December 17, 2014

GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA




Over the span of two decades, Godzilla had gone from a destructive, mindless beast to a defender of the Earth. This change of tone from a metaphor for nuclear annihilation to a child friendly monster wrestler didn’t sit well with audiences who grew up with the King of the Monsters and the box office reflected that. The previous five Godzilla films underperformed at the box office, each new entry pushing the once lucrative franchise closer to retirement. The production quality surely had something to do with it. Alongside the drastic shift in narrative tone, the films became cheaper and cheaper. The recycling of monster battle footage from film to film and the move from metropolitan areas to large open fields of nothing made each successive film a little bit less exciting than the last. But for Godzilla’s 20th anniversary, longtime franchise producer Tomoyuki Tanaka decided to pull out all the stops. The budget was raised significantly and work on the screenplay began well before usual.

The project began life as GODZILLA VS REDMOON. In this unused script, Godzilla would face off against two new monsters, Redmoon and Erabus, both from the lunar surface, and the action would take place in scenic Okinawa. It was reportedly an ambitious project with more monster action than the previous four films combined. Unfortunately, creative disagreements caused the script to go through a dramatic rewrite. Everything but the setting was tossed out. The now familiar “aliens invading the Earth” narrative was adopted and Redmoon and Erabus were replaced with Mothra and Garugan, a mechanical monster not too dissimilar from the robo-gorilla of Toho’s KING KONG ESCAPES. A further rewrite removed Mothra from the film, replacing the fan favorite with King Barugan (not to be confused with Barugon from the GAMERA series or Toho’s own Baragon). The final rewrite of the film changed King Barugan into King Cesar (or King Caesar or King Seesar or whatever different way of spelling the name appears on your print of the film) and added an appearance by series regular Anguirus. With the screenplay finished, Tanaka hired Jun Fukuda to direct the film and brought in special effects technician Teruyoshi Nakano to supply the films glorious effects work. After a reasonably short production time, Toho rolled out GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA into theaters in March of 1974.

One of the busier narratives of the Godzilla franchise, GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA begins with the strange discoveries of a piece of metal, which turns out to be space titanium(?), and a series of ancient drawings inside a cave. Inside the cave, an archeologist named Keisuke finds a mysterious statue resembling a Shisa, an mythical Okinawan ward against evil spirits. He travels back to Okinawa with a beautiful young archeology student named Saeko. Meanwhile, Keisuke’s brother Masahiko, a professor named Miyajima (played by Akihiko Hirata, the actor who portrayed Serizawa in the original GOJIRA) and the professor’s daughter Ikuko are kidnapped while exploring the area where the space titanium was found. Their kidnappers are space gorillas disguised as humans. They are from, and I quote, “the Third Planet of the Black Hole, Outer Space” and are planning to take over the Earth. How will they accomplish that? 

Well, while all of that was going on, Godzilla – or rather what appears on the surface to be Godzilla – started a devastating rampage near Mount Fuji. The rampaging beast has a nasty scuffle with Anguirus. During the brawl, a part of his flesh is torn off, revealing a patch of metal underneath. Once the imposter Godzilla has dispatched Anguirus using King Kong’s signature jaw breaking finishing move, it continues its path of destruction only to come face-to-face with the real King of the Monsters. During their throwdown, Godzilla blasts his doppelganger with his nuclear breath, forcing his adversary to reveal his real form, a towering metal Godzilla equipped with more explosive ballistics than a fleet of battleships. Godzilla goes toe to toe with Mechagodzilla and the two end up badly damaging one another. Mechagodzilla is rendered nearly non-operational. Godzilla, terribly wounded, retreats back to the sea. Licking his wounds, Godzilla emerges on an island during a thunderstorm. Adding insult to his considerably injuries, the big guy ends up being struck by a couple dozen bolts of lightning.

And while all of that was going on, Keisuke and Saeko managed to dodge an attack by a space gorilla assassin with the help of an undercover Interpol agent named Nanbara. We also learn that the statue they’re transporting to an Okinawan temple is the key to an ancient prophecy that seems to be coming true. While they continue their travels, Masahiko, Miyajima and Ikuko are terrorized by the space gorillas in their underground base. The leader of the alien army forces Miyajima to repair Mechagodzilla and then rewards his assistance by throwing all three of the captives into a giant steam bath where they will slowly cook to death. Having arrived in Okinawa, Keisuke meets Nanbara and the two head off to rescue his brother. They manage to free the hostages and escape the alien base. The group finally together, they (naturally) decide to split up again with Nanbara, Miyajima and Masahiko returning to the alien base to destroy it.

Now while of that is going on, Keisuke, Saeko and Ikuko head off to an Okinawan temple where a priestess and her elderly grandfather begin the necessary steps to awaken King Cesar from his resting place in the side of a mountain. They place the Shisa statue back where it should be and the priestess awakens King Cesar (by singing a pop tune to it, obviously). With a grand explosion, King Cesar awakens just in time to fight the returning Mechagodzilla. At first it looks like King Cesar has met his match but then up pops Godzilla, all healed up and looking for a fight.

The ridiculous narrative of GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA keeps the film moving forward at a breakneck pace. Sure, it’s convoluted and overly busy but it has the swerve and swagger of a good Saturday morning Euro-spy film. From the over-the-top villain locking his captives in an early James Bond-style torture chamber to all the secret agents and bright, sunny scenery, the film has a delicious cartoon quality to it. In any other movie, the bad guys frame dissolving into ape men would have been a turn-off of massive proportions, but here it works, adding to the fever pitch delirium. In fact, the human-based portions of the narrative are so damn enjoyable that I kind of forgot all about Godzilla. I just wanted to see what kind of ridiculous cliff hanger the film would throw at me next.
 
But this IS a Godzilla film and pound for pound GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA makes up for the past four or five films during its fight sequences. Watching Godzilla go at it with his metallic adversary is a sight to behold. Decked out with a seemingly endless supply of missiles (not to mention a chest laser, a force field generator and rockets built into its feet for flight), Mechagodzilla supplies more explosions and screen shaking eruptions of fiery fury than the entire Schwarzenegger oeuvre combined. Godzilla films always withheld the most spectacular fights until the final reel and this film is no exception. The threeway showdown is simply amazing and features one of the most memorable finishing moves of the entire franchise. Toho set out to recapture the past glory of the franchise with this film and you know what? They absolutely did. From the first minute to the last, GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA is a total blast, a real rollicking action/sci-fi hybrid that reminds you of just how much fun Japanese kaiju insanity can be if done right. 

As interesting as the film is, what happened when it was snatched up for US release is even more interesting. GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA was picked up for distribution in the mid 1970s by Cinema Shares International, an on-the-cheap distribution firm with an eye on quick and easy entertainment. After the usual censorship treatment so the film could get a G rating, the name was changed to GODZILLA VS THE BIONIC MONSTER. Surprisingly, Cinema Shares International was met with threats of litigation from the one and only Universal Television, the TV production arm of MCA/Universal Studios, a major powerhouse. Claiming trademark violations over the use of “bionic” in the title (Universal Television was the owner of the Lindsay Wagner vehicle The Bionic Woman), Universal Television put the fear of God into Cinema Shares International, forcing them to change the name once again to GODZILLA VS THE COSMIC MONSTER. Now it isn’t uncommon for companies to claim trademark violation if they feel like another product may be confused for their own or if they feel like a competing product is trying to unfairly gain from their product, but really who the hell would have ever confused GODZILLA VS THE BIONIC MONSTER for The Bionic Woman? When would the two ever even be spoken about in the same breath? It just boggles the mind.

Coming up next, the final entry in the Showa GODZILLA series, TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA.

October 31, 2014

THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG


When he was a teenager, Alfred Hitchcock enrolled at Goldsmiths’ College, an arts branch of London University. Already a fan of film, Hitchcock learned composition, the uses of light and shadow, and the principles of narrative construction. His imagination flared. He began writing short prose horror stories influenced by Lowndes and Barrie, and regularly attended plays. He consumed American cinema, especially the films of Griffith and Chaplin, and fully immersed himself in film culture.

In 1918, Hitchcock moved from the sales department at Henley’s Telegraph Company, an electronics manufacturer, to the advertising department where he honed his visual and communication skills. His dream of crafting art never left him. Starting in 1919, several of Hitchcock’s short thriller stories were published in magazines. By 1921, Hitchcock had left his position at Hanley’s to fully pursue his life’s ambition. He entered the film business as the head of an art department for British Famous Players-Lasky, Limited, the newly formed British offshoot of the massively successful American Paramount’s Famous Players-Lasky. Hitchcock created title illustrations for an unknown number of films before receiving his first official art director assignment on George Fitzmaurice’s 1921 comedy THREE LIVE GHOSTS. It was during this period that he met Alma Reville, a script supervisor/continuity manager. They began a relationship that would last until Reville’s death in 1982.

In 1922, British Famous Players-Lasky all but collapsed. As the studio tried to stay afloat, Hitchcock would direct his first features, the now-lost ALWAYS TELL YOUR WIFE and NUMBER THIRTEEN. Shooting on NUMBER THIRTEEN ceased when the studio finally went under. Without funds, only two reels of the film were completed. Hitchcock remarked decades later that he might have been able to complete NUMBER THIRTEEN if he would have planned better. Every film Hitchcock would shoot after that would be painstakingly storyboarded, every single shot planned out months in advance of filming.

Hitchcock would spend the next couple of years doing the occasional art directing and screenwriting job, earning meager paychecks from films like WOMAN TO WOMAN and THE PASSIONATE ADVENTURE. A break would come in 1924 when a British-German co-production company was set up by Michael Balcon, The UFA-Gainsborough Company would employ Hitchcock as an art director. Working in Germany, he experienced the creation of German expressionism first hand, witnessing Murnau directing his films and spending time with some of the greatest German camera operators of the time. He fell in love with the work of Lang and Lubitsch. Hitchcock didn’t just discover expressionism in 1924. He was swallowed by it.

Hitchcock’s next directorial opportunity would come from another British-German co-production deal. The first of a five picture deal produced under the Gainsborough-Emelka company, THE PLEASURE GARDEN was a mess of a production. His second feature, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE fared no better, although each picture marked a significant development of Hitchcock’s burgeoning skills as a director. In 1926, Gainsborough purchased Islington, the studio Hitchcock worked at under his earlier employ. Taking full advantage of their newly acquired studio space, Gainsborough announced a spate of nine new productions. One of the projects Gainsborough announced in 1925 was a new Hitchcock film, THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG, based on the stage adaptation of the Marie Belloc Lowndes novel.

THE LODGER opens on a shot of a woman’s face locked in a silent scream. A quick dissolve later, we see that she is dead. As bystanders surround her, we see a note attached to her clothing. On the note is a drawing of a triangle and a signature, “The Avenger”. Cops come and go, reporters speak with bystanders, someone mentions the killer was a “tall man” with a “scarf across his face”, reporters call their stories into their editors, bylines are typed out and a newspaper carrier remarks that the killer only strikes on Tuesday and only kills blondes. Lapse dissolves show a range of faces, all hearing the news, all in shock over yet another murder by a serial killer stalking the streets of London.

We meet Daisy, a pretty young blonde working as a fashion model. The models hear news of the murder, prompting some of the women to don brunette wigs. Daisy returns home, greeting her parents, Mrs. And Mr. Bunting. We meet her boyfriend, a police officer named Joe. As the night goes on, a man appears at their doorway. He’s tall, thin and is wearing a scarf over his face. He inquires about the room they have for rent. Taking him inside, Mrs. Bunting shows The Lodger (he is unnamed in the film) the room. It’s modest, covered in paintings of pretty blonde women. He answers no questions, asks for something to eat and then pays Mrs. Bunting a month in advance for the room. When Mrs. Bunting returns with his meal, she finds that The Lodger has turned all the portraits around, facing the wall. He asks for them to be removed and she complies, asking Daisy for help. The Lodger and Daisy meet, their gazes barely masking a shared attraction.

Daisy and The Lodger begin to grow closer, much to the chagrin of Joe. Daisy seems to enjoy his company but her mother is suspicious. When The Lodger sneaks out one Tuesday night, she goes snooping in his room, finding nothing of interest save a locked cupboard. The next morning, another victim of The Avenger is discovered and Mrs. Bunting puts two and two together. The Lodger is the killer the police are looking for. Sharing her fears with her husband, Mr. Bunting refuses to allow Daisy to see The Lodger, even if the meeting is purely platonic. Daisy ignores her father’s wishes and agrees to see The Lodger on the following Tuesday night. They meet outside in the cover of dark. Unable to contain their mutual love, they attempt a kiss only to be interrupted by Joe. Daisy breaks off her relationship with Joe and she returns home with The Lodger. Joe, in a moment of clarity, realizes that The Lodger is The Avenger.

When Joe and his fellow officers arrive to arrest The Lodger, they search his room. Discovering a bag inside the locked cupboard, they examine the contents. Inside is a gun, a map of the attacks, some newspaper clippings and a picture of a smiling blonde woman. After being handcuffed, The Lodger attacks Joe before escaping into the night. Daisy finds him lying on a bench, shivering from the cold. He confesses but not to the murders. He’s hunting the killer himself. The picture of the woman they found was a picture of his sister, a victim of The Avenger. Daisy takes The Lodger to a bar so that he may sip some brandy and warm himself. Carefully covering his handcuffed hands, they enter the bar and leave just before Joe arrives. The police ask the patrons if they have seen a tall man wearing handcuffs. As Joe makes a call to the station, the patrons quickly form a lynch mob, running after The Lodger and eventually corning him on a bridge. Joe is informed by the station that The Avenger has been apprehended, caught red handed. Realizing that he has put The Lodger’s life in jeopardy, Joe rushes off to find him before the mob can tear him to pieces.

The Lodger tries to jump from the small bridge but catches the chain of his handcuffs on the railing. As people kick and hit him, drawing blood, Joe attempts to quiet the crowd. Just as things look grim, a newspaper carrier finds the crowd, spreading the news that The Avenger has been caught. The Lodger’s life is spared and he is cradled by Daisy. A short epilogue shows the two in the home of The Lodger, her parents finally accepting him as a suitor for their daughter.

This is the first true Hitchcock film. It contains many of the elements that would inform his later sound work. The fascination with pretty, high fashion blondes, the fetishizing of feet, shoes and weapons, the use of handcuffs as symbols of repression, the innocent man accused of horrible crimes… All find their origin here. Even the famous Hitchcock cameos start here, with Hitchcock playing both a telephone operator and an angry mob member. Hitchcock’s admiration for the films of Sergei Eisenstein (in particular, his editing and composition) and adherence to the montage theories of Kuleshov and Pudovkin are also front and center. Silent films, especially those made in Britain, were usually stoic, slow paced and had very little editing. In comparison, THE LODGER looks and feels downright European. Hitchcock uses a chiaroscuro lighting scheme, a mixture of high and low level photography, and quick edits to produce a mood that feels uniquely Hitchcockian. Even at this early stage in his career, his auteur status is evident.

The European feel of THE LODGER nearly cost Hitchcock his job. Several high level Gainsborough members disliked – even hated – the film. Concerns from Graham Cutts and C.M. Woolf led producer Michael Balcon to shelve the film and cancel all screenings. Financial concerns eventually led Balcon to contact Ivor Montagu, a noted British filmmaker and critic. The two discussed how they could save THE LODGER. Though Hitchcock resented the interference, Montagu left the majority of the film intact, only recommending a few slight changes to the ending and to a couple of unimportant dramatic scenes in the second act. Hitchcock went through with the re-shoots and Balcon, satisfied with the finished product, released THE LODGER to great critical and financial success. Hitchcock would go relatively unchallenged in the production of his next few films, only ever coming into major conflict once he reached the shores of America and filmed an adaption of REBECCA for the notoriously temperamental David O. Selznick.

Even though THE LODGER is a silent film, it is as engrossing and interesting as anything Hitchcock made in the sound era. It has a pacing unusual for silent films, a real internal tempo that pushes the film forward. The overly dramatic nature of silent film acting is tossed aside for somber, natural performances from a uniformly great cast. The photography is simply astounding with the German expressionist influence shining through every single frame (the arrival of The Lodger strongly resembles Murnau’s staging of Max Schreck’s arrival in the doorway in NOSFERATU and the interior of Mrs. Bunting’s bedroom has a definite Robert Wiene look to it). The visual ingenuity of Hitchcock is already apparent. The best example is the famous moment of the family hearing the heavy pacing of The Lodger upstairs, with Hitchcock using a camera dissolve and a glass floor to show us a man pacing from the floor below. The film is littered with these kinds of Hitchcock moments.

One of the great joys in watching THE LODGER is seeing just how little Hitchcock changed over the years. His films got slicker and more thematically rich, but all the familiar elements already existed here in 1927. The French film critics of the Cahiers du Cin√©ma (and later, Robin Wood) used to refer to Hitchcock’s films as “therapeutic” films, that is to say that they are concerned with a character or set of characters overcoming inner struggles and fears, achieving a kind of inner calm or order by the end. As a result, these films are also therapeutic for the audience. As film characters are made to be magnets for audience sympathies, audiences relate to the struggles and concerns. Their personal therapy comes vicariously. It’s interesting to see Hitchcock’s films as a catalog for his own fetishes, desires and ambitions. They’re also catalogs of his fears, regrets and nagging, almost obsessive, concerns. By the time Hitchcock reaches VERTIGO, a film that is as much of a condemnation of his own neuroses as it is a celebration of them, Hitchcock’s entire psyche has been laid bare. For someone watching his films, especially in order of release, Hitchcock’s oeuvre feels very much like a personal conversation between a therapist and a patient. THE LODGER is the start of that conversation and is an invaluable piece in the remarkable puzzle that is Alfred Hitchcock.

ALL THE FILMS I DIDN'T WRITE ABOUT THIS MONTH


It inevitably happens. I sit down to watch a movie - chosen at random, of course - for the purpose of reviewing it. When the credits roll, I sit there, slack-jawed and speechless. It was awful. But not only was it awful, it was so terrible that I literally have nothing to say about it. My brain is only operating at half speed, only able to think of four letter words. I try to write about but I simply can't. The film has rendered me incapable of even completing a sentence. At that point, I have no choice but to start another movie. Yet again, it's terrible. So I start another movie. And so on and so on.

Some days this month, I watched four films, just trying to find one that I could write about. Some days, I had to put aside everything else I had to do just to meet my dead line. It was a whole day process of desperately trying to find a film to review. Sure, I could have taken the easy way out and just typed a long rant (and one of those days I did just that; see my review of ALMOST HUMAN) but I try not to write unless I really have something to say. That isn't always easy.

With one day left to go before I wrap this blogging marathon up, I have watched a total of 57 horror and science fiction movies. That means I didn't write reviews for 27 movies. Not all of those 27 movies were bad. Some were just too visual to really capture in written form. Some were just so cut and dry that I didn't think I could make an interesting review out of them. But there were some that were genuinely terrible. What I'm going to do now is post micro-reviews of 15 of those films, just so you can see what I was planning on writing about but never bothered. So let's go:


CARRIE
Yet another version of Stephen King’s breakthrough novel, director Kimberly Peirce’s film lacks the visual sophistication of Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic but boasts a good central performance by Chloe Grace Moretz, some nice third act fireworks and an impeccable score by Marco Baltrami. Unfortunately, if you’ve seen any of the previous adaptations, this film is just more of the same. De Palma’s film still remains the best version and the one I would recommend you watch.

HATCHET 3
Another entry in yet another pathetic franchise, HATCHET 3, at the absolute very least, ends the series with a bang. A decent enough beginning with an incredibly slow, absolutely abysmal middle gives way to a finale that includes enough blood, guts and idiocy to satisfy even the most hardcore toilet-level slasher film fan. The franchise was awful and this film does nothing to change that.

JUG FACE
Lyrical and visually gorgeous, Chad Crawford Kinkle’s feature film debut might not have the most compelling narrative but it contains a career making lead performance by Lauren Ashley Carter and a tone that chills to the bone. Like a good murder ballad, JUG FACE has the amazing ability to set you at ease while simultaneously making the hairs on your neck stand on end.

CANNIBAL
Based on the infamous Armin Meiwes case, this story of two lost souls colliding in mutual destruction is sickening to watch and remarkably hard to shake. While nowhere near as exploitative as it could have been, Marian Dora’s shocker is not recommended for anyone with a weak stomach.

FAUST: LOVE OF THE DAMNED
There was no way in hell Brian Yuzna was ever going to do justice to the brutal insanity of David Quinn and Tim Vigil’s comic book series. What began as a bleak, cruel and sexually explicit black and white comic series (think a pornographic, ultra-violent Batman on LSD) is here turned into a run of the mill superhero film filled with bad acting and horrible special effects. Do yourself a favor. Ignore this movie. Read the comics instead.

BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2
There’s a germ of a good idea here. Joe Berlinger, the director of the PARADISE LOST documentaries, attempts to use the Blair Witch legend as an instrument in a larger piece about media manipulation and representation, as well as the possible corrupting influence of media on consumers. Unfortunately, while some pieces work incredibly well, the final product is uneven and muddled. An interesting but failed experiment.

LITTLE WITCHES
A sexploitation version of THE CRAFT, LITTLE WITCHES is missing the biting sense of humor of its inspiration. While THE CRAFT was an angsty teenage drama that took a swift and sudden turn into the realm of uncomfortable horror, LITTLE WITCHES starts limp and ends the same. Best viewed in screenshot form, if you know what I mean.

NIGHTMARE CITY
If Andy Milligan made 28 DAYS LATER, you would have NIGHTMARE CITY. ‘Nuff said.

PIRANHA 3D
This gorefest from French splatter master Alexandre Aja is visually impressive and almost unbearably hyperactive. PIRANHA 3D is absolutely chock full of impressive moments and effective gory gags. Make no mistake: this movie is as empty as they come but if you want a good, solid hour and a half of nonstop bad jokes, disembodied limbs and CGI fish chowing down on CGI cocks, you cannot go wrong with this film. Turn your brain off and enjoy.

STRAYS
Washed up Hollywood actors get chased around by slightly ticked off felines in this made-for-TV nature run amok atrocity. So bad it could be used as an implement of torture, STRAYS is the lowest of the low, a movie so damn awful I had to watch it in 10 minute increments over the course of a whole day.

DOGS
A science lab accidentally turns a pack of dogs into blood thirsty beasts in this inept JAWS rip-off. While the film has a few really effective moments, the whole thing is so cheap and poorly made that the amateurish nature of the film robs these moments of any real shock value. Looks and feels like a made-for-TV movie. Worth watching only for David McCallum’s haircut.

THE FACULTY
A thinly disguised commercial for Tommy Hilfiger, Robert Rodriguez’s Brat Pack vs. the Body Snatchers movie is good fun for children of the 1990s but hell for anyone else. Light weight and lacking any real personality, this is science fiction escapism of the lamest kind.

I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE
Yet another pod person movie, Gene Fowler Jr’s quickie sci-fi horror film has an interesting take on 1950s sexual politics and a decent cast, but the film is ultimately let down by a weak resolution. While certainly not a shining example of 50s sci-fi, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE is worth a look if you’ve grown tired of the more overt Commie panic b-films of the time.

NEW YEAR'S EVIL
My mother always said, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”.

RETURN TO HORROR HIGH
Anemic, lame and agonizingly awful, RETURN TO HORROR HIGH is only known these days for featuring a young George Clooney. Were it not for that fact, it would have disappeared shortly after its small theatrical run. It could have been a great little meta-horror movie if it had been written, directed and edited by virtually anyone else.