Monday, August 30, 2010

Perjanjian Di Malam Keramat (Indonesia, 1991)

Sisworo Gautama Putra and Suzzanna, the director and star, respectively, of Nyi Blorong, continue their long and successful association with Perjanjian Di Malam Keramat. This time out they’re not drawing upon Indonesian folklore for their story, but instead paying homage to the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, a series whose pervasive international influence can also be seen in the Ramsay Brothers’ Hindi scare-fest Mahakaal.

The beloved Indonesian horror queen here plays Kartika, a woman who is murdered, along with her entire family, by a gang of thugs hired by a crooked business associate of her husband. The spirit of a bulky murderer with a familiar looking, blade-festooned glove then happens along and possesses her body. As the Indonesians seem to prefer their ghosts –- or, at least, the ones played by Suzzanna –- a bit on the randy side, we soon see the freshly spookified Kartika foil an attempted exorcism by luring the holy man sent to do the job into her web by means of a ridiculous looking pair of prosthetic breasts. This bit depressed me a little, because, although Suzzanna is clearly north of forty here, she is still an undeniably beautiful woman, and is undeserving of such indignities. Doubtless, the producers here were anxious to insure that a proper boob-to-screen-minute ratio was maintained, as they also bring in Virgins From Hell’s Yenni Farida to parade around in an impressive array of hooker wear.

Anyway, while the fact that Kartika’s body has been inhabited by the soul of a Freddy Kreuger-like killer certainly has some effect on her modus operandi, the agenda remains hers. And so, for the remainder of the film, we get a reenactment of Freddie’s greatest hits, reeled out as a claw-gloved Suzzanna goes about the business of getting revenge against those who murdered her family. It’s the fourth Nightmare film –- containing some of the weirdest kills in the series –- that seems to have provided the lion's share of the inspiration here, and so we get riffs on the famous “roach motel” scene, the victims’ heads as garnish on a pizza (though this time it’s in a yummy meatball soup), and the Freddy as Jaws bit. None of these are slavish recreations, however, thanks in part to the yawning gap between the technical means of the makers of Perjanjian Di Malam Keramat and those of the Nightmare films. In other words, those -- like myself -- smitten with the endearingly handcrafted nature of the scare effects in old Indonesian horrors won’t be disappointed.

Interestingly, Perjanjian Di Malam Keramat doesn’t seem too invested in the original Nightmare films’ notion of Freddy murdering his victims in their dreams. Many of the surreal kill sequences appear to be occurring during their subject’s waking hours, and eventually reveal themselves to have been ineffective in real world terms, as the "victims" all show up present and in one piece for the final act. Perhaps Kartika’s goal is simply to torment her prey by subjecting them to repeated, nightmarish visions of their own gory deaths? And you’re right: English subtitles definitely would have been helpful.

Suffice it to say that Perjanjian Di Malam Keramat is not quite the class act that Nyi Blorong was –- keeping in mind that, given that Nyi Blorong is a film that traffics in baby eating and snake/human miscegenation, we’re talking about “class” in only the most preciously relative terms. In fact, the later film is every bit as trashy as you might expect such an opportunistic cash-in on a pre-existing property to be. Every scare moment is oversold by a cheesy synthesizer score, and Suzzanna’s acting style, so admirably restrained in Nyi Blorong, is all bug eyes and bellowing. In the spirit of the original Nightmare films, she also takes part in a good share of ghoulish clowning around. Kartika, like Freddy, has a fondness for kissing off her victims with a macabre bon mot, though, again, without subs, I couldn’t tell you whether they were LOL-worthy or not.

And YES, of course I’m going to tell you that Perjanjian Di Malam Keramat is deliriously entertaining despite all of its shortcomings. Its heroine (Elly Ermawaty) is a devout woman who first attempts to defeat Kartika through Muslim prayer. Fortunately, when that fails, she has some bone-shattering martial arts skills to fall back upon. So, in other words, this is a remake of Nightmare on Elm Street that ends with two women having a protracted, dizzily acrobatic kung fu battle. Color me sold. Hollywood may have taken a dozen or more stabs at telling Freddy Krueger’s story, but I’ll be damned if Indonesia didn’t get it right the first time.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hey You, Go! (Japan, 1968)

More often than not, writing about the type of films I do is its own reward (as well as, on occasion, its own punishment, but we’ll save that for another post). Sometimes, however, the karma cookies come from without, as when a post inspires one of my esteemed peers to share the fruits of her or his own compulsive film habit. Such was the case a couple months back, when I wrote about the series of 1960s rock and roll movies starring Japanese Group Sounds sensation The Spiders. Professor Grewbeard of the fabulous Magic Carpet Burn stepped forward with the opinion that Hey You, Go!, the sole cinematic venture starring The Jaguars, one of The Spiders leading contemporaries in the Group Sounds scene, was also well worth checking out. In fact, he made it sound so good that I just couldn’t resist tracking it down.

Of course, as is most often the case with films I review for this blog, the DVD of Hey You, Go! that I tracked down lacked English subtitles. Because of this, I can only tell you what Hey You, Go! looks like, but not necessarily what it means. That said, Hey You, Go! looks like a very fun little film indeed.

At the time of their initial rise to fame, the Jaguars’ repertoire included Japanese interpretations of bluesy Western garage rock tracks like The Blues Magoos’ “Tobacco Road”. As such, their sound is a bit more strident and rough edged than that of The Spiders, who, with their more varied pop sound, seemed more reluctant to alienate the moms and dads of their teenaged fans. Correspondingly, Hey You, Go! is a much looser and more irreverent affair than either of the Spiders films I’ve seen, delivering more of the type of good natured anarchy that Westerners steeped in the big screen exploits of the Beatles and Monkees might expect. While director/writer Yoichi Maeda puts an emphasis on fun, frolic, and effervescent pop art style, he also doesn’t shy away from darker territory, or turn a blind eye to the events of the day -- something that, to be fair, was probably much less of a viable option in 1968 than it was in the comparatively less turbulent previous year, when the majority of The Spiders’ movies were produced. Basically, you could say that Hey You, Go! leans more toward The Monkees’ Head than it does The Monkees.

In my review of the Spiders’ Go Forward and The Road to Bali, I pointed out how Nikkatsu, the studio behind those films, played to its own strengths by incorporating into each elements of its popular action films, basically turning both into spy spoofs with frequent musical interludes. Of course, the other reason for this was simply that, it being the mid 60s and all, spy-mania was in the air. After all, even The Beatles had lampooned the Bond movies’ tropes in Help! And so it is that the Shochiku produced Hey You, Go! also seeks to place its mop-topped stars at the center of a web of intrigue, complete with larger-than-life villains and preposterous high tech gadgetry.

In this case the threat comes from a Goldfinger-like mastermind who, ensconced within the chrome-lined recesses of his secret island hideout, commands an army of minions hilariously clad in matching eye patches and black berets. (Nods also seem to be being made here toward Toho’s Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, released two years earlier.) For some reason, said mastermind is bent on eliminating The Jaguars’ singer Sin Okamoto, and dispatches for that purpose everything from a duo of bumbling assassins, to a trio of phony monks, to a quintet of murderous fembots in color coded bikinis. Why this is might have something to do with the star-crossed romance that Okamoto has embarked upon with the evil mastermind’s pretty young daughter –- and, if so, is an example of parental overkill that brings to mind Obama’s crack about targeting the Jonas Brothers with predator drones.

Out of the six members of The Jaguars, the film’s focus is so exclusively upon singer Okamoto that the remaining musicians -- including drummer and band leader Yukio Miya -- barely register. Instead, Okamoto is provided with a couple of fictional associates to interact with, including a hapless tour manager type and a band muse and girl Friday played by pop singer Akiko Nakamura. The presence of Nakamura –- who, with her tall, bony frame, waifish beauty and penchant for modeling eye popping Carnaby Street fashions, reminds me of a Japanese version of Francoise Hardy -- insures that Hey You, Go! is not only a good time for Japanese Group Sounds fans, but also for fans of the more female-centric Japanese pop of the era. In addition to Nakamura’s one showcase number (with The Jaguars playing back-up), we also get a cameo from her fellow pop siren Aki Azumi, who shows up to belt out her then-hit “Yuuyake No Aitsu”. (You can hear another track by Azumi on Big Beat’s wonderful recent Nippon Girls compilation.)

Between its musical interludes and vaguely plot-driven escapades, Hey You, Go! goes off on a number of pop culture themed satirical digressions, including an extended dream sequence spoofing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and a Romeo and Juliet bit that was likely inspired by Zeferelli’s recent hit film version of same. At one point a -- perhaps Timothy Leary inspired -- fellow in a suit and tie shows up to read passages from The Little Prince and talk about LSD. There is also a recreation of the ski sequence from Help! that is somewhat distracting, though whether it was intended as another satirical jab or was just a desperate attempt at emulation I can’t say for sure. In any case, director Maeda never lets anything stay on screen long enough to really rankle, seeming instead ever anxious to get on to the next silly bit of business, spicing the assemblage with a generous application of psychedelic optical effects and mod-ish, brightly colored set design.

Things take a somewhat serious turn during the final third of Hey You, Go!, when the villain’s foot soldiers, in the course of their attempts to rub out Okamoto, accidentally kill the singer’s beloved instead. This dramatic development puts a bit of a tax on the thespian skills of Okamoto, who, despite being attractive and likeable, has already been called upon to spread those skills pretty thin by virtue of being the only member of his band to appear in almost every one of the movie’s scenes. Thankfully, things quickly go back to being giddily irreverent once the group sails off to the villain’s island to stage a counterassault. There they come upon a World War II era Japanese soldier who has been hiding out in a cave since before the war’s end. In one of the movie’s most darkly hilarious bits, the boys then bring the old fellow up to speed with a sped-up, chipmunk-voiced tune that plays over footage of everything from the bombing of Hiroshima to Vietnam War atrocities. Then the soldier leads them in an armed attack on the villain’s compound that, in its violence, might convince you that the Jaguars’ mantra, in defiance of the countercultural sentiments of the age, was indeed “make war, not love”. And then, for a final parting shot, Akiko Nakamura and the band pose in mimickry of the Iwo Jima Monument.

One of the many wonderful things about 1960s pop culture is that we are still today asking ourselves what a lot of it was supposed to mean -- and that’s only considering the portion of it that was in a language we could understand. Without the benefit of linguistic comprehension –- and in consideration of a product of a country as intrinsically baffling as Japan –- I am especially loathe to speculate. All I will say about Hey You, Go! is that it has an engaged, switched-on sensibility that suggests to me that at least some of the people involved in its creation were no strangers to chemical inspiration. Thus what we get, in opposition to what one might expect, is a case of folks who are less attempting to walk in the Beatles’ footsteps than they are along their own whimsically addled path -- even if those footsteps end up overlapping quite a bit anyway. In any case, I really enjoyed the film, and would even go so far as saying that, cultural differences aside, there is a deeper level on which I really think that I get what it's trying to say. Now pass the bong.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nyi Blorong, aka Snake Queen (Indonesia, 1982)

Nyi Blorong is a film starring Indonesian horror queen Suzzanna and Indonesian action king Barry Prima that is thematically neither a horror or an action film, but rather more of a straightforward fantasy picture based in Indonesian folklore. Still, director Sisworo Gautama Putra (who earlier directed Prima in the hit Jaka Sembung, aka The Warrior) provides enough spooky atmosphere and ooky gore to at least please fans of the former genre, even if we don’t get to see Barry spin kick anyone in the mug.

The Snake Queen is one of those mystical figures who is known to grant wishes to those who honor her, but always at a price -- and usually that price ends up making the deal not worth it in the first place. But does that stop people? Consider, for instance, the one supplicant who, in exchange for her consideration of his wish, is forced by the Queen (Suzzanna) to eat human flesh, only to return home to find the partially devoured remains of his young child. (Most world cinema buffs will have already noted that Asian film cultures don’t harbor the same taboos about depicting harm to children on screen that those in the West do, and that the practice seems to gain in enthusiasm once you hit the Southeast Asian countries.)

Central to Nyi Blorong’s narrative is another such supplicant, a wealthy family man who, in his desire to increase his riches, has made a deal with the Queen that, as we see in the movie’s opening scene, has already cost him dearly. In that sequence we see this man’s wife wrapped in her funeral shroud, a gory, telltale bite wound on her neck. Soon thereafter, the Snake Queen rises up out of the ocean and deposits herself on the shore inside a giant pulsating egg, from which she emerges in human form, taking the guise of a female relative (I think) by the name of “Devi” to insinuate herself into the man’s family. Now at this point you might get the sneaking feeling that we have encountered the Snake Queen before in our journeys through Indonesian exploitation cinema, and you would be right. She is one of the many guises of that figure of Javanese legend also known as the South Seas Queen –- she who played such a delightful role in the lurid events of Lady Terminator.

And like Lady Terminator’s version of the South Seas Queen, the Snake Queen here is something of a randy old lass. As such, it’s not long before she has set her amorous sights on Andika (Prima), the hunky young fiancé of her host’s easy-on-the-eyes daughter Shashti (Nena Rosier). Andika in turn falls under the Queen’s spell, and is soon making what would otherwise be referred to as the beast with two backs with her -- if a half human/half snake creature could indeed be said to have a back. This freaky affair is eventually discovered by Shashti, which results in her becoming a target of the Queen’s supernatural wrath.

As films like Lady Terminator demonstrate, the Indonesian film industry was not above occasionally tailoring their product with an eye toward Western distribution -- a tendency that indeed accounts in part for the steady employment of Western-looking, Eurasian actors like Prima and Suzzanna. Nyi Blorong, however -- and despite whatever distribution history it may have had -- is clearly a picture aimed at the locals. As such, it’s one of those films that gives outsiders like myself the kind of voyeuristic thrill that can only come from feeling like you’ve been afforded a peek into another culture's dream life. The film handles its outré subject matter, not with the trashy, winking enthusiasm of the exploitation genre, but instead with a solemnity that adds considerably to its overall atmosphere of dread and disquiet.

This atmosphere in turn serves to smooth over those elements of the film that might otherwise seem laughably makeshift or over-the-top. In the case of the special effects sequences, which are indeed cheap and plentiful, the film also benefits from the fact that, in the best tradition of Indonesian horror, the cheesiness of those effects ends up being trumped by their weirdness. In one scene, one of Andika’s friends enlists the help of a bumbling mystic, and together the two confront a figure with a flaming head whose lower body detaches and does a shimmying dance independent of its top portion. Later, the Queen appears to Shashti in her true form, her head and torso towering stories above the girl perched atop an enormous snake body. And little I can say can communicate just how creepy was the sight of the Queen silently traversing the sky in a ghostly, golden hued horse-drawn carriage. All of this came across as so culturally specific that I found it a bit jarring when a later scene, in which Shashti is momentarily possessed by the Queen, paid an apparent tribute to The Exorcist. That didn’t make it any less spooky, though, when the blue faced Shashti levitated and started doing cartwheels on the ceiling.

As I’m finding is the case with a lot of the most effective Indonesian horrors, Nyi Blorong also makes good use of a very sparingly applied musical score, with many of the most dramatic and disturbing scenes eerily playing out against a muted backdrop of ambient natural sounds. It also doesn’t hurt that the score, when it does chime in, is a hauntingly atonal and minimalist one featuring traditional Indonesian instruments. In fact, the only Western sounding theme to be heard at any point is a woozy string quartet piece that plays during the romantic scenes between the Snake Queen and Andika -- the significance of which I won’t speculate upon, but which is nonetheless deserving of consideration.

And finally, there is Suzzanna’s performance as the titular Snake Queen, which is surprising for its quiet stoicism, as if she is portraying a creature so assured of her power that any overt expression of menace would be unnecessary. For his part, Barry Prima is really just here to provide the beefcake this time around, which he does more than sufficiently. In fact, I found it impressive that, despite the nature of Prima’s fame at the time, the filmmakers at no point in the movie provided any type of showcase for his fighting skills. What final battle there is, in fact, takes place between the Snake Queen and a crone-like old sorceress, both of whom fly about on wires quite wonderfully as magical explosions go off on all sides of them.

Of course, the world that Nyi Blorong presents is far too much of a downbeat and sorrow-filled place for Barry Prima to be allowed to simply come along and punch its woes out of existence. After all, as awesome as Barry is, the Snake Queen, her appetites, and her thirst for payback are eternal -- forces to be reckoned with again and again for as long as man’s greed drives him to write checks that his soul can’t cash. There’s just no competition.

Banglar Hulk

Via the pee your pants awesomeness that is Tars Tarkas.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ravikant Nagaich: Director, madman, visionary

I've been obsessing over Bollywood director Ravikant Nagaich ever since reviewing Rani Aur Lalpari. So much so, in fact, that I was inspired to post larger version of some of the screen grabs I made for my earlier review of his Kaala Sona, along with some additional grabs from Rani Aur Lalpari. He obviously had a real love for placing his actors within psychedelic fantasy landscapes.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Rani Aur Lalpari (India, 1975)

Rani Aur Lalpari might seem like your friend, because it offers you the opportunity to see some of Bollywood's biggest stars of the 70s in a context that you probably never could have imagined you would. But, kids, make no mistake about it: Rani Aur Lalpari hates you.

What the film will eventually give us -- among many, many other things -- is a series of fantasy sequences featuring cameo appearances by those stars, but, first, director Ravikant Nagaich must establish a framing narrative drenched in misery. Of course, the theme of fantasy as an escape from life's cruelties is an inexhaustibly resonant and evergreen one. But what if we, the audience, experience those fantasies, as presented, as cruelties in themselves? Where do we go to escape from Rani Aur Lalpari? (And if you're a Bollywood novice who's surprised to learn that Hindi popular movies are about anything other than singing, dancing and joy, consider that one of the industry's most frequently revisited tales concerns a guy drinking himself to death.)

The film's title character, Rani, is one of those little girls who has developed a rich imaginary life as a buffer against everyday hardship. We see this demonstrated in an early song number in which the penniless and hungry kid fantasizes herself into what looks like one of those old drive-in theater "head to the snack bar" promos, in which she frolics through a landscape made up of garish, over-abundant displays of name brand candies. Looks like the Chiclet tree is in full bloom!

It seems that Rani's dad has been forced by circumstances to seek employment in another country, leaving Rani, her mom (Asha Parekh!), and Rani's pet rabbit Moti to seek shelter with relatives. These relatives turn out to be cruel, glutinous oafs, who, during the days when Rani's mom is off slaving away at her thankless seamstress job, heartlessly mistreat Rani and force her to act as their personal slave. Needless to say, there is a lot of crying.

Even Moti the rabbit cries.

BTW, don't get too used to Moti. He will die. Then again, this is a kid's movie, so how bad could it be?


Finally Rani befriends a little boy in a neighboring apartment block who regales her with tales of fantasy and wonder. This provides the opportunity for a couple of extended song sequences in which those tales are acted out by the stars of the day. The first is Cinderella, featuring Neetu Singh as Cinderella, Jeetendra as the Prince, and Reena Roy as the Fairy Godmother, aka the titular Lalpari, which translates as "Red Angel".

The second tale is a very abbreviated version of Gulliver's Travels starring Feroz Khan. I kept waiting for Feroz to drink a boatload of ale and start smashing Liliputians with his fists, but it never happened. Still, it's an enjoyable bit, loaded with lots of dodgy process shots.

Somewhere in all this there's also a school pageant that I think is meant to be some kind of plea for world peace. The kids dress up as the people of many lands and then reenact warfare, shooting at and stabbing each other as explosions are projected behind them. At the end, the stage is littered with dead kids, and Rani, dressed as Mother India, spins around and cries.

Then Danny Denzongpa gets up on stage and gives a speech before handing Rani a trophy.

Finally the happy day arrives when Rani's dad is scheduled to make his return to India. Rani and her mom excitedly head out to the airport, only to see dad's plane, upon making its approach, plummet to the ground and explode. Rani's mom goes into shock and lapses into a coma, dying soon thereafter.

Little Rani then decides that she must travel to the netherworld to beseech Yamraj, the Hindu god of death, to bring her parents back to life. Calling for her mom, she runs out into the surf and plummets to the bottom of the ocean, where she is soon fleeing for her life from a badly rear-projected giant octopus.

I should point out here that Ravikant Nagaich, who is also credited with special effects on Rani Aur Lalpari, also directed the psychedelic curry western Kaala Sona, and that this film sees him give full expression to his obvious love -- only hinted at in that other film -- for creating bizarre fantasy landscapes with copious crude applications of glass mattes and the Schufftan Process. I should also point out that Nagaich later went on to direct both of Mithun's Gunmaster G-9 films, which really isn't relevant to Rani Aur Lalpari, but establishes Nagaich's status as a filmmaker of great import.

Anyway, what little Rani endures from this point on -- and what we endure from this point on -- can only be described as an ordeal. After fleeing the octopus, she comes upon a white robed female figure in a boat, who ferries her along peacefully for a  while before disappearing and leaving Rani in the vessel alone, at which point the boat plummets down a crazy Willie Wonka style vortex. She then encounters a trio of mermaids lead by Padma Khanna, who seems to really not want her to plunge into this fiery red hole that opens up in the ocean floor before her, but she does anyway.

One might think that plunging down this fiery hole would lead Rani to Hell. But, then again, one might be said to be held too heavily under the sway of Christian mythology for thinking so. Then again, when Rani gets to the bottom of this hole she finds angels, which makes this sequence confusing on an impressive number of levels. These angels lead Rani to a statue of the Fairy Godmother/Lalpari from the Cinderella segment of the movie. This vaguely reassuring turn of events aside, Rani Aur Lalpari quickly demonstrates that is far from done being one of the most harrowing children's movies you have ever seen, as Rani then takes a candle and walks in circles around the statue until her hands are covered in scalding hot wax.

Finally the statue turns into Reena Roy, who leads Rani to a place where there are a trio of scary talking heads on pedestals.

And then she and Rani run across a rainbow until they are, for some reason, on the Moon.

I have to admit that the events of the movie really began to blur for me at this point. There was a lot of falling through the abyss and crudely painted nightmare landscapes, and then a part where Rani, now wearing Cinderellas sparkled slippers,  climbed up a ladder into the stars. I did perk up a bit, though, when Aruna Irani appeared on screen for a sapphic, mind-bendingly sexy dance number that involved her being bathed by handmaidens in a flower shaped bath.

Then Aruna takes Rani to Krishna, after which we get a sequence in which Rani appears to have died in the process of her toils, but is then revived by Krishna at Aruna Irani's tearful insistence. Then a statue cries. And, hey, Jagdeep is down there too!

Rather than proceed with this summary, I'm just going to end this review Memsaab style, with a series of questions: Will Rani survive her ordeal and make her way to Yamraj? And, if so, will he grant her wish and, in defiance of all that is right and holy, revive her dead parents? And, if so, will they be zombies? Did you make a child watch Rani Aur Lalpari, or watch it yourself under the influence of psychedelic drugs? And, if so, how sorry are you now?

In the course of typing this, I have continually had to pause to seek confirmation that I did not, in fact, simply dream Rani Aur Lalpari. Even as a B picture it would have been something of a skull-fuck, but the absurd assemblage of A list talent within it takes it to a whole other hallucinatory level entirely. I mean, you bring in Danny Denzongpa just to hand out a trophy at the end of a freaky, ultra violent grade school pageant? Really? I think it's telling that Moser Baer didn't even bother to subtitle the DVD edition of this film, as if seeking to put another prohibitive layer between it and those uninitiated souls who might be harmed by it. Look, I know you don't want to be told that you can't handle this movie. So I won't. But... oh, no, no, I'll shut up now.