Opium and the Kung Fu Master

<span class="title">Opium and the Kung Fu Master</span>Released in 1984, this widescreen actionfest/drug-addiction drama was the final film of only three directed by longtime action choreographer Tang Chia — and one of the last films ever released by the legendary Shaw Brothers movie studio, which in its heyday made dozens of movies every year but by this time was struggling to keep up with the popular trends ushered in by Bruce Lee and expanded upon by Jackie Chan and friends.

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Sonny Chiba’s Dragon Princess

Crummy by mainstream standards, this low-budget martial-arts programmer has lots of charm, starting with the opening shot depicting the inside of a church with saloon-style swinging doors banging against the wind and dust outside, and Tarantino fans will make note of some of the source elements he appropriated for his Kill Bill revenge pastiche. But the real attraction here is Yumi Higaki, playing a talented but reluctant martial-arts disciple seeking payback for injuries to the body and pride of her master (Sonny Chiba, in an extended cameo at the film’s beginning). I had seen her previously in Sister Street Fighter, released two years earlier, but her poise and confidence has improved here. A prototype for any number of femme videogame ass-kickers, from Chun Li down the line, she has an overgrown-kid look to her that makes her determination and eventual triumph in the violent coming-of-age scenario more rousing.

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Story of O

54/100

I wanted to look at the new Blu-ray Disc release of Story of O (out this week from the Canadian company Somerville House) for two reasons. First, I’m interested in what happens to obscure and cult films as they make their way to the new high-definition formats, and this French sexploitation drama from the mid-1970s certainly qualifies. Second, I know that while Story of O has some kind of literary pedigree (a sort of de Sade pastiche written under the pen name Pauline Réage, the novel broke significant ground for erotic fiction as well as bondage fetishists), the film version in particular has long been a pervy grail of softcore cinema — knowledgable viewers of a certain sexual inclination find this mix of epic skin flick, softcore potboiler, and S&M psychodrama to be in a class of its own.

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The Blood on Satan’s Claw

69/100

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The Blood on Satan’s Claw, a 1971 horror melodrama from English genre studio Tigon, lacks the moral underpinnings of Michael Reeves’ cautionary classic Witchfinder General but resembles it in setting and atmosphere. Where Witchfinder General was all about the villainous official played by Vincent Price who saw witchcraft in every corner – or, cynically, used accusations of witchery to advance his own personal and political aspirations – The Blood on Satan’s Claw clarifies the relationship between wickedness and virtue by showing how evil, in the guise of rebellious children and especially a seductive teenager, can be vanquished by vigilance and bravery on the part of Christian men. It’s the kind of movie where the cranky old judge who ducks out of town at the first signs of a supernatural dust-up returns in the final reel, empowered to vanquish the devil himself.
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Imprint

68/100

The newest Takashi Miike extravaganza arrived in the U.S. (on DVD) last week, and while many of his films are infamous for some bizarre content, Imprint is the first I know of that can credibly place the word “Banned” in a banner across its packaging. Imprint was originally commissioned by Mick Garris and IDT Entertainment as one episode among 13 in the independently produced Masters of Horror series that was meant to premiere on the U.S. cable channel Showtime and then live forever on DVD. Partway through the season, word got out that the schedule had been changed for the last few airings — Showtime had declined the opportunity to air Miike-san’s contribution to the series. In a series that featured contributions from genre stalwarts like John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, and Don Coscarelli — and the great Joe Dante piece, Homecoming, about a bunch of Iraq vets who come back in an election year as zombies determined to vote President Bush out of office — the one that succeeded in getting Showtime’s dander up was by the Japanese dude with the crazy sunglasses.

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The Devil’s Rejects

64/100

I settled in for The Devil’s Rejects expecting to get another Rob Zombie homage-to-slash-rip-off-of those seminal American horror films of the 70s that inspired his crappy House of 1,000 Corpses, a disposable exercise in sadism whose not-inconsiderable grindhouse nastiness was exceeded by its general incompetence. Generally, it missed its mark. What was so unsettling about The Texas Chain Saw MassacreLast House on the Left and their ilk was partly that they were movies that enjoyed their freedom from studio supervision and were ready to try anything. They were scary because they felt genuinely unhinged. What Wes Craven did to those girls in Last House on the Left makes Rob Zombie look like a Boy Scout, so we don’t really need Zombie trying to make Wes Craven movies. Instead, he decided to make a Sam Peckinpah movie.

Put The Devil’s Rejects on a double bill with The Brown Bunnyand you’ll get something interesting: two very different movies taking place inside the heads of men who have decided to recreate the aesthetic of 1970s American filmmaking. Zombie swaps Gallo’s languid pace for a more ferocious narrative, andThe Brown Bunny’s famously explicit blow job finds its sadistic correlative in Zombie’s torture, nudity and rape. The main difference, however, is that Gallo finds a deep poignancy and sadness in the idea of living in the past, while Zombie relishes it. Replete with sordid visuals and bereft of redemptive values, The Devil’s Rejects is a rebuke to what’s become of genre filmmaking.

The Devil’s Rejects recycles Zombie’s pet pervs from the earlier film, the Firefly family of serial rapists, torturers and murderers. The riveting opening sequence, accented by split screen action and punctuated by freeze frames, depicts an assault on the family home; scraggly Otis (Bill Moseley) and sexpot Baby (Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie) escape unharmed, but Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is taken into custody. Otis and Baby embark on a killing spree, aided and abetted by patriarch Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), as the Sheriff (William Forsythe) hunts them down — eventually displaying a blackened heart to rival those of his prey.

To get the right look, Zombie hired Phil Parmet, a longtime documentary cinematographer (his credentials include Harlan County U.S.A. and Scott Caan’s Dallas 362), to shoot the entire movie on handheld Super 16 cameras, followed by a digital blow-up to 35mm. Zombie blew through about a tenth of the movie’s budget licensing songs for the soundtrack, a process that he finished before shooting even began. The strategy pays off in the big climactic sequence, a shootout on the open road cut to the strains of “Free Bird.” Essentially, Zombie sticks his thumbs in the eyes of a certain brand of American myth-making, replacing Skynyrd’s testosterone-sweaty images of glamorous solipsism with a simple band of guilty-as-sin redneck thugs. He also kills his own franchise, sending it off with a finality that says “no more sequels.”

Sheri Moon Zombie
Sheri Moon Zombie

Zombie is specifically interested in the appeal of the antihero, toying with the idea of making his murderous characters appealing in a slapstick kind of way. They’re named after characters from Marx Bros. movies, and Spaulding has a clown persona. To some degree, you can tell (just look to his cartoonish rock persona as reference), Zombie identifies with them. (In a funny touch, the cops end up calling in a film critic, presumably Zombie’s antagonist, to help explain the cinematic references.) But he also indulges a full-on sadistic streak involving mutilation and sexual violence that’s honestly disturbing — I say “honestly” because Zombie takes his killers beyond bad-ass Freddie Krueger or Jason Voorhees caricature, evoking instead the kind of real-world fiends you read about in chilly true crime paperbacks or see represented on tabloid TV. They stop just short of child molesting.

The horror elements do resemble the Texas Chainsaw/Last House breed of psycho killer movie, except that Zombie refuses to give the audience a potential victim (the “final girl” of the slasher genre) or other innocent to identify with. The resulting low-rent Grand Guignol is a bit off-putting; because the film lacks the craft and rigor of something like Taxi Driver or A Clockwork Orange¸ both of which achieve a certain high irony in the depiction of their own raving sociopaths, it comes across as an utterly lowbrow alternative. (Maybe the highbrow equivalent is Michael Haneke’s condescending Funny Games; I’ve always wondered how that would play in a screening for a crowd of horror junkies.) And yet there’s something quite freeing about Zombie’s fundamentally wicked approach — it’s a repudiation of the toothless sort of supernatural PG-13 action-adventure that’s become synonymous with the post-Scream American horror film.

Dagon

66/100

Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon returns to literary horror with Dagon, another H.P. Lovecraft adaptation that takes his trademark grisliness to Spain for a real fish-out-of-water yarn having to do with love, sex and demon worship.

OK. Despite the Lovecraftian pedigree, what we really have here is a cheap horror potboiler: Stuart Gordon’s Attack of the Fish People. I swear that’s not a bad thing. Dagon never works up the impressive head of steam that’s required to make this sort of picture really shine – and the CGI work ranges from bad to worse – but Gordon’s affection for his actors remains in welcome evidence, and for the first time in many years, he manages to deliver the shocks, if not the scares.

The film starts out at sea, with irritating yuppie Paul (Ezra Godden) and his feisty wife Bárbara (Raquel Meroño) on some kind of yacht holiday. A freak storm off an old Spanish shoreline runs them aground, and when Paul heads into a nearby fishing village, Imboca, for help, creepiness ensues. The men in town have webbed fingers and seem startled by his presence. Scary dudes shuffle down alleyways like refugees from a Romero zombie movie. The hotel room seems not to have been occupied in years, and the desk clerk, well, the desk clerk has gills. And, hey, where the hell has Barbara disappeared to, anyway?

After this splendid set-up, Dagon suffers mainly from a distended second act that bears the hefty burden of exposition. (Yes, backstory is important, but let’s have no more of it delivered in lengthy flashbacks narrated by the friendly old man conveniently located by the protagonist, OK?) With the history of Imboca firmly established – and once Paul stumbles across a woman there (the big-eyed Macarena Gomez is a find) who has haunted his dreams – the story moves forward to its nasty conclusion.

Given the downright conservative tone of most horror films lately, the ripping and raping that caps Dagon‘s leisurely build is itself startling. Replete with gore and nudity, the final reels make it to giddy exploitation territory. In one scene, the hero starts reciting the Lord’s Prayer as a ritualistic murder takes place before his eyes, but his words are choked off as the bloody spectacle escalates. It’s a knowing B-movie flourish in a film that’s full of them.

Showgirls

22/100

Joe “Woman Trouble” Eszterhas reteams with ace stylist Paul Verhoeven, who should know better, to create this bumbling epic of a skin flick. The bulk of the movie is pretty dopey, albeit kind of entertaining. But the World According to Eszterhas, as revealed in an unbearably hostile, stridently righteous final reel, is so smelly and distasteful that Showgirls is, finally, truly and thoroughly repellent.

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