Friday, September 27, 2013

666 (Beware the End is at Hand) (Nigeria, 2007)

As someone who’s recently been forced to confront his own mortality, I’ve had to face some uncomfortable questions. “What will the end look like”, is one of those that both all and none of us want answered. Then again, I suppose, it depends on who’s doing the answering; as a devoutly secular person, I wondered what succor the Christian church might offer me on the topic. Of course, I turned to a Nigerian evangelical Christian exploitation movie to find out. And the answer – that we’re all uproariously fucked – did, I have to admit, offer a little bit of a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Pastor Kenneth Okonkwo, the producer of 666 (Beware the End is at Hand), clearly intended it as a sincere work of evangelicism, yet still knew which side his bread was buttered on. Thus he takes us straight to Hell before subjecting us to the interminable shot-on-video sermonizing that will take up so much of 666’s running time. The battle for man’s soul, according to Okonkwo, will take place in the suburbs of Lagos, and there, for the most part, in a church basement. That, at least, appears to be where Hell is located in the film, which means you religious folks should take it very seriously when your preacher or wizard of whatever talks about what’s down below. It’s right down there! They can totally hear you!

Emeka Ani, who plays Satan in the film, takes a very Harinam Singh approach to expressing his malevolent authority, in that he simply parks himself on a throne for the entire movie and declaims at the camera with wild eyes while referring to himself in the third person a lot. His studio audience is a congregation of female minions who laugh in unison at his shtick in a manner that suggests the laughter bag being very quickly opened and closed again. Between heavily accented proclamations of the End TImes, he sends his emissaries to Earth to “win souls” for him. This mostly consists of lots of fully clothed gay sex, but also consists of one devotee forcing a hooker to lick an open lesion on his ankle, which results in her arriving in Hell and being thrown into a chicken wire covered fire pit.

But, wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I give you the impression that any of these interesting things happened in any kind of close succession – creating, as it were, a sense of some kind of propulsive narrative drive -- I must point out that they in fact served as intermittent interruptions to the aforementioned sermonizing by Okonkwo’s Pastor Chucks, who walks the coffee stands, beer halls and marketplaces of the city, preaching the gospel to the seemingly deaf ears of the populace, who quite manifestly just want to enjoy their various beverages. Granted, there is some buoyant Afro pop that plays during these scenes, but, as it is always the same exact cue, it quickly comes to contribute to, more than alleviate, the monotony.

Thankfully, relief comes in the form of a horned demon child who is born to an Earthly woman, at which point 666 (Beware the End is at Hand) (I swore I was only going to write that full title once) really kicks into its own somnolent version of high gear. There’s actually a flash forward to eight years later! At this point, it is clear that this is a very bad kid, as evidenced by a long, unbroken shot of him playing somewhat normally, if a bit brattily, with a bunch of kids in an alley. At his worst, he sprouts a single, chalky horn and throws glowing energy orbs at people, but even in repose he must shock the gentry by openly drinking and smoking at public cafes. The only problem is that the kid who plays him, with his perfectly round head and little pot belly, is kind of adorable – and the fact that he employs that same barking laughter bag laugh while trying to sound like a menacing adult doesn’t help matters.

This is all of little consequence, however, as a holy man quickly comes along and destroys the little bastard.

Until 666 (Beware the End is at Hand) 2, that is.

Wait, did I not mention that 666 was, at least, a 2 parter -- its roughly hour long increments likely determined by that of the average VHS tape? Well, it is, and part 2 begins exactly where 1 left off, with the resurrected Devil Boy discovered crying by the roadside by the kindly Pastor Chucks, who takes him home. Devil Boy makes quick work of possessing the Pastor’s niece and hoodoos her into strangling him. From there he goes back to his usual devilry. In fact, of the two films, part 2 is the one that delivers most generously on the exploitation thrills, will all manner of low rent video effects being put to the task of realizing the Dark One’s fiendish magic. In the end, a confusing montage depicts the beginning of Satan’s reign on Earth with much wicked but strangely abrupt laughter drowning out the lamentations of the populace.

Yet, as the credits rolled over Kenneth Okonkwo’s smiling face, I had to wonder, was this really the end? IS THAT ALL YOU GOT, PASTOR OKONKWO? And perhaps that is the message of 666: (Beware the End is at Hand) (dammit, there I go again) – that, in life, there is not always going to be a 666 (Beware the End is at Hand) 3 to come along and set things right; that THE END is not always just sequel bait, but sometimes just that -- and, as such, a call to get straight with ourselves and our God.

Which is not to say that I’m not trolling the internet for the next installment, as horrible as it might be. And in this, too, is a metaphor for life.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Famous Monsters of Filmland goes on a Lucha rampage, and 4DK is there!

Back when I was 9 years old and I begged my mom for a subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland, I had no idea that my writing would one day appear in its pages. Nor would it occur to me some 20 odd years later, when my friend Ron and I toured the fabled Ackermansion.

Well, now comes FM's Halloween issue (issue #270, to be exact) with its masked wrestling theme, in which I have not one, but two articles. Not only that, but I join the learned company of Keith J. Rainville, "Mondo Lucha A Go-go" author Dan Madigan, and esteemed kaiju-phile August Ragone in sharing my thoughts and knowledge on the subject. In short, this issue may not contain everything you need to know about lucha cinema, but it will certainly give you a damn thorough introduction -- not to mention a suitable-for-framing cover painting by Terry Wolfinger.

Famous Monsters of Filmland #270 is currently available for pre-order and should be hitting the stands within the week. Even if I was not involved, I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in masked wrestling cinema. Then again, I am involved, so I also recommend it to anyone who doesn't want to hurt my delicate, luchadore-based feelings.

By the way: I got the subscription. Cool mom.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Az-Za’ir Ul’Gharib, aka Strange Visitor (Egypt?, 1975)

Love may have its pre-linguistic advantages, but, truly, nothing transcends the language barrier better than guilt and paranoia. Example: Az-Za’ir Ul’Gharib, which, in all its un-subtitled glory, could either be a very compact little psychological noir or the Middle East’s answer to Carnival of Souls.

The film begins with a murder, after which a troubled stranger arrives in a seaside community. A restless young girl who spends most of her time on the beach mending fishing nets takes an interest in the stranger and begins to follow his movements. The stranger begins to relive the events leading up to the murder in fevered flashbacks. There is an affair with a belly dancer, some seedy nightlife, and the victim, a slick underworld type who at one point is seen trying to foist a wad of cash on our protagonist. Eventually the stranger begins to hallucinate, seeing the belly dancer, the victim, and a mysterious constable suddenly appearing and disappearing on the street before him. He begins to sweat ever more profusely, but his shirt is already open as far as it will go (it is 1975). And then the knocks on the door begin.

All I know about Az-Za’ir Ul’Gharib is that it was directed by someone named Muhammad Kamel, who indeed imposes structure and pacing upon the finished product in a most directorly manner. The film overall has a crude elegance that kept me watching despite my intermittent confusion. Also providing a lifeline were the instrumental versions of Western easy listening hits like “A Taste of Honey” that dot the soundtrack -- which, albeit perhaps not suspenseful in the textbook sense, served, along with the claustrophobically minimal cast, to keep things feeling just that little bit off balance.

When Az-Za’ir Ul’Gharib reached its fittingly abrupt conclusion, I was left feeling that I had very little to say about it. Which is to say that I did not, under the present circumstances, necessarily feel that I could recommend it and certainly couldn’t condemn it. However, out of my abiding interest in promoting Middle Eastern pop film, I feel that I should at least make note of it. A translation could reveal it to be a much richer film than it appears on the surface, and, if not, could still leave open the possibility that it is a small triumph of moody minimalism.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

4DK on Podcast on Fire

I'm proud to have been asked to co-host the latest episode of the Podcast on Fire Network's Taiwan Noir podcast. This one's not for the squeamish, as we're delving into a particularly ooky corner of Asian exploitation cinema with the odious snake murder porn of Calamity of Snakes. On the plus side, we're also discussing the recently reviewed The Witch With Flying Head, which is almost a little bit awesome. Lend them your ears, won't you?

Great moments in white people: Bollywood edition

Dil aur Deewaar




Monday, September 16, 2013

Chinese Evil Technique, aka Chinese Magic 2 (Taiwan, 1985)

I don't know if Chinese Evil Technique earns the alternate title Chinese Magic 2, but, like 1983's Chinese Magic, it does star former Shaw Brothers starlet Shih Szu and feature a lot of Taoist craziness. Much is accomplished in the movie by means of flying scraps of parchment with Chinese writing on them. These can freeze an attacker in his or her tracks, turn into an army of zombie ninjas, or allow the villain to fly through the air and snatch his innocent prey from the arms of her protectors.

Said villain is a traitorous disciple (Ko Keung) who, in cahoots with his master's philandering wife, steals the Dragon Incantation Manuscript, a powerful primer on magical kung fu techniques that the master (Cliff Ching Ching) keeps locked in a vault protected by the aforementioned all-purpose parchment scraps. In it's place, he substitutes a phoney whose spells have anything but the desired effect. One just issues an unpleasant smell ("What a stinking shit", exclaims the master.)

In response to this insult, the master dispatches loyal disciple Shih Szu -- who has mastered such techniques as invisibility and splitting herself into two -- to retrieve the manual, pairing her off with a male counterpart who has unresolved romantic feelings for her. Later, when the traitor rapes the daughter of an aging gambler he has been exploiting (Suen Lam), the daughter's young paramour (Yau Kwok-Tung) joins the fight. Many visual wonders follow, from flaming voodoo dolls that transform into full size fighters to flying, laser firing statues. As Chinese Evil Techniques is directed by Yu Hon-Cheung -- he of Dwarf Sorcerer, the Pearl Cheung Ling version of The Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery, and the apparently lost but increasingly legendary Monster from the Sea -- you can rest assured that these wonders are represented in all the graphic splendor that a very modest budget will allow.

As with the original Chinese Magic, much lip service is given to the power of untapped sex mojo in the practice of magical fighting techniques. The importance of a virgin's menstrual blood is once again touted, as is something called the "Carnal Fire" that manifests itself pretty much as just regular old fire. The villain also lords over a whorehouse whose concubines, with the application of those handy parchments, can be transformed into a flouncy kung fu army. Despite all this randy talk, however, Chinese Evil Technique, at least in the cut I saw, is pretty chaste in its presentation, without a hint of nudity and only the most coyly realized simulated sex.

If you're no stranger to Taiwanese fantasy martial arts films, you'll find little in Chinese Evil Technique that you haven't seen before. Still, it's nice to remind oneself occasionally that there is a seemingly endless supply of such films, no matter how repetitive they can sometimes be. For those like  myself, who are eager to be whisked away into a world of palm fired lightning bolts and people flying around in the lotus position, they're like a magical incantation in themselves.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Sumpah Pontianak, aka Blood of Pontianak (Malaysia, 1958)

Hey, pretties, why slaver over the next Karloff or Lugosi retrospective when you can build your own alternative pantheon of classic monsters from those based on Southeast Asian folklore, such as the Oily Man, The Krasue, or Sumpah Pontianak's Pontianak. Shy away from them, if you must (go ahead; they're gross!), but I will not stop singing their praises until they have their own cartoon on Nick and appear on every lunchbox and pencil case in the country.

Sumpah Pontianak is the third and final in a series of films based on the female vampire the Pontianak that were produced during the late 50s by Cathay Keris, the Singapore branch of Hong Kong's powerhouse Cathay studio. Sadly, the first two films in the series appear to be lost, but someone clearly loved Sumpah Pontianak, as the existing VCD sports a handsome transfer, albeit an unsubtitled one. Well, you can't win 'em all. Fortunately, I had the omni-lingual Braineater's fine review to steer me into safe waters.

First off, kids, I don't know how to put this, but the Pontianak is one butt fugly woman. In this case, she is Comel, as played by Maria Menando, who has a hunchback and a pretty smashed up face, like you're looking at it pressed to the windshield of a speeding car.  The earlier films tell how she is a foundling raised by a sorcerer who, as an adult, avails herself of a beauty potion. It works, turning her into a beautiful woman, but, as a turd in that particular box of bon bons, she also gets turned into a Pontianak -- or vam-pyre, as some would call it. Apparently at the end of the second film, she is deprived of her ability to transform herself by some yokels who stick a nail in her neck.

Sumpah Pontianak begins with a bereft Comel wandering the countryside and encountering her share of hostile bumpkins, who, as bumpkins are won't, are quick to raise up torches and form mobs against anything that smells of the other worldly. Among these hicks are a young comedian Mat Sentul, ten years before his appearance as Mat Bond, and a singing satay vendor played by a guy named Wahid Satay, who, according to Braineater, specialized in playing singing satay vendors. This might make Sumpah Pontianak an effective appetite stimulant if you like satay, or are a ghost with hole.

Comel's pathetic pleas for understanding fall on deaf ears, as the villagers waste no time in stringing her up and tormenting her in various ways. Meanwhile, a host of supernatural happenings take place: The satay gang are spooked by a ghost voice that sounds like Yolandi from Die Antwoord and Comel raises a male vampire by removing a stake from its heart. At the same time, a series of  exsanguination murders makes it all the more difficult for Comel to convince the gentry that she means them no harm.

Directed, like the other two films in the series, by B. Narayan Rao, Sumpah Pontianal gains a rich, classic horror movie atmosphere from the moody contributions of cinematographer Laurie Friedman (one of a number of Western names among the crew) and composer Zubir Said, who has to compete with a lot of jaunty songs about satay. Also benefiting the production greatly is the heartrending performance by Maria Menado, who really drives home the tragic dimensions so typical of these cursed females spirits in Southeast Asian folklore.

Parallel to Comel's woeful sojourn, we see that of her beautiful young daughter Maria (Salmah Amad), who is wandering the forest in search of her long thought dead mother. This, like a ghost busting Goldilocks, puts her constantly in peril at the claws of a Puff n' Stuff like menagerie of plush beasties, first and foremost a combination toucan/salamander thing that is apparently the real culprit of the murders. Others include an unfriendly Cro-magnon man and, finally, a furry, bat-like gentleman who whisks her away to his lair. Fortunately, some hapless tormentors accidentally remove the nail from Comel's neck, allowing her to transform into the hag-faced Pontianak and take off into the night sky like Superman. What follows is a rousing kaiju battle that is somewhat at odds with the sombre tone of pretty much all that has proceeded it.

So, in the end, the Pontianak series offers poor Comel some karmic reward for all of the hardship she's endured -- no longer a shunned outsider, but an unorthodox superhero whose powers separate her from the rest of small minded society by degrees of, not just ghastliness, but of virtue and bravery. That cartoon on Nick may not be too far off.