Monday, August 31, 2015

The Night of the Strangler (1972) review

 
THE NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER 1972 aka ACE OF SPADES aka IS THE FATHER BLACK ENOUGH? aka DIRTY DAN aka DIRTY DAN'S WOMEN

Mickey Dolenz (Vance Robear), Michael Anthony (Lieutenant De Vivo), James Ralston (Dan Robear), Chuck Patterson (Father Jesse), Susan McCullough (Denise), Katie Tilley (Ann Novak), Ann Barrett (Carol), Warren J. Kenner (Willie)

Directed by Joy N. Houck, Jr.

The Short Version: Everyone's a suspect in Joy Houck, Jr's well-crafted, racially charged murder mystery starring Monkees front man, Mickey Dolenz. After an inter-racial family squabble turns deadly, an unseen killer turns members of the Robear family against one another in between knocking them off in this fairly elaborate thriller from the guy who gave you the Sasquatch classic, CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE (1976). Shot in New Orleans and consistently cited as a Southern Gothic, Houck's movie never feels like one, lacking down-home accents and any identifiable atmosphere indigenous to Southern Fried cinema. It does run the gamut of nearly every other Drive-in and exploitation genre trope, though. Capped with a cold-blooded coda, Passion Pit lovers are in for an intriguing 90 minutes, but trash film fans should take heed this is diet exploitation soda at best.


Two brothers, Vance and Dan Robear, are at odds over their sister, Denise, being pregnant with a black man's baby. Upon learning this, Dan disowns her after a tense confrontation. Soon after, Denise returns to New York only for her lover to be murdered by a hitman, and she, too, is killed by an unseen assailant soon after. Both brothers become suspicious of one another, as well as become suspects in the wake of a mysterious string of bizarre murders.

Wedged between his more descriptively titled fare like NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR (1969) and CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE (1976), is Joy Houck, Jr's quaint thriller--a film that bears overtones of the giallo, the crazed Nam vet sub-genre, and black action style of cinema. Essentially a revenge movie built around sibling rivalry, the script juggles a lot of themes and ideas and rarely, if ever, drops a single one of them. Surprisingly engaging, it only stumbles occasionally--like a scene where a man is shot, and instead of falling backwards on cue, turns and moves himself to assure he's landing in the right place. Were hippies ever hitmen? And who has a picnic when there's snow on the ground?


Minor quibbles aside, this is possibly Houck's best directed effort. It's not a movie that gets much discussion, nor does it owe allegiance to any one genre style. Arguably the most frustrating aspect of the film is its title. There's no strangling, but you will see lots of familial struggles, racial tension, a black gloved killer who favors quasi-slasher death scenes, and a surprise ending that reveals its killer to be even more cruel than the motives necessitating the revenge.

Shot in New Orleans, this production is from the New Orleans based Howco International--the same company that brought you such antiquated celluloid anxiety relief as THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS (1957) and TEENAGE MONSTER (1958). If you're familiar with those movies, and those directed by Houck, Jr., than STRANGLER is something of a surprise in comparison. 


Often described in ways to suggest it's a selection of a more tasteless vintage, the use of incendiary language is about as sleazy as NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER gets. That in no way means it's a bad bet; only that, if you're looking for the sort of sanguinary thrills promised in Vinegar Syndrome's DVD synopsis, you may want to fold your hand on this one. There's very little blood, but some creatively nasty methods of dispatch are on display such as an Elapid snake hidden in a bouquet of flowers and a spring-loaded metal arrow laced with Curare poison.

What makes STRANGLER engaging is its subject matter and Houck's handling of it. Prejudice is color blind in his movie--where a villain isn't necessarily defined by his use of the word 'nigger'. Father Jesse sums up his personal experiences with hate, a human emotion that doesn't recognize the shade of one's skin, thusly, "... I get it from both sides. For some whites, I'm a... a good nigger. The only difference between a good nigger and a nigger is the word good. For some blacks, I'm an uncle tom nigger. Believe me, it's all the same thing. Nigger's an ugly word, but it is after all only a word." There's quite a bit more that's worth discussing regarding the script's treatment of race, but to do so might spoil some things. 

 
All you really need to know is that James Ralston is very good as mega-bigot, Dan Robear, the film's central antagonist. He has a seething disdain for blacks that really sinks in during the scene where the kindly Father Jesse pays a visit to Dan to discuss an earlier, tense exchange. Father Jesse apologizes for striking him and Dan apologizes for calling him a nigger, stating, "You're not one of those... well, you're a black man". For a moment, the character of Dan appears to display a tiny glimmer of hope that he can evolve beyond his prejudice. However, barely 20 seconds later, all that is thrown away after his wife discreetly asks him to be nice to Father Jesse; to which Dan responds, "No nigger is a man, much less a man of God!" From that point onward, the audience eagerly awaits his fate, and that it will be satisfactorily meted out. This is a Drive-in movie, after all.


Aside from Ralston, performances are uniformly strong even if the bulk of the material requires lines to be shouted or uttered through gritted teeth. 

Mickey Dolenz is arguably the major drawing card, and, for an actor primarily in television, it is a bit awkward to see the Monkees singer in a movie like this. Ralston dominates the picture, although Dolenz's hairstyle and fashion sense are distracting when he's onscreen.


As for its promotion, THE NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER is a classic example of deceptive marketing strategies (somewhat reflective of the varying genre elements found therein) that rarely accurately summarized what the actual film was about. The original title was ACE OF SPADES--a title that suits the picture, and makes the most sense in the context of the movie. Considering the topical theme of race relations, the picture was promoted elsewhere as a blaxploitation effort with the IS THE FATHER BLACK ENOUGH? moniker. In other markets it was advertised as something of a more salacious nature with titles like DIRTY DAN and DIRTY DAN'S WOMEN. Despite garnering theatrical play in 1972, the movie wasn't submitted for an MPAA rating till 1973 when it was christened as NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER, its final appellation. Houck and his Howco company also paired STRANGLER with two of their earlier flicks, WOMEN AND BLOODY TERROR (1969) and NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR (1969). From '73 onward, the NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER title remained while the others seemingly never surfaced again.

 
Lost in a sea of obscurity for years, NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER (the onscreen title adds the article 'the') certainly doesn't deserve to remain there. Likely a hard sell, it's not trashy enough to satiate the harder exploitation crowd, nor is it slick enough to appeal to a broader audience. Houck's elaborate tale of familial strife, bigotry and revenge will likely remain a minor footnote in Drive-in history. Still, it's surprisingly good for what it is, successfully melding a number of genre styles not known for subtleties nor for being tame. What it lacks in budgetary resources it makes up for in its storytelling and craftiness.

***Thanks to Temple of Schlock's Chris Poggiali for information on this films theatrical release history. You can visit their website HERE and their Facebook page HERE.***

This review is representative of the Vinegar Syndrome DVD. Specs and Extras: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. There are no extras.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Ghost of Oiwa (1961) review


THE GHOST OF OIWA 1961

Wakayama Tomisaburo (Tamiya Iemon), Fujishiro Yoshiko (Oiwa), Sakuramachi Hiroko (Osode), Jushiro Konoe (Naosuke), Sawamura Tosho (Yomoshichi), Mihara Yumiko (Oume), Fushimi Sentaro (Kohei), Atsushi Watanabe (Takuetsu)

Directed by Kato Tai

The Short Version: Toei's production of Japan's iconic tale of the macabre really goes for the throat in this unrelenting movie from obscure, but talented director, Kato Tai. His nominally faithful version features what is easily one of the most repulsive interpretations of Iemon put to film. Uncompromisingly brutal, flashes of gore intensify one of the unsung examples of vintage Japanese goosebumpers. If you are a fan of elder European horror, THE GHOST OF OIWA is an eye-opening alternative.



Iemon, a barbarous, destitute samurai is searching for his wife, Oiwa, who left him after he killed a man. Along with his greedy friend, Naosuke, the two vow to kill her father if he refuses to let her come back. Longing for the sister, Osode, Naosuke likewise plots to kill Yomoshichi, Osode's betrothed. The two men eventually realize their evil ambitions and feign a promise to avenge their deaths. A year passes and Oiwa has become ill after giving birth. Having lost interest in her, still poor and desiring money, Iemon sees opportunity when the well-off Ito family moves in next door. Having been entranced by Iemon since bumping into him on the street a year prior, Ito Kahei's beautiful daughter, Oume, wishes to be married to him. Both Iemon and the Ito family conspire to do away with Oiwa so he and Oume can marry. With so many lives unjustly felled, vengeful ghosts return to torture Iemon for his inhuman crimes.

Those who only know Wakayama as Ogami Itto, the Shogun Decapitator of the LONE WOLF films (SHOGUN ASSASSIN [1980]), should seek out this intensely faithful rendering of the oft-rendered play, Yotsuya Kaidan. Interestingly enough, Wakayama had already played the immoral Iemon once before in Masaki Mori's YOTSUYA KAIDAN from 1956. Unlike Hasegawa Kazuo's unnaturally good-natured Iemon in Misumi Kenji's same-titled interpretation for Daiei, Wakayama's second portrayal of the duplicitous ronin is so vile, it makes Shigero Amachi's venomous portrayal of Iemon in Nobuo Nakagawa's TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1959) look cartoonish in comparison.


Wakayama owns the film from the first frame to the last. He plays the character with such an evaporated sense of humanity, one becomes transfixed to see the level of cruelty he'll resort to next. He murders assorted innocents without batting an eye; beats and berates Oiwa; pawns items needed to keep their baby safe; and he concocts an elaborate scheme to kill his wife and frame-up whoever is within distance. The definition of low life scum, there's not enough synonyms to accurately describe the famed actor's surly depiction of Iemon; and he's not alone in his murder plot...

Unlike other film versions of Tsuruya Nanboku's kabuki spooker, the character of Naosuke (Toshiro Konoe; also listed as Jushiro) is given more screen time. The medicine peddler's obsession with Osode is given greater emphasis; and despite being a murderer, there are a few fleeting moments that actor Konoe enables the viewer to momentarily forget his crimes. However, while Iemon just gets more devilish as the film progresses, Naosuke ultimately redeems himself. The reliance on their unholy partnership and the depths to which they sink is one of the scripting choices that makes this adaptation such a gripping piece of celluloid.



The catalog of characters seen in Misumi's deeply plotted version are either missing in Kato's film or reduced in narrative significance. The villainy is focused primarily on Iemon and Naosuke. Both of them devise an initial conspiracy to get their filthy clutches on two women--Iemon with his wife who left him after he committed a murder; and Naosuke with Oiwa's sister, Osode, whom he's lusted after for years. Iemon vows to reclaim Oiwa, citing he'll "never find a woman with such a beautiful body". Naturally, Iemon doesn't really mean this at all. He wants what he wants--and when he tires of it, he casts it aside when his attention is caught elsewhere. For the moment, he tries to persuade Oiwa's father, Samon, to coerce her return, but if that doesn't work, he has no qualms about killing the old man.

 
While this is going on, Naosuke learns Osode has been sold as an indentured servant to a brothel, but under the stipulation she won't be entertaining the clientele, so to speak. Of course, it's not long before that condition becomes null and void. Osode's fiance, Yomoshichi, is enraged by this. He intends to spend one evening with her before going off on some unspecified venture; presumably the same Yomoshichi of the wildly popular play, Kanadehon Chushingura (47 Ronin; which was often intermixed with Yatsuya Kaidan for the stage back in the day). He does so, but not before he and his friend insult Naosuke and run him off. This sets up a scenario that enables both Iemon and Naosuke to literally kill two birds with one stone.

 
Having gotten what both men wanted, Iemon and Naosuke vow, in front of Oiwa, Osode, and the corpse of Samon, her father, to avenge the old man's death--which neither will be doing since they are the killers. A year passes and Iemon and Oiwa have a child. It's at this point Iemon grows weary of Oiwa, noting that, since she's had their child, she no longer appeals to him; so it's time to get rid of her--much like you'd throw away your trash. But how to do it? 


Meanwhile, Osode, still mourning the apparent loss of Yomoshichi, steadfastly refuses to consummate her relationship with the sexually repressed Naosuke. So, even though both these despicable men have accomplished what they set out to do, they're as miserable now as they were from the start. Despite still being dirt-poor, Iemon's status as a manipulative, evil son of a bitch is about to have its bar raised. Once the much more comfortably living Ito family move in next door, opportunity soon comes knocking. From here, things turn even more disturbing and grotesque.

 
While there are some alterations, director Kato Tai's script is very faithful to the source material. One of the film's highlights is the protracted poisoning sequence. Lasting for what seems an eternity, Kato squeezes every drop of dread and horror out of it that he can. Unlike other silver screen adaptations, this cataclysmic scene plays with only the subtlest of musical accompaniment--maximizing its effectiveness. Further, Oiwa's facial disfigurement plays out familiarly, but in totally different fashion. The horror displayed is more stomach-churning than shocking. The makeup appliance is arguably the grisliest of all the mutilations of Oiwa's face in the numerous film versions. That Fujishiro Yoshiko's performance is so tortured throughout, her acting, as well as that of Wakayama, only reinforces the tragedy and human savagery, the black-hearted callousness present in the movie. But it gets even worse!


If you're familiar with the play, you know what comes next. Iemon wishes to be rid of his wife--permanently--though he can't simply divorce her over a mangled face. He needs to kill her, and quickly surmises the easiest way to do that is to frame her for adultery. To do this, he beats up, then forces Takuetsu, the old man who runs the brothel, to rape his wife. Oiwa dies after accidentally stabbing herself in the throat and Iemon intends to run his sword through Takuetsu. Begging for his life, Takuetsu reminds Iemon of Kohei, a neighbor he caught stealing medicine for his sickly mother, is still locked away in his cellar. Now possessing an alibi, Iemon then nails the two corpses to each side of a wooden frame and, along with Takuetsu, dumps them in the river.

 
The last 30 minutes (the film runs 94 minutes) is chock full of ghoulish camera trickery and spattered blood as the ghosts of Oiwa and Kohei return to drive Iemon even more insane than he already is. He ends up at a mountain hermitage where a group of monks attempt to provide the madman sanctuary from the vengeful spirits. But ghosts aren't all that are in pursuit of Iemon. Before the settling of accounts, there's one final twist. 

As faithful as the overall film is, the finale of THE GHOST OF OIWA follows suit with previous incarnations by deviating from the play, dropping an incestuous revelation, but retaining the sword duel that closes the other films.

 
The comb is once more significant as an instrument of death and revenge. Handed down from their mother, Oiwa uses it to try and make herself pretty before confronting the Ito family. As the scene unfolds, the opposite happens. The comb then acts as something of a truth receptacle. Its reappearance causes a horrified Takuetsu to confess his involvement and Naosuke to his crimes.

Just as the comb is an important accoutrement in this story, so is the use of a mirror. The classic scene where Oiwa sees her reflection has a bit of a spin added to it. In between her agonizing ordeal after taking the poison, we see the younger, beautiful Oume admiring herself in a mirror, anticipating her wedding day with Iemon. This contrasts with Oiwa staring at her deformed countenance in the mirror as she desperately tries to make herself beautiful.



Lacking the color carnage of Nobuo Nakagawa's famous rendition, Kato strikes an extremely visceral chord with the monochrome medium, garnering many benefits from its use. There are numerous instances of photographic brilliance spread throughout, but the B/W format gets an enormous amount of mileage during the last reel. The revenge is more expansive, and, especially during the last few minutes, gets a little too chaotic with the duel at the hermitage suffering slightly from some choppy editing. 

Takahashi Nakaba's music is subdued even if the violence is not. The lack of musical cues is an asset to Kato Tai's movie; but when it's required, it's effective.

 
Fans of this story should most certainly seek this version out. Those with a fondness for vintage B/W horror, particularly of the European variety, will likely find favor with Kato's film. The tone is so bleak and oppressive, this production from Toei would make a fabulously macabre comparative piece paired with Shin-Toho's TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1959). Kato, a director known mainly for Yakuza movies, shows an incredible power in conveying horror with his low camera angles and prolonged scenes of despair and cruelty. THE GHOST OF OIWA (1961) should have a much bigger audience than it does.

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