to the Standell’s “Riot on Sunset Strip”, as well as other timely favorites.

Together this motley collective goes about the general business of being enemies of Turkey, which here mainly involves carrying out assassinations and the kidnapping of a prominent scientist and his young daughter. This, naturally, means that it won’t be long before Spy Smasher and Feri are roaring down the highway after them, burning rubber on their twin motorcycles as a surf cover of the In Like Flint theme plays on the soundtrack. (A healthy chunk or John Barry’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service score and Peter Thomas’ jaunty Jerry Cotton theme also get quite a workout.) This sets in motion the usual cycle of our heroes repeatedly chasing and then engaging in frenetic tussles with the baddies, leading to each having multiple opportunities to both be captured and to rescue the other from capture. Throughout this, it must be said that Irfan Atasoy pulls off some deeply impressive acrobatics and stunts, although they do require one to willfully ignore the very many times the villains could potentially have shot him while he was executing all of those show-offy serial back-flips and handstands.

While the enjoyment I took in Yedi Canli Adam derived in great part from happy associations with every other pulp Turkish superhero film I’ve seen, I regret that watching it has placed even further from recall any of those other films’ specifics. I mean, how many nominally unrelated Turkish superhero films featuring comic relief characters named Bitik who dress like Sherlock Holmes is one man expected to keep track of? Or how many featuring pairs of motorcycle riding his-and-hers heroes, especially given that their costumes are virtually indistinguishable from one another? The answer may be that the whole of Turkish pulp cinema is really meant to be experienced as one big intoxicating morass, rather than as a collection of discrete works. I’m beginning to suspect that Yilmaz Atadeniz saw it that way, at least.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Friday's best pop song ever

Drive-In Mob Tonight!: Dracula A.D. 1972 and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed

To be honest, I get hammered for every Drive-In Mob, and tonight that will be doubly the case. This time we'll be tweeting along to the Hammer classic Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, as well as the somewhat anti-classic Dracula A.D. 1972 (both of which are available on Netflix Instant). The fun starts at 8pm EST with Dracula, and continues with Frankenstein at 10pm EST. You can play along at home by using the Twitter hashtag #DriveInMob. I myself will, as usual, be sitting out the first feature, but you can count on me to weigh in on Frankenstein. Be sure to check out the official Drive-In Mob site for full details.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Sumpah Orang Minyak (Singapore, 1958)

To the degree that any Western cult film enthusiast is aware of the legendary Malaysian bogey known as the Oily Man, it is most likely by way of the Shaw Brothers' 1976 Hong Kong production The Oily Maniac. In that film, Mighty Peking Man director Meng Hua Ho wrestled that eerie bit of folklore into something resembling a more sleazy take on Swamp Thing, complete with about 500% more nudity and sexual violence. As a result, those familiar with that film might be taken aback by the comparatively delicate take on the subject found in Sumpah Orang Minyak (in English: Curse of the Oily Man), an earlier take on the legend from Shaw's Malaysian division.

Of course, much of the difference between Sumpah Orang Minyak and The Oily Maniac arises from the span of nearly twenty years that separates them. But I also can't help thinking that the former's relatively stately and reverent tone is in part the result of it being a star vehicle for the phenomenally beloved Malaysian performer P. Ramlee, who also scripted and directed the film, in addition to contributing to its music. As mentioned in my review of his Tiga Abdul, Ramlee's stature as a musician, actor and all around creative dynamo has lead to him becoming an institution in his homeland, and, as such, it's inevitable that any monster picture in which he took the titular role would be handled with more gravitas than your average tossed-off creature feature.

Here Ramlee plays Si Bongkok, a disfigured hunchback who, as the movie begins, finds shelter with a kindly old batik maker (Idris Home) after being pursued through the night by a gang of village ruffians. It is not long before the batik maker sees that within Si Bongkok's pitifully twisted form rests a gentle and artistic soul, and not much longer before his business is booming thanks to the hunchback's beguiling designs. None of this, sadly, changes the fact that Si Bongkok is routinely brutalized and tormented by the people of the village, especially by the aforementioned gang of ruffians, who are lead by a surly character named Buyong (Salleh Kamil).

Things come to a tragic head when Afida (Sri Dewi), the comely young daughter of the village elder, stands up to Buyong in Si Bongkok's defense. A town festival at which Si Bongkok attempts to show his gratitude to Afida by presenting her with a portrait he's painted only proves to be another occasion for Buyong and his cronies to further humiliate him. Fleeing the scene, a tearful Si Bongkok loudly curses his fate, ushering in a long sequence that's a captivating triumph of naive surrealism and grade school theatrics.

Si Bongkok's lamentations reach the ears of the Orang Bunyan, who, in Malaysian folklore, are a race of forest dwelling supernatural beings akin to elves or goblins. As the sky opens above him, the Orang Bunyan Princess arrives in a kind of land-faring boat to usher him back to her world. There, the King of the Orang Bunyan presents him with a great book from which he can choose one wish. Si Bongkok chooses to be beautiful, and the King asks in exchange that he vow never to succumb to wrath or boastfulness in his dealings with his fellow humans, otherwise the deal will be off. From there, it's only a matter of Si Bongkok bathing in a magic fountain, after which he emerges as beloved Malaysian musician and performer P. Ramlee, who, to be honest, is a pretty good looking dude.

Of course, once back in the human world, it quickly proves too difficult for the now easy-on-the-eyes Si Bongkok to resist telling the assembled villagers to go fuck themselves. In the ensuing melee, Afida is killed by a blade intended by Buyong for Si Bongkok, and after a dramatic, storm-swept brawl, Si Bongkok kills Buyong in retaliation. Not surprisingly, this is seen as a violation by the Orang Bunyan King, who quickly appears to render Si Bongkok invisible for eternity. Fortunately, good old Satan, always eager to set things back on an even keel, is also on hand, and appears before Si Bongkok, offering him a magic ring that will make him once again manifest to the eye. And once that ring is donned, Old Scratch proves good on his word -- though what Si Bongkok becomes visible as is the cursed Oily Man.

The Oily Man, in both tale and popular representation, is pretty much everything that his name advertises: a guy covered from head to toe in greasy black oil. Though -- in Sumpah Orang Minyak, at least -- he is also shown to have the ability to dematerialize, walk through walls, and leap great distances. As far as his visual presentation in the film, it's simply a matter of dressing P. Ramlee in a black body stocking and painting his entire head with some kind of shiny black makeup. Thankfully, the Orang Minyak, much like the Krasue, is another one of those Southeast Asian cryptids so bizarre and unsettling in its very conception that not even the most threadbare representation can completely rob it of its capacity to disturb.

Needless to say, Satan's gift of turning Si Bongkok into an objectionable mass of grease does not come without a price attached, and that price is that Si Bongkok must now rape 21 virgins within the course of the next week -- a task which Si Bongkok sets too with surprising alacrity (perhaps in part due to the fact that the film has exhausted about eighty percent of its running time before introducing its titular menace). This sets up an interesting contrast to the markedly more lurid Oily Maniac, in which the Oily Man is depicted as an avenger -- rather than a perpetrator -- of wrongs, including rape. However, it is Ramlee's version that hews more faithfully to the fabled original, a figure so identified with rape that it appears that even real world rapists have on occasion adopted his guise.

Certainly, Si Bongkok's final rampage does much to undo the goodwill that Ramlee has, over the course of Sumpah Orang Minyak's preceding 90 minutes or so, worked to generate toward him as a Quasimodo-like tragic figure. But I also suspect that Ramlee did so in fealty to his source material. While The Oily Maniac, like any exploitation film worthy of the name, strove to, wherever possible, turn that source into grist for evermore gratuitous displays of tits and blood, Ramlee uses it as a means by which to express his respect for the culture that both created it and, to some extent, him.

And, in this, Ramlee does a fine job, creating a film that is at once dense with mournful atmosphere and elevated by moments of dreamlike lyricism. (His musical contributions -- which, as in Tiga Abdul, are engaging and beautifully sung -- add a lot in this last regard.) In the end, Sumpah Orang Minyak may not provide the course thrills of The Oily Maniac, or the visceral jolt of other Southeast Asian horrors, but, in its own hypnotic way, it offers rich rewards nonetheless.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Friday's best pop song ever

Drive-in Mob Tonight!: Wheels on Meals and Fantasy Mission Force

Tonight's just might be the best Drive-in Mob ever, as this time around we've chosen to Tweet-along to two Jackie Chan class- Well, I was going to say "classics", but the fact is that one of the movies is a classic and the other one is Fantasy Mission Force. That's alright, though. Because Fantasy Mission Force may very well be the perfect Drive-in Mob movie; it's both indescribably weird and objectively awful, while at the same time being incredibly entertaining.

The fun starts at 8 pm EST with Jackie's Sammo Hung directed action comedy Wheels on Meals, and continues with FMF at 10 pm EST. As usual, my obligations on the West Coast will prevent me from wheeling and mealing, but YOU CAN BET YOUR SWEET ASS that I will be there for Fantasy Mission Force! As always, you can participate by following along with the movies on YouTube and using the Twitter hash tag #DriveInMob to weigh in with your pithy comments. Be sure to check out the Drive-in Mob site for full details.