Bless Kenneth Brorsson's mohawked head for inviting me back to co-host the latest episode of his Taiwan Noir podcast. In this installment, we salute Taiwanese screen queen Elsa Yeung with a discussion of Thrilling Sword -- which those of you who are creepily attentive will know is a favorite of mine -- and Country of Beauties, which asks the question "How many beautiful amazons does it take to cut a dude's wiener off?" (The answer may surprise you!) Get the deets and stream the episode here.
Most Cult TV fans probably only know Roberta Leigh as a footnote to the career of Gerry Anderson. It was Leigh, an author of children’s books, who came to Anderson’s fledgling production company with her character Twizzle, a meeting that resulted in Anderson producing his first puppet series, The Adventures of Twizzle, in 1957. Thus launches the narrative of Anderson as the creator of Supermarionation and powerhouse of 1960’s British sci-fi television. But if one doesn’t take that detour, and instead follows Leigh along her own path, there is a lot to be found that is surprising, noteworthy and pretty delightful.
First off, one would find that Roberta Leigh was just one of several pseudonyms adopted by a woman born Janey Scott, who later, by marriage, became Janey Scott Lewin. This multiplicity of identities is just one telltale indication of Leigh’s restless, albeit resolutely commercial, creative spirit, the other being her work. Because Leigh was not only a children’s book author, but also a prolific author of romance novels, all written under a variety of names (Rachel Lindsay, Rozella Lake, even Janey Scott) and published by such industry mainstays as Harlequin. Alongside this and her work in television, she also found time to become an accomplished painter.
Leigh and Gerry Anderson collaborated on one more series, Torchy, the Battery Boy, before parting ways. Also parting ways around the same time were Anderson and his production partner, cinematographer Arthur Provis. Provis teamed up with Leigh and, under the banner Wonderama Productions, the two began making puppet series of their own. The first of these, Sarah & Hoppity, was moppet-friendly material in the same vein as Twizzle and Torchy and, like those shows, was based on a series of books written by Leigh. At the same time, with shows like Supercar and Fireball XL5, Gerry Anderson had made the leap to juvenile sci-fi with his puppet productions. Leigh soon followed suit with Space Patrol, a series that lasted 39 episodes, from 1963 to 1964, and was broadcast in multiple countries.
Given their proximity, it’s difficult to argue that Space Patrol was not influenced by Fireball XL5, though the dependence of both on so many classic 1960s space opera tropes makes tracing specific instances of that influence almost impossible. Still, it’s no stretch to say that Leigh’s series was by far the more innovative of the two. For starters, there is the titular Space Patrol’s flagship craft; bored with the unvaryingly vertical and (my word) phallic rocket ships of traditional sci-fi (Fireball XL5’s titular craft being a perfect example), Leigh created the Galasphere, a gyroscope-like vehicle that flits through space with hummingbird like movements. The skipper of the Galasphere represents a further departure; in contrast to Fireball’s square jawed Steve Zodiac, Captain Larry Dart sports a van dyke and shoulder length hair that makes him appear at once bohemian and like a puppet throwback to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood.
Then there is Space Patrol’s electronic soundtrack, which was composed by Leigh herself using an assortment of machines purchased at the local electronics shop. While every bit as pioneering as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s also electronically produced theme to Doctor Who, Leigh’s work eschews melody entirely in favor of something more purely industrial, and is at times even reminiscent of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. The effect is indescribably eerie, and all the more so when paired with the naïve aspects of the series, which, after all, is essentially a children’s puppet show about spacemen.
It should also be noted that Space Patrol is refreshingly light on the wanton ray gun blasting and looming cold war xenophobia of other juvenile space operas of the period, and instead whiffs of Kennedy era optimism toward cooperation across borders. In the intro, it is stressed that the Space Patrol are “guardians of peace” and it is not unusual to see its interplanetary members (the Patrol is made up of Martians, Venusians and Earthlings) reach out to the aliens they encounter in a spirit of curiosity and friendship. In one episode, when the patrol thwarts the latest invasion plot by their recurring nemesis, the Neptunians, they follow it up with an invitation for an exchange of knowledge and entry into the planetary alliance, which the Neptunians happily accept. The pilot episode features the Galasphere crew -- Dart, androgynous Venusian Slim, and Martian/dispenser of all food jokes Husky – protecting the wildlife of Jupiter from poachers.
Unfortunately, another one of the things that sets Space Patrol apart is the pitiful amount of capital that ITV allotted for its funding. The result is a production considerably less slick than those of Gerry Anderson, a sort of not-so-Supermarionation. The puppets are cruder looking, many of them sporting painted on eyes rather than the rolling and blinking models seen on Steve Zodiac and crew. This contributes both to the puppets naïve charm and also to that creepy haunted doll quality that, when combined with Leigh’s alien score and the murky black and white in which most of the surviving episodes are found, makes watching Space Patrol a dreamily surreal experience. Likewise, Space Patrol’s miniature sets are a cacophony of visible seams, brush strokes and the occasional oversized finger print, yet the art department still managed to build a diminutively massive futuristic city model that recalls a tabletop version of Metropolis.
Adding to the rickety nature of things is the fact that Leigh, unlike Anderson, was not afraid to show her puppets walking. I feel she should be commended for this, although the spastic capering that resulted goes some way toward proving Anderson’s point. It’s such that, a few episodes in, you can’t help but root for these odd, shaky limbed little people as they negotiate the baroque perils of walking up stairs, getting up from a chair, or entering a doorway from one room into the other.
In all seriousness, though, as a Supermarionation fan who long viewed Space Patrol as an off-brand, and inferior, version of Fireball XL5, I must confess to developing a real fondness for it. While one would expect from a knockoff a certain generic quality, Space Patrol has all over it the fingerprints of a quirky creative sensibility; one which I can only imagine belongs to Roberta Leigh. It also, like the best B movies, has all the enthusiasm and energy that comes when a group of people, upon surveying their woefully inadequate resources, decides to just go for it and give it their scrappy best.
Leigh’s planned follow up to Space Patrol, 1964’s Paul Starr, lacks much of the former’s high mindedness. Space agent Paul Starr’s sidekick, Lightning, is an egregious Asian stereotype and, at the end of the pilot episode, the duo gleefully nukes the bad guy’s compound, not sparing us a shot of the doomed villain puppet at its control panel, toppling pathetically under a hail of smoke and debris. That unsold pilot episode is as far as the series went, but it’s a doozy. Filmed in flush full color -- presumably to compete with its contemporary, Stingray, which was Gerry Anderson’s first color production -- the series gives us much of the spirited cheap-jackery of its predecessor, but this time in dazzling primary hues. Gone are many of Leigh’s innovative touches (Starr’s amphibious space ship allows her to further cop some of Stingray’s mojo), but compensating is an almost manic energy level. Of special note are the voice of Paul Starr, which is provided by a pre-UFO Ed Bishop, and the jaunty theme song, which was again composed by Leigh herself.
Following the failure of Paul Starr, Leigh and Provis’s puppet series returned to toddler territory with 1966’s odd Wonder Boy and Tiger, a thirteen part series of fifteen minute episodes co-produced by the Esso oil company, and the same year’s Send For Dithers. Following the adventures of a boy and his clairvoyant cat who travel around on a flying carpet helping people, Wonder Boy and Tiger employed the same core team -- cinematographer Provis, director Frank Goulding, and Leigh as producer -- who worked on all of Leigh’s puppet productions, and to whom she referred as her filmmaking “family”. The characters of Wonder Boy and Tiger also appeared in a comic strip in Wonder comics, which was edited by Leigh and distributed exclusively in Esso stations. Send For Dithers, which concerned a bumbling handyman whose best friend is a penguin, was similarly bathed in whimsy.
In 1967, Roberta Leigh -- who, by all available accounts, had an amicable split with Gerry Anderson -- finally got the jump on him by being the first to move into production on a live action science fiction series. Unfortunately, few people know this, because the result, a half hour pilot for The Solarnauts, remains unsold to this day. Of all of Leigh’s unsold pilots that are today available for our enjoyment, The Solarnauts is the gem. It’s pure 1960s pulp space opera, a time capsule that takes us back to those rarified days before audience expectations were raised by Kubrick, in terms of thinkyness, and Lucas, in terms of spectacle. Ray guns blast away, bald headed alien fiends cackle menacingly, and Martine Beswick shows up as a sexy space lady in a form fitting silver bodysuit. It’s like an issue of Planet comics come to life, with a hint of Margheriti’s Gamma One quadrilogy thrown in for an added dash of Euro-style. Added enjoyment can be found in spotting the household elements hidden within the thrifty set design; overturned ice cube trays make for viable control panel components, as does acoustical foam serve as the upholstery of the future. Dammit, why wasn’t this series made?!
With the recent anniversary of Doctor Who, attention has deservedly been focused on original Who producer Verity Lambert, and on her pioneering role as, not just a female producer in a male dominated medium, but a female producer of science fiction, a suspect genre, in a male dominated medium. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to Lambert to point out that Roberta Leigh, albeit on a smaller scale, was inhabiting the same role at virtually the same time. Leigh’s story, of course, played out to a much smaller array of eyes, and thus today is less likely to be celebrated. That, however, doesn’t mean that those of us who do know of her can’t have a small scale, YouTube abetted celebration of our own.
[Yes, it’s true! The Lucha Diaries is a site dedicated entirely to reviewing classic Mexican wrestling films. If the below example ignites your curiosity, its welcoming maw awaits you.]
The art of filmmaking sure has changed in the last forty years. Take La Invasion de los Muertos, for instance. It was originally intended to be the sequel to El Increible Profesor Zovek, but then Zovek went and got himself killed during a break in filming. If that had happened in this day and age, the producers would have simply created some kind of creepy virtual robot or something to finish Zovek's scenes and nobody who didn't pay attention to the news or care whether or not Zovek was dead would be the wiser.
The producers of La Invasion de los Muertos, however, not having access to that kind of technology, had no choice but to insert a bunch of unrelated footage of Blue Demon standing around in what looks like the boiler room beneath a suburban high school and talking on and on at people to fill out the picture. And the shocking thing is that that really doesn't make La Invasion de los Muertos that much worse. By which I mean to say that La Invasion de los Muertos is pretty fucking awesome.
The film wears its debt to Night of the Living Dead on its sleeve - but to get a sense of what La Invasion de los Muertos is like, you'd have to imagine Night of the Living Dead minus social commentary, realistic characters, suspense, human drama, and gore, and plus a masked wrestler, a portion of Zovek's stage act in which he escapes from a flaming coffin, and comic relief. There are some effectively atmospheric moments -- a scene where Zovek battles a bunch of zombies in an underground cavern, the moment when the zombies first rise from the grave and shuffle en masse through the cemetery -- but the scenes with Blue Demon serve to pretty much scuttle any chance of there being any kind of consistent tone.
It's understandable why the producers turned to Blue in their hour of need -- seeing as he seemed to be pretty much game for anything that was thrown his way -- but why they then chose to use him as little more than a talking head is somewhat mysterious. From what we see, it's as if Blue has moved beyond using his fists and has resolved to subdue his enemies by simply boring them into unconsciousness.
A typical scene (keeping in mind that I had no idea of what was actually being said) will have some official type person coming into the boiler room and reporting some event to Blue, after which Blue will begin to talk, and talk, and talk while we alternately cut to shots of the official looking like he's battling both confusion and the sudden urge to take a nap and Blue's comic relief sidekick mugging and grimacing furiously. (And that comic relief sidekick really represents an impressive low point in the genre, seeing as he can best be described as a Carlos Suarez wannabe.)
The apparent desperation to pad out La Invasion de los Muertos' running time makes you wonder just what the consequences would have been for director Rene Cardona Sr. had he not turned in the film at feature length. Could it be that he would have been … killed? Well, that's the explanation I'm going with, anyway, because it's easy enough to believe that, somewhere behind the scenes, there was a gun to someone's head here -- and the price on that someone's head was the imperative that La Invasion de los Muertos be as much of a clusterfuck as was humanly possible. An entertaining clusterfuck, mind you, but a clusterfuck nonetheless.
Co-hosting the Taiwan Noir podcast with Podcast on Fire’s Ken Brorsson has reawakened me to my deep and abiding affection for pants soiling-ly insane Taiwanese martial arts flicks. 4DK loves the Taiwanese people with all their lotus-limbed flying, hand aura blasting and Cyclops battling, and there was a time when my writing about their exploits made up a lot of this blog’s content. So, like a bad clips episode, I now take you on a trip down memory lane.
Mind you, there are a lot of weirdos on this particular memory lane, so be sure to keep your cell phones out of sight and your eyes forward.
“For a moment she seems to be getting the upper hand, but then the octopuses start to aggressively birth baby octopuses at her, launching the little ones out of their octo-ginas at her like so many slimy tentacled projectiles.”
“While the first sexual experiences of many people result in only shame and regret, Shao-Ying’s and Lo Fei’s results in them being able to shoot deadly cartoon laser beams out of a big yin-yang shaped mirror.”
“Now left with no place to call home, Red Boy goes once again to his parents and pleads with them to welcome him back into the family. They really do hate him, though, and basically tell him to fuck off.”
“As Golden Boy is in possession of a map detailing the whereabouts of the only weapon capable of killing the King, he is a subject of great interest for many of the denizens of Magic Warriors' freaky fairytale world. These include, among others, a character called Red Haired Weirdo, a guy with a mushroom for a head, another who turns into a snail, and a guy who I think is supposed to be a bag of garbage given human form.”
“A rumble ensues and the dinosaur is vanquished. But, because what is possible in this movie is restricted only by the markedly lax narrative boundaries traditionally observed by fucked-up Taiwanese fantasy films, the ghost of the dinosaur is soon calling out to his brother, a sea dragon, to come and avenge his death.”
My podcast with Tars Tarkas, The Infernal Brains has also paid a lot of lip service to Taiwanese weird fu, our proudest moment, in my opinion, being our two part overview of the career of Taiwanese wuxia queen Pearl Cheung Ling, which was greatly aided by Soft Film’s Durian Dave:
If you want to read all of 4DK's coverage of Taiwanese cinema, simply click here and dig in.
Communities of women -- be they alien inhabitants of all female planets, members of utopian cults, or amazons -- are a fixture of B movies, and such movies always follow the same rules. I think this is because they are all written by men who are terrified of women.
For one, these communities must always be populated exclusively by beautiful 20 somethings, with the exception of one older woman who is either a comic relief character or a wizened old sage. Secondly, these communities are always presented at first as a titillating prospect to the male viewer (Saaaaay!), until we realize that they are, in fact, a terrible idea, an abomination even. Because, you see, if left solely to their own company, women will ultimately turn against their men folk -- and if that happens in a Taiwanese film made during the 1980s like Country of Beauties, the English dubbed version of a film more commonly known as Island Warriors, that enmity will extend as far as them gorily chopping a dude’s nuts off.
Country of Beauties begins with a solicitous narrator informing us about this one time when a cruel Chinese ruler banished his queen to a remote island. Cut forward a few years and we see that that island is now teaming with a population of those aforementioned beautiful 20 something women -- because this is apparently what happens when you abandon a lone woman in a remote spot; she takes seed. These ladies worship Queen Nadanwa (Thrilling Sword’s Elsa Yeung) as a goddess, even enshrining her in the form of a giant statue, and spend their days either sparring with one another on the beach or doing calisthenics that seem primarily designed for maximum panty exposure, all to the strains of extremely silly sounding 80s pop music. The uniform is either dominatrix style leather wear or diaphanous white peplums worn with head bands a la Olivia Newton John in Xanadu.
Nadanwa never misses an opportunity to pump her subjects full of misandry, and is constantly warning them of the depredations of men. And, sure enough, it is not long before an assortment of those very creatures are stirring up discord on the island with their troublesome penises. The first of these is a gang of smelly pirates, who drop by the island for a frantic rape-a-thon before being driven off by the amazons. Then there is a trio of treasure hunters lead by pretty Zhang Pei-Hua. Joining him are two goofy footmen who include Pa Gwoh, who portrayed exactly the same character in Wolf Devil Woman and is dubbed by the same hysterically effeminate sounding guy. Because pretty boy claims to be able to build a canon that will replace the amazon’s current faulty model, he and his friends are afforded kinder treatment than the captured pirates, who get summarily snipped, and are instead outfitted with chastity belts.
The next unwelcome Y chromosome carrier on the island is Lu (Don Wong Tao), an inhabitant of the nearby Men’s Island, which is exactly what the name implies (I imagine their tourism slogan is something like: “Men’s Island, the island for men”.) The men of Men’s Island are a peaceful lot who only want the women of women’s island to live with them in harmony as nature intended. The message that Lu brings, in particular, is a request on their part that the women please stop casting the male babies born on the island into the sea. By the way, a scene depicting this very activity is set to Ennio Morricone’s “Jill’s Theme” from Once Upon a Time in the West, which -- well, talk about setting yourself up for unflattering comparisons. It’s a beautiful piece that can’t help but add extra poignancy to an already well directed scene, although the oversell can’t help but make that feel somewhat unearned.
Country of Beauties was directed by Ulysses Au-Yeung Jun, who got his start as an actor in Taiwanese popular films during the 60s and went on to become a prolific director throughout the 70s and 80s. It’s a good looking film, with nice sets, a nice use of color and, despite some lighting issues in some of the outdoor scenes, a good use of location and the widescreen frame. The cavernous, luridly lit set of the Queen’s throne room brings to mind something from a 1960s Shaw Brothers’ production. The fights are impressive more in terms of scale than execution, with some pretty spectacular scenes involving dozens of wildly back-flipping amazons taking on the male hordes. As laughable as its take on the battle of the sexes may be, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it as a classic piece of exploitation cinema, bristling with pop energy.
Back in the plot, the film’s drama kicks up a notch when the women imprison Lu, only to have him freed by the Queen’s sister, Chung Ah (Fong Fong-Fong, also of Thrilling Sword), who we learn has been conducting a Romeo and Juliette style relationship with him. Chung Ah assures the doomed nature of that affair when, fleeing Nadanwa’s guards, she attempts to hide Lu within the palace, making certain that a tragic confrontation with her sister is inevitable. The foundations of this society of women prove to be pretty shaky and, when the pirates attack again, it falls to the chivalrous inhabitants of Men’s Island to turn the tide of the battle in the ladies’ favor.
Along the way, Country of Beauties ticks off a few more of the classic community of women tropes: We chortle at the prospect of hapless male captives being “forced” to breed with spectacularly beautiful women, some bath time Sapphic shenanigans transpire, etc. In the end of it all, harmony is restored to Nadanwa’s little island. Men are good, she realizes, if hairy and noisome, except for pirates, who suck and are rapey. Still, it’s always best to keep the canons stoked.
My fellow Drive-In Mobster Andrew Nahem is a boss on Twitter and co-creator of the Webby Award winning site Elevator Moods. For this edition of The Friends of 4DK, Andrew dug extra deep to bring us a peculiar oddity from the forsaken sub-basement of arcane cinema. If I didn't know him so well, I'd think he made it up.
When Todd asked me to contribute a post to the Friends of 4DK Initiative, I was naturally appalled. First of all, I am not a bloggist. I may have written things here and there, but nothing discernibly blog-shaped (“oblog,” in the parlance I think—but again, I’m no expert). Furthermore, while I do enjoy the cult- or B- films, my knowledge of them falls far short of the 4DK standard. What could I possibly contribute to a learned discussion of Bollywood action films or rare Malaysian ghost stories that would elicit anything more than derisive laughter from this audience? What dark byway of cinema could I illuminate for these obscurantists and international cultists?
But at last I think I’ve unearthed a bizarre offering that could perhaps use some unpacking.
Les Misérables (USA, UK, 2012), dir. Tom Hooper.
This film opens with a grand sweeping shot of prisoners in a place called France, who for their crimes (stealing various baked goods, those just under the line for capital offenses) are punished by being forced to haul giant ships around on land. Why the French Navy in 1815 has no better use for its frigates is one of the mysteries this story never illuminates.
Right away the uncanny nature of this production becomes evident. Readers of this blog are obviously familiar with the concept of the movie musical. But unlike the familiar tropes of, say, a Bollywood epic, these characters lift their voice in song while standing in the muck of sewers, getting a pixie-cut, etc. yet they do not dance. The colors, in fact, remain steadfastly dark and heavy. Further investigation reveals that the filmmakers attempted the rarely-tried experiment of having the actors sing these numbers live, which arguably increases the quality—and certainly the quantity—of the acting.
One of these bread-snatchers, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has attracted the notice of the chief ship-wrangler, the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), for being insufficiently downcast during the song “Look Down.” Valjean, a narcissist who never grasps the enormity of his crime, once released, thinks nothing of breaking parole to go on a mountain tour of regional convents.
Eight years pass, and rather than emigrating to America like any sensible ex-convict fugitive, the self-involved Valjean has installed himself as a very public factory owner—and mayor of the town, where he can hardly take two steps without tripping over his old nemesis, Javert, who has not as yet recognized him. Distracted one day by one of these coincidental appearances, he allows the beautiful Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to be fired for filing a sexual-harassment claim against his factory foreman. In this society, such whistle-blowers are forced to sell their hair and teeth and are apparently infected with a kind of terminal brain fever.
One night Valjean, out for one of his daily run-ins with Javert, discovers that one of the ships he had dragged into town as a convict so long ago has finally been turned to some use—as a brothel. It is there that he and Javert find Fantine plying the old trade, but as is their wont, they hold differing views on what to do about it.
By this time the long-suffering Javert has begun to twig that “Monsieur le maire” is none other than Valjean, whom he had nicknamed “24601” back in the day. They meet up over Fantine’s corpse for a much-needed sword-fight and a song. Valjean pledges to turn himself in after three days, but characteristically decides to blow off this promise in favor of his new interest: Fantine’s young child, Cosette, whom he has decided to claim as his own and raise in hiding in a bucolic atmosphere of secrecy.
Nine years later and this France is in an uproar. A fickle group, the citizenry had previously had a king, and this had displeased them. But once they’d disposed of him, they found they wanted another. Now it’s 1833 and they are heartily sick of the whole business again. In addition, Paris is being menaced by the appearance of a giant stone elephant in the middle of the city. Unfortunately these young hotheads can think of nothing to do about all this besides throwing their furniture out of the windows and making a huge mound of broken pianos and chaises longues in order to disrupt the regular flow of traffic, thus involving the put-upon Javert, who is dispatched to set things right once again.
This naturally attracts Valjean, who—though he has no dog in this fight—can never resist toying with his old enemy. This time he drags Cosette, now a young woman, along for the fun. She, in the person of Amanda Seyfried, happens to be a symbol of love and strength and light, so she cannot but enslave the heart of one of the rebel alliance. This all leads to a series of deadly duet/confrontations between the two adversaries. Valjean cleverly manipulates the youngsters into allowing him to deal with Javert whom they've managed to capture and stage in a macabre tableau with a noose around his neck. Spiriting him into an alleyway, Valjean delivers the coup de grâce: he lets him go, thus posing a logical conundrum—not unlike those used by Captain Kirk to confound various futuristic computers in Star Trek—which Javert’s noble police mind cannot reconcile (“And does he know/That granting me my life today/This man has killed me even so?”).
A few months pass and Valjean, inexplicably aged, decides to hit the convent trail one last time, ostensibly to avoid Cosette’s wedding to the former revolutionary, an event that he’d taken as a personal inconvenience, like the theft of a favorite bauble. Nonetheless—in tribute, perhaps, to the investigative tenacity of old Javert—they smoke him out in in his God-lair, weepily singing about how he wishes Cosette were there to watch him die instead of frittering away her time on a foolish wedding. As usual he gets his own way, but not before Fantine—in one of this film’s rare supernatural effects—appears to him as some sort of demon or phantom. Cosette pleads with him to hold on to life, but Fantine grips him with the icy Hand of Death and drags him off.
We never find out what happens to France.
All in all, a peculiar work. The baffling approach to the music—making the tunes as unmemorable as possible in order to shift attention to the facial expressions—the strange symbols abounding in the mise-en-scène (the elephant, a mysterious eye which seems to watch the characters wherever they go, etc.), the unfamiliar societal customs which nevertheless at times appear to follow a kind of dream-logic, all these elements show Les Misérables to be the work of a singular artistic vision and a worthy object of cult affection.