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Sidney Hayers’ Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) Restored to Blu-ray

Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Sidney Hayers’ 1962 Burn, Witch, Burn, finally gets the Blu-ray treatment - click here for the trailer.

As an anonymous reviewer on the website Movie Review Query Engine notes, “Night of the Eagle was the second film version of Fritz Leiber Jr.’s novel Conjure Wife (the first was Reginald Le Borg’s Weird Woman (1944), perhaps the best of Universal’s low-budget Inner Sanctum series of the 1940s). The film’s title was possibly meant to invoke memories of Jacques Tourneur’s earlier Night of the Demon (released in the US as Curse of the Demon, 1958); both films involve a rational scientist (in the case of Night of the Eagle, Peter Wyngarde) forced to accept the existence of the supernatural. All evidence points to the conclusion that the scientist’s American wife Janet Blair is the reincarnation of a witch, and a practitioner of voodoo. The actual villain is supposed to be a mystery, though the identity was made clear in the Leiber original and in both other film versions of Conjure Wife (there was a 1980 parody version titled Witches Brew). The supernatural aspect of Night of the Eagle is convincingly handled, including a knockout sequence with a wild eagle rampaging through the scientist’s tranquil study. With a screenplay by Twilight Zone stalwarts Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, the British-made Night of the Eagle was released in the US as Burn, Witch, Burn.”

Margaret Johnston in Burn, Witch, Burn – click here to see this scene from the film.

Adds David Pirie, an expert in British Gothic cinema in Time Out London, “made on a comparatively low budget, [the film deals with] is about a hardheaded psychology lecturer in a provincial university who gradually discovers that his wife Tansy and some of his closest colleagues are practicing witchcraft (in furtherance of campus politics). From the opening sequences in which Tansy (Blair) scrambles frantically round her house searching for a witch-doll left by one of the faculty wives, the whole thing takes off into a kind of joyous amalgam of Rosemary’s Baby and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? . . . Sidney Hayers shoots the whole thing with an almost Wellesian flourish, and the script (by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson) is structured with incredible tightness as the sane, rational outlook of the hero (Wyngarde) is gradually dislocated by the world of madness and dreams.”

Peter Wyngarde in the classroom, lecturing to a group of skeptical students.

These frame blowups from the new Kino-Lorber Blu-ray release of the film come from the excellent website DVD Beaver, which regularly reviews new DVD releases, grading them both on image and sound quality, as well as content and historical value. I’ve loved this film for many years, as an excellent example of black and white British Gothic filmmaking at its finest, and though she isn’t mentioned in any of the press materials, I think it’s only fair to give the deeply underrated Margaret Johnston a nod for her excellent, malevolent work in the film.

As Gary Tooze noted on the DVD Beaver website, “Burn, Witch, Burn is wonderful. I immediately got impressions of Tourneur’s Night of the Demon. I loved the story, the suspenseful build-up and Reginald H. Wyer’s (Island of Terror, Night of the Big Heat) cinematography. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray has immense value – a superb 60’s horror production looking very impressive, a Richard Matheson commentary and an interview. This is close to a masterpiece of its genre and we give it our highest recommendation!”

As do I – check it out now, if you’d like to see a real masterpiece of the macabre.

Nicholas Musuraca, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

L to R: Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum, Jacques Tourneur, and Nicholas Musuraca on the set of Out of The Past.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I have a new book coming out in a month or so, entitled Black & White Cinema: A Short History. Writing the book was a tremendously difficult task, and I also had to cut a lot of interesting “sidebar” material that I would have liked to include to keep it at a more reasonable length. In my section on Nicholas Musuraca, one of the greatest of all Hollywood cinematographers, especially in his black and white work, I had to omit most of a fascinating 1941 interview with the cinematographer for reasons of space, so, in the run up to the book’s publication, I’m going to offer in this blog some sections on various cinematographers that aren’t in the final version of the text. Nick Musuraca seemed like an ideal place to begin.

As I wrote in the first draft of the book, “Musuraca was a major figure in the 1940s in Hollywood, whose visual style is instantly recognizable over a wide range of films, in a career that spanned more than four decades worth of work. Although he was deeply secretive about his personal life, even with his colleagues (a brief item in American Cinematographer from February, 1941, notes that “trade-papers report Nick Musuraca, A.S.C., secretly married early last month. If it’s so — congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Nick!”) at least some of his trade secrets have come down to us through second-hand sources, and at least one interview, conducted by Walter Blanchard. This is the period in which Musuraca did his best work, the work for which he is remembered, but what is truly astonishing is how much work he did, and despite his noir typing, how many different styles of cinematography he embraced.

One of his finest efforts was his cinematography on Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), considered by many to be one of the first noir thrillers ever made, with perpetual tough guy Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey, a former private investigator who now runs a gas station in Bridgeport, California, in a futile attempt to escape his shadowy past. But when smooth crime boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, in one of his earliest roles) asks him to find his “girlfriend” Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who has absconded with $40,000 of Whit’s money, things just get more complex from there, and soon Jeff is smitten with Kathie, and smooth talked into betraying Whit, and, of course, as in any true noir, everything ends very badly.

As George Turner noted of the film, “Out of the Past was generously financed and shot in 64 working days (an unusually long schedule at the time), mostly on the sound stages at RKO’s Hollywood studio and the Pathe lot in Culver City, [with] extensive location scenes with several of the principals made in the Lake Tahoe area on the California-Nevada boundary and second unit work from Acapulco, New York and San Francisco…The picture united for the third and final time one of the most remarkable director-cinematographer teams the industry has produced: Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Musuraca.

Tourneur, husky but mild-mannered, was usually relaxed and seemingly devoid of temperament on the set, always keeping his actors at their ease and relying heavily upon Musuraca’s know-how to produce the combination of mystery and visual beauty essential to these films. He did not agree with the cinematic convention that heavy drama must be lit in a low key, comedy in high key, and romance in soft focus, but that the style should be determined by the logic of the scene.

‘For example, a vast amount of real-life drama occurs in hospitals, and a modern hospital isn’t by any means a somber appearing place,’ he pointed out. ‘Everything is light-colored and glistening; what’s more, everything is pretty well illuminated — trust these medical men to see to it that there’s enough illumination everywhere to prevent eyestrain. So why should we always have things somber and gloomy when…we try to portray sad or tragic action in a hospital?’

‘In the same way, if there’s no logical reason for it, why should comedy always be lit in a high key? Sometimes your action may really demand low-key effects to put it over…all too often we’re all of us [i.e., Musuraca’s A.S.C. colleagues] likely to find ourselves throwing in an extra light here, and another there, simply to correct something which is a bit wrong because of the way one basic lamp is placed or adjusted…If, on the other hand, that one original lamp is in its really correct place and adjustment, the others aren’t needed. Any time I find myself using a more than ordinary number of light sources for a scene, I try to stop and think it out. Nine times out of ten I’ll find I’ve slipped up somewhere, and the extra lights are really unnecessary.’”

Click here, or on the image above,  for a great clip from Out of The Past.

Musuraca had a clearly defined strategy in his classical 1940s work, and the uncanny ability to size up any scene and discern almost immediately precisely what tools he would need to effectively present the desired image on the screen — and Musuraca brought this same instinct for simplicity to his exterior work, as well.  As he told Walter Blanchard in 1941,

‘The same [technique of simplicity] applies to making exterior scenes. One of the commonest sources of unnecessary complication is in overdoing filtering. Just because the research scientists have evolved a range of several score filters of different colors and densities isn’t by any means a reason that we’ve got to use them — or even burden ourselves down with them! On my own part, I’ve always found that the simplest filtering is the best. Give me a good yellow filter, for mild correction effects, and a good red or red-orange one for heavier corrections, and I’ll guarantee to bring you back almost any sort of exterior effects (other than night scenes) that you’ll need in the average production.

And by the way — when in doubt about filtering — don’t. Nine times out of ten you’re better off that way, especially if there are people in the scene. The best example of misdirected enthusiasm for filtering is in making snow-scenes. I remember a while back I was on location doing some such scenes. As we approached our first set-up, my crew came to me and asked what filter they were to use. When I told them none, they couldn’t believe me. Everyone used some sort of filter in the snow! But what have you really got to filter? Your snow will render as an extreme white, no matter what you do. The evergreens, trees, rocks and so on will come out good and dark. You’re going to have extreme contrast no matter what you do. Under these conditions the sky automatically will take its proper place in rendering a pleasing picture. So why filter?

Filter to control that contrast, you say? I don’t agree. Most filters tend to increase contrast; in snow, even a Neutral Density filter will do so, for while it may hold back the snow, it will also hold back the dark areas. My experience has been that the real secret of good snow scenes is correct exposure — correct exposure for whatever part of the scene is most important to your shot. Usually it will be the people, and especially their faces. Expose for them, and the rest of the shot is likely to be all right.

This works out in practice, too. On the occasion I mentioned, my crew couldn’t be persuaded that my decision not to use the filter was or could be correct. They were very polite about it, but I could just feel them thinking, ‘Poor old Nick — he’s a back-number!’ [i.e., “out of date”] So I told them to make one take filtering as they thought they should. The operative [cameraman] saw to it that that take was unmistakably marked ‘print’ in that day’s negative reports! He was the first man in the projection-room next day, too, when we ran the rushes.

All went well until his shot came on. It was off-balance and unbelievably contrasty. The director hit the ceiling, and the operative wished he could sink through the floor! Immediately after, the un-filtered scenes came on — and were perfect. Since then, that gang has been a whole lot less ready to suggest using filters except where they were demonstrably necessary!’”

Black & White Cinema: A Short History will be out shortly; more “trims” coming soon.

Roberty Downey Sr.’s Pound (1970)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Robert Downey Sr. (center) with cast members on the set of his film Pound.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a friend and fan of the work of Robert Downey Sr., whose best known film after all these years is Putney Swope. I first met Bob back in 1969, right after the success of Putney, when he was editing Pound in a cutting room in the West 50s in Manhattan. We hit it off, and remain friends to this day, but although I’ve written about a lot of his other work, I’ve never really tacked Pound, which is simultaneously one of his most disturbing and ambitious films, and was – at least in my mind – a highly unlikely follow-up to Putney Swope. But at this point in his career, Bob could write his own ticket, and the result is one of the darkest, most unsettling visions of humanity in crisis that ever hit the screen – yet to this day, Pound is almost impossible to see.

As Rich Drees noted in a 2006 article on Pound, the plot of the film is simple: “set in a New York City dog pound, 18 dogs, played by human actors, wait to be adopted. Part existential comedy, part allegory, the dogs include a punch drunk Boxer (Stan Gottlieb), a hyperactive Mexican Hairless (a scene stealing Lawrence Wolf) and a sleek Greyhound (Antonio Fargas). Meanwhile, the city is being terrorized by a serial killer dubbed The Honky Killer (James Green). Pound also features the debut of performance of Downey’s son Robert Jr. as a puppy temporarily held at the pound.”

But that’s just the set-up. Hovering over all the characters is the continual threat of death from “the needle” – they’re not so much waiting to be adopted, as waiting to be executed. A terrier advises that they should revolt against their captors and escape, while an airedale argues that their deaths are not imminent, and a pardon is forthcoming. Throughout the film, there a number of mournful musical numbers which verge on nihilistic vaudeville, interspersed with a series of philosophical diatribes on the nature of existence, the transience of life, and the ways in which we’re all in a prison of one sort or another, whether we wish to admit it or not.

The end of the film is terrifying, as all of their ranting against the caprices of fate comes to naught. Without warning, a guard peremptorily pulls a switch that sends poisonous gas into the holding chamber, and one by one, the animals die an agonizing death, with each “dog” given a last, wistful closeup as they expire. Downey then cuts to a final sequence on a train to nowhere, as the “dogs” sit in their seats, bound for who knows where – heaven? hell? limbo? – and a candy barker walks through the aisle with a megaphone singing the 1930s song “Just One More Chance,” the lyrics of which, in part, lament that “we spend our lives in groping for happiness / I found it once and tossed it aside / I paid for it with hours of loneliness / I’ve nothing to hide.” And on this unresolved note, the film ends.

Not surprisingly, Pound was summarily rejected by the sponsoring studio, MGM, who for some reason, Downey told me, thought that the film would be an animated cartoon. When they saw the finished result, MGM dumped it on the bottom half of a double bill with Federico Fellini’s Satryicon, to Downey’s delight. Yet not surprisingly, given the film’s incredibly bleak outlook on life, Pound has never had a VHS or DVD release, although it was available as a streaming download on Netflix for a time, but has now been withdrawn.

Indeed, as Drees notes, it’s a miracle that the film exists at all, since “the only print of the film that Downey could locate was found in his ‘cameraman’s ex-wife’s closet . . . a 35mm print that was dead.’ Although the print itself was deemed unprojectable, it was able to be digitally scanned and restored. ‘So they put the color back in,’ says Downey. ‘They cleaned up the sound a bit too. Technology is great, it’s just the movies aren’t getting any better. It’s only because of digital technology that some of this stuff can be saved, because most of the colors just go. Most of my stuff in color other than Greasers Palace (1972), I hate the color. I love black and white.’”

Based on a play Downey wrote very early in his career, The Comeuppance, which was produced Off-Off Broadway in 1961, Pound betrays its theatrical origins, and has strong links to Sartre’s play No Exit, as well as to Downey’s even earlier efforts, such as his first play about two nuclear missiles in a silo, waiting go off, talking to each other about the destruction they will inevitably inflict on humankind. Pound can certainly be seen as an extension of that, and it’s no wonder that it was so roundly rejected by the general public, and got an NC-17 rating – it’s a real warning that the only one you can really trust in life is yourself.

There are bootlegs of the film, of course, drifting around on the web, and today, the film’s major curiosity draw seems to be the brief appearance of Bob Downey Jr. in a small role as a puppy – but the film is much more than that. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, and Downey himself has expressed definite reservations about Pound, but all in all, it’s one hell of a scary vision of life, and a real outlier in film history – the work of someone chasing not success, but his own vision, consequences be damned. As Downey said of his work as a filmmaker, “after being thrown out of the house, four schools and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track.”

“I just think he’s one of our great American directors” — Paul Thomas Anderson

230 Cars Destroyed for Furious 7

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Give the public what they want, and they’ll come out for it.

According to Steve Knopper in The Wall Street Journal, roughly 230 cars were destroyed during the making of the latest, wildly successful film in the Fast and Furious franchise, Furious 7. Interesting, at least to me, that the series got its name from a Roger Corman film in 1955 – see Corman’s explanation of how Universal got him to agree to the use of that title for their series by clicking here – but no matter how you slice it, this is one franchise that goes through a heck of lot of cars to achieve the mind-blowing effects you see on the screen.

As Knopper writes, “not long after stuntpeople for Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and the rest of the Furious 7 crew filmed their usual death-defying car chases on a twisty mountain road west of Colorado Springs, Colo., Richard Jansen received a call. Somebody from the movie had seen his ‘we buy junk cars’ highway sign, and wondered if the owner of Bonnie’s Car Crushers could haul away 20 or 30 vehicles smashed beyond repair, including several black Mercedes-Benzes, a Ford Crown Victoria and a Mitsubishi Montero. ‘Sure,’ Mr. Jansen said.

Then Mr. Jansen and his crew, based in nearby Penrose, spent several days loading the cars onto a semitrailer truck to haul them away. Filmmakers insisted he shred or crush them all, to prevent anyone from fixing one up and getting hurt in a damaged movie car. So today, a large, black, scrap-metal Benz cube once driven in a Furious 7 car chase exists somewhere in the world. ‘It was kind of unusual, to see some relatively late-model Mercedes-Benzes, all crunched up and good for nothing,’ Mr. Jansen says.

How cars are built and prepped for action movies has been well documented: The process involves mechanics, roll cages, drag tires and fuel cells. But after the movie ends, what happens to the cars that parachute out of planes, plunge off cliffs and get run over by tanks? ‘It’s pretty easy,’ says Dennis McCarthy, picture car coordinator for the Fast and the Furious franchise, whose latest installment, Furious 7, premiere[d] in theaters this week. The film crew has to follow a specific protocol, documenting every step for both accounting and liability reasons, he says. ‘We have to account for every single car destroyed in each film.’

Fast and Furious filmmakers wreck hundreds of cars every movie—more than 230 alone for Furious 7. For 2013’s Fast & Furious 6, when a tank bursts out of a military transport and flattens numerous cars on a highway in Tenerife Island, Spain, Mr. McCarthy’s people made deals with local junkyards and used-car lots. ‘We’d wreck 25 cars a day, they’d come out at night, scoop ‘em up and bring us 25 more,’ he says. ‘It was a round-the-clock process, with multiple tow trucks and car carriers’ . . .

After filming the Furious 7 mountain-highway chase on Colorado’s Monarch Pass, the car crew stowed its crashed cars in the parking lot of the small nearby Monarch Ski Resort. Mr. Jansen had two days to remove them so the resort could prepare for its opening season. ‘We probably destroyed 40-plus vehicles just shooting that sequence,’ Mr. McCarthy says.”

Such is modern action filmmaking; read the whole article by clicking here.

Joseph Lawson, Genre Director – An Interview

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

I have an interview out this morning with Joseph Lawson, director of the forthcoming film Ardennes Fury.

As I note in my introduction to the interview, “Joseph Lawson is an American filmmaker who is an unabashed special effects fan, action movie enthusiast, and utterly pragmatic about how films get made today in a rapaciously competitive environment. He’s a commercial filmmaker, working in Hollywood, making films as entertainment. Along the way, he’s getting more and more of his own vision into his work, even as he struggles against tight deadlines and tighter budgets.

We first made contact when I wrote an article for Film International that was sharply critical of The Asylum, the company Lawson works for. Lawson responded in the comments section without the slightest bit of rancor, and suggested that we correspond about the production of his latest film, just wrapped a few days ago, Ardennes Fury. It’s his fifth film as a director.

Yes, Ardennes Fury is indebted to David Ayers’ big budget film Fury coming out later this Fall from Columbia Pictures; yes, you could call this another “tie-in” film from The Asylum, but at the same time, Lawson is absolutely sincere about what he’s doing, and all that the films really share is a similar title; they’re really two absolutely different projects.

Like American International Pictures in the 1950s and 60s, The Asylum makes commercial films for a price, and as Lawson makes clear, they don’t use interns or students – they just can’t stand the pace at the studio. Like it or not, The Asylum has a vision all its own. So what’s it like to make films in the Hollywood trenches today? Here’s a chance to find out, first hand.”

You can read the entire interview by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Most Prolific Director in American Film History

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

This unassuming man made more films during the classical Hollywood era than any other director.

As I wrote about Sam Newfield a number of years ago in Senses of Cinema, “Sam Newfield is, in all probability, the most prolific director in American sound-film history, but very little archival material survives on his career. The director of more than 250 feature films, as well as numerous shorts and television series episodes, in a career that spanned four decades, from 1923 to 1958, Newfield leaves behind him only his work on the set; next to nothing is known of his personal life. However, using conversations with Sigmund Neufeld, Jr., and Stanley Neufeld, the sons of Sam Newfield (born Neufeld)’s brother Sigmund Neufeld (all quotes from them in this essay are from these interviews), as well as materials from the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, I was able to piece together a rough sketch of the man behind such a torrential output of work.

Comedies, musicals, westerns, horror films, jungle pictures, crime dramas, espionage thrillers – Sam Newfield did them all, often on budgets of less than $20,000 per feature, and shooting schedules of as little as three days. But, as Martin Scorsese notes, watching Newfield’s work is hard, because he often seems absolutely detached from the images that appear on the screen, as if he is an observer rather than a participant. Then, too, the conditions of extreme economy that Newfield labored under created a pressure-cooker environment in which the ultimate goal of all his films was simply to get them done on time and under budget. Nevertheless, as arguably the most prolific auteur in American motion-picture history, Newfield deserves mention and brief examination as one of the key ’second-rung’ directors of 1940s Hollywood, Newfield’s most productive era.”

Since then, Neil Roughley has compiled a staggeringly complete filmography; check it out here.

The Purge

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

I have a new essay on James DeMonaco’s film The Purge in Film International this morning.

As I write, in part, “As H. Rap Brown once famously observed, ‘violence is as American as cherry pie,’ and James DeMonaco’s The Purge (2013) offers ample proof of this fact. You want to take it simply as a thriller – fine. But there’s much more on offer here than genre filmmaking. The Purge is seriously thought out, precise in its inverted logic, and taps in neatly to the current trends of endless outbursts of violence, grotesque displays of consumption, and the stratification of society as a whole.

DeMonaco, who previously helmed the indifferent remake of John Carpenter’s superb 1976 thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), here returns to much the same story, but with considerably greater success: a group of people are holed up in an insolated location, giving shelter to a complete stranger, while a band of well armed, murderous hooligans tries to break in and kill everyone.  This is his breakthrough film, and he squeezes every last drop of irony and withering social criticism out of it.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Ozu’s Gangster Films

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

I have a new review in Film International on Yasujiro Ozu’s “gangster” films.

As I note in the essay, “Yasujiro Ozu is no longer a name unknown in the Western world; for a long time, this ‘most Japanese’ of directors was overshadowed on the international scene by Akira Kurosawa, whose flashier, more action oriented style translated much more easily to 1950s American culture, and paved the way for a series of remakes of his films – even now, almost 15 years after his death, Kurosawa’s estate is overseeing Hollywood remakes of many of his original films.

By contrast, Ozu was almost unknown outside Japan until the 1960s. When his sublime later films, such as Tokyo Story (1953), finally became publicly available in 16mm prints for university and museum screenings, Ozu’s reputation soared to new heights, easily eclipsing Kurosawa’s dwindling critical reputation. Now, at last, we have this superb collection of three of his earlier, formative films, The Gangster Films in a 2-DVD set from the British Film Institute (as their new motto notes, ‘Film Forever,’ a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree), and it’s a must for cineastes, collectors, and all lovers of cinema.”

You can read the entire review by clicking here, or on the image above.

Surrealism and Sudden Death in the Films of Lucio Fulci

Monday, December 24th, 2012

I have a new article out today in Film International; “Surrealism and Sudden Death in the Films of Lucio Fulci.” Click here to see the entire article, or on the image above.

As I argue in my essay, “the films of Lucio Fulci, the Italian horror filmmaker, are usually lumped in with those of other ‘gore’ specialists, but it seems to me that this is just one component of Fulci’s work. Running through all his films is a strangely dreamlike, hyper-violent abandonment of narrative, which seeks to disrupt normative social values, perhaps as a result of Fulci’s youthful excursions into Marxist political thought.

In such films as The House by the Cemetery, The Beyond, City of the Living Dead and other works, Fulci continually works against audience expectations, both in terms of characterization and plot. In The Beyond, for example, a young blind woman’s faithful guide dog turns on her without warning, tearing her throat out; in City of the Living Dead, a young couple are making out in the front seat of a car when the girl’s father discovers them, and drags the young man to a drill press, which he uses to push a huge bolt through his skull.

Zombies roam hospitals, highways lead into the ocean with no end or beginning in sight, protagonists discover themselves trapped inside an oil painting, and there’s no logic to any of this. Fulci usually makes some desultory stab at a framing story, but once a central premise is set forth, the rest of the film is given over to random, unconnected, and seemingly unmotivated sequences that follow with no discernible order or reason. I would argue that the chaotic non-narrative structure of Fulci’s films puts him closer to the work of Luis Buñuel or Jean Cocteau; he creates a walking dream state from which the sleeper never awakes.”

My thanks to Daniel Lindvall for his patience in editing this piece; this essay is dedicated to the memory of an old friend, Rick Lopez, who first introduced me to Fulci’s work.

Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

Who would have expected this from Criterion; a box set of classic Japanese horror?

Following years of a certain radioactive beast’s domination at the box office, many Japanese studios tried to replicate the formula with their own brands of monster movies. One of the most fascinating, if short-lived, dives into that fiendish deep end was the one by Shochiku, a studio better known for elegant dramas by the likes of Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. In 1967 and 1968, the company created four certifiably batty, low-budget fantasies, tales haunted by watery ghosts, plagued by angry insects, and stalked by aliens—including one in the form of a giant chicken-lizard. Shochiku’s outrageous and oozy horror period shows a studio leaping into the unknown, even if only for one brief, bloody moment. This four DVD set contains impeccable transfers of the following films, at least two of which are much better than the promotional material suggests:

THE X FROM OUTER SPACE
Kazui Nihonmatsu 1967
When a crew of scientists returns from Mars with a sample of the space spores that contaminated their ship, they inadvertently bring about a nightmarish earth invasion.

GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL
Hajime Sato 1968
After an airplane is forced to crash-land in a remote area, its passengers find themselves face-to-face with an alien force that wants to possess them body and soul—and perhaps take over the entire human race.

THE LIVING SKELETON
Hiroshi Matsuno 1968
In this atmospheric tale of revenge from beyond the watery grave, a pirate-ransacked freighter’s violent past comes back to haunt a young woman living in a seaside town.

GENOCIDE
Kazui Nihonmatsu 1968
The insects are taking over in this nasty piece of disaster horror directed by Kazui Nihonmatsu. A group of military personnel transporting a hydrogen bomb are left to figure out how and why swarms of killer bugs took down their plane.

Of these, Genocide and The Living Skeleton are easily the most interesting entries. Genocide is an intriguing genre hotwire fusing elements of the Yakuza crime films, horror and science fiction films, melded together with a political subtext which becomes more pronounced as the film rockets through its brief 84 minute running time. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the American occupation forces in the film are clearly the villains of the piece, and when the film finally crashes to an abrupt halt with an appropriately apocalyptic conclusion, I guarantee that you won’t have seen it coming. It’s a fascinating pop culture commentary on the uneasy truce between East and West during the waning years of the Cold War, when the tensions of World War II — particularly in Japan — were still omnipresent.

The Living Skeleton, the only film of the group shot in black and white CinemaScope, comes off like a moody mixture of Carl Th. Dreyer meets Lucio Fulci, with nods to Val Lewton and the early films of AIP along the way. The film is, to my mind, the most accomplished and sophisticated of the quartet in terms of its visual structure and narrative, while Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell and The X From Outer Space are more traditional Japanese horror movies, though Goke does have an usually downbeat conclusion, as do all of the films here; happy endings are definitely not on the menu.

My only caveat is the liner notes, which occasionally descend into dreaded fanboy territory; factually accurate, they nevertheless display an unfortunate condescension to the films — partially deserved, it must be admitted — but in doing so, the notes miss much of the pop culture relevance of the films, even though they allude to this in passing. Still, this is essential viewing for anyone interested in pop culture of the 1960s, genre films, or the ways in which various genres can be used to deliver a potent social and political message in the guise of escapist entertainment.

But no matter; here they are in immaculate transfers, and they’re well worth owning.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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