Monday, October 29, 2012

Three Supermen in the Jungle (Italy/Spain, 1970)

It seems that, during the late 60s to mid-80s, every couple of years someone in a room full of people somewhere in Europe would say, “Aw, what the hell. Let’s make another Three Fantastic Supermen movie”. And thus, by 1970, we had Three Supermen in the Jungle, the third film in a perplexingly long-lived series that would ramble on until 1986, all the while becoming more underfunded and increasingly Turkish.

This entry begins with Brad Harris’ FBI agent, Brad Scott, attempting to get married, only to be called into the field by his superiors mere moments before walking the aisle. It seems a gang of Soviet agents are poised to lay claim to a uranium rich African mine, having murdered the FBI agent in charge of keeping them from it. Now it has been decided that only the Three Fantastic Supermen -- with their matching, gymnastics enabling, bulletproof red long johns -- can succeed where that lone agent failed, making Scott, who is one of them, the only agent for the job. Scott objects, referring to the shabby treatment the trio received at the hands of the bureau during their last adventure, which was chronicled in 1968’s Three Supermen in Tokyo. This is an interesting point for Scott to make, seeing as neither he nor the actor playing him was in Three Supermen in Tokyo.

Three Supermen in the Jungle, in fact, marks Harris’ sole return to the series, after having starred in the first entry alongside his Kommissar X co-star Tony Kendall. Tokyo replaced Kendall and Harris with Spaghetti Western mainstay George Martin (who returns here) and Willi Colombini (who does not). Meanwhile, Kendall’s mute sidekick Nick, played by Aldo Canti in the first film, was replaced by another stuntman-turned-actor, Salvatore Borghese, in the role of mute sidekick “Dick”. The name of Borghese’s character would change throughout the series (in Supermen Against the Orient, for instance, he was “Jerry”), but the actor, from Three Supermen in Tokyo on, would remain one of its few constants, as I fear would be his portraying a speech impaired man as a gibbering, hyperactive idiot. In truth, consistency wasn’t exactly a strong point of this series, as it appeared less concerned with establishing distinctive tropes than with merely being a reliable source of generic tongue-in-cheek superhero hijinks -- which, I have to admit, it is.

Anyway, it turns out that, before he can reunite with his fellow supermen, Dick (Borghese) and Martin (Martin), Scott must first free them from a Middle Eastern prison, where, incorrigible master thieves that they are, they’ve been thrown after trying to make off with a sheik’s gold. Interestingly, their captors have not seen fit to free them of their super suits before imprisoning them, which makes rescuing them a lot easier than it might otherwise have been. To demonstrate its staunch commitment to cartoon logic, Three Supermen in the Jungle then has Scott travel to the Middle East by rocket to save time, and then use a nifty burrowing machine called an Earthworm to affect their breakout. Then it’s off to Africa for a brisk course in boilerplate jungle movie shenanigans 101.

Are there tribes of ooga booga movie savages? Check. Is there a mischievous chimp? Indeed there is -- and the gibbering deaf guy can talk to it! Must a deadly pit of quicksand be traversed? YUP. Are our heroes placed in a giant pot by cannibals? YAWN! In addition to the aforementioned thrills, the Supermen also come upon a tribe of white, leopard skin bikini sporting amazons lead by the self-proclaimed Queen of the Jungle, Jungla (Femi Benussi). So amiably lax is the film in its dedication to having a plot that it then abandons its whole Cold War premise in favor of having the Supermen seduced into a life of domesticity by the amazons, only to find out almost too late that they are destined for the sacrificial altar. Not that much real suspense is forfeited by this shifting of gears, mind you, as the villainous Soviets here are of the type that include a pantsless aparat-chick (see what I did there?) among their number for va-va-voom appeal and celebrate tactical victories by doing a Cossack dance in a chorus line.

It almost begrudges me to admit that Three Supermen in the Jungle has its charms despite -- and more likely because of -- being a signal example of 60s Italian popcorn filmmaking at its most blearily sun-dazed and asleep at the wheel. After all, what do I want? If the Supermen movies were ever to guaranty their audience anything, it wouldn’t be much beyond lots of slapstick fight scenes with complicated acrobatics, and Jungle certainly delivers on that count. And I must say I enjoyed paying witness to the odd gift that Brad Harris, an accomplished stuntman, shows for physical comedy, particularly in how he uses his bulk against itself. You really haven’t seen absurdity until you’ve seen a guy with Harris’s Peplum grade muscles throw himself down in the dirt and launch into an exaggerated kicking and screaming temper tantrum.

Three Supermen in the Jungle wraps up with a return to the States and an egregious Chinaman impersonation by Brad Harris before closing out with just one more massive brawl. Sated, the hypothetical Three Supermen devotee would then have to wait another three whole years before his heroes returned in Supermen Against the Orient. And this was before webisodes, guys.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Kommissar X: Joe Walker finally gets the love he deserves

I don’t usually write DVD reviews. This is mostly because the formats in which I watch my chosen obscurities -- VCDs, gray market VHS rips -- are typically too degraded to warrant mention. (The exception, of course, being when their quality is so harrowing that it presents an obstacle to my assessment of the film overall.) As a result, I’ve become resigned to the fact that watching the old movies I want to see will necessarily involve squinting at them through a tissue of noise and decay. It’s for this reason, then, that on those rare occasions when someone takes a favorite film that’s been poorly served in previous releases and gives it its due share of TLC, I want to give it prominent mention.

Such is the case with Koch Media’s German DVD release of the first Kommissar X film, Jagd auf Unbekannt, aka Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill. The disc is part of a planned box set that’s slated to feature six of the seven total Kommissar X titles (not included will be the perpetually MIA FBI: Operation Pakistan from 1971) and is being sold with a display box to be filled as the individual titles are released. As compared to the cropped and pocked versions previously available, the vivid color and wide screen presentation of this release are a wonder to behold. Yes, these films were low budget, but, as we can now see, they also looked fabulous.

Again, I’m not Consumer Reports, but it seems called for to present some screen shot comparisons between Koch’s version of Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill and the version released by Retro Media several years ago.


The Koch disc features both the German and English language versions of Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill, with the latter featuring a couple brief scenes cut from the English version that momentarily slip into German audio with English subs. The English version also comes with optional German subs, though no subs are available on the German version. Also included is an extra disc featuring a fan documentary chronicling a convention appearance that reunited an elderly Tony Kendall and Brad Harris with their apparently incorrigible Kommissar X director Gianfranco Parolini. Their discussion flits from German to English to Italian, with no subtitles to help us out (and with Brad Harris, quite impressively, proving to be the only one fluent in all three). Still, the love and good humor are palpable, and there are interview inserts with Harris, conducted in English, that pretty much give you the gist of what was said.

So, do I recommend people buy this? I do. If for no other reason than that I want Koch to have the financial incentive to release the remaining five discs so that I can buy those too. Look, I know I’m not Oprah, but, come on, people. Make this happen for me!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Monday, October 22, 2012

Shahenshah (India, 1988)

I’ve had Shahenshah in my sights ever since I reviewed the dreadful Amitabh Bachchan superhero joint Toofan a few years back. In that review, I mentioned that Toofan was one of a string of underperforming late 80s comeback vehicles that Bachchan released upon the abrupt end of his ill-fated foray into parliamentary politics. Shahenshah, also a superhero film, was both the first and the most successful of those comeback vehicles, which lead me to hope that it might be an improvement upon Toofan. Unfortunately, it seems that Toofan was merely an attempt to recapture the lighting that was Shahenshah, as the two have much in common, flaws included.

Shahenshah’s lengthy prologue sees the righteous policeman father of young Vijay framed in a bribery scandal by “J.K.”, an unscrupulous developer and all-around crumbum. Dad then – like a boss – hangs himself in the family home where his wife and young son are sure to be the first to find him (don’t do this). Flash forward a few decades and Vijay is now a policeman himself, albeit a buffoonish, betel leaf chewing one who appears to be accepting bribes for real from various corners of the underworld. Thing is, though, that those offering graft later receive a visit from Vijay’s alter ego, Shahenshah, a pitiless vigilante armed with the rope necessary to enact his self assigned job as judge, jury and executioner.

Shahenshah’s is sort of a de facto origin story, pretty much taking for granted that we’ve seen enough of these superhero shows to know that of course Vijay would reinvent himself in adulthood as a freakishly agile nocturnal avenger. And given the tendency of modern tent pole films to want to show us how our superhero sausage is made over and over and over again, it’s refreshing. Still, though, there are a few details I’d be curious to see fleshed out a bit. For instance, I’d like to know how Shahenshah settled on his costume, which involves a silver emo wig and a single chainmail sleeve, plus leather. I’d also like to know how Shahenshah, just being a normal guy, is able to so easily beat up several muscle bound and well armed goons in one go. (I know you can train, but doesn’t a life of crime also make a person pretty good at fighting? I mean, they’re called “toughs” for a reason.)

Finally there’s the suggestion that it’s Vijay the bumbling cop who’s the fictional persona, while Shahenshah is the real deal. We even see Vijay trying to integrate the two identities toward the end of the film, when he attempts to adopt Shahenshah’s righteous and fearless demeanor in his guise as a policeman. This split is also examined via that old shtick of having Vijay’s love interest (Meenakshi Sheshadri, who was also in Toofan) fall head over heels for Shahenshah and missing no opportunity to make unfavorable comparisons between the two. I would love to never see this particular trope played out again, but, then again, sticking to watching only films aimed at adults might do the trick in that regard.

In any case, it soon becomes obvious that Vijay is not accepting bribes in earnest but instead as a means of tricking the forces of corruption into revealing themselves. This plot point gains particular interest when you consider that Bachchan’s political downfall came as a result of his proximity to an influence peddling scam. Although the film’s screenplay was written by Santosh Saroj, it was based on a story idea suggested by Bachchan’s wife Jaya, which makes it tempting to wonder whether she had intended it as some kind of rebuke to Bachchan’s political critics. (Bachchan, by the way, was ultimately cleared of all wrongdoing, but felt burned enough by the experience to resign anyway.)

Shahenshah, like Toofan, suffers first and foremost from giving us far too little of its titular superhero and far too much of his goofy alter ego. This is especially frustrating because Shahenshah, on those rare occasions when he does show up, is pretty cool. He has a killer catch phrase (in response to a trembling goon asking “Who are you?”, his unvarying reply is, “I am greater than you. My name is Shahenshah!”) and there’s this weird Darth Vader noise that accompanies his every entrance. Vijay, by contrast, is a shrill annoyance. There’s just something about Bachchan’s mugging comic relief turns in these later films that strikes me as painfully undignified. I realize that, as a star of masala films, he had to master broad comedy as well as badassery, and that he played the fool on numerous occasions during his heyday. Yet, as in Toofan, there’s a desperation on display here that makes it feel as if he’s running a particularly humiliating gauntlet.

Compensating for Shahenshah’s weak center is a terrific cast of supporting players. Chief among these is the great Amrish Puri, whose presence alone elevates Shahenshah well above Toofan in terms of melodramatic stakes. In fact, J.K. is such a boilerplate Puri villain that the actor needs to make little more than a minimal effort in order to provide a satisfying baseline of bug-eyed, whisky swilling malevolence. (By the way, never turn down Chivas in a Bollywood movie -- as J.K. does in favor of Black Dog here -- or people will apparently lose their shit and figure out that you’re the Antichrist.) Also on hand is what Lazy Writing 101 decrees I call a “veritable who’s who” of iconic Indian character actors: Pran! Aruna Irani! Prem Chopra! And also Jagdeep in a giant cowboy hat and, at one point, nothing else.

Also in Shahenshah’s favor is the fact that it concludes with what is by far the most insane courtroom scene I’ve ever witnessed. This begins with Shahenshah delivering a key witness by driving a 4x4 through the wall of the courtroom, and continues with a defense attorney pulling a rifle on the judge and forcing him to make a false confession in order to prove a point of law. Finally there is a massive brawl that concludes with Shahenshah essentially lynching Amrish Puri right in the middle of the courtroom. (Sorry, spoiler.) As is the case with most vigilante movies, Shahenshah is peppered throughout with embittered diatribes about the sorry state of the legal system, and seeing as the legal system here is apparently run with all the restraint and integrity of an interspecies cage match, I see what they’re talking about.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The freaks come out at night

Keith from Teleport City has started a new open Facebook page, Big City After Dark, where folks can post lurid pulp and trash novel covers to their heart's content. So far it's been quite a popular joint, with a host of recurring posters, including yours truly. Go there to see your fill of scantily clad femme fatales, leering sadists, randy hillbillies, and, for some reason, lots of bronzed, shirtless guys with close-cropped, peroxide blond hair who are probably gay. I just got back from an East Coast jaunt and should return to writing reviews next week. These pictures, however, are worth more than a thousand of my words, and should more than suffice as a substitute for the time being.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Captain Barbell (Philippines, 1986)

While our beloved Darna is the most popular of Mars Ravelo’s creations, she is only one out of a whole roster of superheroes created by the celebrated Pinoy comics author over the course of his career. These heroes range from the derivative -- such as the rubber limbed Lastikman -- to the deservedly singular -- like Flash Bomba, whose super power is having really enormous hands and feet. Falling somewhere in the middle of this spectrum is Captain Barbell, who, like Darna, is a transformational hero in the mold of Captain Marvel. Like many of Ravelo’s characters, Captain Barbell has been immortalized on film on numerous occasions, being the subject of two television series in the last decade alone, and, since his introduction in 1963, the subject of five feature films. The fact that two of these films starred Dolphy gives you some idea of the level of seriousness with which the character is typically treated.

1986’s Captain Barbell, however, does not star Dolphy, but instead casts California born actor Edu Manzano as the muscular Captain and Herbert Bautista as his spindly alter ego. Indicating that the film was something of a prestige production is the presence of Filipino “Megastar” Sharon Cuneta, who makes an eleventh hour cameo as Darna. Cuneta would have been at the peak of her fame at this time, thanks not only to her success on screen, but also to a string of hit records and a popular weekly variety series. Likely her appearance is a reflection of the mutually beneficial relationship between her and Captain Barbell’s production company, Viva Films, for whom she worked almost exclusively throughout her career. Still, non Filipino audiences are more likely to be dazzled by the appearance within Captain Barbell of a very young, pre-Miss Saigon Lea Salonga, who plays the wholesome love interest of the Captain’s alter ego.

Judging from his film incarnations, the rules of Captain Barbell’s fictional universe don’t appear to be all that rigidly set. In some of the films, his mortal alias is referred to as “Enteng”, and in others “Tenteng”, while at least one movie gives him the name “Dario”. In any case, he is here Tenteng (Bautista), a slight statured orphan doing his best to scrape by on the mean streets. In typical Pinoy film fashion, Captain Barbell offers a bluntly matter of fact depiction of hardscrabble urban life as we follow Tenteng through his daily routine of sifting through garbage heaps for items that he can resell in his business as an itinerant junk dealer. Unfortunately, thanks to his small size and timid nature, Tenteng’s daily routine also involves being shaken down and intimidated by the local toughs. All of this starts to change when a mysterious old man pawns off a rusty old barbell upon him.

Upon dragging the barbell home and cleaning it up, Tenteng finds that it is in fact made of solid gold. Furthermore, touching it magically summons the old man, who tells him that, by holding the barbell over his head and shouting the name “Captain Barbell”, he can transform himself into (duh) Captain Barbell. The film didn’t have English subtitles, but I imagine that, upon being asked what Captain Barbell’s powers were, the old man replied with something along the lines of, “Like Superman, but with a barbell”. Tenteng then goes into all of the requisite reluctant hero business, but soon finds his hand forced by fate: There’s a werewolf on the loose!

Better yet, once Tenteng has sucked it up and finally transformed himself into Captain Barbell (Manzano), we find that the werewolf is not just a werewolf, but a flying werewolf (and, mysteriously, one whose werewolf makeup looks a hundred times crappier when he’s in flying mode). This leads to an aerial chase, which includes an only-in-the-Philippines moment in which Captain Barbell, seeing that the werewolf is vulnerable to things Christ-y, plucks up a big old cross and flies after him with it. Finally, things come to an ignominious end when Captain Barbell catches up to the werewolf and impales him, using the cross to pin him to the ground like a God-punched butterfly.

Of course, this whole werewolf episode was only a first test, as soon Captain Barbell’s real Big Bad is revealed. She’s Gagamba (Beth Bautista), a slinky human-spider hybrid who comes complete with a crew of fright masked minions who look like they raided the Halloween section at Walgreen’s. Chief among these is a midget in a Tor Johnson mask, which is a real “game over” moment as far as making Captain Barbell just about the best movie ever. Gagamba’s scheme, whatever it is, involves kidnapping lots of school kids and throwing them in a big cage, which pretty much signals Captain Barbell’s complete disinterest in exploring any kind of moral gray areas. This isn’t The Wire, after all, and if it were, you wouldn’t be seeing Darna show up at the last minute to help the hero save the day.

Captain Barbell was reportedly a pretty big hit during its day, and it’s easy to see why. As potentially alienating as I found its instances of goofiness and slapstick, there was always something harder edged waiting around the corner to balance them out. Its horror elements are played for maximum scares, and, in classic Pinoy fashion, the fact that it’s essentially a kids film gives the filmmakers no pause in showing screaming, terrified children being graphically reduced to ash by Gagamba’s forehead projected laser beam. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable mash-up of lighthearted comic book fantasy and taboo limning exploitation weirdness. After all, the most dispiriting aspect of Western children’s films is the implicit certainty that they’re going to be bound to some constrictingly rigid notion of appropriateness. The Filipinos, on the other hand, may excel above all others at being inappropriate, which is a quality that is much to the benefit of Captain Barbell.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Hatimtai Ki Beti (India, 1955)

Hatimtai Ki Beti begins with a title card that reads, “THE STORY OF HATIMTAI-KI-BETI HAS NO ANY HISTORICAL BACKGROUND”. So I can scratch off that particular avenue of research in determining what this unsubtitled Indian B movie is all about. Not that it matters, really, because HKB serves up everything I need with that amazing and possibly racist Satan figure pictured above. I mean, what better way to personify evil than with a bat-winged minstrel with male pattern baldness wearing a flocked leotard?

Hatimtai Ki Beti seems to be a sort of romantic fantasy adventure-cum-Islamic parable that exploits the added gimmick of celestial intervention both divine and demonic. Watching from on high as its action plays out are both Satan and Allah, each of whom dispatch emissaries to Earth to respectively hinder or help its heroine. That heroine is Roshanan, played by Chitra, a devout and ethereal young woman whose prayers seem to have a special path to Allah’s ear. And given the extraordinary degree to which Allah here comes through for his supplicants -- resurrecting their dead loved ones, freeing them from actual physical bonds, making them immune to fire -- it’s safe to view HKB as a strong work of advocacy for the efficacy of Muslim prayer.

Such blessings make it tough work for Satan’s dark angel on Earth, a young lady of sour demeanor who, upon her arrival, assumes a variety of guises -- your snake, your wizened old crone, your cooing temptress -- in order to sow seeds of acrimony among the mortal populace. This includes her attempts to poison the budding romance between Roshanan and her swashbuckling husband-to-be Salim, played by Mahipal. Further insuring her failure in these endeavors is her counterpart on the God squad, a more serene -- albeit manifestly judgy -- young woman garbed in regulation white, who does everything she can to set right what her malevolent opposite has disarranged.

Some of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while might recognize that Chitra was quite the leading lady of choice for Indian B movies during the 50s and 60s, with perhaps her most notable role being that of the off-brand Jane to a knock-off Tarzan in Homi Wadia’s hysterical Zimbo movies. Whether she ever made a dent in “A” list films, either as a star or supporting player, I don’t know, but if anyone else does, I’d love to hear about it. In any case, in Hatimtai Ki Beti she is startlingly young and lovely, as are a number of other Bollywood starlets who pop up throughout its convoluted story. This includes a teenaged Helen, who hoofs it up early on in an Orientalist number, Kumkum, who shows up briefly at the mid-point to participate in a tribal dance with a bunch of pretend savages, and Kammo, who has a kameo (see what I did there?) as -- I believe -- some kind of water sprite. The cumulative result of all of this nascent item girl pulchritude is that any male or lesbian fan of any of these actresses might walk away from HKB feeling like a bit of a pedo, so consider yourself warned.

In addition to its feuding duo of dark and light angels, Hatimtai Ki Beti seems to stress the concept of duality through the inclusion of other pairs of opposites. Roshanan has a haughty sister with whom she is rival for Salim’s affections, and Salim, in turn, has a brother whose competitive feelings the dark angel exploits to divisive ends. This inclusion of so many intermittently clashing characters in a Bollywood B fantasy also insures that there will be many people to end up chained to pillars at various points throughout the movie. The last to suffer this indignity is Roshanan herself, at the hands of what looks to be some kind of Roman Centurion, and her sung pleas to heaven are enough to finally bring down the totality of Allah’s wrath. The seas roil, the skies thunder, and the heaven’s themselves quake –- enough so that even Old Scratch himself is seen trembling at the terrible spectacle.

Whether you’re a Muslim, Christian, or just someone who’s spooked by creepy old blues records, HKB’s vision of the Devil is one that’s easily recognizable. He’s that grinning figure lurking just behind your shoulder, urging you toward the bad -- be it lying to your parents, cheating at Canasta, or having butt sex in exchange for Crack. Needless to say, that Angel on your opposite shoulder really has her work cut out for her. Hatimtai Ki Beti’s literal representation of this struggle, aided by cardboard clouds and cartoon sunbeams, makes it a joy to behold, no matter how incomprehensible the finer details of its plot or message might be to you. One unintended consequence, however, is that its funky looking, blackface-Fred-Mertz-meets-Manbat devil guy almost seems like a figure worthy of worship in himself. Hail, Bat-Mertz!

(This post is a part of Satan's School For Ghouls, a month long tribute to Satan and his hell spawn by the members to The Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit, a loose confederation of cult movie blogging weirdos of which 4DK is a proud member.)