Friday, July 24, 2009

Lifeforce (1985)
UK --- science fiction/horror

Dir: Tobe Hooper

What is the true origin of vampires? Lifeforce suggests the answer lies beyond the stars. Master of Horror Tobe Hooper and “Alien” brainchild Dan O’Bannon teamed for this visually entertaining homage to some of Europe’s B-grade science fiction and horror cinema of the 50‘s and 60‘s.

When the HMS Churchill space shuttle embarked for a mission to explore Halley’s Comet, they discover a 150-mile long starship in the comets wake. The team commanded by Colonel Carlsen, (played by Steve Railsback) which is a merger of both US and Great Britain astronauts, send out a party to investigate. Within the gigantic tubular confines of the ship, the party finds dozens of dead bat-like alien creatures, and a trio of humanoid-alien bodies encased in transparent coffins. There are two males and one incredibly alluring female. The team decides to return to the ship with the bodies and one of the bat-like creatures’ corpses.

Thirty days later, we find that the HMS Churchill has been out of contact with earth and the USS Columbia has been dispatched to investigate the floating mystery ship. They find the charred remains of the crew and their storage; the three encased bodies still intact. The humanoid-aliens are returned to London‘s Space Research Centre, where some scientists conduct a series of tests to find out just what they are. They leave the bodies alone, but under strict surveillance, that is until, in tried and true Hammer Horror form, the space lady (played by dancer Mathilda May) opens her eyes and rises from her coffin. Besides standing stark naked in front of a guard, she goes over to him and locks lips effectively stealing his life-force as he is quickly turned into a fleshy shell of himself. Having witnessed the reanimated corpse rise to life on a surveillance camera, the Space Research Centre chief, rushes to the scene. He gets within but a few feet of the space girl and becomes weakened in her presence, later claiming he felt overwhelmed. At this point we know just what’s going to happen as she escapes the high security facility of the SRC.

After she escapes, the scientists decide to perform an autopsy on the corpse of the guard’s fleshly corpse, only to find he is not really dead. He rises from the autopsy table and sucks the life-force from one of the coroner surgeons, and it would seem transforms back to his original human form. Meanwhile, a British government agent, Col. Caine, is assigned to investigate this case has both the chief of the SRC and doctor

The scientists are shocked to discover that the bodies become reanimated after sucking the life-force of another human being. However, they learn it is only temporary, as these “vampires” must continue to do so for within a certain time span or else they will explode and be utterly destroyed. Now that the scientists realize what’s at stake, they come to the conclusion they are on they’re way to vampire epidemic in London. The space girl is already loose and has taken another victim and shown a new ability as she is able to assume the body and identity of whomever’s life-force she consumes. At this point, the HMS Churchill’s escape pod is recovered in Texas and Colonel Carlsen is recovered from it. The scientists of the SRC immediately demand his assistance and knowledge of what happened on board the Churchill. He is the key to discerning what these creatures are all about, in hopes of finding some way to quell the vampire epidemic about to ensue in London.

Based on the novel “Space Vampires” by British author Colin Wilson, “Lifeforce” is one of those films that is apparently quite polarizing. Some dismiss it as really bad movie, and some see it for what it is; a cheesy homage to B movies. IMHO, it follows in the same tradition as “Fright Night” or “Night of the Creeps“. I do think there were a couple of problems that didn’t allow the audience to get what it was doing. Cannon films is not a big budget studio in the likes of Universal or Paramount who would have had a say in what they were getting back - sometimes suit interference is a good thing. Another thing, perhaps with the haughty British performances which really did appear to make you take this film “deadly” serious, however there are some scenes of humor even just with the presence of Aubrey Morris that beg to differ. One my personal issues is the ending does seem anticlimactic and leaves much to be desired. To play devil’s advocate, the one thing they got right for many reasons was the casting of Mathilda May. Besides being nude, she perfectly exudes all kinds of allusions to B-grade film. In her eyes, she embodies the raven-haired “Brides of Dracula”, she has the body of a Russ Meyer heroine, and displays a creepy silence about her that feels very much directed by Mario Bava.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Onibaba (1964)
JAPAN --- horror

Dir: Kaneto Shindô

The title translates as “demon woman” or “demon-hag” to be specific. At first glimpse, you watch this film and you feel you’re in a surreal piece of early Japanese cinema elevating to some samurai action hopefully. But that never happens. You’re two protagonists are two women scavenger hunters killing wayward samurai in the tall swampy reeds and stealing their belongings to sell for food. This is how they live during an apparent war torn country in feudal Japan.

This is the way of life for these two women. Who fish and hunt on a daily basis. The mother has a son away in war, daughter-in-law has this same man to await, and this brutal way to survive is the only way to live; that is until a male neighbor (Hachi) returns from war with bad news of their loved one. Now, surviving is all they have left, for hope has just been dissipated. Once this hope completely vanishes, Hachi has let it be known he has designs on the daughter-in-law. He’s completely enamored with her, but he never goes so far to take what he wants, because in this harrowing time of isolation, it really is only a matter of time.

As Hachi continues to declare his amour for the young woman, the older woman in turn becomes enraged at the fact that not only is her daughter-in-law forgetting her son so quickly, but is taking a man she wouldn’t mind having herself. The other matter is she would be losing her partner in both crime and survival. The woman warns both her daughter-in-law and Hachi to stay away from each other, but she soon discovers her words were not heeded. Mother tells daughter-in-law that her actions have consequences that enrage the spirit world, and that evil deeds are punished by demons. Daughter-in-law doesn’t believe in it, and that night she returns to Hachi, leaving the old woman alone. This night, a masked samurai finds her hut, and is only in need of direction, but the woman sees more money at the door. She reluctantly leads the samurai out, but plans to trap him in a ditch.

On the way, the woman demands to see the samurai’s face, and the samurai tells her he’s cursed to wear it for his beauty. Once he falls into the trap, the woman goes down to collect the armor and stuff, including the mysterious mask. The mask is at first difficult to get off, but she eventually gets it off and uses it for her own plot, to scare her daughter-in-law away from Hachi. It works too, but then she finds that that samurai’s curse may have not been him just kidding; now she cannot remove the mask.

Onibaba is probably one of the best early Japanese films I’ve seen, and as its story is simplistic and haunting, it has a subtle horror lying in wait after every frame. It’s cinematography in stark black-and-white is mesmerizing and atmospherically melodic. Director Kaneto Shindô builds so much tension and emotion with the superb actors and barebones plot (which is loosely adapted from a Buddhist fable), that the visualization pieced with the creepy minimalist taiko score make it a beautiful art film. He also amazing allows some production design to do its work. Notice the old woman’s kimono is adorned with a crab. We’ve all heard the old saying “crabs in a bucket”; perfect description for the characters in this film. In our astrological zodiac it is the symbol for the sign Cancer, that’s saying one thing alone. However if you dig deeper, you get some other references like the fact that that sign is a Water element, and is also feminine and negative sign. I guess one would really have to be into astrology or know someone of this sign for it to get home. But knowing this alone, helps with the title character. This is the perfect companion piece to Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Juniper Tree (1990)
ICELAND --- fantasy

Dir: Nietzchka Keene

Fairy tales have served as the inspiration for many fantastic films and even modern literature (Harry Potter anyone?). As we well know, The Brothers Grimm enchanted many children with their fairy tales over the centuries. Many of The Brothers Grimm tales have been done over and over again, but every once in awhile, you get a rare gem of something from their collective like the film "The Juniper Tree".

In this film loosely based on the Grimm tale of the same name, two sisters Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir) and Margit (Björk Guðmundsdóttir in her acting debut), flee a village when their mother is found drowned for being a witch. The eldest sister finds a man named Jóhann (Valdimar Örn Flygenring) who is widowed and his young son Jónas to take care of. The youngest sister begins to have visions of whom she believes is the ghost of her mother. Soon the boy begins to distrust the eldest sister, eventually learning her true nature as a witch and her deceptive intentions to seduce her father with her magic.

Margit befriends Jónas as they confide in each other. He shows her the grave of his mother, and she has delusional visions of her own mother. As the film progresses, Jónas slowly begins to despise his new stepmother as they come to a final confrontation. In the original Grimm's fairy tale, we get more focus on the widow's wife and her son whom she never sees. It plays almost like a revenge fantasy complete with the recurring Grimm themes of evil stepmothers, and children who are in true great danger. With what we see on the nightly news, what else is new? It also shares some relation to Biblical themes, as in 1 Kings 19: 1-8, after a terrific battle against Queen Jezebel's sorcerers, the prophet Elijah flees under a "Juniper Tree", requesting that the lord put an end to his life; for the wicked queen is after him. An angel subsequently visits him to feed him. The Juniper Tree in essence really could be symbolic of the lord's grace.

In this regard, the film doesn't shy away from the Grimm's themes at all, though it does take liberty with the tale, it sticks fairly true to the theme of the story. As mentioned, there is no divine providence in the film's climax. Having said all that, the Juniper Tree is an elegiac dark fantasy at its best. A decent example art house cinema complete with wonderful black and white cinematography of Iceland. It's definitely one of those film once watched, will stick with you for awhile to think about.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Alag (2006)
--- science fiction

Dir: Ashu Y. Trikha

It has been well proven of the existence of mankind, that we are not fully utilizing the full potential of the human mind. It goes to explain phenomenon such as psychics foretelling the future, animal whisperers, and why some people are geniuses and others are not. Alag tells one such story of a man who possesses the full potential of the mind, and the complications one would encounter.

Tejas Rastogi has never seen the outside world. His mother died in childbirth, and was raised alone with his father, who kept him in the basement with his only entertainment being thousands of books. He is bald all over, has sensitivity to light, and a strange susceptibility to electricity. The local authorities find him sheltered in the basement, and call for a young woman named Purva Rana. Rana works for a kind of school called the Centre, where young men who have done some criminal acts are taken in for rehabilitation. Purva’s father runs the Centre and takes in Tejas who displays an uncanny intellect.

Tejas soon runs into his school mates, who do not exactly make him feel welcome. Tejas is forced to where a spoon on his nose, which provides him the opportunity to display his miraculous powers. He telepathically draws the spoons on the lunch table together into a shape and bursts it into pieces with a single stray spoon. The kids are astonished, but not amused by his playful display. He is made an outcast again when on a school trip to the woods the security guard Mr. Singh kills a bird for sport and food, but Tejas makes him experience the suffering of the bird. Singh can no longer continue his duties on staff at the Centre. He gets into trouble once again with the school director, Pushkar Rana who is not quite himself due to his wife’s illness. In one more display of his abilities, Tejas helps bring Pushkar’s wife, Purva’s mother, out of the illness and almost instantaneously returns her to health.

At this point, some evil mad scientist type named Dr. Dyer captures Tejas for their own experiments. They take him to a hidden lab where they have him tied to a table. Probing his body, the doctor reveals his nefarious plot to utilize Tejas mind powers for his own. Tejas barely escapes, thanks to the help of Pushkar, Purva, and Mr. Singh coming to his rescue. Singh is killed in the escape attempt, and Tejas destroys the lab but not before Purva is tragically taken down.

Basically, this is a loose Bollywood remake/rip-off of the 1995 Hollywood film "Powder". In exchange for the Jessica Caldwell character who was a surrogate mother we get a love interest in Purva. The film has its interchangeable characters and plot changes, but the most drastic change of course is the age-old Bollywood treatment of interstitial dance sequences, which basically feel like mini music videos. Though these are fun and visually interesting, and do move the story along, American audiences will often raise a Spock eyebrow and whisper WTF. The problem with the film is as Powder was a basic alien visitor treatment made more of a Christ-like parable, Alag is not. It does not know exactly what it wants to be. It could have even taken the route of "The Green Mile", but failed to do so. Instead, it took the main character in too many different directions in such a short time, even going so far to make the film too comic booky toward the climax. It is an interesting experiment to compare the two films, but Alag doesn’t have the cinematic strength to stand on its own.