Thursday, October 29, 2015

When Horror Came to Shochiku: Eclipse Series 37

Eclipse Collection (Criterion), DVD Box Set, Release Date Nov 20, 2012
Review by Christopher S. Long

The airline passengers in “Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell” (1968) are doomed all right, but what will finally do them in? Is it the bomb scare radioed in to the pilot in the opening scene? Or perhaps the suicidal birds that splatter red-black feather blood against the cabin windows? How about the not-related-to-the-bomb-threat gangster who sneaked a gun on board and takes the crew hostage? Maybe it's the UFO that has been reported in the vicinity.

Since all of these game-over threats materialize before the opening credits even roll, there's plenty to keep you guessing. Which one will kill our brave and unfortunate men and women? Do you think you know the answer? Well, you don't, because it turns out it's the space vampires. Duh.

It's just the kind of genre-mashing, logic-defying lunatic plot hypersaturation that enables you to overlook the fact that Goke isn't from Hell at all, and that there really isn't even a Goke because, well geez man, space vampires. And don't forget about that gangster or that bomb guy 'cause they're not going anywhere either. “Goke” weaves a complex tapestry and it's something magnificent to behold.

“Goke” was one of four sci-fi/horror films released by the venerable and venerated Shochiku Studios in 1967-1968. The house best known for Ozu, Mizoguchi, and, later, Oshima, was slow to embrace the monster movie craze kicked off by Ishiro Honda's monumental “Godzilla” (1954), and their entry into the field was over almost before it started, but they certainly didn't hold anything back. The late sixties marked the crest of a few New Waves and while Shochiku might have skimped a bit on production values, they left enough in the budget for the kind of gonzo innovation and stylization that assured this quartet of films an enduring life as cult favorites.

“Goke,” directed by Hajime Soto, is easily the highlight of the collection for me. The deranged premise is matched by an equally deranged cast of characters, including not only that gangster and wannabe bomber (who turns out not to be so bad) but also a semi-sadistic psychologist, a space biologist (lucky, that), and an American woman en route to Vietnam to pick up the body of her soldier husband. Perhaps the standout is Mr. Mano, a corrupt, venal politician who is given such glorious lines as “Humanism! Just what we need!” and “Intellectuals always try to confuse people!” You won't weep for many of them as the body count rises, but just when you think the film can't top its pre-credits insanity here comes an ending that will remind you of just puny this little old pale blue dot of a planet really is.

“Goke” is iron-clad-nutso proof that a film can be simultaneously ridiculous and smart, and should not be confused for disposable camp. Its secrets to success are not so secret: damned fine writing and damned fine filmmaking (cinematographer Shizuo Hirase was at the top of his game). It's a daunting task to crack any “best of” list from 1968, but I state with supreme confidence that “Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell” is an accomplishment on par with just about anything New and/or Wavey anywhere in the world in that landmark year.

I wasn't as overwhelmed by the other three films in this Eclipse set, but I can say that each of them has its distinct charms. “The X From Outer Space” (1967) kicked off Shochiku's genre foray. It is way too laden with exposition and takes far too long to unleash its man in a rubber suit on helpless urban populations, but once space monster Guilala starts knocking over buildings and uprooting transformers, the mayhem that ensues achieves a kind of mindless white-noise poetry whose appeal is undeniable. Plus it's inspiring to watch our intrepid heroes struggle to figure out how to stop the nuclear-powered dynamo. “Perhaps if we smother Guilala with Guilalanium.” How the heck did you figure that one out, Mr. Science Person? The film's most memorable feature, however, is the incongruous score by Taku Izumi beginning with an inexplicably chipper opening credit theme and then sambaing its way through the rubble. 

The Living Skeleton” (1968) is the only black-and-white offering in the set, and it's heavy on atmospherics, light on everything else. The opening scene establishes the bleak world as a group of hostages on a cargo ship are gunned down in cold blood by crazed pirates. Fast forward three years and the twin sister of one of the victims abruptly finds the call of the ocean irresistible. The film is a twitching bundle of secret identities and hoary frissons that leads to a pretty silly and far too twisty denouement, but there are still pleasures to be had in this black-and-white coastal landscape even if the skeletons (living or dead) are a bit lacking in the scare department. 

Genocide” (1968) arrives with a premise almost as divinely deranged as that of “Goke.” An American plane carrying an H-Bomb soars above Japanese islands. The sight of a buzzing bee sparks bombardier Charly (Chico Rowland) to flashback to his Vietnam combat days and he accidentally opens the bomb bay doors. But no worries, the bomb is secure. Unfortunately, a swarm of insects seizes this opportunity to engulf and crash the plane, and eventually to threaten the human race with, what else, genocide? Add in at least one crazed scientist who wants to help the little buggers on their extermination quest (but with good reason, you can be sure), and you've got the recipe for disaster but... heck, there are no buts here. There's gonna be a disaster. I wish the execution was as inspired as the set-up, but if the film never approaches “Goke” for cinematic perfection, it has more than a few moments that make it worthwhile, and the final images are genuinely moving. Extreme close-up photography of insects will also send the creepy-crawlies down your spine. 

“The X From Outer Space” is presented in a 2.24:1 aspect ratio, “Goke” in 2.35:1, “The Living Skeleton” (the only B&W film) in 2.50:1, and “Genocide” in 2.47:1. Though these Eclipse editions have not been digitally restored, the picture quality is generally strong. “The Living Skeleton” looks particularly vital in its rich black-and-white contrasts. “The X From Outer Space” seems like the weakest of the lot overall, but doesn't present any significant problems, just some soft image quality at times.

All four films are presented in Dolby Digital Mono. “The X From Outer Space” offers an English dub in addition to the original Japanese audio. There isn't much to say about the audio; some of the music and effects sound a bit thin or slightly warbled, but overall the audio is crisp. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

As with most Eclipse releases, there are no extras. Each disc is stored in a separate thin keep-case with its own art. All four discs slide into the thin cardboard slipcover carrying the Eclipse Series logo.

Each disc has liner notes (a three page fold-out for “The X From Outer Space,” one page each for the others) by critic Chuck Stephens who writes both about Shochiku's overall foray into the sci-fi/horror genre and about each of the films.

Set Value:
According to Chuck Stephens, fans of “Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell” have taken to referring to the film as “Vagina-Face Apocalypse” (see below) which adds a super-cool nickname to an already super-cool title. Criterion started the year with an extraordinary Blu-ray package of “Godzilla” which has still held up as one of their best titles of 2012. Eclipse is now finishing the year with “When Horror Came to Shochiku” and if the average film quality can't match up to the original bad boy of the genre, I don't think “Goke” is that far off. I cannot recommend “Goke” highly enough. And the other three films are at the very least, fun ways to pass an evening and occasionally a lot more than that. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Special Day

A SPECIAL DAY (Scola, 1977)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 13, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

“Obey.” “Consume.” “Marry and Reproduce.” “Conform.”

The late, great Roddy Piper needed special glasses to see the subliminal messages the world's alien overlords used to train the populace in John Carpenter's science-fiction opus “They Live” (1988). In Ettore Scola's “A Special Day” (1977), Italy's Fascists clearly have the same agenda, but don't feel the need to be so coy about their conditioning program.

Scola's film begins with lengthy excerpts of newsreel footage documenting Hitler's historic visit to Rome on May 6, 1938 to cement his alliance with Mussolini as tens of thousands of adoring soldiers and citizens cheer and salute in enthusiastically choreographed lockstep. Der Fuhrer and Il Duce may have been meant for each other (if only until the blush of first love inevitably wore off) but 1977 audiences had to bide their time waiting for the couple they had really come to see, the top-billed glamorous duo of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.

Parade footage eventually gives way to a slow-panning crane shot that traces out the courtyard of a high rise tenement and the many tiny lives visible through its windows before piercing into a single apartment. It is not yet six in the morning and Antonietta (Loren) already looks harried as she has gotten breakfast started while waking up her six children and husband, the latter of whom whines even more than the kids. Hitler's visit means a national holiday for everyone except a hard-working housewife, and after preparing everyone to participate the historic festivities, Antonietta settles in for a day of labor marked rigidly by an alarm clock she sets to go off every hour.

Her daily routine is disrupted when the family's pet mynah bird escapes its cage and flutters across the courtyard to the ledge of another apartment. Enter Gabriele (Mastroianni), that apartment's occupant and perhaps the only man in the complex who hasn't rushed out to the parade. After enlisting his help to retrieve the bird, Antonietta will soon discover why he hasn't joined in the celebration.

Loren, to say the least, plays against type. The famous international beauty wears only a single raggedy outfit the entire time, looking as plain and dowdy as Sophia Loren possibly can. Scola and cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis up the ante by desaturating the color to such an extreme that viewers can easily be forgiven for thinking that they're watching a black-and-white film. Scola says his memories of fascism (he was seven on this real-life “special day”) are all swathed in “leaden gray.”

Mastroianni is typically suave but also profoundly melancholy. He is introduced fingering a pistol on his desk and it doesn't take long to figure out the major source of his anxiety. An impassioned phone call to the unseen Marco and mention of being fired from his job for “deviant” tendencies should clue in most viewers, but the cloistered, conservative Antonietta needs Gabriele to repeatedly shout the word “faggot” before she figures out the full story.

Initially jarred by Gabriele's reveal, Antonietta finds more solidarity in their shared loneliness and oppression and the two connect, quite intimately, over the course of this special day. The connection promises only a temporary reprieve, however. Even sharing private conversations in their apartments, they are constantly threatened by a vigilant outside world ordering them to conform, whether from a nosy concierge who cherishes party loyalty above all, the constant blaring of the Italian National Radio broadcast covering the day's glorious events, or depictions of Il Duce's slogans like “The man who is not husband, father, and soldier is not a man.” Obey. Consume. Marry and Reproduce.

Scola and co-writer Ruggero Maccari are generally better known for comedy, but provide vivid reminders here that Fascism's intolerance was all encompassing, viciously homophobic and misogynistic in addition to its better documented sins. Loren and Mastroianni were a frequent screen couple with an easy chemistry that won over audiences time and again, and their magical pairing works even in perhaps their most atypical combination. To my taste, after Gabriele's big reveal to Antonietta, the film shifts from a sensitive, close observation of their daily lives to a slightly forced (or perhaps “rushed” is a better term) connection of two lonely souls,but consider that a minor quibble about a resonant and moving film.

“A Special Day” was restored in 2014 at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia – Cinetece Nazionale in Rome. Criterion's high-def 4K transfer is sourced from this restored print and was supervised by Ettore Scola. The film's distinguishing feature is its dramatically desaturated color palette. I am unable to judge how close this version is to the theatrical release, but with Scola's supervision we can assume it's accurate. Image detail is sharp throughout which really shows up in closeups. I didn't notice any signs of damage or deterioration. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

The linear PCM mono track is crisp and clean and dialogue heavy. The moody score by Armando Trovajoli is well preserved in this lossless transfer. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.

Criterion has included a handful of interviews as supplements.

The first is a new (May 2015) interview with director Ettore Scola (21 min.) in which he discusses his early career as a journalist then as a screenwriter before finally taking the helm as director. He reflects briefly on his youth in Fascist Italy and delves into more details about the film's production, including how Sophia Loren adjusted her approach from her more glamorous roles.

Second is a a new (June 2015) interview with Sophia Loren (14 min.) in which she discusses her involvement with the project. She initially feared she wouldn't be up to the challenging material, but her husband (and the film's producer) Carlo Ponti had faith in her prowess. Fortunately she listened and forged ahead.

The disc also includes two episodes of “The Dick Cavett Show” from Oct 10, 1977 and Nov 4, 1977, running 28 minutes apiece. The two episodes are halves of the same interview, conducted with Loren and Marcelo Mastroianni when the two stars were in New York to promote “A Special Day.”

Criterion also adds on “Human Voice” (2014, 25 min.), a recent short film starring Sophia Loren and directed by her son Eduardo Ponti. The short is inspired by Jean Cocteau's 1930 play “La voix humaine.”

The collection is rounded out by an original Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by film critic Deborah Young.

Final Thoughts:
Surely someone must have used the tagline “Loren and Mastroianni Like You've Never Seen Them Before!” “A Special Day” is a quiet gem, somewhat atypical both for its stars and its director. Criterion hasn't packed the disc with extras, but the interviews are compelling and the high-def transfer is sourced from a recent restoration that presents the film as vibrant as you've likely ever seen it. Certainly a strong recommendation.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date Sep 18, 2007
Review by Christopher S. Long

(With "The Martian" dominating the U.S. box office you may have heard a few references to this earlier movie about an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet. I'll just say I like this gutsy B-movie a whole lot better than the slick Matt Damon sitcom and leave it at that. This review was written for the 2007 DVD release by Criterion, but Criterion re-released the whole package in 2011 on Blu-ray so you probably want to consider that before the DVD.)

The opening sequences of the B-movie sci-fi classic “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” (1964) toy cruelly with our expectations. First, we get Adam West, and not just that, but Adam West as an astronaut. Adam West as Batman as an astronaut (Batstronaut!) would be even better, but let’s not get picky. Adam West is one of the most enjoyable actors of all-time, and we all know that he would never be in a bad movie. This could be better than we thought.

But then we hit our first major bump, literally, as the space ship is knocked out of its flight path by a meteor and forced to plan for a crash-landing on Mars. Colonel Dan (West) radios back to ground control where a Very Important Scientist warns him: “Do not dissemble space vehicle until all other procedures have been tried.” I guess the ship doesn’t like to be lied to. HAL 9000 got pretty pissed when Dave tried to bullshit him, so maybe it makes sense.

Then the news becomes grimmer still: Adam West isn’t even going to be our main character. I don't want to get into details; it's too painful to think about, but we're gonna spend most of our time with the other guy in the crew, Colonel Kit Draper. How the hell do you give Batman second billing? He spent all that time making his super-cool utility belt, and now you’re just going to shunt him off screen in favor of some stiff who never even played Batman?

At least that stiff is Paul Mantee, who actually delivers a pretty good performance as Draper, and who did appear twice as one of Catwoman’s henchmen on “Batman” so maybe that qualified him for the mission. After Draper crash-lands on Mars, he quickly sets to securing the survival basics: food, shelter, water. He’s obviously a well-trained military man, or at least an over eager Boy Scout, because he gets the job done pretty quickly. It helps that the atmosphere on Mars is just thick enough for a man to be able to breathe for about ten minutes without supplemental oxygen. As boring as some of this may sound, these scenes are rather well-conceived and even kind of exciting. Pretty soon a rather surprising thought occurs to us: This might actually be a good movie. 

“Robinson Crusoe on Mars” also turns out to be a surprisingly bold film. After the crash-landing, Draper spends nearly a half hour of screen time entirely alone, hardly saying anything other than “Hey!” as he dodges a fireball (you know, those famous Martian fireballs) except when he speaks into his recorder to leave a record for any future crews who discover his body. Over the next half hour Draper finds himself a companion, Mona the monkey, the only other surviving member of the crew. For an entire hour then, Paul Mantee finds himself performing a one-man stage act. The plot focuses on his physical ordeals but also stresses his spiritual journey, rather difficult to pull off when you’ve only got a recorder and a monkey for company, but Mantee does yeoman’s work here. The spiritual theme begins subtly but grows in significance as time passes. Draper clearly believes he has survived only through divine agency; a quiet “thank you” when he discovers a surprising oxygen source is the first tip off to Draper’s true beliefs.

Draper marks off his time on Mars on a slate, days melting into months, and even though he never expects to be rescued he still keeps motivated. Mona helps out. A resourceful little scavenger, she discovers water and edible food on this barren Eden, and sits down for dinner with Draper every night. It’s really quite remarkable to see a B-movie stay so long with just one (human) character on-screen, violating just about every rule of screenwriting and entertainment. What, no love interest? And, no, Mona doesn’t count. They’re just friends.

Unfortunately, the final forty minutes or so of the film meanders back into familiar genre territory, undermining some of the great work accomplished during Draper’s months of isolation. Singer/future Klingon soldier Victor Lundin shows up as an escaped alien slave, Draper’s very own Friday who guides him into a battle with alien overlords and a flight through those legendary martian canals.

This part of the film isn’t terrible, just a mild disappointment after such commitment to the previous one-man set-up. The highlights are the menacing space ships that look suspiciously like the Martian invaders from “War of the Worlds” (1953), which is no coincidence since director and special effects wizard Byron Haskin helmed both of these science-fiction classics. It’s amazing how cool the effects still look today: the ships just zip into place super-fast, and then zip away just as quickly. Not all the effects in “Robinson Crusoe” wear as well: the Earth explorer’s creaky orbit is not one of Haskin’s finer efforts, but that’s only a minor complaint.

There are only three actors in the case of “Robinson Crusoe on Mars,” plus Mona the Monkey (played by Barney the Wooly Monkey), and minimal dialogue for good portions of the film. This not only provides a convenient way to reduce the budget, it also yields a surprisingly focused, suspenseful, and downright audacious film, at least until the ending. “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” is definitely not your typical B-movie.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Ah, glorious Techniscope, Cinemascope’s slightly grubbier cousin. Techniscope usually looks a little grainier than Cinemascope which might be seen by some as a weakness (Cinemascope was certainly the more popular format), but works to the advantage of many films that benefit from that slightly grittier look. The digitally restored transfer by Criterion might look a little “dirtier” than some of their usual efforts, but it’s really supposed to. There are a few dings and scratches evident from the source print as well, but they don’t detract from the look at all. Yet another excellent job by Criterion.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

The film is accompanied by a feature-length commentary by screenwriter Ib Melchior, and cast members; the track also mixes in excerpts from a 1979 interview with Byron Haskin.

The rest of the extras are included in the “Survival Kit.”

“Destinaton: Mars” is a short (19 min.) documentary detailing the ways in which “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” was accurate according to 1964 information regarding the planet Mars. Space historian Michael Lennick asserts that the film was surprisingly sorta-kinda-vaguely accurate for its time. Granted, there are no fireballs on Mars, but at the time scientists believe the atmosphere might support human respiration for brief periods of time, as featured in the film. I enjoyed this feature quite a bit.

A music video of the Victor Lundin song “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” is also included and is surprisingly sweet; think “Cat’s in the Cradle” except about “Robinson Crusoe on Mars.” The DVD also offers a slideshow of promotional material or the film and a downloadable PDF file of excerpts from Ib Melchior’s original screenplay, one much more of the Bug Eyed Monster variety.

The slim insert booklet features a nifty essay by filmmaker and space historian Michael Lennick.

The wonderful cover art for the DVD is by the great comic book artist Bill Sienkiewicz.

Final Thoughts:
Criterion has diversified its collection with several recent B-movie releases: “Equinox,” the “Monsters and Madmen” boxed set, and now “Robinson Crusoe on Mars.” In each, the studio provided a justification for including each film in the prestigious Collection. “Equinox” marked the earliest work of special effects gurus Dennis Murren and David Allen; “Monsters and Madmen” collected four films produced by Richard and Alex Gordon; “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” is directed by Byron Haskin of “War of the Worlds” fame. Of the films, “Robinson Crusoe” is easily my favorite, no masterpiece, but an entertaining and daring film which would make a worthy entry in the Criterion Collection even without its auteur stripes.

My only real complaint: needed more Adam West. But that holds true for most movies.