Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Review: Cat Sick Blues

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Cat Sick Blues
Directed and edited by Dave Jackson
Phandasmes Video / Wild Eye Releasing Raw / MVD Visual
101 minutes, 2016 / 2018

D’jever have one of those pals or acquaintances who treated their pet with so much attention, it seemed a bit... unhealthy? You know, all their Facebook posts are pictures of them with the critter, or the beastie dressed up in some inappropriate costume that made you kinda feel sorry for the pet more than the owner? You’ve probably thought to yourself, they are just lonely and they need to find the right human person to connect with, right?

Matthew C. Vaughn
Ted (Matthew C. Vaughn, giving off a Norman Bates/Anthony Perkins meets Eb from ”Green Acres” vibe and look) is just such a person. After his cat walks over the rainbow bridge (though it’s body is in the fridge’s freezer), he has a shrine to it in his abode, and oh, by the way, kills women while wearing a cat mask and a cat-claw glove (references to Freddy K. are bound to turn up); don’t ask about the giant, spiked strap on dildo… He’s under the psychosis that if he kills nine people, one for each of the cat’s lives, he can bring it back. Yeah, Teddy-lad is not playing with a full deck.

As for Claire (Shian Denovan), her cat is a viral internet star until a sudden and brutal occurrence. She’s distraught, and it’s only a matter of time until cat fanciers Ted and Claire are bound to meet. Him with his creepiness and cat obsession, and her on the verge of a breakdown, they are two unhappy people with little in common other than Meow Mix and a filled litter box that is unemptied. Their relationship is more symbiotic than nurturing, but they are desperate people in need for companionship and comfort in some way, no matter how unconventional.

Shian Denovan
But these are two very disturbed people in actually very different ways. The path does not follow the usual Psychos in Love formula, I’m happy to say, and we are presented with wholly different and quite unexpected scenarios. Kudos to the writers for that.

This is almost a horror cyberpunk with Ted adding technology to his own physicality, doing a Marshall McLuhan by adding to his body parts to make them extensions of himself (I got me some ed-ju-ma­-cation, y’see). What he does with these devices is kinda what you’d expect if you are a fan of this kind of fare, as am I, and I’m grateful that the technique used is more strike than torture, in most cases. I mean, I was wondering if I would have liked the story if he had used the spikey dildo more often or less… of course I’m not even going to give a hint, but I was satisfied.

There are some quite stunning practical SFX in general, especially the head near the beginning of the film. That being said, the blood was a bit too bright red and watery, especially in certain cases, but I’m willing to forget that as it was quite enjoyable to see the gushing. Yes, this is a very graphic and wet film.

My big issue with the production was, believe it or not, the sound. Even without the Australian accents (yes, this comes from a land down under… sorry), a bit of the dialogue is hard to make out with the industrial Nosie soundtrack. Luckily this is not a dialogue heavy flick, so don’t let that stop ya.

Ted is an interesting character, especially the way Vaughn plays him. Sometimes he’s shy, sometimes he quite assured and confident, and other times quite neurotically out of his league. While not discussed, I’m willing to bet he’s on the autism scale. But he manages to set out on his goal to resurrect his purr. That is, when he’s not having grand mal seizures (I know someone who actually died of this), especially after a kill; perhaps it’s the adrenaline rush that triggers it. I realize he’s quite a sexual deviant (the story makes that quite clear), but I was a bit annoyed that all his victims were female, which is a bit of throwback to the bad part of the genre.

That being said, I found Claire even more interesting, even if she is not always likeable. Lovely Denovan plays her in many states of emotions and manic. While Ted may technically be the main character, I felt the film was more about her, the way she deals with multiple levels of grief, and how she works through the pain and fear.

Loneliness is another key factor throughout the film. Whether it’s the two leads, the members of a pet grieving group, Claire’s friend (attractive Rachel Rai), or a fan obsessed with Claire’s cat (Noah Moon), nearly everyone is alone on a substantive level. Even there is a physical connection between characters, it’s never on a positive emotional way.

There’s a nice interplay of reality and dementia, as both our protagonists go through their situations in various ways. But what struck me the most was the use of social media and technology throughout the film, be it feel good viral kitty videos or the dark web’s more sinister side. But what affected me more is how people are so casual about online (real) violence, and being looky-loos in the midst of it. The overall technological culture is a mass of sensationalist headlines and banality of viewing genuine ferocity.

Rachel Rai
Extras abound in this DVD release, so let’s get at it. In no particular order, to start there is the 10:07 short with the same name from 2013. Also starring Vaughn, I’m guessing this was part of the Kickstarter campaign to give the investors some peek of what is to come. A couple helps a masked Ted and he follows them home to a game of – err – cat and mouse. It could well have been a deleted scene from the main feature.

Another short black-and-white short film at 5:03 is “Kappa” (2012). An annoyed guy is asked by is kinda-slow roomie to watch over some Claymation birdlike creature in a box. Things go weird and, well, again, I’m not telling. It’s a pretty crisp looking pic.

Speaking of Deleted Scenes, there are five of them officially, ranging from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. I say “officially” because the first one is kind of a compilation of a few short bits. Yeah, it was good most of them were excised as they didn’t add anything to the story, but I was happy to see them, and honestly, there were a couple I would put back in. Take that as a compliment.

Next up is “Claws and Cat Cocks,” a behind the scenes documentary at a lengthy 35:15, shot by Lucas Haynes. Very grainy, it is footage of different scenes being shot. You get the impression that along with the hard work, the crew and cast both got along and had a bit of fun. Most of the focus is on Vaughn, understandably. My opinion of the featurette is that it was kinda meh, with not enough cast interviews or real direction. It really feels like just random shots with no fixed rhyme or reason other than being there. While I stayed for the whole thing, I fought the urge to skip around.

Other than a bunch of nice Wild Eye Raw trailers (including the one for this film), lastly there are two full length commentaries. The first is with the director (who also co-wrote), Vaughn (who is also a co-producer), co-writer Andrew Gallacher, and producer Taena Hoshi. Sometimes too many people on a commentary can get chaotic, but fortunately they are pretty even, though sometimes it’s hard to tell who is talking. The comments lean towards the creation, the cast, the characters and some technical bits, so it’s pretty interesting throughout.

The second one is more crew based, with the director and Toshi once again, plus five others. There are way too many to get anything substantive as they all talk over each other or are too far from the microphone, though you get they’re enjoying the group’s company. I ended up giving up after the third of nine chapters, at the 18 minute mark.

Back to the feature, the word that I’ve seen associated with it is ”surreal,” and there are definitely moments of that here and there, especially in the third act. It should be noted, however, that the story mostly follows a narrative, so the surreal elements don’t work against it. It’s a beautifully shot and edited film, and while it probably could have used a tad more trimming, it’s definitely worth the viewing.

The film doesn’t hit you over the head with any philosophy, but doesn’t shy away from it either. That’s just part of what makes this a nice entry into the genre from where women blow and men thunder (dammit! Sorry again!!).

Extra, unrelated video:

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review: Inheritance

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Written and directed by Tyler Savage
Portola Films / Other Brother
92 minutes, 2017

Taken loosely, the term inheritance can be more than merely objects; it can be inherent within a group or liniage. This film nicely plays with a variety these extrapolated terms.

Tyler Savage, in his first full-length feature, uses what he has learned so far and presents a picture that is a fine mix of storytelling and artistic endeavor, without ever going into the opaque; in other words, he doesn’t “talk” over the heads of his audience, but at the same time doesn’t talk down to them/us, either.

Chase Joliet, Jake Carpenter
A construction worker/contractor named Ryan (Chase Joliet), who believed he was an orphan since childhood, quite unexpectedly receives a notice that he’s now the heir to his recently deceased biological father’s property. It’s a beautiful beach house facing the Pacific, just outside a small town in California. He is also informed that it is worth more than a couple of mil. Unsure of whether he will sell, he brings along his recently pregnant girlfriend, Isi (the lovely Sara Montez, who sports some wickedly sculpted eyebrows) to check it out. Though I thought her character was too physically absent through parts, I understand why: to see the changes in her partner. Besides, she’s more excited about the coming kid than he seems to be… awwwwwkawrrrrrd.

Not long after they lay down their bones to adjust to the place, weird things begin to perk. Well, to him anyway, both in the living and the… unknown. The first 20 minutes is a bit slow paced, and not much has happened other than some odd behaviors of others, such as the store clerk (Alex Dobrenko) who’s sweet but ungainly (and obviously develops a crush on Isi), that pesky real estate agent that’s the equivalent of an ambulance chasing lawyer (Dale Dickey; many times the real estate agent is a forward scout for whatever strangeness is afoot, but I’m not saying if she is or not), the next door neighbor (Krisha Fairchild) who spies on them, and a cousin (Drew Powell) who is just… ugh; there is, though, a mild jump scare or two.
While this story does delve into the possible supernatural, this is definitely dips into the psychological thriller genre (is it all in Ryan’s head?: an old but effective trope), arguably more than the horror. With the possibilities of ghosts we begin to wonder about the cause of Ryan’s descent into… (cue spooky Theremin sound).

There’s a little bit Amityville house in the effect on Ryan, a touch of Overlook Hotel with negative influences of what went on earlier, and perhaps even a touch of the first season of American Horror Story. Or, as I said before, is it all in his head? For example, many of those he sees from the past, such as his father (Tim Abel) or grandfather (Jake Carpenter), occur after he sees photographs of them. So which one is it? Again, I ain’t tellin’. Just know even though it’s a bit derivative, as is 99 percent of all cinema, it tells a good story with some nice touches to keep the viewer interested.

Beautiful cinematography
There is some absolutely beautiful cinematography here. For example, in the first third, we get to enjoy some close-up shots leaning towards the golden tone, such as amber alcohol being poured into a glass followed by the sunset light on the house, eggs frying in a pan, or Ryan’s hand caressing Isi’s bare belly. In other sections, there is more of a blue tone, such as moonlight on faces. It’s all quite luxurious, and fortunately doesn’t take one out of the moment, but rather links one scene to the next.

Speaking of being taken out of a scene, if you will offer me a moment of self-indulgence: my biggest distraction early on was when Ryan was contemplatively rummaging through a garage and comes across a box of old LPs, and for the next few minutes I got lost wondering what were those albums. Fortunately, we get to hear some of the music as that box becomes part of the story.

Sara Montez, Alex Dobrenko
One interesting aspect of the film that really drew my attention and I would have been pleased if it had been a stronger focus – even though it’s kind of a backbone of the motif – is the historical mistreatment of the Indigenous people by the white (especially male for several reasons) settlers, that is obviously continuing.

For me, the film’s one drawback is its length, as it could have been cut down some through repetition and going beyond where it needs to, to establish the scene’s motive. For example, there is a dinner conversation between Ryan and his sister that is (purposefully) uncomfortable at best. This could easily have been shorter – we get it, they don’t get along.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like this is a bunch of padding with some story, it’s quite the other way around. Savage tells a good tale that is engaging, even with an ending that I kinda saw coming in some way in an aha moment about a third way through after I had enough information; and even so, the film kept my interest for a number of reasons.

For example, the cast is quite good. Joliet is in most scenes, and carries the film with just the right amount of sullenness, anger, and fear, without playing it over the top (as did James Brolin in Amityville Horror, or especially Jack Nicolson in The Shining – both actors I admire). Montez shines enough to not fall into Joliet’s shadow. Actually, as far as presence, the entire cast holds their own.

There are few scenes of violence, which of course make them a bit more unsettling for their unexpected nature, and while there are a few steamy scenes, no real nudity. Again, it’s not that kind of film, as it’s more story based than the biff-bang-boom of the day. Honestly, the film is better for it.

For a first full lengther (yes, I know it’s not a word, but should be), Savage show some oomph, and I look forward to seeing his growth, especially if this is only the ground floor.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Review: The Man From Earth

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

The Man From Earth (aka Jerome Bixby’s The Man From Earth)
Directed by Richard Schenkman
Falling Sky Entertainment / MVD Visual
87 minutes, 2007 / 2018

The Man From Earth, which was released a decade ago, is a cult film with a very subtle touch. It is essentially an ensemble cast sitting around at a cabin in the woods and discussing how one of them, named John Oldman (David Lee Smith, who looks a bit like Jon Hamm, known from CSI: Miami), is a 14,000 year old Forrest Gump (as opposed to a 2,000 year old Mel Brooks), who has managed to be involved in some key historical moments.

Like My Dinner With Andre (1981), it relies more on the content of conversation than on physical action. It is deep and philosophical, and that’s what is intriguing about it. It garnered enough favor that a sequel has been release ten years after the fact, and it was this release which the Blu-ray cover announced, but upon opening the disc itself was the original 2007 film. That gives me the chance to catch up.

Both these films share the same director and some of the cast. Jerome Bixby, the writer of the first film, died in 1998 before the release of the original; Bixby was infamous among some circles for writing the likes of It! Terror From Beyond Space (1958; Alien is obviously based on this), one of the most infamous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” (“It’s a Good Life” in 1961, in which 5-year-old Billy Mumy has the ultimate power of life and death), Fantastic Voyage (1966), and a quartet of episodes of the original “Star Trek” (including oft referenced “Mirror, Mirror”).

David Lee Smith
There is a lot of dialog to digest among these eight characters as they ponder the possibility of a “caveman” still being alive after all these millennia. There are a few points that I think pushes the boundary of credulity – even in these circumstances for sheer historical coincidences (hence the Forrest Gump mention) – but still makes for interesting ideas. Though I can certainly see theologians getting upset with some of the topics, it’s nicely thought provoking. Certainly it can create some nice after-the-film dinner conversations.

Part of what makes this worthy of a watch is that all but one of the characters – including Oldman (no, not Gary) – is a university professor, and yet the discussion never descends into what I (and others) call academia-speak. While it doesn’t talk down to the audience, it certainly is accessible yet remains provocative.

John approaches this group with his can a person live 14,000 years premise very early on, so I’m not giving anything away by stating this, but at the same time, the discussion both ranges and rages along for the rest of the film, for which I will not give spoilers. Topics include history, the rise of social constructs, geology, genealogy, theory and religion, of course. Like I said, this is heavy in volume of words, and because nearly all of it takes place either in or just outside a somewhat isolated cabin in California, this has been made into a stage play more than once (perhaps The Man From Earth: The Musical!?).

Luckily, this is a pretty damn solid cast that holds credibility. Funny thing is, some of them have been in one form of “Star Trek” or another, and the filming site just beyond the cabin is where Kirk fought the Gorn (Alligator guy), though not in an episode written by Bixby. It was also the set to the cable show, “Big Love.” But I digress…

Tony Todd
As I was saying, there is some mighty talented actors here, including the Candyman himself, Tony Todd, who plays an anthropologist named Dan; I actually think he does the best acting job among some huge talent. Also standing out is William Katt as archeologist Art, best known for the show “Greatest American Hero,” the male lead in Carrie (1976), and I particularly liked him in the television production of Pippen: His Life and Times (1981; yeah, I like musicals, so shoot me). He plays an angry professor with a soul patch that obviously has some issues with his own aging, and who doesn’t like his ideas challenged; he also creepily brings along his much younger girlfriend/student, Linda (Alexis Thorpe). Others are an art history theologian prof, Edith (Ellen Crawford, who you might remember as an RN in “E.R.”), psychologist Will (easily recognizable character actor Richard Riehle), the snarky Harry (John Billingsley, also easily identifiable from “Star Trek: Enterprise,” though I will always remember him for the 2000 series, “The Others”), and historian Sandy (Annika Petersen). As I said, a strong ensemble. With this much dialog, it would have to be, or fail.

While I might have a quibble or two, especially about the said historical coincidences, considering how much talking goes on in a very small space, I feel it’s well written because in 87 minutes, I never once got bored. Okay, I acknowledge I’m a bit of a history / science / sociology nerd, but it goes beyond that. It’s a border-line Sci-Fi story without aliens, space crafts, computers, or even electricity, yet touches on Sci-Fi themes more through the temporal and the spatial aspects of the story.

William Katt and Alexis Thorpe
My biggest issue with the film deals with the nature of modern technology. For example, If John Oldman keeps changing his jobs and names every decade, how does he get the high-power professor jobs without an SSN (Social Security Number), a CV with no references, and what about taxes? In modern culture, it is impossible to be a professor without a relatively recent degree from a reputable university, and earning one in the 19 Century does not count as “recent.” He would have to be published… a lot… especially if he’s “walking away from a tenured position.” It isn’t like one could just go to Monster.com and find a prof position. And unlike the previous 14,000 years, people are now easily tracked by computers (even in 1998 when it was written, never mind 2007 when it was filmed). I’m married to a prof, and have my own higher degree in Media Theory, so I know. As much as I enjoyed the film, and I really did, I had trouble getting over this piece of modernity.

John Billingsley and Annika Peterson
There are lots of extras. To start off is a full length commentary with director Schenkman and actor Billingsley. It’s a mostly interesting mix of mythology, anecdotes and technical goo-gah. Schenkman takes us through all of that, and Billingsley, playing a Loki (original myth, not comic) trickster, seems to be there to trip him up through distractions with bad jokes. While it keeps it from getting boring, it also feels a bit chaotic. I’m glad I listened (with the captions on), but it took a bit of patience. Then there’s a second commentary with executive producer Emerson Bixby and Sci-Fi scholar Gary Westfahl. Emerson is Jerome’s son, and he had a strong hand in the writing of the film, so it’s not just second-hand information. I have to say I wish every commentary was like this one: informative without just being a series of data, or full of snarky remarks. The topics covered, which include Jerome’s work on the likes of “Star Trek” resonate throughout. Emerson was also involved in the shooting as Jerome had already passed on by that time, so there are also backstage anecdotes. This commentary was top-notch.

There are 21 different languages options, not counting the second English (for Hard of Hearing) selections. But so far, this is only the beginning of the extras, as most Blu-rays tend to be swamped with them: Next is the 88-minute documentary from 2017, “The Man From Earth: Legacy.” It starts with how the story and script was created, then how the cast was assembled, that is mixed with interviews with six of the eight actors and the director (all and more who get to express opinions and tell stories throughout the documentary). Further on there was filming stories, the sound, the music composition, and then the pre-release at a Comic Con. The last third of the doc is about how the film became popular through piracy, with both practical and theoretical positives and negatives about that. I have trepidations about Making Ofs that are nearly as lengthy as the main feature, or in this case a minute longer. Seems like hitting an ant with a sledgehammer, but that’s just me. There’s definitely some repetition that could have been excised here, but it’s interesting to watch, once.

Ellen Crawford and Richard Riehle
The rest of the extras are period pieces from around when the film was shot. “From Script to Screen,” is a behind the scenes period featurette that lasts 2:10. For the 3:50 “Star Trek: Jerome Bixby’s Sci-fi Legacy,” again, three of the actors had been on “Trek” before, for which they and other cast members discuss the importance of “Trek” (and “Twilight Zone”) in their lives. “On the Set,” which lasts 4:00, is more of the same behind-the-scenes with interviews. The 2:10 “Story of the Story” is on-set interviews with the cast discussing what the story posits.

Following is the original 2007 trailer, two trailers for the sequel, a photo gallery, and a 4:54 Restoration Demo showing the differences between the pre-HD original was remastered for the 2017 re-release on Blu-ray.

Last up is a micro-short film (30 seconds) called “Contagion” that was produced by Schenkman and Wilkinson, and stars William Katt that is just the right amount of gross. It looks like it was made for the 2017 release, though I can’t find it on IMDB.

The Man From Earth is a very strong looking film. Again, a tight space with a relatively large cast for its size, it never gets too claustrophobic. Plus the lighting, editing, camera shots all work to the higher final product. All these elements make it the cult sensation it became. Perhaps at some point I will get the chance to see the sequel. I’ll let ya know.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Review: The Violence Movie; The Violence Movie 2

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

The Violence Movie
14:22 minutes, 1988 / 2003 / 2018
The Violence Movie 2
19:24 minutes, 1989 / 2003 / 2018
Written and directed by Eric D. Wilkinson
Wilkinson Home Video / Drawing Board Enterprises /
No Budget Production / MVD Entertainment Group

Even before watching this horror parody collection that’s a love letter to the Jason V., Michael M. and Freddy K. films, I would like to comment that this is a really smart marketing of a couple of shorts, never mind ones that were basically made in 1988 and 1989 by a bunch of teenagers, with some revisions in 2003. Putting it together as a package with all the modern bells and whistles (i.e., extras) also says a lot to its substance and dedication.

Fan fiction in film form can be a mixed bag, even now with the relative ease of creation, editing, etc., that can be done on any decent camera and home computer. Back when this was in its conception, it was solid VHS, which was much harder to keep consistent in color and tone, and needed to be edited either shoddily from one tape deck to another with huge loss of resolution or on professional equipment. Plus, the filmmakers are dealing with equipment that is substantially heavier than a modern camera.

The two teens who originally made this are the writer and director Eric D. Wilkinson, and his brother David, who acted as the killer. Both would go on to careers in The Biz: Eric went to producing the likes of the cult fave Man From Earth (2007), its sequel (2018), and Mischief Night (2013), among many others. He also came up with the original storyline for the last two. This collection, however, are the only films in his directorial credit. For David, this is his only acting credits, and his skill set went into the marketing game (his website is The Drawing Board: Motion Picture Marketing).

So, let’s break down this puppy and its many extras…

Joseph Shaughnessy
First of all, I know this is a parody / love letter to the slasher genre, but there are a lot of errors in the film, and I’m looking forward to hearing the commentary about them. For example, when The Killer (David Wilkinson) enters a room at the start of Part I, it’s easy to see there is a member of the crew in the background through the bathroom door, via a mirror. Also, when the protagonist, Joey (Joseph Shaughnessy) arrives home after hearing the “escaped madman” notice on the car radio, as he turns the device off, you can see someone else’s arm in the passenger seat (i.e., the cameraman). This is just the beginning, and so it’s already off to a good start, in my opinion, since these are a bunch of kids, after all. To be fair, it didn’t get much more mature as they aged, and the newer-created end credits show; as an example, I will simply offer just one listing in the credits for someone named Dick Hertz. Actually, there is a lot of – err – Tom Foolery in the credits, which is worth reading for its groan factor.

Most of the film is the fight between the unstoppable Killer and apparently equally unstoppable Joey, between mutual stabbings, hackings, choppings, and an even more extreme action or two which I’ll amusedly leave for you to discover and enjoy. Of course, it is all very amateurish: in the acting, the story, the direction, the occasionally decent looking gore effects, and just about everything else. You can tell the $50-100 budget went into a Halloween store for the body parts, masks, and implements of destruction. I know they’re adults now, but I say to their teen selves, “Well done, guys.” Even if they are from Jersey (I kid…).

It’s easy to tell the parts that were redone for the 2003 edition, including the opening credits (with added music by Harry Manfredinii, who has done a ton of horror film soundtracks, including the Friday the 13th franchise), and the end credits (with added music by Michael Kahn, who we get to see perform a bit in the extras, as well).

David Wilkinson
Part 2, was filmed very shortly after the first one, though on “slightly” better equipment (according to the Star Wars­-ish introductory text crawl), although also shot on VHS. While the story is still pretty basic, with The Killer once again escaping and Joey on the run in and around his house, but the technique has actually improve significantly, relatively speaking. The shots are somewhat more coherent, and it seems they are intent on taking more physical chances, as sometimes they literally as they scamper around the angular roof, get dragged behind cars, and chase with running chainsaws (what did the parents say about that?!).

As for the plethora of extras, let’s take ‘em one at a time. First up is the The Violence Movie commentary with the Brothers Wilkinson and Mike Kahn. I’m glad to have heard this because not only do these guys have a sense of humor about it, but they point out all the continuity errors (and errors in general), but also show all the added footage that was put in later. Sometimes I just said out loud, “How did I miss that?” It was fun, and little talking overlap, so what they were saying was clear. For the full commentary for Part 2, the same three guys (I’m guessing the same day) add more fun comments and anecdotes, and also explain away a few plot points I had questions about, which is nice.

For both films, there is a Deleted Scenes with 3:45 for the first and 9:40 for the second. Actually, deleted is not always accurate, despite the opening for Part 1 with Kahn singing a made up “Deleted Scenes“ song on the spot. The inaccuracy is that they are part deleted bits, and part outtakes. But no matter what you call them, it’s (a) obvious why they took them out, and (b) I’m grateful to have seen them because you can see just how much fun they were all having doing this, despite the sheer physical activity level.

One of many showdowns
For the 5:36 “Violence in ’03,” it’s basically a “Making of” for the updated shots that were added to the earlier shorts. Likewise the 9:26 “Scrapped Violence Movie” is a “Making of”/”Outtakes” from a third film that was never completed. Understandable, having seen this footage. And, of course, there’s a commentary track for this as well with the three brahs.

The last three extras are the 1:24 original opening handwritten credits for Part 1, and 1:43 equally handwritten credits for Part 2 (with both including the misspelled “Joeseph”). Finally, there is a 0:45 “Photo Gallery,” including pictures from the film of course, but also the original VHS box cover they created, the script, some drawn ideas for characters, and the 15th Anniversary DVD box cover.

Home-grown DIY horror films by newbies are quite common, but it’s rare that anyone other than kith and kin get to see them. Sure every once in a while they make it out of the box and into a clamshell, such as Johnny Dickie’s Slaughter Tales (filmed when he was 12 on VHS, and released in 2012), and Justin Channell’s Die and Let Live (2006) [both of these films have been reviewed on this blog], but I think there is a public interest for releasing these, even if it’s a collection of shorts.

The Wilkinsons certainly aren’t Spielbergs or Scorseses, but so what. It’s the joy of filmmaking that comes across, and makes it worth the view. Needless to say, I smiled through nearly all of it. And where do I get a copy of that great Michael Kahn song, “Hey Dentist”?!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Review: Bruce’s Deadly Fingers

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Bruce’s Deadly Fingers (aka Lung men bei chi; The Young Dragon)
Written and directed by Joseph Kong
VCI Entertainment / United Cine-Production Enterprises / MVD Visual
91 minutes, 1976 / 2018

Do you remember where you were when you heard Bruce Lee died in 1974, when he was just age 32? He would be 78 now. I don’t, but there are countless who do. His passing, probably due to his brain swelling in reaction to mixed medications, has led to two cultural side effects: the weird one was all the conspiracy theories about how he died, such as a popular one that he was killed by a kung fu punch to his heart (as characterized in Kill Bill: Vol. 2) that did him in days later; the other was the rise of what is known as Brucesploitation [BS].

People, as they are wont to do, tried to cash in on the Bruce Lee [BL] craze and death by pouring out quick and cheap martial arts films with actors who changed their names to the likes of Dragon Lee, Bruce Li and Bruce Le (from Taiwan, who started as Chien-Lung Huang). Nearly all of them imbued some of Lee’s outward tokens, such as clothing and mannerisms, but it also helped that they bore some resemblance to the late star.

Bruce Le doing his best Bruce Lee
For this film, Bruce Le picked up the mantle playing Bruce Wong, who has returned to Hong Kong from San Francisco after learning of the death of a parent and not being able to find his sister, Shiu Ju. Arriving, he finds that her boyfriend has tried to sell her into prostitution to pay off a gambling debt. Le rescues her, and then it’s either the mob vs. Le, or Le vs. the mob. That’s where most of the mayhem starts.

Another major plot point is the search by everyone for “Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu Finger Book,” which supposedly shows how to kill with your fingers (a direct relation to the rumor about how the star died). If you took a drink every time some uses the phrase “Kung Fu Finger Book,” you’d die of alcohol poisoning, arguably before the film is half over.

Nora Miao
There are also some other subplots, such as Mina (the cute Nora Miao, who actually did star with BL onscreen), the fictional actress girlfriend of the actual Bruce Lee (I’m curious to know what BL’s widow thought of that storyline premise) and his sis are kidnapped by the gang; Le is out to get them back with the help of two friends.

Unlike a BL film where all the action centers around BL, here Le is only in about half of the battles, others being his friends, and someone from Interpol (Michael Chan, the best actor/strongest fighter here) who wants to bring the gang to justice.

As for Le, he is shorter than most of his opponents, and exhibits all the Lee clichés, as they would be known now: the yellow track suit with the stripe (again, also employed in Kill Bill: Vol. 1), oversized shaded glasses (like Elvis), wiping the side of his nose (more than once), and the open mouth/wide eyed scream (“Eeeeeyaaaahhhh”).

Beyond the BL-isms, there is also a lot of kung fu flick tricks that are also employed, including the quick zoom to a close-up of the eyes (was this tic taken from the Spaghetti Westerns, or the other way around?), and the sound of wood blocks crashing every time a fist is thrown, whether it lands or not.

The story is a bit convoluted, and honestly a bit hard to follow at times, but I believe that is in part because of the translation issues. I’ve always found it humorous how the overdubs try to match the lips so there are awkward pauses in weird spots, such as (I’m making this up: “I have come here to see…how you are doing.”) Also, the talking seems to either be monotone or yelling. As for the language conversion, the story may make sense in Cantonese, but something is definitely lost in the translation. The confusion  includes the following plot points: why is that guy fighting those thugs in in the pool hall, exactly? How come that same is now fighting with Wong’s friend since he seems to be on their side?

The thing is that hardly anybody in the center of the United States, at that time, really cared about motivation, but rather they wanted to see some fighting. And there is a lot of it here. It’s amazing how rarely you see guns, even though it takes place in then-modern times. Other than a sniper, it’s nearly all fists, knives, swords, nunchucks, and poles. In the West, this probably confused a lot of people who grew up on Westerns, and having assault rifles (sorry, I mean ArmaLite rifles) are normalized.

Michael Chen vs. Bolo Yeung
There are four or five main fighters here: Le who is okay, his two friends (one who is good, one who keeps getting the snot wacked outta him), Chen (who steals most of his scenes), Lee Hung (Lieh Lo [d. 2002]), the head of the mob who is looking for the Kung Fu Finger Book), and Le’s teacher and Uncle, Master Wong. Bolo Yeung (aka Yang Sze), who is also known as Chinese Hercules for his sheer size and strength since he was the Chinese bodybuilding champion for a decade and a star in his own right, also makes an appearance as a villain in one scene. And you just know, as it’s bound to happen in these films, Le goes through a training session with his Kung Fu Master to build up to the big fight with Hung, with which these genre films nearly always end. This one is short, but particularly gruesome.

I found it interesting that it almost seems like the fights are choreographed by two different people with different styles. Some of the action is kinda shoddy and lackluster, with people missing each other by inches. Others, especially towards the end, look really well staged. While Chan definitely is the best actor and consistent fighter, Le is the worst actor and sometimes great chopping action and other times meh, Personally, I feel the reason for the bad acting is two-fold. First, it’s the genre: this equivalent of B-films tend to be ramped up to emoting level 11, or hang around 2 at a monotone. Second, Le seems to be trying hard to appear like BL on screen. In other words, acting like someone who is acting. Everything is too emphasized without any nuances. That’s not to say it’s not fun, because it is, but it’s important to remember that it is what it is.     

"When is #MeToo again?"
The area where this this is dated the most, though, is the way women are represented. There are lots of kung fu films where women are warriors in the past, but I find that ones that take place in the present are less likely to do so. Here, women are seen tied up almost as much not, forced into prostitution, tortured with lizards (it’s an infamous scene in this particular release), and almost always seen as submissive. Even when one proves to be proficient in the martial arts, she is easily defeated and talked down to as being inferior and not really a threat. Even the two strongest characters, the gang leader’s mistress and the actress Mina are either put in danger often, or seen as not important.

Like a lot of post-BL releases that fall into the BS column, many of the actors here overlap from BL films, such as Yeung, Lieh, Chan, and Miao, among others here.

Being a Blu-ray and DVD combo package, there are extras up the wazoo. The most basic one is a collection of Brucesploitation trailers. The first few are among the last batch of BL’s films, followed by the “Elvis Impersonators” (as I like to call them), including Li, Le and Dragon. What I found interesting about this collection was being able to compare the original BL with his imitators; in style and personality, it’s easy to see why Lee is valued above others. There is also a HD version of this film’s original trailer.

The commentary track is with a BS and BL expert, as well as actor, director and author, and especial fan, Michael Worth. It’s a great talk about the film, both the direct and indirect connections with BL, and some history of the genre. Definitely worth a listen.

Le being wide-eyed and bushy fingered
There is a 6-minute Deleted Scenes with mostly superfluous material that doesn’t really add or take away from the story, but are enjoyable to view (some dubbed into English, others with subtitles, and one silent). Also, humorously, is a 6-minute “Bad Kung Fu Dubs,” which is clips from this film and the bad overdubs (and acting) that I mentioned earlier. Last up is an image gallery of stills for mostly this, and some for other BS films.

I remember having a conversation with Mariah Aguire (RIP), who was a photographer and scenester during the early New York punk days, and who was a huge kung fu film fan. Over lunch at Dojos on St. Mark’s Place, I mentioned that my personal taste was period pieces about pre-18th Century Asian history (the Japanese equivalent would be the samurai films) more than modern gangster tales, and she chided me, saying there was fun and a sense of cheesiness in both. Of course, she was right, and even though I still have my preferences, I see what she was saying back then. This is a good example of that.

Despite wallowing in all the kung fu clichés, including some really bad overacting by some of the players, this is exactly what it was supposed to be: a story that is secondary to the action, and in that way, it’s extremely successful.