January 28, 2016


Hey, who spilled their SCANNERS all over my DANGER: DIABOLIK?

That's probably the best way to describe ESPY, Toho's 1974 action-Eurospy-headfuck of a film all about a group of ESP-wielding tough guys (and one gal) going up against another group of ESP-wielding tough guys (and one gal). The protagonists are part of an organized anti-crime unit known as ESPY (get it? ESP(sp)Y) and the antagonists fly under the banner of, what else?, Counter-ESPY. And what exactly do these naughty John and Jean Greys want? Well, to kill off all the Muggles, of course. They aim to achieve this by knocking off several European delegates before an important UN peace treaty meeting can get under way. On the top of their assassination list (for some reason) is the Prime Minister of Baltonia, but the ESPY group soon steps in, led by the smooth and cocky Tamura, and his love interest Maria. Also along for the ride is Miki, a racecar driver with latent (and apparently quite potent) psychic powers.

Getting into the minutiae of the plot is probably unnecessary, if only because the plot serves as nothing more than a set-piece dispenser for director Jun Fukuda (director of some of the worst Godzilla films ever made, including GODZILLA VS. GIGAN and GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, as well as one of the best, GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA). We get the classic “trapped in a car that's been rigged with explosives” moment along with innumerable chase scenes, girl in peril scenes, shoot-outs and fist fights, but here everything is augmented by the inclusion of psychic powers and other metaphysical gobbledygook. ESPY officers (soldiers? Peacekeepers?) can use telekinesis to throw people through the air, jam up guns, correct the flight path of planes ready to crash into mountains and rip out tongues (yes, those last two things happen in this movie). They can use telepathy to communicate over great distances, can hypnotize people in just a few seconds, and even, when the plot calls for it, teleport through space and time.

The way Fukuda and screenwriter Ei Ogawa (writer of the equally bizarre EPOCH OF MURDER MADNESS) use these abilities within the film… well, they cheat a whole lot. Abilities come and go whenever the tension needs a boost and the science behind all this is just weird. Apparently, electrical shocks can deplete your psychic energy and loud sonic reverberations can interfere with your body-mind connection in the same way a microwave can screw with your WiFi signal. Oh, and this psychic energy is caused, in case you were curious, by love. No shit. It's the power of love.

But it's difficult to dwell on all the pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo when the film keeps throwing weird shit at you. Everyone in this movie carries guns that shoot what I can only imagine are bullet-sized grenades. People flat out explode into gooey bits constantly through this movie. And when people are not being shot with grenade pistols, they're being set on fire or taking ordinary bullets to the brain, chest, groin and legs. I was actually quite taken aback by just how violent ESPY gets at times. These splattery scenes are sharing space with a laid back, swinging 70s Eurospy-inspired romp, complete with a score that could have very easily been composed by Stelvio Cipriani. Even the lead villain is a bizarre contradiction of tone and appearance. I don't know what the hell they were thinking when they came up with this character, but he looks like a constipated Donald Pleasence doing the world's worst Charlie Chan impersonation. Everything about this character screams “campy”, but the rhetoric that spews out of his mouth sounds straight out of a 1930s Nazi rally. He looks like a buffoon while sometimes sounding rather terrifying, emblematic of this films inability to stick to one consistent tone.

But screw it. It's fun. No joke, ESPY is a damn good time. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is easily one of my favorite Eurospy actioners, even if its Japanese origins preclude it from being considered Euro-anything. It looks great, the score is fantastic, the three leads (Hiroshi Fujioka, Masao Kusakari and Kaoru Yumi) are good looking with magnetic personalities and charm coming out their asses, and the entire film breezes by with a wild, reckless abandon, shredding logic, scientific rigor and torsos along the way. Toho produced a lot of cheap and quick entertainment throughout the 1970s and a lot of it has since faded into obscurity. ESPY is one of those films that few people outside of the Toho Faithful have ever seen. That needs to change. Because it's fun. I like it. I like it lots.

January 22, 2016


You know what kind of movie you're in for when the movie begins with a minute-long lingering shot of the female lead's vagina.

OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration. The film actually begins with a shot of three thugs standing near the Golden Gate Bridge. Why? Because it was cheaper than getting a “shot on location” title card made up. That's my guess anyway. From there, the film moves on to our female lead being tenderly groped in bed by her boyfriend, Bob (played by 1970s low budget porno regular Gerald Broulard). They whisper some sweet nothings to one another (she says “I love you, honey” and he responds “so do I”. How romantic!) as the camera eyes up her labia. It's only after we've stared at her crotch for 60 seconds that the film tells us her name. Karen.

Karen says goodbye to Bob and hops a plane from LA to San Francisco. She's going to spend some time with a friend named Judy. Just one problem. Judy has been kidnapped by the three thugs we saw during the opening credits. They proceed to gang rape poor Judy while waiting for Judy's sister to pony up the $50,000 ransom they're demanding. Even though Judy's sister (I don't think she's ever named in the film) tries her best to get Karen to return home by lying to her about Judy's whereabouts, Karen doesn't buy any of it and goes looking for her friend. Predictably, she gets herself captured by the thugs and a big gang bang ensues. Once the rapists have had their fill, they decide to slice poor Judy up with razor blades, accidentally killing her. Meanwhile, Bob has arrived in San Francisco. Will he be able to save the day before Karen ends up dead?

All of that encompasses about 25 minutes of the films running time. If that sounds rushed and overly busy to you, let this sink in for a moment: the film is only 50 minutes long. Yeahhhhhhh.

Another 15 minutes is spent on the rape, an endless parade of spread legs, manhandled breasts, dangling dicks, public hair and ball sacks. The remaining bit of time is spent on the climax of the film, the rapists being shot dead by a couple of cops (portrayed, naturally, by bit part porno actors). When this incoherent mess finally ended and I had a minute or two to think about what I just watched, I was left with the unshakable feeling that I just sat through an unfinished film.

For starters, the movie was largely shot with live sound. Nothing about the audio is balanced. The score is sometimes so loud you can't make out the dialogue and the final scene of the cops shooting the rapists dead is done without any sound effects. We don't even get someone screaming “BANG!” off camera. They just clutch their stomachs and drop over dead. Then there's the rape scenes, obviously shot in a way to accommodate hardcore inserts. Whether or not those inserts were ever filmed is unknown to me, but the way these scenes are directed (almost entirely in close up with simple pans to create the illusion of coverage) scream porno. The films director, Jack Genero, was a porn director before SAN FRANCISCO BALL and remained a porn director after, the only cast members who made a film before or after this were adult performers, and the crew is sprinkled through with adult film veterans. I have a hard time believing that the cut of SAN FRANCISCO BALL I watched was the intended version of this film.

Not that hardcore inserts would have made this film much better. As erotic and exciting as autopsy footage, SAN FRANCISCO BALL makes 50 minutes feel like two hours. No one can deliver a line in a way that sounds even remotely realistic. The print I watched was horribly beat up, but there's barely any attempt at interesting composition anyway so I doubt a pristine print would have made this look in any way visually compelling. But this is a cheap roughie, not an art film, so how does it hold up as a simple piece of provocation? Not well. It's missing any sense of genuine outrage. The rape scenes are difficult to take seriously when the victims look only mildly annoyed and the rapists are behaving like characters in an Eli Roth film. The razor blade torture is largely unseen and any kind of satisfaction we might have received from watching these pricks get their comeuppance is robbed from us by poor execution. So even as a cheap-o roughie, SAN FRANCISCO BALL fails to deliver.

Still, it's a genuine rarity. At the very, very, absolute least, I can say that I've seen it. So yay for me. Right? 

January 13, 2016


During the 40s and 50s, Hammer Film Productions was known mainly for their run of cheap B-movies, mostly crime thrillers or lukewarm melodramas. Their first foray into the realm of genre cinema didn’t come until 1953 with the release of an adaptation of William Temple’s science-fiction mad scientist potboiler FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE. Like Hammer’s next journey into campy sci-fi, SPACEWAYS, FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE didn’t exactly light up the box office. Their real genre breakthrough would have to wait a couple of years. In 1955, Hammer released a big screen adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s popular BBC Television serial THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT. While not a blockbuster success in the UK (though it earned Hammer quite a bit of profit), the film proved to be a major success overseas, signaling a way forth for the still burgeoning studio.

The first order of business for Hammer was to get a sequel out into the theaters, which they did in the summer of 1957. To tide audiences over (and keep the momentum going), they had released another piece of sci-fi horror camp, X THE UNKNOWN, a year earlier. By this point, Hammer was beginning to be not just a fledgling studio with a growing audience, but a bankable brand as well. The release of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN later that year forever cemented Hammer in the public consciousness as a purveyor of contemporary, gruesome, and risqué horror thrillers. Strange then that the immediate follow-up to Hammer’s first color foray into full-blooded horror would be THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN, shot in black and white, a slight but charming bit of moralistic horror that could not be more different than the film that preceded it.

THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN is set in some remote village at the foot of the Himalayas. John Rollason, a botanist, his age improbable wife Helen, and Rollason’s assistant Peter are staying in a monastery headed by an old, wise (and slightly sinister) Lhama. The arrival of an American researcher, Tom Friend, prompts an expedition into the wild. The aim of the expedition? To prove the existence of the Yeti, a bipedal, enormous ape-like creature. Leaving his wife and Peter back at the monastery, Rollason tags along, quickly realizing that Friend’s motives are more commercial than anthropological. He aims to take the creature back with him, alive or dead. After one of their party members suffers a broken ankle thanks to a poorly placed bear trap, the party is visited in the dead of night by a large humanoid creature. They manage to kill it, transferring its corpse back to their camp. By the next night, it becomes very apparent that the party is being hunted by a very vocal, very determined pack (or is a shrewdness?) of Yeti.

THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN, like THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, is an adaptation of a BBC Television serial, also written by Nigel Kneale. Directing duties went to Val Guest, frequent Hammer film director (including the two Quatermass films), and many actors from the BBC Television serial were cast, including Peter Cushing in the role of John Rollason. The interiors were shot largely on sets constructed at Bray and Pinewood Studios while the French Pyrenees stood in for the Himalayas. In contrast to the later Hammer films which were almost entirely set-bound and almost painterly in composition, THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN feels at times almost documentary-like. Guest’s decisions to utilize handheld cameras, allow for actors to speak over each other’s lines and capture the cold, miserable conditions of the films setting adds a kind of unmeasured immediacy to the proceedings that is frankly missing in Hammer’s later highly ordered and impeccably controlled (and much better) films.

The unfortunate reality though is that while the film has an unmistakable energy to it behind the camera, the results are not all that apparent on screen. Unlike THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, there really isn’t much modernity in THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN. It feels five years older than it is and that is largely due to the fact that Kneale’s screenplay trades much of the films energy for the kind of simplistic moral message usually found in early 50s American sci-fi B-movies. I don’t know much about Kneale’s inspirations for the film (outside of reports of Yeti encounters from people like Eric Shipton), but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Kneale had read Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo before sitting down to write this script. There are several familiarities, from the party lost in the wilderness, to a creepy encounter in a tent during the night, to the screams of a lost party member carried by the wind to the ears of his terrified companions. THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN is at its best during these scenes. At times, this is a genuinely effective horror film and I cannot help but think that it should have never strayed from that path.

But Kneale wanted to subvert audience expectations. In the same way the Italian jungle cannibal films love to toy around with the idea that maybe, just maybe, WE are the savages, THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN gives us monsters that are not really monsters, prompting us to contemplate the inhumanity we display whenever we tread on nature, taking animals for food or sport or entertainment. The film contains many discussions about Darwin and evolution, about where these Yetis sit on the evolutionary tree, about how similar we would be to them. The film works in bizarre metaphysics including thought transference and psychic empathy in an attempt to paint these creatures as something not only along our evolutionary line but maybe beyond it. You can feel Kneale prodding you in the side the entire time.

“Oy. You think you’re better than them, don’t cha?”

The final twist then comes off as more Z-grade The Twilight Zone than genuine thought provocation. It’s obvious and actually rather trivial. The monsters never actually kill anyone, at least that we can see. We’re left to infer that they’re simply harmless while we, the human beings, are so uncompassionately barbaric by nature that we’ll eventually just destroy ourselves. In fact, there is speculation about this in the film. Maybe these creatures are just waiting for our human apocalypse, biding their time until we all shuffle off this mortal coil. That’s a good question. Would the world be better off without us? That’s a serious philosophical discussion to have, along with discussions about over population, dwindling natural resources, deforestation, etc. But it’s not a discussion that will ever be prompted by a movie featuring men in Yeti suits giving Peter Cushing the stink eye. THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN needed to stick to the horror and leave the gotcha moral condemnations at the door. It derails the film during its most crucial moments.

But don't take that statement as a dismissal of the film because I genuinely enjoy my time with THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN. It's a good little sci-fi horror film, even if I enjoy the journey far more than I enjoy the destination.