Saturday, October 27, 2018

For the Love of Toho II

GORATH (1962)
In its original Japanese version, Ishirō Honda’s GORATH is a masterpiece. Science fiction, drama, love, unrequited love, sacrifice, tragedy, sentiment - it has it all, but it also seems to me possibly Toho’s top technical achievement. It features some of the finest space effects filmed prior to 2001 (there is evidence in the film that Kubrick used it as reference) as well as spectacular demonstrations of matte painting and miniature set design - combining immense engineering skill and artistry, though much of it onscreen only fleetingly. As a film, it may not be as exploitable as the company’s kaiju eiga (one giant walrus aside), but considering this was made in the same year as KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, it’s clear where the filmmakers’ hearts most resided.

If you have only ever seen the American version of this movie, you owe it to yourself to find a way of seeing the Japanese version, subtitled or not. Toho obviously went into the film with the intention of producing a blockbuster, and it was, but - as with the original KING KONG (1933) - it includes a critique of the blockbuster mentality. in this case a rather broad one. There is much to commend this film on a technical level, even though it falls somewhat short of the studio's highest standards, but it is plainly not the film it should have been and, for some of us who saw it at a magical point in childhood, not quite the film we remember. (Of course, the version released in America by Universal was quite different, including American onscreen commentators and a rummage sale of library tracks for replacing Akira Ifukube's epic score, included on the Japanese Blu-ray in its original stereo.)  Godzilla himself (looking more believably reptilian here than in most other films) is kind of a blur throughout the film, not doing much but lumbering around and demonstrating his prowess, and King Kong (a badly made suit, though well acted from inside) is kind of giant gorilla variation of a dad reclining in front of the television and tossing back intoxicating berry juice like so many cans of beer (or bottles of saké, as the case may be). The monsters meet in a few short, unimaginatively choreographed battles and, after dismantling the most elaborate miniature in the picture, tumble into the sea. There is no particular victor, unless the victor in a battle is the one who recognizes its pointlessness and swims away toward more promising vistas. If you are going to watch this film, I've found it vital to do so on the largest screen you can find; this is not something that can be accurately experienced on the average TV screen. Looking at Toho's Region 2 Blu-ray on my 70" screen, I found the movie acquired a whole different feel when I was sitting five feet away from the widescreen, as opposed to my usual ten. With this minor adjustment of seating, suddenly the main titles were as powerful as the opening of ALTERED STATES.

MATANGO (1963)
To watch this movie is to realize how few horror films Ishirō Honda actually made. Everything about this somber picture strikes an atypical note: the slow yet masterful orchestration of its encroaching suspense, the nerve-scraping score, the close combustibility of its action, the eerie details that put us one step ahead of the doomed characters (like the broken mirrors discovered aboard the ghost ship), even the way characters mirror each other as if caught in a psychological prism (the singer who is the mistress of the yachtsman, who also “bought” his skipper by putting him through school, and the passenger who later delights in making him pay exorbitantly for turtle eggs). “There’s nothing money can’t fix,” someone says early on, but the film lays bare the illusion of all that money can buy. In broader terms, however, this adaptation of the William Hope Hodgson story “The Voice in the Night” (1907, acknowledged by a text screen on the BD before the film plays) is Japan’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (the shots of the mushrooms swelling and expanding in the rain recalls the effect of the pods in the greenhouse scene of Don Siegel’s film), with its own chilling depiction of the loss of love to a stronger power, as well as an inversion of John W. Campbell Jr.’s “Who Goes There?” (filmed as THE THING) replacing arctic isolation with shipwreck on a humid island, the need for sleep with hunger, alien with radiation-tainted vegetation - while also adding sexual tension to the mix. It all builds to one of the earliest downbeat endings in horror (this was made the same year as Bava’s chilling BLACK SABBATH), as the lone survivor gazes out his asylum window at an elaborate yet patently artificial Tokyo cityscape, and reflects on the hell he escaped, “I might have been happier there.”

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

RIP James Karen (1923-2018)

James Karen in POLTERGEIST.
Donna and I were very sorry to learn of the death yesterday of that fine actor James Karen, at the age of 94. We met him a little over 10 years ago on the set of Larry Blamire’s Old Dark House comedy DARK AND STORMY NIGHT and got to share a very merry, talkative lunch with him and other cast members. Then we met him twice more at WonderFest. One of those times, he made a sudden appearance with his wife Alba in our hospitality suite. He remembered Donna and I, or kindly said he did, and it was amazing how their presence just lifted the spirits of the entire room. Donna asked what they would like to drink, but they couldn’t stay - it was Friday, the convention hadn't started yet, and they were going to skip out and do some local antiquing. He said it like they were going on safari to quarry the three-eyed, knob-nosed quintocerous. Whenever I've remembered this, I wish I had tagged along. He was the sort of guy who you feel you've known a lifetime on your first meeting, and it would have been nice to talk with him about life outside the movies. For most of today, my Facebook news feed has been filled with variations on that story by people who knew him for decades, and people who knew him only two minutes.

He was a terrific actor in so many things (even a small role in Samuel Beckett's short FILM, starring Buster Keaton), but the one time he really leaped off the screen was in Dan O'Bannon's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, where he plays the second-in-command at the medical supply place who breaks in the new employee by telling him all the most grotesque secrets of the place, like the fact that George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was based on a true story (!) and the actual zombies are stored in a holding tank downstairs (!!). "You wanna see 'em?" Everything that movie accomplishes does so in the path he so amusingly and winningly paves for it in the first reel. When we saw the movie back in 1985, we saw it at a theater in Kentucky, so the home stretch revelation that its story was set in Louisville was met with uproarious approval by the audience. 

So we revisited RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD earlier tonight to honor Mr. Karen's memory, as it were. It's a very 1980s movie, but I was surprised to be reminded of what an anarchic movie it is - viscerally, musically, sexually. It holds up pretty well, and Karen’s final scene in the picture - the cherry on a remarkably physical performance for a man of 61 (an age he hardly seemed) - is a humdinger. Already dead but not yet quite a zombie, he staggers over to the cremation oven, emotionally and hesitantly removes his wedding ring and hangs it on the On/Off switch, makes the sign of the cross to ask divine forgiveness, then crawls inside, drops the gate and, whoosh, ashes to ashes. I'm told that he just had to get in the oven, that he invented everything else. In its own way (and in context), it’s a “Top o’ the world, Ma!” moment, but in the midst of the movie's zany kamikaze fury, he found a moment in which to make his character a bit more than a cartoon. He gave us a glimpse of his marriage, allowing a glimpse of what was meaningful to him, and human in him... once.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

For the Love of Toho

Sometimes people ask me why I don't write more about Toho’s kaiju eiga ("monster movies"). I tell them that, yes, it has mostly been a deliberate choice, but it's also true that I've been a fan of these films for almost as long as I can remember. I saw KING KONG VS. GODZILLA on its opening weekend at Cincinnati's Twin Drive-In Theater, and when the Big G hatched out of his glacial burial place, I actually recognized him as Gigantis, the Fire Monster - which I had seen not long before on a local afternoon broadcast of the movie now known as GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN. I got to see on the big screen virtually all of the Toho films that enjoyed a US release in the 1960s, and as a teenager I bought copies of Greg Shoemaker's fanzine THE JAPANESE FANTASY FILM JOURNAL - facts that place me squarely in the vanguard of this subculture, but it's true that I've shied away from writing too much about them - for the simple reason that so much about these films - the filmmakers, the stars, and much about Japanese history and culture - has always seemed inaccessible to me.

In the 1990s, when I was acquiring some Japanese laserdisc editions of these movies, I couldn't resist reviewing a brace of them at length for VIDEO WATCHDOG's second SPECIAL EDITION. Afterwards, I received a nice letter from future Eiji Tsubaraya biographer August Ragone, who congratulated me on writing one of the most best pieces about the Toho films that he had read in English – and then he directed my attention to a six-page post-script appended to his letter, consisting of additional notes, corrections and clarifications, in case I or my readers might be interested. I was - very much so - but I never printed this document as a letter because a) there never was a third SPECIAL EDITION, b) a six-page document is an article and not a letter, and c) it tended to annotate what I had written for what I did not say, rather than for what I said. 

This caused me to realize that, for anyone undertaking to write about these films in English, they can either do so with the understanding that they working on the surface and only addressing that share of Toho's audience that has never evolved beyond the sheer sensation of the films, or they can presume to dig deeper, to a place that quite possibly has already been mined by someone with a more thorough understanding of these films in all their details than the writer. I respect scholarship, so I respect this. I reserve my right to have and to express an opinion, to read and interpret this material in a hopefully unique way, but I respect - and am somewhat wary of - what lay beyond this line. 

A few nights ago, I found myself suddenly, madly, impossibly restimulated in my interest for Toho productions. I don't want to say anything about the specific cause, because I'm writing a feature article about it for a certain well-known magazine. Suffice to say, Toho is ingenious in its ability to market its goods and keep their loving audience on a hook. A passion for Toto is inevitably costly. Fortunately for sudden revived obsessions like mine, I have been keeping my collection on DVD and Blu-ray mostly up to date, over the years, so there is plenty here for me to binge upon. The last few nights, I've been doing just that, and here are some thoughts on those recent viewings.

RODAN 1956 / 
US release 1957
The original Japanese version is a far more somber affair than the English dub, which has its own unique merits. The muted but still rich color, and the immense varieties of texture, are beautiful, as is director Ishiro Honda's conveyance of the value of human life, respect for science, and awe of the inexplicable and miraculous. I was surprised to hear some of the earliest spoken lines were on the subject of climate change! Fearsome and mysterious here, Rodan would never solely carry another film again, and never receive quite the same respect in its many screen reappearances. Yet even this film doesn't fully indulge Rodan with the stardom this monster deserved. More than half the movie, it seems, is taken up with the discovery of the dragonfly grubs - which, in a Lovecraftian touch, turn out to be the larger monster's food. This nevertheless remains an admirable film.

US version 1962
As a late friend of mine once said, "I've seen VARAN, and he's pretty unbelievable." This is not one of Honda's better films, even in its original state, as he himself freely admitted. But the English version, starring an even more unbelievable Myron Healy, is an abomination. It doesn't dub the original film so much as subsume it; the pittance of Japanese footage that is left is presented in Japanese, leaving the bulk of the film to a bare-bones US cast, with Healy - as Commander James Bradley, living in an island hut with compliant wife Tsuruko Kobayashi - swaggering around, acting to camera with his "best side," and issuing world-saving orders to Japanese-American extras. The whole pan&scanned mess runs just over an hour and has the audacity to cut a good deal of actual monster footage, including Varan's flying scenes. (For what it's worth, the monster itself is terrific, with an unusually convincing reptilian demeanor.) What remains is appallingly condescending and patronizing, not only to the Japanese people but audiences in general. I watched this on Amazon Prime, where the price is right at "free."

Though directed by Ishiro Honda, this was the first special effects film produced by Toho following the death of spfx supervisor Eiji Tsubaraya. While it doesn't tell a story that feels particularly new - indeed, it seems to have been written around a list of reliable tropes established by earlier films from the studio - this is not as dispensable as you might think. It is a fairly entertaining piece of pulp entertainment, aimed squarely at pre-teen audiences of the time, and the classic Toho production values are still in evidence, as they would not remain for much longer. The SPACE AMOEBA version, which I also watched on Amazon Prime at no cost, is the complete widescreen Japanese version, presented in its original export English dub, which was evidently recorded in Australia. When American International acquired the film for US release, they snipped a few minutes off the running time and had the film completely redubbed at Titra in New York.  

Last night’s trip back to Toho land was courtesy of Classic Media's Media Blasters DVD, which includes both versions of the main feature and an audio commentary by future Ishiro Honda biographer Steve Ryfle and friends. The first Godzilla sequel, this is not an Ishiro Honda title. Directed by Motoyoshi Oda, it’s somewhat unusually constructed, introducing its two monsters (G and an ankylosaur adversary, Anguirus) already in the midst of battle, yet emphasizing its human characters throughout. As a kid, I remember loving Kobayashi (Minoyu Chiaki) and feeling sad when he met his ultimate fate. There is a refreshing, robust air of friendliness, of good fellowship and a humanistic approach to business and duty in this picture that we would do well to learn from. Ryfle's commentary was knowledgeable, a little on the snarky side at times but I can’t say the meddlesome English version was undeserving. It also delves into the interesting pre-history of the US version, which was to have been written by Ib Melchior and called THE VOLCANO MONSTERS. The track also features the input of fellow biographer Ed Godzisziewski, GODZILLA authority Stuart Galbraith, and a Bob Burns cameo in which he recounts the day that he and Paul Blaisdell “met” Godzilla. Worth hearing.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 01, 2018

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at 50: The Bite Goes On

World Premiere, Pittsburgh 1968
It was 50 years ago today that George A. Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had its World Premiere at the Fulton Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is one of a very small group of movies that can authentically be said to have reinvented its film genre. If DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN heralded the penetration of horror into sound, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD represented, in a way, the genre's emancipation. After NotLD, the horror genre belonged to anyone with the bravery to pick up a camera and the talent to put a story across. Horror films became more personal, more violent, more sexual, and most importantly, more political. Made by a generation reared on Rod Serling's THE TWILIGHT ZONE, the resulting films often told stark political truths undercover, truths that no other film genre was yet willing to confront head-on. While his contemporaries went on to become absorbed in the Hollywood system, Romero remained resolutely independent, making a shelf of personal films that went their own way even when they acceded to the prevailing tastes of the marketplace. When George Romero died a year ago last July, he had accomplished more than most, yet he could also look back on a career largely spent fighting the system, trying to get his original stories told. He probably had a longer list of films that didn't get made than can be read off his actual filmography.

Of course, the reverberations radiating from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD's initial impact are still being felt. AMC's THE WALKING DEAD begins its 9th season on Sunday, October 7th. Even though the show's star Andrew Lincoln is bailing out this year, which will likely tempt many viewers to follow his example, AMC has said that they hope to keep the series going for another decade. Provide your own kicking a DEAD horse joke.

Earlier this year, while viewing Criterion's new 4K restoration of the Romero film, I realized that an important part of what is now recognized as the LIVING DEAD mythos is not present in it. Namely, the idea that, once bitten, living victims of the dead become one of the walking dead themselves. Let me clarify: we see victims die and become one of the living dead - as happens to Johnny after he's knocked on the head - but we do not see the consequence of their having merely been bitten. The film is about cannibalism, but not yet about infection. It's true that the little girl Karen (Kyra Schon) has been bitten by someone dead and gradually succumbs to the ensuing fever, dying and then rising up to slay her mother - but the film doesn't make her transformation a result of the infection; it's the condition of death itself that causes the transformation. The living dead that we see are almost entirely made up of people dressed for burial, fresh from fatal accidents, or in hospital gowns. It's only in the later films and spin-offs that the bite alone acquires a legacy of meaning and becomes dreaded in and of itself.

Though not quite present in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the idea takes form in Romero's sequel, DAWN OF THE DEAD, released more than a decade later in 1979. When Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) is bitten, Romero chronicles his excruciatingly slow death, the brief peace that follows his passing, and the chilling moment of his resurrection. Later in the film, when Stephen a.k.a. "Flyboy" (David Emge) is attacked in the elevator, he is messily infected and - due to an edit away from the action - he returns to the story fully transformed. It would seem that the matter of infection was truly added to the mythos on the basis of that edit. Thereafter, the bite of the living dead made one the living dead - an idea that actually goes back to another wing of the genre, to DRACULA.

I was reminded of all this by a recent viewing of Gordon Hessler's THE OBLONG BOX, first released in 1969, the year following NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Spoiler ahead, but in the climax of this film, the horribly disfigured Sir Edward Markham (Alister Williamson) - wrongly infected by a voodoo curse intended for his brother Julian (Vincent Price), and locked away in a tower room of the family estate and passed off as dead  - is shot by his brother to end his reign of murderous terror. Edward then uses his last energies to crawl to Julian, to take his hand, and bite it viciously. As one critic observed, the bite is so deep, it almost appears that Edward leaves his teeth in the wound. In a chilling coda, we find that Julian has been infected by the bite. Turning to his wife's calls as he stands in Edward's old room, he shows his face similarly disfigured on one side as he says, "It's my room now."

Though Sir Edward is not literally a living dead, what we have here is not quite the same thing, but it seems a far more pertinent connection to the LIVING DEAD mythos than DRACULA, which proposes a somehow more fanciful monster, one in which we cannot quite fully believe. The way Romero filmed NotLD, with the look of a television news report, its monsters were intended to convey a more documentary vibe; DRACULA originated from folk tales out of Romania, but NotLD originated from evening news reports of the Vietnam war. THE OBLONG BOX may be a horror film, but it too strives to make an authentic point - about what we now call "white male privilege," a subject that Romero would have undoubtedly loved to sink his own teeth into. Very probably, there is nothing in THE OBLONG BOX that couldn't happen, so it seems to me much closer than DRACULA to the kind of story Romero set out to tell. The principal author of THE OBLONG BOX (who was actually more its re-writer) was former film critic Christopher Wicking, a contributor to such magazines as SCREEN, THE MOVIE SCENE and MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE. I'm sure that he saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but unless he saw it in another country, or on bootleg videotape (more likely), he would have been prevented by BBFC censors, who held the film back from UK release until sometime after THE OBLONG BOX was in the can - and then with six minutes of cuts imposed.

The vital connections here are infection and consequence, which only becomes a point of discussion in THE OBLONG BOX.  Romero's living dead needed this because, without these inherent dangers, they ran the risk of becoming the buffoons they were briefly treated as in DAWN, with the pie-fight sequence. It should also be emphasized that, in DAWN, Romero himself invited into his mythos the necessary subject of Voodoo - the basis of Sir Edward's bite.

This subject may well require a more detailed presentation than I can give it, here and now, but consider it meat for further discussion. Have at it.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.