Last week I had the opportunity to see Golden Slumbers, Davy Chou’s powerful documentary about the brief golden age of Cambodian popular cinema. As the film tells us, Cambodia produced nearly four hundred films between 1960 and 1975, many of them fanciful mythologicals brought to life by way of some primitive but nonetheless charming movie magic. Of course, such entertainments had no place within the medieval worldview of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and, once that group seized power, the industry and its practitioners quickly fell victim to the murderous purges that followed. That very few of those aforementioned four hundred films survive today is no less heartbreaking for being unsurprising; it’s hard enough to contemplate the loss of national film history in the cases of countries like Thailand and the Philippines, but when that loss is symptomatic of the systematic annihilation of an entire society, it’s more than a matter of cinephiles crying in their beer over the pesky impermanence of celluloid.
That 1972’s Crocodile Man is among those few Khmer language films from the era that do survive today is likely due to its popularity beyond Cambodia’s borders. In addition to being a success at home, it was also distributed in Hong Kong and -- thanks at least in part to its basis in Thai folklore -- also saw release in neighboring Thailand. In fact, its source material was also used as the basis for the 1980 Thai film Kraithong, from Sompote Saengduenchai’s Chaiyo productions -- not to mention it’s 1985 sequel –- as well as another Thai film of the same name produced in 2001.
Crocodile Man was produced by the studio Sovann Kiry Pheap Yun, a partnership between Dy Saveth, who was at the time the most popular -- and hence most continuously employed -- actress in Cambodia, and her then-husband, Hui Keung, who was both an actor and director. Due to her high profile, Saveth takes top billing in the film in spite of her limited screen time, while Hui Keung, in addition to directing, takes on the more meaty role, I think, of Chalawan, the movie’s titular crocodile man. The film would be just one of roughly one hundred that Saveth would star in during the period, necessitating a schedule that often saw her shooting two or three films at a time.
One of a couple of ways in which Crocodile Man departs from Chaiyo’s later Thai language treatment of the tale is how it eschews the latter’s “hero’s journey” style narrative in favor of presenting its titular character as more of a tragic figure -- one who, at least at first, is cast into the villain’s role as a result of a sad misunderstanding. The other is how Hui Keung chooses to frame the story within the context of a traditional martial arts narrative. As such, our two central characters, Kraithong and Chalawan, are first presented to us as the star pupils of one of those wizened kung fu masters we are so used to seeing in Taiwanese and Hong Kong movies from the day. This master, we learn, is in possession of a magical tome which he has expressly forbidden his students to read, thus setting the stage for Chalawan, his curiosity getting the better of him, sneaking into the shrine and taking a peek anyway.
From the book, Chalawan learns how to transform himself into a very large crocodile, a feat which he is eager to demonstrate to his fellow students at the soonest opportunity. Unfortunately, when he does, the frightened students run off and leave him stuck in his crocodile form. By the time the master learns of his fate, it is too late for Chalawan to be helped, and so the master makes the best of an unhappy situation by using Chalawan as a means of conveyance, riding him up and down the Mekong on his various errands. One of these errands involves the fetching of curatives for Takao Kaew (Saveth), the sick daughter of a local nobleman, and it is on this occasion that Chalawan has a confrontation with one of the notoriously hostile crocodiles from nearby Snake Island. In order to avoid injury in the ensuing melee, the master insists that Chalawan swallow him, stressing that he must be regurgitated within three days lest he starve to death within the croc’s bowels. Unfortunately, the fight lasts seven days.
When the mute Chalawan returns to shore and coughs up the master’s undigested remains, his fellow pupils leap to a pretty understandable conclusion. Kraithong beats the animal mercilessly, driving him back out to sea, and then vows that, upon completing his training, he will seek vengeance of a far more permanent nature upon Chalawan. In a sequence teeming with Diver Dan caliber underwater effects, Chalawan is then taken to a magical undersea cave by an old sea hermit, wherein he is able to assume human form. After hooking him up with a pair of comely underwater brides, the hermit then proceeds to help Chalawan in honing his magical skills, until he becomes the most powerful creature in the sea -- with that last being an important stipulation. Meanwhile, Kraithong’s training at the hands of a new master has made him the most powerful fighter on land, with the corresponding stipulation that, for him to remain undefeated, he must avoid his opponents drawing him into the water. Of course, all of these finicky dictates get thrown out the window when Chalawan, in an act of vengeance, kidnaps the beautiful Takao Kaew and drags her back to his submarine kingdom.
I have to admit that my feelings about Crocodile Man are colored considerably by my having so recently viewed Chou’s documentary. After all, taken on its surface, the film is a fairly lighthearted fantasy with, at times, an admittedly ramshackle level of technical execution. The giant puppet used to represent Chalawan in his crocodile form is patently silly looking, especially in contrast to the film’s fitful use of stock footage of actual crocodiles, and many of the depicted feats of kung fu mastery are achieved by low rent camera tricks such as showing people jumping out of trees in reverse motion. Still, when one reflects upon the fact that, within a few years of the film’s making, many of those involved would either be murdered or in exile, the carefree feeling and exuberant sloppiness achieved by such effects gains a poignancy that’s almost too much to bear.
Dy Saveth and Hui Keung managed to flee Cambodia in the days leading up to the Khmer Rouge’s arrival in Phnom Penh, with Saveth eventually ending up in France and taking work as a nanny. She has since returned to Cambodia, where she now teaches at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. In Golden Slumbers, she talks about how she uses her collection of old stills and handbills as a means of remembering the friends and colleagues she lost. I imagine that Crocodile Man could also serve as such a means of remembrance -- which is quite a noble burden to bear for a film that I might otherwise describe as “fun” and, yes, perhaps even a bit dumb. But memory, loss and tragedy have a way of making powerful talismans out of even the slightest things. And if, somewhere in that process, Crocodile Man gained an almost exquisite bitter-sweetness that it was never intended to have, we are no less obligated to admire it as such.
People have on occasion asked me whether it’s harder to write about good films or bad ones, and the answer is neither. Both types of films are capable of inspiring lively prose, but it’s the movies like Mictlan -- the ones that just kind of sit there and stare back -- that leave me at pains to write something that doesn’t read like I’ve got a gun stuck in my mouth. And that’s unfair, really. Because it’s clear that a lot of competent people put in a lot of honest work on Mictlan, despite the fact that I can find so little to say about it. Meanwhile, I’ve practically made a side career out of discussing other films that are, by comparison, case studies in negligence.
But the sad fact is that few artifacts are less likely to whelm than a late vintage Mexican direct-to-video feature, and Mictlan has the misfortune of displaying most of the hallmark failings of that medium: the soft, overly lit look; the homely interiors; the telenovela pacing; the cheap looking digital effects; and the cheesy synth score. All of which is not to say that there aren’t some unusual aspects to Mictlan that bear noting. It’s just that I’m the least likely person to be won over by a film’s inclusion of a particularly weird looking child actor.
Mictlan begins with a prologue in which a duo of he-and-she magical warriors, Gucumatz (Inaqui Goci) and Xochitl (Julieta Carpinteiro), rescue a young boy from the sacrificial altar of Mictlan (Manuel Ojeda), the Aztec lord of the underworld. A battle rife with digital hand magic follows, during which Gucumatz causes Mictlan’s cave lair to collapse in upon him, the hero himself dying in the process. Flash forward to present day Mexico, and we find that all of this, despite its vaguely ancient aroma, actually took place sometime in the 1970s (some wah wah guitar music might have been helpful to orient us in that respect), because the rescued boy has since grown up to be thirty-something Miguel (Marco A. Orozco), who is still plagued by traumatic flashbacks to the event.
Because this movie is called Mictlan, you can safely assume that Mictlan –- a figure whose garments appear to be made entirely out of Dia de los Muertos souvenirs -- was not killed in that cave-in. And it is soon established that the old bastard is indeed back at his old tricks, preparing for some kind of cataclysmic event that requires his shape-shifting minions to snatch dozens of Mexico’s children from their beds for the purpose of some kind of planned sacrifice-a-palooza. It is for this reason that the entirely unaged Xochitl shows up in Miguel’s life again, doing so just in time to prevent his sacrifice at the hands of his girlfriend, who turns out to be one of Mictlan’s agents (and as such a deft illustration of Bell Biv Devoe’s sage advice about not trusting a big butt and a smile.)
Since epic fantasy narratives are nothing if not paeans to exceptionalism, it of course turns out that there is ONLY ONE person who can defeat Mictlan, and that is Gucumatz. Fortunately, somewhere in rural Mexico, Gucumatz is in the process of being reincarnated in the form of Jimmy (Jaime Huitron), a weird dwarf child with a topknot who looks like the unholy issue of Yoda and Webster. Witnessing Jaime Huitron lead me to consider how popular cinema puts forth an unearthly standard of child adorableness every bit as damaging as its equally unrealistic standard of female beauty. The result of this is performers the likes of Emmanuel Lewis, India’s Master Raju, and Egypt’s Wonder Child Ahmed Farahat, all of whom look like failed experiments at creating a human Precious Moments figurine. Hopefully this trend will someday meet its end and we can look forward to seeing the types of wholly unremarkable children that we encounter in daily life represented onscreen.
Anyway, once Xochitl and Miguel have undertaken a quest to find Gucumatz that ends with them beholding a bizarre looking, levitating pseudo-infant, it is revealed that Jimmy is only capable of transforming into Gucumatz for a few moments at a time, Captain Marvel style. This makes things especially weird because, well, I haven’t mentioned that Xochitl and Gucumatz are also lovers, and when he is not fighting at her side or romancing her, she is forced to carry him in arm like a baby, which is essentially what he is -- albeit a preternaturally wizened one with a borscht belt comedian’s catalog of facial expressions. Happily, Mictlan will soon enough lose itself in its inevitable climactic battle and distract us from all of the discomfiting questions that raises.
Mictlan is a film in which everything is transacted via lightning bolts, be it a smack down, a dog-to-human transformation, or simply someone just thinking really hard. This means that if you are a fan of low end digital razzle dazzle, there is much within it to seduce your eye. And truly, it is these moments of frantic pew-pew-pewing during which Mictlan comes closest to transcending its otherwise fairly dreary level of execution. Beyond that, it just may be that the film’s greatest flaw is that it is made small by its own striving. Its soap opera trappings might ultimately seem less shrug-worthy were they not casting shadows in the shape of an adventure on a mythic scale -- while, at the same time, the movie is too earnest and competent to have the tripod dog appeal of something like Almighty Thor. It’s the kind of shoe-string epic that the Indonesians, during their prime, could have pulled off with aplomb, but only by investing in it a level of reckless energy and outrageous gore that Mictlan’s creators didn’t seem willing or able to muster.
With its depiction of an ultimate conflict between good and evil -- and of super special people coming to grips with their super special destinies -- Mictlan indeed tells an oft told tale. And, to be fair, it can only be called a failure to the extent that one is expecting it to somehow breathe new life into that tale. If one is instead just hoping to see that oft told tale made that much more oft told, then, well, mission accomplished. There are doubtless many people who would be quite content with that -- and, were I one of them, I would no doubt be able to find something far more interesting to say about this movie.
Tonight’s Drive-In Mob shines like gold and smells like feet, as we delve into the two 1960s spy spoofs starring mob favorite Vincent Price as the diabolical mastermind Dr. Goldfoot. First up, at 8:30pm EST, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine asks us to imagine a machine that makes bikinis. Joining us in this astonishing future world/sweatshop are Frankie Avalon and Dobie Gillis. Next up, at around 9:30pm EST, is Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, inarguably the low point in the great director Mario Bava’s career. This one stars those human suicide machines known as Italian comedy duo Franco and Ciccio, a pair who will give serious pause to those mobsters who swear by Mitchell and Petrillo as the worst thing that the world of misguided cinematic comic relief has to offer. (Yes, The Cultural Gutter, I’m looking at you.) Oh, and there’s also Fabian, a pop star about whom you can feel some kinship with this movie’s original 1966 audience, who also had entirely forgotten him.
As per usual, both films can be streamed online –- from YouTube in the case of Bikini Machine, and Netflix in the case of Girl Bombs -- and you can both follow and tweet along within the comfort of your own home, cell, or hollowed out volcano by using the #DriveInMob hashtag on Twitter. Please see the official DriveInMob site for official details.
Over at Teleporty City I’ve just posted a review of The Sound of Wonder!, a compilation of Pakistani film music from the 1970s with an emphasis on tracks featuring electronic instruments. (Because nothing accompanies Sultan Rahi wailing on a foe with his gandasa better than someone freaking out on an old analog synth. ) Check it out, won’t you?
[It’s funny how we never see Kilink on 4DK without Tars Tarkas lurking around somewhere in the background. It’s enough to make one think… never mind. The point is that you can read an alternate take on Cango Korkusuz Adam over at TarsTarkas.NET, and, dammit, you should.]
Turkish pop movies have a way of showing you things that you didn’t know you desperately wanted to see until they were spooling out right in front of you. So, yes, it turns out that I really did want to see who would win in a fight between Django and Kilink, and for that I have Cango Korkusuz Adam to thank.
The funny thing about Django and Kilink, though, is that, for the film industries that spawned them, they both ultimately came to serve less as characters than as stock generic elements. By the end of the Spaghetti Western cycle, so many Italian oaters had touted Django’s presence in them that it’s easy to forget that there had not been an official Django movie since, well, Django. And Kilink, having turned up in Turkish films fighting everyone from Superman to Mandrake to Frankenstein, seems to have become as much of a default villain as Russian terrorists were in 1980s straight-to-video action movies.
In fact, in Cango Korkusuz Adam, you could say that both characters haunt the movie from its periphery more than they are actual presences within it, like specters of the much more fun and interesting movie that Cango Korkusuz Adam could have been. Technically, for instance, it is Kilink’s costume that makes a cameo, rather than the character himself. The skeleton-suited villain of the piece is actually referred to throughout as the “Death Cavalier” or “Death Rider”. Which is not to say that the association isn’t welcomed -- to the point where it’s a wonder that they didn’t just break down and call the guy Kilink. Sure, there’s no reason for Kilink to be in the Old West, but I can’t imagine any Turkish screenwriter from the period pausing to consider matters of plausibility when there was potential awesomeness at stake.
And as for Django, he appears to be less flesh and blood than he is an idea here, an identity that the hero automatically assumes once he has set out on his mission of vengeance -- kind of like the way wronged parties in South Asian movies suddenly know how to do kung fu. Before that occurs, he is Tom (Tunc Oral), the nephew of one Mr. McLee, for whom he has agreed to take charge of a newly opened gold mine. However, before Tom can reach the unnamed frontier town in which most of the film’s action takes place, McLee is murdered by the Death Rider and his bandit gang, leaving only carnage behind for Tom to find upon his arrival. It is at this point that Tom swears an oath of blood vengeance against the gang and begins telling everyone to call him Django -- a point on which he has to keep reminding people (“Forget Tom, I’m Django”), despite everyone’s apparent easy willingness to go along with it.
But wait, there’s more. Before meeting his death, McLee has dispatched one of his ranch hands to deliver to Tom a map of the mine’s location. When that ranch hand ends up dying at the hands of the Death Rider’s men, the map somehow ends up in the possession of the hapless snake oil salesman Chiko (Yilmaz Koksal). Fortunately for Chiko, Tom arrives in town soon thereafter to defend him from the Death Rider gang’s many violent attempts to prize the map away from him, and soon the two form a partnership of sorts.
Strangely, while Chiko starts out as a fairly stock comic relief character, Cango Korkusuz Adam ends up being more about his journey to heroism than it does anything else, with Tom/Django remaining on the sidelines but for those occasions when he is called upon to summarily kill some bad guys in order to move the plot along. Death Rider, to the extent that he is a Kilink surrogate, also remains uncharacteristically peripheral to the action, preferring to instead delegate most of the dirty work to his minions. The exception to this comes when it is time to discipline any member of the gang who has failed to meet his expectations, during which we see that same gleeful ruthlessness that the Kilink films have accustomed us to. One bandit gets his hand lopped off and fed to the Death Rider’s dog (yes, Kilink has a dog in this movie) and another gets stabbed in the fucking forehead. Missing, however, are all of the S&M elements and implied sexual violence usually associated with Kilink. And, at the end, things really depart from canon with a Scooby-Doo style reveal of our masked villain’s identity.
Cango Korkusuz Adam was directed by Remzi Jonturk, an accomplished Turkish director who worked frequently with Cuneyt Arkin, helming several entries in that star’s popular Malkocoglu series. More noteworthy, perhaps, is the trio of films that Jonturk did with Arkin that came to be known as the “Adam Trilogy”, the political content of which resulted in Jonturk being prosecuted by the authoritarian government of General Kenam Evren. No such content appears to grace Cango Korkusuz Adam -- though, if it does, it was lost to me somewhere amid all the random cultural dissonance and fan-subbing. As for any visual flair that Jonturk might have brought to the project, that is impossible to ascertain given the condition of the version I watched, which was made from a warbly VHS master that was in turn made from a TV broadcast complete with ads for Turkish public affairs programming and soap operas (I’m guessing someone stayed up until 4am to capture it). Suffice it to say I’ve seen chest x rays with more crispness.
What I could see, though, is that the sets and costumes in Cango Korkusuz Adam lack that lived-in look so crucial to the Spaghetti Westerns that inspired it. None of the actors look all that at home in their chaps and Stetsons, and the result gives the movie overall a sort of goofy, dress-up quality. Still, pains are taken to trot out as many of the genre’s tropes as possible. Figen Say shows up as a heroic saloon girl, at one point doing a can-can that is filmed almost entirely from the waist down. Elsewhere, barroom poker games are played and cheated at, dubious frontier remedies hawked, and pistols discharged into the sky for no compelling reason. Unfortunately, the film’s central barroom brawl set-piece serves as an exemplar of the enthusiasm with which all of this is pulled off, it being so listlessly staged that not even copious amounts of stolen Ennio Morricone music can save it.
If my sources are to be believed, Cango Korkusuz Adam turned out to be Django’s lone shot at Turkish screen immortality. Instead, it was Ringo, of all the Italian western heroes, who proved to have the real staying power, playing a titular role in several Turkish features that included among them the killer sounding Ringo vs. Gestapo. Perhaps that might not have been the case, though, if those behind Cango Korkusuz Adam had had the conviction to make it live up to the promise lurking within its premise. Could audiences of the day possibly have seen a true Turkish interpretation of Sergio Corbucci’s coffin-hauling anti-hero -- paired off against their own finger-snapping, Sadean skeleton-suited version of the id run wild -- without wanting more? Gotta doubt it.
I would be the last person to suggest that making screen caps from movies was in itself some form of art. Yet, at the same time, I do put a lot of thought into the process, and there are occasions when I become obsessed with certain of the images that I’ve ended up with. It occurred to me that it might be nice if I had a forum in which to display those images divorced from the context of both the movies and the reviews in which they appeared. Fortuitously, it at the same time dawned on me that what the internet truly needed was one more creepily obsessive tumblr. And so I give to you cyclopsalot, the official 4DK tumblr -- thus titled because, regrettably, I have no child on whom I can bestow that name. Hopefully you will keep checking in to see where it goes, and perhaps, dare I ask, even “like” it -- until, of course, I lose interest in it, whereupon it will become just one more of the online world’s many derelict documents of forgotten compulsions.
In a colorblind society, Blacula and Dr. Black would simply be citizens who just so happened to be monsters. In this society, however, their films are considered examples of the blaxploitation genre –- which, for the uninitiated, are films that take the titles of other films and substitute “black” for all of the pertinent words. Thus Shaft becomes, simply, Black, and Last Year at Marienbad becomes Black Black at Blackity-Black.
Anyway, tonight’s Drive-In Mob starts with Blacula at 8pm EST, followed, at roughly 9:30pm EST, by Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde. Shockingly, I have not previously seen Dr. Black, so you can bet that I’ll be on hand for that one. Both films are available from YouTube, and you can both follow and tweet along with us at home by using the Twitter hashtag #DriveInMob. As always, please see the Drive-In Mob site for all of the official, Drive-In Mob approved details. Hope to tweet you there.
I freely admit to jumping on the Frank Agrama bandwagon, spurred on by posts from such reliable sources as the Mondo Macabro blog and loveable madman Jack J's En Lejemorder Ser Tilbage -- as well as the astonishingly well researched comments of one Doctor Kiss over at the Classic Horror Film Board. Hey, as far as being the subject of cult appreciation, Agrama is, from what I've seen, far more deserving than -- oh, I don't know -- Sompote Sands, say. And I'm certainly not above trying to squeeze my way in on the ground floor. All the better to hypocritically scoff at perceived Agrama newbies a few months down the line.
To the extent that he is known in the West, Agrama is probably most recognized for his role as CEO of Harmony Gold, the company that brought Robotech to American television and with it, the seeds of every anime body pillow subsequently sold to white wannabe otaku. (Though he might also ring a bell as being a co-defendant, alongside Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in the massive Mediaset tax fraud case brought by Italian officials a couple years back.) Fans of Z grade horror films might also know him as director of 1981's woeful Dawn of the Mummy.
But before distinguishing himself in those ways, the Egyptian born Agrama, under his given name of Farouk Agrama, directed a series of lively pop films in his native Middle East. These were typically International co-productions that combined stars from all of the participating regions, which were then released in alternate edits that highlighted whichever actors were the biggest draw in the targeted country. The result is the sort of "when worlds collide" casting that, in 1968's Essabet El Nissae, sees Turkish action god Cuneyt Arkin trading dialogue with beloved Egyptian comic Ismail Yasin and Lebanese singer and actress Sabah. Even Egyptian action film legend Farid Chawki shows up for a brief, fourth wall busting cameo (literally: "Hey, it's Farid Chawki!") in order that publicists for the Arab language version might tout his presence.
Agrama's approach to Essabet El Nissae exhibits a good-natured, horny aimlessness that rivals that of the Mexican popular cinema of its day. He combines in the film tropes from both Eurospy movies and haunted house comedies, but still finds plenty of time for musical numbers and abundant cheesecake. In this busy context, Cuneyt Arkin gets to do a lot less of the trademark acrobatic brawling than you'd typically see in one of his purely Turkish productions, and instead spends a lot of his time simply fulfilling his role as just one of many pieces of eye candy, either by simply sitting and looking suave and unflappable or by laying back against a scenic background as Sabah serenades him with one of her many songs.
Essabet El Nissae centers around that most beloved of 60s spy spoof totems, the highly trained army of amazonian hit women (Las Sicodelicas, Deadler Than the Male), who, of course, also double as nightclub entertainers (Black Tight Killers). Arkin plays a reporter, saddled with both a cowardly, bespectacled photographer for a comic relief sidekick and a harried boss in the form Ismail Yassin -- here in one of his last screen appearances -- who stumbles onto the trail of the female gang while on assignment in Beirut. The ladies then employ their feminine wiles to throw him off the scent, as it were, which leads to a long series of burlesque interludes. Somewhere in all of this he meets and begins to woo Sabah, who appears to be a member of the gang.
Eventually Cuneyt follows a lead to an abandoned old house that we have seen, by way of a flashback, was the site of a brutal murder. This opens the way for some goofy, spook show slapstick reminiscent of Ismail Yasin's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein remake, Haram Alek, albeit without the participation of Yasin. This house will prove to have relevance to the overall plot later on, as perhaps will the ghost of the murdered woman, although on that last point I can't be entirely sure. Seriously, once all plot development has halted for the third time for someone to launch into an extra-narrative belly dancing routine, you will realize that none of these details matter very much. There is even an extended comic sequence in which Arkin and his sidekick don drag to sneak their way into a lady's spa. Oh, and I should also mention that the cut of the Arabic version I watched had edited into it a sequence from a different, French subtitled version that featured a woman lip synching an English language beat pop song to an audience of fright-masked dancers as Arkin engaged in a comedic brawl. So there's that.
Both the Arabic and Turkish versions of Essabet El Nissae are available in full on YouTube. (And, true to our expectations, the Turkish version is exponentially more distressed and crappy looking than the other.) While I wouldn't call it a must see, I will say that, if you can approach it with the kind of patience and goodwill that its lazily amiable approach to entertainment requires, you might, as I did, get a kick out of it. Arkin, so often comically intense, makes for an especially charming and affable presence, and as such nicely embodies the spirit of the endeavor as a whole. This is a film that seems to say that, if you don't have time to watch a few fights, chuckle at some dumb gags, listen to some songs, and look at some cool and attractive people and locations being cool and attractive, that's fine; but if you do, why not? Consider yourself Agrama'd.