Monday, June 27, 2011

Bride of the Nile (Egypt, 1961)

The changing role of women in an increasingly liberal society was a subject not left untouched by the Egyptian popular cinema of the late 50s and 60s, with probably the most well regarded treatment of the topic being Salah Abouseif’s 1958 drama I Am Free. In that film, actress Lobna Abdel Aziz portrays an educated young Egyptian woman who, after much searching, finds her life’s purpose through political action. Three years later, the same actress would contribute to a very different strain of Egyptian films that also dealt with women’s power, albeit in a more reactionary -- if at once whimsical -- way.

The blueprint for Egyptian films like Bride of the Nile can be clearly seen in the beloved 1949 classic Afrita Hanem, as well as in the later Ismail Yassin’s Phantom, which held the template set by that earlier film pretty much sacrosanct. All three films show us a man’s world turned upside down by the sudden appearance of some kind of magically empowered female enchantress. Americans with no knowledge whatsoever of Egyptian movies will be familiar with this scenario from long-lived TV sitcoms like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie. And, here as there, we’re asked to accept that a woman with almost godlike supernatural powers would content herself simply with being a persistent nuisance in the life of the story’s male protagonist.

Bride of the Nile begins with Sami Fouad, an engineer with an Egyptian oil company, arriving in Luxor with his best buddy in tow. Sami is played by actor Roushdy Abaza, who coincidentally enjoyed the longest of his several marriages with Afrita Hanem leading lady Samia Gamal. His buddy, Fathi, is played by Abdel Moneim Ibrahim, whose shrill comic stylings were discoursed upon in my review of The Secret of the Vanishing Cap, and hence will go unremarked upon here. Sami’s assigned task is to begin the drilling of an oil well smack dab in the middle of the city’s renowned ruins. In this he meets with spirited opposition from Dr. Hassan, an archeologist who objects to this project’s potential to disturb the graves of the pharaohs.

However, Hassan’s interference is the least of Sami’s problems, as, from the outset, the well project is beset by mysterious mishaps. Sami at first suspects Hassan, until it is revealed to him that the culprit is actually Hamis (Lobna Abdel Aziz), a mischievous spirit sent by the pharaohs to dissuade Sami from going forward with his task. Hamis is the ghost of the last “Bride of the Nile”, a virgin sacrificed to the river nearly 5000 years previous as part of an annual ritual to influence the outcome of the flood season. Unfortunately, Hamis is “revealed” only to Sami and no one else, and his flustered reactions to her constant punking cause those around him to increasingly doubt his sanity.

This last set of circumstances leads to Sami being committed to a mental institution, and to Hamis subsequently breaking him out using her magical powers. At this point the sprite reveals to Sami that she has fallen in love with him, because that’s just what happens in these movies, and Sami -- for, I imagine, much the same reasons -- responds reciprocally. Complicating this state of affairs somewhat is the fact that Sami is already engaged to his boss’s daughter. This leads to the faithful replaying of a scene found in both Afrita Hanem and Ismail Yassin’s Phantom, in which the jealous enchantress wreaks supernatural havoc at the wedding with an equally supernatural flare for lowbrow slapstick. In response, Sami leaves a groom-shaped cloud of dust at the altar in his haste to hightail it with Hamis, never giving a second thought to his fiancé or prospective in-laws (who, at this point, conveniently disappear entirely from the narrative).

However, Hamis’ love has a price, in that she demands Sami abandon the well project in return for her making herself visible to the world at large, thus lifting from Sami the stigma of appearing bat shit crazy. This he agrees to with surprisingly few signs of inner conflict, and the two hastily wed. However, come morning, once Hamis has awakened beside Sami with a post-coital glow that is surprisingly unmistakable for a film of this vintage, the problems inherent in their particular May/December romance start to make themselves apparent.

Bride of the Nile doesn’t seem to have much on its agenda beside the good-natured unfurling of its well tested premise, and makes no bones about that fact. Thus, once its central romance is established, its middle section plays out like an easygoing blend of travelogue and patriotic pageant. Hamis tours the pyramids with Sami, explaining to him that, rather than the product of slave labor, they were in fact the embodiment of an ancient jobs program(!). In response, Sami -- romantic sop that he is -- takes her to an auto plant and shows her the production line, thus demonstrating the modern manufacturing techniques that evolved from her contemporaries’ totally non-slavery based industriousness. Then follows a lengthy and colorful sequence in which we watch a modern version of the Nile Festival, including a sacrificial reenactment that ends up taking a somewhat surprising and somber turn.

Elsewhere, Bride of the Nile mines comedy from Hamis’ fish-out-of-water confrontations with the breathtaking future world of 1961. There’s her delighted introduction to the wonders of television, the obligatory makeover scene, and a bit where she mistakes a refrigerator for a sarcophagus.

As agreeable as they are on their own, these aforementioned scenes’ greatest contribution to the film might be the opportunity provided by them for the display of some pretty fabulous mid-century interior design.

Bride of the Nile indeed conforms so closely to the pattern set by its predecessors that perhaps the only ways to distinguish it qualitatively is to focus on its performances. And Lobna Abdel Aziz is certainly as beguiling as one could ask for in the role of Hamis, deftly negotiating a role that requires her to be equal parts vamp and imp (a vimp?), while at the same time maintaining enough gravity to carry the film through the more tragic turn it takes during its third act. Alongside this, the glee she exhibits during her moments as a bringer of chaos is both infectious and seemingly genuine -- as well it might have been; how often does an actress get to raise so much giddy hell with so much impunity, remaining a “heroine” while also being a ferocious engine of anarchy?

As for Roushdy, he does a fine job of being the immovable slab of beef off of which Aziz can happily ricochet. Male star power aside, these films tend to be showcases for their female leads. And, in her own way, Aziz proves to be every bit as delightful as Gamal was as the lady genie in Afrita Hanem and the Greek actress Kitty was as the oddly upbeat murder victim in Phantom. Having seen all three films, I have to say that, in this respect, Aziz beat the odds. Bride of the Nile may be fluff. But if it’s fluff you want, it is essential fluff. And, thanks to Aziz, the familiarity of its motions does nothing to reduce that fact.

Monday, June 20, 2011

To the Stars by Hard Ways (Russia, 1981)

With the exception of art house fare like Tartovsky’s Solaris, Russian science fiction films have a history of being treated with little respect in the U.S., and To the Stars by Hard Ways is no exception. After falling into the ruinous hands of Sandy Frank, it received one of that producer’s typically haphazard dubbing jobs before being released to American television under the title Humanoid Woman, going on from there to the ultimate ignominy of being mocked by puppets on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

In Russia, not surprisingly, it was a somewhat different story. Scripted by renowned Russian sci-fi author Kir Bulichev, the film was both a critical and box office success during its day, and, after the fall of communism, became something of a cult item among the country’s young film enthusiasts. This renewed popularity prompted the successful release of a restored version of the film (the project of Nikolai Viktorov, the son of the film’s original director, Richard Viktorov) in 2001. Given the contrast between its handling Stateside and its reception in its homeland, it’s tempting for a writer like myself to go that one step further and over-praise the film as being some kind of underappreciated masterpiece. But that simply isn’t the case. Still, To the Stars is nonetheless a well made and interesting movie, and certainly one that rewards a viewing minus the hectoring silhouettes of Joel and the bots.

The film begins with the discovery of a mysterious, human-like woman, the sole survivor of some unascertainable catastrophe, aboard a derelict alien spaceship of unknown origin. In order to both study this extraterrestrial and introduce her to our human ways, the somewhat unorthodox decision is made to bring her back to Earth, where she will live at the home of scientist Sergei Lebedev along with Lebedev’s mom and dad and his college age son Stepan (Vadim Ledogorov), who is finishing his preparations to become an astronaut. That the woman, who comes to be known as Niya, ends up being a quick study of the spoken Russian language ultimately serves to shed little light on things, as she is only able to reveal that she remembers nothing prior to her rescue.

What is immediately apparent about Niya, however, is that she is capable of moving at superhuman speed, and that she has both the power of telekinesis and the ability to teleport herself at will. It is further learned, after closer examination, that she is a creature of synthetic origin, and that her brain is designed so that she can be controlled remotely by some unknown third party. The question then, for both Niya and her human hosts, becomes that of for what purpose she was created, and by whom. When delegates from the ecologically ravaged planet Dessa arrive on Earth asking for assistance, Niya thinks she has found the answer.

Suspecting that Dessa is her home planet, Niya stows away aboard a clean-up vessel bound there, not realizing that it is the same ship on which young Stepan will be making his maiden voyage as a space cadet. Once there, she gradually becomes aware of her true purpose, all the while assisting the crew in its attempts to steer the blighted planet away from the brink of irreparable ecological meltdown. Opposition to these efforts comes from the forces of Turanchoks, an industrialist who has turned the increasing toxicity of Dessa’s atmosphere into an opportunity for profit -- he’s made a killing in canned air and gas masks –- and who sees no gain in having the situation remedied.

Alongside Aleksei Bybnikov’s romantic, harpsichord tinged score, attractive cinematography by Aleksandr Rybin, and a few truly imaginative ideas and inspired visuals, I think one of the things that contributes most to To the Stars by Hard Ways being as enjoyable as it is is the agreeable balance it strikes between hard handed allegory and lighthearted space opera. I know that those who are rightfully wary of propagandistic elements within Soviet films might roll their eyes at the movie’s depiction of a craven industrialist capitalizing on the misery of the masses, but, in that, it’s really no more strident or left-leaning than the nihilistic portrayals of corporate greed found in countless Hollywood versions of dystopia produced since the late 60s.

And, unlike a lot of those latter mentioned films, To the Stars –- no doubt motivated by a desire to disprove any obliviousness to Star Wars on its makers’ parts -- also piles on fun, Flash Gordon-y elements like intrepid space cadets, goofy domestic robots, grotesque alien creatures, groovy looking space vehicles, and a climax that involves both a ravaging space blob and a pitched battle on the surface of an alien planet. In well orchestrated combination with the Earthbound parts of its narrative, which are steeped in both melancholy and mystery, this makes for quite a unique stew, not to mention one whose ingredients, in a testament to Viktorov’s prowess as a director, clash a lot less than you really might expect them to.

Perhaps To the Stars by Hard Ways’ greatest asset, though, is the presence within it of Yelena Metyolkina, a model who was then making her acting debut. With her haunted, marmoset-like eyes and startled, cat-like movements, Metyolkina’s Niya is both an oddly compelling heroine and a striking physical presence, combining an unnervingly alien inscrutability with a vulnerability that is all too human.

And once we learn more about Niya’s unique predicament, I’d think it would be difficult for even the most calloused viewer not to feel a little something for her. Though, by the time of her return to Dessa, she has adapted to the ways of her human hosts as best she can, she is still, at heart, just another ET with a longing to go home -- no matter how ravaged and muck encrusted that home might be. Sadly, as the film’s title implies, that the path home is seldom one as straight and true as it might seem is something that Niya has to learn the hard way.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Italian Superhero Roll Call: Supersonic Man (Spain/Italy, 1980)

Up until now, the subjects of Italian Superhero Roll Call have been exclusively products of the 1960s. That’s because, with the exception of the mysteriously unkillable Three Fantastic Supermen franchise, the boomlet of Euro superhero films seen in that decade petered out well before the advent of the 1970s. This would change briefly in 1980, when the worldwide success of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie would inspire a mini resurgence of European costumed hero films –- a resurgence that would consist pretty much entirely of Alberto De Martino’s soberingly incompetent The Pumaman and the film that I am reviewing here, Spanish director Juan Piquer Simon’s Supersonic Man.

Plot-wise, Supersonic Man doesn’t waste any energy on originality. A super-powered alien called Supersonic is sent by his superiors to Earth to intervene in Man’s war-like, nuclear aspirant ways. Once there, he assumes human guise as the luxuriantly mustached private detective Paul (Supermen Against the Orient star Antonio Cantafora). Paul lacks Supersonic’s super abilities, and is, in fact, extremely susceptible to head trauma, which makes it all the more baffling that he so often insists upon taking on the bad guys on his own without assuming his infinitely more powerful alter ego. This never works out for him, and, as a result, he ends up spending a lot of time unconscious in the trunks of henchmen’s cars.

On the other hand, in addition to super strength and being able to fly, Supersonic counts among his super powers the ability to make objects both large and small dematerialize at will. At the same time, he is also equipped with a keen awareness of the need to pad Supersonic Man out to feature length, and so uses this particular power very sparingly. Benefitting from this conservative application of super resources is our super villain, Dr. Gulik, who is played by Cameron Mitchell. Handily filling out the remaining blanks in the “Superhero Movies for Dummies” Mad Lib, Gulik has kidnapped a prominent (scientist), with the intention of using his knowledge to build a powerful (death ray), with which he hopes to (rule) the (world). Of course, that scientist also has a (beautiful daughter) who enlists our hero’s aid, forming a romantic attachment with his earthbound alter ego, while at the same time harboring something of a (lady boner) for Supersonic himself.

 Not even Hall & Oates are safe from the wrath of the evil Dr. Gulik!

Given its steadfastly generic narrative, the only thing we can count on from Supersonic Man to provide any kind of entertainment value is its cheesiness, and thankfully there is that in abundance. Not only do we have laughable dialog augmented by overwrought English dubbing (“Liar! You Lie! You Lie!!”), but also a blissful abundance of remedial special effects in which everything in the toy box is subjected to the torments of lighter fluid and homemade fireworks. And that’s all not to mention the much talked about scene in which Supersonic mightily raises above his head a steamroller that has obviously been substituted for by a two dimensional balsa wood cut-out.

Unfortunately, some of the bad aspects of Supersonic Man have the unexpected quality of being actually unpleasant. Chief among these is the musical score by Gino Peguri, Carlos Attias and Juan Luis Izaguiree, which sounds like a vaguely melancholy reinterpretation of John Williams’ Superman theme played using the factory settings on a dollar store Casio knock-off. It’s hard to conceive of something being at once so overpowering and underwhelming, but this music could indeed make even the experience of someone repeatedly punching you in the face boring.

Also consigned to the negative column is the film’s aforementioned tendency to pad. For example, the captured scientist Professor Morgan’s principled bickering with Dr. Gulik, which would be fine for one scene, is instead turned into something of a motif. The man seems so inexhaustible in his ability to righteously hector a guy that it’s a wonder the villain doesn’t muzzle him, if not outright put him out of our misery. And then there is the near omnipresence of the film’s comic relief drunk, who is hauled out to do a drunken double-take every time something putatively out of the ordinary occurs.

Still, it can’t be said that Supersonic Man doesn’t deliver the exact kind of good natured stupidity that one hopes for in a movie of this type. Cameron Mitchell’s voracious scenery chewing, a killer robot that looks like a giant wind-up toy, the goofy shots of Supersonic flying over the New York skyline, and other such elements should be enough to make the kind of person who’s drawn to this type of film in the first place forgive its less charming flaws. The film’s singularity also serves to imbue it with a bit of mitigating underdog appeal; like most European screen superheroes –- excepting Superargo and, again, the Fantastic Supermen -- Supersonic never returned for a second adventure. I doubt it was only the unimaginative mad scientists of the world who were untroubled by that fact.

 Mama mia!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ghost of Guts Eater (Thailand, 1973)

The Krasue, as it's called in Thailand, is a horror found throughout the folklore of Southeast Asia. In Indonesia it's know as the Leak, in Cambodia as the Ap, and, in the Philippines, as Manananggal. Its presence is just as prominent in the cinema of the region, with probably its most widely known representation being in that Indonesian monument to all that is bizarre and lysergic, Mystics in Bali.

At least up until the present day, the special effects used to portray the Krasue on screen have been crude, but the very idea of it is unsettling enough for the creature to lose none of its power despite that. That fact puts a humble film like Ghosts of Guts Eater miles ahead of the vast majority of horror films produced today, most of which seem too preoccupied with putting shiny, state-of-the-art pavement over the same well traveled roads to even aspire to being scary on any deeper conceptual level.

Ghosts of Guts Eater, somewhat jarringly, wastes absolutely no time in introducing us to the Krasue, giving us an explicit close up of the spirit in all its gruesome glory during the film's opening frames. For those unfamiliar, what we see is an airborne female head -- in this case of an old woman -- with its complete digestive tract, intestines included, dangling freely beneath it as it sails menacingly through the night sky. It seems that this particular Krasue has been raiding the local chicken coops for food, and, as the film opens, a group of torch wielding villagers are bearing down on it, determined to put a stop to its poultry poaching activities.

In the ensuing melee, the Krasue is mortally wounded, but manages to wing its way back to the home of its host body, which belongs to the elderly grandmother of Bua Klee (Pisamai Vilaisakoi), a comely young village girl. Bua Klee, who is unaware of her nan's freaky nocturnal wanderings, comes upon the dying old woman once she has managed to get herself all reattached. Claiming to have been attacked by a prowler, her grandmother, as a last wish, gives to Bua Klee a ring which she asks her to wear at all times. Not surprisingly, this ring is later revealed to be the medium through which the older woman's spirit will call to Bua Klee, beckoning her to also roam the night as a Krasue in order to feed grannie's insatiable hunger.

While chicken will apparently do in a pinch, what the Krasue really hungers for is babies, and the younger the better. As legend has it -- and as Mystics in Bali so boldly depicted -- they're even not above eating them straight from the womb when the opportunity presents itself. Thus, on Bua Klee's freshman flight as a Krasue, she finds herself drawn to a fresh placenta that, in keeping with certain Thai traditions, is being kept in a container at the foot of the bed of a newborn's parents. Unfortunately for Bua Klee, the couple awakes before she can chow down, and they are able to shoo her away, leaving Bua Klee to fly off into the night hungry. (Amusingly, the village folk in Ghost of Guts Eater treat the Krasue less like some unspeakable horror from the supernatural world, and more just like a common nuisance of rural living, like an invading bat or raccoon.) Meanwhile, Muang, Bua Klee's husband, begins to suspect something is amiss when he awakes to find his wife sleeping sans her head.

Muang is played by Sombat Methanee, who was the top male star in Thailand at the time -- and whom many could be forgiven for thinking was the only male star in Thailand at the time, given just how often he turns up in these movies. Methanee was famous primarily as a hero of action films, yet here, though garnished with a couple fight scenes in which he can show his stuff, his is a relatively low key co-starring role that serves as a testament to the versatility required by his ubiquity. Like so many Southeast Asian horror films based in local folklore -- and I'm thinking in particular of those many Indonesian films starring Suzzanna -- Ghost of Guts Eater is largely a woman's story, with the tragic Bua Klee at it's center, and Methanee's Muang for the most part relegated to the part of helpless witness and beleaguered albeit loyal spouse.

To this end, Muang manages to convince himself that his encounter with the headless Bua Klee was just a dream. Yet his denial becomes harder to maintain once the young couple who were the victims of her previous night's attack identify Bua Klee as the Krasue. After a disastrous attempt at an exorcism by a local doctor, and with the townsfolk increasingly turning against them, Muang and Bua Klee take to the road, eventually finding shelter with a relative in another village. At which point Bua Klee's without-a-body experiences continue.

Ghost of Guts Eater takes place in a world in which the supernatural is a commonplace and accepted part of everyday life. Thus, in addition to negotiating the potential pitfalls of a marriage in which one party spends part of her time as a flying, entrails-trailing, disembodied head, Bua Klee and Muang also encounter, in the course of their travels, a cyclopean demon with a hidden treasure and a beautiful young woman who manages to hex Muang with a love spell. Most stirringly, Bua Klee finds that she has, by pursuing her activities as a Krasue in her new surroundings, invaded the air space of a rival Krasue, who hunts for fetuses alongside her husband, a flying demon. This leads to an aerial battle between the two that ends with Bua Klee chomping the other right on her exposed colon. Needless to say, it is a scene that I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life.

If you have never seen one of these old, folklore based, Southeast Asian horror films, Ghost of Guts Eater will no doubt be a source of much novelty and astonishment. If you have, well, I have good news, because there is much to recommend Ghost of Guts Eater nonetheless. The film forgoes the meditative pacing and jarring comic interludes typical of other Thai horror films of its era and, while a bit episodic, gives us a narrative that coasts along at a brisk and engaging pace. Further encouraging our involvement is a sympathetic portrayal of its monster -- again, not uncommon for these types of films -- that nonetheless preserves its viscerally horrifying nature. Lastly, the special effects, while primitive, range from charming to eerily evocative, and director S. Nawaraj elsewhere provides visuals that make handsome use of the colorful palette with which vintage Thai cinema has become so inseparably associated.

In short, Ghost of Guts Eater is a bit of a gem, and one that I would recommend to anyone who can stomach the idea of a woman's head flying around with its guts out. I'd think that wouldn't be too much to ask, as most of the people in Ghost of Guts Eater don't seem to be too repulsed by the thing's nasty appearance, and instead appear to regard it as a particularly annoying and persistent household pest.