Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Chinese Ghost Story

Let me start off by saying that I am not, in any way, an expert on Asian Cinema. In the mid to late 80s, as the Laser Disc was becoming a 'thing,' people were more easily able to see foreign movies as regional protection wasn't as big a thing then as it is now. Either that, or it was just easier to buy an Asian Laser Disc Player in the States. In Boston, there was on enterprising young gentleman who nearly single-handedly fanned the flames of interest in Hong Kong cinema. He would wander about in a long, leather trench coat, even in the hottest weather with VHS copies of the latest Chow Yun Fat film, or Tsui Hark masterpiece tucked into pockets like a watch salesman in New York City. At one point, he told me that he had three Laser Disc machines running day and night to keep up with demand for these tapes. When local arthouse theaters, such as the Brattle, would show some of these films, this young gent would wander up and down the line of folks waiting to get inside, offering these movies for sale. He was utterly breaking international copyright law but who was to know? I always thought he'd get caught as he was so brazen but, to the best of my knowledge, he never was.

That brings me to the movie that's the subject of this post, 1987's "A Chinese Ghost Story." My memories tell me that the copy I acquired of this film had no subtitles, though that memory might be wrong. I think, instead, they just weren't very good. The story then seemed muddled and yet I thoroughly enjoyed the goofiness and pathos of this movie. Like many films out of Hong Kong then, and possibly now, it has moments of going over the top. There is quite a bit of wire-fu, spell casting and swordsmanship. This all comes hand in hand with demons of the underworld that make our Western Zombies look pale in comparison. This film manages to tread three narrow lines at the same time; it is equal parts romance, comedy and horror. I recently re-watched this, thanks to YouTube and can say that the film held up quite well.

The plot revolves around a young debt-collector who is rather meek and bad at his job. When he gets to the town that's the focus of his efforts, he can't even collect enough money to put himself up for the night. He's directed to the nearby Orchid Temple, which is known by the locals to be haunted. There he runs into two swordsmen in the midst of a duel. One is driven away, only to be seduced by the lovely ghost of the temple who, in the middle of The Act, calls out to the local ancient evil tree demon/demoness who sucks the life juices from the hapless swordsman. The other leaves the story for now. When the young debt collector sets himself up for sleep, the ghost returns. Her appearance isn't at all ghost-like so the young debt collector mistakes her for a real young woman. Unlike all her other victims, he doesn't look for sex with her and turns aside her advances. When he thinks she might be in danger, he tries to protect her. This causes the ghost to start to fall in love, a condition soon shared by the young debt collector.

From there, the plot generally wanders towards the idea of saving the ghost from her fate while destroying the ancient evil whose major power is her/his amazing extendable tongue. Just when the movie seems to be getting too serious, some form of comedy slides in to bring it around, or we get an exciting fight scene with folks flying all about, tossing off curses and charms, chants that fend of evil powers or a giant tongue that wraps itself around the temple, the fighters or anything it can get itself around.

The ending, too is not the usual Hollywood, happily-ever-after affair though it does seem to be open enough to two sequels. I don't remember them nearly as well, and haven't watched them, partially as this film stands just fine on its own.
The young debt collector
is played by Hong Kong Pop star Leslie Cheung. His was a huge career, being one of the biggest stars of that kind of music in all Asia. Sadly, he died by committing suicide when 46 due to clinical depression. He was also a rarity in that he was a self-declared bi-sexual, something one does not do in that culture.This is the lovely young woman/ghost at the center of the plot:
And this, the male/female tongue-lashing tree demon:
For fans of cinema that wanders outside the usual boundaries, who love to see people flying about unabashedly on wires, latex effects that range from decent to ridiculous, this is a great entry into Hong Kong movies. Luckily, the film is easily available on YouTube. There are surely some cultural bits and pieces that don't translate but I think these obstacles are easily overlooked. This is a film that will make you smile, question and perhaps even tear up a little in equal parts. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

John Hurt (1940-2017)

I first saw John Hurt on TV, in the role of Quentin Crisp in the Naked Civil Servant, on PBS. He played Crisp again decades later in the follow-up film about the last years of Quentin's life called An Englishman in New York. It was a great introduction to an amazing actor. Having met Mr. Crisp a couple times, I can say Hurt's performance was so spot on that if the two of them were in the same room and he was in character, it would be hard to tell them apart. It was a role that could have killed his career. Playing a modern gay dandy as a sympathetic person was not exactly in vogue then, nor is it now - to be truthful.

As Kane in Alien, he gave us one of cinema's most iconic images, but after that film he made The Shout - a weird artsy pseudo-horror film that I was in preparation to write about here when the news of his death reached me. In that role as in  ALL his roles, he shined. His presence in even a terrible film elevate it into something worth seeing for his part in it.

As a genre fan, he has given me plenty to look back on. Winston in the film 1984 (which sadly is becoming the actual world we live in), the leader in V for Vendetta where is plays the opposite of Winston, he was Hell Boy's father, the war Doctor in the series Doctor Who and was the titular character in  the film version of the Elephant Man, maybe his most heart breaking role.

He was a great actor who left us with a lifetime of work to reflect, enjoy and relive as we re-watch his body of work in the coming years. I certainly will be doing just that.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Good Dinosaur

Pixar Studios (2015) 93 minutes

This is bound to become a forgotten film in Pixar’s history but not for lack of trying or because it’s a bad film. It is actually quite good. A decent, well told story and characters with the studio's typically great animation. It shines most brightly in is backgrounds and environments - they are beyond stunning. In fact it’s very easy to confuse them for real world locations and think the animated characters, which are very cartoon-y, were just composted into them.

The basic story is one of a fearful, maladroit dinosaur child gets separated from his family farm (in this universe, the asteroid that knocked out many of the dinosaurs misses and they go on for millions of more years, eventually sharing the earth with early man) and has to make his way back through a series of adventures with a human child. Of course a parent dies, this is a Disney produced animation afterall. The man-cub is all but a puppy dog in intelligence and behaviour and fun to watch. The cartoon style of the creatures might be a little jarring fro some against the photo-real environments but I found it charming. It reminded me of the super simple people in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty against that films very detailed background paintings. I wish they spent more time with the stegosaurus than the tyrannosaurus castle ranchers but that is a minor quibble.

Why will this film be forgotten? For one it didn’t make much money in release and came out the same year as their blockbuster Inside/Out . It didn’t get much promotion or fanfare and while its settings were amazing, the rest of the movie, though entertaining didn’t catch on with the public even though critical response was very good overall. I personally liked this more than Inside/Out but since I actually work doing animation, I think my reaction was probably a little different than the 5-10 year olds the film aimed at.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! - 50 Years of Varla , Billy and Rosie

1966, Russ Myers, 83 minutes, black&white

The title of this movie is so iconic, it’s worth noting it was distributed under three other names as well - Leather Girls, Mankillers and Pussycat. The story of this movie is equally random - three go-go girls looking for kicks come across a guy and his gal doing time trials with his sports car in the desert and then race him, kill him and kidnap his girl, in that order. Before they can dispose of her as well, they hear of an old man living in an isolated part of the desert who has a secret stash of cash and concoct a plan to steal it, using the kidnapped girl as a distraction. From there is gets, sexy, violent, complicated and campy; ending in a karate fight between man, killer go-go girl and a truck. 

As a Russ Meyers film, this one stands out not only for what it contains, but for what it doesn’t. The film’s violence is sometimes shocking but not gory and there is no nudity or explicit sex. No rape scenes either, thank goodness. It doesn’t need any of that to hold your attention. All the actors are over the top excellent in their roles. The lead is the recently deceased Tura Satana as Varla. Pure evil and one of the meanest, toughest characters ever seen on the silver screen. Meyers outdoes himself cinematographically, using the main actresses own bodies as framing elements much of the time, especially their oversized breasts (it wouldn’t be a Meyers films without them). The dialogue is campy, fast and instantly quotable from beginning to end. The fried chicken lunch scene alone is a tour de force in editing and camp that actually advances the story as it entertains. 

Despite it’s reputation as a bad movie, Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! is NOT a bad movie. A bad film does accomplish what it sets out to do and this movie could never be accused of that. It’s certainly not boring or poorly made, even the sound is recorded professionally and clean. The acting is over the top, as it should be for the subject matter and the actors put much more into their performances than they have any right to for such a low budget exploitation feature. This movie knows what it is and shoves it down your throat with no apologies. As outrageous as the plot may be, it makes sense and moves along faster and faster until the very end. 

I first saw Pussycat in a revival house in Harvard Square with a couple friends, one of whom was never the same afterwards. There was almost no one in the cinema with us but those that were there gladly came along for the ride. When I ran a video store, I made it a point to get copies to rent to an unsuspecting clientele and was pinching myself when I realized the only way to get Myer’s videos was to talk to him (or Kitten Navidaddirectly. I bought them ALL. Ever since I have had regular movie nights with Faster Pussycat in heavy rotation, not always to the pleasure of those attending - at least until they saw it - and then it became a part of their lives. 
Why there wasn’t an international holiday declared for the 50th anniversary of it’s release is unfathomable to me.« The point is of not return and you’ve reached it », Varla says, and you can never go back after seeing this flick.


The best film podcast around just did 2 ½ hours about this film:

Learn more about Varla:

Learn more about my fellow Quebecer, Haji (Rosie in the movie)!
born in quebec! 

Buy the film:

And learn very little about Billy:

Notable critiques:

"Russ Meyer is the Eistenstein of sex films. He is single-handedly responsible for more hard-ons in movie audiences than any other director... Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (Russ's tenth film) is, beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future."
John Waters, Shock Value

"This is the quintessential psychotronic film and Russ Meyer's best. It should have been locked into the Voyager space probe and launched into space to give extraterrestrial life an example of what 'kickin' ass' is all about."
Kurt Ramschissel, Film Threat

"Every inch of the film entertains, from the wild desert drag racing sequences to the sexually charged fried chicken lunch that the characters stop fighting each other long enough to share. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! has a deliciously ruthless rhythm that few films of such modest aspirations ever achieve-- it could very well be the most finely crafted exploitation film ever made."
Fred Beldin, All Movie Guide

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

New guy in town

Howdy doody, folks. This is Hipster J. Douchebag, one of the new guns in town here at the Celluloid Slammer. Ol' Vince was kind (dumb) enough to invite me along to this here shindig. Who the hell am I? Well, I used to work with Vince way back in the 1980s in a small comic store in Cambridge, Mass. These days, I shoot my mouth off in movie review videos like the one linked above. I have a vlog called "The Movie Wrench" where I tell Hollywood what's wrong with its movies and how to fix them. Takes a lot of ego for that. Anyway, I'm going to try to write some articles to add to this site. For now, watch the above and cry... or something.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Buster Crabbe strips in a room of naked men

How is that for headline?

The film? Search for Beauty, 1934.

The plot: who cares, Buster Crabbe gets naked, but if you insist - Con artists convince 2 olympians to head a new health magazine that is really just a front to show salacious photos and tell scandalous stories.

Artist Ralph Hodgdon told me about this film recently as he and I (and Donna lethal) are big fans of Buster. He might have seen it on release, not sure. The naked guys in the locker room tip you off this was pre-code and it's a little jarring to see a film from 1934 with that much skin showing.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Slammer has been updated

If you are reading this - you know that already!

I (Vincent-louis Apruzzese) have bene the only poster for over 1 ½ years, so after talking with Miss Lethal herself, I have taken over the site officially.

I will be slowly looking for new writers and I plan to do one post a month at least and put more effort into them. I think the new cleaner design will make it nicer to read and anyone can post comments again. JUST LETS NOT ABUSE THAT OK!

Comments off topic and inappropriate will be deleted and you will be blocked.

Hopefully the Slammer will be taking new inmates for years to come!