Sunday, April 28, 2013

Out of the Darkness (Thailand, 1971)

Out of the Darkness’ status as Thailand’s first science fiction film places it more within its own special realm of obscurity than one of notoriety. For the reason one need only consider the low profile of Thailand -- a country whose taste for film fantasy strays more toward the mythological and supernatural -- as a producer of cinematic sci-fi. The fact that we have to drag in outliers like Yod Manut Computer and Giant and Jumbo A to pad the list speaks volumes.

But what makes Out of the Darkness interesting, as a representative of an under-loved genre within its home market, is the measures that its first time director, Prince Chatrichalem Yukol, took to compensate for that fact. Part of a long tradition of Thai royals who dedicated themselves to the practice of filmmaking, Yukol, who would go on to helm such event pictures as 2001’s The Legend of Suriyothai, claims to have conceived of the project as something of a lark. Nonetheless, his ambitions to play with genre didn’t prevent him from trying to sooth potentially squeamish audiences with a dose of the familiar. As a result, Out of the Darkness, while still clearly a science fiction film, is notable for being a desperately crowd pleasing example of same, amiably folding into its mix of space invasion tropes elements of such popular Thai cinema staples as youth drama, rural action, and musical comedy.

The film sees a very early appearance by Yukol’s favored leading man, Sorapong Chatree, who would go on to Thai superstardom in the late 70s and 80s -- much of it in films that would later, thanks to the vagaries of international film rights, put his acting in the service of nonsensical Godfrey Ho ninja movies. Here Chatree plays Sek, the assistant to an astronomer named Professor Thongchai. When the two men observe the fall to Earth of an oddly behaving meteor, they set off toward the coast to investigate. Along the way, they come upon a mine that is under siege by a gang of bandits who are attempting to rob it. After a protracted gun battle laden with explosions, Sek and Thongchai help drive the gang off, and are rewarded by the mine’s owner, Luang Kosit, with an invitation to his home.

Back at the home we meet Kosit’s spirited young daughter, Chonlada, who’s entertaining a group of her teenage friends from the city with a weekend of wholesome go-go dancing. Chonlada tells the astronomers that she witnessed the fall of the meteor, and offers, along with her friends, to take them by boat to the site, an island called Ra Gam that’s home to a tribe called the Sea Clan. Meanwhile, sparks of attraction between Sek and Chonlada create tensions with certain of the girl’s male cohorts that will later manifest themselves in inconvenient ways.

After a boat ride filled with song and youthful mirth, the gang arrives on Ra Gam only to find the Sea Clan’s village eerily deserted. Deserted, that is, except for the freshly flayed skeletons of the villagers that are stacked like logs inside every hut. The cause for this, it turns out, is a shambling, tentacled heap with a green streetlight for a face that turns its victims into laser-eyed zombies who in turn blast away at every human within radius. The end sum of this game is that all of the Sea Clan has been annihilated except for the Elder’s daughter, Sarai, whom the gang takes back to the mainland with them. Once ensconced back in Chonlada’s home, the group can only pray that the beast does not find its way to shore. But, of course, it’s not long before it makes land and starts slaughtering necking couples on the beach.

Out of the Darkness does not enjoy a high reputation. Chatrichalem Yukol himself has described it as “terrible”. Yet it deserves credit for being, despite the cultural hurdles it faced, a surprisingly enjoyable example of old school creature feature cheesiness. Yukol studied film in Los Angeles, alongside future luminaries like Francis Ford Coppola, and brought to the picture a drive-in sensibility that today makes it companionable to such American classics of 1960s sock hop sci-fi as The Horror of Party Beach and Sting of Death. (It also calls to mind the British Island of Terror, and features some very Hammer-esque -- and possibly needle dropped -- string swirls on its soundtrack.) But, while it is Western in its storytelling rhythms, it equally pays tribute to Thai cinema’s traditionally more leisurely approach to pacing. This means that what seems like it should be an 80 minute B movie gets telescoped into something more on the temporal scale of a Lord of the Rings feature. Certain scenes, such as a climactic cat and mouse game between the creature and the kids that takes place in a subterranean cave, extend to the point of seeming like they’re eating your future before your eyes.

But at the same time, that cave scene looks great, thanks to Yukol’s very Bava-esque use of lighting on some fun and expressionistically artificial looking sets. He also scores high with the scenes of the ravaged Sea Clan village, which, with their minimal music and windswept visuals, convey a delicious, arid chill. It is such things that mark Yukol, whatever his later achievements in hard hitting social dramas and big budget prestige pictures may be, as a true genre fan, an honorary monster kid. And when someone like that is put in charge of a picture like Out of the Darkness, it’s hard for me to hate it.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Friday's best pop song ever

Being Clothilde

I’m back on the French pop beat over at Teleport City, this time telling the somewhat odd story of one Elisabeth Beauvais, who would enter the Yeh Yeh Girl pantheon as Clothilde. Please check it out if you’re so inclined.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Rollin' it over

I’m a little overtaken by life’s vicissitudes at the moment, so what better time for that most lazy refuge of blocked bloggers everywhere: The links post! This time we have the benefit of a few of the usual suspects turning up in some unusual places, as well as -- even better -- new suspects! Prepare to offer them all your severest scrutiny.

Our friends over at The Cultural Gutter continue to feature a series of guest posts from the cream of the crop of the online inteligencia. The latest, The Good Outnumber You: A Look at Heroism in Storytelling is by Miguel Rodriguez, who is not only golden-tongued as the host of the peerless Monster Island Resort Podcast, but also, as this piece proves, the wielder of a mighty virtual pen as well.

Over at The Alcohol Professor, Keith from Teleport City holds forth about another of his abiding passions in a piece called George Dickel: The Other Tennessee Whisk(e)y. That Keith knows his whisky is something my own poor, pummeled liver can well attest to, and if your thirsts likewise range in that direction, I’d suggest you take heed.

Also warranting heed is my good friend Andrew Nahem’s (#lowdudgeon) compilation of his not-to-be-missed Tonight on MADMEN Tweets – to which all I can say is, “Really! A thing like that!”

Lastly, and also limning the Twitter-verse, the official site of The Drive-In Mob now features an archive of our past Tweetalongs, where you can monitor our chatter over such cinematic touchstones as The Deadly Spawn and The Green Slime. Bring your appetite!

That should hopefully keep you all pleasantly occupied while I laboriously gather my thoughts for the next extrusion. Of course, I beg you to please keep in mind that, as great as these other writers and sites may be, none of them knows how to please you quite the way I do.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Teleport City lives

The resurrection of Teleport City at its new location is proceeding at an ever increasing pace, with many of our old/"classic" reviews reappearing -- often with new and better screen captures -- in just the past week. Among those are a few of mine that some of you have been asking about, such as Toofan, The Killing of Satan, Santo vs. Blue Demon in Atlantis, Shiva Ka Insaaf, and Ghost With Hole, to name just a few. A special thank you goes to Keith for all of the work he’s put in on this project, an expense of time and effort only partially mitigated by the opportunity it’s afforded him to make screen caps of a shirtless Brad Harris.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Madam X (India, 1994)

At some point in her career it was determined that Rekha, one of Bollywood’s more elegant and doll-like heroines, was the ideal centerpiece for outrageously gay female driven action vehicles. This is a good thing, because it gave us Khoon Bhari Maang, a film in which Rekha became a supermodel in order to get revenge against the men who threw her face first into a crocodile. Rekha honestly doesn’t do much for me in traditional leading lady roles, but I just love her in these pictures, where all she has to do is declaim dialog while modeling insane outfits and making crazy eyes.

Take her titular character in Madam X, for instance, a clotheshorse super villain who comes off like Mogambo by way of Lady Gaga. And while a gender reversed version of Mr. India would be a mighty fine idea on its own, Madam X goes several better by giving us a gender reversed version of Don. This is India after all, where, according to the movies, everyone is made in pairs, even if they don’t often realize it until it becomes narratively advantageous. Yes, you can rest assured that, before Madam X has exhausted itself, you will see Rekha vs. Rekha action accomplished via awkwardly composed process shots. And your life will be changed (though perhaps not as much as by the dueling Jyothi Laxmis in James Bond 777).

When we meet Madam X, she is in the process of stealing literally all of the gold, because that seems to be her thing. She has been at this racket long enough to become an obsession on the part of police Inspector Vijay (Mohsin Khan), who has dedicated himself to her case to the extent of neglecting his young marriage to Nita (Kiran Juneja). Vijay hopes to unravel the wider criminal network of which Madam X is a part, which we see also includes a cross dressing Shakti Kapoor. While perhaps not as larcenous, the Madam could also be found guilty of empire building in her closet; No matter how frequent her costume changes, you soon realize that you will never see every cape, cowl, turban, epaulette or veil in her wardrobe.

For Vijay, the claws really come out when Nita steps between him and a bullet Madam X had intended for him, dying as a result. A spectacular kung fu battle comprised of mostly leaping and quick cuts follows, and Vijay comes out the better after, I think, getting Madam X’s hair wet. We next see that Vijay has got Madam chained up in some remote spot, and that she is howling and caterwauling like a Pakistani she beast. Now, this is where most movies would “go dark”, but Madam X is not in touch enough with its own debased heart for that, so Vijay just hits the streets in hope of finding a means of extracting his pronouncedly uncooperative prisoner's secrets. He finds it when he stumbles upon Sonu (Rekha again!), a carefree juice wallah who happens to look exactly like Madam X.

Anyone who has seen either version of Don knows what follows from this point. Sonu’s position as caretaker of a crippled younger brother makes her especially susceptible to the promise of financial reward that Vijay offers, even though she is only qualified for the treacherous undercover mission by dint of pluck. Then comes the rigorous training and the mission itself, plagued by constant threat of exposure. And then, of course, because Sonu and Vijay are proximate humans of opposite genders in a Bollywood movie, they fall in love. This leads to a Dali-esque interlude during which Vijay plays a grand piano by a lakeside while Rekha dances around in one of her gigantic outfits.

There are reasons that the 90s weren’t known as the age of restraint in Bollywood, and Madam X demonstrates this by including more than a few scenes that look like they were lit by shining a klieg light at a disco ball, along with an overabundance of music cues that sound like the intro to “Beat It”. And, really, all of that is somehow appropriate. After all, you can’t say it undermines what would otherwise be a subtle character study. Madam X, like its furiously pantomiming star, should be sheathed in loud, glittery raiments like the queen it is. This is especially true given that English subtitles for it are hard to come by, and it’s actually helpful to have it furiously waving its arms at you the whole while. Not that subs wouldn’t be nice, mind you; From what I can see the dialog has to be priceless.

Monday, April 8, 2013

From the Lucha Diaries Vaults: Las Lobas del Ring (Mexico, 1965)

Just my way of informing you all that I'm out of town this week and won't have time to generate any new content. For more of where this came from, please visit The Lucha Diaries.


For their third outing, the Wrestling Women apparently decided they needed a break from grappling with mummies, brain-thieving mad scientists, and armor-plated beast men, and instead chose to take on a comparably more quotidian adversary. This would be Lorena Vazquez's last film in the series before she moved on to bigger and brighter things (well, she would next co-star in a couple of Santo's Vergara pictures, so maybe I should just say “other” things) and perhaps doing a Luchadoras film in which she abstained from punching any zombies was the closest she could come to bowing out gracefully.

In any case, the plot of Las Lobas del Ring revolves around a wrestling tournament that pits Loreta Venus (Vazquez), Golden Rubi (Elizabeth Campbell) and their fellow luchadoras against a team of unscrupulous woman wrestlers who will stop at nothing -- nothing, I tell you! -- to win. This focus on wrestlers wrestling makes Las Lobas del Ring a lucha film that's very heavy on the lucha -- and it’s an interesting choice, given that the Luchadoras series is one of the few lucha film series built around stars who are not actual professional wrestlers. As a result, we get a film where Vazquez and Campbell's chunky, unconvincing doubles get a real workout.

For unprepared viewers who come to the film expecting the usual smack-down between big-haired women in leotards and cheesy monsters -- finding instead just more big-haired women in leotards in place of those cheesy monsters -- Las Lobas del Ring will undoubtedly come as something of a wet slap in the face. It's really impossible to over-stress just how much this isn't a monster movie. Still, it's not like everything in the Luchadoras universe has changed; Elizabeth Campbell, for instance, is still inexplicably saddled with a grating comic relief boyfriend (He has to stand on a box to kiss her! Oh my sides!) -- though it's not Chucho Salinas this time around, so perhaps we should at least be thankful for that. Much comedy is also mined from the rich vein of mere women, both in and out of the ring, repeatedly beating the hell out of men. One member of Venus and Rubi's team in particular is shown happy-slapping her tubby boyfriend into a cowering stupor in scene after scene until he finally breaks a flower pot over her head... The End. (Seriously, that's how the movie ends, though I don't think that quite counts as a spoiler.)

Come to think of it, even if you are prepared for it (as I was) Las Lobas del Ring is kind of tough going. In its favor is the fact that it features Velazquez and Campbell, who are always engaging company. (It might also be of interest to Campbell fans for a brief moment where the gringa actress slips into English for a couple of lines.) There is also a somewhat rousing climax in which a group of the Luchadoras' wrestler friends storm the hideout where the villains are holding not just Rubi but also Loreta's mom (nothing, I tell you!) hostage. Still, it’s a good thing that the series got back on track with the next film, the cheesy monster-fest and wannabe Santo movie Las Mujeres Panteras, because seeing the Wrestling Women amidst all this ordinariness is mildly traumatizing.